Category Archives: Shopping

A three day fish-fest thanks to Dai’s Shed and my freezer

On Wednesday I floured and pan-fried a terrific chunk of Dai’s seabass that I had in the freezer from a couple of weeks ago. Seabass freezes beautifully for short periods and this was a gorgeous piece of fish, in terms of both texture and flavour.  I served it very simply with a sauce made of capers, diced tomato, finely diced banana shallot and finely chopped herbs (Thai basil, thyme, ordinary basil, parsley, oregano, lovage and just a little mint) in virgin olive oil and lemon juice, served with griddled courgette discs, sautéed potatoes and accompanied by lemon slices. It is super to be able to use herbs from the garden whilst they last, and the Thai basil, a new addition to my outdoor herb collection, came over particularly well.  It is amazing how long the herbs are lasting – I was expecting most of them to be well on their way out by now.  I will particularly miss the lovage, which I use in huge quantities in salad and fish sauces, as it is simply unavailable even in big supermarkets.

Yesterday the flavours in my fish tagine were a bit more complicated but it was also a doddle to prepare.  Again from the freezer, I had a piece of huss that I cut into chunks, that I marinated in a mix of fresh coriander from my garden, paprika, cumin, cayenne, lemon and olive oil.  This was then cooked, complete with the marinade, in puréed fresh tomato, cumin, garlic, onion, with fresh chillis and parsley (both from my garden), grated carrot, preserved lemons and okra, with a little home made fish stock.  I sprinkled mint over the top and served it with lime and coriander cous cous.  The latter was a cheat – a pack from Ainsley Harriott, but it is so good that I never feel guilty about not making it myself.  Huss is brilliant for this type of cooking because it retains its shape, and has enough flavour of its own to stand up to all the herbs and spices.  Like the seabass, it is a good choice for the freezer, and it is blissfully easy to fillet.  I make the tomato, onion and garlic base in huge batches for the freezer, partly for convenience but mainly because I absolutely detest peeling tomatoes and prefer to confine the suffering to single large sessions.  As I really don’t like the harsh sweetness of tinned toms (I’m a bit of a fussy eater) it is seriously worth the effort.

Today I was at the excellent community lunch, about which more on a future post, so there was no need for an evening meal, but I used some fish stock that I made yesterday from a freezer bag of fish bits (heads, tails, bones etc) left over from preparing and filleting fish to make myself a fish soup.  To give it a bit of body and flavour I recruited some onions, some fennel that needed using up, garlic cloves, chilli from the garden and skinned fresh toms, all whizzed up in the blender.  In a somewhat extravagant mood I lobbed in rather a lot of saffron for that extra bit of Mediterranean luxury, seasoned it with sea salt and pepper and sprinkled over a bit of coarsely chopped parsley.  It was supposed to be basil but I wasn’t about to go outside to pick some in pouring rain and a gale (thanks Storm Callum) when I had some parsley in the fridge!  Grabbed a spoon and bowl and it was Job done. There was loads left over for the freezer, a blessed fall-back for when I don’t feel like cooking.

Bass and Mullet from Dai’s Shed. Happy.

Oh the multiple joys of the dry weather!  A gloriously sunny day yesterday.  A long, lazy walk down the estuary was followed by a trip to Dai’s shed to see what he might have available. The blackboard said bass and mullet.  Woo hoo!  Jill was in charge, as Dai was bringing in the lobster pots.  I asked for one of each, and was staggered at the size of them!  Super fresh.  Each over a foot long, bright of eye, and beautifully silver-grey, stunning.  She only had two mullets left, so I was lucky.  I hate de-scaling fish – I always end up covered in scales – but Jill did the job in double-quick time and gutted them both for me as well.  As I watched the process with envy at her speed another customer arrived.  A nice little exchange:
[Clock showing 3.20pm].
Customer:  “What time do you close?”
Jill, smiling and looking at the clock: “2 O’clock!”
Customer, also laughing:  “I better not come back a bit later then!”

When I left, he was still waiting patiently in line and I hope that he enjoyed his fish as much as I enjoyed mine.  Whilst I was there, the owners of Proper Gander came in to pick up seafood for the restaurant as Dai returned with his lobster pots and the day’s catch.  Couldn’t have been fresher!

Mullet at top, bass at bottom. Heaven on a plate.

The ideal way to serve the fish would have been whole, but even if I starved myself for a couple of days that wasn’t going to work :-).  I’ve never tried filleting a raw fish, so I cut the fish into chunks when I got home, the first chunk for last night, the others put in the freezer, with heads and tails also frozen for a future fish stock.

I have been indulging in a bit of a North African and Middle Eastern phase, having been reunited with my tagine and my spice collection, but I chose to keep things perfectly simple.  I floured my piece of mullet, fried it in a mix of butter and olive oil and served it with something mid way between chermoula and a sauce vierge.  It was composed of fine-diced tomato, capers and banana shallot, finely chopped mint, parsley, lovage, and oregano in a virgin olive oil and a big squeeze of lemon juice, with some minced garlic thrown in for fun, livened up with with a punch of Berbere spices (a blend that I found in the Co-op pin Tywyn).  I also sautéed some spuds and threw a couple of baby courgettes on the griddle.  The herbs all came from my garden except for the oregano that I spotted growing all along the estuary walk – a nice, bijou little forage!  I do wish that I could grow coriander, but it goes straight to seed.

