I am a stravaiger. A wanderer, often aimlessly. I'm not normally one for footpaths. I like to photograph views that few others have recorded; a different take on a well-known site, perhaps, or an unusual viewpoint.
This approach is not without it's responsibilities. Earlier this year, Petra and I revisited the delights of Cwm Bychan and walked up the famous route along the so-called "Roman Steps". It was busy, even in April. It wasn't long, however, before we both saw the possibilities of a hawthorn tree above a small waterfall, some 250 yards off the main track. It was a difficult spot, certainly not somewhere to clamber down, but it made a good photograph. Or it would have done, if my camera hadn't been almost knocked from my hands by a party of ladies who brushed imperiously past me, thinking that I was selfishly blocking the path.
I realised that they had been following our steps- and others were coming, too. Honestly, sheep would have had more sense. I felt annoyed at first, but then remorse got a hold of me and I felt responsible when I saw the ladies struggling down the rocky sides of the waterfall. I guess the moral is, just don't let them see you.
Lately I have been studying Cwm Pennant. There are quarries, mines and ruins enough to keep Petra and I happy for a few months. But I couldn't plot a way to get to some of them, at least not easily, or without tramping over miles of bog. So I fell to studying the maps, and scried a network of footpaths throughout the cwm, marked on both the 1:25,000 and the 1:50,000. The 25k map is my favourite - all that delicious detail.
The paths, my reasoning argued, would give a legal method of attaining access to sites of interest. Of course, these were not places open to the public, but at least I could get up there without encountering some petty lordling with an issue over my trespass on his fiefdom. Once at the site, I would take my chances. Except that, on the ground, these paths didn't seem to exist. Well, a couple are still marked with the familiar signs, but most are obscured and obfuscated. Some lead into quagmires or nests of rusting barbed wire. Some are deliberately blocked.
I've tried a few of these paths now, in the company of my partner in crime. I probably wouldn't have the nerve to try them alone, even though I have a legal right to be there. Why is it that paths aren't marked? Do the landowners want to discourage walkers, or is it just a lack of funds and/or an overseeing body? Certainly, these days, there is precious little profit in putting up footpath signs.
Close attention to the maps is needed, because many of the the paths have all but disappeared. Yet it is very heartening when, unsure if you are on the right track, you suddenly encounter a stile, or a kissing gate, classic signs of a right of way. Every one of the paths I have "discovered" has yielded some special gem, an old ruin, perhaps a view or an intriguing geological find.
Most farmers and landowners that I have encountered are perfectly reasonable and are often very helpful in pointing out routes. These people deserve our grateful thanks. But there are others, those who obstruct the paths, who need to know that there are legal responsibilities that come with rights of way and that there is an obligation to keep them open. And despite what some people might tell you, a path does not go out of use because nobody has walked it for ten years, Or fifty years, or a hundred years, or ever. A path is for life.
I know that my views won't be popular with some folk, but I believe that we are simply the stewards of the landscape, that it is our responsibility to take care of it well, holding it in trust for future generations. None of us should own it, or have the right to keep people off it. With respect and careful measures on both sides, access can work- and footpaths are a good compromise.
I hope I can encourage people to use the footpaths more; to seek them out and find out for themselves what gems are hidden behind the rusting signs or the dilapidated stiles.
I was talking about our network of footpaths with an American friend recently and he was astonished that we were actually allowed to use them. In his country, he said, you would be liable to be shot, or crossbowed- especially in the hunting season, if you crossed private land. To an American, it would seem, private property and possession is everything.
How fortunate we are in Wales to have a network of paths, even if some of them are a little reticent and would rather not be rediscovered. Walk them, open them up again. Enjoy the wonderful landscape and the fascination that it offers. We don't want to lose this precious liberty.
The Rinogiau are rightly known for their difficult walking terrain, unyielding rock and almost total heather cover. But they are also remarkably beautiful- and studded with the intriguing remains of some mines.
We spent a couple of days exploring one of these, the Cwm-yr -Afon mine. It's a long slog from the road that goes through Cwm Bychan to the mine, an uphill trek that includes a lot of bog and treacherous tussock grass. On the days we explored, the weather was perfect- not good for photography, but ideal for enjoying the landscape- which, despite the sunshine was still very boggy indeed.
