A search for coal in Cusop: investigations by Roderick Williams
Guest Contribution: Introduction
A report by Roderick Williams on past searches for coal in Cusop, and his own investigations in the same area, is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.
There is little doubt the greatest geological era for coal is the Carboniferous Period, so named after the fact that within these rocks there is a massive amount of carbonaceous material formed in ancient swamps from which we have obtained countless millions of tons of coal for our fossil fuel needs.
Later periods such as the Jurassic have produced soft coals in some areas of the world. I believe there has been some late Devonian coal found in North America. However, in the area around Hay the rocks are much older and at best early Devonian when plant life 400 million years ago just taking to the land was short, stubby, confined to edges of water courses and primitive by nature; a far cry from the massive trees and extensive vegetation found in the following Carboniferous Period or even at the end of the Devonian. Some of the first plants ever found were Silurian in age such as Cooksonia, and the rocks in Cusop and around Hay are of Upper Silurian/ Lower Devonian.
In the light of modern knowledge it may seem to some that coal mining near Hay-on-Wye was both unlikely and odd but around 1800, when the main roads were little better than trackways and the railways were still in the future, some local men were looking for local sources of coal, iron and even copper and lead. Coal brought by pack horses and mules in relatively small quantities from the abundant coal mining areas of south Wales was expensive. The building of the Brecon to Newport canal alleviated this to some extent. Eventually the Hay Railway - a horse drawn tram road between Brecon canal wharf and Eardisley in Herefordshire via Hay which also linked to Kington - was a great advance in reducing the cost of coal and other commodities. The traffic was by no means one way and agricultural goods were supplied to Brecon and onwards via the canal system to the more industrial areas in return.
Let us now return to the period just before1800. A tenant of Sir George Cornewall of Moccas Court, one of the great land owning gentry of Herefordshire, had claimed to have discovered 'coal' on Cusop Hill and persuaded his landlord that by digging into the hill he might find seams of coal. Sir Roderick Murchison, the great geologist of the 19th century, described the mine as being abandoned in 1835 when he took his tour of Wales via Cusop and Hay. He eventually went on to write his greatest work, The Silurian System , after his tour of Wales. He says the mine or coal trial was near the 'place of fishes' at the Criggy in the side of a steep ravine. The Criggy or the Craigau is in the upper reaches of the Cusop valley (above the old Brickyards) and is a very steep and somewhat unstable slope of Cusop Hill (map reference SO 250403).
Murchison goes on to describe a level gallery driven into the side of the hill in the absurd attempt to find coal when a lot of money had been sunk into the venture but abandoned through death. We are left guessing whose death - perhaps the tenant? Even by around 1835 the entrance of the mine seems to have been in a poor state but near Ty-Coch farm (map reference SO 248406) on the side of the hill is an odd square small solitary building and below there is a spring issuing from the hillside and a sign of walling which may have been an entrance. However there is no sign of any mining spoil which is problematical. This gallery may yet still lie undiscovered nearby although after 200 years it would be expected to be collapsed inwards. A spoil heap of some sort would be expected outside the entrance. You can't dig a mine without leaving outward traces even after 200 years.
The place of fishes Murchison describes does go hand in hand with the supposed area of the mine as there are black splodges of carbonised fossil material throughout the grey sandstones and whilst some is of an early type of plant remains a lot of it is of a primitive fossil fish known as a pteraspid. Murchison was right about 'The place of Fishes.'
This could all be mistakenly thought to be an indication of coal. Why the fossils are so coalified is open to conjecture of course. I have studied this end of Cusop Hill over the years looking for fossils mainly, and even now there maybe places I have not seen in the woodland below but find it hard to believe that I have missed seeing anything like a mine entrance. There is a small quarry immediately above Ty-Coch Farm (map reference SO 252406) which has signs of so-called coal and more walling.
On Cusop Hill above Cusop Church, near but below Capeldolwyn, the old calcrete limestone crops out (map reference SO 248417), once known as the Psammosteous Limestone but now known as the Bishop's Frome Limestone. Some years ago near there I found some nice calcite crystals with malachite 'copper carbonate' but also with pieces of coal in the matrix which would burn with a very sooty flame.
No wonder this notion of coal became ingrained in the minds of the local quarry men as the hill was extensively quarried even up to the early 20th Century. Bricks were made at the brickyards and a modern limekiln was also built in the woodland nearby. These Lower Devonian rocks with their limestones were extensively burnt for lime for mortar and agricultural use all around the flanks of the Black Mountains particularly in the eastern and northern area. Lime kilns turn up in many local little valleys, some ruinous and some only guessed at from local field names often in Welsh.
Returning to Hay and Cusop, the references to coal mining are few and far between. Murchison mentions it in his notebooks but I am not aware he mentions it in his Silurian System. Rev Symonds mentions it in his 'Records of the Rocks'. Probably the best reference to it is on page 450 of the Mechanics Magazine (April 7th –Sept 29th 1838 XXIX).
An account by Enort Smith describes mining attempts near Hay, Brecon. " During a visit I paid to the little romantic town of Hay, in Breconshire, South Wales, in November 1831, I was informed that several explorations had been made in that great range of mountain land dominated (by) ‘The Cusop Hills’, and the explorers had succeeded in extracting both coal and iron. I had understood a bar of metal had been made of extremely good quality; but of the quality of the coal extracted I cannot speak. Hope was flattering the minds of the inhabitants that the little neglected and obscure town of Hay would speedily become a mart of the first-rate traffic and wealth; but seven years have since rolled on without producing as far as I know any verification of the expectation."
Smith’s narrative makes no more mention of the coal or iron. There are some small crystals of iron pyrites in the rocks in Cusop again in the Criggy area so this may have been the source of iron. A couple of other old books mention the Criggy coal mine but all seem to copy each other.