In our regular monthly blog series, writer and hiker Phil Thomas shares the trade secrets of his passion: the Great Outdoors. He lives in North Wales and spends most of his spare time writing or walking in the hills with his girlfriend and their crazy Patterdale terriers.
Until recently, the slate mines and quarries of Snowdonia and North Wales were little more than scars on the landscape. They were vast, silent reminders of a time when Wales put roofs on buildings around the world.
Now, abandoned slate quarries are filled with walkers, mountain bikers, and even zip-liners buzzing overhead on high-speed wire runways. Trains and tramlines designed to ship slate from the mountains to the coast have been transformed into heritage railways, while level paths and cycleways take wanderers through some of Snowdonia’s best scenery away from the noise and fumes of road traffic.
Caverns boast via ferrata, abseilers and even trampoline adventure courses. In among the high-octane mayhem, there are well-planned historical tours where you can learn about the slate industry and the harsh life endured by those who worked in it.
However you like your great outdoors, there’s an adventure amongst the slate for you. Are you ready to explore Snowdonia’s slate country?
Snowdonia’s slate country for walkers
For walking, there’s really only one place to start – the Snowdonia Slate Trail. This 83-mile circular trail joins together some of the best slate sites, including the world-famous Penrhyn, Dinorwig and Cwt-y-Bugail quarries near Bethesda, Llanberis and Blaenau Ffestiniog respectively. You’ll explore abandoned settlements, mines and quarries (always heed warning signs) and enjoy wonderful scenery throughout. Rail enthusiasts will be in their element, as the trail takes you to the Penrhyn Quarry Railway, Llanberis Lake Railway, Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Welsh Highland Railway and the Ffestiniog Railway.
The trail can be split into seven shorter sections, all of which are described on the Snowdonia Trail website.*
Splitting from the Trail at Llanberis, you can now walk safely and legally through the disused upper levels of Dinorwig Quarry, above the entrance to Electric Mountain hydroelectric power station. The route described on the Mud and Routes website is an extended version that you can cut short by climbing the steep, zig-zag path to the south of Vivian quarry and past the atmospheric ruins of rows of quarryman’s cottages.
Snowdonia’s slate country for history buffs
To learn about the history of Welsh slate, make a beeline to the National Slate Museum in Llanberis. Just five minutes’ walk from our hotel, the museum makes use of former slate buildings and works and includes slate-splitting demonstrations as well as many museum pieces, free events and a regular programme of changing exhibitions.
If the National Slate Museum gives you fascinating glimpses into how slate quarrying worked above ground, Slate Mountain (formerly Llechwedd Slate Caverns) near Blaenau Ffestiniog takes you deep below ground too. At the time of writing, Slate Mountain offers three tours – one to the quarries in the hills above Blaenau, one into the deep mine via Britain’s steepest tramway, and a “grand tour’ that combines both. A nice touch is The Quarryman’s Tavern traditional Welsh pub found onsite, so after your adventures – and before you grab a bite to eat in the cafe – why not discuss your experiences over a drink?
Over at Penrhyn Quarry near Bethesda, Zip World also runs a quarry tour for those that don’t fancy the zipwire experience. You can also watch the zippers fly past from the windows of the Blondin Cafe.
Snowdonia’s slate country for adrenaline junkies
It all started with the world’s fastest zipwire at Penrhyn Quarry above Bethesda. Although the quarry is still worked, entrepreneurs Sean Taylor and Nick Moriarty saw an opportunity to build zipwires across the gaping hole in the ground, as for the most part, zipwires in the UK were confined to forest-based attractions. Now, Zip World boasts a range of adrenaline-fuelled attractions across Snowdonia. For now at least, Zip World Velocity 2 (as it’s called) at Penrhyn remains the ultimate thrill ride.
At Blaenau Ffestiniog, Zip World combined three pulse-racing attractions at the Llechwedd complex of quarries and caverns. Titan was the first, a longer zip-wire down the mountain. If Velocity 2 looks too much, Titan has you sitting upright rather than zipped into body-pouches, perfect for families and small groups. Zip World Caverns turns the slate mines into an underground assault course, with more zipwires, rope bridges, via ferrata and more. Perhaps the most dazzling attraction is Bounce Below, a series of nets and trampolines strung across huge caves lit with multi-coloured lights. With more emphasis on having fun, Bounce Below is probably the most family-friendly attraction, especially if you have younger ones.
Go Below started life offering ‘underground adventures’ in the mines above Penmachno, that included an underground lake crossing by boat, zipline, abseil and waterfall climb. Since gaining rights to use Cwmorthin mine above Tanygrisiau near Blaenau Ffestiniog, the outfit has added three more challenging adventures, including one that includes the deepest mine descent followed by an ascent of Snowdon in one day, making a total ascent of almost 5,000ft from bottom to top.
Cwmorthin is the largest and deepest slate mine in the world, with more than 50 miles of tunnels and caverns. Go Below’s adventures here (Hero Extreme and Ultimate Extreme) are not for the faint-hearted, and suffice to say you need a reasonable level of physical fitness. Yet for all the shrieking you might do, it’s the picnic perched on a wooden bench bolted to an underground cliff-face that leaves the biggest lasting impression. Staring into the vast black cavern is a genuinely haunting experience.
Snowdonia’s slate country for railway fans
Another legacy of the slate industry is the comprehensive network of railways and tramways it left behind. Most remain as obvious straight lines gently (and sometimes not so gently!) contouring the hillsides.
The railway from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port at Porthmadog was one of the first to be transformed into a narrow gauge attraction, and remains Snowdonia’s most famous and popular ride. Ffestiniog Railway has been joined by the Welsh Highland Railway, which for the most part follows the old Nantlle and Croesor slate railway routes.
On a smaller scale is the lakeside railway at Llanberis. Unlike the heritage railways alongside Bala lake (Llyn Tegid) and at Llangollen, Llanberis Lake Railway owes its existence to the slate industry. Finally, Porthmadog has a second railway attraction in the form of the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway. Not to be confused with the railway from Porthmadog to Caernarfon, this section formed part of the original Welsh Highland Railway, created as the slate industry was on the wane. It lasted just 15 years! Today, Welsh Highland Heritage Railway sets itself apart from other railway attractions as the short, hour-long rail journey is just part of the experience. It’s a treat for real rail enthusiasts, where you get to climb the cab and learn all about the workings as well as the history of this ill-fated line.
So, where once people headed past the slate for the natural beauty of Snowdonia, the quarries and mines of this world-renowned industry are now buzzing once again. It’s hard to imagine what those who once worked in such dangerous and challenging conditions might make of it. Today’s visitors will leave safely at the end of the day, thrilled and perhaps a little wiser to what made Snowdonia the place it is today.
* The Slate Trail now has an app, handy for those poor/no-mobile signal areas. Currently only available for iPhone – an Android version is promised soon.
Images courtesy: Dinorwig Quarry by Hefin Owen. Zip World at Penrhyn Quarry by Mike Hudson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]. Ffestiniog Railway on the Cob embankment at Porthmadog, by Peter Trimming.