The history of the Welsh slate industry is littered with glorious failures, white elephants and might-have-beens. Perhaps none more so than the story of the Gorseddau Quarry, high up in the hills above Cwmystradllyn, near Porthmadog.
It was started on the crest of a wave of optimism. Fortunes were being made out of slate across in Blaenau Ffestiniog, in Dinorwig and Penrhyn; so it’s no surprise that the quarry followed the successful model of all these enterprises and built a link to the sea via a narrow gauge railway. There, sadly, the resemblance ends.
In 1845, Robert Gill of Mansfield and John Harris of Darlington took out a lease on land at the head of Cwmystradllyn, costing £2,000, in the name of the recently floated “Bangor & Portmadoc Slate and Slate Slab Company”. They must have been very persuasive salesmen, for over the next few years they extracted well over £125,500 from investors hoping to make a quick killing from their enterprise. A great deal of money in those days when the average weekly wage was a few pennies. Extracting quality slate, however, was never going to be so easy. The quarry closed in 1867, not ever having made a profit.
Exploring the Quarry and remains
Today, given reasonable weather, it’s a pleasant walk up to the quarry from the car park at the Llyn at Cwmystradllyn, (SH5593344002) along the remains of the tramway. Originally built as a three foot gauge line, this section remained unchanged when the line converted to a fashionable two-foot gauge at Braich y Big and headed off to the Prince of Wales quarry and the Cwm Dwyfor Mine. It’s wet underfoot for most of the way, but quite flat until the quarry is reached. The first interesting structure to be encountered is the smallholding of Tyddyn Mawr, which has an old undershot iron waterwheel at the side, hidden behind walls. The steadings here, now ruined, show signs of once having been very extensive. It’s speculation of course, but perhaps this unusually large range of buildings housed animals to supply meat to the quarry workers, perhaps also a dairy.
Further along the tramway there is yet another ruined farm, at SH5588944811...this is Talyllyn farm, in an enviable situation with a lakeside view and a vista over the Llyn to Moel Ddu. Again, there are an impressive range of outbuildings including stables, for the quarry horses perhaps.
Walking on, a junction in the track can be seen at SH5591444864, just a few yards after Talyllyn farm. Up the hill to the left, there are various fascinating ruins- the vestiges of Treforys, a village, which was planned to house the workers. This can be seen very clearly on Google Earth (SH5604945371) It's well worth a detour from the tramway to go and have a look at this, and imagine the poor quarrymen and their families during the harsh winters.
Gill and Harris didn’t do things by halves even though as quarry masters they were slightly less effective than the Chuckle brothers. Building a village for the workers was nothing - they even engaged the services of one of the most eminent civil engineers of the time, James Brunlees, (later “Sir” James) to build the tramway and also the very grandiose Slab Mill at Ynyspandy, “Ty Mawr”.
Named after Robert Morris Griffith of Bangor, the owner of the land, Treforys ('Morris's town') is a development of thirty-six crog-lofftydd cottages, each with a nominal quarter-acre, erected in 1857 along three parallel roadways on the hillside for quarrymen at Gorseddau. The 1861 census lists only nine dwellings as being inhabited, and all had been abandoned by 1871. A poignant site, it contrasts sharply with the inhospitable terrain of the rest of the landscape- and it is still a fair hike to get to work!
Back on the tramway, before long the manager's house, or rather the shed for his horse and cart, appears in a wooded copse. The house itself is sadly no more than a pile of rubble - this is, or was the grandly titled "Plas Llyn".
Open country surrounds the tramway as it climbs very gently towards the quarry workings which have been in view since the start of the walk. Now they come into focus.
Entering the quarry proper, a strange wall comes into view, skilfully built over at 45 degrees above the railway. If one thing typifies the way things were done at Gorseddau, this is it. The wall was built, at great expense, out of huge blocks of stone to stop waste slate from the encroaching tip falling on to the tramway. There was space to the side of the line to slew the formation...even though the ground was boggy, the company had plenty of slate waste to make it stable. That just wasn’t the way the Gorseddau did things.
Even allowing for the fact that the quarry closed in 1867, the ruined workings are in remarkable condition. There are nine floors, connected by a fine dry stone incline, only breached where the levels themselves were possibly spanned by wooden trestling which has long since rotted away. The main activity was concentrated in a large quarry twll further to the east, and here, the sad story can be read in the rock strata. The productive slate vein, whilst fairly wide near the surface, dived deep underground like a wedge, becoming narrower the further down it went. Even to a layman, the country rock here looks unpromising. Underground workings were made in a desperate attempt to win the deeper slate; as evidence, a swampy drainage adit comes out under the first level just before the east quarry is reached.
There are feint paths making it easy to ascend between levels and gain a view of the whole undertaking...these can be seen by the incline. On the eastern side of the twll, there are fine views of the workings to be had and it is easier to ascend from here. The site is dotted with wonderfully preserved little cabans and walliau for the rock men and tip masters, including some with what look fancifully like compartments for the men’s lunches- but are probably candle alcoves.
As well as incline houses and an impressive pit, there are some wonderful "beehive" type blast shelters...and evidence of rail being chaired directly to slate slabs for sleepers. Perhaps that was one use for Gorseddau slate that the owners might have tried to market!
The site is a fascinating one, combining a wild landscape with fine views towards the sea and the Lleyn Peninsula. A short walk to the top of the bwylch above the quarry rewards with views of the Moelwyns, Cnicht and Snowdon. Rather poignantly, looking towards the sea, the magnificent mill of Ty Mawr is only too visible in the middle distance, a constant reminder of the folly and hubris that followed the enterprise from the start.