I’ve been visiting Carmarthenshire for many years now due to having family in the area, but only just managed to get to Dolaucothi and what a treat was in store for me!
It was a grey drizzly day, but as the most part of the attraction is underground, this is the perfect place to head to on a rainy day.
Managed by the National Trust, Dolaucothi is the only known Roman Gold Mine in the UK. Most of the rock at Dolaucothi is shale, with a comparatively small amount of quartz within and it’s in the quartz where the gold is found in dust form.
There were three main periods of mining at Dolaucothi – Roman (70 – 80 AD), Victorian (1880’s – 1912) and the 1930’s.
Dolaucothi run guided tours of their Roman and Victorian mines allowing you to experience the mining conditions of those two main eras of gold mining.
Evidence of Roman mining 2000 years ago is not immediately apparent on arriving at Dolaucothi, but you soon learn that the hollowed out area in which the mine yard stands, is in fact the centre of the largest open-cast pit on the site, called Ogofau. The woodlands surrounding the mine yard undulate due to other pits excavated by the Romans and the small hills nearby are the remains of spoil heaps.
Roman miners would tunnel through the landscape with only the most basic of hand tools such as picks and hammers.
Fast forward to the Victorian era and miners used explosives to blast through the tonnes of shale. Part of the Victorian mine tour shows you the remains and foundations of the dynamite store and detonator shed, funnily enough situated far apart from each other.
In the mine yard you can see a line of 11 drams (containers on wheels) – for every 10 drams of shale extracted, you’d get one of quartz, and from this you’d get a piece of gold about the size of a small pebble.
We arrived just in time for the Victorian Mine Tour, which takes approximately an hour. Half of that time is spent underground in the mine itself. Before heading on into the mine, you have to get kitted out with hard hat and portable light pack, the battery for which gets strapped around your waist and a cable links to the lamp which fixes on the front of the helmet. It’s some serious kit and for good reason! There’s absolutely no artificial light down in the mines here; unlike many mines across the country that have had electricity fitted, this is the authentic ‘real’ deal. Of course miners back in the day only had candle light, but it gives you the general idea.
The tour is full of fascinating information including a full history of the major people involved in developing Dolaucothi’s mines and the value of Welsh gold. On the way to the mine one of the first stops is the old detonator shed. Having already collected their dynamite, miners would enter one at a time to collect the detonators, the others waiting to the side. The shed would have had concrete sides and a wooden front, back and roof. This construction meant that if an explosion occurred the charge and debris would be controlled forwards, backwards and upwards, and therefore have minimal impact on those miners gathered alongside the concrete sides.
Once inside the mine you are shown the shale and quartz seams and are told all about the mining process and the warning methods employed to alert miners to possible ‘cave ins.’ Within one of the seams, the National Trust has recreated the wooden supports that would have been employed to break possible falls and avoid any miner from falling the full height of the seam.
You can see evidence of the marks in the rocks where metal poles were knocked in to crumble the rocks. This would have been one of the tasks carried out by children as young as 10 who would head down the mine with their fathers (girls as well as boys.) However, only the adults were given candles, which is where the phrase: “a boy’s not worth the light” comes from. One of the girls’ jobs was to sort the rocks into the drams. These rocks would have been thrown down to them from the adults above, and of course they were in the dark putting them in a dangerous position: talk about lack of health and safety!
An unusual feature in the Victorian mine is the widespread sparkling silvery deposits clinging to the rocks. This is caused by a bacterium which is completely unpronounceable, let alone writable; however it’s captivating to see the extent of it.
The route out of the mine is via a miners’ ladder (exciting) or if you have any mobility problems you can always go out the same way you came in.
On exiting the mine you look down on the mine yard and see just how vast the mining operations were. Originally the land would have been at the same height you currently stand.
Go and return the helmet and light packs before heading to the gold panning workshop to see if you can find any gold. Finders’ keepers!
The 1930’s mining operations are visualised in the contents of the mine yard. A trail taking you round the site is detailed on an information panel, including the route up to Penlan Wen, the processing mill that was built 250ft above the mine yard to process the ore into a concentrated form for shipping. The foundations of the mill complex can still be seen on the Miners Way Trail.
Back in the mine yard, the impressive frame was used to lower miners underground and bring the rock in drams back up to the surface. The frame was originally made of wood and run on steam, but as technology progressed and workforce increased, the shaft was replaced with the steel one you see today and an electric winch fitted. The wheels at the top of the frame were turned by the winding gear, housed in the winding shed behind.
You can listen to the machinery used back then in the workshop. Let children press the button controls so it seems like they’re working the machinery. Be wary of the din they make! It made me jump when the first machine was activated.
Make sure you read all the information panels around the site as these will fill in any gaps in knowledge.
There’s a tea room on site with very reasonably priced snacks and drinks and the shop sells rare Welsh gold jewellery.
NOTE: Dolaucothi are currently trying to raise money to replace all the light packs, as most have reached the end of their lifespan. Each one costs £100, so if you wish to make a donation, let someone know.
If you’ve visited Dolaucothi and done the Roman mine tour, let me know what you thought to it. How much different to the Victorian tour is it?