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
In a little known corner of North West Wales lies a beautiful disused quarry, full of ruins and artefacts from a lost industrial age. For years, folk have come from far and wide, to enjoy the atmospheric vestiges of mill and plas under the shadow of the Nantlle Ridge. Imagining the ghosts that inhabit the cuttings and pits, the old inclines and pyramids, still holding against the weather and against progress. A bastion and a refuge, a place haunted by the memories of those who worked there. A monument. Locals, of course, know what they have got and are passionate about the place. They walk their dogs there every day and will tell you proudly about their connections.
Connections, such as within the ruined houses of the lost village, Talysarn Uchaf, each with it's own fascinating story. The chapel at the Plas, like a handshake from the past. The old mill, with the ghosts of the quarrymen flitting through the birches. So many stories and resonances to people still alive whose grandads and great granddads worked there. The lovely stories of Prince and Corwen, quarry horses who pulled trains of slate from the quarry to Talysarn. The late Gwynfor Pierce Jones, celebrated local historian, gave guided talks to parties of fascinated folk, talking about his own connection with the place and it's stories.
It's a little piece of post industrial paradise, full of bird song and wildlife.
But we who love the quarry have always been uneasy, knowing that this fragile state of affairs can't continue forever. Recently, press coverage of some teenagers, indulging in the craze of "Tombstoning" (free diving into water filled quarry pits) has finally nudged the sleeping bear of Dorothea Lakes, the company that "own" the quarry, into life. Fences are being erected, huge gates are to be placed across the road, signs are going up and access is to be restricted. In one stroke, Dorothea Lakes have diminished the place.
The quarry pit is also used by divers, some of whom have lost their lives in the black, unfathomable depths of the main sinc. At the moment it is not clear whether these folk are also to be excluded.
It is my understanding that the only structure at the quarry that excites the interest of Cadw and the Council is the 17th century farmhouse at Pen y Bryn. There has been a silence over the priceless and historically important Holman Pumping House, a landmark structure and one that is significantly, miraculously, intact. The pyramids, vast monolithic structures with tunnels through them are either to be made safe after getting a red card from the H&S -or demolished. I wonder if the latter is more cost-effective for Dorothea Lakes.
There have been folk seen wandering around Dorothea with hi-vis vests on for a few months now, and the owners have been conspicuous in the company of a well-known Industrial Archaeologist, supposedly putting together a plan for the "World Heritage Site" bid. There are rumours of as-yet undisclosed plans to redevelop the site.
A site that, really, should be in the hands of the public. A site that should be cared for and conserved, so that future generations can enjoy it and appreciate the beauty of a post industrial landscape that nature has reclaimed. A site that would be hugely admired and could, I suspect, be made a jewel within this slightly depressed area of North West Wales.
Instead, perhaps we will get a bulk landfill site, Or I wonder, a pumped storage Water Power Project, where everyone profits except the tax payer -of course. A few jobs for locals, probably- and a feeding frenzy for construction companies- but at what real cost? A historic site, lost forever under featureless grass landscaping and concrete.
Another nail in the coffin for North Wales.
The Nantlle ridge may well look on in horror at what is to be done. Gwynfor Pierce Jones would certainly be very disappointed.
There has been a new company inaugurated, on the 17th May 2017 - Dorothea Pumped Hydro Ltd, registered in St Asaph. So now we know what may be in store.
Here are some images from a friend of recent, preparatory works; fencing and notices, the vanguard of the bulldozers.
Many thanks to Kerry, aka "GizzieFleury" on Flickr for the photographs of recent developments.
Take a remote quarry and some out-of-the-way farm ruins...add a trackless morass between them, then season with damp weather...
We're only acccidental walkers. We walk in order to get to quarries, or ruins that excite our taste for the picturesque- although sometimes we cover long distances. as a result. But you won't find me scanning the outdoor mags for routes up mountains, or scenic rambles 'twixt hill and dale. Unless there's a mine involved; but then those are usually airbrushed out of the magazines and guides; the unruly relatives that are never invited to the party.
So a great deal of thought went into finding a route to this quarry, after Petra spotted it on google Earth. In a seemingly untroublesome stretch of country between the Rhinogs and Ganllwyd, Cefn Cam sat at the top of a very long road with no permissable vehicular access, unless on business- and I don't think mine exploration counts.
Now, we've had two visits to this place, the second time we took in some fascinating ruins, so I will give you the round tour in all it's soggy glory. I'm just telling you because for a while on our second visit, the sun shone- in case you wondered why there were a couple of bright photos in a sea of overcast ones.
