In search of precious metal
Like generations of royal brides before her, when Kate Middleton married Prince William it was with a wedding ring made of Welsh gold. There’s still gold in those hills, along with silver, copper, zinc and lead, all of which have been mined on a massive scale for 4,000 years. Many of the old metal mines are full-blown attractions with visitor centres and underground adventures - perfect for a rainy day. Others are curious ruins in rural woodland, or odd shapes on remote mountain hillsides, the last places you’d expect to find traces of industry.
What child (or parent) wouldn’t like a crack at panning for gold? That’s one of the big draws at the Dolaucothi Gold Mines in Carmarthenshire, which were worked as recently as the 1930s. There’s also an underground tour, led by brilliantly enthusiastic local guides, who’ll explain how the Romans carved entire hillsides, and diverted water from rivers miles away, in search of the precious metal. It’s all managed by the National Trust, who also run a caravan site nearby.
All mines are, fundamentally, holes in the ground. What turns them into great family attractions is how imaginatively they’re presented. And none do it better than the The Silver Mountain Experience silver-lead mine near Aberystwyth, which has run riot with a spooky, Tolkienesque theme. There’s a scary ‘Black Chasm’ underground tour for older kids, and the ‘Magic of Woo Hoo Wood’ for younger ones. There’s also a Miners’ Trail for those who were wondering how the miners managed to extract lead and silver from the same ore.
More attractions in Ceredigion
The Clywedog Valley Trail follows a river that was the lifeblood of a rich industrial past. The walk starts at Minera Lead Mines, heading east towards Wrexham through a rural idyll that’s haunted with industrial remains (there were once 17 mills along the River Clywedog). The waymarked nine-mile trail passes lots of points of interest – including Bersham Ironworks and Heritage Centre - finishing on the National Trust’s Erddig estate. There’s a regular bus service to take you back to your car, although there are plenty of options for shorter, circular walks.
You can’t visit Llandudno without going up Great Orme, the gigantic limestone lump that overlooks the resort, ascending by foot, cable car or tram. But under the surface, the place is riddled with tunnels where our ancestors began mining for copper more than 4,000 years ago. More than four miles of tunnels and caverns have so far been discovered inside the Great Orme Mines, making it the world’s largest Bronze Age copper mine – all the more remarkable when you consider that the rock was nibbled out with bone and stone tools. There’s a good interpretive centre here, and interesting underground tours.
It’s hard to believe now, but the wildest, woolliest parts of Wales were once industrialised. The picturesque ruins of Bryntail Lead Mine are a good example, standing amid the sheep-farming heartland near Llanidloes. Its position – spectacularly set at the foot of the Clywedog Dam, the tallest concrete dam in Britain – make it well worth a visit as part of a walk around the dam’s business end. The drive along Llyn Clywedog’s eastern shore also makes a spectacular short-cut to Machynlleth, which includes a viewpoint dedicated to the broadcaster Wynfford Vaughan Thomas, who thought this was the finest view in Wales (and he’s got a point).
Anglesey was once the world’s leading producer of copper, which was mined in vast quantities at Parys Mountain and exported from the nearby port of Amlwch. The Copper Kingdom heritage centre tells the story of how it all happened. The mountain itself – actually, a large scarred hill that dominates the town’s southern horizon – is where the actual mining took place, and is a multi-coloured moonscape that’s perfect for rambling around (and as a location for sci-fi films). Although production peaked here in the 1800s, there are plans to resume mining here: there’s still plenty of zinc, copper, lead, silver and gold in them there hills.