One of the things that I love about Wales is that, despite the tens of thousands of people who visit every summer, it is still possible to stumble upon something magical in the landscape. Something forgotten, perhaps even mysterious and obscure.
The lovely cwm heading up to Ratgoed, with it's lost village, is well known among folk who like to explore Wales' little-known nooks and crannies. Hidden in the woods at the start of the cwm is an old red crane. It perches over a dark pit like a dead rust spider, it's jib gesturing to the woods above.
The pits here are all deep, because unlike at Blaenau Ffestiniog, the slate vein lies almost vertically. On the days we visited, there was a mist rising from the depths, gentle zephyrs combing it like lazy smoke through the mature spruces. Looking over the pit's edge, the cold air hit my face as I tried to see the bottom of the defile. I couldn't- it grew dark and ominous and the damp mist settled on my glasses. I could make out openings in the side of the hole, marooned adits and access points that had been superceded as the work drove ever deeper. It looked so intriguing, and so dangerous.
But the crane wasn't really the magical discovery here. Of course, we had a good look around the thing, as you would imagine. It's purpose seems to have been to pull slate slabs up from below, at least 100 feet down, then transfer them to wagons. These ran on a track which followed a tunnel through the mountain to the other side, reaching the main Aberllefenni workings. We explored the tunnel as far as we could, past many open chambers, some of them very deep indeed. I have no idea why, probably it was my imagination, but the darkness inside the mine seemed all encompassing. Our lights, all 900 lumens units, didn't really make a dent in the gloom. The chambers betrayed themselves by their sound, and the way the air seemed to move about within them. Any light coming in from the tops of the chambers above was quickly overcome by the stygian gloom.. Sadly, we eventually reached a fall, blocking the way ahead. Coming back along the adit, I wondered where some of the chambers could have opened up on the hill above, the source of the occasional, very feint light from above.
A look on Google earth showed a couple of openings, buried deep in the forestry. I thought it might be worth a look, although it would also be a tough climb- but a week later, yes, we were back. We took a left hand line past the pit with the old crane, up the steep, steep slopes of Foel Grochan. The spruce trees were very useful to hang on to and pull uphill with, as the slope was certainly brutal. After climbing for fifteen minutes (it seemed more like an hour) a tip came into view between the closely packed trees. This was exciting- what every mine explorer dreams about, finding a little known mine, or excavation. After we'd got our breath back, we walked up to an opencut. To my surprise, it was actually an adit, going in to the side of the hill. Petra walked carefully in, examining the roof and floor while I took a photo looking out. I wasn't expecting much of the adit, perhaps a big drop into more darkness. But after about fifteen seconds, I heard her call out in surprise.
What she'd discovered was magical, at least to rust and equipment freaks like us. An old Victorian air winch, poised over the lip of one of the chambers, with various antediluvian cogged wheels like huge, discarded watch mechanisms lying beside it. To find this, untouched and undocumented, was wonderful. We spent quite a while in there, as you can imagine. At the back of the chamber was a passage which led on into the mountain, to a couple more small chambers, but nothing as exciting as our first discovery. As always with this place, the drop from the winch looked awful, like a high tide of darkness. I imagined falling down into the silence, never stopping until...well, perhaps not. My imagination is rarely helpful underground.
Topsides, my photos here were uniformly terrible, so Petra has stepped ably up to the plate with a selection from her camera. I guess I was too excited, running about like a Jack Russell terrier. Outside the adit was a weigh house and a powder store, both roofless, of course, but looking fascinating and surrounded by bits of machinery being slowly assimilated into the hill by vegetation. We stopped and had a bite to eat before going back in to the adit for one last look, savouring the sight. And then it seemed only right that we should carry on uphill to see if there were any more holes on this side of the mountain; we knew there were some big ones on the other side, of course.
So we struggled up to the next level. More tips, older, almost completely overgrown. And then this.
It's an ancient, manually operated winder, a machine for bringing slabs up from the pit, although I couldn't fathom how it could have worked- no doubt someone will tell me...please! I'd seen other examples of these machines on the web and noted that they are early, and I know that this part of the mine was the earliest, so we are probably talking about a date of mid-1800s. I have also examined the plans of the mine in Gordon and Anne Hatherill's wonderful book* and I can say with certainty that this hole goes down 500 feet to almost the bottom of the mine. It must be as black as the inside of the devil's waistcoat down there. Of course, work continued down all the time, so each lower level exploited a floor of the mine in it's Jules Verne-like journey almost to the centre of the earth.
We stopped again here and had something to drink. We were a long ways up the mountain now. Going down the way we had come didn't seem very attractive, so we elected to carry on the hundred feet or so to the top and take our chances down the other side. On the way to the top, we saw some very early diggings, grass grown but obviously the work of the "old man". And then we reached the top, and savoured the view across to Aberllefenni and down into the frightening jaws of the awe inspiring Alma Cavern.
We picked our way carefully down the slate and heather to the side of the great cavern. It was getting dark, and the weather was closing in. This was not the time to go looking around here. We agreed to high-tail it out of the place and come back with more time on the clock, more light on the dash. I promise that my next post will feature the cavern and the tricky story of our continuing explore.
Meanwhile, we managed to find a footpath through the woods back round the base of Foel Grochan, back to the car. I wasn't sorry to rest my weary legs!
The next instalment of the saga will appear soon :-)
*"Slate Quarry Album" by Gordon and Ann Hatherill, RCL Publications, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9538763-8-9
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