Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Another turn of the wheel

Melin Pant yr Ynn, the Mill in the Ash Hollow. Clinging to the rocks beneath Blaenau’s slate quarries with a huge water wheel on its side, this mill began its working life in about 1845. Now in the 21st century it retains much of the character and spirit of those Victorian times captured by Falcon Hildred, industrial designer, renovator, artist and resident owner. 

Falcon grew up in war torn Coventry and has abiding memories of the drab, colourless, depressed townscape following the devastating blitz. All investment and manpower was naturally directed to the front line. It was not until 1951, and the Festival of Britain, that Falcon appreciated the full extent of how drab and decrepit everywhere had become, as the nation attempted a revival through the promotion of better quality design in the redevelopment of its towns and cities. Suddenly there was colour, gleaming glass and excitement as the old made way for the new.

But as is the way with big plans, things were not always for the better. Some of the decrepit buildings were priceless gems that should have been restored and the replacements were anything but good design. Using his skill as a designer and artist, and in between his job with a firm of architects, Falcon set about recording these buildings before they disappeared – accurate on-site drawings bringing out the essence of their character, as opposed to a photographic snapshot.

As time went by the new buildings seemed to get worse, the treatment of the past was ever more brutal and thoughtless. The ‘swinging sixties’, great in many ways, but a decade of the swinging demolition ball. Time was running out fast so Falcon switched from part time recording of these treasures to full time, giving up the security of being an employee and making ends meet through freelance assignments.

It was during this time that he came across Blaenau Ffestiniog, such an intriguing name on a map, with contour features and inclines everywhere, that Falcon came here for his holiday. In 1968 he bought Melin Pant yr Ynn and has made this the base for his work ever since.

Most likely the mill (melin) was built about 1844 for the pioneering Diffwys Quarry and by 1846 it had been equipped with the massive wheel and driveshafts to run saw tables and planing machines. Not for the manufacture of slates but massive slabs. A description by a quarryman from 1858 reads: the quarry has “heaps of flags or slabs for sawing purposes, varying in sizes from four to twenty four feet long” …. “without either joint, spar or ribbon in any of them, and perfectly free from sulphur. Such blocks as these make the most splendid and costly tomb stones, chimney pieces &c.” Probably snooker tables too!

For about twenty years these huge slabs were transported down from the quarry for sawing and planing using the power of the mountain stream. Apart from circular saws there was also a ‘sand saw’ and records show frequent deliveries of sand shipped up river ‘18 Jan 1858 Robert Richards boatage of 4 Tons sand for Saw mill - 6 shillings.’ But water gave way to steam and the quarry invested in on-site, steam driven mills, removing the machines closer to the raw material, much more efficient albeit needing fossil fuel. 

In 1866 the mill was used as a cold and draughty school for seven years and around about 1881 was taken over by Jacob and Zadrach Jones as a woollen mill operated in conjunction with the fulling mill (Melin Moelwyn) at Tanygrisiau. Spinning and weaving of the wool was done at Pant yr Ynn before being taken down the road for ‘fulling’ or finishing. And this continued all the way to 1964 when both mills stopped working.

Nowadays Pant yr Ynn is once again in good condition, with a working wheel, waterproof roof and a permanent exhibition of artefacts and drawings celebrating our industrial past. Visitors are welcomed throughout the summer months to walk around, and enjoy Falcon’s industrial art, not in the sterile atmosphere of a gallery, but within the space of a mill that has seen real toil and sweat. Not a Lowry in the Tate but Falcon in Blaenau – the ultimate setting in industrial landscape.

The ground floor is where Falcon does his work and the drawing room is certainly no lounge. The workshop is meticulous and functional. Exhibition areas are well presented, there is a feel of stepping back in time. Upstairs is for living. With an industrial scale dormer window the length of the room and a pot-bellied stove keeping you warm as the light floods in and you soak up the perfectly profiled view of the Moelwyns. Inspiration comes racing over the horizon.

Standing back from the window is the kitchen and dining area, simple, functional and tasteful. Not a pot jammed full of cooking implements but an array of cooking tools as in a well ordered shed. As for the cooker, it’s simplicity and elegance itself, bought second hand forty years ago and going strong ….. there’s not much that could go wrong with it. A perfect industrial design.

I asked Falcon what his favourite memory was and he looked back to his old diary for an autumn day in the millennium year and read out the entry:

Waterfall in full spate.
Mill wheel gently turning.
Smoke rising from the chimney.
The Moelwyns emerging from cloud.
Autumn colours.
Rain-washed landscape
sparkling in the sun
Blaenau and the mill truly at their best

For the moment the mill is where you will find Falcon but his collection of over 600 original drawings and watercolours are being taken into the care of The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. The collection has been catalogued, and high-quality digital images will be available online through Coflein (the Royal Commission's online database), and People's Collection Wales websites. Time for another turn of the wheel.

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