The A4069 is a narrow country road that snakes its way over the Black Mountain from Llangadog to Brynamman. A good surface, hairpin bends and stunning views make the road a popular location for film crews trying to make fast cars look exciting. On sunny weekends, hoards of motor cyclists gather at the West End café in Llandovery before roaring over the mountain in a cavalcade of noise. Most thunder by the disused quarries without seeing them and fail to notice the strange upright stone marker on a mound near the road.
More sedate travellers wonder why the stone marker was put up on such a lonely mountain pass but soon forget it as they go on their way. Today, the mountain is a National Park. Sheep graze on the slopes while tourists stop to picnic, take photographs and enjoy the clean air. Years ago, the scene was far from tranquil; the Black Mountain was an industrial landscape.
In the 12th Century, farmers gathered limestone rocks from the mountain and stacked them in freshly dug pits. They covered the limestone with gorse, ferns and timber to build a large fire. Once the fire was lit it was sealed with earth to keep in the heat. The clamp kilns, as they were known, had to reach over 900°C to create what the farmers were after - lime. After the kilns had cooled, they were opened and the lime spread on the land where it neutralised acidity and increased yields, particularly on poor quality upland fields. Medieval Welsh manuscripts describe how to make clamp kilns and instruct the user to, “Bestow lime once in nine years upon arable land and once in 18 years upon grassland.”
The remains of clamp kilns can still be seen on the north side of the mountain. Before long, other uses were found for lime. It was caustic and ideal for speeding up decomposition of dead and often diseased bodies. The new industry of glass making needed lime to mix with sodium carbonate and silica sand. Lime was used for making soap, plaster, mortar and lime-wash paints. Limestone was needed as a flux to smelt copper and iron. Calcium Oxide, a lime product, was used to create a bright white light for theatre productions hence the expression, “In the limelight.” What had started as a small local enterprise expanded. Using Black Mountain limestone grew from a few farmers improving their land to a major industry. Quarries got bigger, dirtier and more dangerous. Flare and draw kilns, which were larger and more efficient, replaced the clamp kilns.
Gangs of quarrymen trudged up the mountain on Sunday nights ready for the week’s work. The kilns needed constant attention and the men slept in crude stone shelters between shifts, returning home late the following Friday. Sometimes they brought meat, boiled at home, with them and added vegetables each day to make a broth, or cawl, heated on embers taken from the kilns. Accidents were commonplace and newspapers regularly reported deaths in the quarries. Quarrymen from Cornwall and Devon learned a crude form of Welsh “Cymraeg cerryg calch” (limestone Welsh) to communicate with the other men.
Some farmers still burnt their own lime but most went to the quarries and bought what they needed. In 1882 David Davies hitched a horse and wagon and set off from Glanclawdd Farm, Gwynfe, where he worked for his uncle, to collect a load of lime. It was early in the morning and the sun had not yet reached the valley as he crossed the stream at Cwm Llwyd. It was going to be a long day for the young man. It was a steep climb along the small track leading up the mountain and it was some time before he reached the top. Loading the cart was heavy work and it was past eleven o’clock before he was ready to leave. Davies’ next journey was an eight mile trek to the railway station at Llangadog where he unloaded the lime and refilled the empty cart with coal. After a refreshing glass of beer at the Three Horseshoes he coaxed the tired horse back up the Black Mountain to the kilns, unloaded the coal and received payment for his day’s work - a load of lime to spread on the fields of Glanclawdd Farm. Davies was not looking forward to the journey home. The horse would have to strain every sinew to hold back the heavy wagon when they came down the mountain. As he climbed onto the wagon, something spooked the horse and it bolted. Davies fell beneath the wheels of the fully loaded cart and was crushed. He died of his injuries, aged 22 years.
The death of a young farm labourer made little difference to the industry and lime quarrying continued to expand until, in the 20th Century the quarries on the Black Mountain started to decline. The invention of Portland cement, manufactured in bulk, reduced demand for lime and prices fell. In an effort to stimulate agricultural output and help the struggling quarries, the government introduced a lime subsidy in 1937. By 1951 the subsidy amounted to 50% of the cost of agricultural lime. The subsidy helped but many independent lime producers faced ruin and Herbert’s Quarry, the biggest on the mountain, went into receivership in 1952. In 1954 the owners of the land, Cawdor Estates, leased the quarry to Mr. Richards and his partner Mr. Llewellyn who restarted production. During the 1950s the lime subsidy was increased. Users were able to reclaim 60% of the cost of agricultural lime.
According to claims made by the new operators, the quarry was soon producing record levels of lime, resulting in large subsidy payments. In 1959, the government increased the top rate of subsidy again, to 70% and budgeted £10m per annum to fund the scheme. Producing agricultural lime had become a licence to print money and once worthless lime kilns were now valuable assets. Seeing an opportunity, the operators tried to sell Herbert’s Quarry to Midas Quarries Limited. A price of more than £ ½ m was agreed plus an extra £24,000 for two lime kilns. A deposit of £82,000 was paid to seal the deal. When Midas Quarries examined the books they found that the lessees had exaggerated the output to increase the value of the quarry. Inspection of the quarry revealed that the kilns were faulty. One had not been fired for over ten years and the crushing plant, needed to charge the kilns, was of little use. The only item in the quarry with any value was the weighbridge. The purchasers then discovered that the vendors of the quarry were lessees and the freehold belonged to Cawdor Estates. Midas Quarries were being swindled.
The fraud squad investigated and a major fraud was revealed. The quarry operators had been claiming money for lime that had not been manufactured. A paper trail of forged delivery notes and invoices led to more than 400 farmers being interviewed. Most were given immunity from prosecution in return for their cooperation. Agricultural wholesalers were implicated in the fraud. According to one report, if the output of the quarry claimed by the operators had been produced, Carmarthenshire would have been blanketed in six inches (150mm) of lime. The case came to trial during the 1962 Winter Assizes in Carmarthen. Sir Alan Mocatta, an expert on restrictive practices, was the presiding judge. Sir Alan had previously been the Chairman of the Treasury Committee on Cheque Endorsement. The trial lasted 55 days and was, at the time, the longest criminal case in British history. It ended with the fraudsters being convicted and sent to prison. Following the court case the quarry remained closed and there was a parliamentary enquiry into the abuse of lime subsidies.
Today the Black Mountain is managed by Brecon Beacon National Park Authority and nature is reclaiming the old workings. The weigh office and kilns can still be seen and an organisation called ‘Calch’ is making efforts to repair and preserve the heritage of the site. The lime subsidy was eventually withdrawn in 1976, after forty years of operation. Davies family members still live and farm near the Black Mountain and upland farmers still need to add lime to their land to maintain fertility. The stone commemorating David Davies vanished from the Black Mountain in the 1930s and was discovered fifty years later lying in a gutter. Two nieces of the dead man then approached Brecon Beacons National Park Authority who agreed to allow a new bi-lingual stone to be erected at the spot where the accident occurred. It was unveiled in December 1987 - 103 years after Davies died. David Davies’ memorial at the side of the road is small and the words on it only refer to one man’s death but at the same time it reminds us of something bigger - a thriving industry that changed the shape of a mountain.