You might remember that in my last post about Aberglaslyn (here) I noted some trial levels in Cwm Cyd, on the moors high above the pass. Once Easter was finished with, we returned for a look-see and to have a bit of a clamber about on the ridge.
Starting in the pass again, we parked in the same spot as before. Only this time, we took the left hand path uphill. This was a great move, as we found ourselves walking on an ancient trackway between two moss covered walls, climbing inexorably upwards. There wasn't a path, exactly, and in some places the trackway was in use as an impromptu stream bed, but it was magical nonetheless.
The light was perfect for photography and we both spent some time here, trying not to get into each other's photos. Eventually we emerged from the woods alongside the Afon Goch, a little bit below Oerddwr Uchaf farmhouse. Just before we came out of the woods, we encountered a strange shed made of logs that appeared to have been used as a bunkhouse for the Outdoor Education centre that used to be at Aberglaslyn Hall. What fun it must have been for the teenagers sleeping out here...a little spooky, too.
Soon we were out into the open and striding out towards Cwm Cyd. The name means 'common valley'- yes, this was once common land. It was not unusual for locals to quarry slate on the common- in fact, the biggest quarries in North Wales began as ad hoc commons diggings before "the man" carved the land up like a priviledged pie. Very quickly, we made our first discovery- not a mine, but the remains of an ancient settlement. (Albeit next to a mine building which probably robbed the stone from the redundant round hut.)
I am beginning to get a feeling for how these things present themselves in the landscape, but the surprise and wonder at finding something from far distant times doesn't easily wear off. Coflein have it down as bronze age or iron age- on the Ordnance maps it is just "hut circle".
The mines were now in sight. We walked over the sodden pasture and forded the Afon Goch- I was wearing my winter boots, so water was not a problem- and Petra had given up and changed into her wellingtons. It was a wise choice as the ground was very waterlogged. The first mine, a trial, was at SH581465. It had a modest tip outside and was open, but only to a blind heading.
Undeterred, we headed over to the next mine, marked on the old maps as a "level". This is at SH579465. It's sadly just an opencut, so was something of an anti-climax. It was for slate, though, evinced by the contents of the tip, which was pretty grim quality stuff. There were no buildings associated with these trials, apart from the structure near the hut circle.
We knew that there were mines over the ridge to the north, so we climbed uphill over the slopes of Y Dduallt, noting as we did the close proximity to Moel Hebog. It looks so different from this angle; steep, bounded by cliffs- not at all the benign lump that it appears from Cwm Pennant. Surprisingly soon, we were over the top and heading down into Bwlch Goleu, the "pass of light". A mine could be seen to the north west- the Cwm Cloch mine, while below were the Bwlch Goleu quarry levels.
While we had the advantage of height, we sat and had a late lunch, watching a Welsh Highland railway train climb and wind slowly away from Beddgelert towards Cae Gors. The whistle sounded mournfully in the distance, carrying over the wind. I don't think there's any more evocative sound, apart from Curlews, or Choughs in a quarry- but then I am biased. Down in the valley, countless motor bikes snarled and roared, making a nuisance of themselves and clamouring for attention.
Snowdon was in view, and we tried to remember the names of all the peaks we could see. It was fun to look across at the Liwedd ridge and recall our adventures there earlier in the year. (the post is here)
We climbed down to the Bwlch Goleu levels past a couple of tiny run-in trials. The quarry itself consists of a run in lower adit and a pit on the level above. Richards* states that the place was unsuccessful but there is an awful lot of waste and a reasonably sized pit. The waste does look fairly poor quality, and there are no remains of dressing sheds or walliau. An access track winds away east and then south towards Aberglaslyn- it had me wondering if we had come up a route that had taken slate on the backs of mules.
We looked across at Cwm Cloch, but neither of us felt up to retracing our steps and walking across for what Richards described as a "tiny working" with a collapsed adit. We could see the low ruins of a building, but decided against exploring there. So we followed the access track, hoping it would lead where we wanted to go- and it did. It also had a surprise up it's metaphorical sleeve...