Mullet turns out to be a stunning fish.  I had never had it before and was told that if caught in estuary waters it could taste very muddy but this was caught out at sea and was anything but muddy.  It had a clean, fresh taste, beautifully white and full of flavour.  It is often compared with sea bass, but of the two I prefer the mullet.  It has better flavour and a much better texture.  The fresh and clean flavours of the fish, the herbs and the spices all worked well together.

Dai’s Shed is open til the end of October, so if you’re hoping for some excellent locally caught fish, you need to get your skates on.

Glorious huss from Dai’s Shed

Last week Dai had caught some huss so I bought a small piece and put it in the freezer.  I had never cooked it before.  Huss, also known as rock salmon, was my standard purchase from my favourite fish and chip shop when I lived in London, so I knew that it was full of flavour.   I made it into a fish stew.

I skinned and cooked some tomatoes, lightly fried onion and garlic in olive oil, sprinkled over a little smoked paprika and whizzed it all up in the food processor.  I added herbs, ground fennel, a seriously good pinch of saffron and a big spoonful of piri-piri for a good hit of heat.  A little fish stock, a little white wine and a small glug of brandy completed the mix.   I sliced the huss into chunks, fried them quickly in olive oil, and then removed them from the pan.  Next, the components of a pack of frozen shellfish from the Chester Waitrose went into the same pan, and those too were removed once they had heated through.  Into the fishy juices I poured the tomato mixture and reduced it down.  The huss went back into the pan first and then the shellfish, all topped with clams in their shells to warm through.  It was accessorized with a fresh coriander gremolata over the top, and served with a grilled slice of crusty Welsh bread with a clove of garlic rubbed over it for dipping in the juices.  A delectable glass of Sancerre to accompany it wrapped things up perfectly.   Not as glamorous or authentic as a French bouillabaisse or as delectable as a Spanish zarzuela, but my simple Algarve-inspired fish stew was a lot quicker to produce and required much less fish!

The huss was absolutely divine.  It holds its shape, retains its gorgeous flavour and has a wonderful texture.  It would make a brilliant substitute in recipes that demand the much more expensive monkfish.  I popped down into Aberdovey and bought an even bigger bit this morning, given that it freezes so well.  Dai says that the weather is too rough to go out for the next couple of days, so no dressed crab or mackerel for the time being.  I am still not quite up to dealing with a live lobster.

Day Trip – The Royal Silver Mint and Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace in the village of Furnace

Today my father and I visited the site of the Royal Silver Mint and the restored Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace at the village of Furnace (Welsh Ffwrnais), only 10km southwest of Machynlleth on the south side of the Dovey river, in Ceredigion.  What an amazing place.   Some of my days out have nothing much to do with Aberdovey itself, but this one is positively bristling with linkages between the 18th Century Dyfi Furnace and the contemporary port at Aberdovey.

Learning of the existence of the Dyfi Furnace was a complete accident.  Last week my father and I drove into Aberystwyth to find out how long it would take to drive there from Aberdovey, and if there were retail facilities worth the trip.  The drive was surprisingly beautiful, mainly through lovely woodland and pastures, sometimes with views over the river Dovey, the estuary and Cardigan Bay, with a spectacular descent into Aberystwyth itself, the sea a staggeringly beautiful blue.  The reality of the eternally winding road meant that we were plagued with nervous and over-cautious drivers and very slow lorries, a frustrating experience behind the steering wheel.  On the other hand, discovering the Dyfi Furnace was an absolutely excellent outcome of the expedition.

As we hurtled around a corner on our way to Aberystwyth, we both noticed a large water wheel on the side of an impressively solid stone-built building on the left/east of the A487, a few miles southwest of Machynlleth.  When we returned from Aberystwyth I fired up my PC to find out what it was, and having identified it as Dyfi Furnace, started investigating its past.  The two buildings that make up the site are managed by Cadw, and the site has a long and absolutely fascinating history dating to at least the 17th Century, spanning the reign of Charles I, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Today it has a valuable role welcoming visitors and providing information about the area’s industrial past.

There is a lot to say, so this is a long post, divided up as follows:

  • Introduction to the site
  • Archaeology and the history of the Dyfi Furnace
    • The early 17th Century lead works
    • The silver mill and Royal Mint c.1648-1670
    • The charcoal blast furnace c.1755-1810
      • Introducing the Dfyi Charcoal Blast Furnace
      • The job of a charcoal blast furnace, and how it works
      • How the iron smelting process translates into furnace architecture
      • The Dyfi Furnace in detail
    • The sawmill c.1810/1887-1920
  • The site today and visitor information
  • References

All sources used throughout the post are listed at the end.  You can click on images to see larger versions.


Introduction

The site is located c.10kms south of Machynlleth on what is now the A487.  On the Ordnance Survey map, at  SN685951 it can be found on the edge of the village of Furnace, which took its name from the Dyfi Furnace.  The Dyfi Furnace is one of the last charcoal blast furnaces is to be preserved in Britain and is the best preserved in Wales.  It is now managed by Cadw, Welsh Government’s historic environment service.

