We return to the copper mine and finish off what we started.
Last time here, we ran out of time and light. So we hiked again up the thigh-sapping mule road into Cwm Merch for another look at this fascinating mine.
This time, the weather was perfect and we didn't see a soul all day- peace reigned, except for the occasional buzzard, mewling high overhead.
It was a case of rinse, repeat until we arrived at the Cei Mulod, (mule loading platform) where Petra had a hunch that a trackway up to the higher levels might be found. She was right; it was more a feint path, but it made a great way to access the upper working areas. We were unavoidably late setting out, so the sun was already low in the sky- but it made for some wonderful photo opportunities. The first thing we saw as we climbed up was this:
It seemed a very inhospitable spot for an office, but then, the Moel Hebog mine's buildings were in a similarly uncompromising location, too. Definitely a case of "shut the door behind you"- I imagine that those mules must have brought as much coal up as copper down in winter. The smithy was a fine structure, unfortunately the hearth had collapsed in, and there must have been issues with one of the walls as a buttress had been built against the south wall.
Petra made an interesting discovery in the wall of the smithy, which we pondered about for a while. A number of holes drilled into a block, most at least six inches deep. I offered the theory that these might have been used as a sort of "Swage block" to bend hot metal. I know that it is the custom at mines to drill a hole above the hearth to commemorate comrades killed at work, but this didn't seem an auspicious location for that sort of thing- although it was at working height.
We returned back to the office, where a well defined trackway went up again to another level. Here was a surprise- a reasonably well-preserved range of buildings which could only be the barracks.
The barracks were nestled against a big quartz outcrop. Dividing walls inside had fallen down, but considering the location, this was in really good condition. The site here had originally been what looked like an intensive cobbing area, as spoil stretched over a wide, flat level- it had obviously been built up over decades of ore sorting. Not far to go to your work-place, anyway.
There was a small stream issuing from the mountain nearby, showing where the miners got their water supply. Behind, up the mountain, gaping holes showed where ore had been stoped out.
We made our way across the working area and soon came to one of the biggest stopes on the site.
It was very tempting to stay and fossick around looking for minerals on the tips- I found a chunk of what Bick describes as "Peacock ore", an almost iridescent mineral, and many fine chunks of chalcopyrite and quartz. We carried on uphill again and found more buildings on a level that had perhaps been an early working. The structures were badly degraded, almost like walliau, surrounded by heaps of cobbed waste. The exposure here was a little bit frightening, with the proximity of those deep stopes.
But the sun was getting low and I wanted us to make it back while some light prevailed, so we reluctantly retraced our steps downhill. We'd done what we'd set out to do and finished the job.
For a description of the lower areas of the mine, take a look at the first post in this series, here.
The first mine explore of 2019 finds us in the shadow of the mighty tops of Lliwedd.
It was to be a day of contradictions. The weather forecast was for 10/10 cloud and general gloom, yet as we headed for Port, Snowdon was exultant, sunlight washing over her slopes like a golden mailed coat. The damp walls of the cob sparkled cut glass highlights, lifting our spirits as we headed for Beddgelert.
However, once on the Beddgelert road, we fell in behind a gentleman who only wanted to travel at thirty mph...well, that was his top speed. If you know that road, you will understand it is impossible to overtake safely, especially as things became busy with oncoming vehicles. We resigned ourselves to travelling slowly, rather than at the 50 mph that would have felt like we were getting somewhere. At least we reasoned, we were safe behind Mr Magoo, but the winter days are so short, I felt we were squandering minutes of good light. The car behind felt that too, judging by his constant jockeying into the centre of the road and back again.
At last, the parking space for the Watkin path came up and we pulled in. Inexplicably, our sloth guide came to a halt, confused, incurring the wrath of the other drivers. Eventually he pulled away- we will never know what made him pause. Perhaps he was reliving memories of his youth, of triumphant climbs, sun-kissed ascents of the mighty ridges around Yr Wyddfa.
