Ruin imaginaries: Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

17 07 2014
1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

On a soggy Sunday morning in Snowdonia, I took the opportunity to re-visit Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 cinematic masterpiece Stalker. It’s a film like no other – an immersive, meditative science fiction story that moves at such a glacial pace that, by the end of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, one is either mesmerised or bored to distraction. Far more spiritually infused than its literary source, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971), Stalker takes you on a snail’s-paced journey into a post-apocalyptic world of mudane detritus, damp featureless landscapes and industrial ruination, all suffused with melancholic longing.

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By the afternoon, the Welsh rain had cleared and I drove up to Blanaeu Ffestiniog to explore the extraordinary landscape to the north of this slate mining town. One of the wettest built-up areas in Britain, Blaenau Ffestiniog is surrounded by the remnants of a once global industry: groups of hills entirely made up of discarded slate and littered with ruined buildings and defunct machinery, and traversed by tramways at impossibly steep angles. As I walked up one of these hills from the northern edge of the town into the Maenofferen quarry, the ruined landscape closed in, the encroaching mist above accentuating the enveloping quality of the slate hills (2). With Stalker so fresh in my mind, this landscape could not help but call to mind the Zone in that film and with that recollection, the hills became inscrutable, mysterious and distinctly threatening. Some parts of the quarry are still worked: yet on this April sabbath, all of the machines stood idle, as if abandoned by an alien civilisation forced to leave in a hurry (3).

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Further up the slate-made hills, the mist descended like a benign miasma. As any hill-walker knows too well, mist is a peculiarly discomforting phenomenon. On the one hand, it makes everything so still, soft and muffled; on the other, it hides what is close by, collapsing the world into a small sensory bubble. Here, just as in Stalker, the mist turned buildings into visual mysteries – half-shrouded entities that only made sense when close enough to make out their forms (4). Throughout my perambulation of this vast, unruly site, those mysteries seemed to deepen with every step, as if confirming the Zone’s profound illogic that the shortest way is never the most direct. So, only after a long detour around the edge of the Snowdonia National Park – navigating by fenceposts, half-glimpsed reservoirs and stream-beds – did I eventually return to the quarry from its northern side, finally entering the vast and monolithic buildings where the slate used to be unloaded and worked until the complex ceased production in 1999. In these buildings – unlike many former industrial sites – all of the machinery and many of the tools have remained, seemingly abandoned with haste after some unknown cataclysm forced the workers to flee.

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In these spaces, objects piled on objects, crowding in and demanding to be deciphered: three delicately-composed circular metal saw blades waiting to be catalogued (5); one gruesome hook longing for a kill (6); a lone rusting screw suggesting familial loss (7); one glove marking the position of a dead hand? (8) Of course, with some basic knowledge of the slate-working process, I would have made sense of these objects, but who could have really understood the final room – a vast barn-like space filled with absurd vehicles petrified in immobility? As the mist rolled in through the missing timber roof, these objects became extraordinary bearers of meaning trapped out-of-time: the green trolley ‘not allowed underground’ (9); the blue one with a single bright-red wheel hub (10); the strange sunken ‘eyes‘ of the yellow one (11); and the almost comedic shape of the rusty one (12). Yet, whilst photographing these vehicles, all of a sudden the mist vanished and the power of that mystery lifted. At once, these objects became more grounded and the alien monoliths outside the barn became what they really were: half-finished concrete pillars (4). Now, the Molewyn range of mountains appeared beyond and the real world opened up once again.

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Threshold space: the Rhinogs, Snowdonia

11 09 2013
Rhinog Fawr (left) and Rhinog Fach (right) from Cwm Nantcol

Rhinog Fawr (left) and Rhinog Fach (right) from Cwm Nantcol

Stone, heather, stone, stone, heather, stone, heather – walking the Rhinog mountains in south-western Snowdonia is all about what’s under your feet, the gaze almost always directed downward at the tiny paths that snake through the unending swathes of rocks concealed by heather. Not a place to admire the grand sweeping vistas of Snowdonia’s mountain ridges, but a landscape to be locked into, immersed, slowed-down and made to work. Perhaps that’s why so few people walk in the Rhinogs; perhaps that’s why I’ve been drawn back to these mountains three times this summer.

