The second of my occasional photographic wanders around Cwmorthin, this time focussing on the chapels. Yes, there are two!
The first needs no introduction and is almost, in the current parlance, an "iconic" feature. Capel Rhosydd (also known as Capel y Gorlan and Capel Conglog), is a gaunt shape sited by the track where the tramway diverts across the fields, behind a slate slab fence. It hasn't always looked so neglected. Many local folk remember the chapel with a roof (some even profess to know who stole the slates).
Given that the quarrymen at Cwmorthin were for the most part a civilised, educated and god-fearing band of workers, it isn't surprising that a chapel was built for the families and children as well as the men themselves. The building was paid for, not by the quarry company (of course not, why would they do that?) but by subscription from the men themselves, costing between two and three hundred pounds.
A school for the children of the quarrymen in the valley was founded in 1855 by Thomas Jones and Griffith Evans, based in Cwmorthin Uchaf farmhouse, although the accomodation was less than satisfactory. It found a permanent home at the chapel in 1867.
I won't plagiarise the excellent research done by Cofio Cwmorthin, but refer the interested reader to their site for much more detail on the chapel. Suffice to say that the chapel has appeared on book covers, calendars, numerous web sites and albums and is a much-loved landmark.
It's something of a milestone for me, as I usually have a cup of coffee from my flask, sitting in the shelter of the walls, when returning from an expedition in the cwm. On my most recent visit, I had intended to go up the flanks of Foel Ddu, and had followed a track marked on the map, going up the slopes to the north of the chapel. This was obviously a right of way remembered by the OS, but in 1890- before Rhosydd had started tipping so energetically. By now, it had become more of a scramble/severe climb near the top. At this point the wind was so fierce that I could hardly stand! I ended up wandering around the relative shelter of Rhosydd that day.
But back in the chapel on my return, I sat and savoured my flask of "Grumpy Mule", listening to the wind howling round the walls. It was hard to imagine the bank of pews, or the minister giving a sermon amid the ruins and yet, there was something of an atmosphere. I've mentioned Jan Fortune's poems about the cwm before now, and her lines about the wind singing hymns in the walls was never more true. I felt somehow as if I had been granted asylum for a small time, out of the wind which was now becoming very strong indeed. A party of walkers passed outside, bent like soft alloy against the forces of nature, yet there I was, sipping coffee like a gent. Luckily, no stones fell off on me, and I walked out into the gale, the elements harrying me down the cwm and out to the car park for the short drive home.
The second chapel is an interesting one. It predates Capel Rhosydd by a year and was built to hold a hundred devout souls. It must have been a tight squeeze, because that seems an optimistic estimate to me. Capel Tiberias, as it was known, was an independent congregational chapel, built at the same time as the cottages of Tai Llyn, the barracks at the threshold of the cwm. There are no records as to how it was funded, but it was used by Cwmorthin and Wrysgan men and their families as far as I can ascertain. There is still a reasonably defined track leading to it and it holds a good position in a sheltered lee of the hillside. These days it is little more than a pile of stones and no photographs have yet been discovered showing how it might have looked during it's use.
Some Further reading:
Cofio Cwmorthin Remembered
Some interesting photographs on my learned colleague Alen Mcfadzean's blog, "Because they're there"
Grateful thanks to Dave Linton for permission to use his photographs of Capel Rhosydd in the eighties.
Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Cwmorthin by Jan Fortune and Mavis Gulliver, Cinnamon Press, ISBN 978-1-909077-24-9
I am lucky to live less than five minutes away from the car park, yet in the last ten years I have only visited Cwmorthin a handful of times.
Couple of years ago, the message boards of AditNow had been afire for five minutes because a new group had sprung up: "Cofio Cwmorthin Remembered". They were an informal bunch of like-minded folk who wished to conserve and study the cwm. People as far away as Birmingham got very opinionated. Footpaths were mooted, and interpretation boards.
There was a modest grant awarded to the group and some people had definite ideas on how that should be spent. The like-minded folk of Cofio Cwmorthin just got on with doing good things like conserving crumbling structures, making proper archaeological studies- and publishing what they had found on the web.
I still didn't visit. The last time, it was a Sunday and I remembered that the place was crawling with folk in co-ordinated walking gear, camo-clad mine explorers and off-road trail bikers. There was no peace, as the two strokers tore up the silence like an unacceptable ransom offer. There were children, too, with their parents- enjoying the paths and exploring the old miner's houses, eating sandwiches and drinking pop. That last bit made me smile. Perhaps this old curmudgeon wasn't entirely turned to stone after all.
There's some good literature out there about the place. Jan Fortune, John Davies and the late Gwyn Thomas have all written poems about the cwm, evoking various interpretations and feelings. Every one of them left me with a particular image that resonated. There's Graham Isherwood's masterwork about the quarry and Lewis and Denton's magnum opus about Rhosydd, both as rare as hen's teeth, but worth selling the family silver for. Celia Hancock and M.J.T. Lewis have written a small but powerful history of Conglog Slate Quarry, at the end of the cwm. Then there's the excellent Cofio Cwmorthin website.
So, one chill morning in the depths of winter, I took my camera out for a walk up there, thinking to take some shots in the bright unseasonal sunlight. There was nobody about. Just a few ravens and a farm dog freelancing up on the hill. Since then, I have been returning two or three times a week in different weather conditions, making up for ignoring the place, turning it into something of a project. Because there's no half measures with me, either I'm not interested, or I'm all over it.
Anyway, for the next year or so, interspersed with normal transmissions (and there are a lot of those, if I can just get round to finishing them) there will be articles and photos about various features of Cwmorthin. A modest attempt, for better (or more likely worse), to document the place.
Cwmorthin sits like a drop of sunlit dew in a morning spider's web , a magical hanging valley above Tan y Grisiau; deserted of human habitation but not of memories. Two-strokers run out of fuel eventually, or get bored and go home. Mine explorers eventually stop shouting and dive underground. Everyone has the right to enjoy the place and find whatever it means to them.
Gwyn Thomas called it a "cup of loneliness". John Davies thought it "hung, cracked in Blaenau's draughty rafters" while to Jan Fortune, the "winds whined hymns that haunt the Sheepfold still..."
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