A fresh look at Fridd and Blaen-y-Cwm quarries
It had been almost a year since I had walked along the Rhiwbach tramway. It's not far from where I live, and sometimes that familiarity can make you blasé. Silly, really, because how many folk have somewhere like this on their doorstep?
The badlands, as I fondly call them, are a wide stretch of moors to the north and east of Manod Mawr, bounded by Moel Penamnen to the north, by Penmachno and the fine rampart of the Gamallt to the East.
Cwm Teigl rises to the challenge in the south and takes on the air of a western movie set, as it gains height towards the bwlch. It changes from mild farmland to desperate country, pock-marked and blasted by huge boulders and ancient mines.
It's a rough, damp moor, but far from featureless. There are at least five or six disused quarries and a significant quantity of industrial archaeology, enough to satisfy most people's desire for curiosities. I've written about this area before, and there are numerous sources for further information- which I will list at the end, for those wanting a deeper picture. Here, I would like to make some observations that are a little off the mainstream, but will, I hope, intrigue those who would like to sense the atmosphere of the place.
As I stepped out on to the trackbed of the Rhiwbach tramway I immediately felt a sense of well-being wash over me. Even though I was cold, struggling with my camera strap, my rucksac straps and my anorak hood...it felt good. The view beneath Cwm Teigl and across to the Arenigs was magnificent, slightly alloyed by a couple of insensitively placed electric posts, but I wasn't going to let those spoil things...there's always Photoshop for those situations.
One of the attractive things about the tramway is that it is level, although very damp, resembling a canal at times. However, the first stretch towards the ancient workings of Fridd is reasonably dry. I stood by the lip of the twll, wondering how long it would be before the tramway formation fell in to the pit . Things are rather intimate between the two of them at this point. A buzzard flew overhead and my thoughts, inspired by the bird's freedom, turned to ideas of going cross-country. Retracing my steps away from the edge of the twll, I wandered onto the beautiful ochre coloured grass, vegetation that looks dry, but is often deeply rent by wet fissures in the ground. There were plenty of "Pylliau", shallow puddles in moss. The way the Welsh pronounce it sounds like footsteps in water.
The reason I had decided to strike off the tramway was that I fancied a closer look at Fridd, the earliest workings on the badlands, probably dating from before 1818. Fridd was amalgamated into the Blaen-y-Cwm operation fairly early, but I always think of this part of the excavations as being a distinct entity . As you walk the tramway and go through the cattle grid, the workings and some low, ruined and mysterious structures are off to the right- or east at this point. You come first to the opencut that once led into the Fridd pit. Looking at the place from below the tramway it seems ever more delicate. Water ran in a score of small waterfalls from above into the base of the twll and seeped away into an adit, low in the north wall. There have been many falls in this place and I wouldn't dream of exploring the adit, tempting as it looked. At one time, the tunnel led to the slate mill at Blaen y Cwm, a little further along the tramway to the north.
The opencut is, these days, little more than a long depression in the moor, betrayed by a slight change in vegetation. It's much higher than the base of the pit, which must have been dug vigorously lower. Off the tramway and away from the sound of the modern quarry machinery from Manod, there was a sense of glorious isolation. The badlands stretched away from me in all directions- on a weekday you can be pretty sure of not meeting another soul here.
I walked on towards another pit, this the earliest one. I've called it Gatty's pit, after Dr W. H. Gatty, the lessee here in 1869-74. He presided over the most significant working of this area. It's a curious place now, seeming so incongruous on the moor. A hole with a huge alcove, like a giant's fireplace, backed by a small drumlin. There's a modest llyn here and a corresponding drumlin, hacked away on one side, a little further on. I stood and took in the scene, chewing over in my mind what I had read about the place.
Then, there was one of those light bulb moments that occur sometimes, when you least expect. I realised that the two drumlins had once been one, and the slate between them had been quarried away. I read something about there being a substantial rock formation here at one time- could this be the remains of it? The only fly in the ointment was that, although a tramway from here once ran under the Rhiwbach Tramway to tips on Blaen y Cwm territory, there wasn't enough spoil for such an excavation...
As I stood at the impressive head of the Rhiwbach incline*, finally, my thoughts caught up. Perhaps the spoil from the drumlins at the early Fridd workings was used to make the Rhiwbach incline...the rock is all overburden, country rock shaped by mason's tools. Other inclines on the site are from slate waste. The dates support my theory, too. Rhiwbach had been worked for a long time before the Rhiwbach Tramway had been built. It made economic sense to use what rock was already to hand nearby.