After walking back towards Bryn y Felin, what looked like a tip appeared above us, with perhaps an opencut. (SH586468) All fatigue forgotten, we ran up to see. While Jeremy Wilkinson's database of mines has this as a lead trial, the tip is resolutely slate . There is a curious round shelter dug into the side of the tip, reminding me of the one at Serw slate quarry (post here).
It was a wonderful spot, anyway.
It was now a case of returning back down to the valley the way we had come. But before we did that, the opportunity was taken for a further mooch around the wonderful Oerddwr Uchaf farmhouse and the Hill fort. I was peeved that I had forgotten to photograph the waterwheel last time.
The house was still deserted, no second-homers had purloined it for a holiday rental business yet and it was as charming as always. We quartered the place again, then found a couple of garden chairs and had a drink of coffee from the flask while listening to the birds, savouring the peace and quiet. It is an idyllic spot, although not, I suspect if you had to farm it in the winter. On this day, it was the best place in the world. Coffee savoured, we put the chairs away and set off down towards the hill fort again for another nosy about.
While we were stumping about the fort below the farmhouse, Petra made a discovery. There was a way, like a road, which I imagined was to lure attackers around to the south east of the fort. There we noticed a great many stones placed vertically in the ground. Could these be "Chevaux de Frise"? I haven't read much about this place, folk seem to think it isn't anything special, but to us it had a great atmosphere, even if the farmers have robbed the walls.
As always, I am indebted to Alun John Richard's "Gazetteer of Slate Quarrying" for facts, the notes and jottings of Eric Jones, and the late Jeremy Wilkinson's Gazetteer, now curated by Dave Linton- thank you gentlemen!
Below are some shots of the woodland road we walked up...
Part two of our adventures above the Aberglaslyn Pass.
So, last time, we were on the hilltop at Bryn Du, having taken a wrong turn and wondering what we could do with the rest of our day. We started to wander back along the path towards the Coed Aberglaslyn. Then I had an idea that we could skirt the upper boundary of the woods and perhaps access the country that forms a plateau below Moel Ddu- the ground was dry and firm, after all- and it was open access land.
And that was what we did- a bit of trackless stravaiging. It was tough, through heather and Johnny Breakleg grass, but when we got to the top of a big rocky ridge we realised that it was going to be good...we could see the fort that had been our original objective in the distance!
It wasn't even a particularly difficult scramble across to where Petra had seen a trackway. After a while, we stopped on a rocky knoll and had a snack. A raven was sunning him or herself while a Wheatear landed quite unafraid of us a couple of feet away. With the wonderful sunshine, it felt idyllic.
I turned to the west and immediately spotted two adits in the hillside- yes, mines! We looked at the country and our time left and decided to leave those for another day. There was already a plethora of prehistoric and mediaeval stuff to investigate in this valley without yet another five mile detour. That will be my next post :-)
We began to descend, looking out for the settlements and ancient cairns that are littered here, according to Coflein. What we didn't expect were the remains of old beudiau (is that the plural of "beudy", meaning field-barn in Sais?), of more clearance cairns, gorlans, burnt mounds and standing stones. We had a heck of a lot of fun identifying, photographing and debating over them. We found old boundaries that could have been pre-mediaeval, trackways, marker stones and so on. I am pleased that there was an upland study initiative in North Wales that catalogued all this stuff, allowing us ignorant folk to potter around having fun. Here are some photos of what we found.
