I knew that when I came to North Wales I was going to do some pretty cool stuff and nothing was as cool as going down Rhiwbach Slate Quarry Mine.
The quarry is located to the east of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales in Cwm Penmancho. Opening to commercial operations around 1812, it closed (read: “abandoned”) in 1952 and was the last Welsh slate quarry where workers lived in barracks on the site, of which you can see some of the building walls around the site that are still standing. Due to its remote location, the Rhiwbach Tramway was build which connected it to the Ffestiniog Railway so the slate could be taken to Porthmadog and shipped overseas.
(Btw, I do not own a GoPro, so the pictures underground are not the best quality at all!)
To get to the mine there’s a short ascent through the quarry grounds and woodland.
The entrance is hidden away within the woodland and is gated. It requires any users to contact the Cave Access Limited directors to obtain the code to enter as they manage certain mine and cave sites across this area, and this particular cave is popular with outdoor groups so it is highly monitored. You enter at level 2 as level 1 is flooded.
This mine consists of eight floors and this map is fascinating to read as I’ve never seen them detailed this way. At points, when we were down there, the map was hard to read but, as with any map, it’ll take time to get used to navigating it.
Straight away we were in pitch blackness only a few metres from the mine (small entrance way) and followed along the tracks with our heads almost touching the ceiling. As there is no light, no algae can grow so the water is very clear (unless you churn up some mud) and you can see where you’re stepping.
Then came paddling the inflatable raft boats in the mine… yes, inflatable raft boats in the mine. I kid you not.
This cavern is located directly above another cavern on floor one, which contains over 90 feet of ice cold water, running all the way to the very base of the mine.
As we explored our lecturer, Graham, explained the history of the mine – one particular scary thought-provoking tale was about the young boys having to wait in total darkness at doorways beneath the ground to open and close the doors for the carts to pass through… being in pitch darkness for about 8-9 hours a day must have been frightening for them and for some of the boys, they were tied/chained to the walls so they couldn’t run away!
This traverse was over a pool (maybe collapsed cavern?) of ice cold water, which looked tempting enough to jump in, was exciting! I’ve traversed before, used cow tails etc but never underground! But then, I’ve never been on a boat underground before as well so this was turning out to be a fun trip.
I struggled a bit holding up my weight with my upper body and clipping into the next section but I did it and would happily do it again, it was so much fun!
We explored a lot of the mine caverns and Graham told us a lot about this history of the mine and the people who worked there. I’m glad I had visited the National Slate Museum the day prior, it added more of a realistic perspective of the harshness of the work conditions, why many went on strike at other quarries, the comradery of the miners so they kept going and the emotions they must have felt whilst working in the dark. Even visiting Penryth Castle, with its decorative walls been built using money earned from slaves and the miners, enlightened me to this traditional Welsh trade and why the Welsh are so proud of it.
The quarry is slowly collapsing in on itself, so some steel girders help keep parts up, and ‘dead walls’ – stones piled on top of each other to seal off a cavern entrance were established by the miners as structural support. As this cave attracts a lot of commercial groups, the leaders would probably unofficially report any major structural changes, but annually Cave Leaders do check the mine over. We were told an interesting fact about abandoned mines – I’m not sure if I recall it correctly but if a mine is shut down, then it’ll require the insurance company/owner to hire people at considerable cost to map the mine – however, if a mine is abandoned, then the maps created by the miners are used to form a cave map and updated/amendment if necessary by enthusiasts. Saves the quarry owner spending those pennies… This mine was abandoned so has it’s own abandonment plan.
We came to a second, more complicated traverse. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have any pictures or videos of it (except one of an abseil)!! For this one you had to climb up into a ‘window’, with only a small enough gap to fit three people on, then you traverse maybe 8 feet across, over a drop of about 12feet (and at points you weren’t able to see your feet for placement) before abseiling off the edge of a cliff to the ground below. I enjoyed this one more so than the previous traverse (which I did enjoy!) because not being able to see my feet made it more challenging and abseiling is always a fun thing to do.
After lunch, it was more exploration and looking at the equipment the miners have left behind before a climb up a waterfall (which wasn’t in full flow due to the dry weather) and out via the ladder system that had been installed.
Exiting the mine:
I thoroughly enjoyed doing this. One of our group members is from Yorkshire and has been down many caves so I’m hoping there’ll be future opportunities to go out and explore more whilst I’m up here.
If you fancy giving it a go yourself, you can go down this particular mine with Go Below caving company. They charge about £50. They do things slightly different than we did (we didn’t have a zip line) but there’s so much to explore.