Sunset over the Rhinogs ridge, from Clip (left) to Rhinog Fawr (right)

Sunset over the Rhinogs ridge, from Clip (left) to Rhinog Fawr (right)

Rhinog comes from the Welsh word ‘rhiniog’ meaning ‘threshold’ and the Rhinogs are just that: a 13-mile chain of low mountains, uncrossed by any road, that rise steeply just a few miles inland from the sandy shores that stretch between the Dwyryd and Mawddach estuaries; and falling just as steeply on the eastward side into the more gentle lands that fan out across Snowdonia toward Bala. The Rhinogs – especially the rocky middle section of the chain – have been likened – favourably – to the Scottish Highlands. Such a comparison confers a certain character on these mountains: ruggedness, toughness of approach, isolation. Indeed, the rough nature of the Rhinogs reminds me of the Knoydart peninsula in the North-west Highlands: as if the character of those ‘Rough Bounds’ much further north had been miraculously transplanted to a more accessible part of the country, if in miniaturised form.

Llyn Hywel and Rhinog Fach from the slopes of Y Llethr

Llyn Hywel and Rhinog Fach from the slopes of Y Llethr

Rhinog Fawr from the descent from Llyn Hywel

Rhinog Fawr from the descent from Llyn Hywel

Three long summer walks in the Rhinogs with almost identical weather: humid gloom clearing to magnificent blue; the landscape’s mood switching in tune with this, from brooding to serene. The two jewels of the range – Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach – sit beside one another astride a wild pass – the Bwlch-Drws-Ardudwy – flanked on one side by Rhinog’s Fawr’s great shelves of rock, stepping down in long terraces from the unseen summit; and, on the other, by Rhinog’s Fach’s almost vertical face of rock and heather. These are only small mountains – barely topping 700 metres – but aggrandised by their aggressive ruggedness. Only from the south – particularly from the flanks of Y Llethr – does Rhinog Fach display its grandeur more tenderly: that is, as a finger of rock guarding one of Wales’s loveliest lakes, Llyn Hywel. And, seen from this side, Rhinog Fawr looks every bit like an ancient fossil emerging from the earth, its dark folds of rock seeming to emanate the fragility of an age-old living being.

Boulders left by glaciers on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Boulders left by glaciers on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Wall on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Wall on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

From the north, Rhinog Fawr is also rocky, but appearing more like an inaccessible tower than petrified animal. I came to the summit the long way, across the wild 3-mile long ridge that links Clip and the northern Rhinog peaks with Rhinog Fawr. A lonely place indeed; virtually pathless and made up of alternating bands of shattered rock, vast grooved slabs with scattered boulders left by prehistoric glaciers, and small piles of stones that provide much needed human landmarks. Yet, on every part of the ridge  – whether on grass, boulders, or sheer rock faces – is a wall, marking another kind of threshold. This wall is a testament to the dogged determination of the human desire to enclose, protect and mark the land: on this side of the wall, that’s mine; on the other side, yours. With arrogant defiance, the wall negotiates scree, sheer rock faces, lakes, and peaks in turn, both an invaluable aid to navigation and a sign of the landscape’s domestication. Yet, even as this wall asserts its own kind of threshold, the landscape suggests another: an unbounded in-between zone; a place of freedom; a wild space.





Wild spaces: the Carneddau, Snowdonia

24 05 2013
Wild ponies near the bothy at Dulyn.

Wild ponies near the bothy at Dulyn.

For anyone familiar with the landscape of Snowdonia in North Wales, the Carneddau – the range of mountains that fill the far north-east of the national park – summon up solitariness. Unlike the more well-known Glyders or Snowdon range, no main roads penetrate into the Carneddau, even though it’s the area of Snowdonia nearest to the densely populated areas of the industrial northwest of England. One weekend in May, with unexpected fine weather in prospect, I headed out from Manchester to spend a night wild camping in the Carneddau and to test the lie of the land before taking my young family. Wild camping simplifies one’s entire world to a home that you can manage to carry on your back; a world of essentials only: a tent, necessary food and cooking equipment, a sleeping bag and perhaps something to read. From the moment you step out onto the path, time slows, the mind focuses and everything else is left behind. It’s a wonderful, if daunting, form of release.