As we descended lower, towards the fort, something else emerged from behind a screen of trees- the most wonderful deserted farmhouse. It was so charming and looked like it had been used recently as an informal bothy- there was an (empty) whisky bottle in one of the windows. Outside were the remains of a pelton wheel and an old mechanical mower. I was quietly hoping to stumble over an old Fordson, (as happened to us at Bwlch y Plwym), but no such luck. The farmhouse was Oerddwr-Uchaf, ("Upper Cold Water") and the plaque on the wall told us that this was once the home of a noted Welsh poet, William Francis Hughes - Wil Oerddwr (1879-1966). He was a shepherd/poet who had spent some time working in the USA. I searched online for quite a while but couldn't find much out about Wil Oerddwr, except the rather ominous note in the Gwynedd archives to the effect that:
"Beudy Brynybont ...was a cattle and hay shed and was last roofed by the bard Wil Oerddwr [William Frances Hughes] of Oerddwr [Uchaf]. Mrs. Jones mentions the storage of furniture here in her tapes (when the men were away and the villagers were herded out of their houses)." I wonder what that was about?
I will update this when I have more to tell. The house had a good feeling to it, felt like somewhere I would have liked to stay for a good few years myself- but perhaps that was the weather lending everything a rose tinted ambience). Nevertheless, I felt that you would have to be made of stone not to be inspired to poetry by this exquisite landscape. Here are a couple more photos I took of the place:
We made our way down to the hillfort, which Coflein describes as a "defensive enclosure". Someone, a long time ago, has robbed the walls of the fort to make a sheepfold (gorlan) but in some ways, it makes the place more impressive, if a tad less authentic. Coflein says:
"Of roughly oval plan, it measures 46m east by west by 37m. It is defined by a denuded wall up to 3m thick and natural outcrops, on top of which is a post-medieval drystone wall up to 1.5m high. The interior is uneven and rocky, and no remains of huts were visible suggesting that the site was not permanently occupied. The entrance is on the east side. Integral with the post-medieval wall are two sheepfolds."
One very interesting feature was the stones around the entrance which are some kind of brecciated plutonic rock. Fabulous.
The trouble with things like hill forts is that while they look great from a distance, they look like nothing from the inside- they are very difficult to photograph. We did study what looked very like some mediaeval house platforms in the small settlement fields beside the fort, and the ramparts were the ideal spot to scope out the surroundings.
We reluctantly made our way down from the fort along a rough road- the road that Petra had seen on the map, leading to the farm. It was time for me to apologise for my high-handed dismissal of the route earlier, she had been right all along. We couldn't help noticing a great number of piled twigs every now and then beside the way- I suspected that they were the remains of rhododendrons, which still infest great parts of Snowdonia- those darned Victorians and their ideas.
We passed another beudy, this one was the eponymous "Beudy Brynbont", now in ruins and being harassed by ruthless hordes of brambles. I imagined it full of Mrs Jones' furniture.
The road became steeper, then joined a road from a very plush residence, Oerddwr Isaf, a very old house which has been restored and looks very loved. Farrow and Ball paint shades were noted.
Finally, we were back on the main road which we would have to negotiate on foot, as our parking place, if you remember, had been near the bridge at Pont Aberglaslyn. The first thing of note were the remains of a slate quarry near the road- Dinas Ddu- somewhere I have often wondered about. Sadly, the mill and wheelpit have had their stone used for other things, although there is some leat work and a fine stone cutting leading to the adit. It looked too "occupied" to explore, so we didn't bother.
The road walk was a trial...a dice with death. Cars came along so quickly and often an oncoming car would brake and move out to give us a foot or so, only for the car behind to nearly run into the back of them because they were following too closely and didn't react in time. Occasionally, we had to dive into the ditch as cars started to overtake at great speed, leaving us no room. I was very glad to get back to our car!
Despite the near death experience of the road walk, it had been a great day. I can recommend the country below Moel Ddu for those who like a bit of reflection and study of ancient history in their landscapes. We'd been out for eight hours and had climbed and walked about three and a half miles, none of it seemed strenuous or difficult. And we'd hardly seen a soul, quite an achievement on an Easter weekend!
What is a Burnt Mound?
