21 Dec, 2018
Ernest is a journal for enquiring minds. It's made for those who value surprising and meandering journeys, fuelled by curiosity rather than adrenaline, and guided by chance encounters. It is a repository for wild ideas, curious artefacts and genuine oddities, replete with tales of pioneers, invention and human obsession.
Ernest is founded on the principles of slow journalism. They value honesty, integrity and down-to-earth storytelling - and a good, long read now and then.
Words: Abigail Whyte // Photos: Colin Nicholls
I look around me and it’s everywhere. That clattery, splintering grey stuff spewing down mountain slopes, or neatly arranged in the roadside walls. As we drive through hamlets, it marks people’s graves, and decorates their gardens. And of course, it roofs their houses.
For four centuries, Snowdonia roofed the world with its supreme slate, quarried from the uplands by wiry men wielding little more than chisels, rope and black powder. They blasted craters out of the mountains, while creating mountains of waste in their wake. Two of the largest quarries in the world were Dinorwig and Penrhyn, five miles apart in neighbouring valleys, each employing 3,000 men at their zenith in the late 19th century. After that, decline set in, with cheaper imports and two world wars taking their toll. I squint up at the abandoned Dinorwig quarry as we near the end of the Llanberis Pass, which skirts the lake of Llyn Peris. While it undoubtedly dominates the southwest slopes of Elidir Fawr above the tourist town of Llanberis, the quarry masks itself well; the purple-grey of its terraces and inclines blending seamlessly into the mountainside and waste tips beneath.
“In northwest Wales, the physical presence of slate is obvious – the quarries, the waste tips, the railways and so on – but there’s more to it than that,” Dr Dafydd Roberts tells me when we, photographer Colin and I, arrive at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis.“There’s a subliminal presence of slate in these communities. It seeps into our being. It’s part of what we are, our foundation, our outlook, our values.”
Dafydd comes from a long line of slate miners; his great-grandfather and grandfather having worked at nearby quarries:“Lots of people who live here have a connection to the slate industry. It’s something we’re all still very aware of, not just as a thing of the past, but something that’s still here.”
From the museum, we climb a path that zigzags up a waste tip towards Anglesey Barracks: two rows of slate cottages that housed labourers from Anglesey during their working week. Dafydd explains that the men would have had to leave their homes at 4am, catch the ferry across the Menai Strait, then climb this very path to work fora 7.30am start, a week’s worth of food on their backs. After their day’s work they’d head to their barracks where they’d cook, eat and sleep, then work on the quarry for the next six days, finishing work at lunchtime on Saturday before journeying home to be with their families for a day of rest. Come Monday morning, it was time to catch the ferry again to the toil of the pits.
On reaching the barracks I’m struck by their symmetry: two neat rows of 11 single-storey cottages creeping with hart’s tongue fern, the roofs picked clean by pilferers decades ago. A couple of the front door frames have been deftly etched with the dweller’s name and their home village or town. As we peer into each cottage one by one, Dafydd describes the daily lives of these men, nicknamed moch Môn – ‘Anglesey Pigs’ – by the other workers.They were given the lower-grade jobs; perceived as so desperate for work to have travelled all this way that surely they’d do anything demanded of them. Life was tough – the spring would freeze in winter, fuel was sparse and sanitation was poor.
“There are stories of how flea-ridden these houses were,” Dafydd says,“That the fleas would gather on the doorstep on a Monday morning, waiting for the men to come back.”
Dafydd shows us the shell of the pay office, where the workers would line up once a month to collect their pay tins. There is still a row of cantilevered stones above the outer wall, which sheltered the men from wind and rain as they inched closer to the pay window. We walk up to a wire fence, beyond which we can see an incline – raised railroads once used for transporting slate down the mountain – leading up to the abandoned terraces. There are a couple of campers pitched next to it, giving us sideways glances while brushing their teeth.“Beyond here is the hydropower station. Private land,” Dafydd says, quietly. “People do go in, though.”
Before we head back down the slate path, we stop to take in the view of the twin lakes below, Dolbadarn Castle and the steam train puffing its way up to the summit of Snowdon. Dafydd points out where quarries on the neighbouring mountains used to dump their waste into Llyn Padarn, forming shoreline slate promontories now cloaked with trees. Even the old tips we’re walking on are shrouded with writhing oaks, bent double and stunted by the wind. “Man has done his best and his worst here, but nature eventually takes over,” he says.
Back in Llanberis, after a look around the museum – housed in Dinorwig’s grand workshop, where all the quarrymen’s tools and machinery were made and serviced – Dafydd leaves Colin and I to our own devices. We’re tired and hungry, but both thinking of that flimsy wire boundary on the mountain. We don’t feel done with Dinorwig quite yet. We know we can get up to those lonely quiet terraces far above the busy town, but it will involve a bit of jumping the velvet rope.
The sun beginning to fall, we set off, climbing the Minffordd road above Llyn Padarn. Looking at them side on, Dinorwig’s terraces are now unmistakable, glinting and towering over us like Mexico’s Pyramid of the Sun. We park in a lay-by and follow a path initially popular with dog walkers, but the numbers dwindle as we venture further into the quarry. Save a dozen shaggy mountain goats that walk along a wall next to us, we’re alone – a 700- acre slate playground at our feet.
We climb through a wire fence and wander into a dead-end ravine. I picture a quarryman picking at the rockface, suspended from a single rope wrapped around his thigh.The walls are now a ‘join-the-dots’ game of rock-climbing bolts, the route names and grades scratched into propped-up bits of slate. I dabble in indoor climbing at home, but all I feel is vertigo as I gaze up the sheer faces, which, to me, look impossible to scale.
Back on the main path, we walk to the foot of an incline of the ‘Australia’ pit, the largest pit in the quarry, barricaded by another wire fence that’s been warped by previous invaders. Though steep, the incline seems almost made for climbing; a ready-made route lined with a thick rusty cable that dangles above us like Rapunzel’s braid. These cables, wound by drums at the top of each incline, once hauled empty wagons up to the terraces to be filled with freshly- cut and dressed slate, then lowered down to awaiting trains, where they’d be transported to the coast and beyond.
The wagons now lie upturned on the heather-clad waste heaps; railroads fragmented; winding drums unturned for decades – cackled at by a resident chough. We stop to rest and drink water in the shadow of a blast hut, listening to goats clatter on the slate above us, and the throb of the hydro power station deep inside the mountain.
After a lung-burning ascent, we clamber around the final winding drum and its collapsed roof to reach the top terrace – the G’day Level. I stand close to the shelf edge to gaze out over the vast quarry and its descending levels. Tram roads bridge unnerving gaps and iron ladders descend into nothing.
The ramshackle slate mill on G’day Level still stands; the blades of its 36 saw tables dulling and rusting day by day. The mighty steam boiler and compressor that powered the mill now lie silent in a shed filled with goats’ droppings.
We spend an hour pacing the length of the terrace, but the setting sun and encroaching clouds warn us it’s time to star t making our descent. It’s far easier climbing the inclines than walking down them; the steepness of the gradient and slipperiness of the slate making us sidestep like crabs. Snowdon is a flickering light show across the lake; its outcrops and fissures illuminated one second, in shadow the next.
It’s night by the time we get to our campsite on the northern shore of Llyn Gwynant. It takes me a while to get to sleep; my mind disturbed by gravity defying, evil-eyed mountain goats.
Read more in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now, here.