It wasn't a particularly auspicious day. We had the afternoon off, but it was raining and the forecast wasn't good. Not a good day for exploring the mines of Snowdon. But luck was with us- heading out towards Beddgelert, on the north side of the pass of Aberglaslyn, Petra spotted a ruined building that she'd been wanting to photograph for a while and- why, here was a handy lay-by, empty of vehicles!
We quickly strode up the hill to the aforementioned structure when Petra spotted a small magazine, looming in some beautiful beech woods...now there were no more complaints about the rain or the light as cameras clicked into action. The house, too, was something special, an old C18th building that had been attacked by a large wooden spider masquerading as an oak tree, which despite it's new angle, was very much alive. It now seems that the house was actually constructed as a barracks for the workers at the mine, according to Coflein.
The magazine, or powder house, was marked on the first edition Ordnance Survey maps as "Old Magazine", hinting at the early nature of the mine.
It wasn't hard to see where the mine was, as spoil tips littered the ombrous woods behind the house. The tips were something special, containing many interesting minerals and some fascinating lichens- it really ought to be an SSSI, as the whole area feels delicate. We kept to the sheep tracks so as to make minimal impact as we examined the tips and remains of buddle pits and a possible horse whim. Everything was very degraded on the ground.
But what was still very evident were some mighty excavations, big, big stopes with ancient stemples still in place here and there. The stopes were extremely dangerous, drops of 150 feet into open shafts were common and the adits we explored had winzes which suddenly opened or were covered with a layer of dead vegetation. A very perilous, yet enchanting place which had me thinking about scenes from the "Lord of the Rings", so haunting were the woods in the autumnal gloom.
We photographed until the light failed completely. What a turn up after expecting nothing, but that's what is so special about North Wales- if you are into Industrial Archaeology, anyway.
The mine's glory days were in the early C18th, when it was operated energetically. A long drainage level was driven from beside the road in the pass, now lost, and a stamps mill was built beside the Afon Glaslyn. Nothing now remains of that except the waterwheel pit, but a fine stone-lined leat can be traced uphill from it. The waterwheel was, apparently, a cast iron one made in Liverpool, being offered for sale in the 1820s with the suggestion that the premises could be converted into a textile mill. This didn't happen, as in 1861, 515 tons of ore were sold. Later in the year, an engine shaft had been sunk, but lack of any more actual ore stalled the operation. At the disposal sale in 1875, the assets listed a machine house, dressing house and turbine, sadly all lost now.
I don't know if anyone has SRT'd into any of the stopes, I suspect it would be a perilous, if enlightening enterprise! Stop press- My friend Dave Linton has informed me that the intrepid "Thursday Nighters" from Adit Now have indeed done a couple of explorations, not without incident- they can be read here and here on Margot's blog.
The late David Bick, in his "Old Copper Mines of Snowdonia" describes the mine as being set on a "still and gloomy wooded hillside, in a silent and mysterious setting" - I think, aside from his obvious talent for exploring and documenting mines, he nailed the location squarely on the head.
Winter is a good time to explore the old mines around Beddgelert- in the summer it is impossible to find a parking space, or any peace and quiet, although Bryn-y-Felin is just far enough off the beaten track to remain unspoilt.
Mine location is SH589472
I am aware that I throw out mining terms and expect my readers to be fully conversant, forgetting that it took me many years to understand what people were going on about! The terms used in this post are:
Stemple: "Such a piece of wood be it great or little, that is set between the two sides or to support a rock; the one end is called the egg end, being so like the end of an egg, for which there is made a stope in the side to set it into; the other is called the head end, not cut even, but sloped a little, that it may the better be driven into its place, the use of these are to climb by, or for making bundings, and many other useful things in the work."
Winze: A small underground shaft sunk from one part of a mine to another- the opposite of a raise or rise
Stope: A worked out vein after removal of the ore, left as a cavity. When working upwards it is overhand stoping. Downwards is underhand stoping.
Information from W.Hooson "The miners dictionary...", Wrexham, 1747 (Hooson described himself as "a Derbyshire miner" on the title page)
And for the benefit of my transatlantic readers, an SSSI is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
An old mine, a beautiful river gorge, some woodlands and footpaths- does that sound like a fine day out? We're greedy, we had two days out- we came back a week later to check things that we'd missed first time round.
