Until this last April, Errol – I don’t know his last name – was still working the quarry at Llechwedd, Blaunau Ffestiniog. Then, over twenty men were laid off, while he and one other chap were kept on to maintain the site. The main enterprise now is the visitor experience ‘Llechwedd Slate Cavern’ and adventure activities such as zip-wires and trampolines. Earlier this month we had a wonderful time rattling round in his landrover, pale with slate dust, as he showed us the slopes where the Cassons once quarried, and walked us through some of the old buildings, now derelict and vandalised. His thoughts about the past, present and future of the quarries were fascinating, but we were equally absorbed by his own story, as he explained how he had come to foster three children, whose parents were unfit to bring them up. An amazing man.
The day before, I had spent the afternoon visiting a house my family occupied in the 1860s. The present owner is a remarkable woman, a violinist, who has lived in the area ever since her mother and she were offered a cottage on the Portmeirion estate (think Patrick McGoohan in the 1960s series The Prisoner) without water or access, but which they grew to love. We reminisced about her late lovely mother-in-law – the connecting link between us – a Quaker, who used to ride about Chalfont St Peter on a tricycle, well into her nineties. When my new acquaintance was called away from the tea she was offering me, to talk to some builders, I sat happily on her verandah, looking out at the sun-drenched plain created when the great embankment was built across the estuary early in the 19th century, and at the hazy blue mountains beyond. Before I left, we had discussed many things you would not imagine talking about on a first meeting, and I had made a new friend.
There was one more house to visit before I returned to Richmond. My grandfather was brought up in Denbigh. I was glad to have the chance to see round that house and try to work out how the rooms had been arranged when he was a boy. As we passed by what had once been stables, I mentioned that the family had owned a donkey in those days.
‘Oh we found a shoe that might have belonged to it’ said my guide, the present owner. She unhooked a rusty shoe from a pergola and handed it to me. It looks a bit big for a donkey and too small for the horse my great grandfather rode, but anyway, it’s now sitting on my desk, beside a piece of slate from the quarry.
But the chief riches garnered from this recent research-cum-holiday trip have been the people I have met. And that’s without having the space to write about the wonderful family I stayed with in Aberystwyth while visiting the National Library of Wales. . .