Documentation of walking to Rhiwbach Quarry village with Merched Chwarel, led by Marged Pendrell.
The walk was to trace the footsteps of Kate Griffiths, the schoolteacher, who would walk the path from Blaenau to Rhiwbach, to educate the children of the tiny, quarry village. Our journey began by car, through a landscape swathed in frost, but with bright sun and dramatic forms.
We park at the entrance of a working quarry and exchange pleasantries with a man who was there to check the dust levels in the quarry. We walked away from the big machines, massive slabs of rock and earth working equipment, away from the little flags and towards the open landscape, with the quarry on our left.
The boundary marker between “journey to” and “Rhiwbach walk” was a fence and cattle grid. Blue plastic festooned the fence. Long hairs of blue, flapping in the wind like prayer flags, and the cattle grid feels ancient. The rungs pitted and rusted, some collapsed completely, some degenerating from iron to dust at the centre. I choose a sturdy looking one and walk across it tightrope style.The path is deeply rutted but the water is frozen over completely so my attention is focused on hopping from side to side across the ruts, picking out the most solid footing. Pits open sporadically on either side, exposing striated stone with lush moss and ferns and dripping water, evidence of burrowing men, but feeling like fairy story mini landscapes.
As we turned the corner, the true vastness of the area opened up. All quiet now. It’s hard to imagine this as anything other than wilderness, but once all those quarries were working and the hills would have echoed with machinery and shouts of men, blasts from all sides. A strange monument to the recent past rose up on the right of the path in the form of a concrete plinth, shed sized but low, on which 3 towers stood, topped with angles of rusted aerials. Piled at the base of the towers there was a wealth of bits of metal and plastic, an iron giant to be reassembled by someone with vision.
We hopped over a very low barbed wire fence to cut a corner and avoid boggy ground, and then back onto a straight path with the swell of the slope on our right and the expanse of the landscape to our left. As we got closer, we came to a winch tower marking the top of a steep, straight incline. From above, Rhiwbach looks like a long abandoned temple to some ancient god. The land it is on is raised in the centre of the valley, and the slate tips spilling out on all side of it like spider’s legs, reaching out towards the valley sides. The incline is dead straight down ahead, steep and impressive, adding to the religious feeling of the place. This point felt like another boundary to me, so I chose here to create a vortex to allow myself to truly be within this landscape.
Spinning at the top of the incline felt precarious but exciting. Fear stopped me from going as fast as I could, but I spun until the world dissolved and it was only me, then I stopped and let myself watch it spin, for one second being truly still, as the world spins on it’s axis without me. Then, as the land resolved, I properly arrived in Rhiwbach.
The descent is very straight and steep, two thirds of the way down, there is a recess in the wall on the right. A rotten wooden frame seems to support the rocks above, with the space within empty except for more rusty nubs and wires. As a group we all stop, admire, rest and each take it in turns to kneel before it and peer inside. Our behaviour implies a shrine.
A couple of yards beyond the “shrine” there is an entrance that felt like a Chinese temple gate, through which were buildings, clustered around a towering brick chimney. Vast stone lintels holding up the walls above large entrances. Each lintel has a serious crack right through the centre, illustrating the precariousness of the entire structure.
We moved into a long open area, studded with remnants of structure. Sheds for splitting, cutting and dressing slate. Fir tree saplings and rusty poles provided flora and colour along with bright orange rust, more cables, chains and bolts everywhere. Each structure once had a purpose. Within the outer lines of quarry sheds, was an open space, dotted with pillars of slate, seven foot at least and thicker at the bottom than at the top. Sturdy supports for nothing but sky.
As a group we started walking towards the edge of the rise, where the path descended the side of one of the slate tips. Zig zaging through the thin, crunching, tinkling rock, (the Rhiwbach slate sounds different to the Bethesda slate. Much more brittle) Above us and to the left is a small rectangle reservoir, and directly below it a shed and a wobbly, broken toothed crawiau fence. Rows of little dwellings, each with a fireplace and a small room or two. We tried to imagine where the school would have stood, where the children would have played and where the washing would have been done. It felt like the weather was drawing in and a slight sense of urgency came with it. We unanimously moved into one of the little houses. Marged laid the table and I placed a candle in the centre of it. We used other slates as seats and set our food out. Julie rang a bell to call us all together, cutting through the wildness of the place like an echo of the old school bell. We ate sandwiches, hummus, apples and eggs, finished up with bara brith and chocolate. Lindsey read from an 1890’s geology text book, Marged read the ingredients and traditions of Bara Brith. We admired the mossy patina of the wallpaper, and the lush green carpet of grass. We felt like a family, chatting around the table. We were a group.
We left the house as we found it, with nothing to mark our presence save the chalked place settings on the slab. It felt like it was our house. Stepping out after lunch and entering the tiny pedestrian street, the past residents felt close, the after image of washing on lines and feet on the ground fleeting in the corner of my eye. We found a larger building at the end of the row, with grand doorways and windows. This must have been some kind of meeting place. Possibly the chapel.
The magic of our domestic experience seemed to be fading, as the clouds drew in and we began feeling the pull of our individual daily concerns. The return walk was a mirror image of the arriving one, except that each descent of course, became an ascent. The opposing pull of behind and ahead, switched. The steep incline was challenging. Zig zagging to ease the pain in the legs whilst still maintaining forward momentum. We past the scrapyard memorial and the modern quarry came into view, we dissipate and drive towards a glowing sky, away from our quarry house and back to our own individual domesticity.