A copper mine under the Great Orme
For half an hour on a Sunday morning the road next to the Penmorfa mine entrance can be the busiest place on Llandudno's West Shore. Up to ten vehicles might arrive with somewhat odd yet friendly individuals dressed in scruffy apparel. Various bits of equipment are produced including ropes helmets with lamps and harnesses. Bags are packed and some (the lucky ones) carry wooden boards with wheels! Entry to the system is gained by unlocking a gate and scurrying through 135m of pipe-work recently inserted in by the council to prevent collapses in the ginging (stonework surrounding the tunnel) blocking the regular flow of water. Crawling was bad for the knees and it was not long before the motley collection of trolleys was developed making light of the journey. Lie back on the board just above the pipe-water and use your legs push on through . Listen to the clatter of the other trucks (no overtaking!), catch the jocular remarks, relax and watch the pipes go by. Last one in lock the gate.
When you emerge from the pipe-work, park up and start to wade along the adit. If you are approaching 6ft tall the good news is that the water may not reach your crutch. The bad news is that your back and neck will be bent awkwardly for about fifteen minutes whilst you stagger down 664m of straight passageway. Check out the watermark on the wall and think of earlier explorers braving neck deep water. After 250m find the natural cavity in the roof that must have attracted some to have a 'warm up' and perhaps a rethink.
Eventually the water level lowers to a more acceptable knee then ankle height as the system proper is finally reached with excavations extending upwards (the 'first rift'). This is where the adit driven at a record pace broke through on Oct 14th 1842 to drain an estimated 65m of flooded workings. Some areas lower than the adit, extending far below sea level are still inundated. Avoid the worst of some water cascading noisily from above, on the other side a tally system is in place on the wall. Log in by adding your nametag or risk being overlooked later and possibly getting locked in for a week or more!
There is a split in the adit at this point. Right soon leads to the filled in Vivians shaft, continuing northwards with much wading to pass the blocked Higher shaft and eventually reach a dead end after a total of 272m. (This was just short of a planned link up with Treweeks shaft). Keeping to the left at the tally board leads northwestwards to reach further workings at 60m (the 'second rift') and to terminate after 100m with excavations at a 'third rift'. These two areas have been investigated although vertical stopes have made height gain difficult. Clearly there is much potential above but no easy way to get there. As a consequence it is the system first encountered immediately above the tally board that has been explored to the greatest extent.
Getting to grips……
The extraction of copper ore in the heart of the Great Orme has left a huge labyrinth of stopes, passages, shafts and caverns. Its size and complexity, full of twists and irregularities can be very disorientating. Dark corners and recesses lie everywhere. It is a stunning and inspirational tolkien world. The Holy Grail of our exploration is to establish a connection to the surface 400ft above, this could be made by finding a link through to one of the mines presently accessed from the summit such as Pullau or Treweeks. The regular route up and down the 'first rift' is marked by occasional rope-work and strategically placed compact discs. These incongruous items, no doubt containing all the knowledge possessed by humanity, act as surreal guides, although a wrong turn can still be made, even after several visits.
Trips earlier in the year covered known ground with new members being introduced to old haunts. Gradually however, other areas were being probed, though a discarded coke bottle, a cigarette butt or a scrap of clothing would indicate we were not always the first. It was the frequency of our visits together with the use of bolting techniques and various ladders that would hopefully open up entirely unknown areas. In addition an accurate survey was started.
Visitors began to divide into two factions. A surveying team and the ferrets. The slow methodical approach of the surveyors (Steve Lea, Ali and Tony Davies) will accurately map the complicated workings, perhaps for the first time. Eventually they should be able to point to those areas in Penmorfa that come closest to the mines presently descended from near the Orme summit, improving the chances of a successful link up. The ferrets meanwhile are sticking their heads into all the nooks and crannies that they can find, pushing back the known, always hopeful of something new.
