37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Friday 11 September 2015
In the spring of 2015 I went on a week-long road trip around Wales, climbing mountains and mucking about in dirty old mine shafts. I plan to write an account of that journey soon enough, and I’ve already uploaded a set of photos to accompany it under the title ‘Welsh Alchemy.’
While I’m going to have a bit of fun with that post and write about it as a prolonged adventure, I have also put together a more traditional location report about perhaps the most visually striking of all the places we visited: a dumping ground for broken automobiles, hidden away inside a flooded, disused mine shaft.
I actually pitched this article to a travel website sometime last month, though I haven’t heard back from them yet and the piece has been left sitting in limbo. So this may yet be published elsewhere… but in the meantime, it seemed a good fit for The Exclusion Zone.
The Car Quarry
My hands gripped the damp rope, the rock shattering and slipping away from beneath my feet with every movement. Another step, another cascade of slate. Listening, I heard the fragments tumble down the sheer slope below, moist scales that fractured into ever-smaller shards as they disintegrated into the pit. Eventually they hit the floor, lost in darkness some hundred feet below, dispersing with a final flaky hiss.
Here in the wet hollow of a disused slate mine, somewhere deep beneath a mountain range in Wales, time behaved in strange and unpredictable ways. Just 20 minutes earlier we’d been stood in the sun, watching the shadows of clouds roll on through the valley – igniting the heather and wild flowers in momentary bursts of yellow fire as they went; but now, in these dripping caverns time had stopped altogether.
The space around us was vast; or at least, I had to assume it was. My torch beam couldn’t find the end of it. I could only guess by listening to the sound of water – subterranean streams that dripped and dribbled down the distant walls of slate.
We followed a path that zigzagged down the rock-face; sometimes as much as a foot wide, at other points narrowing to little more than an inch of shelf jutting out from the sheer cliff. Slate is treacherous, however – and here in the damp, black cavern, there was no hand- or foothold that did not threaten to crumble, to flake apart beneath my grip.
Our single rope, secured to a boulder at the top of the descent, trailed down the rocks to be swallowed by the darkness. I wrapped it tight around my wrist as I carried on down, following the crude path this way and that, tugging on the line like a heavy, blind pendulum. Beneath me, the lights of my companions’ torches had stopped moving. Suddenly I was catching up with them: we’d reached the bottom.
Landing on the shingle at the floor of this subterranean ravine, finding our target would simply be a case of following the water; streams and rivulets that trickled inexorably down, winding about the contours of the damp rock in the direction of their final resting place.
What had seemed – stood at the top, looking down – like an impossibly dangerous climb, suddenly didn’t seem so bad from this angle. From this perspective, the sheer drop I had perceived before was replaced by a series of chaotic, but manageable, stages. The return journey was marked out for us, one level at a time, like the jagged steps of some ancient Mayan pyramid built beneath the earth. Even so, the end of the climb remained invisible in the darkness.
From here the three of us followed a passage, winding off at an angle perpendicular to the face we’d just descended. It disappeared under a lintel, beneath a low-hanging chain grown furry now with orange rust that looked almost organic in the torchlight; into a tunnel bored through the sheer wall of the cavern.
If you’ve ever been inside a mine before, then perhaps you can relate to the peculiar sense of otherness that these spaces often exude; the texture, the shapes, the design of the place is wholly unnatural. It doesn’t hit you at first, not all at once, but gradually and over time. The square tunnels. Metal rings embedded into rock, festooned with chains and ropes: the pierced flesh of Mother Earth. Abandoned mines are not human spaces, but neither are they natural. Rather they can sometimes feel alien, uncanny, a simulacrum of the streets and structures we build up above.
Moving along the passage in darkness, we tripped through the grooves of old cart tracks – past the remains of wooden machinery, winches and pulleys discarded at the wayside and mulching slowing into pulp – to emerge at our destination: the car quarry.
The chamber was illuminated by a single shaft of daylight from above… and by its light we made out a pyramid of painted metal, mirrored perfectly in the still, green waters below. The stack of cars, washing machines, fridges and tyres that filled the far end of the cavern had been deposited here through the narrow opening up above. Road accidents, wreckages, faulty appliances; tumbling one after another through the mine shaft, a discreet landfill hidden inside a Welsh hillside. I tried guessing how many automobiles were buried in the heap – fifty? A hundred, even? It was impossible to tell.
There was a strangely ethereal beauty about the place, a certain post-modern mythicality: the juxtaposition of solid rock and twisted metal; of flaking paint against the vibrant colors of the underground lake. But there was a deeper significance, too. This scene of subterranean ruin, of broken industry lost in the timeless tunnels beneath the mountains, it was a poignant echo of the doomed Welsh mining industry itself.
The slate industry in Wales has its origins in Roman times, when the rock was quarried to serve as roofing material. The operations, particularly in northwest Wales, expanded notably in the 18th century reaching a boom in the late 19th century; by which point a workforce of 17,000 Welsh miners was producing an annual yield of half a million tons of slate.
It was around that time however, that political labor disputes and organized strikes prompted a series of recessions in the industry. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought cuts in production and a limit to exports; WWII further damaged the industry, and the number of active slate mines in Wales dropped by half from 1939 to 1945.
Demand for slate fell, and the Welsh trade was increasingly losing business to imports from Portugal, Italy and France. Over the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of slate mines and quarries across Wales were closed for good. The result was mass unemployment, and a large-scale exodus as people moved out from the mining communities in search of new work in the cities.
The cavern in which we stood then, this aquatic grotto filled with the wrecks of broken machines, was more than just a visual curiosity, more than merely beautiful decay. It was symptomatic – emblematic – of a dying industry, of human labors gone to rust and ruin. Once a thriving, crowded workplace, a source of employment and of material wealth, today this mine has been reduced to a dumping ground for the redundant technology of a community long-since departed.
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