37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Wednesday 21 November 2018
Some places have a way of capturing the imagination. For me, one of the most memorable, mesmerising sights that I’ve ever seen was the rotting pyramid of broken cars that lurks in the bottom of a flooded mineshaft in North Wales.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve already told you this story before… or part of it, at least. I first mentioned the Car Quarry (for want of a better name) in my cryptic, rambling, psychogeographical account of a week-long road trip through Wales (I called it “Welsh Alchemy” – and I named the location as “Lleoliad Gyfrinach,” which is Welsh for “Secret Location.” Ha.). As much as I enjoy publishing long-form esoteric essays however, I did later decide that the process of getting down into this flooded subterranean trash heap was interesting enough to merit a more procedural article of its own – and so I wrote The Car Quarry, a slightly more traditional take on that same adventure.
Now I’m sharing a third story about that same place. You may have noticed, in Welsh Alchemy, that I mentioned I had already gone looking for the Car Quarry before. It was roughly a year earlier, and I was up in the mountains of North Wales with two friends, following a tip-off about cars in an underground lake. We never made it down to the lake, however – instead we entered the abandoned mine network through the wrong tunnel, and very quickly ended up out of our depth.
Here’s what happened.
We arrived at the red pin on my map. It marked a nondescript turning off the valley road, a steep, narrow track I’d never have noticed otherwise. As we arrived, however, a minibus was blocking the entrance. It looked like a school trip: little faces pressed against the windows, while the driver got out to unlock the gate to the mines. We decided to hang back, wait and watch.
The bus chugged its way up the slope, then came to a halt on a plateau above the main road. Its young passengers began pouring out, a line of children donning jackets and hard hats before disappearing off into the mountainside behind their guide.
I had read that the mine network was now privately owned, and that it was sometimes used for guided adventure trips – not the car dump we were headed for, but other, less treacherous regions of the subterranean – and it seemed we had managed to arrive at exactly the same time as one of these groups.
After driving so far though, we weren’t ready to give up. Instead we waited until the school group were out of sight, and then began to make our way – cautiously – up the path behind them.
In my research I’d spoken to others who had already been to the lake. Finding the location hadn’t been too difficult… but I wanted to know what to expect. What we were up against. The reports that came back inclined me to prepare for the worst.
“The entrance is a square tunnel, and it’s flooded,” one person had told me. “You have to wade in through water up to your waist.” Another warned me about “a sheer drop where you’ll have to clamber 100 feet down a rock face into darkness.”
I had been told, also, that the entrance was difficult to find; and so once the three of us had skirted carefully around the empty minibus, we headed straight for the rocky ridge.
Following an old path that curved between gravel piles, along the contour of the plateau, we reached, at last, a noisy grotto of rocks and crashing water. Walled in on all sides by sheer faces, the place was scattered with vast boulders and sprayed with moisture from the waterfall that crashed down from higher up. There was no stream leading out from the grotto – just water falling, pooling briefly then disappearing. It had to be making its way underground from here, I realised. So I clambered about on those slippery boulders with my torch, shining it down into the crevices, until I found what I was looking for: in the cracks between the boulders I spied a continuation of the waterfall down below, falling further still, under the surface of the earth. To see the cars, we’d need to find a safe way down to the bottom.
One of my friends shouted that he’d found something nearby. It was a low, square passage, cut into the rock face. I began to wade inside, and the water came straight up to my thighs. Wading further, it rose higher still. The going was tough, the bottom thick with a silt that clung to my boots; stirring up to turn the liquid into brown soup. At its deepest point, I was standing in freezing cold water up to my chest, in darkness, pushing on through into the shaft.
Eventually the path rose again, and I found myself on dry land. It was a dead-end though. The passage went nowhere, simply coming to an abrupt halt at a smooth wall of rock.
I waded back out and we resumed our search of the area around the waterfall. It would be me who found the next opening – a crack in the rocks where the cliff met the grass, only just large enough to wriggle through. Shining my torch beam inside, the passage disappeared off along a path beneath the cliffs.
Two of us climbed down inside, and the tunnel soon opened up into a passage that allowed space to crawl with relative comfort. A few twists later, it suddenly opened up into a vast space – the walls and ceiling receded, the floor dropped away, and we were stood on a precipice overlooking a bottomless void of darkness.
I find it hard to describe the scale of that cavern. Not least because I couldn’t see the walls… but if your mental image of a mine shaft is a claustrophobic tunnel lined with supports, then trust me, this was something else. For a better comparison, try picturing the Mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings. By the time my friend caught up with me on the ledge, we put all our torches together and with four beams we just about made out the opposite wall – an Olympic swimming pool’s length away. A cool wind was blowing from somewhere, and it would have been easier to believe we were stood on a mountain cliff on a starless night, rather than underground.
