The Story of Slate
The story of slate is at the very heart of Snowdonia. Although it was first lifted from the mountains in Roman times, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that Welsh slate production entered its golden-age. Demand for slate exploded and the industry dominated Snowdonia for the next 150 years, changing the North Wales landscape forever.
There were four major quarrying areas - Bethesda, Llanberis, Nantlle and Blaenau Ffestiniog, where the seams contain some of the highest quality slate in the world. The industrial revolution and a growing population saw Welsh slate being used across Britain, mainland Europe and North America. Mines were opened, or massively expanded to keep up with the growth in demand and at their peak, the Dinorwig and Penrhyn quarries were the two largest slate mines in the world, each employing over 3,000 people Narrow-gauge railways were built to transport the slate to the new ports at Porthmadog and Porth Penrhyn for export.
By the late 19th century, the presence of the slate quarries was noticeable and the environmental impact of this quickly growing industry soon became enormous. Open quarries were growing in size on the mountain-sides as the piles of waste slate began to dominate the valleys. New towns and villages were created to house the ever-increasing number of workers; at its height, over 17,000 men were producing 485,000 tonnes of slate a year.
Many of the network of paths created to link the small villages and hamlets to the quarries, schools and chapels and the surrounding countryside are still in use today. As well as spectacular views, the slate paths provide a glimpse into the life and work of the quarrymen with walks through slate tips, quarry buildings, quarrymen’s barracks, and railways.
Going Underground - Llechwedd Slate Caverns
No visitor to Blaenau Ffestiniog, a small town in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, can escape its slate mining past. The piles of waste slate still dominate the hillsides above ‘the town that roofed the world.’
A trip to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns lets modern-day visitors tour over the slate-covered hillsides and open caverns or head 500 feet underground via the steepest cable railway in Britain to learn about miners’ lives.
The mine was opened by John Whitehead Greaves in 1846 who was convinced there was a huge amount of slate to be found at Llechwedd. In 1849 he discovered the Merioneth OldVein. His slate won a prize medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and orders flowed in, including contract to supply Kensington Palace.
Slate was extracted from the mine, brought to the surface, split (a process that is still done by hand today) and then dressed - trimmed to size. It would then be packed into where it would be loaded onto small Liverpool-bound schooners before being shipped off around the world. However for every one part of slate exported nine parts were wasted and this literal waste land has become an adventurous attraction.
At it’s peak, there were 19 working mines in Blaenau Ffestiniog. At Llechwedd alone there are 250 chambers, 16 working levels and 25 miles of tunnel connecting them. Find out more by taking a trip to Llechwedd Slate Caverns!
This article taken from Volume 2 of The Handbook - find out how to get hold of your copy here!