Coed Cwm Mynach
We began our foray at the car park in the idyllic Cwm Mynach reserve at SH68382182. Wales' best kept secret, according to the Woodland Trust web site. We walked up the forestry road for a long way...so long, in fact, that it was necessary to stop for a flask of coffee at the lake- (SH67802391) there's even a bench, dedicated to the memory of a gent who donated a big wedge of cash to preserve the woodland and convert it back to temperate rain forest. For this is the Coed Cwm Mynach, a Woodland Trust scheme, funded entirely by contributions from the public. It was originally owned by someone from the city of London, who sold it to the trust for less than it's market value, in order that it could be returned to a more natural state. Because, of course, up until now, it's been in the hands of the forestry people and is covered with a mix of over-mature Spruce, diseased Lodgepole pine and various other intrusive species.
But, thanks to the Woodland Trust, Oak and broadleaved woodland is staging a comeback. The Lodgepoles will be taken out, the other conifers will simply be allowed to die, or be harvested if near a road, and any self-seeded spruces will be hunted down and uprooted. I wish I could be around in thirty years time to see the results.
After a long trudge through trees, we came to a junction. Left takes you onto the moor, and was the access road to the quarry. It is also used by guests at the Shooting Lodge, a strangely obtrusive Victorian excrescence, now used as a kind of Hafod. No guns have been on the moor for a long time. There's no wi-fi, no electricity, no mobile signal... and no grouse. I found the structure so ugly that I managed to obscure it with rocks or other features in all my photos, although if you want to know what it looks like, it is featured here.
We decided, as the weather was so nice, that we would carry on along the right fork this time, away from the quarry road, to take in some ruins that Petra had spotted on the map, so we walked for another mile and a half. We were still heading for the quarry, but in a kind of pincer movement.
The trees became less dense and views opened out now, so you could see the Rhinogiau in all their glory, basking in the distance. We turned left at SH69682452 off the forestry road as it descended into another thick stand of trees, for this was proper forestry and the conifers stood tightly packed for miles. There were warning notices posted here, with surveillance cameras.
Reading the Woodland Trust web site, it seems that they have been having problems with bands of two-strokers on their motor bikes, roaring through the woods and churning up the paths- we certainly saw evidence of this. There have been efforts to persuade them not to do so.
The path was more like a stream, even in the dryish weather we'd been having, so we changed our boots for waterproof numbers. No, I told you, we're not serious walkers, we just object to ruining our "best" boots... The bracken was high and the path difficult to follow, but we eventually emerged near the first farm, called Glan-llyn-y-forwyn, which translates to something like "the lakeside of the maid". It had obviously been a grand farm with a causeway leading up to it. It commanded a fine view of the Afon Cam surrounded by a gorgeous stand of trees. While there were some mature Sycamores, I was sad to see that some were Ash.
It was difficult to interpret the ruins here as the deterioration of the farm had been almost complete, so we had our lunch under the trees and admired the views downstream towards Ganllwyd and Moel Cors-y-garnedd.
Glan-llyn-y-forwyn farm is at SH69312494 and you can see from the Google view that the surrounding land is boggy, or as the OS puts it, "liable to flooding". We made our way north from the farm, over a modern wooden bridge over the Afon Gam, towards the next ruin.
Cefn Cam Farm
These were the steadings for Cefn Cam farm, and appeared to be pig sties and a hay/forage barn, although I can't imagine there would have been much of that here. A little more walking took us to the fascinating structure of Cefn Cam itself. It is situated below a low ridge of slatey rock, on a slightly elevated position.
As I was walking around the farm, I noted some very large slates, looking like "Duchesses". I wondered about these, but then was distracted by Petra calling me to look inside. There was a huge old kitchen fireplace with the remains of a range. It must have been a welcoming place, back in the day. No doubt soggy boots were left in front of that range, and wet coats hung up to dry...
I read a brief note on the internet by a chap whose great grandmother had lived here, having to bring their belongings by cart from Trawsfynydd in 1902- it was a two day journey and I'll bet the way across the moor here was the longest and most awkward.
But back to those slates I found. While trying to find an angle on the house that didn't involve too much light or too much sky, I walked up the ridge behind, where an outcrop of fine slate ocurred. I noticed it had been worked, an area twenty feet by ten, beautifully carved out. I'll wager the farmer was a quarryman by day and crowbarred slate out of here for the roof. Dolerite and other rocks outcropped nearby, and judging by the way the stones were worked, I'd hazard a guess that most building materials were found to hand. As if to confirm this, we found a big pile of worked stone near the steading, almost like mining fines, probably chipped off blocks that had gone to build the house.
