You might experience cognitive dissonance when you read the words "Country Park". I know I did, because I'm all about the wild, untamed places, littered with ruins and memories. But then a friend sent me a link to a TV programme, extolling the delights of one particular country park- including a few tantalising shots of a powder house, deep in the woods. I think the series was "Iolo's Welsh Country Parks"... fronted by that likeable and unassuming presenter, Iolo Williams. I was hooked, and had to go and have a look- although there was some anxiety that the place would be a bit busy and shouty. It wasn't.
It's an interesting site right from the start, easy to find from the car park at the wonderful (free)* National Slate Museum at Gilfach Ddu. There are a great many trails in and around the woods, which make it a rewarding and straightforward explore. The place is big enough to swallow up a lot of folk, although in truth, most of them gravitate around the lake, the ever-popular quarry hospital or the lower parts of the quarry.
From the car park, it becomes apparent that you will be doing a lot of climbing- If you have ambitions to access the top levels anyway. The second time we visited, we set off from the bus turning loop at Deiniolen...it's a pleasant, easy walk to the top of the quarry from there- and you can work down through the whole site. I prefer walking uphill at the end of the day, but that's probably just me and my Munro-ravaged knees...
So, let's talk about the inclines. The drumhouses are almost like Swiss cottages, or at least what I imagine Swiss drumhouses would look like. We were a little confused about the layout of the tracks beside the drumhouses, but when we reached the bottom incline at lake level, there was a restored example... all our questions were answered- immediately! There's a traverser which allowed wagons to be manoevred from one set of rails to the other, or turned through ninety degrees.
The restored incline is powered and runs on certain days of the year, well worth finding out when. I should say that the originals were worked by gravity, but this proved impractical here for various reasons.
The topmost levels were the most charming, with some rails in place, slate dressing huts, blast shelters etc. The top drumhouse was pretty ruinous, but gave enough of an impression to understand the workings. The inclines are steep, by the way, being tank inclines. You can access the pit from most levels, although beware, it is very dangerous and the falls are unguarded.
Vivian is far removed from the atmosphere of Dinorwig Garret. It is wooded and sheltered, and you get the impression that the weather doesn't rampage quite as boisterously around the levels here. It is still utterly fascinating, though. There are slate steps everywhere, weigh houses and paths. Routes go off away from the pit, presumably for tipping- most of these can be followed as mysterious and fascinating paths.
Goats come and go, preceded by a slightly whiffy ambience. I see that one or two folk, who have nothing better to do, have a head of steam up about them, wanting to organise a cull. There are always people who want to kill things, right? Well, I'll say that the goats do a good job of keeping the vegetation down, they are fairly retiring and fun to look at...and hey, breaking news, things smell in the real world, goats don't use fabric conditioner or deodorant. My lasting memory of the levels was that of an enchanting place, with fantastic trees, flights of sketchy steps as if from an old Rupert book and the sheer pleasure of being able to look at some genuinely fascinating, untouched industrial artefacts. And goats.
Originally, the quarry operated on eight levels- two are now under the level of the lake, thanks to the Dinorwig pumped storage scheme. The pit is still a most spectacular feature and can be entered from the railway crossing down at Lake level, through an arch, (built in 1900) where a semi-blondin can be seen hanging above. What's a semi-blondin? See my blog post here. There are the remains of a winding drum beside the pit in a slate built house, unfortunately this is locked up, but that's probably reasonable given that the blondin is hanging above our heads up there! The flooded pit is used by divers, with their day-glo paraphernalia to slighly spoil the vibe, but it's still a heck of a place. Once, when we were there, some climbers were dry tooling up a set of slabs high up on the right side. I don't know why, but I love to see people climbing at Dinorwig, perhaps it makes me think of the "old man" with his ropes and chains.
On another visit, we spread our wings and followed a few paths in and around the Padarn woods, trying to work out what the features we saw were. Once you travel away from Vivian towards the west, things become mysterious and intriguing. We saw a couple of quarry pits, tips and bridges, and a ramshackle nest of ruins which turned out to be a woollen mill. It was an amazing find there in the woods, forgotten and abandoned.
Further along we encountered a quarry which had been re-purposed by what seemed to be a commune- it was adorned by sculptures and assemblages, all very creative, and I wondered what the old quarrymen would have made of it. We spent some time talking to a lugubrious old horse here, feeding him grass and snippets of chat. A sketchy tramway wound round a tip and arrived at an extravagantly carved wooden archway. We were surprised by a strange figure appearing, smiling a benign, gap-toothed greeting. "Have you come to see Carol?" he asked. We grinned sheepishly, answered in the negative and strode off quickly in the other direction, wondering if Carol was Padarn's version of Galadriel.
I've since found out that the carved archway was the entry to an interesting experiment in alternative and sustainable living called Cae Mabon, the idea of Eric Maddern. Depending on your perspective, it's a retreat, a natural building project, a Shangri-La, or an alternative holiday resort. Here's an article about the place from Miss Jenni Tulip to help you make your mind up.
As for the powder houses, we still haven't found the one in the woods, although I know where it is supposed to be on the map...but there are two big powder houses at the top of the site, one owned by a climbing club who use it as a bunk-house. We were poking around there one morning, looking in the windows of the empty bunkhouse when some folk arrived. I quickly pulled out a map and pretended to consult it with Petra, as we walked stealthily off the property. Petra told me afterwards that she thought the other folk were too sheepish looking, and were probably trespassers too, an amusing irony. It isn't very photogenic anyway, if it ever had been. The earlier magazine is almost next door, with a loading bank- but was too bramble infested to photograph (and this in February!).
The photographs were taken over five or six visits, so exhibit all the vagaries of Welsh weather, from dreich mist and dampness to heart lifting, brilliant sunshine...although I don't like photographing in full sun! (Some people are never satisfied).
*There is a car parking charge, the proceeds of which don't go to the museum.
Stumbling around the Padarn Woods in search of the Dinorwig Powder House, we came across the ruins of the Bedw Argoed Wollen Mill. This was the house of the owner, situated on the bank of Afon Fachwen. Argoed means an enclosure of trees and bedw is birch, so Bedw Argoed means an 'enclosure of birch trees' The mill closed in the 1890's and all that is left are some very intriguing ruins, buried deep in the woods.