When I open my computer to start work each day, I am presented with a screensaver photograph courtesy of Microsoft depicting some dramatically scenic and distant part of the world – often in the USA or South America. My reaction is often ‘Nice, but we have just as good in Wales’. Don’t just take my word for it: in hailing the inscription of the Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales as a World Heritage cultural landscape, journalists have been reaching for superlatives. Long-abandoned slate settlements in their upland setting have been compared to the 15th-century Peruvian citadel of Machu Picchu, while the silhouettes of windowless slate mills and engine houses have been likened to the romantically ruined shells of medieval abbeys and cathedrals.
Of course, it is not for aesthetic or poetic value that one is granted World Heritage status. You have to make a convincing statement of ‘outstanding universal value’ and demonstrate that your nominated site meets a number of strict criteria relating to integrity, authenticity, and evidential value. In order to do this, my colleagues at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales – especially industrial archaeologist Louise Barker and aerial photographer Toby Driver – have worked with slate archaeology expert David Gwyn for the last five years to produce a hefty 472-page dossier of evidence to back the nomination.
You also have to produce a conservation management plan that will protect the special values inherent in the nominated landscape in perpetuity, and this task has fallen to a partnership of heritage institutions led by Gwynedd Council and including the Welsh Government, Cadw, the Eryri (Snowdonia) National Park, the National Museum of Wales, the National Trust, Bangor University, and many individual businesses, farmers, and landowners. It is to their credit that they have collectively succeeded in persuading some very hard-to-please heritage and conservation experts that this exceptional industrial landscape meets World Heritage criteria.
Worthy of World Heritage status
The Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales has been inscribed as a cultural landscape – a distinct category in World Heritage terms, defined as an area that represents an outstanding example of human interaction with the natural environment, embracing ‘the combined works of nature and of man’. The slate landscape has six component parts, all lying within the county of Gwynedd, amounting in total to precisely 3,259.01 hectares (and, yes, UNESCO does insist on that sort of precision). All six sites are further protected by a buffer zone comprising 250,400 further hectares of landscape that is protected either as part of the Eryri (Snowdonia) National Park or as a Landscape of Outstanding Historical Significance in Wales.
This belt-and-braces approach is intended to protect significant views within, towards, and out of the World Heritage landscape, and the precise boundaries have been a major point of discussion with UNESCO over the years. Initially, the team behind the nomination wanted to include working quarries, with the full support of the quarry owners. Sir Neil Cossons, a member of the slate project’s steering group, has long argued that industrial archaeology is a hollow shell without the living skills needed to maintain and run the protected heritage (see the profile of Sir Neil in CA 216).
In fact, some of those skills have survived within the World Heritage landscape. Visitors to the National Slate Museum in Llanberis can watch demonstrations of slate-splitting to create roofing slates, and there are two preserved steam-powered railways within the six component parts, both originally built to carry slate from quarry to port: the Talyllyn and the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland railways. But the larger plan to include active mines and quarries fell by the wayside at an early stage because UNESCO experts felt that it would compromise the strict requirement to provide the highest levels of protection to the designated landscape.
The removal of Liverpool and Dresden from the World Heritage list demonstrates how strictly UNESCO polices the conservation responsibilities that accompany World Heritage status, as do UNESCO’s warnings about developments in Bath, Edinburgh, and the Stonehenge landscape that they consider to be a threat to that status (see p.50). UNESCO’s concern about the revival of dormant extraction rights in the Cornish Mining Landscape, triggered by the rising value of various minerals and rare earth elements, means that areas of the Welsh slate region with dormant but still valid mineral extraction rights have had to be excluded from this recent designation.
These exceptions aside, the slate landscape includes a very broad range of heritage assets, embracing hillside quarries, cavernous underground mines, and massive cascading waste-tips; the whole panoply of infrastructure needed to extract and work the slate, including engine houses, wheelhouses, and mills powered by ingenious water systems; the inclines and aerial ropeways used to carry raw and worked slate from remote hills to tramways, and the narrow-gauge railways capable of negotiating mountainous terrain as they carried worked slate to the harbours at Port Penrhyn and Porthmadog for shipment to all parts of the world.
Additionally, it includes the houses of the slate workers, chapels, institutes, schools, and a hospital, as well as the National Slate Museum and its collections, and the houses of quarry managers and wealthy owners, including Penrhyn Castle, the mock medieval pile constructed by the aristocratic Lord Penrhyn, now in the care of the National Trust. The intangible heritage of the Welsh language is not forgotten in the designation, either. As David Gwyn told reporters when the UNESCO decision was announced, slate production is the only large-scale industry in Britain conducted entirely in a language other than English.
Taking a tour
There are many ways to experience the slate landscape, both easy and more challenging. Simply to drive along the A470 immediately north of Blaenau Ffestiniog will bring you face to face with one of the fascinating facts about the slate industry: that for every 10 tonnes of slate extracted from hillside and cavern, 90 per cent is waste and only 10 per cent is useable for converting into slabs or roofing slate. As a consequence, the most visible legacy of the industry is the massive heaps of slate waste that line both sides of this stretch of road. Right in the middle of these mountains of scree is the Llechwedd Slate Cavern, which is not part of the World Heritage landscape but is well worth a visit nevertheless, for the rare opportunity to travel by railway 500ft into a deep mine with an experienced tour guide and get a real feel for the human muscle and ingenuity that shaped Snowdonia’s miles of underground slate workings.