Dulyn bothy

Dulyn bothy

The Carneddau is the highest area above 3000ft anywhere south of the Scottish Highlands, virtually treeless and usually shrouded in mist, wind-beaten or rain sodden. Arriving from a three-mile boggy walk from the end of a long single-track road, my chosen campsite was close to a mountain bothy near the Dulyn reservoir, at the foot of cliffs guarding the 3000ft plateau. Windy and cold on that first day. Glowering clouds scudded in fast from the north. Sheep huddled among boulders. Wild ponies stood rigid, manes tossed over their heads. This year has been a bad one for the 50 or so wild ponies of the Carneddau, many of which were trapped by snowdrifts as they sought shelter from the bitterly cold winds in an unseasonal March. One lay rotting in a stream close to the bothy while others nonchalantly nibbled the grass around it. I was glad of the bothy – a former dwelling now maintained at a very basic level by the Mountain Bothies Association. Two rooms of bare floorboards but with a neat cast-iron stove and plenty of supplies left by former visitors – the familiar accruements of the bothy: empty bottles of wine and whisky, cans of out-of-date food, surplus gas canisters. After scouring the area for firewood (a thankless task), I sat reading my book – Robert Macfarlane’s rather camping-unfriendly hardback, The Old Ways - while the fire roared as the wind stoked its mixture of old gorse, heather and rotting wood. Dinner out of a saucepan, then washed in the river.

Dulyn bothy

Dulyn bothy

Looking down the valley towards Conwy

Looking down the valley towards Conwy

The wind eased, leading to a late evening calm. Up on the slopes above the reservoir, the cloud continued to roll in, funnelling into the gentle valley east all the way back to the Conwy river. Not a soul in sight; the plaintive song of a Ring Ouzel echoing off the cliffs in melancholy isolation. A restless sleep, woken by the light and the cold at half-past five. Again the Ring Ouzel continues its song, supplemented by larks, those perennial early risers of the bird world.

Mist on Foel Grach

Mist on Foel Grach

Solitary copse in the Carneddau

Solitary copse in the Carneddau

A full day of walking – up again above the reservoir and further up grassy slopes to the mist-covered ridge. A rough but solid stone shelter below the rocky summit of Foel Grach; the onward path to Carnedd Llewelyn (the highest of the Carneddau) suddenly revealed as the mist clears. Up again into the cloud, this time over slippery rocks to the top of Carnedd Llewelyn where a couple of other campers are already drinking tea in the circular shelter of rocks at the summit. They (and their dog) slept the night in a tent by the small lake beneath Yr Elen (a favoured wild camping spot). I return by the same route, or at least try to, becoming disorientated in the mist but eventually finding my back back as the cloud begins to burn off. Heavy legs all the way back. As I pack up my tent, the sun finally emerges and stays with me all the way back to the car, lighting up the lovely colours of lichen on rocks: lurid greens and ravishing oranges. Stumbling the final mile, I reach the beginning of the road.

Lichen on a boulder

Lichen on a boulder

Lichen on rocks

Lichen on rocks





Industrial ruins: abandoned slate quarries in North Wales

1 11 2011

1. Workers' houses at the Rhosydd Quarry, North Wales

Scattered throughout North Wales, and particularly concentrated in the Ffestiniog area, are a large number of abandoned slate mines and quarries. Perhaps the most evocative – and certainly one of the most isolated – is the Rhosydd Slate Quarry. Situated 1500ft above sea level between two mountain valleys, the location of the Quarry is spectacular, facing Cnicht on one side (known as the Welsh Matterhorn) and the bulky Moelwyns on the other. It’s accessible only by a mountain path, being over 2 miles from the nearest road and 4 miles from Croesor, the nearest village, itself remotely situated at the end of a minor road.

2. Fireplaces in the workers' houses

The remote site of the Rhosydd Quarry adds greatly to its potent sense of mystery. For it’s almost unbelievable to think that for 80 years from 1840, over 200 men were employed by the quarry, many of them living in purpose-built houses in this bleak location – treeless and one of the wettest spots in Wales. The workers’ cottages still stand in splendid but ruined isolation, their house-like quality just remaining in the surviving forms of the windows and chimney (1). For miles around are scattered enigmatic structures, including bits of rusting machinery and a succession of mills, barracks and adits constructed at different stages of the quarry’s development – testament to the lengths that were gone to to reach the then valuable slate, which lay in beds underneath the mountains.

3. Window in the workers' houses

4. Underground tunnel leading to the slate mine

Nearly all of the smaller Welsh slate quarries closed down in the early twentieth century due to falling demand and today only a few working quarries remain around the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The buildings of the Rhosydd Quarry express the complete dominance of just one building material: for everything that was built here was built with slate – from the window and fireplace lintels (2 & 3) (sometimes the only surviving bits of entire houses), to fences and walls that enclose and protect the buildings. Close to the houses are entrances to underground tunnels which gave access to the buried slate, hewn by hand and now made strangely beautiful by the return of nature – moss and water bringing colour to the otherwise grey walls of the tunnel (4). In the remains of the quarry buildings, architecture has been eroded into its most elemental forms: walls have bulged outwards, chimneys have collapsed in on themselves, isolated hearths are now surrounding by ruins. If these ruins are bleak and melancholic, they are also beautiful in their geometrical simplicity: in one of the buildings, the one remaining door lintel perfectly frames an enormous almost perfect cone of discarded slate above it (5).