The history of the Dyfi Furnace can be divided into five phases of use:

  • The early 16th Century lead works
  • The establishment of the Royal Silver Mills during the Civil War (1642-1651), when it shifted from Aberystwyth when Aberystwyth Castle was under threat of attack;
  • Its conversion to a charcoal blast furnace in around 1755, changing hands at least twice before its closure in 1810;
  • The conversion of the furnace into a sawmill
  • The use of the sawmill as an agricultural storage facility, mainly for root vegetables

All three phases of use depended on water power, employing water wheels of varying sizes to transmit energy to operate machinery.

 

Archaeology and History

The early 17th Century lead works

In the early 17th Century, Sir Hugh Myddleton was responsible for promoting the metal mining industry in Ceredigion, with remarkable success, although he is better known for his pivotal role in the construction of the New River, to supply water from the River Lea to London.  It is thought that the Ynsyhir lead smelting works, that were the first industrial works standing on the Dyfi Furnace site were part of his drive to bring industry to the area.  The lead works dated from around 1620, processing lead ore to produce both lead and silver.  As in later years, local wood was probably the main reason for siting the lead works in this particular place.  The finished products were distributed by sea via the Dyfi estuary, helping to establish Aberdovey as an important trans-shipping port.

The Royal Silver Mint

During the reign of Charles I (1600-1649) silver coinage was produced in the Royal Mint in London from silver produced in mines throughout Britain, including Wales.  The crown owned a number of silver mills in its own right, known as the Mines Royal.  A paper by the Reverend Eyre Evans describes a surviving petition from 1636  that states that on the 12th May 1625 Charles I had granted one Sir Hugh Myddleton with the rights, for 31 years, to all the silver mines in the county of Cardigan, to be sent to the Royal Mint in London.  By the end of 1636 silver had been sent to the Mint at a value of £50,000.  The petition was sent by Thomas Bushell, member of the Society of Mines Royal, who had bought the land on Myddleton’s death from from Myddleton’s widow and hoped to retain Royal patronage for the endevour.

Threepence Charles I coins minted at Aberystwyth. Source: British Museum

Bushell was granted his petition, and now in the possession of the mines began to petition for a mint (a coin factory) in Aberystwyth Castle to manufacture coins exclusively from Welsh silver mines, citing the precedent of Ireland, where a Royal Mint had been established. Rather surprisingly, given strongly worded objections from the Royal Mint in London, on the 9th  July 1637 Bushell was again granted his wish, and was authorized to coin the half-crown, shilling, half-shilling, two-pence, and penny, all from Welsh silver.  In October of the same year the groat, threepence and half-penny were added to the list.  A set of accounts for the Aberystwyth Castle mint last up until 1642, when they cease abruptly, almost certainly due to the outbreak of the Civil War and the threat to the mint from Parliamentarian forces, and the castle was actually occupied briefly in 1648.

Tentative suggestions that during the Civil War (1642-1651) the Aberystwyth Royal Mint was moved to the site at Furnace were unambiguously confirmed during the 1986 excavations by James Dinn and his team, a great result.   Ceredigion silver was very highly valued and moving the Royal Mint to this location was a sound plan, particularly as Charles I was in urgent need of coin to pay his army.  This seems to have taken place in 1648 or a short time beforehand.

The silver mill had been described by Sir John Pettus and John Ray in 1670 and 1674 respectively, and a plan by Waller (1704) survives.  These between them describe furnaces, possibly up to five of them, the mint house and the stamping mill surrounding a courtyard, together with the mint house, a lead mill and a refining house.  Between them the buildings had four water wheels to operate four sets of bellows. One of the wheel pits was found during the excavations.  A cobbled surface was also found during excavations, apparently belonging to the courtyard of the silver mill.

Dinn says that the dates during which the silver mill was in use are uncertain, but that it may have operated in 1645-6 and 1648-9.  Activity was apparently suspended in 1650 but the works seem to have been in operation again in 1650.  1670 seems to mark the date for its permanent abandonment.

The Charcoal Blast Furnace

Introducing the Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace

At the top of the Dyfi Furnace, the charging room, from where the furnace was fed.

The Dyfi Charcoal Blast Furnace was built in c.1755 and was in use for five years for iron smelting (the production of iron from natural iron ore).  The excavations found that later conversion to a sawmill had destroyed some of the blast furnace components but preserved others.  Charcoal blast furnaces had been introduced into Britain in the late 15th Century but it took another century for them to become widespread.

The furnace was initially leased in c.1755 from Lewis and Humphrey Edwards by Ralph Vernon together with the brothers Edward and William Bridge, who had been involved with the building of a furnace in Conwy, north Wales in 1750.   The furnace-master, who was accommodated in a house at the site called Ty Furnace, was Thomas Gaskell.  Vernon retired sometime between 1765 and 1770 and the Bridge brothers went bankrupt in 1773.  Dinn says that this “left members of the Kendall family in sole control of Conwyy and Dyfi furnaces.”  I am not clear on how the Kendalls, west Midlands iron-masters with interests throughout Britain, came to be in control, but the Kendalls may have invested in the furnace operation.  Ralph Vernon was a cousin of Jonathan and Henry Kendall and they had been in business together before.  Both Dyfi and Conwy furnaces were put up for sale in 1774.  No buyers were found and it is thought that John Kendall probably managed the Dyfi furnace himself until his death in 1791, but the Conwy furnace closed in around 1779.  In 1796 the lease again changed hands and was now in the name of Messrs Bell and Gaskell, the latter being the Thomas Gaskell who had been the furnace master at Dyfi Furnace under the Kendalls.   Dyfi Furnace went out of use as an iron ore smelting furnace in around 1810.

