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Move over Taj Mahal, these Welsh slate quarries are just as fascinating

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Move over Taj Mahal, these Welsh slate quarries are just as fascinating

It appears incongruous but the industrial heritage of North Wales has just been named as the UK’s 33rd Unesco World Heritage Site. The award reflects the international significance of Welsh slate in "roofing the 19th century world". It’s the fourth site in Wales alongside the castles of Edward I, the Blaenavon industrial landscape and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen.

It’s a well-deserved accolade. This is a boost for British heritage, too, after Liverpool was stripped of its Unesco status last week and Unesco questioned Stonehenge’s future status. However, with post-lockdown litter soiling Mount Snowdon trails and the backroads of the Snowdonia National Park heaving with holiday traffic, let’s use it to highlight under-the-radar attractions and sustainable options away from the summer-staycation crowds.

The pockmarked, post-industrial landscape had been ‘slated' for Unesco status since it was first nominated by the UK Government in 2018. The bid focused on six disparate slate-mining areas, divided by mountain ranges, including the Penrhyn slate quarry at Bethesda, the Dinorwig quarry near Llanberis and Blaenau Ffestiniog's slate mines. Some of the attractions fall within the boundary of the Snowdonia National Park, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Roland Evans of Gwynedd Council, which led the bid partnership, is keen to entice visitors away from the national-park honeypots. “The bid champions the social and economic regeneration of our slate valleys, restoring pride to those communities, and documenting their social history through community tourism,” he says.

a waterfall with a mountain in the background: Abandoned quarry building at Dinorwig Slate Quarry in Snowdonia - Getty

Living history

Slate is synonymous with the story of Wales. While the South Wales valleys built their industrial heyday on coal, the slate quarries transformed Northwest Wales from a patchwork of rural farmsteads to Industrial Revolution hotbed. The Romans started quarrying slate for their settlement near Caernarfon. Edward I’s castle builders then used it to protect his iron ring of castles from Welsh invaders in the late 13th century.

As the industrial age dawned, rich industrialists went about transforming Wales into the world leader for the production and export of slate during the 18th century. By the 1890s, the Welsh slate industry employed some 17,000 people and produced 485,000 tonnes of slate each year. Welsh slate was used widely to roof industrial-heartland settlements and exported around the world for civic buildings from Copenhagen to Melbourne.

The town of Porthmadog was transformed by opening up docks for slate export with the newly arrived narrow-gauge railway transporting coal from the Blaenau Ffestiniog mines. The restored-heritage Ffestiniog Railway now meets the Welsh Highland Railway at Porthmadog station for a misty-eyed, 40-mile circuit through history.

a goat standing on the side of a mountain: Wild feral goat at Dinorwig Slate Quarry - Getty

The Unesco win is clearly an opportunity for North Wales. But it mustn’t squander the momentum, nor fuel over-tourism to the honeypot hubs. Having visited the area several times, I know the tourism infrastructure needs work and some of the existing attractions look tired. The disjointed nature of the six areas, reinforced by the landscape, means new tours, or self-guided trails, are needed to form an overarching narrative. The Snowdonia Slate Trail, an 83-mile circular walking route, is currently the only mapped trail — it’s one for the serious walkers.

The National Slate Museum at Llanberis, on site of the former Dinorwig Quarry, is the obvious anchor point for tours. The workshops and outbuildings look as if the quarrymen have just downed tools for the end of their shift and crowd-pleasing slate-dressing demonstrations showcase how skilled craftsmen would split the slates with a hammer and chisel. But it was built in the Seventies and needs new ideas beyond the coach party merry-go-round.

an old brick building with a mountain in the background: Stone houses at the slate quarry of Dinorwig - Getty

Nearby Llechwedd has moved with the times, the Deep Mine and Quarry Explorer tours now managed by Zip World, which also operates its Titan Two zipwire and Bounce Below from the site. The on-site Plas Weunydd hotel, converted from the historic house of John Whitehead Graves, who founded the quarry in 1836, has boutique rooms with knowing nods to its history, plus glamping nearby.

“There’s lots of infrastructure to come with plans to develop five gateway hubs, including Llechwedd and the National Slate Museum, with onward interpretation,” says Adam Lemalle of Plas Weunydd owners J.W.Greaves, who also worked on the bid. “We hope Unesco status will attract visitors with a more considerate and sustainable approach,” he adds.

a close up of a tall building: Arles has been attracting art lovers for a long time. Now, the city in southern France also houses Frank Gehry's latest creation: the Luma Arles Tower. The 56-meter-high "Tower" took ten years to complete and is the centerpiece of a huge exhibition park owned by the Swiss billionaire, Maja Hoffman. The building also houses a cafe and restaurant.

I hope so, too. I’ll be raising a celebratory glass of Penderyn Welsh whisky tonight but also urging action. Wales sometimes felt ‘closed for business’ during the pandemic given its strict travel guidance. This is a chance to put Wales back on the visitor map, develop new sustainable tourism initiatives and celebrate the industrial heritage that shaped the modern nation.

Let’s make it count. 

Reference: The Telegraph:  David Atkinson 

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