Another look at the tramway and pit at the South Snowdon Slate Quarry...
Cwm y Llan, or South Snowdon quarry is a large site in a very exposed location. Reading Gwynfor Pierce Jones' account of the trials and tribulations of the works manager, Pierce Davies (formerly foreman of Moelwyn Mawr slate quarry) leaves one in no doubt of the local difficulties. He kept a diary which has entries such as:
"Feb 22: Great gale damages buildings...
January 1884: entire forge carried away by weather...
Aug 22: Big Weather halts work, forced to open lake..."
The day we visited, the elements were distinctly hostile towards the quarry, as can be seen from the photos. But, despite all that the weather could throw at the place, they did at least manage to produce some slate. Inclines and tunnels were driven as the pit grew ever deeper; many of these can still be seen today. The mill was set up on a lower level, on a base of tipped slate waste, although it seems hardly any more sheltered than anywhere else. The quarry was the biggest producer in the Beddgelert area, although that isn't really saying much- it certainly never produced enough slate to justify the expenditure on the infrastructure.
A waterwheel was installed and two reservoirs higher up the cwm, above the site. It must have been difficult to find enough water so near the watershed. The thick walls of these still survive. There are remains of two other buildings, possibly mills higher up the site, used before the lower mill came on stream.
The exit tramway makes a fine stroll; it is well built and spacious- there are a couple of bridges using big slabs, and revetments all along the way. As we walked away, the weather became steadily brighter until the view down Nant Gwynant was almost spring like. A glance back to where we had come, however, showed that the weather gods had not finished with Cwm y Llan.
If you wish to have a feeling for the history of the quarries surrounding the WHR, I can recommend "Cwm Gwyrfai" by Gwynfor Pierce Jones and Alun John Richards. The scale of GPJ's research is impressive and he really brings the quarries alive. One name which crops up in the writing is Alan Searell, a Devon man who, as far as I can see, was some kind of over-manager for a number of mines, of which Cwm y Llan was but one. Like many men of those times, he was possessed of super-human capabilities, for he thought nothing of walking to Porthmadog to get the wages, for instance. When he left Cwm y Llan for Cwmorthin, because of the irregular payment of wages and the lack of weatherproofing of his house, he came back several times to consult for McKellar, the leasee, saying "It is but a walk of 2hrs from the Snowdon quarries" ! It seems that Searell was a decent man always trying to fight the men's corner with wages and bargains agains McKellar who invariably wanted Searell to get work done on "acceptable terms" (cheaper).
It's good that we have so much information about the human side of this enterprise as, although it is a fascinating site, knowing the struggles and epic weather endured brings it to life when you walk the slopes of the quarry. I often wonder what happened to the men, their lives for the most part undocumented, save for the slabs on the waste heaps, or a fine bit of stonework on a drumhouse or mill. They were a hardy breed.
And yet...this wasn't the end for the South Snowdon Slate Works. Although the site officially closed when abandoned in 1889, and the track of the tramway was lifted in 1913, there were some small-scale attempts to revitalise it.
The first and most determined was in the 1930s-40s, by William Pritchard of Rhosgadfan. He installed some probably secondhand machinery in the mill and re-roofed part of it with corrugated iron. One of the saw tables is now preserved in the National Slate Museum.
Later, in the 1960s, another attempt was made, to fashion useable slate from the blocks of the barracks. This was carried out by Dafydd Williams of Llanlyfni, who barrowed the slate down to a temporary stockyard near the waterfall. Unfortunately, one weekend, walkers threw the entire stock of slate into the river. As GPJ puts it: "after that, they gave up..." At least we still have the barracks and it hasn't been reduced to damp proof course slates as happened at Glanrafon, for instance.
"Cwm Gwyrfai", ISBN 0-86381-897-8
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