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Driving - North Wales Slate & Copper


Slate has been quarried in North Wales for over 1800 years. The Romans who lived in Segontium (Caernarfon) used slate from local quarries to build their forts. In the 13th century King Edward I of England built a series of castles along the North Wales coast and used slate form the Conwy Valley in their construction.

However, up until the 18th century, the slate industry was only operated on a small scale. It was the Industrial Revolution that caused the great demand for slate, which was used to roof the mills, factories and houses being built across Britain.

The slate industry in North Wales developed rapidly, with capital being invested by wealthy English businessmen. The Assheton-Smith family from Cheshire owned Dinorwic Quarry, while Richard Penrhyn developed the Penrhyn Quarry at Besthesda. In the second half of the 19th century they were the two largest slate quarries in the world and between them employed over 3000 men.

Of all the slate quarried in the United Kingdom, Wales produced over four-fifths. Production reached a peak in 1898 when 17,000 men produced 485, 000 tons of slate. As a result of the massive expansion, small villages were transformed into towns and railways were constructed to transport the slate down to the seaports.

North Wales was also rich in other natural resources, with lead, silver, gold and copper all being mined in the area. During the late 18th century Parys Mountain on Anglesey was one of the biggest copper mines in the world.

By following the North Wales Slate and Copper Trail you can ride on a narrow gauge steam railway that used to transport the slate to the port. Then you can see how the slate was extracted from both open quarries and underground mines as well as exploring the workings of an early copper mine.

1. Ffestiniog Railway

In the 18th century, slate that was quarried around the mountains of Blaenau Ffestiniog was taken by pack horse down to the River Dwyryd. The slate was then transported down stream on shallow-drift boats, where it would be loaded onto to sea bound ships. As well as being a time-consuming process, the amount of slate that could be transported via this method confined slate quarrying in the area to small scale operations.

In 1830, one of these slate quarriers Samuel Holland, joined with a young businessman Henry Archer to promote a railway that would transport the slate down the mountainside. In 1832 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow the construction of the Ffestiniog Railway. The route was surveyed by James Spooner and crossed over the "Cob". The Cob was constructed some years earlier by William Maddock to connect the land either side of the Dwyryd estuary. Until then, traffic had had to cross at the River Glaslyn which meant a long detour inland. The construction of the Cob also had another advantage in that diverted the River Glaslyn to form a natural inland harbour that could be accessed by large sailing ships. I became known as Port Madoc (Porthmadog) after its founder.

The railway wagons were loaded with slate from the quarries and ran down the track to the Port Madoc by gravity. Horses were then used to pull the empty slate wagons back up to the quarries. On the way down they would rest and feed in "dandy" carts.

A 23½ inch gauge was used on the railway to correspond with the track used in the quarries. This narrow gauge was wide enough for the horses to be able to pull the slate wagons up the mountainside, but small enough to negotiate the tight bends of the descent.

The railway meant that slate could be transported quicker and more economically, which lead to the expansion of quarrying operations in the area. Soon the horse and gravity method used on the railway was finding it hard to cope with the increased slate traffic. It was proposed that steam locomotives should be used on the track, but two problems were apparent. Firstly steam locomotives had never been used on a narrow gauge track and secondly, it was illegal to carry passengers on a track narrower than the 4ft 8inch standard gauge of the time.

The impetus to overcome these problems came from Charles Easton Spooner, who took control of the railway in 1856. Charles was the son of James Spooner, who had initially surveyed the route, and in 1860 he commissioned a number of new small locomotives to be built by George England and Company of London.

Two of these began carrying slate in October 1863 and two more came into service in 1864. It was during this year that the railway became the first to be given permission to carry passengers on a narrow gauge line. Four wheel carriages where used to transport the passengers, who had to sit back-to-back to keep the centre of weight as low as possible, and some of these unique vehicles survive as part of the railway's valued heritage.

