North Wales is magnificent country. It is laced with vast acres of flower gardens, crowned by mountains and fringed by the sea. Even on those days when hill fog obliterates the landscape, or incessant rain precludes most outdoor activity, there is much dark beauty waiting to be discovered.
Llechwedd Slate Caverns is on the A470, no more than a half an hour’s drive south from Betws-y-Coed and a stone’s throw from Dolwyddelan Castle. Even on a sunny day as you drive north to south down this route you know when you are upon Llechwedd. One minute you are cruising among tranquil hills, the next you are seemingly sledding through a crevice in the upheaval zone of hell. On either side of the road mountains of dead slag shroud the sky. Here, no matter what time of day you pass by, it always seems to be dusk for the slag’s dolorous gray eclipses all other colors. The sight is dead beautiful.
The tourist attraction of Llechwedd, on the other hand, is somewhat reminiscent of Disneyland. At surface level the visitor finds a neat Victorian village with working shops, and preserved workshops complete with old tools of their trades. There is a sweet shop and a pub, and a bank at which you can exchange your regular currency for Victorian coins. There is a smithy and a slate mill. In the latter you can observe a hypnotic slate splitting demonstration. Here, a man using a hammer and an awl splits thin layers of slate off of the mother block. He seems to use about as much muscle as I might separating two McVitie’s chocolate covered biscuits that have stuck together. He thonk-thonk-pings the mother slab with finesse and when he has about ten thin slices of slate, he trims their irregular edges using an electric, revolving blade. (His Victorian ancestor would have used a similar machine that ran on waterpower.) The newly finished pieces look like little schoolroom blackboards. They are sorted by size and chalked with courtly names: a piece that is 24 inches by 12 inches is a duchess; a slate that is two inches wider is a princess; one of the smallest pieces is a lady. However, this altogether pleasant process of splitting and naming happens at the end of the pipeline, after the slate has been extricated from deep in the belly of the mountain. Two different tours take you there.
While waiting to take the Miners’ Tramway tour, I meditate on the karma of Welsh slate. It is excavated from centuries-old darkness deep inside the mountains, but ultimately its position is the most exalted in the land -- sandwiched between the attics below and the stars above. When arranged to best resist the elements the slate resembles reptilian scales; it looks strong, graceful and organic. In its heyday about a hundred years ago, miles of prepared slate -- figuratively the hide of the Welsh Dragon -- protected homes and other buildings all over Britain, Europe, Australia and America.
Reverie broken, it is time to board the little tour tram. Wearing helmets in the colors of party hats, we slip into the side of the mountain into caverns blasted and carved by miners in 1846. Here we are 300 feet beneath the summit. The temperature is 51 degrees Fahrenheit. We chug along in silence and every few yards the tour guide asks us to disembark in a new chamber, gather around a particular feature and hear about its role in slate farming. Here and there, in tableaux, are life-size figures of miners carrying out their daily tasks. When the mine was operational, the tasks were carried out in an enveloping darkness, each miner having only one candle for light. The candles were expensive, and each man had to supply his own.
A mountain does not give up its slate readily. It grips it between layers of granite. While setting the explosives that helped the miners penetrate the mountain and extract its dark resource was a breathtaking business, it is something that nearly everyone who visits a mine already knows a little about. My imagination is sparked, instead, by our guide’s story of the danger man (a.k.a. the roof safety man) who climbed thirty feet and higher up ladders to the ceilings of the mining chambers. By the light of his single candle, in an otherwise pitch-black chamber, he tap-tap-tapped the ceiling with a stick to make sure nothing was in danger of falling. To cover a greater area at a time, the danger man learned to extend his reach by swaying back and forth on his ladder. What a sight this must have been. I slip into another daydream: was the danger man, performing his perilous task, a rock star of his day? (Pun intended.) No matter how backbreaking and dangerous Victorian mining was, young men did much of the work and I would not be surprised to hear that they celebrated their mettle on the job. Besides better pay, the danger man, with his cool title, must also have enjoyed a certain status among his fellows. If he did, the still, dark cavern holds this a close secret. And, alas, there is no demonstration.
The second tour, this one into the Deep Mine, takes us 450 feet below the summit of the mountain in a tram shaped like a set of stairs. Here, once we slide out of our little compartments, we are without a visible guide as we walk through ten chambers observing more tableaux. There is, however, a pre-recorded narration in the soulfully matter-of-fact voice of a Victorian miner. As we thread our way through low, narrow tunnels chamber to chamber, I conspire to be at the front of the line. This is because I want to be first to come upon each new cavern to have a chance to feel its primal darkness just for a second. See, while the explanatory presentations in the mine are good, they are so tightly done that I find I have no time for contemplation. I think an important part of the experience of visiting Llechwedd should be the chance to soak in the gloom and feel the resignation of the people who worked down here rarely seeing the sun.
Hundreds of feet underground the chiseled rooms are enormous. Their arching shapes bring to mind the interiors of cathedrals. The darkness, the vastness, the deep history of the mines generates an air of reverence. We visitors even speak in our best church-whispers to one another. While moments of prerecorded harp music or male voice choir are a nice touch on this tour, most evocative is what is not there at all: The empty space that is the mine, the deep, dark mine.
Welsh slate miners worked in appalling conditions. There was constant gloom. Each miner toiled by the light of a single taper, with a reserve in the fold of his cap (because this was where the spare would least likely be broken). There was disease. The men not only worked in mute darkness, but there was dust everywhere further obscuring the dimness of their candles and diminishing their lives with the increasing threat of silicosis with every breath they took. There was the danger of accidental explosions and cave-ins. Hours were long. The miners, paid solely for their output, worked from early morning putting in ten to twelve-hour days five to six days a week. Labor was relieved only by fifteen minutes for lunch and another fifteen minutes to discuss current events, debate or sing.
Breaks were taken underground in small slag cabins built by the miners. Lunches were brought from home. Flasks of tea were heated and reheated over candles attached to the walls of the cabin.
All this considered, you would think that once the miners emerged from their daily toil they would be allowed to rest their weary bodies. Instead, upon emerging from their Hadean conditions they were summoned to church. Balm for the soul was applied daily. Three times on Sundays.
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