World Heritage Status Given To North Wales Slate MinesPublished on 25 Aug 2021 by Amy Bowers
The natural landscape of Gwynedd is made up of mountain ranges, lakes, forests and a coastline of rugged cliffs and golden sand beaches. It’s an idyllic area of North West Wales to explore, but the county also has a rich industrial heritage. During the Industrial Revolution and second half of the nineteenth century, Gwynedd became the world leader in production and export of slate, which was mined and quarried across the county. Most of the quarries and mines have long closed, but they have left their imprint on the surrounding Welsh landscape. Towering walls of slate cover the mountain sides – a reminder of past, and in July 2021 recognition was provided by World Heritage Status given to North Wales Slate Mines.
UNESCO World Heritage Status
The North Wales slate mines and quarries have become the latest area to be listed a UNESCO World Heritage site. One of only 32 listed sites in the UK, the slate production of the region has been recognised for its cultural and industrial heritage, and the part it has played in roofing the nineteenth century world. As well as the slate landscapes themselves, there is also recognition for the developments of transportation systems such as the narrow gauge railways which were built to transport the slate to the coast for export.
While there are several locations included within the listing of World Heritage Status given to North Wales Slate Mines, there are three main areas where the heritage is still evident. These are the areas surrounding Blaenau Ffestiniog, Llanberis and Bethesda. The surrounding landscapes of these three towns are made up of mountains of slate that stand proud and iconic. Much of these landscapes have now become home to tourist attractions, or simply great places to hike, explore and marvel at the beautiful and dramatic scenery.
The town of Blaenau Ffestiniog is synonymous with the Welsh slate industry. Heading south through Parc Genedlaethol Eryri (Snowdonia National Park) towards the town and reaching the highpoint of the Crimea Pass, the view changes from a green and rugged mountain landscape to imposing steep walls of slate either side of the road. The steep ascent into Blaenau between the slate mines and quarries is a clear indication why the town was known as the ‘slate capital of the world’.
Interestingly, although Blaenau Ffestiniog is located within the confines of the National Park, it was omitted when the boundaries where drawn up in the 1950’s, because the surrounding slate heaps did not meet the criteria of scenic beauty requirements. The area certainly has its own sense of beauty and drama though, and is a fantastic place to explore.
Long before any World Heritage Status given to North Wales Slate Mines existed, the mines of Llechwedd were a popular tourist attraction. The 2,000 acre quarry is home to several tourist attractions now operated by Zip World. There’s an option to explore the mines and caverns on the Deep Mine Tour, or an opportunity to fly across the quarry at high speed on one of the zip wires.
Escaping the crowds is easy in the surrounding area by taking some fabulous walks. The start of a walk around Llyn Cwmorthin and Cwmorthin Quarry is only a short drive from Blaenau Ffestiniog. The route follows clearly marked footpaths heading along Llyn Cwmorthin, where the remains of many old disused quarry building still stand.
Penrhyn Quarry, just outside the town of Bethesda dates back to the 1770’s and was at one point, the largest slate quarry in the world. The quarry once employed circa 3,000 men and shipped slate across the world. Slate would be transported to Porth Penrhyn near Bangor along one of the earliest railway lines to exist, the narrow gauge Penrhyn Quarry Railway.
The site is still a working quarry to this day, although some areas are now home to another Zip World site, where thrill seekers can ride Velocity 2 and travel at over 100mph along a 1.5km zip wire. It’s fantastic to see these hostile landscapes being utilised in unique ways, encouraging guests to visit.
The town of Llanberis, at the foot of Yr Wyddfa (Mount Snowdon), is one of the most popular destinations to visit in North Wales. The mountain town is surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery and sits on the shores of Llyn Peris and Llyn Padarn, popular with lovers of water sports. Heading across to the other side of the lakes, the Padarn Country Park is home to attractions and footpaths which explore some of the most spectacular slate landscape scenery in North Wales.
The Dinorwic Slate Quarry towers above the lakes, with tiered galleries of slate built into the mountain side. At the height of production, Dinorwic Quarry was the second largest producer of slate in the region, behind Penrhyn Quarry. The quarry closed in the late 1960’s, but visitors to Llanberis can now safely explore parts of the site via a network of footpaths which meander through the slate heaps on the mountain. Exploring Dinowric Quarry provides some insight into the operations of the site, with the remains of many of the old buildings on the mountain, including Anglesey Barracks – two rows of quarrymen’s cottages which are now derelict but were inhabited until the 1940’s. The higher points of Dinorwic Quarry provide breath taking views across to Yr Wyddfa on a clear day.
The National Slate Museum is located at the base of the quarry and housed within Gilfach Ddu – the original workshops of Dinorwic. The museum provides a fascinating insight into the slate production of North Wales in a fun and informative way.
As well as the three areas listed above, the World Heritage Status given to North Wales Slate Mines also focuses on the Nantlle Valley, Penrhyn Castle near Bangor and the early railways which were designed to transport the slate to the coast for export. The slate industry has played an important part in not only forming the landscape of Gwynedd, but forming the heritage and culture of the region that has been built around it.