Stories from the Rounds, 2: Path to the Past

Over the next few weeks I’m sharing 3 stories, from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

The second is a story I wrote for TGO magazine in 2017, called Path to the Past. It focuses on the remarkable Dinorwig Quarry, above Llanberis.


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Path to the Past

''I've been coming here for 10 years, and I still haven't got to the bottom of it. What I'm getting into now is the age of different parts of the quarry, working out which of the old spoils were disturbed by new digs. There's a transgender guy in the village who goes caving up here - brave stuff. I wouldn't climb in here myself - I've seen things move about on their own.''

These were the words of Daffyd, my accidental guide to the remarkable Dinorwig Quarry, as we stood high above the main workings in bright sunshine. This vast scar that stands above Llanberis on the flanks of Elidir Fach, was once the 2nd largest open cast slate mine in the world. At its busiest it employed over 3,000 men, but the nearby Penrhyn was even larger. The scale here is hard to fathom, like something from a Sebastian Selgado photograph… almost as monochrome but minus the fragile flesh.

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I’d noticed my namesake as I wandered through the lower sections of the ruins, watching as he and his dog climbed a ragged staircase hanging off the right hand edge of a giant hole in the mountain. That must be the way, I thought; it’s got to be the Foxes’ Path. So I followed him up.

This route won’t be familiar to many hill walkers, but to be fair this is not our usual territory. Paddy Buckley writes of it in the notes for his famous fell running round, but strictly speaking… well, we’re out of bounds here. When I caught up with Daffyd higher up, he explained to me that First Hydro Company, who now manage the land, had once tried to stop visitors exploring, but the local climbing community just laughed it off. Now, as back in the early days of it’s existence, the quarry is one of the chief reasons why Llanberis is such a busy little town. The main amphitheatre is now a world famous climbing venue. To reach the staircase to the lost world, you must first jump a gate, but the warning sign at the fence is more disclaimer than outright prohibition: Enter at your own risk… and don’t try to sue us if you do!

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The risk is ours to own and in that sense, it’s no different here to any hill, but in every other sense, Dinorwig is unusual. Our uplands are far from free of the hand of man of course, but up on the summits far above the treeline, they often feel so. They are where we head, when we want to escape. No such illusions are afforded here. Ruin is all around. This is a vainglorious landscape, a silent and shattered testament to the complete exploitation of place and people at the height of industrial capitalism. It’s a fractured, dissonant place being sucked back into nature; somewhere held together by memory, but only rarely witnessed. Here, we are both wholly present and completely absent. It might make you wonder at our guile, and wonder even more at our gullibility.  

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From the foot of the road, I took ‘the zigzags’ up to the tram winching shed, a narrow slate path flanked by high walls and surrounded by a vast field of slate spoil on either side. Those who did not stay at the quarry barracks would walk this way to and from work every day from the village. Rusty iron cabling thick as two fingers snaked flaccidly around the giant wooden drum that ferried trams full of finished slates from above to below. I followed the tramlines around and climbed the first smooth incline of many, past the barracks and then up to Matilda level, to be met by an enormous courtyard with the multi-storey shells of the storerooms still just about upright.

There, I left the camera groups and day-trippers behind and headed off the designated path to where the old coffin road intersects with the slag heaps and iron flotsam. At this point, more tramlines stretch up to the gods, but I was after the quarrymen’s footsteps. So following one man and his dog, I trod a long, crumbling flight of steps flanked by broken iron railings and a rusty pipe.

The path tops out to another set of buildings. There’s the remains of a huge cable crane or ‘Blondin’, and a few huts, the largest of which contains a quarryman’s coat, shoes and a teapot, carefully laid out on a bench at one end of the room in memoriam, a stove and much graffiti. This was the Caban, where the workers ate lunch and sat out the worst of the weather. It’s still used by climbers as an unofficial bothy, the rotting brickwork stuffed with bits of old tarpaulin for additional weather protection.

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I ambled up another incline to Australia level, and caught up with Daffyd again. He directed me out from the path, along to the sawmills, where the raw slate was cut and then dressed, ready for transport down the inclines I had been following. As the quarry became less profitable, moving the heavy metal proved too expensive and so the steam compressor, saws and trucks lie abandoned, oxidizing by degrees in the fresh air. Birdsong, blazing sun and quietened ‘industrial heritage’. It was hard to reconcile these three with somewhere purpose built for screaming destruction.

Dinorwig opened in 1797, and drew workers from all over Wales and Cumbria. It was apparently poorly organised, and its spoils progressively littered the site and slid into newer pits and galleries. You can see these everywhere as you move through, even today; not much has changed on the ground since about 1920. Production declined at the end of the 19th century, and the quarry eventually ground to a halt in 1969.

Conditions were harsh and dangerous, the quarrymen working high up in the open rather than underground, on wet and icy galleries exposed to the elements and to rockfall loosened by blasting. A crew was made of 2 rockmen, plus a splitter and a dresser, with the former freeing the rock from the hillside, for the splitter to break it into more manageable sections with hammer and chisel, and the dresser to cut into slates. The crew was paid monthly by the ‘bargain’, measured out in 6-metre blocks of rock - wages were decided by how many slates they could work from each of these bargains. However, they had to be careful; over production meant less money, not more. Crews would often reorganise distribution between them, to try and maintain wage rates and bonuses. Cunning meets cunning: In this chaos of exploitation, we see the beginnings of worker solidarity and the birth of the unions.

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I went higher still, passing more giant winches and a water tank for the compressor on Abyssinia level - so high that Abyssinia could allegedly be seen from it - to teeter on a steep, slate ramp. I turned slowly and carefully to look back down the valley, resisting a strong urge to drop to my hands and knees for security. It was an odd kind of vertigo here, perched halfway between the world of wild places, and another kind of wildness; a world ripped apart by money and machinery.

Having revealed all, the Foxes’ path ends here. I climbed up past the service road onto rock and grass, and the more familiar mountain territory of Elidir Fawr and Elidir Fach. I literally came up for air, something of a respite after all that fascinating intensity. The second hill felt almost Scottish with its crest of blocky talus pointing my way to Pen y Ole Wen across the Ogwen valley. All being well, I should be across there by the same time tomorrow.

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‘The Big Rounds’