These are features of roughly crescent shape, a spread of burnt stone and charcoal, surrounding and partially overlapping an oval trough. Water would have been heated in the trough using stones heated on a fire. The stones were added to the water and, after cooling, were then thrown aside, resulting in a mound of discarded, reddened, cracked stone. Whether food was cooked in the trough or, as some have imaginatively suggested, the trough was used for bathing has not yet been firmly established.
Incidentally, if you are wondering why this place is also called Pen y Gaer, the name means "the Head of the Fort", so I guess it was a catch-all name for hillforts.
Description and photographs of Pen y Gaer on the Modern Antiquarian
A link to Petra's description of the farm on her blog, "Hinterlands"
It was Easter Saturday and the weather was perfect. Of course, that meant that the tourist hordes would be milling in their hundreds round the usual places, but Petra hatched an idea to take a look at the little-visited neolithic fort at Pen y Gaer, high up above the Aberglaslyn gorge. For some reason, neither of us had checked the route- both thinking that the other had done the homework. That wasn't actually to be the disaster that we feared, although it was far from best practice.
Once at Nantmor, it became evident that all of the folk in Manchester and Liverpool had got up early to come to Cwm Bychan...the car park was beyond full and cars were abandoned everywhere. The path at this point in the gorge resembled a long conga line. Don't get me wrong, Wales needs people to come and spend their money- I'm just glad we know a few places they don't- although perhaps one less after this :-)
Undaunted, we renegotiated the busy traffic . Petra spotted the rumour of a space opposite Aberglaslyn Hall- incredibly, there was room- and after some Reginald Molehusband* style manouevres, we managed to get the car parked completely off the road. A National Trust footpath wound up the hill directly opposite.
This was surely a sign from the gods of mining, and we wasted no time in getting the boots on and setting off. Petra muttered something about remembering a road going up, but the last time I had looked, I'd seen the path through the woods, so I didn't pay as much attention as I should. However, within a few yards, the site of a quarry pit opened up in the trees. Things were now looking promising and we dismissed any doubts we might have had about the route. We climbed on and came to a junction, where yours truly made the executive decision to take the right hand path. As we later found out, the left hand path would have taken us to the fort, but never mind, what we found later made up for that temporary disappointment.
A mine opencut appeared, looking like a trial. This boded well, and I brandished the trusty Nikon, only to find that I'd forgotten my memory card! Ugly tantrums were averted as Petra always carries a spare- what a top girl. Whilst ruminating beside the opencut we spotted some ruined buildings in the trees...the game was on!
The structures were what looked like mine offices, with some curious copper sculptures inside. It reminded me of the office at the Gamallt mine. Nearby was a fenced shaft, looking like it reached a level fifteen feet down and then carried on to the east. To the North of the shaft was an opencut which started off in a modest way, but soon became a massively deep stope, testifying to the large amount of material mined from here. We followed the stope for a few hundred yards, amazed at the depth and the work that had gone on.
I consulted my patchy memories and surmised that this must be the Aberglaslyn mine, a fascinating early copper enterprise which starts in the garden of Bridge house on the road below and continues up the hill in a series of shafts, opencuts and adits. We didn't find any open adits- the ground was difficult, being thick woodland, but I was so pleased to have found the mine- I had not imagined ever being lucky enough to see it. Below, things became very steep, and then the garden of the house precluded further exploration. Bick, in his "The Old Copper Mines of Snowdonia" has an amusing description of exploring the adit near the house in 1955, when it was in use as a larder! Bick also talks about a waterwheel pit and area for a stamps battery higher up, but these appear to have been lost in the forestry.
After exploring for an hour or so, we found an ant-free log and sat down to eat our lunch. Wood ants were swarming everywhere, intent on whatever ants do, looking busy and preoccupied. They are fascinating creatures and I spent some time watching, until a large one crawled on my hand and bit me. It was a sharp nip for such a small being, and I wondered if I was going to be assimilated into the hive mind. But nothing happened, so I gently brushed the pugilistic fellow off.
