You’ll remember the other day I said I’d be writing a post about going in to a dark place? Well, thankfully it has nothing to do with my depression and everything to do with enjoying myself in one of the dark, dank slate mines of North Wales. So without further ado, I’ll start by putting this classic song in your heads so you can’t shake it off for the rest of the week:
Now I’ve got that out of the way I’ll carry on.
So, most of you, (except no doubt one follower who I’ll refer to as Mr Fossil) will not know that North Wales is full of bloody slate. It’s everywhere. And it was mined or quarried out of the ground and the gigantic slag heaps of waste that were created are a feature of Wales and visible from space (that last bit may not be true). I’m surprised we don’t have a slate toilet to be honest.
One of the largest of said quarries was Dinorwic, that closed in 1969 ending a lifetime’s work for the majority of local people. The largest producer, Penrhyn is still a working quarry today and can be seen right out my front window. The history of these places is very interesting, so I recommend you take a look.
I digress. I’m supposed to be talking about the mines.
So recently I have explored Cwmorthin Mine at Tanygrisiau (pronounced tan-uh-grishia) and only yesterday, Rhiw Bach (pronounced Hreeoo Bach – first words said quickly, and the ‘ch’ is the same pronunciation that you would find in the word ‘loch’). Please note: the link for Rhiw Bach (‘little hill’) only cites the actual quarry and not the mine. Rhiw Bach closed in 1952.
Myself and my wife went up to Rhiw Bach as although my wife has worked in there previously, I had not and needed to get to know the place before I start working for the excellent Go Below, here in North Wales. We will both also be working in the Cwmorthin mine, which is much bigger and also more, shall we say, extreme? Lots of zip wires over deep, dark chasms, tenuous balancing across 150 year old wooden beams above said chasms and the chance to get wet. Oh yes, and the longest underground sit-down zip wire in the world at 130 metres over a huge drop. I highly recommend it but if you’re shit-scared of heights, maybe best to give it a miss! Here’s me about to zoom across one of said chasms. Dark isn’t it? 😉 (yes, you need to click on the darkness to play it).
So today I spent the day with GoBelow in a damp and very dark hole in the ground at Cwmorthin, as an intro day to be a freelance leader's assistant. And I loved it, every minute. It was mucky, slimey and great fun with the odd brown-trouser moment zip-lining over gigantic, ever darker chasms, balancing across more darker chasms on narrow beams (safely clipped on to a cable), more dark zip-lines, steep inclines (up and down), dinner in darkness, and navigating out of the mine, balancing on pipes running under the clearest water I've seen where a slip would mean an early and very cold bath. See video below. A fantastic day with great colleagues too and I really look forward to working with them soon. I highly recommend a trip if you don't mind pitch darkness, yawning chasms and big heights….😁 #underground #undergroundadventures #gobelow #cwmorthin #mine #mines #myadventure #myadventures #lifeisforliving
Anyway, we plodded up the wet and muddy track that leads us to the entrance to Rhiw Bach, at the edge of a forest. There’d been a lot of overnight rain so we knew it was going to be a wet one; the track up that had become a stream was a good indication of this! Top tip: if you’re ever considering a mine trip – WEAR WELLIES, trousers tucked into those and waterproofs over everything else! Walking boots will be sodden within minutes and you’ll have miserable, trench-foot-ridden feet the entire time. Dry feet is good, yah!?
So here we are at the entrance to the mine, and as you can see, I was wetting my pants excited already:
My wife had the secret code for the padlock (which I cannot divulge due to the Official Secrets Act 1889).
Only then did I notice that you needed to be the size of Alice entering Wonderland to actually get into the mine. So as my wife entered through the gnome sized gate and I passed her rucksack through to her, did I do the same. Instead of trying to make like Houdini and bend myself through it, I opted for the ‘easier’ option; hold the top bar and myself up, feet first and pull through, thus minimising a soaking. Looking back to the hole after it was locked again (for safety reasons and we would be exiting somewhere else) I’m glad I am, shall we say, of the smaller frame:
Right, we were in and ready to explore. Hanging around an entrance is not advisable as these are often the most unstable.
The first ‘adit’ as they are known, leading up to the first junction is a perfectly straight 550 metres or almost half a mile; an amazing feat of engineering considering at the time it was all done by hand. After about 150 metres, I turned around for a look:
We carried on trudging, examining the rock here and there until we eventually reached the junction. And, I turned around, switched off my head torch and absolute blackness; you cannot see your hand even 1 centimetre from your face:
So from this point we pulled out the map so we could get our bearings and decide where we would go. First though, to the left, was an incredibly deep pool of very dark, very still there-could-be-a-monster-in-there water, and like the perpetually inquisitive child that I am, I had to have a closer look into. See the bottom? Not a chance, after all, we entered on the second level as the first level is flooded so frick knows how deep it is:
The boat by the way is to take clients across on. This is accessed via a staff only area and we are not asked to swim across to get it. At least, that’s what I’m assured of.