I felt slightly nauseous when I reminded myself that our plan had been to descend. I craned my neck out over the edge, carefully, and shone a light down into the darkness. Nothing but void. Even with all our torches combined there was no hint of an end to it, placing the bottom at least as far away as the opposite wall. My informant had told me we’d have to climb 100 feet into darkness… but this felt more like 1000.
I have never been one to give up quickly though… and it hadn’t yet occurred to me that we might be in the wrong place. Besides, this informant of mine was neither the bravest nor the most athletic of people; so when she said it could be done – and without a rope, at that – it made me wonder if the climb down was somehow easier than it looked. But now, peering out over the ledge down a smooth wall into darkness, her advice was making less sense all the time.
As I explored the space around us I found that it connected across to a shelf that ran deeper along the left wall into the cavern. Well, I say it connected… close enough. There was gap of some three or four feet between where our precipice stopped and the next shelf began; and a sheer drop in between. It’s possible that I never would have attempted it in better lighting. Maybe I was buoyed up with false confidence by the fact that I couldn’t actually see the distance to the floor… but I jumped it.
It was the kind of distance you’d think nothing to jump at ground level. No major athletic achievement, just a long hop from one patch of slippery slate to the next. There was a rusted cable pinned into the wall at the far end and I gripped it for added support as my friend followed me over the gaping chasm.
From here, this new shelf seemed to curve around and down the cavern wall. It looked as though it had been cut for wheelbarrows, once – a tiny, narrow ramp spiralling up inside the walls of a subterranean cathedral. We started to follow it down, leaning away from the edge as the thin slate layers slipped and cracked beneath our boots. My palms sweated on the cable that hung loosely from the cave wall. I felt sweat break out on my forehead too, and a few times, I thought I might actually have to stop and vomit. The fear overtook me before I even saw it coming, and I asked my friend if we could stop, maybe, and reconsider our options.
“I’m so glad to hear you say that,” he said, and in the torchlight I noticed how pale his face had turned. Neither of us was enjoying this one bit.
Before giving up we decided to check how far we had come, to see if we could yet see the cavern floor – and leaning over the edge with our torches we saw it this time, just about, a rocky landscape in the distance down below us. But we could also see the edge of it. At the furthest end of the cavern the floor disappeared again, a smooth, hard line of black that sliced the quarry floor in two. It was a step, we realised. That distant ground floor we were making our slow and slippery way towards was only the top step out of who-knew-how-many. My head span with the realisation that this god-awful dungeon might still be multiple times larger – multiple times deeper – than I had previously imagined.
We turned around and headed back for the entrance. It was harder work in this direction, one hand on the wall as the treacherous slate slid and cracked beneath our feet. I tried to distract myself by picturing the scaffold as tall as a tower block, the lights, the rolling wheels and barrows that would have filled this place while the mine was in operation; it must have been extraordinary, a makeshift city of poles and wooden planks inside the mountain.
Reaching the gap before the final ledge, we braced ourselves to jump – only this time, I realised we’d be jumping across and up, not across and down. I took a deep breath and then leapt over, barely allowing myself time to think it through.
My friend, behind me, he tried stepping across – I think he couldn’t bear the thought of having both feet off the ground at the same time. He was swearing like a mad drunk in the darkness, at me, himself, the cavern, and at everyone who had ever shared a photograph of the Car Quarry online. He made it across though: leaning hard into the wall, stretching his leg as far as it would go and then performing a controlled fall onto the safe side of the pit.
Crawling back into the sunlight we found our other friend sat on a boulder smoking a cigarette. To my information-starved eyes he looked like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.
“Did you find it then?” he asked, and the two of us groaned.
Although, as chance would have it we did find the cars before we left for home. Coming back down the mountainside, the school bus had left so we followed the main track towards the roadside turning. Before we hit the main road – right where the minibus had been parked – one of my companions ducked into the bushes to answer the call of nature. Seconds later he was shouting at us to come and look.
Through the undergrowth, only a stone’s throw from the main road, a trail of broken doors and rubber tyres led up to a cave. The back end of a family sedan poked out of the ground, the rest of the opening clogged with refuse – car parts, a refrigerator and boulders – and beside it, a small square tunnel in the vertical wall was flooded with water up to maybe waist height.
We were stood literally at the top of the pyramid of cars – and through the gaps we could see water, an underground lake just a little way beneath the surface. Compared to what we’d just been through this looked positively pedestrian, and I’m not sure if I was more frustrated or elated by the discovery. By now though, the sun was setting. We had found the Car Quarry, at last, but we didn’t have time to get a closer look. Instead, driving away through the valley, I vowed to myself that I’d be back for it some day.
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