There were four reasons for basing the furnace at the foot of the River Einion waterfall.

  • First, the waterfall provided power for the water wheel, and with its source high in the hills, originating in Craiglin Dyffi near the summit of the remote Aran Faddwy, the tallest peak in the area, it was unlikely to dry up at any part of the year. The water wheel powered the bellows that gave the blast furnace its name.
  • Second, there was a road to the river village of Garreg, 2km away, that provided access to the navigable part of the River Dovey (Afon Dyfi), which provided easy access to the sea port of Aberdovey.  The furnace depended upon Aberdovey for transfer of iron ore (the natural material from which iron is extracted in the furnace) from Cumbria to river ships that could make the trip to Garreg, and for transhipping its pig iron (iron produced from iron ore that was now in a state ready to be worked in a forge by a blacksmith) to elsewhere in the country.
  • Third, it was surrounded by rich woodland that was exploited for the manufacture of charcoal to fuel the furnace.
  • Finally, it was immediately next to the turnpike road out of Machynlleth, providing access to the market town.

Both iron ore and limestone had to be imported.  The iron ore came mainly from Cumbria, but it is not clear where the limestone was sourced.  Limestone is available in north Wales, and there are records of imports to the furnace from the River Dee, so this is a plausible source.

The entire complex included the Furnace (blast furnace stack, the hearth at its base, a casting house, a bellows room, a counterweight room, a charging room), an external charcoal storage building and the iron-master’s house, Ty Furnace.

Plan of the buildings associated with the Dyfi Furnace. Source: Dinn, J. 1988, p.112

 

The job of the charcoal blast furnace, and how it works

Iron Smelting

A furnace is an impressive combination of chemical and mechanical engineering.

Iron ores are a mixture of oxides and sulphates of iron, predominantly haematite, ferric oxide (Fe2O3).  However, the haematite and other iron oxides come mixed with a variety of other minerals, containing such elements as silica, alumina, phosphorous, manganese and sulphur. The smelting process must accomplish two things.

Blast Furnace simulation showing some of the components described in this post.  Please note that this simulation shows coke being used, but this is a later innovation; the Dyfi Furnace used charcoal. Sourced from the BBC History website, where it can be run as an excellent Flash animation.

It must split the molecules of the iron compounds so that the iron is separated from the oxygen.   This is done by the addition of heat and the supply of carbon in the form of (in this case) charcoal.   In this chemical and physical environment, the addition of heat energy divides the ore into iron and carbon dioxide, CO2.  The hot carbon dioxide exits through the chimney.  Notice that the charcoal is both the source of heat, and a chemical reagent combining with the oxygen in the ferric oxide.

The second thing the process must accomplish is remove the other minerals that accompany the haematite in the iron ore.  This is achieved in two ways.  First, the addition of intense heat acts in much the same way as it does with the haematite taking off some of the impurities as gases.   However, it also requires the addition of a limestone (primarily composed of calcite, CACO3) “flux,” which both lowers the melting point of the mixture and bonds with the impurities to make a silicaceous liquid, physically and chemically similar to a very impure glass.  Being silicaceous, it is light and floats on the iron, making it relatively easy to separate.

The addition of oxygen

Oxygen is added by use of bellows.  There are two features of the flow of air in a furnace which are worth noting.  First the bellows are much more effective blowing into a confined space.  Blowing into an open hearth, the air is quickly dissipated, as is the heat produced.  Second, the narrow funnel at the top of the furnace creates what engineers call a “venturi.”  It forces the hot rising gases into a much smaller space so that their speed increases, in the same way that like the narrowing of the nozzle size on a hose pipe, increases the speed at which the water squirts out.  When the velocity of a gas increases, its pressure falls, according to a physical law known as Bernoulli’s principle.  The low pressure at the top of the furnace pulls the air through the smelting mixture just as the air from the bellows is pushing it.  Together, they increase the amount of oxygen from the air which reaches the burning charcoal, radically increasing its temperature.

Bellows

Bellows are a device for taking a lot of air from an unconfined place and pushing it at high pressure into a smaller place.  To operate successfully the bellows need four features.

First, and most obvious, a bag into which the air can be sucked from the atmosphere.  At this time the bag were usually leather.

The second thing that the bellows need are a way of opening and closing the bag.  In this furnace opening is achieved by a cog with one side of each tooth rounded (see diagram), driven by a water wheel.  The opening is achieved by a counter weight connected to a lever which is pulled up by the same cog mechanism (see diagram). When the tooth of the cog passes, the counterweight falls to open the bellows.

The third thing is a valve on the leather bag which lets air be sucked in when the bellow are open, but not blown out when they are closing.

Finally, the bellows need a narrow nozzle to push the air at high speed into the furnace chamber to deliver oxygen to the charcoal and increase the rate of combustion.