There are several ways to reach the mine, but the least exhausting is probably the mine track up from Cwm-yr-Afon farm. Coming this way also lets you view a very fine trial beside the Afon Artro, almost directly below the farm. I have found no information about this, but since the small tip includes some bluestone rocks (a low-grade rock found around the ore), I am fairly certain this is a manganese trial.
The route takes you up a cart road which was the only way to transport ore from the mine- quite a thought. It's steep and narrow, and I pitied the poor horses having to hold back a load of ore coming down the track. On one of our visits, we took a slight wrong turn and ended up at the ruins of an old mill, Pandy, where in the remains of an old barn, there was a horse-drawn cart (with Ford Model "T" wheels) and on the floor, some old wooden cart wheels. It was nice to speculate for a moment if this was the remains of one of the mine carts, but I don't think so!
The road twists and turns uphill through boggy ground. Increasingly it can be seen that the sides of the road were revetted with big stones and the road itself was surfaced with cobbled rocks. The landscape goes up in a series of steps, gaining height until a plateau is reached. Here and there, are evident investigations at the side of the road, diggings that may have been explorative trials that came to nothing.
The mine sits on rising ground between Carreg-y-Saith and Carreg Fawr. We came to a point above Cwm Bychan where the footpath went one way, left towards, Carreg-y-Saith, while the road went through some particularly boggy ground ahead. A cuckoo was calling almost constantly, occasionally flying between the solitary Hawthorn trees to be found up here.
Petra was for going on up the footpath, but I persuaded her to go along the road, knowing that as soon as she saw the mine I would not be able to stop her. So it transpired, she caught sight of a ruined building and I was rewarded by a smile and the sight of her racing ahead.
We noted a structure that I first thought was a powder store; square(ish), no windows, a respectable distance away from the mine. But apparently, black powder was rarely used in manganese mines, the rock being crowbarred out. I still think the structure looks like a powder hut...what else could it be, sitting in the middle of a moor?
We followed the track onwards and upwards- it was obvious that the mine was extensive and opencuts lay all the way up the slopes towards Gloyw Llyn, out of sight beyond a false summit. The workings were easily spotted because of the fencing around them, although since none were more than ten feet deep it seems a little bit "H&S".
We eventually made our way up the steep cart road to another ruined structure, called a smithy in C. G. Down's NMRS book. This was a great spot, commanding a superb view across the cwm and on to the sun-kissed waters of Cardigan Bay. We sat and had lunch, listening to the solitary bees as they fussed over the little spring plants on the ground. The landscape was magnificent and we had it totally to ourselves, apart from the cuckoo.
Behind the smithy was a classic scene, an opencut with neat stacks of "deads" piled up, the excavation assiduously chasing the vein cross country, bending back on itself. We stravaiged all over the site, quite exhausting because of the deep banks of heather and the rocky terrain. In an upper area there were a couple of adits and a sizeable tip. In typical fashion, the adits were stacked with deads inside; once an area of the workings was exhausted, the workers used spoil to support the roofs.
More workings appeared uphill, which we reached by following the twists and turns of the old cart road. There was a substantial tip and a couple of adits at one level, with a loading bank built out from the tip- it looked as if some crude processing had gone on here. The adit seemed to have been extensive, but as usual, was infilled with deads.
We also found an opencut and adit on the other side of the boundary wall, but the wall was high and topped with barbed wire. We tried to find a way through, but by the time we had searched up and down the wall, there was a substantial climb back up. Tiredness overcame us, and, thinking of the long walk back, we decided to leave that one for another time! On our way back, a troupe of goats were spotted, about 400 yards away- the only wildlife seen all day.
The Cwm-yr-Afon mine, also called Drosgol or Foel Ddu, was active from 1889-1923 in sporadic periods. The recorded output of the mine was 472 tons in total, although these figures are the returns from the official records; often actual production figures were higher.
Typically, only a couple of men worked at the mine, although the figure went up to six in 1891 and ten in 1918. A surprising amount of work was accomplished when that is taken into consideration!
As we've already seen, ore was carted down to Cwm Bychan and on to the railway at Llanbedr.
One mystery is that while the mine appears as a series of structures on the 1:2500 Ordnance map, current edition, it doesn't appear on any of the older editions, robbing us of the opportunity to study what it looked like in the late 1800s. The excellent maps in C. G. Down's book (see references) make up for that.
