Blaenau-Ffestiniog slate Snowdonia National Park
25th July 2015
In the first post of Revisiting England and Wales I related the story of how the manager of one of the official campgrounds where we wanted to stay refused on the grounds that our hire van was not a recognised leisure vehicle. The reason: we could suffocate and the management would be held responsible for our deaths (!!!!). From then on we decided to stealth camp or go into farms and ask the owners if we could camp on their properties. This post and consequent ones describe some of our experiences when stealth and farm camping in England and Wales.
An elderly friend once said saying goodbye is like a little death and this is how it was when we said goodbye to Elisabeth, our host for the week in Dolgellau.
Leaving Dolgellau we headed north through Snowdonia to the slate mountains of Blaenau-Ffestiniog where for centuries slate has been mined. Dozens of mines, both underground and open cut, have provided the stone from which all manner of building materials have been fashioned. From mines in the area items such as delicate thin roof slates to thick slabs used in making billiard tables have been extracted.
The mineral we call slate was formed around five hundred million years ago when mud and clay was deposited on an ancient seabed. Intense temperatures and pressure transformed the mud and clay into slate. Slate is not all that hard: 3.0 to 4.0 on the Mohs scale of hardness. Talc is 1.0 and the hardest is diamonds at 10.0.
As I get older I think, if I had my time over again would I have perused the careers I have. The answer is yes but I would have squeezed the study of geology into my list as well. I expect my interest in geology is a cultural inheritance as my father was a keen rock hound and I remember going out with him as a child collecting rocks and panning for gold.
Slate was used by the Romans in the first century AD when building defences. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution (1760-1820/1840) that slate was used seriously as a building medium. At its peak, around the end of the 19th century, slate mines in Wales employed an army of around seventeen thousand men mining shaping and shipping slate all over the world. Back in the late 1940s during my early school years slate was still being used in schools in lieu of paper.
The manufacture of roof slates was a labour intensive operation. Chunks sometimes the size of a large refrigerator were extracted from either underground or from a quarry and broken down into smaller pieces from which the roof slate was split. The split pieces were then trimmed to specific dimensions, the trimming of the edges was done by holding the slate piece against a rotating blade similar to that of an old push lawn mower.
Creative stonemasons found many innovative uses for waste slate. The following photographs show examples.
Stones set vertically in a fence such as above not only made the fence visually pleasing but it also made it difficult for animals or humans to scale. A more modern version for deterring fence jumpers is to place broken glass along the top or string out razor wire.
In the early days slates were rough hewn and often only trimmed on one edge and they were referred to as raggies.
Following is a photograph of a beautiful slate roof; the curves over the windows are called eyebrows.
If the above wall was put on exhibition in an art gallery and called something arty like ‘fragments and elements of past geological eras’ people would marvel at it.
There are substantial deposits of slate in Australia and one is at Mintaro South Australia. As early as 1861 Mintaro slate was described as superior to any from anywhere in the world and since then it has established a name for being a trouble-free construction material for steps, veranda edgings, paving and roofing. Slate from Mintaro has been used in many of Australia’s most distinguished historic buildings.
Bev and I visited Mintaro in the 1980s and all around the district we noted slate had been used for things other than housing construction. A few of the alternative uses included fences, water tanks (large slabs were bolted together) and even toilet seats, although sitting on a slate toilet seat in winter would have been a bone-chilling experience.
Again the day drew in and we drove in search of a camp. A couple of posts back I mentioned Bev likes to make camp earlier than later but tonight it was late as we spent a lot of time searching. In the Snowdonian mountains farms were few and far between. However above Porthmadog we finally found a house with people (Nev & Beccy) fussing outside and when I approached them about a spot to camp they suggested a place by a small lake nearby. Before we went off and set up camp they invited us to stay and join them for a barbecue.
Readers who know about moss will immediately realise that for moss to be ever present on a fence such as above the atmosphere must be constantly damp. The average annual rainfall for Snowdonia is in excess of three thousand millimetres (118 inches) per annum. Many believe Wales is not a summer sun destination as the temperatures are too low. In the mountainous regions sunshine doesn’t even reach one thousand annual hours.
The next morning was cold and wet so the prior invitation to join our hosts for breakfast was much appreciated. We stood in the kitchen in front of a large wood burning stove and chatted about Welsh life. Beccy managed a large family earthmoving business and Nev, among other things, was a tattooist. When he signed my concertina book he drew me a Welsh dragon.
