It's quite a rare, and thrilling, occasion when you discover something right on your doorstep that is completely new to you. You've passed by dozens, probably hundreds of times and been utterly unaware of its presence. Thus it was for me with the Corris Mine Explorers.
I live just a mile from the old Braich Goch mine. I knew, of course, that there was an old mine-cum-quarry there, that the Braich Goch pub and bunkhouse carried its name along and that the Corris Craft Centre had been built on its site. I'd taken visitors to the King Arthur's Labyrinth and loved the experience of gliding along the flooded tunnels of the old mine in a boat. But I still didn't have the first idea of just how extensive was the whole system, of which the Labyrinth is just a small part, tucked away deep in the innards of that apparently modest hill.
Mark's tour was an eye-opener. Wandering around the labyrinth and tunnels and chambers in the hill was fascinating enough, but to see the paraphernalia left by the miners – from winching machines to fag packets – and to hear some of the stories of life in the mine brought it all to life in the most exhilarating way. Living in an old quarrying village (Esgairgeiliog, a.k.a. Ceinws, the next one down the Dulas valley from Corris), I've often thought as I've been out walking how ghostly quiet it is now, compared with how brutally noisy it must have been a century ago. Every day would have been peppered with shouts and explosions, the clanging and clanking of machinery and engines, the crashing of walls of slate falling from their hillside.
Going down deep into the old Braich Goch mine made me think of Corris in its heyday. It was Slateopolis, a thriving, throbbing boomtown of chapels, shops, pubs, kids, washing, singing, noise, chaos: life. Death too. The conditions were unimaginable to our modern way of thinking. It was, I learned from Mark, quite possible that you would spend your entire working life, from boyhood to grave, chiselling out, bit by bit, just one of the vast underground chambers. Suddenly, a vision of Saturday night in the Slaters' Arms a century ago floated in front of my eyes. It was full of ashen-faced men, fellas who barely ever saw the light of day, some with only a few fingers, or legs lopped off at the knee, or one eye out, one ear shorn off, or a whole casebook of other injuries.
Amidst such brutal realisations, I was startled too by the sheer physical beauty of the underground mine. Burrowing down tunnels (that hill alone contains twenty miles of them) like light-deprived moles, we'd suddenly arrive in cathedral-sized caverns, each with intricate rock formations, shelves, ledges and holes of curious wonder, none more so than the vast cavern whose roof contains a portal into the outside world, a distant sky leaking in and illuminating all beneath it in a hazy sub-light. When it finally came to leaving the mine, we stepped back out into the weak light of a grey winter's afternoon, but it was almost dazzling after a few hours underground. To have seen this mine, and to see it in absolute authenticity (this is no cheesy theme park experience) was thrilling beyond words, and changed completely my understanding of this most spirited and unique part of Wales.
Co-author, Rough Guide to Wales
Author, Map Addict and Neighbours from Hell? – English Attitudes to the Welsh
Writer and presenter, Coast to Coast and Great Welsh Roads, ITV Wales
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