A trip on November 5th summed up our ferreting endeavors. A short section of aluminum ladder would be used to allow us to get up into some previously inaccessible shafts. Working as a team the ladder was carried, pushed or pulled, clanking and scrapping en route. Three times the ladder was set up below an uncharted opening, perhaps seated in a bolted sling to gain extra height. Three times Gaz would disappear off the top of the ladder whilst the rest of the group awaited a verdict. These operations took some time and on each occasion partly out of curiosity and partly from boredom I drifted off to explore. After gaining a certain amount of height I attempted to drift back in approximately the right direction to re-establish contact. At times I switched off my light and sat still, listening for the faintest noise, watching for the smallest flicker before moving to another area. Each such sortie eventually proved successful, a triple whammy. A bemused Gaz kept finding his new area occupied. The news relayed to those still waiting below must have seemed bizarre. The lesson for the day was that the stopes, shafts and passageways reached so far in our warren all inter-linked they were unlikely to yield much that was new. Perhaps the future lay in pushing the highest points of the system in the 'attics'.
Getting up high……
The 'first attic' lay at the top of an impressive circular 50ft stemple shaft. Its regular double set of wooden beams providing an access route for the miners were still in place. It had been found and explored with great excitement. Unfortunately the workings above were disappointing, considering the grandeur of the access. In one direction a passage was blocked by a fall and in the other only a small network of blind stopes were found. A rope left in place down the shaft that day was frequently seen in passing and the shaft viewed fleetingly with some awe, but no further ascents had been made.
The 'second attic' found on October 15th was several minutes from the previous shaft at the top of a small, damp climb containing a few stemples. It was hidden beyond a crawl at the far end of a stope. It was a space left after infilling rather than a shaft, one side consisting of stacked deads. This 'attic' started as an open area with several ways blocked by large calcited rocks or mud covered boulders. It suggested that work had been done above with debris left to drop. Unfortunately no way up could been found but dropping into a short passageway past clog prints and some bucket rims a large abyss was encountered funneling down into a narrow section below. Immediately to the right wooden beams had been placed over the walkway supporting infill. These had collapsed blocking the passage. Crawling underneath to dig looked suicidal but up above the platform at the top of the debris slope a small hole in the roof proved interesting. It seemed to be the source of the material. In ten minutes a large amount had easily been extracted. At the same time an unsuccessful attempt had been made to create a way over to a tunnel beyond the abyss. Some big rocks bridged the chasm holding up a vast amount of waste rubble. Large quantities were sent thundering into the darkness in an attempt to make a path. One keystone took with it several tons. It was clearly very unstable and too dangerous to cross.
The 'third attic' found on November 12th was at the top of a seemingly separate network of damp passageways and small climbs. These began quite low down in the system near to the top of a waterfall. This issued from a rock filled cavity, the water eventually dropping to adit level next to the tally board. Our interest had been heightened firstly, by the fact that this network lay to the north the most likely direction in which a link upwards might be made and secondly, by a discovery. This consisted of an old piece of rope hanging out above a void. It was tied to a beam and looked as if it had been reached from above. There were also the remains of a boiler suit nearby on which 'Tom and Nigel 1978' was decipherable, written in clay. Who were they? Had they come down from the surface?
On a second visit I managed to climb up to the beam. Being belayed from below offered some security but little margin for error. Above the area opened out and looked promising but the gritty slope I was climbing had steepened into a wall of tottering deads. The place felt creepy and very ominous. Within 3m of a possible ledge it seemed prudent to retreat.
Getting it together……
The visit made on December 3rd was to lead to a substantial change in our perception of the system. It started with the discovery of an alternative approach to the 'third attic' with its beam and hanging rope. The connection made at a higher level close to a tiny pond known affectionately as Llyn Penmorfa, proved this 'attic' to be close to the more frequented areas.
While we were still contemplating this revelation Gaz was struck by a vague recollection. During our visit to the 'second attic' two months before had he not seen a similar beam at the narrows down in the abyss? Half an hour later and we were there again. Far below we could see the beam garlanded in the reflective tape we had added. His memory was correct. We were happy to have established the connection but the quest for new territory via the 'third attic' was at an end. My climb up the deads above the beam to within metres of where we now stood had been both dangerous and a waste of effort.