Other relatively effortless and enjoyable ways to learn about the slate industry include visiting Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, or travelling on the Talyllin or Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland railways. The National Slate Museum is another important destination, though its displays are somewhat dated and are not as informative as the name suggests. Located in a former engineering complex built in 1870, it is more concerned with how mining machinery and tools were made and maintained than about the methods by which slate was extracted and worked; on the other hand, the (relocated) row of slate workers’ cottages in the museum grounds provides an intriguing insight into housing conditions at different dates between the 1830s and the 1960s. The Welsh Government has also recently announced its intention to invest in updating the site to create a new Museum of North Wales.
For a detailed insight into the archaeology of the slate industry, there is no substitute for reading David Gwyn’s award-winning book Welsh Slate and exploring the various parts of the World Heritage landscape yourself, perhaps by means of the 83-mile waymarked Snowdonia Slate Trail or by doing some of the shorter circular day walks described in the books of local author, Des Marshall (for all of these, see the ‘Further reading’ box on p.41).
Impact of the industry
Most of the remains in the World Heritage landscape date from the 100-year period prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Demand for Welsh slate, which had been quarried and used for roofing material since the Romano-British period, grew steadily from the end of the 18th century, in part because French wars and revolutionary turmoil hampered long-established competitors in the Loire and Ardennes regions.
The growth of the industry mirrors the growth in urbanisation of the mid- to late 19th century, as houses were built in great numbers to cater for the rapidly growing populations of towns and cities all over the world (see CA 366). Welsh slate, being light in weight, enabled houses to be built more economically with fewer trusses, lighter timbers (usually of Baltic pine), and shallower roofs. Slate slabs were also used for damp-proof courses, doorsteps, window sills and lintels, fireplace bressummers, and for pantry and scullery shelving, as well as for stair treads, flooring and pavements, and isolating boards in electrical installations – not to mention church and cemetery memorials and headstones.
The claim to universal value, inherent in the World Heritage bid, is thus based on the impact that Welsh slate had on housing and architecture across the globe. By the late 19th century, the region produced about a third of all the roofing slates and architectural slabs used around the world, not just for terraced houses, but also for factories and warehouses (where it was placed on top of timber joists to serve as a fireproofing material), and for places of worship, grand public buildings, and elite mansions.
Most of the remains that you will see today as you explore this landscape therefore date from the mid- to late 19th century, though some of the quarries continued in production into the 21st century and have more recent remains, while others are still producing building slates and roadstone. There is a secondary industry, too, which you will see if you explore some of the quarries around Blaenau Ffestiniog, in recycling mine waste by crushing it to make roadstone and the fine powders that are used in toothpaste, cosmetics, and abrasive powders.
Approaching a quarry site, you are likely to be following a path that was formerly used daily by mine workers walking to their tasks of extracting or processing slate. Just such a track takes you from car parks (or the Ffestioniog railway request stop) in Tanygrisiau, just south of Blaenau Ffestioniog, off the A496. Climbing up the wide quarry track, you will pass the ruins of two housing terraces, one built in the 1860s out of massive rubble blocks and another from the 1870s of finer slate, both of which were occupied until the 1930s. This was the home of the mining community that worked the surrounding quarries, their sloping communal garden where potatoes and cabbages were grown still clearly outlined by a slate-slab fence. Further up you will reach the banks of Llyn Cwmorthin, an artificial lake created to hold the water that once powered slate mills at the bottom of the valley.
As you follow the western bank of the lake, you will see the remains of rails and sleepers peeping out from the blanket of peat bog – the remains of the tramway constructed for horse-drawn slate wagons to carry worked slate from the surrounding quarries to a siding at Tanygrisiau for onward carriage on the Ffestioniog railway and thence to the slate wharf at Porthmadog. Further along the track, you will pass the roofless Independent Chapel, built in 1866 and capable of holding 100 worshippers, and then the grandly named Plas Cwmorthin, the large quarry manager’s house and stables, set within a well-timbered grove surrounded by otherwise bare mountain peaks. Another terrace built in 1865 lies ahead, once home to 41 people, including a family of 13 all living in one simple two-room dwelling.
After passing a massive wheel-pit, you will reach a terrace littered with the remains of slate-dressing mills, where 1 million tonnes of rock were processed when the Cwmorthin workings were most productive, between 1862 and 1876. Some 550 men and boys were employed here, working in two water-powered mills (you can still see the deep wheel-pits) and a third powered by steam. The mills contained around 50 saw tables, and therein lies another of the industry’s claims to universal value: the use of circular saws for cutting stone was one of the technological innovations of the north Wales industry that spread to developing slate quarries in other parts of the world, partly as a result of the emigration of skilled slate workers from Wales.
