Monday, May 22, 2006


Lechwedd Slate Caverns

The thought of returning to the Lechwedd slate mine at Blenau Ffestiniog brought back memories of the gamers-on-tour trip in 1982. I think I had barely turned 18 and was invited to see the world (or Wales, as it was known then) in the company of Craig Cartmell (who's family owned the cottage in Dolgellau where we stayed), Jim Tolley, Mark Byng and Ian Notter. I remember that the Deep Mine Tour included an underground cavern with a large lake where, if you make Gollum noises long enough, Mark Byng will beat you most severely with his guide book. Ah, happy days of youth. Sadly I was unable to relive those memories ...

The Tramway Tour was educational but disappointingly short. The exhibits are starting to show their age - the mannequins especially could do with being replaced. I had the feeling that they hadn't invested in anything non-essential (i.e. not safety-related) for quite a while. The tourist award certificates on display looked very old and faded. On the plus side, the guide book was current as it mentioned the recent absorption of the Royal Welch Fusiliers into the new Royal Welsh Regiment.

When I was young, my parents had the slate tiles on the roof replaced with new rugged, interlocking factory-moulded clay ones. I always found it weird that you used to nail sheets of slate to your roof to keep out the rain. Just seemed so primitive, easy to break and definitely slippery when wet! Admittedly, slippery slate roofs could be a boon if you wanted to deter burglars (although what a burglar would be doing on the roof of a terraced house when they should be going in through the window...) but a real bugger when you needed to fix the TV aerial. Anyway, here's how it's done:

As with any trade, there's always an interesting collection of names for what you make. Here various slate sizes (in inches) are named after positions within the nobility and royalty (and still in use). Although the sizes are standard but come in flavours - for example, a "Duchess" (not shown) is 24"x12" but a "Wide Duchess" is 2 inches wider and a "Small Duchess" is 2 inches shorter (which makes it 1 inch wider than a "Marchioness"!)

There are some seriously large tiles there - 32x26 is huge for something that goes on your roof.

Little snippets of information like the following really bring home how complicated the world can be. You're standing in a mine where everything is so simple - generations of men doing the same job, day after day, year after year, shifting sheets of rock to the surface and off to the docks. And then one day your world is turned upside-down by what some politicians many miles away in Germany decide to do.

Something that was very difficult to come to terms with was the sheer volume of scrap slate that had to be taken to the surface and dumped, or was generated as part of the finishing process for the sheets. You don't get to see how many caverns there are underground, or how big they are, but just looking around at the landscape gives you an idea. If I remember the tour guide right, every tonne of usable slate meant 16 tonnes of rubble (slate and chert).


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