As the days have been getting shorter and shorter, and winter sets in for real, the Merched Chwarel have been settling down to think about the next phase of the project. As well as getting out and about meeting people involved in contemporary quarry activities and with potential galleries and spaces, we’ve been wondering – and wondering while walking (as above at Cwmorthin) – about the walking element of Merched Chwarel. Not least because that is where we started. read more
On 1st March Merched Chwarel concluded our R&D project with a caban-style, day – long ‘sharing’, kindly hosted by the Amgueddfa Llechi, Llanberis.
The day was in two parts: A drop in exhibition of our work in progress (incorporating sketch books, video, sound, 3-D work, photographs, installations and research) attended by all four artists and about 40 guests, followed by an hour-long caban debate with tea and bara brith. The debate was attended by invited guests from the arts, archaeology and womens studies, as well as those with a strong personal connection to the quarries and quarrying.
We created the space for dialogue to happen, questions to be asked, artistic ideas and information to be shared.
This followed a more public ’Open Day’, again hosted by Amgueddfa Llechi Llanberis, on February 22nd where there was an opportunity for the public to observe our working processes, to share our ideas and documented research, as well as contributing their personal stories.
Comments in our visitors’ book at the sharing day/emails afterwards were:
“Fantastic co-operative project , enjoying the varied responses to a neglected subject. The online presence too — literate and revealing!”
• “Great to see artists asking questions, shedding light on the past in such creative ways. Diolch.”
• “A fascinating and worthwhile project. I look forward to seeing further developments.”
• “Prosiect difr tu hunt — cyffroes!”
• “Exciting project. Inspirational. Looking forward to following you.”
• “Fantastic ideas and cooperation on project. I think it is an excellent idea to bring together women to explore their emotional and artistic connection to quarries, also to research women’s involvement — a group to bring together a larger group’s ideas and feelings”.
• “Rhyfeddoe wir gwaith ymchwil mawr rhag i’r pethau fynd yn angof.”
• “Wych, edrych ymlaen amdan datblygiad y prosiect.”
• “Exciting stuff, wonderful passionate research. Looking forward, Edrych ymlaen.”
• “Thought today was brilliant and inspiring.” Rhys Mwyn
• “What a great day and great project! Would love to connect with it in the future”.
• “diolch am y wahoddiad i’r prynhawn merched y chwarel. roedd yn diddorol iawn, trafod y wahnol syniadau a cyfarfod pobol. Roeddwn yn hoffi y syniad gan Lisa a Marged I gwisgo llechi, fel tomen llechi sydd yn medru symud. Hefyd roeddwn yn meddwl am y cysylliadau rhwng y marched ddoe a heddiw a pawb, llinellau sydd yn lincio pawb. Y marciau at y llechen fel ysgrifennu at bwrdd du gyda sialc. Gad I mi wybod am digwyddiadau pellach a buaswn yn hoffi cyfrannu at dy project.
Da iawn a pob lwc”.
Throughout our project we met with interest and encouragement from a wide range of people and organisations. The level of interest in the themes and the results of our work from Amgueddfa Llechi, galleries, archaeologists, culturalists, holiday makers and local residents showed that there is a future for the project. For example, in his article about the event in Y Herald Cymraeg, Rhys Mwyn said ” Undoubtedly, there is a very exciting project in progress here – and I can suggest this on the basis of art alone … but there is [also] a fundamental question being asked: When I walked into the meeting room at the Slate Museum, I realised how little I know of the role of the women in relation to the quarry. By romanticising the overly hard human life of the man in the quarries, we have completely ignored the women… and this has to be stared directly into the human mirror”
Documentation has played an important role in my artistic process. I need to witness, reflect both visually and contextually alongside my more practical experiential approach.
This project ‘Merched Chwarel ’has given much to reflect on personally and even more within its collaborative context. It was interesting to see how differently the four of us engaged with these journeys and although we interacted and discussed throughout we remained, in most cases true to our own processes.
In order to digest the conceptual content of these quarry visits I have to relive aspects of the journey, maybe it’s the storyteller in me.
A sunny January day and an opportunity created by Jwls to have a guided tour of Penmaen mawr quarry, the only working one in our choice of quarries(hence being guided) and a granite not a slate quarry. Penmaenmawr translates as ‘The Head of the Great Stone’ and its location on what was once one of the largest Iron Age hill forts in Europe lies high up but right next to the sea. A very masculine environment, we were shown all the old working sheds, abandoned rusty machinery, alongside the prehistoric stone axe factory site of 5,000 years ago.