Life in a quarry
This brings us to the social side of the industry, well-illustrated by this particular set of workings. Life could be very harsh for slate workers – not just because this upland site is often enveloped in cloud, and very cold and wet. Accidents were frequent, and between 1875 and 1893 there were 21 deaths in Cwmorthin alone. On one occasion, the quarry operators argued in court that the safety measures imposed under the 1872 Mines Act did not apply to them as Cwmorthin was a quarry. In fact, it was both (and a test case brought in 1875 confirmed that slate quarries were covered by the Act), and what you are unable to see when visiting this and other quarry sites in the World Heritage area are the vast underground caverns connected by hundreds of miles of tunnel.
These tunnels attract cavers from all over the world (the whitewashed house on the eastern side of Llyn Cwmorthin is a bothy used by members of the Lancashire Climbing and Caving Club as a base for their activities in the area). The underground workings of this particular mine can also be explored on guided tours led by the local Go Below company, which offers a range of underground adventures, from one-hour candle-lit tours to seven-hour-long excursions.
Another of the hallmarks of the Welsh slate industry that contributes to its universal value is the development there of the stepped gallery system of quarrying, which was carefully studied by other quarry managers around the world (and described in detail in a series of articles in the French Annales des Mines in 1864). This involved a complex infrastructure that has been well preserved at two remote quarries: Gorseddau and Prince of Wales, which make up Component 4 of the World Heritage site. Both were small-scale, short-lived quarries where, thanks to the early termination of slate working, features have survived that were lost by the expansion of more commercially successful quarries.
Exploring these two sites will bring home the vast scale of the infrastructure that had to be put in place, and the capital investment involved, before money could be made from selling slate products. At the Prince of Wales quarry, you will see the complete suite of slate structures, including the beautifully made inclined planes that link the stepped galleries climbing the mountainside by means of which slate was lowered to the water-powered slab mill that survives at the foot of the quarry.
The Gorseddau Slate Quarry has the additional feature of a whole village of 18 semi-detached company cottages in the mountains – built in 1857 and abandoned two years later after a smallpox outbreak in the winter of 1859, just before the quarry itself closed. Here too are the slate-splitters’ shelters (where blocks were turned into roofing slates), the gunpowder stores, the blast shelters, stables, weighbridge, offices (with slate-lined cupboards set into the thick slate walls), and the barracks where slate workers cooked, ate, and slept while working long shifts away from home. This and other quarries are occasionally used as film locations for sci-fi movies, and you can see why when you admire the ingenious system of water-balanced inclines that enabled raw slate to be lowered to the tramway that connected the quarry to the slate mill at Ynysypandy. Not only does the tramway bed survive, it is sheltered by an impressive masonry wall built of massive blocks of granite, corbelled out to form a graceful curve that protected the tramway from being submerged under spoil.
The tramway, which glories in the grandiloquent name of the Gorseddau Junction and Porthmadog Railway, despite being a single track built as cheaply as possible (the barely trimmed branches of pine trees were used as sleepers instead of solid rectangular blocks), leads to the building that has been dubbed the ‘cathedral’ of the slate industry, the Ynysypandy slate mill of 1857.
This architecturally ambitious building is all the more awe-inspiring because of its remote rural location, and that is an important part of the appeal of this new World Heritage cultural landscape. It was an industry that grew out of a largely agricultural region against the backdrop of some of Snowdonia’s most impressive mountains. The contrast between the natural and cultural heritage is poignantly visible in all six component parts of the UNESCO site.
The Romantic poets of the Lake District created a new language to describe the feelings inspired by the Lakeland landscape and that of similar mountain ranges, such as the Alps. But before Coleridge discovered the Lakes, he was inspired by Wales. Having dropped out of university, he undertook a walking tour in 1794 at a time when walking was an activity for the poor and mountains were considered to be empty wastelands – the antithesis of the cultivated artistic treasures of the European Grand Tour.
We have Coleridge to thank for popularising the poetic concept of the ‘sublime’ to describe mountainous landscapes whose grandeur inspires a sense of awe. World Heritage criteria do not include aesthetic values (too subjective?) but it is difficult not to be impressed when exploring this newly designated landscape by the ways in which this remarkably low-tech industry, dependent largely on the skills and muscle of men, boys, and ponies, has created landforms where the natural and man-made features complement each other to create a scene best described as ‘industrial sublime’.
David Gwyn, Welsh Slate: Archaeology and History of an Industry, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, ISBN 978-1871184518, £45 (also available in Welsh; 10% discount for Royal Commission Friends: see https://rcahmw.gov.uk).
Des Marshall, Exploring Snowdonia’s Slate Heritage, Kittiwake Press, ISBN 978-1908748546, £7.95.
Des Marshall, Day Walks from the Slate Trail of Snowdonia, Llygad Gwalch Cyf, ISBN 978-1845242909, £7.95.
A generously illustrated 74-page version of the nomination dossier can be downloaded free from the Gwynedd County Council website at: www.gwynedd.llyw.cymru/en/Council/Documents—Council/Have-your-say/Slates/Slate-Landscapes-ENG-190809.pdf.
Images: RCAHMW, unless otherwise stated.