A Cadw sign from the site showing how the counterweights related to the functionality of the bellows

How the iron smelting process translates into furnace architecture

The furnace consists of a number of different rooms, each devoted to a different task:

  • The charge (charcoal, limestone flux and iron ore) is fed in from the charging room at the top of the furnace.  This room keeps the charcoal dry whilst it is being fed into the furnace.
  • The furnace itself is in a square stack, but is circular in form.  A small round opening at the top (the neck) flares out down the length of the stack to allow the materials to expand as they are heated from a blast from the bellows.  The stack suddenly narrows into a funnel, called the bosh.  Finally, the a tall cylinder at the base, the hearth, is where the molten iron and slag gathers.
  • The heat within the furnace is maintained by the bellows, which are contained within the bellows room and these are operated by a water wheel on the outside of the building.
  • A counterweight room contains the counterweights that raise and drop the bellows.  The bellows connect to the furnace via an pipe, c.3 inches in diameter, and a nozzle called a tuyère that are carried through a tuyère hole or blasting arch at about 1ft above the base of the furnace at the correct angle to give maximum impact.
  • The area in the hearth below the tuyère where the liquid metal comes to rest is called the crucible.
  • Molten slag, floating on top, and molten iron, below, pass through separate tapholes.  The iron passes through an arch, called a casting arch, into the the casting room.  This is where the iron hardens in clean and dry conditions.


Looking in detail at the Dyfi Furnace

When it was built in c.1755 the Dyfi Furnace appears to have consisted of a free-standing blast furnace, with other components added a little later.  The completed complex consisted of the furnace building made of local shale from the Silurian period Llandovery series and grey-white mortar, the charcoal barn 20m away from the furnace and the head ironmaster’s house.

A superb cut-away image of the interior of the Dyfi Furnace, showing how all the components relate to one another, upstairs and down. The furnace is at far left with the bellows to its right and the couterwights beyond, at far right. Upstairs is the charging room where the iron ore, charcoal and limestone were poured in, and at the bottom you can see men urging the molten iron into the pig moulds in the casting house, of which only the foundations were found during excavation. The water wheel is on the other side of the far wall, powering the bellows. The chimney vents all the released gases. Source: Cadw signage at the site.

 

The charcoal store

The furnace building was split into the furnace stack itself (9.1m square at the base and 8m square at the eves, and 10m tall).  The furnace stack was was circular on the inside, which can be clearly seen from the ground floor.  The blowing house had a vaulted brick arch (the room measuring 5.1×7.7m).  The cast house measured 7.05×7.10m).  There was also a counterweight room and wheel pit, together with a wheel, to operate the bellows.  Two lean-to structures were added to the building, one housing the water wheel and the other apparently used for storage.

 

Site plan from the excavation report. Source: Dinn, J. 1988, page 122

The bottom of the furnace, the bellows room and the counterweight room can all be seen from the lowest level of the site down a small flight of stairs to the right of the building as you approach from the car park.

The excavations revealed the original cast house walls, of which only 0.80cm remained.   When you look in through the first arch at the furnace, you are standing where the cast house once was. Dinn says that “the variety of features in the casting area was much greater than that recorded at sites such as Bonawe  and Duddon, and the casting pit much deeper, suggesting a wider range of activities than pig casting was envisaged.”

It is not known whether the bellows were leather or the more modern iron blowing tubes that were installed in at least one contemporary furnace at Duddon in Cumberland.  Unfortunately there is nothing left to determine this.

The interior, circular design of the furnace.

The furnace, circular on the inside, but set within a square chimney, was probably composed of at least two layers of brick, separated by a fill of light rubble, earth or sand to allow for expansion of the furnace lining as it heated.

The rooms that would have contained the charging house were locked up, but this is where the iron ore (high quality Cumbrian haematite), the limestone and the charcoal would have been tipped into the furnace.  A covered charging bridge also existed, leading into the charging room.

There are considerable similarties in the design to Craleckan in Argyll and Conwy in north Wales with overall similarities to both Duddon in Cumberland and Bonawe in Argyll, and it is possible that they were all designed by the same person.

Outside, the water was managed using a series of features, including at least one leat (a channel dug into the ground to direct water to where it is needed), a waterfall that was built up to give it extra power for turning the water wheel, and a tailrace to take the water away from the furnace.   None of these features was excavated.  The wheel and wheel pit at the site today both belong to the saw mill and are bigger than the ones for which fittings were recorded during the excavations, which were 3.60-5m, 7.5m and 7.9m diameter.  The excavation report does not mention if the original water wheels used for the furnace were overshot or undershot designs.

Extensive use was made of arches throughout the building.  The main components of the building are built of local shale and mortar, but some of the arches, notably the blowing arch and taphole entrance, were made of brick.

Pen and ink drawing of the Dyfi Furnace from c.1790180 by P.J. de Loutherbourg. National Library of Wales. Source: Dinn, J. 1988, p.120.  The crack shown in this drawing is still clearly visible on the north wall today.

The furnace could not have operated without being able to interface with coastal carriers at Aberdovey.   Cargoes destined for the Dyfi Furnace, and products produced by the furnace were carried by sea, but these ships were too large to navigate the Dovey river, so everything had to be trans-shipped via Aberdovey, which acted as an cargo handling hub between coasters and small river vessels.    Materials and supplies arrived at Aberdovey by sea and were loaded onto river vessels.  Pig iron manufactured at the Dyfi Furnace was in turn sent down the river to Aberdovey, where it was loaded onto seagoing ships and sent on its way.  The relationship between Aberdovey and the small river ports that lined the River Dovey was completely symbiotic.   Ore and ironstone shipments to the furnace are recorded from both Conwy and the River Dee, whilst the Aberdovey Custom House records shipments of iron ore from Ulverston in Cumbria.  Backbarrow shipping ledgers from Ulverston record many deliveries to Dyfi Furnace.