Transcendentalist Ralf Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is quoted as saying: ‘What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside you’.
The core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. I think Nev and Beccy had the inherent goodness. In fact, all the farmers we stayed with so far have it.
CARNARVON (CAERNARFON) VIA THE SNOWDON MOUNTAINS WALES
26th July 2015
Leaving Nev and Beccy in the rain we headed northwest through the Snowdonia National Park towards Carnarvon (Caernarfon) on the banks of the Menai Strait. When the weather is less than satisfactory I think about sitting in front of an open fire in an English pub with good company, a book and a beer.
The Snowdonia National Park is not all wilderness as there are many roads, towns and farms within its confines. There are, of course, remote wilderness areas within the park and one location is in the vicinity of Mt Snowdon between Porthmadog and Carnarvon.
Mt Snowdon is 1085m above sea level and is the third highest mountain in the UK. The mountains that precede it are Ben Nevis 1344m and Carn Eige 1183m, both in Scotland.
The English name Snowdon comes from the Old English snaw dun meaning ‘snow hill’. The slopes of Mt Snowdon receive an annual average of 5100mm (200 inches) of precipitation. Staggering trivia. The first recorded ascent of the mountain was by botanist Thomas Johnson in 1639. However the 18th century traveller, writer and historian Thomas Pennant suggested ‘a triumphal fair upon this our chief of mountains’ was achieved well before the conquest of Wales in1284.
Reincarnation, is there such a thing? The more I read about past lives the more I’m inclined to think there is. Thomas Pennant and I have a very similar biographical background and I therefore ask, ‘Am I a reincarnate of Thomas Pennant?’ Pennant was a traveller and his travels took him to places hitherto unknown at the time. His writings were accompanied by painted and engraved colour plates and he wrote in detail about the peoples’ customs, superstitions and the wildlife he encountered along the way. He was a man with a large circle of friends and he was still busy following his interests into his sixties. He travelled with a servant who helped him with his work. I’m not suggesting Bev is my servant but she travels with me, helps me write, photographs what we see and makes sure I do not wax lyrical too often. This sounds like me (and I look a bit like him too!).
Caernarfon’s main attraction is its impressive medieval castle. The castle was built under the direction of King Edward l between1282 and 1287 and was one of many forming part of Edward’s ‘Iron Ring of Castles’. Harlech Castle, forty-five kilometres to the south is part of the ring.
Records show that the cost to build the castle was between 22 and 30 thousand pounds which, in today’s terms, doesn’t sound all that much but in the 13th century it was a vast amount. A skilled craftsman was paid about 3 pence a day, which was a pittance (before the Norman Conquest in 1066 there were 240 pence to the pound). The total cost for the building exceeded the total tax revenue gathered by the King in one year.
Standing on the waterfront at Caernarfon (Carnarvon) we thought of Carnarvon in Australia and mused over how different they were. Carnarvon Australia is situated at the mouth of the beautifully clear Gascoyne River estuary in Western Australia and the most memorable thing about our visit there was seeing a dugong. Search Carnarvon in Odyssey #1 on the blog for the story and more images.
There are no dugongs in the waters around Caernarfon. The closest colony is probably in the waters of the Red Sea. Dugongs are now extinct in the Mediterranean.
Some businesses in the back streets of Carnarvon, as would be expected, rely heavily on the town’s history to attract customers. One particular establishment is the Black Boy Inn.
Rain is to be expected in Wales. I did look at a couple of free campsites but I was adamant to go off onto the grass, our little van was not a 4WD. After asking around about a spot to camp we were directed to a farm (a registered caravan site). The fee was substantial but that is the way it is in areas of high tourist movements. I asked the farmer if there was a camp shelter or kitchen. No was the reply ‘but there is a hay shed you can get in out of the rain but you will have to muck it out’. Muck is a mixture of hay and cow manure and farmers spread it over fields in fallow. I had no desire to clean out his shed so we erected our annex. We were offered wifi but when I asked for two connections I was informed that ‘a new regulation only allows park owners to allocate one connection per couple since an unhappy recent pedophile event in England’. I said ‘Fair go, sport. Not all Australians are pedophiles’. No amount of pleading convinced the owner to give us two connections.
Caernarfon, although an interesting destination, is not a favorite with us as not only were we refused two Internet connections but I received a parking fine for $75.
