Friday, June 21, 2019

The People's History Hiding around Snowdon

By Annie Whitehead

Pretty much everyone has heard of Mount Snowdon, or, to give it its Welsh name, Yr Wyddfa. It's there, it's big (1,085m) and it doesn't 'do' much. But take some time to not climb it and you'll discover some interesting history.

By 'not climbing' it, I mean take a walk nearby; you'll still have to scramble pretty high though so wear stout shoes!

Across the road from the base of Snowdon is Padarn Country Park and it's here where our tour begins. This was the site of the Dinorwic Quarry workshop and now houses the National Slate Museum. Admission is free, and you can still see much of the original tools and machinery. Look up at the hillside and you can also see how the quarry transformed it:


From there, you can walk trails which do, I admit, sometimes make climbing Yr Wyddfa seem like the easier option.  The trail I took brought me first to the Quarry Hospital. This was built in 1860 and is open now to the visitor who might wish to see how the hospital looked and operated in Victorian times. In fact, general surgery was still being carried out here as late as the 1940s. The rooms are now all laid out as in a museum and it literally smells like history. I felt a slight detachment until I went into the little building to the side of the hospital and stared for a while at the mortuary slabs.

Photo: Eric Jones - attribution link

There are some horror stories, that's for sure. Take Edward Jones, from Bethel, who needed to have both arms amputated; one at the shoulder and one at the wrist. Thanks to the doctors working at the hospital, a device was constructed which enabled him to hold cutlery and to take his hat off when going to Chapel on Sundays. The hospital boasted an X-ray machine, only three years after such things were invented. It also had, unusually for the time, hot and cold running water. The hospital was not able to help everyone, however. Deeply poignant was the tale of a young lad named Christmas - he was born on 25th December - who was crushed to death by machinery whilst working in the quarry. The hospital was a boon, though, meaning that injured men could be treated quickly.

The woodland trail is supposed to be one of the gentler walks which radiate out from the park centre. Somehow, though, I found myself on the Vivian Quarry trail, climbing higher than I meant to, but coming across the most vivid piece of history. Now, I'll be the first to admit that industrial history does not interest me overly much and a lot of the information about the quarry workings themselves was not of any special interest to me. But when I stumbled upon Anglesey Barracks, here, like the hospital, was another link to the men who worked at the quarry and spoke to me in a way that old wheels, giant bellows and engines simply couldn't.

'Anglesey' Barracks? Anglesey is not terribly near this area, so what was this all about? Well, these were cottages built to house the quarry workers who came from Anglesey, so that they could live on site during the week and return home at weekends. They would leave to go home on a Saturday afternoon and return to start work on Monday morning, so had at least part of the weekend away from the site. It all sounds very enlightened, doesn't it? Before I read up about it, I looked at these buildings and thought they were quite quaint, until I discovered that in each cottage, four men were crammed in, sharing the tiny space, roughly 20ft by 10 ft. The cottages had no running water, and there was only a coal fire for heating and cooking. Relics from the Victorian age? Incredibly, these cottages were still occupied in 1948, when a visit from the authorities saw them condemned, unfit for human habitation, and closed down.


Despite the appalling conditions, there was apparently a strong camaraderie, which saw the men gathering for choir singing and poetry readings. I can well believe it. These men lived and worked alongside each other and here, halfway up a hillside, was a mini-village. Ties of friendship and shared origins must have counted for a lot among these men from Ynys Mon (Anglesey).

Descending from here, once again it is clear how the quarrying affected the landscape:


The only way down from here is via a walkway piled high with enormous slate and you can get a slight feel for the hazardous conditions which prevailed here. I was just a tourist, walking on a lovely sunny spring day, but I wouldn't have cared to walk down this hillside in wet, slippy conditions, or to be working machinery or hefting equipment.

Here, too, is a reminder of people who lived in this area in ages gone by. In the distance of the photograph above, you can just make out Dolbadarn Castle (which will be the subject of my next article) which was the starting point for my walk that day. There is a rather tragic story associated with the castle, involving a man who was locked up there for many years, and which I'll relate next time. This landscape carries reminders of all the people who have lived and worked in the area over the centuries.

The next day, I went up Snowdon. It's a beautiful mountain and the views from the summit are breathtaking - almost literally, on a windy day - but what really caught my attention was a building halfway down the mountain.


This ruin is Hebron Chapel, built by the families who lived in the valley, the folk who worked the land, or in the quarries. They raised the money themselves, poor though they were, and built this Calvinist chapel. There seems to be some dispute over the completion date and I can't find the definitive answer, but the consensus seems to be that it was completed in 1797, which would have seen it completed only a decade or so after the first quarrying was carried out at Dinorwic, so perhaps the alternative date of 1833 might be considered nearer the mark. What can be said for certain is that it is now a ruin, yet another marker on this landscape to remind us of the ordinary folk who lived and worked in an area that, nowadays, we tend to think of as a natural playground for us to enjoy in our leisure time. A reminder, also, that history is all around us.

[all photos by and copyright of Annie Whitehead unless otherwise attributed.]

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Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, including To Be A Queen, the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Annie has a deep and abiding love of North Wales and its rich history and takes every opportunity to visit.
Connect with Annie: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Blog, Amazon

6 comments:

  1. Great post Annie. Lovely insight into this hidden past of Wales.

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    1. Thanks so much Paula - glad you enjoyed it! :-)

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  2. Nice post. I was there in summer of 2013, researching my own series. I've seen quite a few mountains, and Yr Wyddfa is one of my favorites.

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    1. Thanks Guy - yes, it's a beautiful part of the world, isn't it? I was there on Bank Holiday weekend and only saw three other people on the woodland trail to Anglesey Barracks. Yr Wyddfa was a little more crowded though!

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  3. My current WIP might be set in Snowdonia, but mosy of this was new to me - thanks Annie - but Dolbadarn Castle does feature in a future story as a key location. I look foward to more on North Wales.

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    1. Thanks Roland - yes, it was new to me, too. Amazing what one can stumble across whilst out walking. And to think that although there was hardly anyone about when I was there on a Bank Holiday weekend, that area must once have been teeming with life. Good luck with the WIP :-)

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