5. Lintel and slate cone

The buildings of the Rhosyyd Quarry represent the ruins of an artificial industry naturalised by the passing of time and the brutal forces of nature – ruins that seem to be engaged in a powerful yet mysterious dialogue with their environment. In another remote abandoned slate quarry – the Prince of Wales Quarry – on the flanks of Nantlle mountains, most of the buildings have almost disappeared into the ground. Those that remain seem to testify to their submission to the larger forces that created the landscape from which they arose: the ruined roofline of one decaying building mirroring the form of the serrated mountain ridge behind (6).

6. Ruined building at the Prince of Wales Quarry





Wild spaces: Great Moss

10 10 2011

Scafell (left) and Scafell Pike (right) from Great Moss

In England, wild camping is an activity that is generally discouraged and is usually dependent on getting landowners’ permission. However, in isolated spots, such as Great Moss in the Lake District, it seems almost laughable than anyone owns the land and, in places like these, you can pitch a tent and not encounter anyone else for days. Great Moss is a vast, flat area of marshy ground near the headwaters of the River Esk, surrounded on all sides by England’s highest and grandest mountains with their evocative names: Scafell and Scafell Pike, Esk Pike, Bowfell and Crinkle Crags. From Great Moss – a five-mile walk up the Eskdale valley from the hamlet of Boot – these mountains present their wildest aspect: craggy, precipitous, treeless, and remote from either roads or buildings.

Scafell Pike, evening on the first day

Scafell Pike, dawn on the second day

I camped alone at Great Moss for two nights in unseasonably warm weather at the end of September this year, with a few isolated sheep and the occasional croaking of ravens for company. Here, mobile phone signals cease to operate and one is forced to focus on the basic essentials of living: preparing water and food, washing, and sleeping. Carrying everything on one’s back means leaving behind most of what we now regard as basic entertainments – a computer, television, even books. In my trip, the sense of aloneness was heightened by the short days, with darkness descending more quickly here – the sun disappearing behind the crags at 5pm and not reappearing again until 8am.

So, why would anyone want to expose oneself to this level of solitude? The nature writer Robert Macfarlane, in his book The Wild Places, argues that being alone in the wild has the potential to give us perspective on ourselves, our concerns and our place in the world. Yet, Macfarlane is also blasé about his own sense of vulnerability during his wild camping experiences, even as they are often characterised by intense cold, danger, and fatigue. For me, the experience was initially more frightening than liberating – for most of the first night I battled with anxiety and a sense of dread. Yet, once I’d relaxed the following day, the slowness of the passing of time became something that could be embraced as wondrous, the rituals of everyday life taking on a kind of mystical significance – bathing in the rushing stream, cooking in the twilight, waking to see the sky full of stars.

Scafell Pike, early morning on the second day

Scafell Pike, evening on the second day

Scafell Pike, the second night

By relaxing into the rhythms of silence, the world – narrowed to the views of the mountains from my tent – took on a kind of renewed simplicity. With my camera – my only luxury – the experience became framed as a series of almost-identical views of Scafell Pike, to which I had faced my tent on the first evening: in the last rays of sunlight, at dawn, in early morning sunlight, in late afternoon fading light, and in the pitch black of the final night. It’s almost as if the world had temporarily revealed to me its most basic origins, the mountain being the always-has-been presence in a world of ceaseless flux: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day. And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day”.





Sketching, photography and the tourist gaze

30 08 2011

Sketch of buildings at Freeland, Oxfordshire, 2004

‘Today everything exists to end in a photograph’ (Susan Sontag)

Writing in 1979, Sontag could never have anticipated the explosion of photography that came with the introduction and rapid dissemination of the digital camera. Today, to be a tourist is primally to see places and people through the lens of a digital camera. This recent shift to digital technology has resulted in an unimaginable increase in the sheer volume of pictures taken; from my own experience, in the three years after 2003 I took nearly 1500 photographs on my old Pentax SLR-camera; post-digital, I’ve amassed over 14,000 images in the past three years alone and probably taken at least double that. It’s not just the quantity of images that has changed: we also perceive the world differently through a digital camera – from the considered setting up of shots and the awareness of the finite resources of film to a faster, more throwaway kind of perception, one that tends towards amassing rather than reflection.

