The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Now that’s what I call a really deep sleep
In an abandoned slate mine in Snowdonia, Gavin Haines slumbers ‘like a bear’ – 1,375ft underground
Inever thought I would be so happy to fill my lungs with the life-affirming scent… of sheep dung. Having just surfaced from the deep, dark burrows of the underworld, my olfactory receptors were delighting in the familiar smells of the Welsh countryside.
Beneath the grassy Snowdonian hills – 1,375ft below, to be precise – is Wales’s newest accommodation. And, perhaps, also its most eccentric. As far as anyone can tell, this abandoned slate mine is the deepest place in the world where you can legally bed down for the night. They call it the Deep Sleep experience, and last night it lived up to its name in all senses of the term. I slept like a bear, despite being vaguely unsettled by the millions of tons of rock above me. Remember those Chilean miners in 2010, trapped for two months underground? I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Not that the experience is as bleak as it sounds. I had my own room – the Grotto – which had a double bed, quilted sheets and a chandelier. There was Wi-Fi and a log burner-effect heater, which took the edge off the cold, and the washbasin even came with posh hotel soap.
The Deep Sleep experience is the idea of mine enthusiast Miles Moulding. His company, Go Below (gobelow.co.uk), has run excursions to the Cwmorthin mine, near Blaenau Ffestiniog in north-west Wales, since he saved it from closure more than a decade ago. The owners had wanted to pour concrete down it and seal it up, to stop people wandering around the labyrinthine, 50-mile complex, where flooded chambers, deep shafts and abandoned machinery are among the many hazards.
“I thought it was such a waste of history, so I volunteered to lease it,” he said as we sipped tea at the bottom of the mine. For his next trick, Moulding constructed guest lodgings in one of the chambers. He spent five years lugging the materials down there to build the Grotto, three cabins, a dining area, and a lavatory unit.
Now that it is finally open, I checked in, which – unlike most other check-in experiences – involved donning wellies, a harness and a hard hat. Then, as the sun set over Snowdonia National Park, a glorious evening ripening around me, I walked into a hole in the side of a mountain, into the abyss, and everything faded to black.
“There are 50 miles of tunnels down here – if you get lost, you’ll die of starvation before you find your way out,” warned Nick Meakins, a mine leader for Go Below. It was his way of saying “stick together”.
Accompanying us was photographer Andrew Fox and Dafydd, a curious local lad. We walked together through the darkness, hearing the drip-drip of water percolating through slate, the sound of rock being crushed underfoot.
“This is the stairway to heaven,” said Meakins, our head torches illuminating a set of stairs. I say stairs, but they were the original Victorian wooden boards, pegged to slate, which the miners climbed at the end of their shift, hence the name. Only this time, we were going down. “Yup, stairway to hell,” smiled Meakins.
Working conditions were indeed hellish in the mine’s heyday. When it opened in the early 19th century, men grafted for six days a week, and in the winter only saw daylight on Sundays. They tucked candles into their flat caps to see what they were doing and used jumper bars (giant metal spikes) to tap holes in the slate. It was arduous work, taking hours to complete, and they often did it while dangling from a rope high in the chamber. When the holes were deep enough, they packed them with explosives to extract the slate.
“The work chewed them up,” said Meakins, a self-professed “mine geek”. “Many fell to their deaths, were crushed by falling slate or succumbed to lung disease from all the dust.”
Incredibly, 90 per cent of the slate they mined was ultimately unusable, deemed too small or the wrong shape to be of any use. (“That was still considered an efficient mine,” said Meakins.) The remainder was loaded onto trains in Blaenau Ffestiniog and from there found its way all over the world. Homes in Australia have slate from this mine on their roofs. It was used to crown Cologne Cathedral, Rotterdam Town Hall and the Bank of New Zealand offices in Dunedin, about the furthest point on earth from here. After the Second World War, the mine declined in that familiar British way, as cheaper foreign slate undermined the economics of it. It finally closed in the 2000s.
We climbed down more steps (the entire descent takes an hour), waded through flooded passageways and followed the rusty railway tracks that carried slate-laden waggons through this subterranean city. Halfway down, we came to a café, or caban, where workers would have taken their tea.
“This is where the quarrymen came for a break, to get away from the dust and noise,” said Meakins. “They debated politics here, sang, wrote poetry.”
The place was like a museum. Old artefacts lay strewn around – clay pipes, china teacups, empty packets of Woodbine cigarettes, like my grandfather once smoked. On the walls were sheets of newspaper reports from the Second World War, and graffiti, including what looked like an etching of Hitler.
Meakins had to drag us away, asking if we fancied tackling a zip wire over one of the mine shafts. “Just a baby one,” he promised. We clipped our carabiners
onto a wire, ran over the edge and flew through the darkness. They always said “don’t look down”, but if you cannot see what is below anyway, it doesn’t matter.
Eventually, we arrived at the camp, where Moulding greeted us with tea and a dinner of rehydrated chicken curry. His fascination with the mines started once he discovered one on holiday in Snowdonia as a boy. His brother forbade him from entering “to see what was around the corner”.
“It ate away at me,” said Moulding. “I returned when I was 20. Around the next corner was another corner.”
The Deep Sleep experience is not for everyone, though. It is barely a step up from camping in terms of comfort. A lack of sewers means – ahem – plastic bags are put to good use, an experience that contrasts somewhat with the price: £350 for a cabin and £550 for the Grotto, both sleeping two.
But you are paying for the experience, not the accommodation, Moulding is quick to point out. “It’s barely viable financially,” he added. “But that’s not why we do it.”
The next morning, we bade Moulding farewell and began our ascent. There was less lingering on the way back, more purpose. Then we saw it – the literal light at the end of the tunnel. We strode towards it and burst into the fresh outdoors, where we took greedy lungfuls of air, and relished the smells of grass, pollen and sheep. Wonderful, all of it. The birds sang, the sun shone, and I felt enormous gratitude for having delved into another world and come back again, to where I belong.