Our viewpoint at the abyss was immediately next to the collapse blocking the walkway and I still held a fascination with that hole in the roof at the top of the in-fill slope. In anticipation of another encounter I had put in my bag a garden trowel together with a makeshift aluminum extension for the handle. Soon put to work it loosened debris higher in the hole whilst allowing me to stay protected under the solid roof. The in-fill fell down in small bits with occasional minor collapses. As work progressed and the cavity enlarged it was necessary to partially enter to hole, anticipating each fall and retreating rapidly. Dave Flowers was by my side helping to push debris down the slope into the corridor and to intervene quickly if I was engulfed. The other spectators watched with interest from below dodging the larger projectiles. The trowel, which had bent several times, looked likely to fatigue before I would although I sensed it was time to be finishing. A few more quick stabs at full stretch, which removed another rock, were followed by a warning flurry that suggested retreat. A light shower immediately became a thunderous accolade. The roar continued for a several seconds heightening our senses to finish with cheers and jeers. My excavation had vanished. A portcullis of a rock 3ft long now blocked the way supported by a wall of others. 'We're not going near that for a few months' said Erik.
Perhaps it was time to go but I didn't want to be greeted by that portcullis next visit. One side was undermined and the other given a hearty pull it turned and picked up speed before crashing into the corridor. All the onlookers survived and seemed pleased so I removed some more rocks. The loosened in-fill was now easier to shift and the pace of extraction picked up. Suddenly there it was, to the side, blackness, a hole with empty space beyond. An energy surge followed. With pounding heart and bated breath, not daring to tell anyone just yet, I continued pulling, rolling, pushing and kicking debris. The hole disappeared but I wasn't finished. The anticipated blackness reappeared but higher this time. There was an empty shaft above! I invited Dave to look, it was something to share, a buzz was discernable from the onlookers. Within minutes the extent of the find was revealed, the shaft over a metre square was up to 4m high with a solid roof and the outline of a level running off at the top, filled with larger rocks.
The excitement continued when darkness was seen running down beyond the cleared shaft. It clearly led back to the walkway and would enable us to bypass the entire collapse. A final large unstable boulder, was wheeled away down the far side and everything appeared safe. Checking carefully that there was a floor below, I slid feet first down the debris and through a slight constriction to see what lay beyond.
It only took a few moments to realize where I was, even though I had never been there before. Straight away I was confronted by two bolts, a karabiner marked with red electrical tape and a rope leading off. It had to be the top of the 50ft shaft. The rope dropping past the many stemples to the floor below immediately confirmed this. The news spread and soon everyone had pushed through the dig to take in the discovery. All three 'attics' had now come together. There was only one. The three highest areas in the 'first rift' had come together. It was a satisfying days work.
But what about the excavated shaft? Clearly the debris had been placed there from above. Had those miners dropped into the Penmorfa complex by some still to be found connection or had they climbed up to the surface in a system yet to be revealed?
If we were in the 'attic' was this shaft to be the 'skylight' to the world above? Initial findings at the top of the shaft suggest the solid roof is in fact compacted in-fill. Further digging will need some thought and care but the potential remains.
Attention has meanwhile shifted elsewhere in the system. The waterfall issuing next to the start of the 'third attic' is been investigated. Further waterfalls have been found in the 'second rift' where new areas are opening up. Additional passages are even being discovered at adit level. The map of Penmorfa is being revised weekly. No doubt much lies around the next corner or just the other side of some rubble. Certainly there is enough happening to maintain our interest in the near future and perhaps eventually lead us to that Holy Grail, the elusive connection to surface.
Access to the Penmorfa mine had been lost for many years. It was largely through the efforts made by the late David Edwards (Club Secretary) that an agreement was finally secured with both Mostyn Estates and Llandudno Council.
The society is indebted to his work
This article and indeed all the exploration done by G.O.E.S. members in Penmorfa should be seen as a tribute to him.