On all the maps we'd seen, there had been a footpath marked from the farm towards the slate quarry, a couple of miles to the east. The weather was deteriorating, but neither of us could face the thought of battling back towards the road and then crunching up the forestry haul road. It seemed sensible, at the time, to try and find the path. Hindsight is always 20/20, though, isn't it?
We made it to a field barn at SH69082537. The terrain wasn't too bad, so we carried on. Gradually, the land became rougher, the grass deeper and more tussocky until it was impossible to make much progress without stumbling, falling in a wet gopher hole, or both. We're both thrawn individuals though, and neither of us wanted to admit defeat. so we bog-bumped on, very slowly.
At least we received some benison from the mining gods, who must have been smirking down on us. Halfway through our soggy oddysey, Petra spotted a tip and an adit, unmarked on the maps and unseen on Google Earth.
Probably because we were tired, everything seemed to take so much more effort as we neared the mine. I was so fed up of falling over and then having difficulty getting up, that I crawled for quite a way. Luckily, we both found the situation amusing and at least we had good bearings...I would have hated to have gone round in circles! I don't think that stretch of land has ever been cultivated or sunk to another human boot, and as for the quarryman's track, perhaps that stuck to higher, less waterlogged terrain.
We sat for a while on the wall of the small mill near the adit, vowing to never do something like that again. The only thing that could have made headway over that primordial prairie would have been an elephant, or a monster truck with huge tyres.
Eventually, interest in our surroundings returned, after some helpings of Petra's famous home-made flapjacks. The girl strolled stiffly to the adit, turning to me and giving a thumbs down. The entrance was very wet and knee deep in slime. There are conflicting reports about this adit. Richards reckons that it was an attempt to take slate out from the lowest pit and avoid uphaulage, and that a mill relocation to this spot was considered- but the adit was never finished. On a previous visit, we met the landowner, a pleasant and urbane gent, who knew a lot about the place. He reckoned that the adit did indeed go through to the lower pit and slate was hauled out that way.
The tips tell the story. Some are composed of large blocks of dolerite, then, one tip becomes rough slabs of low grade slate. On the western side of the hand of tips, two fingers are composed of splitting waste and fines. To my mind, the landowner is right.
A look at the rest of the quarry seemed a reasonable idea, although the weather had really begun to close in. There was little light about, but I have come to the conclusion that the weather here is always like this. Every time we drive to Dolgellau from Ffestiniog, we gaze over and the southern Rhinogs are looking in a bad mood, even though the sun is shining on us.
There are some intriguing ruins here, and I must confess that I had a great deal of difficulty working out what they were. I will start with the things I know...the manager's house, ruinous, but still surrounded by a marked off garden that his wife had happily worked on and grown flowers in. Best of all, it had a most wondrous larder, half underground, looking at first sight like a hobbit-hole...
There were some other structures that we spent some time wondering about. I think this must have been the barracks...
While other structures could be the workshops, near the pit...
The pit itself was on three separate levels, with the lowest pit (opening out to the mill) having another, much lower level, which I presume connected with the lower adit.
The mill was water-powered, presumably a supply was taken further upstream from the tributary of the Afon Gam that runs through the site. A slot in the mill wall seems to indicate that slate was hauled out of the top pit by water power.
There are large piles of waste by the mill, indicating that much work was done here. There are no figures for production, and dates suggest a working period between 1840 to 1893, although we know that there was a revival in operation in the early C20th. The slate seems excellent and the landowner told us that the produce was very good quality slate, but that the access road passed over so many different parcels of land, each demanding wayleaves, that it was difficult to make the slate profitable.
It being June, there was a profusion of blooms on the moor. That old quarry favourite, Stonecrop was in evidence, along with Lady's Bedstraw, and most surprisingly, quite a few Foxgloves. Petra noted the dainty yellow stars of the Bog Asphodel. In the air, Hen Harriers were spotted on both our visits, (no gamekeepers to persecute them) while even in the rain, larks could be heard singing.
The long walk back
Unsurprisingly, the rain started to become heavy, so we scrabbled in rucksacs for our waterproofs and trudged down the access road, past the shooting lodge, over a very old bridge and back into the forest.
We hadn't been walking long before there was a loud roaring ...not a troll, but a cohort of two-strokers- dirt bikers, covered in mud. There were over twenty of them, in a rolling sound envelope, stinking the woods out. I was disturbed by how silent the woods became for quite a while after the passage of the loud ones. They're not coming for the scenery, or the wildlife, that's for sure.
And now, combing the maps, I see that there's the Diffwys Manganese mine up on the hill, overlooking the moor, so it seems we'll be back again soon - once the memory of that primordial bog fades...