The scruffy quarrying settlement that sits above Pen-yr-Orsedd, overlooking the Nantlle Vale, is my kind of town. Y Fron is about as un-chocolate box as it is possible to get, and has no picturesque architecture that would interest tourists, unless they like studying rusty cars and the art of using even rustier old bedsteads as fencing. It does, however, command a breathtaking panorama across to the Nantlle ridge- and is steeped in fascinating history. Until recently, there was also the only surviving disused slate mill in the area with a roof, until a bunch of corporate vandals bulldozed it down...take a bow, Hogan Bros. However, while the resultant pile of rubble does add to the general feeling of a Kentucky strip mining town, there's still a great deal of interest here for folk with a leaning towards local history and the delights of a post-industrial quarry landscape.
I'm still gathering information on the John Robinson tramway which ran through Fron on it's way to Talysarn. It boasted a fleet of phantom locomotives, "imagineered" by the eponymous Mr. Robinson, that only existed on paper. Origami locomotives; perhaps... that would have given Charles Easton Spooner something to think about.
On one of our visits, we parked up by the Old Braich pit and were drawn to a track which disappeared between two tips from the Pretoria workings. The March weather was hellish, strong wind and stinging hail, so we walked on a little way, the iron westerly raging at our backs. We were reluctant to end the explore so soon, yet not wanting to make higher ground, where we knew the wind would be too wild.
Soon we were at a ruined farmstead, "Cors y Fron", sheltering in it's lee from the gusts of westerly hail. The roof was partly collapsed, but the walls were still firm and strong...they would have to be in this location. Probably home to a a quarryman, this place would have been like a croft, a part-time farm. This was very common in the Nantlle area as a way of supplementing the meagre income from the quarry. As the weather temporarily abated, I noticed the remains of a car beside the cottage. It had rotted where it had been parked. In the grass I could make out the vestigial remains of the wheels, the engine, axles and the steering wheel. All the thinner panels had disappeared along with the glass, but there were no markings on the engine block. I wondered how long it had lain in this spot...for at least thirty years, I guess. I reflected on the trips it might have taken- sun-stroked days to Llandudno, perhaps, for a stroll on the front. More likely it drove to Brincir mart, with a couple of terrified sheep in the back.
Inside the house, amid the racket of the wind moving things about, was a pathetic scene of dereliction. There were small, tell-tale signs of the people who had once lived here. The remains of an old lamp, fragments of a child's toy and a kerosene heater- testament to the freezing cold winters here in such an exposed spot. The atmosphere was augmented by the dead sheep that was using the place to rot down in. Not a bad spot to end one's days, I guess, with that view of the Nantlle ridge out of the window and certainly preferable to the current alternatives available for sheep.
Outside again and the wind hit us at full force as we bent double trying to take photographs. Petra found another fossilised vehicle, possibly a Land Rover and an ancient hay tedder/conditioner. Later, sitting in our car by the Old Braich pit, I reflected on how this would have been just another day for the occupant of that little cottage. He would have had to walk up to the pit to work, at least eight hours of back breaking toil outside in the weather, and then he'd have come home to tend to the animals. I can't imagine what a life like that must have been like -and I was brought up on a fairly primitive hill-farm myself.
Petra set our rumbling wheels on to the road home and I felt slightly guilty at having such a cushy number, driving a desk all day. I guess, though, that the view from that window would always be some consolation. My own, childhood bedroom window looked out on to the Merrick, the highest hill in southern Scotland. That view fascinated and supported me throughout all the difficult times of my young life. Thinking about that, I resolved to come back on a summer's day and see the view from the cottage again, when perhaps the wind wasn't so strong and the sun was shining. That sheep might not be so whiffy by then, too...
Thanks to Andy Chisholm for kind permission to use his photograph of Fron Mill.