Further engines were introduced into service as the slate traffic increased, but it became apparent that the single track was insufficient to cope with the demand. In 1869 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow the railway to build a second line. This however was going to be very costly for the railway to implement and instead the problem was solved by the ingenuity of the engineer Robert Fairlie. His revolutionary design was a powerful double-bogie engine that could pull longer trains and still cope with the tight corners of the track.

The design looked like two locomotives back-to-back but it was in fact, one long rigid boiler with a central firebox and drive position. Each end of the boiler was mounted on a swivelling powered bogie, the same principle being used in most of today's modern diesel and electric locomotives. This new design of locomotive was know as the Double-Fairlie. The original design was improved upon over the years and the railway built a number of new locomotives in its Boston Lodge workshop.

By the 1870s the standard gauge railway had expanded into the heart of Wales and Blaenau Ffestiniog was soon connected to the main line. This meant that slate could be loaded directly onto the standard gauge trains and transported across the country. This signalled the decline in slate traffic on the Ffestiniog Railway, because there was no need to run the slate down to the port.

However, the introduction of the main line into the area did have some benefits. It increased the amount of visitors to the region, and with the decline in slate trade, the summer tourist trade became the mainstay of the railway by the early 1900s.

During the Second World War, a small amount of slate traffic continued on the line, but after the war ended there was no money to renovate the dilapidated track and rolling stock. The Ffestiniog Railway was closed in 1946. Everything was left were it stood, open to the elements, vandals and souvenir hunters.

In the early 1950s a group of volunteers set up the Ffestiniog Railway Company with the aim of reopening the railway and rebuilding the track up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. By 1955 they had a service running from Porthmadog Station across the Cob to Boston Lodge. In 1956 it reached Minffordd and by 1958 it was running to Tan-y-Bwlch.

It was during this time of the railway's development that a scheme was proposed to build a Hydro Electric Power Station near Tanygrisiau. This posed a problem for the railway as the site of the lower estuary would submerge part of the route up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Despite their protests, compulsory purchase of the line went ahead.

The company was determined to be able to reopen the line up to Blaenau Ffestiniog and it formulated an ambitious plan. Firstly, it would reopen the line up to Ddault, the last stop before the reservoir, and by establishing its commercial and tourist value it would prove that it had a legitimate claim for compensation. Secondly, it would reinstate the line around the reservoir, but it was not until 1962 that they decided how this could be done.

A route was surveyed, on the east side of the reservoir, whereby the railway would gain height by crossing over itself in a spiral and run over the crest of the Authority's dam. The Economic Forestry Group gave land to the railway to enable work to begin on this "Deviation" in 1965. The building of this 2 ½ mile bypass was carried out mainly by volunteers and is thought to be the largest engineering project in Europe completed by a voluntary worksforce.

In 1971 the company won their lengthy compensation battle that had been going on since the 1950s and were awarded £106,000. In 1978 the Deviation between Ddaullt and Tanygrisiau was opened and only one mile of track remained to Blaenau Ffestiniog. On 25th May 1982, on its 150th anniversary, the railway once again ran its full length from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Ffestiniog Railway Harbour Station, Porthmadog, Gwynedd LL49 9NF Tel: 01766 512340 http://www.festrail.co.uk/ Open: April to October: daily 10-5. Diesel services on certain days in winter. Santa Specials in Dec.

Directions: Car: Harbour Station is at the end of the High Street in Porthmadog. Train: Porthmadog BR Bus: Local Bus Company

2. Llechwedd Slate Caverns

Take a ride on the Ffestiniog Railway up to Blaenau Ffestioniog and see how the slate was mined. Llechwedd Slate Caverns are still owned by the same family that opened them in 1846, and are the largest working slate mines in Wales.

John Whitehead Greaves was the son of a Warwick banker, and left home in 1830 to seek his fortune abroad. He got as far as the docks at Carmarthen in North Wales ready to set sail, when he witnessed the slate being brought down from the quarries around Llanberis. Something about this must have caught his interest because he never left the country, instead he stayed in Wales and became involved in the slate business.