The working quarry at the top of the ridge looked like a stepped crater, a process which to my eye appeared foreign and so different from the slate quarries .Most of the granite is crushed and mixed with various materials to create concrete and tar for road surfaces and so a very different end product also. As a working quarryman ‘Saj’, who took us around was very focused on the quality of the material and had a sense of pride to be working there. Putting aside the metal fences, the top of the plateau had a strong atmosphere of its own and this yellow marker sign had a shrine like quality.
However, its placement, which is so close to ancient sites such as ‘Meini Hirion’, the Druids Circle of standing stones, burial mounds and cairns, brought conflicting feelings which I would like to explore with the others.
Our last quarry walk was hosted by Lisa in Bethesda which she described as an ‘urban quarry’. It was really interesting to explore areas that are familiar to and by someone who has lived there for a time and also to focus on walking around the edge of the massive Penrhyn quarry .Walking through the lanes of the town and being given the history of the houses and their relationship to the changing landscape was a great introduction. We stopped at Tanysgafell cemetery which has been long abandoned and spent some time looking at the Memorial stones which told a story of struggle and despair. There were many graves that housed whole families, dying within a year of each other. The majority of graves were of young people, children and women, cholera it is rumored between the 1800’s and 1850, all families of the quarry workers.
Our next exploration was of the quarry hospital, now a ruin. It treated the quarry men but not their families which made me wonder if that was why there were so many women and children buried in the cemetery.
Wherever we walked trees seem to be growing against all odds reclaiming the once industrial landscape.
Crossing to the other side of town, we explore the smaller quarries dotted along the sides of Moel Faban with its enclosures and settlements. The cliffs of these quarries are the colour of the heather and I find when I return that there is indeed a slate called Penrhyn Heather grey. There are streaks and spots of light green in much of this red slate which is very appealing to the artistic eye but possibly not to its quality .
So, the quarry visits that we had intended to do have been completed, we decided to return to one, to explore a collaborative sound piece using the echo quality of the quarried ‘twll’ and declaring our’ presence’ within the quarries. It was interesting that in most of the quarry landscapes we visited there was an instinctive response by voice by one or the other of us .I felt very drawn to singing.
The project is now entering the ‘sharing ‘phase with the collaborative process element coming to the forefront .There is much to reflect on and to discuss between ourselves and with others as we conclude the Research and Development phase of ‘Merched Chwarel’
We shall meet at the Llanberis Slate Museum on March 1st with an invited audience to share and discuss our ideas for the future.
Our next two walks were in the dis-used slate quarry of Dinorwig, and the working granite quarry of Penmaenmawr. These two walks were separated by only seven days, and are connected in my mind by their contrasts.
We began on a grey still day in Nant Peris, in Lindsey’s cosy kitchen, at the bottom of the valley, on flat gentle terrain. It felt safe, nestled and protected by towering steep sides. The villiage church and the graveyard also had that gentle sense of nurture and protection, a sense of strong community. The headstones were well tended, with clasped hands engraved and soft grass wrapped around the feet like a blanket.
We crossed a road, through a gate, over a stile and came across a river, – so many boundaries – to the edge of the quarry tips. There was a mound of old slate carts rusting under the bracken, neglected and abandoned, a distorted echo of the churchyard. Here, we stopped for lunch and I spun around as fast as I could to mark the edge of the quarry.
When we started on the slate path all sense of protection disappeared. The mounds rose up on both sides, huge loose slabs of slate, chunks the size of table tops, piled high like the coins in a penny arcade.
A caricature of domesticity, a slate “sofa” outside a ruined building.
From there to a deep deep hole with towering cliffs and an amazing echo. We shouted and sang and banged slate together but all I could feel was the pull of the hole. There was a strong wire fence with new, sturdy poles so I knew I was safe, but the pull felt strong enough to snap the wire like cotton and I was pleased to move away from there. The rest of the walk became a simple walk away from that hole.
Exactly one week later, on a stunning bright day, we drove through the gates of Hanson’s Aggregates in Penmaenmawr to meet Saj, our guide for the day as we visited the quarry where Jwl’s Taid and Hen Daid worked. This is a world of working men, so we were not allowed to wander unescorted, but were taken on a tour like VIP’s. This lack of contact with the ground makes it so much harder to remember the route and the order of things. A stopping, starting dot to dot journey, though soft dunes and waves of crushed granite, past machines and silo’s.