Another of my facts for you: this mine is one of the few in Wales that is actually mined upwards. Most are downwards. The opening for this mine is at approximately 320 metres and eventually opens out above at around 400 metres. Doesn’t sound like a lot does it 80 metres, but just think of the amount of sweat, toil, blood and tears that went into excavating this place, in harsh and very dangerous conditions, starting at the tender age of twelve on 12 hour shifts, with no health and safety for very little recompense, whilst the mine owners’ pockets bulged. Slate is a very flaky (for want of a better word) rock. Huge ‘flakes’ as they are known, hang on for dear life for years, and then all of a sudden, BANG! they fall off, crushing any unfortunate soul beneath them. I don’t know how many men or children died in here and I wouldn’t like to, but thankfully, a lot of the areas are condemned so are not to be accessed. These mines are inspected regularly for this kind of occurrence, so people will never be taken into dangerous areas.
Cwmorthin was mined downwards and upwards; it is huge and very complex, with many floors. It took someone I know circa. 400 hours to explore what he could in this mine. 400 hours! So imagine the time it would have taken to excavate it? Incredible.
Back to where we were. There are museum pieces all around this mine that should not be touched, due to their fragility. The following are at the ‘caban’ where the miners would stop for a break during their day; they could not exit the mine on a break. So in winter, on the shorter days, they would have never seen the sunlight. Very sad, really:
We explored further into the mine, with me doing the navigating so I could get used to it. You have to be pretty on the ball with the map in a mine, ensuring that when you turn around or join a different adit or chamber, that you orientate the map (so it mirrors the ground), just like you would above ground. Unless you know it very well, of course. Darkness is very disorientating, the same way being in mist on a mountain is and depth perception is very limited.
After wandering a little further, we came across two of what I call ‘wet chambers’; areas that are flooded with water. The water in these underground lakes is incredibly clear with next to no sediment and the colours are amazing:
After stopping for some food and drink (Babybels and sweet, salted cashew nuts, mmm) we carried on further and higher into the mine. And to do this we needed to climb up the ‘manway’ or main incline that runs through the centre of the mine. All the water from outside way above us was pouring down and the noise was quite deafening, but after being in dead-silence apart from our chat and foot steps, welcoming. I recorded a short video of part of our ascent up it. Was very exciting stuff (full screen and HD, if you can):
We were not far off the the top level now, where we entered another ‘interactive’ museum area. All about these mines you can see the perfectly straight, cross sections of black powder holes that were used to pack explosive material into the rock. This was often the task of a fifteen year old lad. They would spend hours, just banging a long, heavy iron spike up and down, up and down into the face of the rock, often up to a metre down, until it was deep enough to be packed out with the black, explosive powder. Naturally, these young lads grew very strong. Here’s a good example of what I mean:
Can you imagine doing that kind of work, for twelve, long hours!? By candle light? Here’s my wife having a go on one of the original poles:
This is towards the top of the mine, so we were not far off now.
There is a chamber that allows us access to another level, but it involves getting wet. Not one to shy away from such things, I approached the ‘waterfall climb’ hoping my eVent waterproof trousers would hold and I didn’t do a face-plant on to the wet rock. There is a rope in place that can be used to pull yourself up on, but further safety ropes or belays are often set up for clients. It’s not very high, say five metres, but you wouldn’t want to fall off it. Rock is hard after all…
Here’s a little video before we ascended and my wife telling me to ‘mind my phone’ due to my history of killing phones with water. And one camera:
After the climb up, we squeezed through another access area and were pretty much at the top. We wanted to check out the air shaft exit though, as this is more exciting and yes, more wet. It involves climbing up via ferrata style on iron ladder rungs, with our ‘cow tails’ clipped on to the guiding/safety rope. A cow’s tail is basically one long length of rope with one carabiner attached at each end that then loops through your harness, so that you have two lengths of rope with a carabiner on each end that you clip as you move up, in front of you. A very basic but effective safety mechanism.
Again, hard to recall the height of the air shaft, but I’d say a good 20 metres, so safety is essential as a fall is er, well, not good.
We squeezed out another tiny hole at the top and out into the open air again, as the smells of the outside world assaulted our nostrils. In the mine there is pretty much no smell, apart from other groups carrying candles perhaps, as you approach them. The air in some parts of the mines is incredibly still and I enjoyed watching my breath on the air as we sat for lunch, lit by my torch light; it took longer than expected to evaporate.
Also, they are not as echo-ey as you may expect; sound is often swallowed up. For example, as loud as the water coming down the incline was, you didn’t have to walk far for the sound to completely disappear. Although there is one particularly acoustically fantastic chamber that has had opera sung in it!
Here’s the view back to the main exit at the top of the incline, but we did not exit this way:
What another exciting adventure in the dark I’d just had. I was buzzing and although this mine is ‘tamer’ and is generally more about exploring than the adrenaline of Cwmorthin, I still really enjoyed myself.
I am so looking forward to working with members of the public and helping them around both mines and enthusing about them. If you have not ever done anything like this before, please, come to North Wales and have a go as it is fantastic. Go Below will ensure you have a superb and safe trip, so if you’re tempted, get in touch with them!
It is a whole new world and the memories you get from them will stay with you for a long time to come.
Thanks for reading 🙂