He teamed up with a wealthy businesss man called Edward Shelton and leased two quarries, one at Llanberis and one at Blaenau Ffestiniog. Slate quarrying at Llanberis was at a far more advanced stage than at Blaenau. The potential for slate quarrying at Llanberis was obvious because it outcropped to the surface and could be worked on open terraces. However, this was less apparent at Blaenau Ffestiniog as the slate lay beneath the surface. There had been a number of previous operations at Blaenau but none had been particularly successful, including the quarry that Greaves had taken over which had bankrupt owner.

Greaves was sure there was an abundance of slate beneath Llechwedd y Cyd, the moorland separating his quarry from rival quarries at Rhiwbryfdir. He dropped the lease of his quarry and acquired the mineral lease for the moorland. He used tons of gunpowder and brought men over from Llanberis to blast holes, tunnels and shafts all over the site in search of the elusive slate, but to no avail. The search had lasted three years and in 1849 he was on the point of bankruptcy and was about to abandon Llechwedd, when a few men working without pay, blasted a tunnel and found slate which soon earned international fame as Merioneth Old Vein. Once the direction and angle had been revealed it was relatively simple to locate the rest.

The slate veins at Llechwedd lie at an angle of about 30° from the horizontal. There are five veins all together and each one is sandwiched between layers of hard chert, which was used to form the roofs of the underground quarries.

With the future of Llechwedd secured with the discovery of the Old Vein, John Greaves moved his office from the quarry down to the harbour at Portmadoc. His wharf was situated on the northern side of the harbour and at the time he adopted the trading name of "Greaves Portmadoc Slates". Within ten years he had doubled his quay space by absorbing the neighbouring shipyard, and the company headquarters remained there until 1969, when they were moved back to Llechwedd.

Greaves had a number of vessels built for him at Portmadoc, the first was a scooner costing £1540 and named after his eldest daughter, Edith. Altogether over 260 ships were built at the port between 1826 and 1913 and the status of the Greaves family was reflected in the number of vessels that were named after them. However, by a bizarre coincidence every vessel named after a Greaves met with disaster at sea and all were wrecked!

At its peak there were 16 working floors at Llechwedd and over 25 mines of underground trackway. The first floor that was discovered became known as Floor 1, whilst the floors above it were numbered upwards (1 to7), and floors below it lettered downwards (A to I). Llechwedd still has two working floors, but most of its output is from open quarrying.

Llechwedd is also open as a tourist attraction where you can explore the slate heritage of Wales. There are two underground tours that give a real understanding of the working environment and the skills needed in a Victorian slate mine.

To reach the Deep Mine Tour, visitors ride on Britain's steepest passenger railway (1:1.8) and alight at the bottom for a twenty five minute walk through ten chambers, each with their own "son et lumière" sequences. The other, the Miners Tramway Tour, explores an 1846 tunnel and spectacular caverns on a specially designed passenger train. Passengers alight at various points to learn about the skills need to extract the slate.

On the surface there is a restored village which was lived in until 1970, including the "Old Bank" where visitors can buy reminted Victorian coins to spend in the village shops and the Miners'Arms.

John W Greaves was also a pioneer in developing machinery that was needed to speed up the processing of the slate once it had been extracted. In 1850 he designed a sawing table for cutting down the slate into manageable blocks. One of the original tables is on display at Llechwedd, along with one of the improved versions of 1882, which was built by De Winton and Company of Caenarfon.

Another of Greaves inventions was the slate dressing table that trimmed down the slates into uniform sizes. His son Richard patented an improved version in 1886, which is still used across the world today. Some of the original 1850 machines, along with the 1886 version can be seen in use at Llechwedd.

Llechwedd Slate Caverns Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, LL41 3NB Tel: 01766 830306 http://llechwedd.co.uk/ Open: March to Septmeber, daily 10-5.15. October to February, 10-4.15.

Directions Car: Beside A470 road from Llandudno into mid-Wales and Cardigan Bay. Train: Blaenau Ffestiniog BR Bus: Buses link Llechwedd to station.

