TODAY is a day for rolling mossy boulders that have settled in the valleys of the mind and liberating old memories. Strange things memories – we’ve been down this road before. They twist, they mutate, they tell lies. Today I’ve unearthed a new variety – the memories you didn’t think you possessed; they have faded completely from the conscious mind. But when one of those mossy boulders is rolled away, they float from the ground like pale ghosts . . .
My day begins on a windy pass to the west of Capel Curig, with rain drumming the car roof and mist down to ground level. I’m in a land called Wales and it’s a country I’m not familiar with. At least, at this point, I think I’m not. My plan to climb Carnedd Llewelyn and Carnedd Dafydd is a non-starter. I wouldn’t send a dog out into that weather.
Plan B. I drive to Blaenau Ffestiniog, searching for a place where, during the early 1980s, a group of Cumbrian cavers – myself included – paddled rubber dinghies, swam, floundered and waded through a series of flooded slate mines from one side of a mountain to the other.
This is the sort of thing, you might suggest, that should stick in your memory – and I would certainly agree. The experience was memorable. What evades recollection is the name of the place and its location. The only other memory that remains clear is that in the great, bleak emptiness of a Welsh valley, where no roads have ever penetrated, was the ruin of a Methodist chapel. (Click on pictures for high-res versions)
So I drive around Blaenau Ffestiniog on a wet Saturday morning and spy a signpost pointing towards Tanygrisiau – and that rolls a mossy boulder out of the way in the land of Forgetfulness. I glance at my Ordnance Survey map and discover my valley – Cwmorthin. I say it out loud: “Cwmorthin.” And the memories begin sliding from the shadows.
Let me tell you about Eric Holland. In September 1979 I turned up at my old school, Dowdales Comprehensive in Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, to enrol in a night-school class on mining history. The lecturer was this somewhat eccentric 46-year-old in a herdwick sweater who had left home to train as a mine surveyor at Point of Ayr colliery in Flintshire, jacked it in to enlist in the Royal Engineers, saw action in Malaya, joined a tin mining company in Malaya on leaving the army, then had a series of fantastical adventures before returning to his native Furness to publish books on potholing.
Eric was a larger-than-life bloke who liked a pint and a good laugh. As it happened, his night-school class failed to take off because Margaret Thatcher had just come to power and raised the night-school fees from £3.50 for as many classes as you wished to sign up for, to £7 for each and every course. Not many people remember that – but I certainly do. It was the first of the grocer’s daughter’s many attacks on ordinary people and it killed off non-vocational night-school classes at a stroke.
Don’t get me going, because I’ve been such a good boy since the day the old girl departed for a warmer place. To tell you the truth, I had an extremely bitter blog post ready to upload the moment she expired. But when she actually went, I decided that I inhabit a higher moral plane than any she would have ever aspired to. Grace won the day and I deleted the post.
Getting back to the subject: Eric and I became friends, and before the year was out he’d gathered a group of like-minded people around him and the Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society was inaugurated in the ramshackle Tudor manor house he shared with his partner and a traction engine.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Eric devised a plan to sail or swim through a series of flooded slate mines in Wales and emerge at a different point from that of entry. He’d been monitoring the water level slowly rising over the years and reckoned that by Easter the conditions would be perfect for crossing these hellish flooded voids and taking advantage of a tunnel system that was roughly at the level the water had reached. If this sounds a bit haphazard it’s because it was. All Eric’s schemes were of this madcap variety. Surprisingly, nearly all were successful. Quite how none of us was ever killed I’ll never know.
So one sunny day during Easter 1982 we set off up Cwmorthin in our wellies and caving gear, lugging two inflatable dinghies and bags of rope past the lonesome ruins of a Methodist chapel, and on the crest of a ridge we entered a tunnel into the overwhelming darkness of a Welsh mountain, spent eight hours sloshing, swimming, gurgling, paddling and spluttering through inky black water, and emerged into a golden evening gazing down on a valley that looked completely different to the one we’d walked up. Eric had been right. Hats off.
Today, Cwmorthin is cold and windy, with squalls rolling in from the west in grey curtains. I reach the ruined chapel, but it seems smaller and bleaker than I recall. I’ve also remembered the names of the slate mines. We entered Rhosydd and emerged at Croesor. Quite unexpectedly, this impromptu walk has become a journey of rediscovery.
There are ruined quarrymen’s cottages in Cwmorthin, as there are in many of these valleys. They are tiny and crude – and I have no doubt that each of these miniscule and insanitary hovels housed large families. Some probably housed more than one family. The ruins look ancient. But there are people alive today who were brought up in places like these.
My mood is darkening as I climb the fellside to the ruins of Rhosydd mine. Thirty years ago I saw this place as a land of sunshine and adventure. Today I am moved by the poverty and harsh conditions in which people were forced to live. As it happens, I’ve just started to read a book by Hassan Mahamdallie on William Morris, and there’s a quotation right at the start in which Morris sums up the root of poverty in one word: profit.
It is profit . . . which condemns all but the rich to live in houses idiotically cramped and confined at the best, and at the worst in houses for whose wretchedness there is no name.
The people who lived here possessed skills. They wrested stone from the earth; they rived it into roofing slates; they built waterwheel pits, reservoirs, dams, pipelines, launders, houses, barracks, roads, saw sheds, tramlines and inclines – and their reward was more work and unforgiving poverty.
Up at Rhosydd, in a post-industrial landscape of ruined barracks, tumbled waterwheel pits and rusty iron, I eat my lunch and shelter from the rain. The men who toiled up here produced the materials to roof London and most of the nation’s conurbations. Now their world is being worn down by the elements and reclaimed by nature, like an Inca city in a faraway jungle. Soon these places will have been forgotten except by malcontents who spend their time writing blogs on the subject.
And now it’s time to reintroduce an almost forgotten concept to this website – fell walking. Geared up, I head out into the rain and complete what is almost, but not quite, a horseshoe of the fells surrounding Cwmorthin, skirting the upper reaches of the massive Oakeley quarries before descending in sunshine to the waters of Llyn Cwmorthin. It’s an invigorating walk. And I notice, glancing west, that the big lumpy mountains of the Snowdon range, the Glyders and Carneddau, are still lost in great banks of swirling black cloud.
So Plan B was one decision that turned out for the best. Croeso i Gymru, as it says on the road signs – welcome to Wales. There’s more of this to come.
Supplementing the dodgy memories from the underground trip is a set of slides taken in 1980 and 1982 on my faithful Zenit E . . . or was it my Praktica LTL3? I can’t remember. I’ve reproduced them here simply because they will never be reproduced elsewhere.
Rhosydd to Croesor Underground – 1982
THE first couple of pictures were taken during Easter 1980 on a preliminary expedition. The chapel was in much better condition in those days – with a roof and walls that were not tumbling down. It’s surprising what 33 years of weather and wear can do to a ruin.
This is the team that sailed and spluttered through the workings during Easter 1982. From the left, Christopher D Jones, Colin Horne (crouching), Dave Blundell, Mark Wickenden, Max Dobie and Eric Holland.
Descending an underground inclined tramway to the water. The bottom levels of the mine were deep beneath the surface of the water, the top levels way above our heads. According to memory, our route was through a series of tunnels and chambers somewhere in the middle. But you know what my memory is like . . .