Walking the National Park Boundary around the quarry town of Blaenau Ffestiniog for a previous project ’ Ail Wneud/Ail Ddyfeisio – Re Take /Re Invent’ left me thinking of other boundaries that exist in this quarry landscape, in particular the gender boundaries.
What role, if any, did women have within the context of these slate quarries?
Our group, Merched Chwarel had similar questions and so a R&D phase of our enquiry began.
My research brought to light Kate Griffiths who, in 1909 both instigated the setting up, running and teaching of 23 children in a remote quarry school in Rhiw Bach village quarry.
She is the only woman mentioned in the quarry history of Bleanau Ffestiniog and I became curious. Her journey to and from Rhiw Bach (one of the remotest of the Blaenau quarries) during the spring and summer months, was where I invited Merched Chwarel to start.
It began as a line of movement between two places.
Following her path had a meaning, from the material to the spiritual-experiencing the seen and the unseen, the real and the symbolic.
Walking has always been a strong part of my artistic process. My intention on most walks is to stay open and respond intuitively to the place. However, the Land Artist, Chris Drury’s quote was very much in my mind-
“If you make work about land you are making a political statement as well as an aesthetic one”
My thoughts followed not just the surface of the land but the layers of human history connected with it. Cultural connections to land have always played an important part of my process.
The above image is of the way in to Rhiw Back Quarry.
I found out later that, at the head of this dramatic incline was also the place where the Carausius stone was originally found, before being moved to St Tudclud’s Church in Penmachno . This was a 5th century carved headstone of the Roman Emperor Carausius with the Latin inscription, meaning-
“Carausius lies here in this heap of stones”
The OS map marks the Roman road Sarn Helen as also going through the land of Rhiw Bach quarry. Maps, and the way that they record these visible and invisible paths, which are created by various kinds of touching, are a fascination to me, and always an essential tool on my walks.
The industrial archaeology of this quarry, particularly its scale within the landscape was a source of inspiration. The village ruins were a particular focus as the reality of life here became evident to us all. Although the whole place was ‘absent’ of its inhabitants, the traces of connection became very ‘present’ as we chose a room within one of the houses to have our lunch and to focus on why we had come. The school’s location was an unknown during this visit as it was a corrugated iron building in Kate Griffiths’s time here, with nothing now in evidence.
I came across this painting by an unknown artist in David Gwyn’s book “Welsh Slate: Archaeology and History of an Industry” at a later date, which brought the village alive for me.
There were questions that arose for us all. I found myself getting obsessed with the practicalities of their lives, how did they wash their clothes etc. The presence of the washing line was, for me, the most memorable structure of the whole village. The domestic was strongly evident in what remained of the village.
The fact that we had chosen this quarry to visit because of the school teacher made me think of the role of education in Wales at this time. It was not that long after the Welsh language had gained a foothold once more following the devastating effect of the 1847 education report and the Blue Books which brought in the Welsh Not.
Sadly, when teachers had to have medicals Kate Griffiths had to stop teaching as they discovered she had a hole in her heart. Two school masters followed her but they lacked her skills and soon after the school was disbanded.
Her return journey each night (apart from the winter when she stayed in the village) ended by joining the Graigddu quarry men coming down the inclines on the Ceir Gwyllt, back into the town. This postcard was kindly given to me by Erik Scott who had interviewed Kate Griffiths when she was in her 70’s and who supplied me with all the information about her.
Our return journey was in haste as the weather turned, becoming cold and wet, exposing us to the unpredictability of the mountains and an insight into the vulnerability of the people who worked there.