Before moving on, I tidied up another thought. There are some ditches on the moor here, perfectly straight, that run past Gatty's pit and down towards Rhiwbach. Petra had always said that she thought they were leats, but I had obstinately taken these to be simply a clumsy attempt at moorland drainage. Now, some things I had read began to coalesce in my dim brain. I realised that these were indeed the remains of leats, dug to carry water from Fridd to the Engine House reservoir down at Rhiwbach. No doubt the water would have run in a trough, or a pipe beside the incline. Whatever you might think about the weather in these parts, ensuring an adequate water supply has always been a problem here.
Having solved, in my head at least, a couple of mysteries, I carried on north, towards Blaen y Cwm. This quarry feels like the poor relation. Cwt-y-Bugail, a little to the north, managed to find the famous slate of the Blaenau back vein, but Blaen-y-Cwm's proximity to the Igneous excesses of the mighty Manod mean that the slate is distorted, metamorphosed and only winnable in small quantities. My photo of the tunnel in the Blaen y Cwm pit makes that quite clear. In a bid to find good rock, the various lessees of the quarry looked far and wide for slate, leaving trials all over the place. The first is a trial that the Tramway passes over (above) soon after starting off from the Manod quarry. Another was above on the hill (actually not on the Blaen-y-Cwm sett!) a fairly extensive trial with a mill. This has been tipped over and obliterated by the modern Manod tips. Another trial emerges to daylight near the top sheave pillar of the Blaen-y-Cwm incline.
As you follow the tramway, the barracks block comes into view on the right. Made up of igneous rocks, it has deteriorated to the point where it is hardly recogniseable. The stone is roughly worked and it would seem that not much care was taken with the construction. It was built after 1872, according to the maps of the period, and M. J. T. Lewis* notes that one occupant listed was the caretaker, John Jones yr Hen Blas.
From here a good view of the various workings can be had. Below the barracks is a reservoir, now a brackish bog, caused by the building up of an old tip and the diverting of a stream coming off the Manod. I risked getting soaking wet by foraging down from the barracks, as I wanted to try a couple of shots of the hut on the edge of the tip here. It seems to have started life as a weigh-house, but was later converted to a powder magazine. Curiously, it is made from a brown coloured rock that no other structures exhibit, making me think that it is a very early structure from the first diggings of the pit, which was certainly underground at that point.
Walking from the weigh-hut/powder store is a good way to get a close look into the twll. This was all underground, until one of the managers decided to work the quarry "In the Nantlle manner", that is, as an open pit. This would have been John Roberts, manager between 1879 and 83. The substantial amount of large blocks, formed of igneous rock, indicate that the untopping proceeded from above, the spoil being tipped over the previous underground waste.
The pit is a fascinating place, the slate tortured and faulted, much damaged by contact metamorphism. It was said that the production rate from here was worse than 50-1 i.e. fifty tons of waste for one ton of saleable slate! The industry standard was 10-1, which was itself considered hardly acceptable.
In the ten years since I have been visiting the quarry, I have seen much deterioration as nature inexorably grasps back what was taken. The adit at the bottom of the pit is still passable towards the mill level, but is now deep in water at the mill end. There have been several substantial falls in the last few years as rainfall increases due to global warming.
A notable feature of the twll is the massive incline, built dry stone and coming from the south east edge. This was built by George Watson in 1898-03, it's purpose to transport slate from the original Fridd workings, down into the twll and then on to the mill through the tunnel I have already described.
This might be a good point to pause and wait for the next installment of the story, with the mills, the No.4 adit, the incline and the tips still to explore.
The scene today is rather chaotic because of the different managers, companies and organisations who all tried without much success, to win slate from this area. It seems that during the time that Gatty was manager, two men, David Williams and Robert Griffith, made some good returns from the old Fridd twll, the one called "Gatty's". This would have been at the time when slate was being pulled out under the Rhiwbach tramway and hauled to the mill via the big pit- around 1898. Even so, the workable slate vein was reported to be only three feet thick. Sadly, typical of this location.
The last gasp of Gatty's twll was in the 1960s, when George Budski of Llan Ffestiniog worked the place over with a bulldozer and took some rustic slate for fireplace surrounds.
Next time: the mills and adits of Blaen-y-Cwm.
Some handy sources of information
There are some books out there that mention the area, and one which deals specifically with it. They are all out of print, but it might be possible to purchase them from Ebay or Amazon occasionally.
The definitive work is by M. J. T. Lewis, "Blaen y Cwm and Cwt-y-Bugail Slate Quarries," (Adit Publications, 2003.)
Alun John Richards' "Gazetteer of Slate Quarrying in Wales", (Llygad Gwalch, 2007) has some very useful background information.
Dave Sallery's Welsh Slate web site has a very useful section on the Rhiwbach Tramway, here.
A post on my Blogger site about the Rhiwbach Engine House Incline, which I suggest may be constructed partly with waste from Fridd: The Rhiwbach Railway Incline
My previous blog has a couple of posts which refer to the quarries here
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