Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 31, 2024

Heritage of Welsh slate

Wales is a beautiful rolling land of green hillsides dotted with grazing sheep, small streams feeding countless waterfalls, and winding roads so narrow they require pull-out points for passing. For a photo buff like me, it is a paradise.

However, this beauty comes at a price. The thin soil covering the rock below means farming is difficult and roadways are not conducive to trucking, a necessity for an industrial economy.

Wales was once a land of seas and later, of now-extinct volcanoes. In some places, the rock that settled from those waters was compressed into a slate prized for its use as a building material.

It has been harvested in North Wales for more than 1,800 years. Part of the Roman fort in Caernarfon and Edward I's castle at Conwy were built of slate. But the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century caused the industry to really develop. By the late 19th century, the region's quarries produced about a third of the world's roofing slates. At its peak in 1898, 17,000 men produced 485,000 tons.

Nowhere was this growth more impressive than in the village of Blaenau Ffestiniog (blye-nye feh-sti-nyog), once described as "dinas y llechi" (dih-nass ee thleh-kee) or "slate city."

Mining is a dirty, difficult, and gritty endeavor. Husband Art first saw the village in 1983 and described the surrounding mountains, covered with heaps of slate tailings, as being the closest thing he had ever seen to "hell on earth." On my first visit in the late 1980s, I found the ubiquitous gray depressing.

But most of the men working there were happy to have jobs. Cyril Jones was born and grew up in Blaenau Ffestiniog. His father was from Liverpool, but moved to work in the slate mines. Jones shared his recollections:

I remember hearing the "siren" every morning signaling the men to be in work by 7.30 a.m. With my older sister and my cousins every New Years Day we use to visit the slate mills and sing to the workmen during their break and in return they would give us a small amount of money ....

... my father was employed underground extracting the rocks in the caverns with explosives, a very dangerous job, so much so that he paid the price and had a serious accident and he was transferred to work in the mills.

Sunday in Blaenau was very much a religious town and I remember my mother taking me to chapel three times on the day. With the two main big quarries in Blaenau the topic in the town was always about the happenings there.

The most convenient quarrying method was working underground, resulting in more than 60 miles of levels and tunnels and hundreds of underground chambers. Rock that wasn't of good quality was discarded, forming huge piles of tailings. A narrow-gauge railroad transported the finished stone to Porthmadog (pawth-ma-dog), where it was loaded onto ships and delivered to virtually every corner of the globe.

As other building materials developed that were cheaper and easier to transport, the slate industry waned, leaving the dreary town we first visited some 40 years ago.

But things have changed for the better as slate used as a building material, for gravestones, in flooring, and roofing is again increasing.

In about 2008, community members formed "Blaenau Ymlaen (um-line)" - "Blaenau Forward" which highlights the slate heritage of the town. They decided to market their unique landscape as a tourist attraction. They promote hiking the trails cut by mining operations, riding the narrow-gauge railroad, visiting the slate caverns, and buying slate souvenirs - coasters, key chains, ornaments, jewelry, and other items.

In 2021, The Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales - including quarries, railway lines, mills, and manor houses - was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the middle of Blaenau Ffestiniog's main square is a curving "river of slate" in multiple colors - gray, blue, purple, green, and red - with the names of more than 350 quarries from across Wales engraved on the color of slate appropriate to each quarry. Sculptor Howard Bowcott described the "river" and his other pieces as his "dream project."

... As a sculptor, I am fascinated by the shaping of material and the touch of a hand upon rock. Slate is the ultimate stone for me: hold a piece in your hand and you are holding a piece of the earth's history, a physical embodiment of ancient river mud washing into primeval seas and then being compressed over millions of years within the heat of the earth's crust. Split the fine layers of stone and you open the earth's pages, the first to read that history. Stack the layers and you build new stories, create new interpretations. ...

Blaenau-born poet Gwyn Thomas created bilingual text for the "river."

Bowcott's other sculptures include 25-foot high slate pillars in the shape of the triangular chisels miners used to split slates. The pillars are laid at 30 degrees to show the angle of the slate beds in the nearby mountains. Etched in the sculptures are quarrying terms and phrases from local poets.

For Jones, life changed when he was 12 when his father died. He continued his education in local schools until 1958, when he joined the Royal Air Force. He later worked as a police officer for 30 years.

He said he is pleased Blaenau is "on the map" because it attracts visitors to experience what the area was all about.

We have returned numerous times over the years. Our most recent visit included a trip to nearby Llanberis (thlan-beh-riss) to visit the National Slate Museum near the base of Yr Wyddfa (uhr-with-va), known in English as Mount Snowdon.

Wales does provide breathtaking views with more shades of green than anyone can imagine. But Blaenau Ffestiniog and other parts of the Welsh slate landscape are well worth visiting - for the contrast and for a chance to learn about the heritage and culture of a mining town.

Top row (l-r): typical scene in Wales; mountainside outside Blaenau Ffestiniog; slate workers behind drill used to makes holes for blasting powder; rails in Llechwedd mine for transporting slate. Bottom rows, clockwise from the left: youngsters Katie and Mariya in Llechwedd mine. Note ladder for working ceiling area; son-in-law Matt and daughter Katie in same mine; the village's "slate pillars;" tombstones of slate in Wales churchyard; Art inspecting a car of roofing slates at the museum; Cyril Jones; World Heritage site badge at museum; the "river of slate." (Worker photo from slate museum display)

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