Panning for gold is usually associated with the Wild West, not Wales. But even today visitors, including children, can do a little panning among the Welsh hills and they may come away with, if not a nugget, a fleck of the yellow metal.
The place is Gwynfynydd Gold Mine in the Dongellau area of Mid Wales, a working gold mine which also arranges tours of part of its mine for school parties and demonstrations of jewellery making. A small museum explains the history of the mine and of mining in the area. Later this year the company plans to open a new visitor's centre with more facilities.
At Gwynfynydd groups can see the process of turning gold from rocks to rings: it is mined, smelted (turned into ingots) and made into jewellery. A visit is a cross-curricular experience bringing in subjects including geography; geology (the conditions for the formation gold were created by volcanic activity in the region about 400 million years ago); environmental studies; history; technology and art and craft. The centre can provide material on many of these subjects.
The existence of gold in the Dongellau area has been known for centuries. In 1198 the monks of Cymer Abbey at Llanellty were given the right to dig and "carry away" the metal. But it was not until 1844 that gold mining began in earnest, and rich finds at Gwynfynydd Gold Mine prompted too gold rushes in the area, in around l850 and l888. As elsewhere it brought with much greed and roguery, with some mines, for instance, salted with imported gold to attract investors.
However, gold mining petered out by the First World War and did not seriously restart until the mine was re-opened in l981. It is still going, employing seven miners and also jewellery makers and guides. The pure Welsh gold pieces made there are sold internationally and, because Welsh gold is rare, are expensive and much sought-after.
The tour of the mine takes three hours, which includes a short coach journey through beautiful countryside, passing two waterfalls; time taken to kit out in wellies, yellow macs and helmets with lights; and a bit of panning for gold. A basic commentary in several languages is relayed to visitors through ear protectors attached to the helmets, but guides will also elaborate in response to the needs of groups.
Gold mines are not necessarily deep and the tourist part of Gwynfynydd Mine is entered by what is essentially a door in the side of a hill. Before you stretches a long, dark and dank tunnel with tramrails down the centre along which rock was transported from rock face to an underground mill. It is a sight calculated to alert the claustrophobic and guides occasionally and without fuss, escort people back to the opening.
After seeing a drill working, it is explained that explosives are often detonated in the mine and a youngster is invited to press the button which ignites it. From deep in the tunnels comes a loud rumble. It is a simulation, but an effective one.
In a large cave the group are given a little bag, goggles and a hammer with which they can hack bits of rock out to take back for experts to examine. "Often we have great difficulty getting them out of here," says managing director Roland Phelps. Even today, the allure of gold can be impossible to resist.
Emerging into the open air the group can pan either at the mine or at the centre. Troughs are full of broken rock which visitors can sieve. "Visitors have the same chance of finding gold as we do, it's the same stuff," says Roland Phelps. Possible gold pieces are then examined under the microscope by experts and usually turn out to be other minerals. But successful gold panners can keep their finds.
The Welsh Gold Exhibition Centre, The Marian, Dolgellau, Gwynedd LL40 1UU, is open all year round, but tours start at Easter. It costs Pounds 5 for each child with a 15 per cent discount for parties of 16 or over. Booking is essential. Tours and enquiries, tel: 01341 423332