Then we discovered that we had no change for the car park. We would need £5.00. Petra turned the car and found a space on the opposite side, normally infested with cars, but today beautifully clear: free parking! I don't mind paying if the proceeds go to the Snowdonia national park; we just didn't have any change with us. We are a little disorganised sometimes.
We started up the climb to just below the Hafod y Llan mill, where we would turn up and join the steep mule track to the Lliwedd copper mine. We'd wanted to do this for a while but had been beaten back by my dodgy route finding and bad weather. This time, we told ourselves...
The weather was still beautiful. We left the Watkin path at SH6247251402 for a rough track that leads to a ruined hafod. We carried on past that and eventually reached the falls at SH6229251668, where a party of six folk in their twenties were enjoying life, shouting, taking selfies. Oh, to be young again. We negotiated the narrow slab bridge over the Afon Cwm Llan and started the hard slog up the mule track. We stopped by a beautiful stand of pines, bathed in sunshine, with glorious views. Coffee was brought out. Despite the fine brew, my spirits sank a little as I realised from the screams and whoops filling the air, that the youngsters we'd heard at the falls were coming up here too. I was a little annoyed, we come out to the wild places for peace and quiet...you expect folk to make some noise, but this was a little over the top. Never mind, live and let live.
They stopped by us and asked if this was the way "to the top". Petra told them that we were headed for the mine, so we didn't know. But that it wasn't the way up Snowdon. No matter, the boys told us, they just wanted to "be in the clouds". Their female companions didn't look quite so enthusiastic. But they all went off uphill, singing and shouting and goofing about. It was lunchtime, so we broke out some sandwiches and hoped that they had gone well ahead, although we could still hear them shouting and singing.
I tried not to be like Victor Meldrew as I noted that all the gates had been left open along the way. We came to a place at SH6286252167 where to my dismay, the troupe were all gathered. It was about now that I noticed they were ill-equipped for the mountain, with expensive fashion trainers and flimsy lightweight coats over T shirts. I felt a little over-dressed with my three layers on and big boots, not to mention a rucksac full of nosh. They were a likeable bunch, though, and full of enthusiasm and malarkey. They asked about the way up again -I said, again, that we didn't know, but that it was bound to be gnarly and rather cold. I think they thought we were trying to put them off, as they immediately set off up to Y Lliwedd East Peak. One of the boys and his girl friend lingered, looking worried, and asked for a sip of water. I gave them one of our bottles.
We set off along the mule track, relieved that now, we had the place to ourselves, although we could still hear yells from above us, "in the clouds" now. The mule track here is really well engineered and made a beautiful alpine walk. It became very cold up here on the slopes of the mountain- goodness knows what it was like on the ridge. We put on extra clothing and carried on. Mist was moving in, then being burnt off by the sun- it was delightful. We passed a very compact trial adit to our left- afterwards I found that there was an adit below the track, but neither of us noticed it in our excitement. We were finally going to reach the mine!
The track wound on, climbing slowly now from the 400m contour. After a while, we had our first view of the mine. It was even more impressive than the photographs I had seen. Unfortunately, our enjoyment was spoilt a little by feint shouts from high above, up on the ridge which sounded if they might have been screams for help. We looked up- the terrain here was impossible for a couple of old farts like us, without ropes and climbing gear -and it was uncertain what assistance we could offer anyway. We don't have a mobile phone either. We stood for a while, worrying about the kids, wondering what to do. . Then I distinguished a few shouts which seemed more like whoops, and decided that it was just their irrepressable high spirits again.
We resumed our explorations, happily photographing the mine and the remains- no wonder the scrap man didn't want to retrieve all the metal here, it had been quite a trek- I could only imagine what this place would have been like to work, in the kind of weather that Snowdon throws at you. In front of the crusher building, with it's wheelpit, there was a "cobbing floor" where Bick* says that women and children worked, hammering the ore and reducing it.
Below was another waterwheel which appeared to be unfinished- perhaps the ore ran out as it was being built? There was a fine number of artefacts, from parts of the waterwheel, big castings and cog-wheels, down to rusty fragments of mine carts. There was also what I thought might be an incline, built with stone sides and a floor. Then, I realised that this was an ore chute from an adit above.