Everywhere was punctuated with words. “Emergency Run Off” “ Last Lost Time Incident” “Asbestos – Do Not Disturb” We visited a shed full of defunct machines and parts, everything covered in the soft grey dust. We stopped by the amazing “Bonc Jolly”, an abandoned structure that reminded us all of somewhere else.
At the top of the mountain we looked down into the hole, an inverted peak. Neat galleries and ordered piles of bounders on the floor. Such a contrast from the jagged jumbled quality of slate. I realised that I was looking over the edge of the quarry, with hardly even a flicker of vertigo in my belly. The feel of the granite beneath my feet was grounding me completely. I tried spinning, and even then, I felt rooted. Is it the magnetism of granite that makes me feel safer, or it’s hardness?
At this, the highest point of the quarry, we said goodbye to Saj and hopped over a stile and into the mountain landscape. It felt so good to be walking, autonomous again. The quarry was fascinating and spectacular but the rules and regulations and warnings felt so restrictive. We walked until we found the druid circle, following ancient routes and sheep paths, exchanging pleasantries with farmers and other walkers. This landscape has no fences, allowing the wild ponies to range free, and as we walked towards the town and the car, we couldn’t see the quarry at all.
As a group we had decided to each host a visit to a quarry that we had an affinity with or had worked in previously. For each of us the quarry landscape is a familiar one but I wasn’t expecting the varied histories and personal experiences that we shared during these collaborative journeys.
Approaching Dinorwig quarry from both directions gave an insight into its massive scale both physically and emotionally. I hadn’t taken many steps before I came across my first ‘found object’ –
This was the last thing I had imagined coming across, and an object which was an antithesis of such an environment .At this early stage, I was totally enveloped by the scale and this small intimate yellow duck, which had the essence of children and play, brought a softness as a strong contrast to the mountains of grey /purple slate.
The physicality of human achievement however, both in what was quarried and what was built in order to do so, vast walls ,inclines, steps and tunnels awakened the sculptor in me and I found myself relating to form and material as a priority from then on.
Walking with Lindsey from her home Coed Gwydr in Nantperis, via Eglwys Sant Peris’ graveyard we saw the headstones of the previous occupants of her house, many of whom had died in the quarries. Standing on this ground at the foot of the quarries made me aware of how large a community had lived in this now, relatively compact village.
There were so many headstones with carved hands of various genders being held, beneath the words ‘Ffarwel -Farewell ’.There was one that differed from the rest and that particularly moved me, in that it included a small child’s hand resting on an older one, both held within the palm of a woman’s hand .It spoke of, ancestors, community and connection to this place.
As we walked from Nantperis into the heart of the Llanberis/Dinorwig slate waste tips following the paths and steep steps of the workers trails, I reflected on how whole communities of this area had been affected by and involved with quarry life. The fact that we started from a quarry house with all its history as opposed to the entering from the other direction, from Dinorwig where I was totally immersed in the physical scale and forms, gave me a deeper insight and wider perspective of quarry life.
Dyma fi wedi cael fy magu yng nghysgod y Graig, sef Chwarel Penmaenmawr lle bu’n Taid, hen daid a mwy diweddar 3 o frodyr fy nhad yn gweithio.
Y mae chwareli yn rhan o fy hunaniaeth, ac yr wyf wastad wedi mynegu hyn trwy gelf; fy mherthynas unigryw a lle, a phresenoldeb trawiadol chwareli o fewn y dirwedd.
Merch y chwarel yn wir – ond beth yw arwyddocâd hyn heddiw ?
Wel, mae’r ffaith nad oeddwn erioed wedi ystyried y cwestiwn yn ddiddorol yn ei hun rywsut? Heb aros i sylweddoli’r anomaledd, dyma fi ymhlith hanes- dynion?
Y mae cychwyn ar y daith ‘Merched Chwarel’ yn agor gymaint o ddrysa a chwestiynau yn barod:
– o safbwynt fy hun, fel merch chwarel.
– ni’n pedair, ein grŵp a’n cysylltiadau a’n profiadau gwahanol, a’r bwriad o rannu a cyd-weithio.
– Pha rôl oedd gan ferched mewn hanes cyfoethog ein chwareli ?
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.