The Slate Industry of North and Mid Wales

Inspecting the Blondins of Pen yr Orsedd Quarry

Recollections of a crane inspector in 1974, by John Hobbs

I was a crane inspector with the British Engine Boiler and Electrical Insurance Company and I had to inspect the Blondin cranes at Pen Yr Orsedd quarry near Nantlle in Gwynedd.  I went there for the first time about May 1974 when three Blondin cranes were still in use.  On the first morning, I got soaked just going from the car to the office, it was about three yards, in driving rain and a howling gale.  My first company car was a mark one Ford Escort, it was brand new and caused a stir in the Quarry.  My arrival unannounced caused some confusion, I could not locate a phone number for the Quarry Company, so had to go blind to see them, although I had a contact name my predecessors paperwork was not all it might have been.  The language of the quarry was Welsh, so I was well out of my depth, being a non fluent Welshman; the conversation naturally turned to my skills etc.  However from somewhere, in my school days, I was able to summon up a comment about the good quality of the tea in Welsh.  Whereupon I was advised that they did not know, I knew so much Welsh, and the the topic for discussion was changed. So it is everywhere where two languages are spoken! You had to learn quickly, I had never seen a "Blondin" before but on this day you could only see 10 yards in the driving rain. I had a walk around one of the engine houses, with the quarry Manager, but examination was futile in the driving rain. I arranged to call by phone, the following Tuesday morning and if the weather looked favourable arranged to be at the quarry for 10.00 for a cup of tea and some snap.

 Tuesday was a much better day, although cold with a view across to Snowdon from the vale.  The examination started in the engine house with the cable drums which drove the hoist and travel ropes, provided with gearing and clutches and the motor being provided with a water starter, with plates that could be wound in and out to increase/decrease the resistance as required.  On the beams of the engine house were photos of beauties which reflected the age of the installation.  Betty Grable and Mae West were the only ones I could identify.  Outside the engine house was a pylon about 30 ft high to which all the wire ropes ran to the base, each wire being provided with its own sheave.  The pylon was itself stayed with four cables each terminated at ground level in appropriate anchorages.  The catenary rope was fixed to the top of the pylon and suspended over the quarry pit to end in an emblockation at the far side on the hillside above the quarry about 400 yards away.  The travel rope went under the sheave at the base of the pylon and over a sheave at the top across the pit and fastened to the "Blondin" carriage at the engine house end; the other end of the rope was fastened to the other side of the "Blondin" carriage and then run across to the emblockation on the hillside where it went around a sheave and then returned across the quarry, passing through the "Blondin" carriage to the pylon around sheaves at the top and bottom and back to the drum in the engine house. This travel rope was supported by runners (buttons) from the catenary rope which prevented it sagging too far away from the catenary rope. A separate button rope was provided to enable these runners to be deployed. The drum on which the travel rope was wound could be powered in either direction by the driver who received his instructions from a banksman. The hoist rope was provided with its own drum, which could be reversed, the rope again left the engine house to the base of the pylon around its own sheaves at the top and bottom of same and then via diverter sheaves on the "Blondin" carriage ran down to the hook and back to the carriage; thence to the far side of the quarry where it was anchored in the emblockation. This enabled the hook, suspended from the "Blondin" carriage to be held level no matter how the carriage was traversed across the quarry.  It was possible to examine a large proportion of the travel rope from the pylon, and a smaller proportion of the hoist rope but the whole of the catenary rope and large sections of hoist rope and the remainder of the travel rope could only be examined by riding on the "Blondin" carriage!

This was achieved by a bracketed seat being brought out and fitted to the "Blondin" carriage, the carriage being drawn close to the pylon to enable it to be fitted.  This required close work between the banksman and the "Blondin" driver; in order that the carriage did not foul the pylon.  A safety harness was also worn although what use this was in the vent of rope failure was never explained. The task now was to climb into this seat and be strapped in to examine the catenary and hoist ropes which were otherwise inaccessible.  I agreed hand signals with the quarry foreman as to "stop" and "proceed", "reverse" and the examination commenced.  It became obvious when I was about 50 yards out over the quarry that my hand signals, to the Quarry Foreman were having little effect on proceedings - the motion out along the wire being quite arbitrary.  So I examined the ropes as best I could.  The weather was wonderful and the sun's heat could be felt as I swung 400 ft above the quarry floor, 200 ft or so from the pylon, in complete silence flying as if like a bird in my own world.  Snowdon came into view, a magnificent unique perspective from my position on the "Blondin" carriage. As I dwelt on my unique position, there was an enormous explosion beneath me as shards of slate came upwards towards me from the pit below.  Nobody had instructed the quarry hands to cease working as I swung above them in the ether; this was the most terrifying experience I have ever had in my life!  Not only was I not in control of my movement, I was being shelled as well!

John can be seen strapped to the left of the cradle!

When my uncontrolled travel to the remote end of the rope was complete, or somebody thought it was!  My direction was reversed and I returned to the pylon and dismounted.  After complaining about the explosion profuse apologies were offered and cups of tea provided to calm my nerves! During this conversation, I discovered that the banksman had cataracts!!  That explained why my hand signals were not being responded to!   The final part of the examination required a walk across the mountain to the far side of the "Blondin" to examine the emblockation, this was made of large timbers; which had obviously been in place for many years.  My screwdriver entered them like they were made of cheese.  It was the last occasion that the machine was used as I required it to be immediately withdrawn from service.  The owners were not surprised at my stance, the cost of replacing the timbers was too much for the state of finances at the time and the cost of dismantling and re-erecting the machine were too great.  It is always sad as a crane inspector to see an interesting machine come to the end of its working life but safety must always be paramount.

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