Thursday, 25 June 2020

IN THE STEPS OF THE QUARRYMEN

A weasel runs down the path and pounces into a tangle of bracken and brambles.  I startle a blackbird which flies protestingly for cover further down the hillside.  I am startled myself by a raven's bark, echoing round the cliff faces of the quarry.  But I meet no people on this sunwarming morning as I walk a path that takes me past the deserted Chwarel y Gwylwyr with its high cliffs gouged out of the hillside and its spoil heaped up below them.

Chwarel y Gwlywyr - literally the quarry of the watchers.  And even down here on the path there is so much to see.  The quarrymen would have looked down, as I do now, on the town of Nefyn with its harbour and the wide sweep of the beaches of Nefyn, Morfa Nefyn and Porth Dinllaen, and the Irish Sea beyond, today reflecting the bright blue of the sky.

But this would have been a much more industrial landscape in the 19th century when granite quarrying in North Wales was at its peak.  I imagine the voices, the clatter of machinery, the noise of breaking stone and the dirt.  Down by the shore the beaches (almost deserted today except for a few dog walkers and three girls on horseback) would have been busy with the building and repair of wooden sailing ships.   

Quarrying was heavy dangerous work and ran the risk of lung disease.  Labouring on a fine day like this with a fresh breeze would perhaps not have been too bad, but in the winter with low cloud clamped to the hills and horizontal driving rain coming in off the sea it would have been grim.  Myrddin ap Dafydd (writer, publisher and current archdruid of Wales) has written about the men coming to work, bend double against the wind:

They are tied to earning their living from this rock,
as if they chiselled it with their fingernails, summer 
or winter, it's the same yoke of stone on their shoulders.

But they, on the path in the sky, bending, stumbling
to the top of the mountain, they are the
cornerstones of our walls - and we, so far from the 
wind that cuts like a knife, are shaped from what 
they once were.  *

With the rapid expansion of Britain's towns and cities in the 19th century there was a huge demand for granite setts for paving the streets.  The setts must have made a statement - solidity, permanence, prosperity.  They provided a better grip for horses and today have a traffic calming effect.  Many of them are serviceable well over a century later.  I think of the setts still paving Criffel Street, the wide main street of the (now faded) seaside resort of Silloth on the Solway Firth, or the streets of Edinburgh's elegant New Town, or the inner city roads of Birmingham where my grandfather and uncle had their printing and stationery works in a (now demolished) smoke-blackened red brick building.  

The huge amount of stone waste on the hillside reminds me of a poem ('Spoil') in Tim Cresswell's Plastiglomerate, a collection of hard-hitting environmental poems I'm reading at the moment. Rocks are:

dumped by some incontinent Goliath after the
good stuff's been extracted   ruin and plunder


But it was work and paid better than farm work. People came not just from the peninsula but from other parts of Britain to work in the quarries.  Terraced houses were built for the workers and their families.  Chapel culture was strong.  I imagine people meeting to sing and to debate political issues.  How much did the immigrants assimilate into the local community?  Did they become bilingual?  How many of them stayed for the rest of their lives?  How many left to work in the cities whose streets were paved with the setts they had quarried?

In Ioan Roberts' book on the peninsula there is a photograph of a group of workmen in a nearby quarry.  They are standing in front of massive blocks of granite with a heap of smaller broken rocks in front of them.  Iron rails lead out of the picture. The men look seriously at the camera, their clothes covered in stone dust, caps their only head protection.  There are three dogs - a collie, a corgi and a large black dog with a greying muzzle.  Were they brought along for the photograph?  Or did they loiter around the quarry keeping the men company and chasing rats?  

The dogs remind me how little I know of what it was really like.  The path takes me to the massive stone incline constructed across the spoil heap to take the quarried stone down to the shore at Wern (where there are still a few stumps leading out to sea - the remains of the jetty which I remember from my childhood).  There is a flight of stone steps on either side of the incline and I pause at the top trying to imagine myself back in time.   

A couple of years ago I heard Angharad Price talking about T H Parry Williams' writing about a quarry spoil tip.  Each stone was handled by someone.  The stones were thrown into a wagon by men who wanted to turn stones into bread.  Ghostly quarrymen where stones roll to find a comfortable place.

Sycamore and bramble are taking over.   There is something elegaic and haunting about the remains, an atmosphere that James Naughton captured in his paintings of Welsh mines and quarries (see my post of 26 October 2018 Stone and Slate).  The place which was once the focus of so much activity is slipping away. 

http://www.snowdoniaheritage.info/pdf/pilgrims/pilgrims-nefyn/traeth-trefor-english.pdf   includes Myrddin ap Dafydd's quotation and gives more information about the granite quarries of the area.

Ioan Roberts Lleyn: the peninsula and its past explored (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2016) has the picture of the Eifl quarrymen on page 54.


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