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.
Abercorris, or Cwmodin as it is locally known, has been on our radar for a while. You hear other explorers talking about the heart-attack inducing climb and the lack of adits, others that there are too many conifers. I can say confidently that it's a "yes" to all those- the site presents all the worst excesses of our spruce-loving friends. Add to that, mother nature has vigorously asserted her right to claim back just about everything.
But you know mother nature, she might obscure stuff for us amateur Industrial archaeologists, but as a result, there is a real charm about the site. And you can't have enough deciduous trees, at least. We climbed up on a dull day, rain threatening, skies lowering- but the allure of the place shone through the conifers like warmth through a threadbare curtain. I'm glad we made the effort.
The best approach is from the village- we parked in the Corris Railway car park, as it was off-season and the railway was closed. Parking spaces in Corris are few and far between, because the village is packed into the confines of a narrow valley. We walked out and right, up the main street until we reached the crossroads where a small street turned left and uphill towards Corris Uchaf. There's a pub on the corner, the grade 11 listed "Slater's Arms". Even in these first few yards, we were aware of the old trackbed of the tramway as it crossed the Afon Deri on a tall slate bridge. It's a very pleasant walk, with a chapel and old miner's cottages lining the road for a quarter of a mile or so. Then things quickly become more rural and a footpath sign points uphill along a rough road. We climbed for a while until we were surrounded by mature conifers. Then we encountered a delightful surprise, a weathered, old Italianate miniature village. I'm itching to show you, but want to find out more about it first...it will be the next post, I promise!
After some more gentle climbing, we came to the first level of the quarry. A weigh-house, remarkably well-preserved, sat before some spoil tips, while in the woods, the ruins of what must have been the mill loomed in the trees.
Petra strode out to the end of the tips and looked down on an unexpected view of the Gaewern Quarry, across the valley. You don't normally see it from the main A487 that goes through Corris. That quarry has been in the news recently as it has been offered for sale. The consensus of opinion among mine explorers is that the cost of clearing away the many old car wrecks dumped there would put buyers off. We live in a slate mill, but to be honest, I wouldn't mind a quarry to go with it.
Meanwhile, I was preoccupied by the size of the spoil on the tip...it was a bit chunky, there were no fines. That was solved later by my discovery that Abercorris mainly produced slab- as the slate, from the Corris Narrow Vein, was not easy to split into thin slices.
The footpath headed off downhill at this point, not where we wanted to go, but we could see some shapes looming through the autumnal trees. They were the remains of worker's houses and a mine office. One of the characteristic Corris narrow slate fences marked the boundary. This place, shaded by ash, oak and birch trees was magical. I could have spent a long time here. Strangely, it reminded me of another place, not far away- Ratgoed, with it's terrace of houses and the demolished shop.
Now it was time to walk back up and explore the first level where a tramway had run to a remote Incline drumhouse. The incline once swooped down to the valley bottom, where it met a branch of the Upper Corris Railway. These days, it's hard to make it out, the regimented rows of spruce have all but obliterated it.
Thankfully the drumhouse was spared- it is a fine one and stood in a beautiful clearing, made more pleasant by a stand of Larches, turning gold in the autumnal gloom.
Before the drumhouse was an unusual structure, still with some roof beams in place. Circular holes in a long bench looked familiar and then the, er, penny dropped. This was a privy! The seats were very well preserved, and reminded me of a similar arrangement at my Granny's farm when I was a boy.
We retraced our steps back up to the level and the well-preserved weigh-house. A gable wall jutted out from the undergrowth and we followed a well-worn path to see more. The mill was certainly ruinous and hard to interpret, but the one surviving gable was very impressive, buttressed internally and with cables set into the stone. A machine base stood near the door, hinting that there were four saws, a planer and a dresser here at one time.
Other buildings stood clustered at this end of the level- a caban for the men and possibly a smithy. The path carried on towards a waterfall which looked at first like an adit, but we were disappointed. Petra set off up the incline, which was only just recognisable as such, so aggressive was the growth of bracken and heather. Above the waterfall was a small reservoir...
The reservoir, according to Richards in his book "Slate Quarrying in Corris", contains the remains of a wagon which ran away down the incline. We couldn't find any sign of a waterwheel around the mill, but there must have been one for this reservoir to be built. We carried on climbing. The incline was a single-pitch table incline (Richards). It was, still is, 670 feet long and gains almost 400 feet in height. The lower part was easy enough, through the conifers.
A compressed air pipe carried on beside the incline, perhaps a remnant from the 1930s working of the site. The trees to the east of the incline are significantly older than elsewhere and less densely planted- they are marked on the 1888 Ordnance survey. I had to admit that their fine, straight boles were rather majestic- and the fact that they were Lodgepole Pines, rather than Spruce.
At this point, it began to rain on our first visit (we returned on another day, one of those wonderful bright October days- but we only tackled the incline once.)