One of the Cadw information sites at Dyfi Furnace showing coppicing and preparation of the stack for manufacturing charcoal

Information signs at the site say that the local woodlands were coppiced to make the wood go further.  This simply involves cutting the wood back very close to the ground every few years so that it regrows on several new trunks from a single root.  This wood was then converted to charcoal by baking it.  Branches were stakced and covered with earth, and then a fire was set.  Once it was burning, air was excluded from the stack and it was allowed to cook for several days.  The resulting charcoal burned at higher temperatures than wood, an essential asset for charcoal blast furnaces.  A single mature tree could provide sufficient fuel to manufacture two tons of iron.  Records show that charcoal was also shipped into Aberdovey from Barmouth, and this is thought to be have been destined for the Dyfi furnace, to supplement its own supply.  Pig iron was sent to Vernon and Kendall forges mainly in Cheshire and Staffordshire via Aberdovey but also to Barmouth.  Other pig iron was sent to the local Glanfred forge on the River Leri in Ynyslas (SN643880), presumably transported by river vessel down the river Dovey and then up the Leri.

My understaning is that the furnace-master’s house has also been preserved,  called Ty Furnace (translating as Furnace House), but I was unable to actually see that. It is, however, shown in both the drawings on this page.

Dovery Furnace. Etching by J.G. Wood, 1813, from his book The Principal Rivers of Wales. Source: National Library of Wales

The Dyfi Furnace was one of the last charcoal blast furnaces to be built in Britain, and is contemporary with some other well known charcoal blast furnaces including Bonawe (Argyll, Scotland), Conwy (north Wales) and Craleckan (Argyll, Scotland), all isolated areas that had good access to coastal trade routes. Richards suggests that very rural locations were selected because of their distance from Naval shipbuilding centres in the south and east of England, where shortages of shipbuilding timber were causing anxiety in the Admiralty, and competition for wood with charcoal-burning  furnaces may have been suppressed.

Saw Mill

There is very little information about the sawmill.  It was probably established at Dyfi Furnace at some point between 1810 and 1887, according to Dinn, although there was a period of disused after the furnace closed, marked by the collapse of the cast house roof.  A refurbishment and reorganization of the furnace building seems to have taken place a little later.

An early sawmill showing two men creating planks with a straight whipsaw.  Source: Cooney 1991

Sawmills were an innovation that simply did what the name implies.  Before mechanization, sawing had been achieved by two men with a long whipsaw, one man on top of the wood being sawed, the other man below, each man pulling his end of the saw in turn.   It was a highly skilled and physically demanding job, particularly for the man at the top of the saw.  The sawmill replaced man power with water power.  A water wheel was attached to the mechanism that did the sawing via a “pitman” (or connecting rod) that converted the circular motion of the wheel into the push-pull of the saw mechanism.  How the wood was loaded and unloaded is not discussed in any of the publications that I have found to date.  Given the lack of any additional structures described in the excavation reports it seems likely that loading the wood and removing it once processed were entirely manual, although mechanized systems were introduced at other sawmills.   According to E.W. Cooney’s fascinating paper, although sawmills had been established much earlier in Europe, the sawmill was a relatively late phenomenon in Britain, the first ones established in the late 18th Century but not really taking off until the arrival of steam-powered sawmills in the mid 19th Century, and this appears to have been partly due to pressure from professional manual sawyers but also from doubts about the benefits of new technologies.  Water power was gradually replaced by steam power, and during the 19th Century the number of water-powered sawmills declined very rapidly.

It was quite usual for a water mill that had formerly used for an entirely different task to be adapted for use as a sawmill, and often former corn mills were converted, so the re-use of a blast furnace as a sawmill was not surprising.  The water wheel that remains today is 9m (nearly 30ft) in diameter, but this may belong to a later phase than the initial conversion of the building to a saw mill and it may have been liberated from Ystrad Einion lead mine in the early 20th Century, which had a wheel of exactly the same size.  It is an overshot water wheel manufactured by  Williams and Metcalfe of the Rheidol Foundry, Aberystwith.  The Cast House pit may have been used for tanning from the park produced at the sawmill, as happened at Bonawe. A period of disuse seems to have been followed by the demolition of the Cast House and adjacent building in around 1880, and again a sawmill appears to have been the intended use.  Dinn says that it ceased to function in the 1920s.

The Dyfi water-powered sawmill was by now in a rather more populated area than the furnace had been.  Samuel Lewis, writing in 1849, recorded that “the immediate neighborhood is well wooded and agreeable, and some respectable residences are scatted over the township,” which is “conveniently situated near smelting houses and refining mills.”  He said that the river Dovey was navigable to the point where the river Einion met the Dovey for vessels up to 300 tons.  Nearby Eglwysfach was a bigger settlement with an Anglican church, a Calvinist and a Wesleyan Methodist chapel and two Sunday Schools.

Dinn’s report states that the sawmill only stopped operating in around 1920, but he does not mention how it was powered at that time, and it is possible that it was still water-powered.

