The Catherine and Jane Consols copper mine is an intriguing and mysterious site. It's a little way above the Ffestiniog Railway as the line snakes through the Cae Fali woods before Tan-y-Bwlch -and takes it's name from two lady lessors, the Richards sisters, who held the lease from 1855. Like most metal mines in the area, it was never particularly succesful- it's heyday was in the 1840s, a little before our two ladies came on the scene.
Remains are scattered around the forestry commission woods, some obvious, some not so. The tragedy of the site is that little remains of the very imposing Cornish Engine House which stood here for almost for a century until being destroyed by the forestry commission in 1965. Looking at David Bick's drawing of the building, you can only conclude that the sixties were truly unenlightened times for industrial archaeology. What a magnificent feature it would be now in the landscape.
I returned to the mine recently. My last visit had been six months before, when I had tried unsuccesfully to take a few photos. The leafage and general boskyness had defeated me; it was difficult to get in and around the old carpenter's shop, or the forge because of the spruce branches and gorse. It was raining, too, but that's not unusual here in Wales.
Now, I had a new camera and I was showing a photographer friend around, hoping to get some new angles on the place. We took the path from Rhyd across to the ruins of the old Pen yr Allt farm steading in the woods, an evocative spot where I had some success on a few occasions with photography.
This is what greeted us as we walked towards the old farm:
Yes, it was my old friends the Forestry folk, churning up the woods. A behemoth of a machine had passed within centimetres of the old place, rendering the path impassable...a welly depth of sticky mud in each gigantic tyre track. I wasn't best pleased. Here are some shots taken in happier times. The farm is a beautiful old ruin, but for now, it is on hold until nature takes the place back- I have no doubt about that, it will just take some time.
We trudged downhill to the site of the old Cornish Engine House. This was wrecked in the sixties, as mentioned, by those hired corporate thugs, the Forestry Commission. This, of course was a time when panelled doors were covered in plywood (no doubt sourced from FC forests), exterior walls were rendered, honest materials denied. Yet, paradoxically, it was also the age of brutalist concrete and the pernicious start of the cheap, powder coated shanty town school of architecture. (I quite like the brutalist stuff.)
We saw that a swathe of the woods had been flattened. Several trees had fallen on the smithy, but the mine offices and carpenter's shop were revealed to greater advantage by the thinning and extraction of timber. The behemoth's tyre tracks were everywhere, but it seemed as if there was a plan. The structures were being avoided, by a kind of selective blindness. The forestry Commissions successors, "Tilhill Forestry" had managed to work around the mine, although I noted that one of the lower adits was impassable now, more due to tree trunks lying over it than by destruction.
To my surprise, I spotted an unfamiliar structure, one that appears on the 1889 OS map, but had been long lost under the serried ranks of spruce. Close inspection revealed a powder house...a very satisfactory discovery. A little further and another structure had been unearthed from the forest. This one was more mysterious, although certainly seemed to be a store, being near to the processing floor. Where the ore had been sorted and graded, ready for transport down to the Ffestiniog Railway siding, the ground was covered in piles of logs.
As always, there is a dichotomy about sites such as this. In an ideal world, I would like them to be left to disappear back into the ground; gorse and brambles covering and camouflaging the remains. The attentions of vandals such as the Forestry Commission are unwelcome at the best of times- I wonder how the Cornish Engine House would fare today, under the auspices of a slightly more enlightened approach to I.A. from people like Tilhill? Judging by what is happening at Dorothea, probably not much better, but it might still be standing.
According to the late David Bick*, there was a forest fire in the 1980s which left the area looking like the aftermath of a nuclear disaster- so this would have been the last time that the site was clear. It also shows how fast-growing the spruces are, as many of the trees were over forty feet high before felling recently.
There was an energetic attempt to clear and interpret the site by the Welsh Mines Society back in 2003, when the smithy area was cleared, the walls restored to some degree and the 35 foot "Biglands" wheelpit was rescued from serious erosion by a stream, which was diverted. The work was done over three years. Since then, gorse bushes, and their prickly allies, brambles have covered everything now, and with the removal of the sitka spruces, things will become more impenetrable.
I've known the site since 2005, and have visited regularly. I've seen the trees grow taller and the vegetation become more dense. I've explored above and below ground- perhaps because I have an idea where everything is, I feel comfortable with the changes that take place on the ground. But I did catch myself wistfully thinking about how charming the site used to be, glimpsed mysteriously between tight ranks of conifers. Never satisfied, am I? Here's to the next incarnation of Catherine and Jane, whatever that may be.
The earliest records of the site are from 1825, where it was said that the mine yielded “many hundreds of tons of lead and copper ore”. From the 1860's, however, several lessors chased ever-dwindling ore reserves and the mine seems to have been something of a “Will o' the Wisp” according to one shareholder in 1862. With the lead and copper exhausted, extraction turned to iron, of which there is certainly a great deal of evidence. But the ore proved very sulphurous and not particularly suitable- although 115 tons were shipped to the Blaina Ironworks in October 1856. The mine changed hands many times, it's last flickering of activity being with the Felix Mining Company in 1877. The shareholders were “four gentlemen, two accountants and an inkmaker”...not, perhaps, very auspicious. You get the feeling they were sold the 1870's equivalent of an endowment mortage.
An interesting feature of the mine is that pumps were powered by flat rods, driven variously from the engine house and waterwheels, underground. These are still in place, although exploration underground is extremely dangerous and not to be recommended without the proper equipment and in the company of competent individuals.
**"The Old Copper Mines of Snowdonia", David Bick - Out of print, but copies turn up on Ebay, especially as it was reprinted by Bargain Books a couple of years ago.