John Urry has reflected on the role of photography in contemporary tourism. His definition of the ‘tourist gaze’ is bound up with a certain kind of perception, one that is focused on looking at objects in a specific way. For the tourist (and we are all tourists to some extent), photography becomes part of the construction of objects to gaze at – a search for the photogenic itself which tends to turn the environment into a series of snapshot images to be recalled when we’ve returned home. Yet, as Urry states, many tourists are often disappointed with their photographs because their memories of a view or place are richer and fuller than their photographs. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a questioning of the ability of photography to ‘capture’ this fuller picture, or indeed of the search for an alternative.

By drawing or sketching, rather than photographing, one enters an altogether different perceptual world, one that plunges you into this fuller picture. With pencil and paper, irrespective of artistic ability or the intended quality of the drawing, you commit yourself to seeing differently – seeing for longer and in a more sustained way. The result is that, in a far more effective way than photography, sketching helps you to remember. To illustrate something of what I mean, I present a few examples of my own sketches and how I remember through them…

1. The Giralda in Seville, 2009

An hour in the square east of the Giralda in Seville on a warm afternoon at the end of October in 2009. As my drawing moved slowly down from the top to the bottom of the tower, hammering continued in the square, along with a procession of tourists arriving and leaving the city, bags on wheels and taxis coming and going. This commanding building, with such a pronounced sense of the vertical, seems to require some kind of extended contemplation, especially when the gigantic bells start ringing, which they did as I sketched, creating a sound which seems to fill the whole city.

2. The Nant Francon valley, Snowdonia, Wales, 2003

On my way back from a walk up the back of Carnedd Dafydd, to admire its cliffs, I stopped in the Nant Francon valley, just before reaching the cottage where I was staying, and decided to sketch the view. In rapidly-fading light and a plummeting temperature, I hurriedly drew the forms of the mountains that filled sides and head of the valley, their names already familiar in my mind – Carnedd Dafydd, Tryfan, the Glyders, Foel Goch. The light was crystal clear, as it had been for days, but the cold was finger-numbing and the drawing had to be done very quickly. Despite this, the result still pleases me as it reminds me of the conditions under which it was made.

3. Vernazza, Italy, 2003

A second visit to the beautiful coast of Liguria in Italy and its ‘five lands’, this sketch of Vernazza, where I was staying, was made sitting on a wall in the first hot sunshine I’d experienced that year. Here, drawing was limited by uncomfortable heat and the heavy lines indicate a rather hurried method. But I also remember a deliberate sense of slowing down in response to a time of crisis in my life – a sense of wanting to stop, to allow myself some space. Here, sketching was one of the ways I did this, in a familiar environment where the ‘sights’ had already been seen on a previous visit.

4. The Citadel, Aleppo, 2008

Here, the finished drawing is less important than the context in which it was drawn. It’s not a very good sketch, primarily because, for most of the time I was drawing the citadel, I was surrounded by a group of 20 boys celebrating with their Eid presents – replica guns which they brandished at me and at each other. They also jibed me with ridiculous questions, jostled my arms and even tried to help me with the drawing, adding bits here and there. As a result I retreated to a nearby empty cafe, ate an expensive and horribly tepid lunch and ended up in the hospital the following day with a nasty case of food poisoning that was initially and very worryingly diagnosed as an inflamed appendix.





Sunsets

9 12 2009

Sunset over Evenes, 2007. Pencil and watercolour on chalk and ink

In August, in Narvik, Norway – well inside the article circle – the sunsets draw one out into a time that seems to come to a standstill. As the sun sinks, the oranges and reds grow as the blue above slowly recedes and darkens. A few stars emerge and then, imperceptibly, time begins to hover; for a few hours the colours are held in suspension before the day begins again.

Such events, where day and night time are held in soft tension in space, mirror the process of meditation, which tries to create – or rather to become aware of – just such a time and space within and beyond oneself.

Sunsets in temperate latitudes are more fleeting events, especially in the winter, when they are also often at their most dramatic. Here, the sun seems to vanish quickly, throwing out its intensity from beneath the horizon – a last gasp before the hostile night once again reasserts its dominance. Perhaps these sunsets, with seemingly opposing forces fighting it out, are more characteristic of our inner lives. And yet, the sun never really disappears at all; rather, it is us, rooted on the earth, who turn away from it.

Sunset on Otmoor, England, February 2008








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