After the Sawmill

The main furnace buildings were adapted for uses as an agricultural store, and a flagged floor was laid down for this new role in the Blowing House.  The Furnace stack was converted into a root vegetable store, with a slate floor.  Subsequent use of the site was limited.

 

The Site today and visitor Information

The top level at Dyfi Furnace,. The charging room where the furnace was loaded with raw materials for the transformation into pig iron.

The journey from Aberdovey to Furnace took about 30 minutes.  There is a decent sized carpark to the right of the road as you head south, immediately opposite the furnace itself .

When you have parked you just need to be careful (very careful) as you cross the busy A487.

Today the site is in beautiful condition thanks to renovations in 1977-8 and again in 1984.  The site is on two levels, with a set of easy steps with a handrail from one level to the other.  At the top of the steps you can see the top part of the builing’s structure and take a very short walk to the waterfall.

The interior is not accessible but open grills allow you to see all you need to inside the building at ground level.  The interior of the charging house at the top is closed due to horseshoe bats roosting there in the summer months.  The site is free to access and there are plenty of really excellent information boards to let you know what is happening at each part of the site.  On each notice board there is also a puzzle for children to explore.

Should you fancy a bit of a walk, there are a number of options that lead up the Einion valley from the waterfall, which you can find in a number of walking guides, or you can check out the ViewRanger website where there’s a short walk or a much longer one.  Alternatively, if you are in the mood for a different type of experience after your visit, you might take in the bird sanctuary at Ynys Hir, a short drive away, or the nature reserve at Ynyslas, a 15 minute drive away.

If you have any more information about the site and its history, it would be great to hear from you, so please let me know.

 

References

Primary references used in this post (all references cited above and below are listed in the website Bibliography):

First, many thanks to my father, William Byrnes, for writing the section “How a Blast Furnace Works.”

Cooney, E.W. 1991. Eighteenth Century Britain’s Missing Sawmills.  A Blessing in Disguise? Construction History 7, 1991, p.29-46.
https://www.arct.cam.ac.uk/Downloads/chs/vol7/article2.pdf
Daff, T. 1973. Charcoal-Fired Blast Furnaces; Construction and Operation. BIAS Journal 6
Dinn, J.  1988.  Dyfi Furnace excavations 1982-1987.  Post-Medieval Archaeology 22:1, p.111-142
Eyre Evans, G. 1915.  The Royal Mint, Aberystwyth. Transactions of the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society, Vol 2 No 1, (1915) p.71 http://www.ceredigionhistoricalsociety.org/trans-2-mint.php
Goodwin, G. 1894. Myddleton, Hugh.  Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39.  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Myddelton,_Hugh_(DNB00)
Lewis, S. 1849.  A topographical history of Wales.https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-dict/wales
Richard, A.J and Napier, J. 2005.  A tale fo two rivers:  Mawddach and Dyfi.  Gwasg Garreg Gwalch.
Sandbach, P. 2017. Dyfi Furnace and Ystrad Einion 21st October 2016. Newsletter of the Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society.  February 2017, No.16,p. 17-21.
www.catmhs.org.uk/members/newsletter-126-february-2017
Walker, R.D. Iron Processing. Encylopedia Britannia. January 27, 2017 https://www.britannica.com/technology/iron-processing#ref622837

 

Another feast from Dai’s Shed

My father is visiting and I promised him fresh mackerel.  There were only small ones left at Dai’s Shed, so we took six and treated them like large sardines, oiling them, barbecuing them and serving them with a Greek-inspired salad.  My Greek salad is rather more extravagant than a normal Greek salad.  As well as loads of feta, capers and olives, and a good amount of diced tomato, I chuck in some finely sliced spring onion, shredded little gem lettuce and, from the garden, finely chopped giant chives, mint and lovage leaves.  It was accompanied by baby new potatoes boiled and tossed in Welsh Dragon butter, chives and flat-leaf parsley from the garden and the whole lot was served with chunks of lemon.

Oh those little mackerel were divine!  Firm, moist and full of flavour, and they folded off the bone perfectly.  I am going to go into mourning when Dai shuts up the shed in October.

I grow my giant chives from spring onions.  When I buy a bunch of spring onions with the white roots still attached, I cut off about 3cm of the spring onion at the root and put it in water for a couple of days, until the roots start to grow and produce new white tendrils and then stick them in a pot of compost, with the top just sticking out.  Job done.  They start to grow immediately and within a couple of weeks you have a healthy crop – one giant chive per spring onion.  And by giant, I mean that the ones I have out there at the moment, which are about a month old, are now nearly 2ft tall.   The ones shown in this photograph were exactly two weeks old.

 

Experimenting with Glamorgan sausages

I’ve never made Glamorgan sausages before, and there’s a good argument for saying that I haven’t made them today either.  I walked down into Aberdovey, expecting the Bank Holiday Monday to be bedlam, but at 1045 it was surprisingly quiet, perhaps because the weather was unencouraging, but perhaps because a lot of people were driving back home after their holiday.  I had a look around the craft fair, which was in the marquee by the Information Centre, and then went to do some odds and ends of shopping.

