My second week in Penrhyn Castle
If my first week resident at Penrhyn Castle concerned the basics of geography and orientation then my second week’s been concerned with historical details, interviews and letters from the archive.
I started the week in a taxidermy storeroom that’s closed to the public. The project curator, Sara Roberts, and I were expertly guided through box upon box of specimens that ranged from beetles and butterflies to birds of prey by Kane, a Conservation Assistant.
As we delved deeper I was reminded of the power and dominion such prized collections would have exhibited to the viewer at the time. A collection that no doubt encapsulated the construction of a colonial way of seeing and ‘being’ with the natural world.
Later in the day I found myself off-site in a small, nondescript, office. All bare walls and A4 sheets of paper. Little did I know that within the ensuing 15 minutes I would interview a man who'd spent 49 years working with slate at Penrhyn Quarry. A man who’s father and grandfather had also worked with the material:
‘In the old days you had to do three slates to count as one. The old people used to say one was to keep Lord Penrhyn in his castle in Bangor. One was to keep his staff and the other one was to keep you!’
His stories were fascinating and I hope to include them in my final film for this project.
Putting the castle to sleep
As the week went on I was able to spend some time with both Conservation Assistants and volunteers alike as they put the castle to ‘sleep’ - a fascinating process that involves recording damage, dusting, hoovering and cleaning. Alongside wrapping everything from bone china to four poster beads.
On Thursday I spent the entire day reviewing the Penrhyn Quarry Strike (PQS) letters at Bangor University Archive. Amounting to 400 documents in total, I had requested to view 29 specific documents. I must admit to feeling like my sense of history shifted from static to organic, with each and every hand written letter, postcard and newspaper cutting. The documents cover a period from the early 1900’s through to 1903 and one note in particular stood out:
" I do pray that you will “repent and be converted” and also re-instate your old and honest workmen who have done nothing whatsoever to cause this crisis, always remembering that the selfish will suffer someday. Yours Truly, An Englishman"
Friday brought an interview with Catrin Wager, a PhD student at Bangor University, who's interested in language, land and power in ‘fin de siecle' Wales. I was keen to understand what conditions would have been like at the quarry face:
‘Hanging by a rope. Using your hands to make holes and drill and put explosives into holes in walls. It would have been a really really difficult condition to work in. And that’s one of those things you hear from people. This idea of having to keep warm, of having to stuff your trousers with newspaper. Of lining yourself, insulating yourself, as best as you possibly could for that outside work. So it was a really hard place to work in. That’s also why quarry wages were also slightly higher than a lot of other jobs.’
With tales of cold, wet, slate mountain sides firmly present in my minds eye I took the back track that Lord Penrhyn would have taken to go hunting from his lodge at Plas y Brenin on my final day.