3. Welsh Slate Museum

There is still one process that it has not been possible to mechanize, and that is the splitting of the slate. At the Welsh Slate Museum craftsmen demonstrate the traditional skills of slate splitting and slate dressing. Some of the Museum staff today come from families that have worked the slate for six generations. Their expertise with which they carry out their craft makes it look easy, but if you're lucky enough to have a go you'll find it much harder than it looks!

The museum is located in the workshops of the Dinorwig Quarry, which ceased trading in the summer of 1969. Slate was first quarried at Allt Ddu, later to became Dinorwig Quarry, in 1787. Quarrymen worked, using open quarrying methods, in galleries or terraces, each about 15-20 meters high, the scars of which can still be seen in the mountainside. It was probably slate quarried at Dinorwig that John W Greaves saw being loaded onto ships at Caernarfon.

Dinorwig became one of the two largest slate quarries in the world, the other being Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda, which is still working today. In its heyday, between 1850 to 1910, Dinorwig employed over 3,000 men and supplied slate to all parts of the world. Quarrying took place at several sites all interconnected by a complex rail system. Constant care and maintenance was needed for the vast range of tools and equipment used in the quarry, so the owners of Dinorwig decided to house all the facilities at one location, and these workshops at Gilfach Ddu were completed in 1870.

Getting a job in the workshops was not easy and only a chosen few had the opportunity to serve an apprenticeship there. It was often said that the men who worked in the quarry had "found work", while those who were employed at Gilfach Ddu had found "a place". Pictures of the workshop are few and far between, whilst they are plenty of the men working in the quarries, the workshops were much more exclusive and private, with entry to some areas being banned to all but those who worked there.

The workshops are an impressive sight is rather like a British Army fort in the colonies. The workshops were driven by a 50ft waterwheel at the far end of the complex and a foundry, pattern lofts, carpenters workshops, smithies, locosheds and stores meant that they could repair anything from a split chisel to a steam locomotive.

On the hour, every hour, a hooter is sounded in the yard of the workshops as it was when the quarry was working. The sound was one of the characteristic features of the Llanberis area and on still days would carry for several miles. It was not only an indication of when to start work but also of the time of day, as the majority of families had no clock or watch in their house.

The waterwheel itself was built by De Winton and Company of Caernafon in 1870 and remained in operation until 1925. The wheel can still be seen turning today, although the Pelton Wheel which is found at the base of it, took over driving the workshops. The waterwheel was badly worn after years of constant work and rather than undertake a complete resoration, it was decided to install the Pelton Wheel using the same water supply.

Casting still takes place in the foundry as a special display for visitors. Before anything could be cast, a pattern had to be made. Patterns were set in the foundry floor, and carefully packed around with the special foundry sand. When the pattern was removed, the sand in the moulding boxes was sufficiently compacted to receive the molten iron. The foundry could cast virtually anything that was needed on the site from a bell to a locomotive cylinder.

Inclines were used in the quarry to carry slates down from the different levels to the rail link with the dock at Porthdinorwig. The V2 incline was part of a series that was built between 1873 and 1877 at the Vivian Quarry, which faces the workshops. The incline used a counterbalance system whereby the loaded wagons descending the mountain slope would pull the empty wagons back up to the top. The V2 incline was the lowest-but-one of this series, and it has been reconstructed to working order, the only working example of its kind in Britain.

Welsh Slate Museum Padarn County Park, Llanberis, Gwynedd LL55 4TY. Tel: 01286 870630 http://www.nmgw.ac.uk Open: Easter to September, daily 10-5. October to Easter, Monday to Friday 10-4.

Directions: Car: Follow signs for Llanberis from A55 and A5 Train: Bangor BR Bus: Regular bus service from Bangor to Llanberis

4. Sygun Copper Mine

The early workings at Sygun were concentrated high on the mountainside where the ore veins outcropped to the surface. During the 18th and 19th centuries, ore was extracted deeper in the mountainside by digging tunnels to intersect with veins. By using a system of shafts with adits, the ore could be worked between the various levels. The ore was hauled up the shaft using horse power and later waterwheels.