We visited during a fine spell in autumn, probably the best time to see this enchanting place- early spring might be a good time too. I've made a little map at the end for anyone wanting to visit, as there are a number of routes you could take.
On our first visit, we went straight up from a parking place on the A496 just after Bontddu. The layby is on the left and the footpath directly across. There are paths that are not marked on the map, but most are signed as footpaths, so you should be fine. Of course, we went wrong almost immediately, having to retrace our steps and take the path to the left that goes uphill. If you see this arrow, it's time to turn back.
After a stiff climb, we arrived at the working area of the Figra Mine (also known as the St David's Mine). There's a lot of spoil; obviously a great deal of mineral was extracted here. Unfortunately, the buildings are all ruined, so it's very difficult to interpret what went on and where. There are a couple of adits on this level, one fenced in and completely overgrown near to the processing buildings, the other a little way back into the hill. This one is collapsed, but a good run of water was still coming out of it.
There looks to be an office or perhaps a smithy within the processing complex- it was so overgrown that it was hard to tell. One side is buttressed in the way that mine buildings tend to be when they start to subside. There were some minerals, notably a chunk of quartz with a little Erythrite showing. We left it as someone had thoughtfully placed it on a wall for others to see. Mineral collectors have, however, been working the site over, betrayed by their round depressions in the tips. Erythrite has no worth, but was used by the old man as an indicator of cobalt and silver in the ground.
There were no signs of machine bases or the usual copper mine Buddle pits; it looked like all the work here had been done by hand.
We struggled through a mature forestry plantation above the mine to find two tandem adits behind a paling fence. One goes to a winze, which presumably communicates with one of the lower adits- by the looks of it, all the useable ore was taken out this way.
The left hand adit, curiously, communicates with the right one and goes in a way. Unfortunately, the roof is extremely dangerous, holding many tons of rock above, supported by rotten stulls. Looks deadly- not a place to hang around!
Back outside, we looked about and found the remains of a dam a little bit further north from the mine. The maps suggest that it pre-dated the mine, it is marked as a relic even in 1880. I couldn't work out how the rock had been processed, there was no sign of a waterwheel or leats. Mystified, we went home, determined to research more and return.
We returned on a very fine Sunday afternoon. While everyone else was playing football and having barbecues in Barmouth along the Mawddach, we were enjoying the beautiful colours and peace of the Bontddu Glen and the Afon Cwm Llechen. I'd found out that there had once been a big processing plant near the river, shared with the Clogiau gold mine on the other side of the valley. We headed upriver, along a road that had originally been a mine track, towards Figra Bridge. The road passed several shafts in the side of the gorge, while mature Beech trees provided a beautiful yellow canopy, their fallen leaves deep underfoot.
At Figra Bridge, there was little remaining of what had once been an impressive structure. A couple of stone walls and some concrete machine bases hinted at the hustle and bustle of a busy mine mill. Nearby, a water turbine generator hummed in a small building, a nice echo of the activity a century earlier. We didn't cross the river at the bridge, but took a path upwards to the left, passing some stone and concrete holding tanks for the waterwheel at the mill.
Petra spotted some tips in the woods here, to the left of the path and went off to investigate. This seemed to be the area marked on the O.S. 1887 survey as a "Level" and as we had thoughts of unknown archaeological finds, we bashed through the boskage in keen style. It was tough going, with gorse and bramble vying with young birches to impede us. Like something from a lost Mayan kingdom, an incline rose up from the undergrowth, almost swallowed up by trees and vegetation. Above, the unusual semi-circular tip ended in a run-in adit, as I knew it probably would. It was an amazing spot, though- well worth the scratches and bruises. According to Wilkinson's database, this would have been the St David's North No.2 Mine.
Petra reckoned that this was an excavation on the lode, and that if we made our way upwards through the woods, we might come to more diggings. So we struggled on through unchecked vegetation and birch, oak and holly trees, eventually finding a stream bed that was easier to climb than the steep boskage. But Petra was right. A substantial opencut lay in a flat(ish) area, telling us that we were on the right track. It's a shame that there is no record of the men that dug these mines, or of the captain who decided where to dig and for how long. The opencut was deep and looked as if it had been crowbarred out. It couldn't have been easy work.
