Out of this world; A mountain in rural Anglesey once ruled the world of copper mining. Cadw's senior inspector of ancient monuments and archaeology, Kate Roberts, explains how the industry has left us a wonderful site to explore.
There's a strange alien quality to Parys Mountain, Anglesey, that makes it easy to imagine you've left the world and travelled to some distant planet. With its mysterious deep craters the bottoms of which are filled with brightly coloured water its red earth and sparse, stunted plants, the landscape seems more suited to planet Mars than Wales. Even the air feels alien, tinged with a sharp metallic edge. Then, something familiar appears amidst the rock-strewn craters a 19th-century engine house, its chimney silhouetted against the skyline proving that this is a landscape fashioned not by asteroid collisions, but by man. One of Wales' registered historic landscapes, Parys Mountain was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the world's largest copper mine and it is the copper, lead and sulphur still present in the earth that gives the landscape its distinctive bright colours and stunts the growth of all but the hardiest of plants. For years, it was a closed landscape too; now, with support from Cadw and others, we can all explore this strange and wonderful place as part of The Copper Kingdom Heritage Trail.
Copper ores have been exploited here since the Bronze Age, but it was the discovery of commercial amounts of copper in 1761 which resulted in the landscape we see today. From the 1780s until the early 19th century, the ores were extracted by opencast mining which, at its height, employed 1,500 workers and dominated the world copper market. The miners worked from flimsy wooden platforms which projected out over the edge of ever deepening pits, hauling the ores up to ground level by basket and winch. Walking across the barren moonscape today you will come across the remains of dressing floors, where the large chunks of ore were broken by hand, and kilns where it was roasted to remove the sulphur. As well as mining ores, the miners ingeniously extracted copper from the water flowing through the mines by a method called precipitation, using rows of stone pits, the remains of which still survive dotted across the mountain. This low-cost but time-consuming method also produced useful byproducts including ochre, used to make paints. According to an account of 1878 the process also had another side effect the waters flowing from the mine and into the sea produced a yellow tinge that could stretch out as far as a mile. Today, sometimes the bottoms of deep opencast craters fill with water, and this tendency for the mine to flood was also a problem for the miners.
The Pearl Engine House was built in 1819 to pump out water from a 95-fathom shaft, supporting an earlier windmill which also pumped water. Later, the windmill was rebuilt, and its tower (minus its sails) still dominates one of the highest points on the mountain. Once extracted, the copper ores, along with other products such as sulphur, alum, arsenic and quartz, were transported to the harbour at nearby Amlwch and, from there, shipped to smelting houses in Swansea and Lancashire. As a result of this trade, by 1801, Amlwch grew from a tiny fishing hamlet, with a harbour no better than a chasm between two rocks, into a thriv- thriving town of more than 5,000 people. In the late 18th century, the bustling mines must have been a spectacle to behold and many artists and travellers visited to marvel at the strange multicoloured landscape. The paintings they left us can help historians to piece together the impact that this industrial revolution had on the lives of people who lived in this previously rural corner of Anglesey. The mines continued to be worked throughout the nineteenth century but, as overseas competition increased, production dropped away and eventually stopped.
The engine house and windmill ceased to pump out water, the machinery was removed and the mines fell silent. Between 2010 and 2013, with funding from Cadw, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the Heritage Tourism Project, managed by Cadw and funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government, the Amlwch Industrial Heritage Trust with support from Menter Mon successfully restored a number of important features, including the windmill now a walker's shelter and the Pearl Engine House chimney, which had collapsed. Meanwhile, thanks again to support from the HLF, Cadw and the Heritage Tourism Project, an awardwinning heritage centre was built in Amlwch within what had been a series of copper bins used to store the ore ready for shipment. Inside, there are exhibitions explaining the story of Parys Mountain and copper mining. So if you're feeling the urge to boldly explore strange new worlds, why not investigate the Parys Mountain heritage trail and discover more about this remarkable mining operation that once supplied copper to the world?