Eventually a level opened up on our left- I was pleased, as the climbing had become very difficult. Sadly, while there were impressive tips here and views across to Gaewern quarry, the adit had been blocked.
We had a small discussion about whether it was wise to go on, as the rain had become heavy and the ground was ever more dangerous. I was concerned about the downward journey...but more of that anon. We decided to carry on up to the next level, as we could see the remains of a building tempting us. This time it was worse, the slope seemed steeper, and I was forced to pull up using heather stalks. The last portion was overgrown with young spruce trees- not much fun.
Never mind- it was worth the effort, as there was a superb drum house at the top, and to the east, the sight in the woods of a big pit. We bashed our way about on this level, trying to find any sign of an adit, but it looked like spoil had been tipped over the adit here. Once again, we looked at each other but this time, decided after much debate, that we would go no further today. Perhaps if there is another dry summer, we will come back and explore the top adit. But now, we had to descend. The rails at the crimp described the top of a parabola as they started their journey- it reminded me of similar inclines at Penmaenmawr Granite Quarry.
It felt dangerous coming down- the slate, where exposed, was very slippery and the incline was covered in brambles, ever ready to trip you up and send you hurtling downwards. Petra worked slowly down without fuss. But after a while, I'd had enough, got out the bum-mat and came down on my ample posterior. I just hoped that I wouldn't end up in the reservoir! But here I am, none the worse except that my jeans look a little more distressed than is, perhaps, socially acceptable.
On our second visit, we scouted out the lower level where the tracks from the incline joined the Upper Corris Tramway. A bridge is reached over the Afon Deri by means of a couple of switchbacks. The incline has been totally lost in the spruce trees, but the bridge, in rebuilt form, remains as a footpath.
There's a very pleasant circular walk that takes in the houses of the quarry workers and gives a glimpse of the lower workings, as a glance at the present day OS map will show. We encountered a couple of very pleasant walkers with their dogs. We were also aware of a very loud lady on our second visit, somewhere behind us. She passed with two other, much quieter folk while we were photographing the cottages, continuing to berate her hapless companions, complaining about "another quarry". Gradually the noise of her discontent abated and the birds started to sing again. I noticed that the group had gone up the incline. Then, the air was ripped apart by a shout: "I'm not bloody well going up this!" Fine, now we all know...
The definitive source for the quarry are the two books by Alun John Richards-
Slate Quarrying in Corris, and The Gazetteer of the Welsh Slate Industry, both indispensable to the student of Slate in North and Mid-Wales.
Paraphrasing from AJR, it seems that the first record of work here was in 1863, although a note in the Mining Journal mentions previous work done at the quarry.
In 1874 The Cwmodin Slate and Slab Quarry company was formed, but was almost immediately in trouble. The quarry closed, but was then reopened in 1880 by the Abercorris Slate and Slab Quarry Limited. So it continued, progress at first,as new owners took over, then faltering as poor trading conditions and short-sighted management took their toll. The Corris Railway was frequently owed money, cheques bounced and slate was impounded by the railway. The quarry struggled on until the thirties. In the fifties, it was re-opened for a couple of years and worked in conjunction with Braich Goch (now marketed as "King Arthur's Labyrinth").
Another feature of the quarry was that the directors insisted in taking large fees, where a little restraint would have allowed the operation to have carried on.
The miner's houses lower down at the mill were abandoned in the 1930s.
The mill was at first powered by water, later by a steam engine and finally by electricity from Braich Goch, although this was limited sometimes to 4pm until midnight, as the larger quarry had the first call on power.
For our next Mid-Wales adventure, we decided to take a look at the Blaen Ceulan mine, the one tantalisingly seen from the narrow road that winds scenically to the top of Cwm Ceulan. The mine is on a public footpath, which starts from SN72139085 and goes off the vertical rather dramatically down a 1:3 slope.
Almost immediately, we spotted some trial adits- these are generally referred to as the Bwlch-y-Garreg trials. The first one was open, (a little way, anyway) with a modest tip. Most of the adits here have arched portals, an attractive feature. Unfortunately this one didn't go very far before ending in a headwall. Nearby was that inevitable accessory, a car wheel trim that must have whizzed off from the road.
We made our way past a few more trials until we came towards the reservoir for the mine. Here there was an extensive trial, although the tips had the feeling of a slate mine about them; there were a lot of chunks of rock and very little in the way of minerals. This trial was an attempt to find the Esgair Hir lode in 1873. The trench is 50 yards long and 7-8 yards deep. Sadly, nothing was found, and the excavation was abandoned.
It was strange that although we could see the Blaen Ceulan mine from the road, down here by the old trials it seemed to be hiding. It wasn't until we were nearly upon it that it was revealed, hidden up until now by the moraine spurs that skirt the stream.
