Mining in Ceredigion
Mention the words 'mining in Wales' to most people
and they will immediately think of the South Wales Coalfields and almost
certainly not of Cardiganshire - now known as Ceredigion. Yet in the nineteenth
century Cardiganshire was a very important source of lead and silver and a major
employer in Mid / West Wales while today, the mines are almost all derelict, the
buildings destroyed and most of the shafts filled with rubbish.
Between 400 and 500 million years ago, the present location of Wales was deep below the sea in what has been called the 'Welsh Basin'. Here, marine sediments - mudstones, siltstones and sandstones formed and were then buried beneath several kilometres of more recent sediment - much of which has now been eroded away by the processes of nature.
The older rocks have been subjected to enormous pressure, and earth movements have caused the layers or strata of rocks to fold. In places, the rocks have split and into these 'faults' has flowed hot mineral rich groundwater which, over millions of years has deposited seams or 'lodes' of minerals rich in lead, silver and zinc. These lodes are near vertical seams of rock, typically one or two metres in thickness, although sometimes much thicker.
Mining has been carried out in this part of Wales for thousands of years, some of the earliest mines being from the Bronze age - about 2,000 BC at Cwmystwyth. Cwmystwyth has been important throughout history for its mining, and in medieval times, the land there was owned by the Cistercian monks of Strata Florida. The first written records of mining in Ceredigion are in the form of a mining lease from Strata Florida Abbot Richard Talley dated 1535. At this time, the mine workings at Cwmystwyth were described by John Leyland, King Henry VIII's antiquary: "About the middle of this Ystwith Valley that I ride in, being as I guess three miles in length, I saw on the right hand side of the hill side Cloth Moyne, where hath been great digging for Leade, the smelting whereof hath destroid the woodes that sometimes grew plentifully thereabout."
Leyland also wrote in his Itinerary in Wales in
1536-1539 'There hath been in times paste a greate mine digging for leade in
Comeustwith a vi. miles from Stratflur, wher is a graunge longging to Stratflure.
But summe menne suppose that it sesid, bycawse the wood is sore wastith.'
The most important period in Cardiganshire mining
was from the eighteenth century right through the nineteenth with the peak being
from 1830 to 1880. The greatest output was in 1856 when 8,560 tons of lead ore
yielded 38,751 ounces of silver. The development of mining abroad - in
particular the USA and Australia, led to a rapid decline in mining in the area.
The mines have had a considerable impact upon the landscape. As well as the numerous spoil heaps and ruined mine buildings. There are a number of lakes created to provide a head of water for the water wheels used to power the mine machinery. Below is a photo of the lake, Llyn Frongoch, that provided water for the large Frongoch mine. Today, the Frongoch mine (below) is the site of a wood yard producing fenceposts.
The Metal Mining Strategy for Wales, page 76 states
the following about the Frongoch mine: 'The north-western section of the mine
site, adjoining the road and containing two of the engine houses along with the
crusher house, is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.'
'Despite the ruinous state of this historic mine site a large number of features, dating from the mid-19th century through to the early part of the 20th century, can still be identified. These include the remains of three engine houses, a crusher house, a stamps mill, a winding house, the ‘ old’ dressing mill, the structures and earthworks associated with at least 10 working shafts, a larger open-working, two powder magazines, the earthworks for a series of watercourses and a substantial reservoir, structures and earthworks associated with various ore preparation processes, sundry offices and stores, and the earthworks of a tramway linking the mine with a later dressing mill at Wemyss. The mine was at various times worked in conjunction with the adjoining Wemyss site.
The site was surveyed by the RCAHMW in 1984. The survey identified the range of features listed above. Since 1984 the site has suffered from inappropriate use as an off-road and motorcycle course, and the northern section is used as a sawmill with material being dumped in the northern open-working. If remedial work is to be carried out it should be part of an overall programme to protect the site from further deterioration. Remedial work on the spread of tailings across the southern part of the site will inevitably impact on the surviving features in that area. A full archaeological assessment is required before work commences and a detailed plan should be formulated to conserve not only those features identified but also those which might be uncovered during the work.'
New Row and the back of the New Row Stores at Pontrhydygroes.
Notable among the buildings associated with the
mining industry, is the row of cottages near Pontrhydygroes called 'New Row' and
the 'New Row Stores' built specifically to provide the mines and the miners with
everything they might require. The cottages are still inhabited and the stores
still stand, although the building is no longer used as a shop.
The mining industry also had sociological implications in that many mining experts - and indeed mine workers were brought in from outside of Wales. During the peak years of mining, some of the work was done by Cornishmen, who with their experience were often employed as 'Captains' or managers of the mines. Near Pontrhydygroes the Lisburne Mining Company built a Wesleyan Methodist chapel for them. This was the first such chapel built in the county. Today it lies forgotten and in ruins set back from the road among the ferns and the Oak trees. Italians were also brought in to work the mines.
Mines are an important part of Ceredigion's
heritage, with many sites being of National importance. However, the only one
that is presently open to the public is the Llywernog lead and Silver mine near
Ponterwyd where visitors can experience a tour of the mine and see the mine
museum with its display of mining equipment and old documents relating to mining
in the area.
Old photos of Llywernog show the count house flanked
on its left hand side by an enormous fifty foot overshot iron water wheel.
Sadly, the wheel was removed before the mine buildings were renovated, although
the massive stone built wheel pit still remains.
Before, entering the mine, visitors are given hard hats and mining lights. The mine tour takes visitors in through the original mine entrance and through a tunnel carved out of the rock to the first workings.
The tour takes visitors into the mountain through a
horizontal shaft - the 'prospecting shaft' or 'adit', dug around 1790, and parts
of which are about three feet wide and five feet high. The group stops in a
narrow vertical chamber, the space left when the almost vertical seam or 'lode'
of ore has been removed. Above can be seen the timbers wedged into the narrow
cleft with boards placed over them for the miners to stand on as they dig higher
and higher towards ground level.
An Objective 1 initiative seeks to promote the area as a place for visitors to come and enjoy the stunning scenery while learning about Ceredigion's industrial Heritage. The 'Spirit of the Miners', Project Officer Meleri Richards summarises the initiative as : ' The legacy of mining has many varied aspects with something to appeal to even the most casual visitor. For some it is the technical systems involved in the mining process, for others it is the environment, conservation, tourism or the cultural and social side that has shaped the settlements of the uplands into what they are today'.
Other projects in the area with similar aims are the Ceredigion Mines Forum, set up to deal with issues relating to mining in Ceredigion and promoting communication and the sharing of ideas. The Central Wales RIGS group is concerned with the geology of the area and the conservation of important sites relating to Geodiversity. The Welsh Mines Preservation Trust was set up in 1992 to raise public awareness through heritage weekends, talks and slideshows and to make the sites accessible to the public and to ensure their long term maintenance.
The 18 mile Borth to Devil's Bridge footpath has been recently improved with new waymarkings. It takes walkers high over the Cambrian Mountains, past the Lead and Silver mining area at Cwmsymlog, then from Bontgoch the path takes walkers to Nant Yr Arian Visitor Centre and the final section of the trail winds through Ystumtuen through the Rheidol valley to Devil's Bridge. At Devil's bridge, with the walk completed, the Rheidol Valley Steam Railway provides a scenic and relaxing journey to Aberystwyth.
photos & text © Rod Attrill
www.spirit-of-the-miners.org.uk - the Spirit of the Miners website
www.welshmines.org - Welsh Mines Preservation Trust
www.rheidolrailway.co.uk - The Rheidol Steam Railway