Petra had spotted a track, back along the path which appeared to go to another level, so we headed back and climbed up, to find a beautifully buttressed level area. One end was almost like a turning circle- I wondered if a horse-whim had been here. The level led to an area of tips, rich red in colour, with ruined shelters around. Then, in a hollow between the tips, we spotted the adit! It was a beauty, well-cut into the rock, although painfully low for someone of 6'2". We hadn't brought tripods, but the flash photos give an idea of how fine the place was. There were rails still on the floor, underneath six inches or so of water-and sleepers. The rail was "Top Hat" or "Bridge" rail, resting in proper chairs. It must have lain here for 120 years at least. It seemed to be of a peculiar gauge, 18" -and when Bick* visited in the 1950s, he reported a couple of carts in the adit. We walked in slowly from rock to rock, as we somehow hadn't expected an adit and we didn't have our waterproof booties with us. The adit carried on for quite a way and we were hopeful that it might connect with the stopes high above, but we were somewhat disappointed when it ended in a blind forehead.
Inside the main adit
As I was coming out of the adit I spotted the couple to whom we had given a bottle of water earlier. The girl in particular looked freaked; they told me they had just descended from the ridge down to the mine- in the mist. I didn't mention the cavernous, deep stopes that they could have stumbled into. I looked up and couldn't imagine coming down there in a pair of smooth soled shoes. They asked if there was a way down from the mine and Petra showed them how to get back on the track. The boy mentioned that the others were OK, but he and his girl had lost their nerve. The boy was very solicitous towards his girlfriend, who looked like she never wanted to go outside again. They were pitifully grateful for our meagre assistance and after a while, walked off down the track.
I must say that despite our enthusiasm and delight at the mine, the day was shaded by the kids- irritation had turned to worry about them and I wondered if we should have done more, or if we could have persuaded them of their folly. Selfishly, we had just wanted the place to ourselves, to be rid of their noise. Perhaps we should have been more hard core about their lack of equipment and experience- they were the sort of folks that give the mountain rescue people the wilts and vapours.
We walked back along the track- there were no shouts now. Only the wind moaning through the grass and the occasional bird punctuated the blessed peace of our descent, although I noticed that the gates were all open again- the noisy party had obviously returned this way!
David Bick, in his wonderful "The Old Copper Mines of Snowdonia" describes the site well. The mine was begun in the latter part of the C17, but production didn't amount to much until after 1838, when 1090 tons of ore were sold at Swansea. The mine produced steadily- the stopes are a testament to that- until production slowly tailed off towards the end of the 1860s. There was a small-scale attempt to re-open the mine in 1910; Bick describes talking with a man who had once worked the mine. There was no mechanisation then, the ore was picked and sorted, then taken on mules down to Porthmadog and on to Swansea by sea.
That there was such a lot of machinery out here, literally miles away from anywhere, is worthy of note. I shudder at the thought of the poor animals who had to drag the heavy cogs and rollers up those terrible, steep paths.
Rather poignantly, Bick notes that perhaps a partial restoration of the machinery might be accomplished, an idealistic thought in these days. He says "...I do not think any other mine in Wales epitomises to a greater extent the determination and spirit of the "old men" and it would be a fitting memorial if something could be done to save the site, remote though it is."
Sadly, I don't think that was ever a practical proposition, but now the mine lies slowly sinking back to nature, beautiful in it's decline. It is yet a "fitting memorial" to those hardy souls who opened and worked it.
*Bick, David, "The Old Copper Mines of Snowdonia" published by the Pound House, ISBN 0 906885 03 5. Out of print, but copies can still be found in good secondhand book shops.
**Hawarden Bridge Iron Works was established in 1895-6 by John Summers & Sons of Stalybridge, on a 6ha site on the north bank of the river Dee, adjacent to the Great Central’s railway line north of Shotton and Connah’s Qay. The works expanded, producing its own steel by the open hearth process from 1902, when it became known as Hawarden Bridge Steel Works. The steelworks continued to develop, becoming Shotton Steelworks and covering an area of around 470 ha.
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