My first port of call was the lovely Aberdovey Butcher where I bought a lamb steak for the stew that I was planning, and then went to collect what I needed for my Glamorgan Sausages.  Having sourced a leek earlier in the week, I walked with great confidence into the delicatessen, Coast Deli and Dining, on the corner of Copper Hill Street and Sea View Terrace, and stopped dead.  Disaster!  The cheese counter had gone!  No Caerphilly for the Glamorgan sausages, and no Perl Wen for me (but the lunches looked seriously wonderful, so I’ll be back!).  This meant that my Glamorgan sausages were destined to be stuffed with cheese leftovers from the fridge, including Cheshire, Cheddar and fresh flaked Parmesan.  I also, unaccountably, had no English mustard, so used wholegrain French instead.

I read several recipes and took what I wanted from them, adding an extra stage to all of them.  Whilst some recipes went straight from manufacture to rolling in egg and breadcrumbs and then straight into a pan of hot oil or butter, others added a 30 minute period in the refrigerator after rolling and before cooking.  I added an additional 30 minute period in the fridge between making the sausages and rolling them, because mine were rather on the wet side.  The 30 minutes did the trick delightfully.  I rolled them in the egg and then the breadcrumbs, and put them back in the fridge until they were needed.  The photos show the three stages in the process of completion:

  • top – the newly manufactured sausage;
  • middle – 30 minutes later rolled in egg and breadcrumbs;
  • bottom – cooked after another long spell in the fridge and then left out to reach room temperature.

They were far too big to eat three, so one ended up on my plate and I’ll experiment with reheating the other two, seeing if they are viable cold and finding out whether they can be reheated whole or mashed into potato.

The ersatz Glamorgan sausage  was accompanied by chopped lamb steaks from the Aberdovey Butcher, who raises his own sheep, which I had cooked for an hour in a pan with carrots, shallots and mushrooms, some home made lamb stock, a slosh of red wine to add richness rather than flavour, and a lot of fresh thyme.  Some tender stem broccoli finished the plate.  Great fun.  Having eaten the local lamb many times before, I knew that that would be excellent and it was.  The sausages were rather strongly flavoured in the cheese department, unsurprisingly given the Cheddar and Parmesan, but they worked well enough, although for some reason they were a little angular rather than tubular!  Next time, it will definitely be Caerphilly, which will give them just the right balance between flavour and subtlety.

Dai’s Shed and the Aberdyfi Village Stores

I had a lovely little shopping spree at Dai’s Shed on the wharf this morning. I bought a tub of cockles in vinegar, a beautifully prepared dressed crab (I was presented with a huge tray and allowed to pick one out)  and a gorgeous fresh mackerel, an absolute beauty.   I always gut my own fish just before cooking because I think that it helps to retain both shape and flavour, but I seriously appreciated the offer to do it for me.  I always cook mackerel on the day I buy it, but was contemplating a second one for the freezer.  However, the chap in the shop (Dai Hughes himself perhaps?) told me that, like strawberries, mackerel turns to mush in the freezer.  Very welcome advice.  I still haven’t psyched myself up to coping with a live lobster, but it will have to be done.   Aberdovey fisherman Dai Hughes catches the fish himself in his boat Santa Fe. The shop will be open this year until the end of October.

I went afterwards into the Aberdyfi Village Stores at 4 Seaview Terrace, and was so impressed by what I found.  It has a Costcutter logo over the window so I wasn’t expecting much, but it is a little treasure trove of very good quality products on wooden shelves and fresh goods in refrigerated units, many Welsh and some with a distinctly continental twist.  There is a nicely presented vegetable selection with good, fresh produce.  The asparagus that I bought looks really super – fit healthy spears – and the fresh bread is gorgeous, the best I have found so far in either Aberdovey or Tywyn,  My other purchases included fresh double cream, natural yogurt, a pack of couscous, a jar of Welsh Lady Hell’s Mouth Mustard that has paprika, garlic and chilli to liven it up (yet to try it but wow), a pack of dried juniper berries in the excellent Green Cuisine range and some eggs.  A great mix of the basics as well as a generous supply of some more exotic items in tins and jars.  Impressive too that they are open til 8pm on Monday to Thursday, 9pm on Friday and Saturday and 6pm on a Sunday.

Some of today’s haul from Dai’s Shed and the Aberdyfi Village Stores in Aberdovey

The expedition was somewhat tainted by the £3.30 minimum charge for parking in the big car park on the seafront for over three hours.  There’s not much choice at this time of year when it is so busy and all the short-term parking spaces are taken.  Why does Gwynedd Council not provide a 1-hour charge for quick visits?  Such a heavy fee just to dump the car for half an hour doesn’t really offer much incentive for local people to shop in Aberdovey when parking at the Spar and Co-Op in Tywyn are free.  It is like imposing a penalty fee for using local shops.  All very well to take exercise and enjoy the view by walking down into the village on a dry day, but it was chucking down when I left the house.

Here’s what I did with the mackerel from Dai’s Shed:  Gutted it, cut slits in it on both sides, rubbed in a mixture of garlic, paprika and olive oil and baked it stuffed with lemon slices in foil painted with olive oil in the oven.  I served it with lemon slices (should have been limes, but I didn’t have any), the juices from the foil poured over the top and a salad made of diced purple onion, mint leaves from my garden, diced salad tomatoes, capers, shredded little gem lettuce, giant chives from the garden, a home made mustard vinaigrette and a good shake each of salt, pepper and piri piri.  Spot the deliberate mistake with the layout of the cutlery 🙂  Couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it until I started trying to eat!