Another look at the tramway and pit at the South Snowdon Slate Quarry...
Cwm y Llan, or South Snowdon quarry is a large site in a very exposed location. Reading Gwynfor Pierce Jones' account of the trials and tribulations of the works manager, Pierce Davies (formerly foreman of Moelwyn Mawr slate quarry) leaves one in no doubt of the local difficulties. He kept a diary which has entries such as:
"Feb 22: Great gale damages buildings...
January 1884: entire forge carried away by weather...
Aug 22: Big Weather halts work, forced to open lake..."
The day we visited, the elements were distinctly hostile towards the quarry, as can be seen from the photos. But, despite all that the weather could throw at the place, they did at least manage to produce some slate. Inclines and tunnels were driven as the pit grew ever deeper; many of these can still be seen today. The mill was set up on a lower level, on a base of tipped slate waste, although it seems hardly any more sheltered than anywhere else. The quarry was the biggest producer in the Beddgelert area, although that isn't really saying much- it certainly never produced enough slate to justify the expenditure on the infrastructure.
A waterwheel was installed and two reservoirs higher up the cwm, above the site. It must have been difficult to find enough water so near the watershed. The thick walls of these still survive. There are remains of two other buildings, possibly mills higher up the site, used before the lower mill came on stream.
The exit tramway makes a fine stroll; it is well built and spacious- there are a couple of bridges using big slabs, and revetments all along the way. As we walked away, the weather became steadily brighter until the view down Nant Gwynant was almost spring like. A glance back to where we had come, however, showed that the weather gods had not finished with Cwm y Llan.
If you wish to have a feeling for the history of the quarries surrounding the WHR, I can recommend "Cwm Gwyrfai" by Gwynfor Pierce Jones and Alun John Richards. The scale of GPJ's research is impressive and he really brings the quarries alive. One name which crops up in the writing is Alan Searell, a Devon man who, as far as I can see, was some kind of over-manager for a number of mines, of which Cwm y Llan was but one. Like many men of those times, he was possessed of super-human capabilities, for he thought nothing of walking to Porthmadog to get the wages, for instance. When he left Cwm y Llan for Cwmorthin, because of the irregular payment of wages and the lack of weatherproofing of his house, he came back several times to consult for McKellar, the leasee, saying "It is but a walk of 2hrs from the Snowdon quarries" ! It seems that Searell was a decent man always trying to fight the men's corner with wages and bargains agains McKellar who invariably wanted Searell to get work done on "acceptable terms" (cheaper).
It's good that we have so much information about the human side of this enterprise as, although it is a fascinating site, knowing the struggles and epic weather endured brings it to life when you walk the slopes of the quarry. I often wonder what happened to the men, their lives for the most part undocumented, save for the slabs on the waste heaps, or a fine bit of stonework on a drumhouse or mill. They were a hardy breed.
And yet...this wasn't the end for the South Snowdon Slate Works. Although the site officially closed when abandoned in 1889, and the track of the tramway was lifted in 1913, there were some small-scale attempts to revitalise it.
The first and most determined was in the 1930s-40s, by William Pritchard of Rhosgadfan. He installed some probably secondhand machinery in the mill and re-roofed part of it with corrugated iron. One of the saw tables is now preserved in the National Slate Museum.
Later, in the 1960s, another attempt was made, to fashion useable slate from the blocks of the barracks. This was carried out by Dafydd Williams of Llanlyfni, who barrowed the slate down to a temporary stockyard near the waterfall. Unfortunately, one weekend, walkers threw the entire stock of slate into the river. As GPJ puts it: "after that, they gave up..." At least we still have the barracks and it hasn't been reduced to damp proof course slates as happened at Glanrafon, for instance.
"Cwm Gwyrfai", ISBN 0-86381-897-8
A look at the South Snowdon Slate Quarry.
I first staggered up the Watkin path on a school field trip in the late 'sixties. We'd been listening to the latest Dylan album on the coach, the one with him and Suze Rotolo on the cover..."Freewheeling Bob Dylan". The wonders of new fangled portable tape recorders, eh?
There were clouds on our horizon when it became known that Mr Metcalfe, the Geography master, expected us to climb halfway to the summit of Snowdon to see some Moraines. We were young and creative- we could imagine them, couldn't we? But Metcalfe was not someone to parry with, having a slightly menacing persona reminiscent of Lee Marvin, so we grudgingly assented. There was much talk from our mentor about glaciation and drumlins, when I spotted the lofty Cwm y Llan incline towering above- and asked what it was.
