Working practice blog by Lindsey Colbourne, March 2019
I was sad as a child, when they filled in the sand quarry. Just up the road from our house, it was somehow separate from the world, and I loved it. Bulldozed flat, it turned into nothing but a boring, grassy field. So I laughed out loud with shock about 20 years later when I first saw Chwarel Dinorwig Quarry. It was love at first sight. The sheer scale and complexity of its holes, worked faces and tips, the colours and constructions resulting from the re-forming of an entire mountain. Brazen - yn blwmp ac yn blaen [which translates as “blurry and tight” on google translate, but I believe a better translation would be ‘bluntly, with no holds barred’: both seem good here].
These slate quarries – and Dinorwig in particular, for me - are totems of a place, in that rounded sense of place as a socio-cultural-economic-linguistic- environmental mash up. Or as Foucault might suggest, Heterotopias.
They are irresistible to me, an incomer to the area (from just the wrong side of the border, a little village called Church Minshull, between Crewe, Nantwich and Winsford), but feeling like I belong here, in my adopted country. These quarries are short cuts to the heart of the place. Ways of understanding and integrating into a very different culture and language. And they are un-meddled-with-minatures of the wider world [I do so hope that the World Heritage Site status doesn’t change that], where different rules apply, and where you are taken right back – and simultaneously catapulted forward – in time, juxtaposing the work - language – culture ‘etifeddiaeth’ and the English leisured language of the adrenalin seekers.
The importance of the quarries to this place is in many ways ‘allan o fath’ – beyond measure. Yes, I mean literally in terms of scale – it’s hard to get a sense of scale when you are looking at or in a quarry until you zoom out or zoom in … [in the pictures below, of Chwarel Dinorwig from Awstralia, there are people in the picture on the right, slightly zoomed in from the picture on the left]…
… and I’ve been exploring this aspect in my Merched Chwarel work. But I have also been exploring the sense of ‘beyond measure’ in three other ways too:
1. The sheer extent of the exploitation. The first thing I found out when I started the Merched Chwarel project, thanks to Dave Linton and his amazing database, was that there were no fewer than 5,000 quarries/mines in North Wales including 1000+ slate quarries. And 20 other materials such as copper, granite, coal, manganese, gold, marble and a series of substances that I’d never heard of such as molybdenite. Engaging with this scale of exploitation holds a mirror up to our rapacious need for stuff.
And I can’t even begin to imagine the number of lives that were – and are still – linked to these endeavours. And the particular centrality of the slate quarry to all kinds of development, plundering and exploitation of the language, economic, social and cultural life here: past, present, and future.
And one of the most striking things is the way that the names of these quarries/mines reflect the connection to place, patterns of ownership and relationships, and the difference between the English and Welsh [a particular bugbear of mine is the way that climbers have renamed places in English names, like Watford Gap, a travesty]…
Listen here to a snippet of Rhys reading the names of Coal mines of North Wales, O - Rh. It took Rhys 1 hour 10 minutes of continuous reading to do the whole list of all 5,000 quarries and mines. I hope to play a recording of these in one or more of our exhibitions this year. I think the names of the quarries and mines reflect our relationships and patterns of land owning and exploitation which still have resonance today. It forces me to reflect on our rampant consumption of natural resources. In the future will we have a different relationship with the world around us?
2. The next ‘allan o fath’ aspect of the quarries for me is the extraordinary ubiquity of slate quarry products in everyday life here. Quite aside from the enormous tips, how long or far do you think you can you go, here in Eryri, without seeing something made in slate? I don’t believe any other type of material is present in so many ways day to day. It is as though the mountain has relocated itself in every corner of our lives: it lives on in bars, benches, billiard tables, bottle racks, bookends, boot scrapers, car parks, carvings, chapels, crawia, cupboards, driveways, dragons, dressers, fans, fences, fireplaces, floors, flower beds, fonts, gateposts, gravestones, house signs, jewelry, lids, lintels, makeup, maps, memorials, patios, paths, place names, place settings, plaques, porches, roofs, showers, steps, sundials, tables, tiles, walls, water features, work surfaces, window boxes, window sills and writing slates.
I’ve been making a series of bits of jewellery from slate and old washers which reflect the versatility of the material, the variations in material from quarry to quarry, and our intimate relationship to it. And this developed further for our Canu Chwarel Singing Slate workshop led by Sam Frankie Fox, in which we each made what she called ‘Slatelets’ or ‘Llechledau’ (little wearable percussion instruments). I collected and drilled slates from 5 different quarries, so everyone could choose their ‘own’ slate. It turns out, slate is very personal - each of the four of us Merched Chwarel prefer our ‘own’. You can hear the sounds of the slatelets here
3. Thirdly, the presence - or rather the absence - of the women appears to be beyond measure.
The slow landslide of the slate tips is reflected in minature in my garden, where thousands of pieces of pottery, glass, metal, cups, pans, saucers, spoons, toys, bedsteds are flowing from their ‘Domen Sbwriel’ (pre-rubbish collection middens) down hill back towards the house. They appear to be wanting to get back into the kitchen, where much of it originated. And the kitchen, of course, was the domain of the women – the quarry women from the heart of the ‘canrif o chwarelwyr’ - for they were not allowed to work in the quarry (after industrialization at least).
And, in remarkable contrast to the romanticisation of the quarrymen, they were subject to a particularly harsh ‘official’ reputation as being mad on frippery and pink clothes, hopeless cooks and stuffing the house with stupid amounts of furniture (between which the noble quarryman had ‘no room to turn’).
And yet, the enormous effort of all those thousands and thousands of women, restricted to their (largely) domestic duties, performing equally skilled job of securing, preparing, creating food, clothing etc etc have not left their mark. Except in these middens. Here we can start to piece it together, to make a kind of ‘house geneology’, using original sources to piece together the stories of the women, and how lives changed over time in ways that reflected changing patterns in this quarry village.
For this, I’ve got into dark corners of psychology, stereotypes, the philosophy of space, the impossibility of being…
And our collaborative piece, the Dresel Griddfan, Groaning Dresser further explores these themes.
The search for stories of women has, to be honest, turned into quite a lot of work (including just starting mapping) of the stories of women from my house, and the surrounding slate quarrying communities.
I’ve been working with Lisa Hudson and my neighbour, Elin Tomos to do research: you can read some of their finds in the blog and stories section of the Merched Chwarel website. And for Siân Miriam’s Canu Chwarel Singing Slate workshop in Y Fron, we worked with 25 women to develop their own contemporary response. I wanted to do these workshops as a way of bringing together a critical mass of women to explore our contemporary relationships with the quarry legacy. You see (and hear) the results in the Canu Chwarel section here
This ‘process’ focus of my work is, to me, the most important of all. But on the way, I seem to have accumulated – quarried - stitched together - a mountain of work, and I think most is destined, like the slate, to pile up rejected! I am currently working on the selecting and processing of a few, to transport to exhibition. Luckly we have our curator, Jill Piercy, to oversee that process…