There’s a Welsh song that says only a Welshman can cut slate, that slate doesn’t understand English. Sounds like a good reason to explain that it was only the Welsh who worked the slate mines of their country.
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Slate quarrying in Wales began on a small scale in the 18th century. Demand for its use as a roofing material, combined with the construction of a harbour at Porthmadog to carry the slate to distant lands helped the industry to boom. Building the Ffestiniog narrow-gauge railway to carry the slate to the port was an added attraction. From 1880 onwards, the slate industry prospered in Wales.
In the 1880’s the mines at Blaenau Ffestiniog produced 139,000 tons of dressed slate a year and employed more than 4000 men. Mine owners became multimillionaires. The profits from the Penrhyn Quarry at Bethesda built Penrhyn Castle and Port Penrhyn, linked to the quarry by a tramway. This company decided to differentiate the roof tiles by size, giving them names Duchess, Countess, Empress and Wide Ladies.
Slate was quarried by three different methods: from huge stepped galleries on the mountainsides, excavated pits (many now filled with water) or underground deep-mining techniques. You can see the flooded pits, ruined buildings and the waste heaps today, still scarring the landscape. A warning: Stay away from waste heaps—the rock is slippery and greasy when wet.
After the First World War, a gradual decline set in, and by the 1960’s few men and few mines were involved. Today only two mines are open, and only a small number of workers are employed in the once lucrative business. In addition to roofing material, slate is used for fireplaces, steps and gravestones.
Several Caverns and Museums highlight the slate industry. Blaenau was the town at the industy’s centre. It was built right into the mountains with quarry waste everywhere—a unique landscape. You can take a tour of what was once the largest slate mine in the world at Gloddfa Ganol Slate Mine. Sixty thousand tons were produced here every year. Walk to the underground entrance or take a railway shuttle. The self-guided tour leads through a long tunnel to various underground chambers. There’s a Heritage Centre with exhibits, a Mining Museum that tells about slate, old machinery and a display of some of the old locomotives and railway cars used to move the slate. Old Quarrymen’s Cottages are part of the Museum, and you can watch the sawing and splitting of slate.
At the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, in use from 1850 until the 1970’s, you can tour, on an underground tramway, the huge caverns and tunnels. There were 16 different levels to the mine, 250 vast, high-ceilinged chambers and 25 miles (40km) of tunnels at this site. If you aren’t claustrophobic take a tour of the deep mine, the first part reached by an almost vertical rail vehicle, the lowest part at 450 ft (137m), by foot. On this tour as well as the tramway one, you will be presented with dioramas displaying the miners’ lives underground. There’s a demonstration on slate splitting. An AV program tells the story of slate and life in the slate mining communities. And when you’ve had enough of the slate mine, you can quench your thirst at the pub on the site. Or visit the “faux Victorian village”, the smithy and workshops.
The Welsh Slate Museum is located at Elidir Mountain, Llanberis. The mountain, now stepped with centuries of quarrying is the site of the vast Dinorwig quarry. It, too, was linked by tramway to the port. The Museum gives demonstrations of the splitting and dressing of slate and has AV and 3D programs that tell the history of the slate industry and the people who worked in the mines. There are workmen’s houses, the chief engineer’s house, the forge and a washhouse. A shop on the site sells items made of slate. One of the largest waterwheels in Britain is at the Museum. When you visit the Museum take a ride on the 4-foot gauge Llanberis Lake Railway. It uses some of the former quarry locomotives.
Llanberis is on the A4086.
The Welsh Slate Museum is open Easter to end of October, daily from 10am-5pm, Nov.-Easter, daily except Sat., from 10am-4pm.
Llechwedd Slate Caverns and Gloddfa Ganol Slate mine are at Blaenau Ffestiniog on the A470.
Tel. 01766 830306.
Website: Llechwedd.Slate Caverns
For full details on the water mill, visit the Museum’s website National Museums and Galleries of Wales
Photos courtesy Wales Tourist Board and by Barbara Ballard