The lads weren't interested and larked about, but something had got hold of me- and as Metcalfe explained the tramway and incline system, the seeds of an unhealthy life-obsession with quarries and mines were sown. The rest of that day was spent gazing in wonder at the remains of the tramway and mines of Cwm y Llan, to the other boys amusement. It took me a little while to live that one down, but the Dylan album belonged to me, so my (semi)-cool status didn't take too much of a dent...
Fast forward a lot of years.
It's January, and Petra and I are walking up the Watkin Path, dodging out of the way of walkers, hell bent on summit glory. They wish us hearty "Good Mornings" as they yomp past carrying the human equivalent of HGV loads in their rucksacks. We're only planning on looking at a couple of mines on the lower slopes, yet even here, there is enough stuff to require at least two more visits. I find myself humming the old Dylan number, to Petra's mystification, so I explain. Mildly exasperated, she mutters "You and your Dylan..." A little unfair, I think, as I reckon I have wide musical tastes- I like the Beatles, too - and they were once called the "Quarrymen", weren't they?
The Incline comes into sight almost immediately on our walk. It bridges the Watkin Path near to the farm buildings at Hafod y Llan. These buildings once housed the horses which were used to take slate to Porthmadog.
You don't get much of an idea from here how impressive the incline is going to be until you climb up on to the first plateau above Nant Gwynant. And there it is, a crazy, roller coaster ride - goodness knows how difficult to control this must have been when operational.
The late Gwynfor Pierce Jones, doyen of Welsh Slate experts, calls the tramway and incline "heroic" and I wouldn't dream of arguing with that. The infrastructure does seem rather optimistic for a slate quarry on the slopes of Snowdon, a good way off the beaten track. There were, however, a number of metal mines which had hoped to share the facilities...there was also the hope that a railway would be built to take produce to Porthmadog from the foot of the incline. That didn't happen, sadly, but what a tourist draw it would have been had it been built and survived until today!
We climbed up the Watkin path over the threshold of the cwm, passing a couple of interesting metal mines which I will document in another post. For a while, the going was easy and we came to the ruins of an imposing residence. I wondered if it had been a hotel, but it was actually the quarry manager's house- with many rooms and fireplaces. A stable was set a little distance away from the house. The manager whose tenure is the best documented is a chap called Alan Searell, who also looked after the metal mines locally. He would need the horses. A curious feature of the house are the many bullet holes in the walls- not a siege by a rival mine, but from the army practising during WW2!
As we walked along the Watkin Path, we were aware of the tramway running along the other side of the cwm from the incline head. I resolved that we would walk back along it if we could, it was so well constructed with stone embankments and cuttings...I started to imagine a small narrow gauge line with a Hunslet locomotive and train of wagons chuffing along. A sudden squall of rain interrupted my dream and we stopped to don waterproofs by the Gladstone Rock.
Soon we arrived at the quarry, where the Watkin path continues uphill to the summit. I didn't fancy that- Snowdon had been hidden in cloud all day. I climbed it once, anyway, in the eighties. It was very snowy, as I remember.
There is no doubt that many a wild weather system rolls out from these cwms surrounding Yr Wyddfa, and from Mr Searell's account of life at the quarry, life was one struggle after another against the elements. According to his journals, the mill roofs blew off, dams burst and, on one occasion, the blacksmith's anvil and the roof of the forge were blown away by what he calls "big weather" !
We explored the levels of the quarry - there were several adits, all flooded and most run in, leading to the pit. There had obviously been a network of tramways; remains of the trackbeds were everywhere. Here in the top level, there was a bridge taking a tramway run to a weigh house, crossing another line out of the pit. A shaft has been sunk in the foreground to connect with an adit to transport rock down to the mill.
There was a well constructed weigh house at the top level, a porch had been made from slate slab. It must still have been a chilly place to work!
I don't know whether it was the wild weather we had on the day we visited, but the incline, tramway and mine workings strike us as some kind of quixotic feat, misguided and perilous. Yet, there are still the remains, noble and striking in their compass of nature and engineering. The works are for the most part drystone and engineered so well that much still stands, despite being situated at such a height and in a place known for it's wild weather. I'm delighted to re-acquaint myself with the place.
I'm going to pause here, let you digest this and consider the tramway from the mine in another installment. I will also include some facts about the quarry.
I still listen to Dylan. And I owe old Metcalfe a great deal, as he encouraged me and gave me some very hard kicks up the butt as and when required to get me back on the rails. I never thanked him, even though I appreciated his gimlet eye on my school career. He's probably scratching away on that blackboard in the sky now, but for what it's worth, thanks Mr M.
He'd probably smile and say "Don't think twice, it's alright"...