This was obviously a big operation for a while, judging by the spoil. Our first glimpse revealed the fossil impressions of floatation tanks and buddle pits highlighted in the fitful sunshine. The main adit, a brick arched tunnel was obvious, although rather underwhelming, as it only went in about fifteen feet before ending in a stone wall. I got the feeling that there might be a lot of water behind that wall.
There was a confusing array of ruined structures, and one we could identify- a wheel pit. I wondered if the big tunnel was simply for transport or access, and that another tunnel struck the lode and connected with it.
Another theory is that the tunnel was simply an alcove for a steam engine. It is known that the Perran Foundry supplied a 16in horizontal "Puffer" and a 20 foot boiler. This would explain the lack of spoil or roadway here, near to the crushing floor.
A 40 foot waterwheel and a 36 inch crusher were ordered from Perran and must have been in this vicinity. The stone for the buildings, incidentally, came from the opencut at the deep adit.
There were the remains of a shaft further up and behind the mine- this could be the engine shaft. We know from Bick that the company purchased a steam engine from the Castle Hotel, Aberystwyth to drain the mine. It was a an 8nhp engine by Bennet of Deptford- lowered down the shaft to a purpose-cut chamber, the engine started pumping on 15th June 1870.
Unfortunately, returns did not match the investment, and the engine was retired and presumably still languishes in it's chamber, rusting slowly into oblivion.
From 1873, the pumps were worked by a wire rope from the 40foot wheel- something that the 1880 O.S. maps show clearly.
We roamed around happily for a while, examining the minerals in the spoil and speculating about the structures. Further up the hill, there was a long ruined structure beside an adit that was choked with gorse and vegetation. This was the deep adit, rather wet and inhospitable- and impossible to photograph..
We made our way east on a farm track which gave us good views of the trials along the south side of the Bryn Mawr valley. I had been wondering where the powder house could have been, when I nearly stumbled over it, just the right distance from the workings.
Obviously, the coffee we'd had earlier in Newtown hadn't worn off, as Petra decided that we'd try and find the old road marked on the 1880 OS maps from Bwlch y Garreg farm. We ended up making for the end of the cwm through an area of gorse and bracken that wasn't pleasant. The gorse is a direct result of sheep farming, as the poor beasts won't eat it, so it spreads unchecked. Some breeds of cattle have a taste for it, but they weren't in evidence here.
We found ourselves on a very steep slope towards some crags. Petra went up big-style, but I had the wrong boots on (that's my story). I wasn't wearing my trusty Vibram soled climbing boots, but a pair of lightweight Merrells- I'd envisaged this as an easy potter about, not an attack on K5. Of course, the inevitable happened and I slipped, descending twenty feet or so very quickly on the grass before doing an ice-axe belay with my walking pole. The rest of the slope was taken very slowly while you-know-who looked on patiently.
We eventually found the road, which took us down to the old Bwlch-y-Garreg farm, sheltered in the lee of another moraine. It was still an exposed spot and I didn't like to imagine what conditions must have been like for the occupants, especially before the road was built by the mine company. There was a hollowed out area in front. perhaps another wind-break that might have been planted with bushes. Beside the farm was a pig-sty. We walked back to the car, feeling thankful for the 21st century and all it's mod-cons.
The mine works a continuation of the Esgair-Hir vein, exploited by the mines to the north east at the bwlch- Esgair-Hir and Esgair Fraith. My post about Esgair-Hir is...here. The earliest workings are impossible to date, but Foster-Smith considers a date of 1723, when some shallow shafts were sunk on the vein.
In 1732-3, take-notes were issued from the Gogerddan estate to miners, probably unemployed, to raise a little ore and work the tips at Blaen Ceulan.
In 1852 a deep adit level was driven- it found the vein and was then connected to the engine shaft. While the ore was stated to be rich, it was inconsistent and tapered off. The mine was working from 1852-54, then closed until 1868-76. During this period the recorded output was 438 tons of lead ore, 7 tons of zinc and 18 tons of copper ore.
An account of a visit to the mine by the Welsh Mines Society (Autumn 2008) notes that "One discovery of the day was ironwork on the river bank that might have been associated with an aerial ropeway from the mine to the road." That might explain some of the mysterious holding down bolts.
The cart wheel we found in the waterwheel pit was made by Turner Brothers, Cambrian Iron Works, Newtown, Mid-Wales. They were agricultural engineers who also specialised in making equipment for slate mines- the works was founded in 1795.
"The Mines of Cardiganshire", J Foster-Smith, Northern Mine Research Society 1979.
"Lead Mining in Wales" W. J. Lewis, UWP 1967.
"The Old Metal Mines of Mid Wales, part 3" David Bick Pound House 1974.
"Metal Mining in Mid-Wales" by G. W. Hall, WMS 2014
Graham Levin's photographic record of the mine- these are proper film photos, back when you needed skill to take a photo :-)