Sunday, 20 October 2013

Under the Mountain, Over the Mountain...

Miners path "the zig zags"

 Simon – We need to bear off to the left soon or its going to be a very long run
Me – Here's a path, should we follow it?
Simon – whats the worst that could happen?
Me – we fall off a cliff or down a mineshaft?
Simon – After you….

Despite the less than stable ground that we found ourselves on we picked our way down the slate strewn mountainside back to our little cottage at Blaenau Ffestiniog without incident. Our “run” over the hills had taken us past what used to the heart of the welsh slate mining industry when 4000 men from the village would make their way up the various miners paths to begin their working day – 12 hours of hard labour underground in complete darkness, the only light coming from explosions as the slate was hewn leaving cathedral sized caverns within the mountain. Surrounding us were hillsides strewn with heaps of slate, the waste product of this industry, along with many disused buildings, crumbling structures and rusting machinery. Where once upon a time the place was a hive of industry, now all is quiet save from runners and walkers exploring the area. 

Slate fence posts

Inevitably tourism has taken over as the major industry, slate mining no longer profitable with increased competition from abroad and from more cheaply produced building materials, and the mine has been turned into a fascinating tourist attraction where you are taken deep underground. The tour guide switches off the light “to give you a sense of what it was like”. This, somehow, I doubt. I don’t think anything can replicate the long dangerous hours of back breaking work, the noise, the smells (no toilet facilities) and children as young as 12 were working in this environment. The workers were allowed every Sunday off as well as two or three days holiday a year one, of course, being Christmas day but lest you thinking Sunday was for a little R&R the church had got that one covered – chapel had to be attended three times on a Sunday and woe betide anyone who didn’t show up especially if their foreman did.
A little train journey into the mines
Descending into the depths
Instead of building materials and roofing slates the ubiquitous gift shops now sell little gift items and souvenirs such as place mats, coasters and wine racks all crafted from slate. On the mountain itself tracks have been formed for mountain bikers and a new mountain bike centre and café now lie next to (and on top of) the mine and for £5 a van will drive you and your bike to the top of the hill so all you have to do is pedal back down. We settled for running over the tracks. 

The steam railway was constructed to transport the slate....
....and is now a tourist attraction as it weaves its way precariously over the hillsides

 Well it had to be done. Snowdon. Everyone who has been to North Wales has climbed it (or so it seems) and there is nice variety of routes to the top ranging from epic and scrambly to a huge “motorway” and, if you really can’t be bothered to walk, you can always get the train to the summit. Yes, really. This narrow gauge rack and pinion mountain railway was built in 1896 to carry tourists up and down the mountain and its steam and diesel powered engines still do this today.
I wanted to go for the epic and scrambly route over Crib Goch but I spotted other walkers heading in that direction fully equipped with ropes and helmets and other mountaineering paraphernalia and as neither of us were equipped with anything like that a swift revision of plans was necessary and we settled for a less than technical ascent via the “Pyg track” and a descent via the “miners track” (copper mines this time).

It was a nice warm morning and I was looking forward to a leisurely stroll but within five minutes of setting off Simon had appeared to have decided that this was to be a forced march. I think the crowds of people that we were sharing the trail with were annoying him but lets face it, it is Snowdon, probably the most accessible mountain in the country, if not the world and on a lovely late summers day you are not going to have the place to yourself. Not a chance.
As so often happens within 20 minutes of leaving the car park the crowds had thinned out so I had no need to voice my reservations as to the pace of the walk as fortunately it had slowed and we soon reached the summit. It may be an accessible mountain but it is still spectacular and breathtakingly beautiful and just to remind us that it is still a high mountain and subject the same vagaries of the weather as any other mountain there was a cool wind and swirling mist shrouding the summit.

Race the train up!

Not only can you get a train to the top of this mountain you can also buy a coffee in the restaurant and… a souvenir in the gift shop. Last time I climbed Snowdon it was with someone who considered himself something of a mountaineering purist and shunned all things deemed to be “touristy” and so that time I hadn’t been allowed into either the restaurant or the gift shop so this time, in a fit of childish rebelliousness, I marched straight into the gift shop and bought myself some genuine, bona fide, tourist tat.
The descent by the miners tracks and over the causeway between the lakes didn’t take long either but by the time I got back to the car park my feet were on fire, I should have just gone for trainers and not big walking boots on such a warm day. Once my feet had cooled off it was straight to Pete’s eats for tea and cakes…a day on the hills in Llanberis cannot be finished any other way!

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