In 1836 the Sygun Mine Company was established, and its prospectus states that six miners had raised over £2,800 worth of ore from the site in the previous seven years. The working conditions of the copper miner were hard, working 10 hours a day, six days a week. However, the miners were still considered lucky to have the job, especially in the cold winter months when the temperature was warmer in the tunnels than outside.

The miners were know as "tributors" and were paid according to the amount of ore they extracted. Their income was calculated on the last Saturday of every month, known as Setting Day. The price given for the ore depended on the type of ground they were working and also included other costs such as, removing the rubble, laying the tramways and transporting the ore to the surface. The miners also had a share of the profit made on the processed ore, but the costs of tools, blasting powder, candles and blacksmiths charges were all deducted from their pay. This resulted in an average monthly wage of around £1 to £2.

It was also common for women, known as "copar ladis" and children to be employed as a cheap source of labour, and they were mainly engaged in the hand sorting and dressing of the ore prior to processing.

Visitors to the mine can take an underground tour of the workings, which starts in the deep adit that was driven in the 1830s to intersect with a mineral lode. It is the lowest level open to the surface and all the water percolating into the mine drains naturally to this level. The tunnel has a slight gradient to let the water drain away naturally.

The trench-like workings and caverns, where the ore extraction took place can be seen, although since the mine was abandoned the water percolating through the rocks has formed ferrous oxide stalactites and stalagmites.

Miners using hand pumps and buckets would have drained the flooded workings below the deep adit level. The miners would have descended to this level by ladders and a hand winch would have been used to haul up the kibbles (buckets) of ore.

The workings open out into a larger cavern, which was blasted out with black powder. The powder was packed into holes created by hammer and chisel, which can still be seen in the rock face. A number were found still charged with black powder and the fuse intact, ready for firing!

Sygun Copper Mine is ventilated through a natural draft but before the later levels and tunnels were added, the miners would have worked in very smoky and dusty conditions. Even with the improved ventilation the working conditions were difficult, the only source of light would have been candles attached to the miners hat or ones secured to the rock face.

On the surface the Upper and Lower Dressing Floor are visible. The upper floor was constructed in the 1820s, but due to the inconsistency of the water supply at this level, the lower floor was added during the 1830s, where the waterwheels were driven from a more abundant supply.

The waterwheels powered crushing machines to break up the ore into finer particles. The grain was then placed on a jigging table, in which the heavier copper sank to the bottom and the lighter waste material was washed off the top. The concentrated ore was then transported to Port Madoc to be loaded onto sailing ships.

The foundations of another important surface feature, Elmore's floatation plant, can also be seen on the surface. The process of floatation was discovered by the Elmore brothers when they noticed that copper grains attracted to oil dripping off machinery. The process they developed from this initial observation used a mixture of oil and water to separate out the copper from the waste. The copper would attach onto the oil which floated on top of the water, while the waste particles fell to the bottom.

The Sygun Copper Mine has had a checkered history, with its ownership passing between many entrepreneurs with great plans for the mine that never really came to fruition. One scheme, which might have changed the fortunes of the mine, was the introduction of a railway to improve the transportation of the ore to Port Madoc. In the 1850s the mine owner Alan Searell, devoted much of his time to implementing this idea, but was unable to go ahead with the scheme because of opposition from the owners of the land through which the railway would have run.

The mine eventually closed down in 1903 and lay dormant until 1983 when work commenced to unblock and drain the deep adit mine to gain access to the lower workings. The mine eventually reopened in 1986 enabling the public to experience the conditions and atmosphere of a typical 18th and 19th century copper mine.

Sygun Copper Mine Beddgelert, Gwynedd LL55 4NE Tel: 01766 510100 http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/SnowdoniaMine/sygun1.htm Open: Easter to September, Monday to Saturday 10-5, Sunday 11-4. October to November, Monday to Saturday times may vary so call ahead.

Directions: Car: 1 mile from Beddgelert on A498 to Capel Curig Train: Bus:

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