The end of a Celtic tradition: The last gold miner in Wales

It was once a thriving industry, the supplier of choice for royals in need of a wedding ring. But the principality's stocks of the precious metal have now all but vanished. Barrie Clement reports
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There are no signs. Nothing to guide visitors to the last gold mine in Wales.

Expected to close within months, possibly weeks, it is reached via a rough road through a coniferous forest in the Snowdonia national park. The road deteriorates into a narrow track as it winds its way upwards. Below and to the right of the road is the river Mawddach which tumbles over spectacular waterfalls as it rushes towards a lovely estuary on Cardigan Bay.

Occasional eccentrics with a mild form of gold fever can be seen panning for the metal in the river. But Mark Wheeler, the last gold miner in the principality, reckons that much of the gold-bearing material was washed away by a freak flood in the summer of 2001.

Amateur prospectors are supposed to apply for a licence to pan in the river, but officialdom seems to turn a blind eye to the itinerant dreamers who occasionally "splash about in the water", as Mr Wheeler puts it.

After lurching for three miles through the wood, we finally reach Gwynfynydd Mines Royal - the last regular commercial producer in Wales. It is an unprepossessing collection of rusting corrugated huts and mechanical equipment in various stages of disrepair - "more like a scrapyard than a gold mine", according to Mr Wheeler.

While more Steptoe & Son than House of Windsor, the gold it has produced is the metal of choice for the wedding rings of royalty and the rich.

Some 2,000 years ago, Celtic chieftains wore the gold fashioned into torc neckrings to mark their rank and power. In recent years, the wedding rings of Diana, Princess of Wales, the Duchess of York and Camilla Parker Bowles were made of the metal.

But the Queen's supply is running out. One piece of gold held by the Crown Jeweller Garrards & Co and mined at Clogau, not far from Gwynfynydd, is now little more than a sliver. Another 36-ounce nugget was presented to the Queen by the British Legion in 1981 and was used for the Duchess of York's ring.

The Hollywood actor Michael Douglas chose Welsh gold for the ring he gave Catherine Zeta-Jones on their wedding day.

And such is its scarcity that the weather presenter Sian Lloyd is determined to hang on to her engagement ring despite her much-publicised contempt for her former fiancé, the Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik who defected to one half of the Cheeky Girls.

There is no market rate for the metal because so little of it goes on sale. By some estimates however, it would fetch around £850 an ounce - around three times the price of ordinary gold. It is quite simply the most expensive metal in the world.

Most of us will never catch a glimpse of it, but pure Welsh gold will bare an engraving of a Welsh maiden and the hallmark Aur Cymru - literally "gold Wales".

Ifan Evans, of the Welsh Gold Centre in Tregaron, west Wales, says his supply will probably run out in a year or so. "We haven't been able to buy any new Welsh gold for years," he said. "We've been offered it by people who pan for gold, but you can't guarantee its authenticity."

The centre sells jewellery containing 10 per cent Welsh gold and Mr Evans said that he did not want to dilute it even further.

The problem for those selling the metal has always been the unpredictable production of the mines. The Gwynfynydd mine, near Dolgellau, stopped full production in 1998, but Mr Wheeler is contracted to sift through spoil from the workings to extract the last pieces of the precious metal. The company which owns the site, Welsh Gold Plc, has already taken some of the digging equipment to Ireland where it has begun to extract gold near Omagh in Co Tyrone.

"The problem with gold mining in north Wales is 'nugget variance' or, in layman's terms, unpredictability," says Roland Phelps, managing director of Welsh Gold Plc. "You can hit gold in one piece of quartz, but you can't guarantee that it will be present immediately near by. Put another way, you have to eat the fruit cake to know where the currants are. Unless you've got big bucks and are prepared to go up to three years or more without striking gold, then it's not an economic proposition. Most companies are not prepared to do that."

Mr Phelps says his company has looked elsewhere in Wales, but has found no viable deposits.

The mining paraphernalia at Gwynfynydd lies on a man-made ledge cut into the side of the valley overlooking the river. At the turn of the century about 600 people were employed in and around the site.

Mr Wheeler started work at the mine when he was 22. "It was wet, damp work," he said. "When I started I didn't know my arse from my elbow. The pneumatic drills we used were heavy and there was lots of shovelling to be done." At its best the mine was yielding an average 15g per ton. Now it is down to about 0.5g.

"In this mine gold would turn up in the most unlikely places," said Mr Wheeler. "The more you got to know about gold, the more confusing it would get. But you learned more from the miners who did the work underground than the geologists. Bullshit baffles brains, as they say."

A century ago the miners' lives were even harder. They came to Gwynfynydd from all over the country - coal miners from south Wales, lead miners from north Wales and a few from over the border. They left their families behind and lived in "barracks" provided by the owners with a diet so monotonous that that one man wrote home: "Rabbits young, rabbits old,

Rabbits hot, rabbits cold,
Rabbits tender, rabbits tough,
Thank the Lord we had enough."

The men worked a 10-hour day. For this the mine manager was paid five shillings (25p), the miners three shillings and sixpence (17.5p), labourers three shillings (15p) and "boys" one shilling and sixpence (7.5p).

The workforce was predominantly Welsh-speaking. American engineers who came over to operate the machinery were baffled by the capricious nature of the geology in the area. They were often told: "Nid yw'r creigiau'n deall Saesneg." (The rocks do not understand English)

The rocks the workers spent their waking hours digging date from the Cambrian period, formed from sediment around 550 million years ago. The gold is mostly found in quartz veins within bands of shale.

There are also large deposits of iron pyrites in the area, the "fool's gold" which looks like the real McCoy, but is worthless.

At Dolaucothi, in the county of Dyfed in west Wales, an extinct gold mine attracts thousands of visitors in the summer months. Production came to an end in the 1930s, but occasionally minute flakes of gold are discovered. Sandra Parry, who takes people round the site on behalf of the National Trust, has experienced "gold fever" at first hand.

"We have a place where visitors can pan for gold in a stream and they can get hooked on it. Sometimes when we are closing the site, they are reluctant to stop. I ask for the pans back and they refuse to give them up. We end up in a tug of war. It can be very addictive."

The mine was thought to have been dug originally by Celts. The Romans took over between AD70 and AD78 and forced the locals to work in it.

Back at Gwynfynydd, Mr Wheeler waxed lyrical about his little scrapyard amid the splendour of the Snowdonia national park: "I like to come up here to get away from it all. It's where my heart lies. Sometimes all you can hear is the river and the birds singing. I can spend hours up here. It's a home from home for me."

Soon his Shangri-La will be dismantled and some of the equipment exported to Ireland.

So what are the chances of a resumption of gold mining in Wales? The problem is that the custodians of Snowdonia will not countenance any large-scale extraction because of the environmental damage it would cause. And the cognoscenti believe that the use of heavy earth-moving equipment is the only viable approach. There may be "gold in them thar hills", as they used to say in the Wild West, but most of it is likely to stay where it is - for the time being at least.

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