The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Great Orme Mine

Ancient Mine / Quarry


Guess it's a pretty well established irony how casual experiences - those unintended, spur of the moment decisions subject to minimal (if any) planning... and no preconceptions - can sometimes end up becoming emotional/artistic highlights of this condition we blithely refer to as life? Of course this may just represent the tangible benefits of a realistic outlook driven by past endeavour, the visitor perhaps subscribing to what the Pet Shop Boys once defined, tongues firmly in cheek, as the philosophy of 'Miserabilism'. Well, if the cap and dark sunglasses fit. Anyway... a visit to the Great Orme Bronze Age mine this morning is just about the most perfect example of this happy scenario I can recall for, oh, ages.

Although Hurricane Gonzalo's winds have thankfully abated somewhat, the North Walian uplands' seemingly perennial companion - persistent hill fog - ensures I do not linger within Nant Ffrancon, the jagged, other-worldly profile of Tryfan too primeval for comfort, thrusting, partially subsumed in all that swirling vapour, into a seemingly parallel dimension beyond human cognition. So, what to do? Ah, I recall the Great Orme possesses a portal tomb. That'll do. Thankfully times have changed since the traveller had to take his/her life in hand to traverse the northern foothills of Y Carneddau as they sweep down to Conwy Bay, tunnels bored in the living rock nowadays affording easy, if somewhat serpentine passage for the A55 heading for Conwy and Llandudno. Furthermore, I'm pleased to say that my suppositions are false, the old school seaside resort retaining more than a touch of its assumed former elegance. A very steep (signposted) road shadows a tram line to ascend The Great Orme. I decide to park up in the obvious Mine car park and seek out the Llety'r Filiast dolmen, the map not that clear as to the tomb's whereabouts, well at least to these eyes.

Nonchalantly wandering into the 'gift shop' to ask directions the middle-aged bloke at the counter - whom it transpires from the introductory video is one of the original archaeologists working here (how cool is that?) - asks whether I want to take the tour? Suddenly put on the spot I mumble 'Er, OK, I guess so... while I'm here' which draws a wry smile from his rather attractive female companion.. as if to say 'you won't be so blase afterwards, trust me'. Or something like that. Anyway, initial impressions of the site are not good, not unless the devastating residue of 'industrial heritage' is your thing, steps directing the visitor to the bottom of a quarry - a big stony pit, in other words - whereby several dark gashes within the limestone suggest gateways to somewhere else not really of this planet.... Yeah, do I really want to venture inside? Not sure, to be honest, so I force the issue and render obsolete further objections in my usual not-so-subtle manner. Crossing the Rubicon and burning the bridge behind me, so to speak.

The initial shaft is surprisingly narrow, the rough hewn ceiling low enough to make me feel rather stupid for questioning the validity of having to wear a 'hard hat'. Subtle - for the most part - lighting by bare electric bulbs renders a torch unnecessary and, although the engineered, 'tourist friendly' floor and wooden staircases may adversely impact the subterranean purist a little, the overall effect is, in my opinion superb, chock full of vibe. In fact my only gripe is the cartoon posters which periodically adorn the passage walls, presumably for the benefit of school parties. Deciding to take my time I pause in the entrance to one of innumerable diverging sub-shafts to let my noisy co-visitors pass. Muppets. As their complaining utterances recede into the distance the sheer scale of these excavations, effected with nothing but hardened stones and bone picks, slowly becomes apparent. Well, sort of... since the thought of hewing solid rock with such primitive tools does not compute in any coherent manner. Paradoxes arise at every turn, leaving the brain in turmoil. Surely such a feat is impossible, but then again it can't be because here am I within the rock as surely as the A55 can be found within Penmaenmawr. So how did they do it? Ouch. A hard hat hasn't been devised that can mitigate that kind of cerebral overload. The effort is simply awe inspiring, beyond comprehension, surely rendering the titanic excavation of Avebury's ditch a mere warm up exercise in comparison?

The shaft descends further into this perplexing, disorientating underworld, the side walls and ceiling contracting and widening at various points as if in mimicry of a natural cave... such as that visited last month within the Carreg Cennen, some way to the south. OK, the vibe isn't as extreme as within that sublime place; but then not only is the scale here beyond comparison... it is all the result of the efforts of humans. Wow. And then the climax of the tour, the piece de resistance proving to be a massive chamber, the gaping interior accorded some definition courtesy of minimalist red and green lighting. It is a wondrous, truly amazing sight to behold, apparently the largest such prehistoric excavation anywhere. I've tried to capture something on 'film', a vague snapshot. Needless to say it really does need to be seen in person. I tear myself away from the opening noting that a skeleton was apparently found beneath the entrance shaft, the sign postulating a possible ritual sacrificial dedication. Or something like that. The excited voices of numerous children announce the presence of a school party... so time to move on and leave this place of my own accord, not swept before an irresistible cacophony of noise like a piece of flotsam upon the incoming tide.

Exiting into daylight I detect a certain unease vying with the wonder swirling around in my head .... what if the Bronze Age peoples who accomplished this astonishing feat (apparently the tour passages represent but a small percentage of those discovered to date) did not do so willingly? Is there evidence to support my initial assumption that this was analogous to 20th century coal mining in the South Walian valleys? Not nice, but provided a living? Or were they mercilessly exploited by newly emerging Bronze Age Big Men, some of whom may have been laid to rest within the great round cairns crowning the undulating skyline of Y Carneddau to the south. A disturbing blueprint for the sub-human actions of Todt and his ilk during Nazism's 20th Century nightmare. It is a sobering thought, disquietude at odds with the cheery cartoon figures depicted upon the posters. A fresh batch of school children's voices fill the air to jolt me back to the present and, following a brief look into the open cast mine from the overhead walkway I head for the Llety'r Filiast.

Passing through the shop on the way out I stop for a brief chat with the staff. The attractive woman catches my eye once more and smiles, this warmer, more an acknowledgement of shared experience. Yeah, we both know she was right. What a place! I leave with far more questions than answers. Always a good thing, to be fair.
22nd November 2014ce
Edited 29th November 2014ce

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