It was a day for exploring. My husband and I went to the long-abandoned quarry site of Hafod Las, in the Conwy Valley. I was never expecting it to be like it was. Things like ‘disused incline,’ and the outlines of buildings, look very dry on the map. This quarry – a slate and slab quarry – lasted from the mid C19th to the 1930s, which means it’s been abandoned for almost a century.
We started walking up the disused incline, which looked like some kind of ancient hollow-way, except in how straight it was. Everything was dripping with moss. It made me think of the temperate rainforests of the American North-West. Moss thick on everything, carpeting everything. Little pink flowers like stars on the thick cushions of green. Everything beaded with water. Whole trees, leaning over as if tired of their own weight, blanketed in moss.
This disused incline ran straight up the hill. It must have been used to transport slate in carts from the processing area down to the valley floor. Occasionally you could see rusted cables in the ground, red against the moss and grass. Then we came upon a building, made of thin, solid slabs of grey slate. It was dwarfed by a massive hill of discarded slate slabs, part covered with moss and the little pink star flowers. I squeezed into this building – the entrances were pressed up against a wire fence – and looked around. The walls were all sprouting with little ferns, bigger ferns fanning up from the floor. A trough along the floor was coated in moss.
We walked on up the incline to find the main building. The incline was punctuated by the winding house, two rickety looking walls rising up on either side. And next to it, this great, high wall built of slate slabs. There were odd shaped entrances along this front wall. There wasn’t so much a back wall as a long stretch of rusting girders. Bits of rusty iron lying around, bits of machines, scraps of wood and turned earth.
Up the last bit of the incline, and we came across levers like the levers in a railway signal box, rusted, sticking out of the ground. They still move, after all this time. There was a wheel flat in the ground, which must be what the cable turned on. More levers, bits of ironwork. A small building just above the wheel, with what looked like a small fireplace in it.
Then we came upon what looked like a cave entrance. On getting closer, we could see daylight. We were seeing right through the hill! It was a dank little tunnel with the slate walls of a blast shelter inside. There was barbed wire looped about at the entrance, as if there had been a fence to keep people out. Stupidly, I went in. We were trying to get further up the hill. Going through the hill seemed like a good idea.
I imagined coming out on an open space. No. I came out on a narrow ledge, with a drop into a quarried bowl of about fifteen or twenty feet deep. All full of undergrowth, moss, trees. A bird of prey flew up and away, brown and swift. I wondered if we might be able to get down around the edge of this great bowl, but I thought it would be too risky. Then I turned round and stared, horrified, at the exit I’d just come through.
It looked about ready to drop two tons of slate on anyone passing under it. Like a child’s teeth about to come out. These two huge slabs of slate were both cracked away from the main, and ready to fall, directly above the exit to the tunnel. It looked as if it would fall if I breathed on it. I called back to my husband to not to try coming through, sent the dog back through off her lead, then took a deep breath, and went back in myself. I was half afraid if I even brushed it with my rucksack it might loosen it. I tiptoed back through the tunnel and out the other side.
So, I got out with my life. We looked for another way round this obstacle. It looked like there was something of a path up and over. So, I started scrambling up. Thick, rich soil, all the leaf mould turning to soil. A 45° slope. My husband was coming up behind me. The dog and I scrambled up to the top – and saw we were on a ridge about three feet wide, with a drop down the other side. No way through there. So, I sent the dog back down, sent my rucksack down on the end of the dog’s lead, and clambered down myself.
We took another path, and found another tunnel. This one looked much safer. Wider, higher, longer. The path through was cobbled. We both went through and came out the other side, turning round to see huge slate cliffs towering above us. Great slabs of slate in grey and ochre. Slate comes in so many colours. It was much more stable looking than the other tunnel, but there were still some slabs on the ground that must have fallen at some point. We stood there a little while, and marvelled. This was a wide platform we’d come out onto, but there was the same drop again at the edge, so we had to go back through the tunnel.
We went back towards the incline again, to try to get up that side. We passed an old man coming down, and exchanged a few friendly words. We came past a little hut still with its roof – made of great slate slabs and covered three inches deep in moss – in the side of the hill. This was the powder store for the quarry, set well away from other buildings, but it looked like a fairy house.
We puffed and heaved on up the hill, coming out into a slightly different ecosystem, it seemed. Less moss, less beading moisture. Fresher air. There was another scary moment as I heard a bee buzzing insistently about my head. I can’t risk being stung again so soon, especially with my heart rate so high. So, I stood very still, and finally it flew away.
We were both heaving and panting at this point, from the effort, and I think from the excitement. The dog always does this. She doesn’t get out of breath from exertion. She gets out of breath from being excited over sheep. These tunnels, I think, were our sheep. Our fitness bands didn’t register any extreme activity. It was the excitement of the moment.
We finally burst out onto one of the gravel forestry roads. It was like a miracle – coming upon civilisation at last! I wanted to sink down onto the road and kiss it. We sat there for a while, panting, getting our breath back. Two Liverpudlian cyclists came past and we showed them the map so they could find their way back down to the village. My husband told me how, once, a woman had been on these forestry tracks – endless, looping gravel roads – with her children, in her car, and couldn’t find her way out. Dark fell, and she called the police because she was so lost. They had to send out the helicopter to locate her and guide officers in.
We looked at the map a while ourselves, plotting our way back down, and decided to retrace part of a previous walk – down the old Roman road of Sarn Helen, a stony tracked walled with slate covered in yet more moss. So, we walked down the Forestry Commission gravel road, to meet the Roman road, and back to the car.
I need to go back there again.