Yesterday, the Slate Landscapes of Northwest Wales were awarded World Heritage Status meaning they are now on the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites alongside landmarks the Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China.
The Gwynedd slate mines in Snowdonia were once said to have “roofed the 19th Century world” as slate from its quarries was exported around the globe. In this extract from Miriam, Daniel and Me by Euron Griffith, John Meredith is teaching apprentices how to cut slate in the same historic location.
When Miriam fell in love with Padraig life seemed simple. But soon she discovered that love is a treacherous business. Everything changed when she met Daniel. She was taken down an unexpected path which would dictate and dominate the rest of her life.
Spanning three generations of a North Wales family in a Welsh-speaking community, Miriam, Daniel and Me is an absorbing and compelling story of family discord, political turmoil, poetry, jealousy…and football.
John Meredith could slice slate as thin as paper. At the quarry he told the fresh crop of young apprentices who crowded around him every September that all they needed to do was find the sweet spot. Because a piece of slate was almost like a living thing. He would ask the boys if they’d ever stroked a cat. Some of them looked at each other with uncertainty. The braver ones would mumble that they had. So John Meredith explained that a cat always responded to a human hand and would guide it towards the spot where it wanted to be touched. The same was true of slate.
“Look at this mountain”, he’d say, directing their confused but eager faces to the massive whale of rock that they were precariously balanced upon. “What we’re doing is ripping this beautiful material out of Mount Orwig’s belly. Newly-mined slate rumbles past us on these trains and trucks – huge slabs. Raw. Listen to the groaning and squealing of the metal wheels. That tells you how heavy it is. You’d think it was cold and unfeeling wouldn’t you? But slate is alive boys. Trust me. As alive as you or me.”
It was a well-rehearsed lecture, delivered every year and honed, by now, as perfectly as one of his slices of slate. These were the less sturdy boys. The ones who had been deemed unsuitable for face-work. They’d been sent over by Mr MacNamara to learn how to cleave slate into thin slices using only a mallet and chisel and John Meredith was the best they had. A true artist. Now he was telling them about cats and saying that slate was alive. He knew they probably thought he was a bit mad.
“Okay boys,” he’d say, sticking the rolled-up cigarette behind his ear, “see how I’m tapping away at the rock with the blade of the chisel? What I’m searching for is that sweet spot. The place where, with one sharp tap of the mallet, the slate can be split cleanly and perfectly. That sweet spot is very important boys. It’s the key that opens up the treasure. But like with a new cat, it takes a while to find it. Unlike with a cat however, with slate you only get one chance. Get it wrong and you blow it. Which is why it’s important that you get it right. Otherwise all the men in Orwig – the men down in its bowels risking life and limb every day – won’t be happy with you. The last thing they want to see is their hard work wasted.”
He tapped the wooden hilt of the chisel. The blue-grey rock surrendered into two swooning squares.
“See how they’re both the same thickness boys? Pass them round. They’ve both got to be exactly the same thickness otherwise they’re no good.”
The apprentices would all look at each other anxiously but, in time, most of them got the hang of it. Mr MacNamara always congratulated him on training up a new generation of skilled craftsmen and if he only knew how valuable he really was, Mr MacNamara thought, he could probably demand double his wages.
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