When I was a child attending Bryntaf, a Welsh speaking primary school in Cardiff, I learnt about one of Wales’ most tragic and famous love stories, the story of Rhys and Meinir.
Rhys and Meinir lived and grew up together in a tiny village called Porth y Nant, on the northern coast of the Llyn Peninsula I Northwest Wales. Their childhood friendship blossomed into love, and their favourite courting spot was under an old oak tree, on the lower slopes of Yr Eifl. The young couple decided to get married and set a date for the big day. There was an old tradition in the valley called the ‘Wedding Quest’, where the bride on the morning of the wedding would run and hide and the groom, with his friends, would look for her. But on that fateful morning she was nowhere to be found and as the months went by Rhys slowly lost his mind. Then one stormy night, Rhys took shelter beneath the couple’s favourite courting spot, the old Oak tree and as a bolt of lightning split the tree in two the skeletal remains of Meinir, still in her wedding dress, was revealed. Overcome with grief, Rhys collapsed and died on the spot.
About 10 years after hearing that story in primary school, I got a chance to visit the village, while studying art at college, to photograph the ruined houses and nearby quarry buildings, in black & white.
Porth y Nant sits deep in a valley, Nant Gwrtheyrn, surrounded on three sides by a group of mountains called Yr Eifl and the sea on the other. High above the valley was a granite quarry which opened in 1861 by a Liverpool company called Kneeshaw and Lupton. Here they produced rectangular setts, used for paving the roads of towns and cities. The quarry was serviced by the village of Porth y Nant. Originally the village contained one terrace of small houses, but in 1878 more terraced cottages were built (to provide accommodation for the workers and their families), a manor house for the quarry manager, known as y Plas and a chapel named Seilo, which also doubled up as a school. There was no mains gas, electricity, or water in Porth y Nant, the water came from a reservoir on the hill above the village.
The granite setts were shipped out via the Irish Sea, as this was virtually the only access to the village making life for the community an isolated existence. A steep narrow track running down the mountain, known as ‘Gamfordd’ in Welsh or the Corkscrew Hill, was the only other way into the village. So extreme was the steepness of the original track that British Pathe news made a film called “Climbing The Unclimbable!” in 1934. The film shows the first car into the village and follows its successful attempt to leave the village via the steep twisting road all the way to the top, quite a feat back in the 1930s!
Narrow railway lines ran from the quarry down to the huge granite silos down by the sea. Wooden ‘trucks’ would go down filled with the rock and the empty ones would go back up to be filled again. Amazingly there was still examples of these trucks at Porth y Nant when I visited the village in 1980. From the silos, conveyor belts loaded with granite ran along the jetty to the waiting boats. Alongside the silos stood storage bunkers, again still in evidence in 1980.
The quarry closed during the early 1940s, the community dispersed and the buildings all fell into disrepair. However, 3 residents still remained into the early 1950s but by the 1970s the village lay empty. During the 1960s the village was occupied for a time by hippies, who trashed what was left of the buildings.
The village of Porth y Nant was eventually restored in the 1980s and a new road was built into the village together with a water and electricity supply. The village became the Nant Gwrtheyrn Welsh Language Centre, with the cottages restored for use as accommodation and the ‘Plas’ becoming the classroom. In addition to two car parks the old ‘Seilo’ was turned into a display centre and shop. They even built a café and named it after Meinir, which today leads down to the ruins of the old storage bunkers.