wales

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 Three

I'm just back from a few days in North Wales. I'd aimed to walk the Paddy Buckley Round, one of the 3 fell running 'classic rounds'. I managed 2 days, over 500 photos and 4 camps before the weather shut the trip down. All the photos in this post are from the PBR.

I don't run these rounds. I walk them. The Welsh round is the third of the Big 3 I've tried. Last year I walked the Bob Graham round, in the Lakes, and the year before I tried my luck on the Charlie Ramsay, in Lochaber, Scotland. I ended up falling short on that first trip and only managed the Tranter round. I went back and mopped up the Loch Treig Munros in May this year over 2 days. All being well, I'll go again for the whole round next year.

On the Paddy Buckley this time around, I had 2 fantastic days weather before a low pressure descended. I could have shlepped round the rest of the round on a compass bearing when the weather turned. It wasn't particularly dangerous, just extremely wet. When I began on the Charlie Ramsay round, the aim was just to get round in one piece. Now though, it turns out I have a job to do, so I pulled the plug early. Best to go back when I can finish what I started.

Last year, the publisher Cicerone commissioned what will (with any luck) be my first book, about the Big 3. My idea is to make it part guide, part celebration. Occasionally I break into a jog on a hill, but I'm not a fell runner, so what qualifies me to do a book on the classical rounds? It's a fair question. Well, the book won't be about the activity of running in itself, although it will feature runners. It's about the Rounds - mountains, people, history and culture. The Big 3 are a great example of how people and place come together, a positive link between us and the land. If you follow my wittering here and elsewhere, you'll know I'm all for that.

Additionally, whilst the book will I hope be useful for everyone planning a round, the guided part will be primarily written for walkers. I've got some experience there. After a year of work on the project, I also have a fair idea what to leave out, as well as what to put in. There are very legitimate reasons why a walker's route can't always follow the exact line that a runner can:

Practical - some lines are less optimal if carrying a backpack.

Environmental - some of the regular lines taken by runners are showing signs of erosion, and would be susceptible to greater damage with more, regular footfall. There are instances where this is not desirable or sustainable. There are other instances where deviation from the line would break the flow of the round.

Ethical - these routes are high level undertakings, even for so called 'plodders' with 5 days food and shelter. There's a tradition in fell running of not prescribing an exact line, but of developing the hill craft, route finding and fitness required through repeated recce'ing. I have a good deal of sympathy for this approach. To that end, they'll be no GPX files for runners here. They will remain real challenges for fit and experienced outdoors people.

By the same token, I don't have any truck with elitism in outdoors pursuits. The hills belong to all of us and none of us, and they don't care if I walk, run or crawl. Passion and persistence are what counts, and they aren't exclusive qualities.

But the Big 3 are an important part of UK hill culture, and it's equally important I get things right - that means exploring both runner's and walker's options in order to recommend a direct line as might be taken by those trying for a 24hour round, or another 'in the spirit of'.

The beauty of the Big 3 in my view, and why they shouldn't just be the province of runners solely, are the places that join the summits. I flattered myself that I knew the Welsh hills fairly well - they were where I went when I lived in the south to learn how to be in the mountains - but I visited new places this time because of the Round. That's how it should be. The Paddy Buckley is unique among the 3 in that it's possible to see the entire round from multiple points on it. The big hitter - Snowdon - like Nevis, follows you around, but here you can see the Carnedds and the Nantlle ridge too. It's incredibly exciting to see it all laid out, and then to approach it slowly over hours following. It was also a joy to hear Welsh spoken so frequently, on the hill, in the cafe and on the buses. We should cherish our cultural diversity, alongside biodiversity. Difference makes us resilient.

The Buckley round is also unique among the 3 for traversing through so much obvious human history. The south of the round explores the vast slate quarries above Blaenau Ffestiniog, a place I first visited as a Wrexham schoolboy. The damage wrought here is devastating and poignant, vainglorious and beautiful, like coming across the ruins of an alien civilisation. An eerie experience that adds much to the round.

There's also the light. Mountain light can be hard and high contrast, and milky soft, and all the rounds face the sea and share a West Coast, Celtic gentleness, but even so, each round has it's own particular colour temperature. If Lochaber is pink, Cumbria is blue, Snowdonia for me has always been gold. Welsh mountain light casts deep shadows, that I've missed without knowing. 3 rounds, 3 countries, 1 shared culture. I can't wait to go back.

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If you'd like to share your Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley or Charlie Ramsay Round story, or know someone who would, please get in touch. There is plenty of scope for interviews, anecdotes, tips and histories. I'd love to hear from you.