I should have known better. I'd found a footpath on the OS 1/25000 map that climbed up the mountain to the top workings of Penmaenmawr Granite Quarry and, checking the road access on Google street view, all seemed perfectly civilised. So when we arrived, why was I surprised to find the metalled road to be at an almost 1 in 5 gradient? Even our all-terrain truck was grumbling a little, although not as much as the Waitrose home delivery van that was following, a centimetre behind.
The road took a tack across the contours, in between a row of quarryman's houses, before striking upwards again. I wondered at how the Waitrose van was managing to fit in the narrow space between the houses and still be glued to our towbar.
I spotted a parking space and Petra slotted the truck in, at a disconcerting 45 degree angle from horizontal. The Waitrose van braked, swerved and headed off down another street. I hope whoever ordered that delivery eventually got their vegetables.We had parked at the end of a set of three beautiful terraces, obviously built for the quarrymen and their families. I wondered at how folk got about in snow and frost with these gradients, but perhaps winters here are mild. However, a sure sign of winter fun were the handrails on all the pavements...
Finally, we set off up the steep path to the quarry. I'd seen the path mentioned on the web as a popular walk with ramblers, and had feared that it might be a manicured and tame affair. As it turned out, I needn't have worried!
The path threaded steeply up the bosky hillside, eventually following an old incline- not one I could find on any of the old maps available at the NLS database. Then, like something from an Alfred Bestall illustration, a strange building appeared, surrounded by trees. It was a long-deserted power-house, for supplying juice to the many inclines and crushers in the vicinity. Unlike some slate quarries, these granite quarries relied on power bought in- and by the look of this structure, they used a fair bit of it. Inside were the tell-tale signs of insulators and switchgear, including a bank of meters, the like of which I wouldn't fancy finding under our stairs!
Of all the many charming things about this wonderful building, the stencilled signage and the graffiti caught my imagination most. I wondered when the music had been put there, especially as there were some imperial measurements pencilled on the wall near it.
Climbing again from the generator house, the footpath struck a very uncompromising angle upwards. It was here that we met someone coming down the path who had been a little unnerved by the exposure- he'd decided to turn back rather than face the uncertainties ahead. While sympathising with the poor fellow I did experience an inward feeling of warmth- this wasn't going to be a Saga Magazine featured ramble after all! Of course, if this was underground, I would be the one returning uneasily because of the dark, so I mustn't crow.
The path zig-zagged up the mountain and soon left the tree line where it did indeed become a little airy. A jolly message from the usual chap with flared trousers, about falling off the cliff appeared, which cheered us up. This path is marked on the old maps, so must have been a quarryman's route to work.
After much huffing and puffing, we arrived at a very substantial drum house. I've looked at the 1941 revisions of the Ordnance survey and can't find this feature- not helped by the fact that it's on a join in the sheets, (that's my excuse anyway.) The only reference I can find is on M Lloyd's map in Boyd's book*. Uphill of the drum house was a substantial steel tank and a girder bridge carrying the route of the tramway from Fox Bank. The incline here must have been in use in the early forties- Boyd has the tramway at 1943, which explains why it doesn't appear on the 1940 map... perhaps. Now, we could see conveyors stalking up the mountain as well as a new quarry road. As if to remind us of the harsh nature of granite quarrying, across the valley a gigantic truck came slowly down one of the roads, it's rheostatic and engine brakes working overtime. The driver was taking no risks with the enormous chunks of rock in the tipper- they must have weighed over fifty tons.
We could have gone uphill to the modern processing area, but there were folk wandering about in Hi-Viz vests and hats up there, plus the usual sounds of crunching- so we headed over to the right, (or the west) to Fox bank where there had been a mill and loading station from 1895- to be honest, the structures looked no older than the nineteen forties. However, this was a charming location if you like old tramways and breathtaking views. It was hard to photograph anything without including the gratuitous view of the Great Orme, which soon began to feel like a cliche. I decided to just enjoy taking the photos and examining the many abandoned wagons lying about.
Above: More views of the brutalist structures at Fox Bank...
We followed another zig-zag track uphill to the remains of the Attic Bank working, where the lip of the vast pit suddenly opens out below. Standing here, I realised that the conveyor tower and this flat area, all that remained of the Attic Bank level, were what I'd been looking at as I drove past for all these years. It felt great to be standing here, the views and the ruins making it one of the best explores as far as I'm concerned. While Petra is equally keen on quarry and mine remains, she has a side-interest in wild flowers and I had noticed that she'd been busy the whole time photographing little colourful plants. Alpines, apparently. Although I am allergic both mentally and physically to flowers, I do appreciate those with delicate, tiny little blooms- and here the hillside looked like it had been tricked out by Laura Ashley. It gave the brutal concrete structures a genteel air, somehow.
There was another transformer house above Fox Bank, probably to power the crushers and machinery here. It had a strange atmosphere, a dissonance with the other structures, but I couldn't put my finger on what the reason was. Outside, I was mobbed by a couple of Choughs and realised that they were nesting inside- so I moved away, not wanting to disturb them further. While having lunch on the headshunt, high above the town, a hawk rose quickly from the crags below. I couldn't identify it for certain, but it looked like a Kestrel.
One of the more bizarre features of the quarry was that, while it had a network of three-foot tramways, the main quarry at the top of the mountain, an amalgamation of several workings, had a standard gauge railway. (!) Shades of Clee Hill, or the Cromford and High Peak, except this line was in glorious isolation. It ran along the two topmost levels, Attic and Kimberley (now quarried completely away) from 1931. Some inclines were converted to hoist operation using electric motors (hence the transformer houses perhaps?) and thus the locomotives and wagons were brought to work, along with a crusher and a face shovel. Motive power was mostly internal combustion, although an ex-L&Y (no. 43) "Pug" 0-4-0 was kept as stand by.
With the sun becoming lower in the sky we set off towards the quarry road this time. It was after 5pm and we hoped to have a look at the modern structures at the top level.
I guess the elevation at it's highest on our explore was around the thousand foot mark- not much compared to Sgurr Alasdair or the Inaccessible Pinnacle, but the presence of houses close to the cliff below, looking for all the world like a Google earth view, certainly lends a charm of it's own. And...we'd only explored a fraction of this fascinating place.
"Penmaenmawr, Rails of Granite" Mike Hitches, Irwell Press 1990
* "Narrow Gauge Railways in North Caernarvonshire", volume 3, James I. C. Boyd ISBN 0 85361 328 1
On the web
Penmaenmawr and Welsh Granite Industrial Heritage Railway
Penmaenmawr Historical Society
Graham Stephen's photos of Penmaenmawr
The fascinating article on Jaggers Heritage about the quarry...how things have deteriorated since then :-(
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