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Thursday, 3 May 2012
Gwaith Powdwr - family fun day 19th May 2012
grenades and other munitions were made at Cooke’s Explosives Ltd during WWII.
Nowadays it’s an extensive nature reserve where the most lethal thing is an
The site has a long
history of explosives production starting from 1865 with gun cotton, then TNT
and a range of ‘safety explosives’ for the mining industry. With the demise of
British coal mining, the business was no longer economically viable and closed
in 1995. Three years and six million pounds of decommissioning later, the site
(Gwaith Powdwr) was donated by ICI to the North Wales Wildlife Trust.
On Saturday 19th
May there will be a ‘fun day for all the
family’ from 10:30am to 4pm including bushcraft, pond dipping, minibeast
hunting and so on. This is a free event although donations are most welcome. To whet your appetite here is a recent film clip:
It’s a brilliant place
to explore, bringing together a mix of natural history and industrial history. It
used to be the biggest employer in the area with a workforce of five hundred in
the 1960s but today’s only employee is Rob, the warden, helped by a small army
A massive explosion
occurred in 1915 (enemy sabotage?), totally destroying the facilities, and
responsibility for the site was taken over by the Ministry of Munitions before
being sold to Cooke’s in the 1920s.
A key feature of the
60-acre site is the partitioning into three valleys – in the wake of the big
accident, production was distributed across the valleys to limit the risk of an
explosion in one area spreading to the other.
One of these was
called KlondykeValley because the pipework required for
producing nitro-glycerine resembled a gold-rush town. The plumbing has gone but
one of the key buildings remains, the Settling Shed. Amongst other things this
housed seven settling tanks in which residues of nitro-glycerine were removed
from the water used to keep the explosives cool and stable.
When explosives are
being mixed it is essential to keep them cool and the process involved piping
in water from a nearby pond with an operator monitoring temperature dials and
adjusting the flow of water accordingly. Probably not the most fulfilling work
but exceedingly important. For his comfort he was provided with a stool but for
his protection it had just one leg – if he fell asleep, it would not be for
This is the most
modern of the buildings dating back to 1988 when a huge blast destroyed the
previous one, killing two of the employees, and shaking the buildings of
Penrhyndeudraeth like an earthquake.
The footpath across
the summit of the hill goes through the heather to the Pendulum Shed. Not some
giant clock although people in the town could set their watches by it at 2 p.m.
every weekday. Suspended from a steel frame is a two tonne ballistic pendulum (pendil
balistig) with a pair of rails in front. A canon mounted on the rails was fired
point blank at the pendulum. The force of the explosion would cause the canon
to recoil on its tracks and the pendulum to swing – the degree to which it
swung was the measure of how powerful the explosives were!
This part of the site
is the area where nightjars breed and during early summer the footpath is
closed to prevent disturbance. Guided walks are organised by Rob – it’s unusual
to see these pre-historic looking birds, but the noise is unmissable, it sounds
like the rumblings of a diesel engine.
Sandbag wall - great for nesting
Dotted around the site
are several Explosives Sheds where products were wrapped and sealed in wax to
protect them from the damp. The sheds have detachable roofs and are surrounded
by thick safety walls made of sandbags so that in the event of an explosion,
the force of the blast would go upwards and not sideways … adds a whole new
dimension to ‘raising the roof’. Sparks
were a hazard to avoid and to that end the floor was lined with lead and
workers provided with rubber shoes and anti-static overalls.
Linking all these
buildings and remote areas of the site is a network of tarmac and railway
tracks. My first impression of the fading tarmac was that it was out of place
in a reserve but on the other hand they make easy access for pushchairs, wheelchairs
and mobility scooters. One of the railway tracks went through a tunnel which is
now grilled off and makes a great hibernation roost for lesser horseshoe bats.
Bats have also colonised the emergency shelters where workers would take refuge
in the event of the alarm being sounded.
The final building in
the explosives process is the Belfast Store where explosives were safely stored
prior to shipment by rail or by ship. One of the many safety features of this
building is the lightning conductor, an unlucky strike could set the whole
thing off. Cooke’s had their own steamship called the Florence Cooke which
started work in 1923 and during the war was used as an ammunition ship at Scapa
Flow and took part in the Normandy landings.
Alas in 1959, the year
after Mr Cooke retired and ICI took over, it was decided that road transport
was more efficient and she was sold for scrap.