The manganese mined in the Harlech Dome area is found at the bottom of a thick layer of shale. The actual ore occurs in a bed some 10-18 inches thick, beneath a deposit of "bluestone" which was the miner's term for the heavy, dark rock that surrounded the actual deposits. The bluestone is extremely hard, but only weakly manganiferous. The ore bodies form as the result first of precipitation; a gel of rhodochrosite with clay and silica alongside iron hydroxides. These gels are then the subject of metamorphism, heat changing the sediments, resulting in crystallisation, the bluestone on top, then the manganese and underneath Iron oxide, which presents as iron pyrites where it is exposed by mining.
Manganese was used in the production of bleach, and was much in demand from the cotton industry of the north west, to bleach cotton fabrics. It was also used for bleaching in glass production.
The greatest use of manganese was (and is still) for strengthening and increasing the wear characteristics of steel - almost 90% of all manganese is used in steel manufacture.
Less pure ores (the welsh ones) were used as an addition to the blast furnace, acting as a deoxidiser.
Manganese is also used as a disinfectant in the form of Potassium Permanganate.
Sources of information
as always, the excellent Merioneth Manganese site by Dave Linton.
British Mining No.14 "The Manganese Mines of North Wales" by C. G. Down- available from the Northern Mine Research Society.
Thanks to Tom Cotterell for the use of his Conference Paper, "Manganese Mineralisation in North Wales." which was super-helpful in identifying samples in situ.
There was nothing but the moor. It stretched in every direction, as far as the eye could see. We were sitting on a low wall in the ruins of Serw slate quarry, eating home-made flapjacks, exulting in the peace and quiet. Except that somewhere, hundreds of feet up, a transatlantic aircraft was making the air rumble with kerosene thunder. No matter how far you go, we grumbled, you can't escape the sounds of the modern world.
Meadow Pipits rose from the heather, their cries piercing the plane's thunder like tiny needles. It was too early in the year for the Curlews, although this was the perfect country for them.
Micro-landscapes of lichen, moss and slate could be found everywhere- on top of a lintel, clinging on across a doorway, inside a candle alcove. Scale here was all relative in this seemingly limitless landscape.
There was a kind of magic about the location of the old quarry. The ruinous, roofless barracks, one wall at a crazy angle, like a frayed, crushed cardboard carton.
There were the usual shipwrecked features of an old extractive site; the tips, some sketchy slate piles that once had a discernable purpose, something that could have been a walliau or a caban.
Petra shouted me over. She had found a tear-shaped, ruined hut. It was sunk into the ground and showed signs of the roof having been cantilevered inwards to form a dome over the structure. I took some photos, aware that they wouldn't really convey what was special about this place. Most of the appeal was to something made in the imagination, conjured from the remains.
The quarry pit behind the berms of waste was a mysterious dark basin of unknown depth, the water brown and murky. There didn't seem to be any aquatic life, yet the grass where the slate had long-ago been hauled out seemed flattened down by some animal. We wandered among the remains, enjoying the sensation of being the only humans to visit for a long time, but eventually, we had to start back for home.
Ravens flew over, casting their runes to fall around us, making rich, burbling noises, or a sudden, metallic "bok!" They were considering our presence in their dominion.
The heather around the quarry gave way to sphagnum underfoot, absorbing strength from our legs. It took an age to stumble and pratfall our way to the top of a slight inclination in the moor. I felt guilty, treading in massive pillows of moss or lichen, almost destroying a grouse nest, preoccupied as I was with the effort of high-stepping over berms of vegetation. We must have looked like a comedy duo, staggering and falling about. Finally, we reached firmer ground, relieved to see the ochre and yellow of the mat-grass and fescue. It might have been the result of chronic overgrazing in the past, but it was slightly easier to walk on.
On our way down the hill, towards the road, we passed an area of completely dead forest- the trees looked to have been about thirty years old before something had happened. Earlier, we had occasionally encountered the top of one of these dead trees sticking out of the bog, blown there by the fury of the wind. Nearer the road, we found a slate slab, sticking up like a milepost, except that it was on the way to nowhere.
We encountered an apologetic group of five ewes and lambs who scurried away from our presence, as if they felt suspicion rest upon them. Soon, the sound of speeding car's tyres was heard, then a convoy of motorcyles, ripping the silence with their selfish noise, like the mewling of spoilt brats. A drinks can bounced away, disturbed by the bikes' passage down the road. We were back from the nineteenth, into the twenty-first century.