The last day of our break in North Wales it was raining – and when it rains in Snowdonia it really rains. Not so much a heavy downpour, more like being submerged in a cloud of drizzle. Not a day for the outdoors then!
I’d seen an advert for the Corris Mine Explorers – a tour of an abandoned slate mine just a few miles south from where we were staying – and being interested in industrial history decided that it would be a good option. Mind you, as we soon found out, it wasn’t an option that would keep us completely dry!
Welsh slate was quarried and mined since Roman times, but the industry particularly took off in the 19th century when this excellent waterproof material was needed for the roofs of the houses that were being built in the rapidly expanding industrial cities of Britain. Slate extraction was a major industry in areas of Snowdonia and we’d seen evidence of it during our walk in the Tarren Hills a few days before.
Although slate is often obtained from quarries, it was also mined, and this was the case at Corris. Braich Goch slate mine, in Mid Wales, which was first worked in 1836 and abandoned in 1970. The Mine Explorer’s website tells us
During its heyday, in 1878, the mine employed 250 men and produced 7,000 tons of slab and roofing slate. This was sent all over the world. Rising costs and falling demand saw the company collapse in 1906. Another 6 companies worked the mine, intermittently, until 1970 when the mine finally closed.
Today, part of the mine has been converted into Arthur’s Labyrinth, an attraction aimed at families with children, but a number of the levels have been opened up to visitors interested in experiencing what it was like to work in an underground slate mine.
We were given an introductory briefing by “Mark the Mole” and kitted up with wellies, helmet, lamp with heavy batteries fastened to a belt and a safety rope. We’d been told to wrap up warm and wear a waterproof coat as it was cool and damp underground. It was clear from the beginning it wasn’t going to be a gentle stroll through a floodlit tunnel!
(Photography is allowed but the low levels of light make this impracticable, so I’ve illustrated this post with a few pictures pinched from the Corris Mine Explorers website)
We followed Moley and his dog through a door set into the hillside, after ducking under a stream of water pouring off the hillside, and entered the mine. We were underground for two hours walking along uneven floors and now and again crawling or squeezing through narrow gaps, occasionally attaching ourselves to safety ropes. There was no lighting other than our lamps. Moley explained how the mine was worked and talked about the working methods and conditions the workers had to endure.
The tunnels were originally dug by hand although explosives were later used.They gave access t the working areas where the slate was dug out by hand creating massive underground caverns. The work was hard. Lighting was provided by candles, which the miners had to buy themselves, so they were only lit when necessary –transit to and from the working areas, for example , was in the pitch black. The tools they used had to be hired from the mine owners and they could be fined if found using their own. Life expectancy was short. Very few miners developed silicosis from breathing the deadly slate dust as this takes 20 or 30 years of exposure for symptoms to fully develop – most of them were dead by then, the main cause of death being falls within the mine.
It was an excellent tour. the two hours went very quickly and Moley was a good guide, providing a good introduction and simple explanation about how slate was formed and won and the lives of the people who worked underground
On re-emerging into daylight (during the winter the miners wouldn’t have seen it) we returned our equipment and headed to the cafe for a warming bowl of cawl.