How many times have we been to Dinorwig now? It must be getting on for thirty, happy days spent gazing in wonder at the sheer majesty and grandeur of it all. The incredible ruins, the piles of waste slate, the audacity of the enterprise. A gigantic hole in the mountain made by extraordinary men, working with little more than glorified hand tools for much of the life of the quarry, before compressed air rock drills became the norm.
Did I mention the weather? This place has it in abundance. What you would think would be unpromising conditions for photography turn out here to be the perfect set-up, if you don't mind waiting for the sun to break through occasionally...and if you appreciate very cloudy skies. Somehow, the grey days complement my emotional response to the quarry- it never seems to work as well for me on fine days.
I remember our first visit to Dinorwig, up to the silent quarry of Marchlyn and over the hill, courtesy of the Hydro road. You come upon the quarry suddenly this way, after a tough walk uphill for a mile or so. I will never forget the view as the A7 incline Drumhouse appeared through the mist and all the galleries opened up below us. So this was it!
We mooched around on Lernion level for a long while, taking in the views and trying to imagine how the mountain looked before all the extraction happened, trying to see the negative space. There were all sorts of things going on down there, little shelters, inclines, round huts, rusty things...it took a while, looking closely at the photos afterwards to begin to appreciate everything. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, the first time we visited; not the best way to see the place. There were folk on some of the galleries, bellowing and shouting meaninglessly as some people do when confronted by bigger things than themselves. Some young adults were chucking things off another level while climbers enjoyed the slate walls as a set of problems to be overcome-thankfully not being strafed by occasional missiles. Yes, this is why we hadn't visited, we thought. All the people.
We left it a couple of days and decided that we had to go back. But on a weekday, the place was almost deserted and took on a haunted feel. We became aware of another aspect of the place and it's character, including an increasing consciousness of the poor souls who worked here in all weathers, for very little reward.
Our weather was again just the same. This time we explored level Swallow and it's tunnel onto a gallery, went down another level to Tophet and Abysinnia and had a good look at the compressor house. Everything has been relentlessly explored, picked over, grafitti'd, examined and photographed, but it didn't spoil the sense of wonder we felt.
Most features have a name at Dinorwig. Sometimes two names, as the climbers have taken many parts of the place and made it their own, giving evocative names to features. There's "Mordor", for instance, and "Lost World" to name but two. Fitting the proper names to features can be very difficult and is a study in itself, which is perhaps why the climbers have extemporised. I like that the place is many things to many people. Most who arrive here fall in love with it, for whatever reason. Even the folk the climbers call the "Tutters", who walk past on the narrow, fenced confines of the footpath, admire the place. Petra and I love it for the sculptural qualities of the galleries, for the dystopian perspectives of its ruined incline houses, and for the way that generations of men have carved out a sculptural space in the mountain, achieving grandeur and stature for themselves, far beyond that of their employers.
Sinc Braich and it's equally impressive neighbour, Sinc Mawr are very deep and forbidding holes which are only accessible by SRT, although we did manage to reach deep down by exploring adits that lead to ledges above the sinc. I'm not going to say where these are as finding things is half the fun. I was very impressed by the lines of marooned adits which open out into the pits, stranded a hundred feet up a quarry face.
Of course, when mechanisation came to Dinorwig, it was on a fascinating scale. Drumhouses, compressor houses, machine sheds and saw mills, not to mention delightful little quarry locomotives, running on miles of tramways. It's incredible to think that the amazing artefacts that are left here today are literally a handful of what used to be.
A note about the pay of the workers:
The working rock face in the galleries ranged between 53 and 86 feet in height. It was divided into 'bargains' i.e. working areas up to 18 feet wide each quarried by one half of each bargain gang of 6 or 8 men. The other half processed the quarried rock into finished slate. These working areas were termed 'bargeinion' (bargains) because a price had to be negotiated monthly with the 'stiward gosod' - the bargain setter. If the team made a good bonus the previous month, then the setter reduced the poundage the following month. In the hey day of the industry, the quality of the bargain allocated to a gang often depended on its religious and political affiliations. The members were paid a basic weekly salary which was topped up by the monthly bonus paid according to the number of slates produced based on the poundage agreed at the beginning of the month. However, each team had to pay for the powder and tools used, e.g. holes drilled by the foot (6d a foot in 1940), use of dressing machine (2s 2d), pay for ropes, pay the blacksmith for sharpening tools, labourers for moving waste, hospital money etc. All these ate into the bonus.
It was not unknown for men to have slaved for a month and come home not only without a bonus but actually owing money to the company. This was in an age when the Hon. W.W. Vivian, the then general manager was left a cool £70,000 in his employers' will.
I am indebted to Eric Jones for the above information, his Geograph photographs of Dinorwig are a fund of knowledge.
Jones, R. Merfyn. 1981. The North Wales quarrymen, 1874-1922 Studies in Welsh history 4. University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-0776-0
Carrington D.C. and Rushworth T.F. (1972). Slates to Velinheli: The Railways and Tramways of Dinorwic Slate Quarries, Maid Marian Locomotive Fund.
Douglas C. Carrington Delving in Dinorwig Llygad Gwalch Cyf, Llanrwst
Reg Chambers Jones Dinorwic: The Llanberis Slate Quarry, 1780-1969 Bridge Books ISBN-10: 1844940330
James I. C. Boyd Narrow Gauge Railways in North Caernarvonshire: The Dinorwic Quarries, Great Orme Tramway and Other Rail Systems v. 3 Oakwood Press ISBN-10: 0853613281
Dave Sallery's feature on Dinorwig, within his excellent Welsh Slate industry site here
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