The woods were absolutely wonderful, the air full of bird song...thrushes, blackbirds, other less obvious calls- and woodpeckers, drilling away manically. It felt like the place was teeming with life. We climbed further up, hoping to find the edge of the woods and perhaps see the fort. At this point, we encountered the only other folk we were to see in the woods, a rather miserable American family who also seemed to be having memory card problems- we couldn't help overhearing their loud conversation.
Finally, the path left the woods and continued to a fascinating knoll high above the pass. This really felt like Bestall country...not surprising as the creator of the beautifully crafted illustrations in the "Rupert" annuals lived in a cottage at the foot of Mynydd Sygun near Beddgellert. I felt he must have walked here, as the scene reminded me of a puzzle in one of the books I had as a child. The view was spectacular, and took in Snowdon as well as the village of Beddgelert. There was a "tower" here, looking like a powder hut. Coflein suggests that it may have been a WW2 lookout post, but I don't really believe that. What were they looking out for? Had the germans a plan to bomb the heck out of Beddgelert and we weren't told? There was also the small matter of the hike up there. Petra noted from the rubble around the tower that something much older had once been on the site... perhaps a neolithic cairn- there are plentiful remains of prehistoric settlements here.
It might have been the right shape, but it didn't really seem like a powder hut; for one thing it was too far away from the mine. There are other mines below, notably the "Level Goch", the blocked deep adit level of which is betrayed on the road as a series of red water stains. We could also see the Bryn y Felin mine far below. Being a simple soul, only then did I join up the dots and realise the genius loci and where we were in the geographical scheme of things. That's what relying on Streetmap and online mapping will do for you, you miss the bigger picture. Petra is a Google Earth girl, so was way ahead of me. We relived our fun explore of Bryn y Felin, then watched a Welsh Highland Railway train snake through the pass below looking like an 009 model.
It was still early in the day. All around were familiar hills, blue in the warm haze- Cnicht, the Moelwyns, Moel Hebog and of course, the big boy, Snowdon- all familiar to the readers of this blog. I could almost see the mass of humanity on the summit of Snowdon in their shorts and flip-flops. We realised that our path continued on, down to Beddgelert- somewhere we had no intention of going with all those folk wandering about. Perhaps we could do a traverse across trackless country and still find the fort?
Find out what happens in the next post soon :-)
Aberglaslyn mine factoids:
Copper was known to be here by the Romans, although it is doubtful whether they ever did anything to extract it. In 1769, correspondence appears from John Griffiths of Portmadoc (sic) and Lord Powys- a year after the great discovery of copper at Parys mountain. Griffiths implores Powys to invest in the location, saying: " Your Lordship will find there the noblest vein with such prospect for profit I ever saw..." Powys was interested; his Uncle's large gambling debts needed clearing among other things.
Bick points out that at this time, the Glaslyn river was tidal at Pont Aberglaslyn, and that boats could come up and load ore almost directly from the mine. The construction of the Cob at Porthmadog in 1811 changed all that. Also, in the 1760s, there was no road through the pass. In 1810, Richard Fenton observed that a copper mine adit was being worked energetically by some "Cornish Adventurers". Afterwards, it was reported that a stamping mill had been erected. Sadly the sources do not mention where. After 1847 the mine continued only sporadically, dependant on the price of copper.
A report by a mining engineer in 1907 indicated that nothing had been done at the mine since it had been closed when in posession of J.W. Greaves, putting 25 men out of work. The mining engineer thought that the site was very favourable and that prior to his report, the site had been worked in a most primitive manner. Bick seems to think that the deep adit near the house was driven after the mine closed (?) connecting to the main workings.
The paucity of records during the entire life of the mine make it hard to guess at the output, although we know that between 1804 to 1847 only 56 tons were sold at Swansea. But genuine figures rarely reached the authorities in the early part of the C19th, so that figure is relatively meaningless.
"The Old Copper Mines of Snowdonia" David Bick, Pound House press, Newent.
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