Or, Gentlemen prefer Blondins...
Another study of the Nantlle Vale quarries this week, with a look at Blaen-y-Cae quarry. It's reached by climbing a bramble-infested pair of inclines from Talysarn, once the route of the John Robinson Tramway on it's way to join the 3'6" gauge Nantlle Railway. Nowadays though, it's mainly used by sheep, whose tracks we gratefully used to scramble up...or down in the case below-
Once above the Talysarn pit, the country becomes a little wilder and views open out towards the Nantlle ridge and Snowdon in the distance. Not much remains on the levels above Talysarn except the drum houses and some ruined structures, barely recognisable among the gorse scrub that infests this part of the valley. A lonely chimney loomed from within a thicket of birch, oak and blackthorn...when I had hacked my way inside I was none the wiser, as there were no clues within the ruin. The 1889 OS map shows a mill at this spot, so perhaps this was the chimney for a steam plant, or possibly a forge. On the next level there seemed to have been a great many walliau, where the slate was roughly split and trimmed by craftsmen. A curious feature that we had not seen elsewhere was a series of sunken passages, rather like WW1 trenches, walled with slate. It felt a little like a Welsh version of Skara Brae. Trimming waste was everywhere.
I knew that there was something special on the highest level, below the Cilgwyn tips and as we climbed up, I began to recognise features from the map and from photographs on the web. Despite my mine senses, Petra spotted it first. The remains of a "Henderson's patent Blondin Winder", almost engulfed by thorn bush but nevertheless, instantly recognisable by those who spend too much time poring over old quarry photographs. I guess most folk reading this will know how the Blondin apparatus is synonymous with the Welsh slate industry...or is it?
Basically, a Blondin is a series of wires strung from pylons on either side of a pit. Along these wires runs a wheeled carriage, or as it was known in some welsh quarries, a ceffyl (horse). This was pulled between the two pylons, running on static wires. From the carriage descended another block arrangement which allowed a load to be lifted or dropped remotely by the operator, which is where our "Henderson patent Blondin Winder" comes in. An ideal arrangement for situations where there was a deep pit and no access from a hillside.
Despite what some folk will claim, the Blondin didn't originate from Wales, it was the idea of one John Fyffe, lessee of Kemnay Granite quarry in Aberdeenshire. He approached a local engineering firm, John M. Henderson & Company, of the King’s Engineering Works, Aberdeen, to manufacture the apparatus from his specifications. Here, historical accounts vary, as Henderson then claimed the invention as his own, built the first one in 1873 and took out a patent, No. 4196 of 1896, a machine for “Lifting and Transmitting Heavy Bodies”. The first Blondins installed at Pen yr Orsedd were of this particular pattern; the quarry was an very early adopter of the design, but not before Kemnay and Rubislaw granite quarries in Aberdeenshire.
What of the name? They were named after the famous French tight-rope walker Charles Blondin (real name Jean Francois Gravelet, 1824-97). Blondin was famed for crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a stove. He stopped half way across, cooked an omelette on the stove and lowered it to passengers on the "Maid of the Mist" below. Not quite Welsh slate quarry practice, but certainly interesting.
Meanwhile, the light was fading and the weather closing in. A cold wind blew from the east and I thought about those craftsmen working in the waliau in all weathers. No wonder they had dug those trenches. Back home, in the warmth of my studio, I thought about the winders. They were steam powered, yet there was no sign of an engine house on the level we were on, or even a shelter for the operator. I fell to studying more maps, trying to find an answer. I suppose coal came up the inclines, and shelters were corrugated iron or wood...perhaps. More research needed.
Blaen y Cae factoids:
The quarry was started in the 1830's and was eventually taken over by Tal y Sarn. At it's peak, forty men were employed, producing 800 tons a year. It closed in the 1930's. (source: Gazetteer of Slate Quarrying in Wales, A. J. Richards.)