I like to read maps like others read books. Once familiar with them you can almost visualise the location from the detail on the maps, the contour lines, the buildings, the detail of the surfaces, etc. I discovered Cwmorthin by accident when looking for lakes to photograph in Snowdonia, it seemed ideal for what I was looking for. The steep sided hung valley rose from Llyn Orthin and featured the remains of slate mining and the associated buildings. What I didn’t realise was that it was the start of an almost obsessional series of visits over a seven year period.
Cwmorthin is above the village of Tanygrisiau, near Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. Access is via a steep track alongside a series of small waterfalls from the village. The track plateaus approximately half way up before rising again to the lake. The track was used for moving the slate down to the valley for transportation to the coast. Originally moved by horses, time and breakages were reduced when the Ffestiniog Railway was built in 1860. The flat area was at one time a stacking yard for slate coming from both sides of the valley. It also features Robin’s Garden. Built by Robin Jones who started it in 1990 as a hobby after his retirement, near the then operating slate mill, which has now been totally removed. Mr Jones restored the underground peloton wheel water turbine that used to power the mill. The garden features a Japanese bridge, various standing stones and a pool, plus a large slate creation that features the points of the compass.
While ascending the second incline you quickly become aware of derelict buildings to the left. It soon becomes apparent that these appear to be a terrace of cottages. I had a strange feeling of deja-vu, but I have never visited the area before. A few days later, while doing some research, I discovered the reason. Fay Godwin had photographed them, and published the image in her book ‘Land’, which was a huge influence on my work in the mid 80s. These cottages, known as Cwmorthin Terrace or Tai Llyn (Lake Houses), were occupied by families, the oldest being one up one down. It is said that up to 72 people lived in them.
From here the walker has several choices. To the right lies the Cwmorthin mine with several derelict buildings. Access can be gained to the underground tunnels by contacting the number on the gate at the entrance. Above this are the stratas of spoil tips which take you above the valley, giving a good vantage point for viewing the surrounding area. It also furnishes you with a viewing position for the ‘fingers’ of waste stretching out into the lake. The path on the right side of the lake is, at time, difficult to follow and can be very marshy in wet weather.
Climbing the sometimes steep paths to the left of the lake leads to the Moelwyn mountains and the Wrysgan, Rhosydd and New Rhosydd mines. At the time of writing I have not yet explored these paths. The most often travelled route follows the tramway around the left side of the lake. This often slate fenced path leads past the derelict Capel y Gorlin to the stables, dressing sheds and Plan Cwmorthin on the right. Plas Cwmorthin was the manager’s house, and with its walled garden and large rooms shows the difference in housing conditions between management and miners.
The tramway now takes you above the finishing sheds and the Clogwyn mine, up the steep valley head until you reach the Rhosydd mines. This area has a plentiful variety of remains to explore. There are two terraces of cottages with what appears to be a road running between them. In fact the road is where the spoil tramway led to the tips and the barracks housed eight men, two per bed, per room. Many of these had no toilets or running water. The miners washed in the stream outside. These were said to be the worst housing conditions in Wales, with many men opting to walk the five miles from Blaenau Ffestiniog rather than live here from Monday to Saturday each week. As this area is less accessible there are still the remains of the old cranes, which were adapted from truck chassis and other iron work. The scrap metal dealers have stripped most of the metal work from the lower mines.
The landscape changes quite dramatically at this point. The spoil tips end and the mining activity appears to reduce. There are still some very steep tramways leading down into Cwm Croesor, which provided an alternative route to the port at Porthmadog. The Croesor mine at the head of this valley differed from those associated with Cwmorthin in that it is wholly underground, in fact the spoils were used to back fill the tunnels as mining progressed.
Cwmorthin and Rhosydd are a bit of a photographic cliché, they have been photographed so many times. I would recommend hunting out Jean Napier’s excellent book Rhosydd and Tom Dodd’s Cwm Orthin, which is part of the Creative Monochrome Contemporary Portfolio series. I decided that rather than shun the cliché I would embrace it. At the time I was posting my work on line using Flickr and discovered that the Menai Bridge based photographer, Glyn Davies, was also shooting there. During our occasional chats on line it became apparent that our styles were totally different. I have worked in this area on a wide variety of photographic media, from DSLR through medium to large format film. I have even dragged my portable darkroom up to the lake to enable me to shoot on wet collodion. I have also assisted Faeghe Keshani with her fashion photography after she saw my photographs of Cwmorthin Terrace. Some areas just seem to become embedded in your photographic activity.