In the middle of the town there is a large square and a sign that I interpreted to mean no truck parking turned out to be no parking for cars as well. I returned to the car just as the parking attendant was writing out the fine. I suggested to her the sign was ambiguous, but to no avail. Later I asked a taxi driver about the sign and he replied that ‘there used to be a big sign indicating clearly there is no parking in the square but they took it down because the council was not making enough money’. I must add I also asked two other drivers about parking in the square and they told me the sign referred to trucks only. I wrote a letter to the council asking for an exemption. I enclosed a photograph of the sign and a drawing as to how the sign should be. I lost my appeal and was informed that if I didn’t pay up the van hire company would be required to debit my account when I returned the car. Big brother is on to us.
Paid parking is big business in Britain. Some parking meters produce the display ticket with the car registration number on it, which eliminates you giving your ticket with time still on it to a driver about to buy a ticket. Some landowners who have a spare corner in a field erect parking meters. Everyone is cashing in. Too many people, too many cars and not enough space leads to meticulous repression of the public.
A closing comment: Bev and I were parked illegally for a short time in Devonport Tasmania and a parking attendant came to us and told us we were illegally parked but went on to say, ‘I won’t book you because if I did you might not come to our island and we do need mainlanders to come. We need your money’. I suggest the Carnarvon Council think about adopting this approach.
CARNARVON TO OUR MOUNTAIN CAMP IN THE SNOWDONIA NATIONAL PARK
We intended to drive to Holyhead where I wanted to see a geological wonder and that was the anticlines and inclines visible in the cliff face, something every amateur geologist should see. Unfortunately we never made it to the rock formations as the weather turned bad and it would have been no fun being battered by the Irish Sea winds and rain. However we did cross over to Anglesey Island and this meant crossing the Menai Strait.
The Menai Strait (Welsh Afon Menai) separates the Welsh mainland from the Island of Anglesey and even though the waters are nowhere as pristine as the Gascoyne River at Carnarvon in Australia it does not mean it is devoid of marine life. Surprisingly it has a rather remarkable marine ecology brought about due to unusual tidal conditions and its mud and sand bottom. Along the shoreline mussels, clams, whelks and Pacific oysters are cultivated and another important activity is the production of Halen Mon (Anglesey Salt). The strait is also very rich in sponges.
Pacific oysters were imported into Europe some time between 1964 and 1980. These oysters in Australia are declared a noxious species (except for one small area in NSW) because they smother the slower growing Sydney rock oyster, a preferred species for the table.
The strait is bridged in two places and the one bridge I found particularly interesting was Thomas Telford’s iron suspension bridge. The Telford Bridge was opened in 1826. Before the bridge was built cattle raised on Anglesey Island were driven into the water and had to swim across, a dangerous practice, which often resulted in the loss of the cattle.
It was hard to find a good photographic aspect so I have borrowed one taken by Mick Knapton.
Telford (1757-1834) should not be confused with Brunell (1806-1859), another engineer of note. Telford’s nickname was the ‘Colossus of Roads’, a pun on the ‘Colossus of Rhodes’. All reports say he was a jolly man with a hearty laugh and it was a pleasure to be in his society. A pleasure to be in his society: I like how in days gone by writers had the ability to turn a simple comment into a poetic turn of phrase.
A 19th century Australian governor when making an inspection of a newly built road passed a bullock team whose driver was swearing at his bullocks. He wrote: ‘I have never heard such blasphemous execrations uttered forth from human lips upon quadruped objects’.
Our camp at the end of the day was entirely the opposite to our Carnarvon camp. We stealth camped in the wilds of the Snowdonia National Park.
It was not easy to find a suitable camp in Snowdonia as there are fewer farms due to the nature of the country. As darkness drew in were getting a little desperate, but by chance we found ourselves in the carpark of an outdoor education centre where there was a group of mountain bike riders getting ready for a downhill run. I thought they would know where a suitable camp might be. One of the riders pointed to a narrow gate and told us if we went through and drove to the saddle we would come to a grid and on the left there was a reasonably flat spot where we could camp.
Rain drove us into our bed early. It rained all night and I was thinking about our route in and if we had crossed any creeks that may flood and isolate us. Next morning it was still raining heavily and trickling creeks the night before had turned into raging torrents.
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When preparing to travel lay out all your clothes and money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money. Susan Heller.
Susan Heller, an author, writer and traveller was instrumental in setting up a group called the Solo Traveller. The above quote first appeared in the New York Times in 1987 and since then it has become the most frequently quoted piece of packing advice.