Finally, we made it to the top and found the powder store a little way down from the main area of the mine. There was an old incline drum house here, too, presumably from a very early iteration of the mine, as all trace of the incline itself had been lost. I can only assume it must have connected at one time with the lower one, down in the jungle
After taking much-needed refreshments, we headed off north to try and find the zig-zag track that I had read connected the mine with the mill in later days. Rather embarrassingly it was easy to find and provided an equally easy route back to Figra bridge, passing a couple of old shafts on the way. Why hadn't we done this the first time? Never mind, we'd had a lot of fun stravaiging about, taking photos and finding things in the woods.
Back at the mill, we crossed the bridge and took the path on the north east side of the river. From this side it was apparent just how deep the gorge was. We passed another couple of shafts and then the gorge narrowed - the drop on our side to the waterfalls was easily eighty to a hundred feet, and no handrails- not a walk for a young family! The path ended ignominiously very close to a house, coming out into the front garden of a converted chapel...we felt a little uncomfortable until we saw the footpath sign pointing up the way we had come. Parking in the height of the season here might be a little tricky, but we left the car outside the "Halfway House" pub which, sadly, looks rather derelict.
The Figra mine (pronounced "Vigra") was opened in 1833 and was worked originally for copper, then gold. It works a continuation of the St David's lode of Clogiau Mountain. After bankruptcy in 1857, the mine became owned by the Clogiau between 1861-67. Work finished in 1897, although there were re-openings after the first world war - the mine finally closed in 1938. Full details are on the mine's page in Wilkinson's Gazetteer, reached from this link.
Further Images of the mine and woods...
We were plodding up the hill to a slate quarry (See my last post) when a neat cottage came into view. Painted white and very cleanly turned out, it was obviously much loved. But it was the garden that grabbed and held our attention. Incredibly, it contained a miniature Italian landscape, with a flavour of Portmeirion- only more intense, more concentrated. In contrast to the house, the garden was slightly down at heel. The structures were weathering and crumbling, although the grounds around them were kept neat, the grass trimmed.
The garden that the locals call "Little Italy" was originally the creation of the late Mark Bourne, a retired holiday camp owner. He'd visited Italy and had fallen in love with the architecture, trying to re-create the ambience in his garden. Using his holiday snaps, he achieved something far beyond a folly- an artwork that incorporates bits of Welsh history and evocations of Italianate fancy, sitting alongside collections of bricks and industrial artefacts. Somehow it works, wonderfully.
Each of the structures appears to be built from concrete, over a wire armature. According to one local, when the buildings were made in the seventies, they would take between four and six weeks to construct. I imagined that there must have been moulds and shuttering to make, as the details are too fine to sculpt out repetitively. Mr Bourne was obviously a master of concrete art.
There are also plaques, possibly carved in slate by him, dedicating some of the displays to folk who had presented bits of rock, or tile. It seems that collections of bricks were donated too; just finding all those would be a life's work. The whole site feels like a labour of love, a votive offering to somewhere Mr Bourne loved deeply.
I quote Tim Dunn's description in his Flickr album, for I couldn't put it better:
"Here was a setting so beautiful, so idyllic, and so lovingly crafted, that it goes beyond a museum of random artefacts; beyond a modelmaker's skilful recreation of full-size prototypes. Little Italy was created to share the beauty of art with other people and to enhance the lives of everyone."
Tim is a connoiseur and expert on the subject of miniature villages- his Flickr collection of images of "Little Italy" (here) is fascinating, especially since the shots were taken in 2007.
The place has changed hands a couple of times since the original builder died, but it's still doing what he intended. The present owner runs it as a succesful AirB&B but has sensitively left the garden alone. I imagine that curating and conserving it would be beyond the ability of most folk, even if they had the time. But I feel that as it weathers, the garden will change, become more intriguing, a little wonder along an unremarkable Corris back lane.
We returned to the place after our first visit, hoping to get better light. There were some other folk wandering about, clearly fascinated, trying to get a handle on what it was all about. Mr Bourne would be delighted to know that people were still enjoying his little slice of italy in Wales.