A brief history of the Welsh slate quarries

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 12/11/2018
Stu Bradbury cranks his way up the tricky Gin Palace (7c) in Vivian Quarry. Photo: Alex Messenger

The slate quarries of north-west Wales have just been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Once, slate carved from here was sent all around the world, literally roofing the Industrial Revolution. Then the industry largely collapsed, leaving behind prescient apocalyptic wonderlands for outdoor-lovers to explore. The second-largest of these quarries, Dinorwig, has in particular become a climbers' paradise. But where did it all begin, and when did the climbers move in?

Elidir Mountain, if you've not heard of it, is one of Snowdon's neighbours – it rises opposite Llanberis and has a missing face. Instead of soft green flanks, the mountain's slate bones are exposed in a series of square-cut quarried galleries that reach almost to its summit. The landscape is now being reclaimed by nature: pink heather, turquoise quarry pools and lone, wind-twisted birch trees contrast with towering piles of slate waste. This is Dinorwig – one of the many former slate quarries in North Wales.

At its peak in the 19th century, Dinorwig was the second-largest slate quarry in the world. In the mornings, thousands of men in flat caps hiked up the zig-zag path to the quarry huts which perch high on Elidir's mountainside, their clogs clacking on slate waste.

The slate industry in North Wales started small and grew with the culture itself. By feudal times a few families made a living from quarrrying. They generally lived on common land, paid the local lord a tenancy fee to quarry on his land, pulled slate to the sea by horse and cart and shipped it to England, Ireland and occasionally France.

By the 19th Century, capitalism had taken root. 'Enclosure Acts' had handed most of Britain's common land over to local lords, massively increasing private estates in order to 'increase production'. The people's rights to the countryside's resources had largely gone and Britain rushed towards the Industrial Revolution – a revolution that needed roofing.

The lords, who by now were managing the quarrying on their estates, made huge profits. If you’ve driven between Bangor and Llanberis, you’ve passed the walls of the Vaynol Estate, where the lord who owned Dinorwig Quarry lived. After an Enclosure Act, the estate grew to 35,000 acres.

Quarrymen were encouraged to build houses on plots of this enclosed land – for a price. Those who rejected the idea settled on nearby freeholds, and, as the quarries grew, so the villages of Deniolen and Clwt y Bont did likewise up the hill alongside Dinorwig Quarry. Llanberis developed into a bustling village, too.

At its height, Dinorwig Quarry employed 3,000 men. By this time the landowner had built Port Dinorwig at the nearest coast, he’d built a steam railway to transport the slate there, and he’d also built a grand workshop and state-of-the-art quarry hospital – the latter in a prominent spot to emphasise his prestige and philanthropic intent.

WATCH: The Dinorwig Slate Quarry on YouTube

A harsh payment system forced Dinorwig Quarry workers out in all weather: they had to make a certain amount of slates to get their money for the month. In the video above, Mel Jones comments: “What was good about the quarry was that everyone helped each other. There was something special in the quarry between the men.”

Slabs were blasted from Elidir Mountain and sawn and split in the sheds below. It was particularly dangerous for the teams responsible for getting blocks down from ‘the galleries’ – they'd swing about with a rope wrapped around their leg, and some were killed by rockfall.

The wars and the Great Depression took their toll on the slate industry, as did competition from roofing tiles. By 1960 Dinorwig’s workforce had been reduced to about 300 and the Vaynol Estate had sold off a lot of their land. Then, in 1969, when workers were enjoying their summer break, letters arrived announcing to workers that the quarry had shut for good. Men found work where they could – often in factories in Caernarfon and Bangor.

Following the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts, fresh air had become, as Alastair Borthwick wrote in 1930, “the property of moneyed men”. However the booming 50s and swinging 60s had led to more people having spare cash, free-time and cars than ever before. Britain's first National Parks had opened and the British climbing scene had blossomed with a growing wave of working class climbers.

Joe Brown, already a pioneer of big, hard routes, must have been hanging round the gates of Dinorwig Quarry: he stepped in almost as soon as it shut with his eyes on the huge back wall of Twll Mawr: the route was Opening Gambit.

It wasn’t until the 80s though that climbing in the quarries really took off, due to the collective imaginations of Haston, Dawes, Redhead and co. In ’81 Haston cleaned the now super-iconic route Comes the Dervish E3 with a knife and fork from the legendary climbers’ cafe, Pete’s Eats before making the FA and kick-starting that new-route boom.

The Dinorwig Quarries are now home to some of the scariest, best, toughest and strangest climbs in Snowdonia. At Bathtime Wall, for example, routes like Soap on a Rope E4 and Bathtime E5 can be deep-water soloed, thanks to the quarry lake. Rainbow Slab, meanwhile, is one of Britain's finest single slabs of rock, with a set of old-school trad classics to match. 

WATCH: Alex Honnold's Welsh Slate Experience on BMC TV

And the history-making has continued: in 2011, Steve McClure made the first 'all pitches in a day' ascent of Dawes’ four-pitch testpiece, the Quarryman. Many had tried and failed before him. 

What does the future hold for Dinorwig? It's not just climbers who enjoy this forgotten paradise – there are footpaths through the quarry, and walkers and runners wander amongst the abandoned history, from rows of barrack buildings built for labourers who stayed the week to rusting machinery in sheds.

There is also tourism at the foot of the quarry – when Dinorwig closed, Caernarfonshire County Council had great foresight in placing a Preservation Order on the grand workshop, which is now the National Slate Museum, and the locomotives that once pulled slate have found a new lease of life entertaining visitors. 

However, climbing is tolerated rather than formally allowed in these quarries. Will the bid for UNESCO World Heritage Site status affect access to Dinorwig Quarry for climbers?

CHECK OUT: Is the secret of the Welsh slate quarries finally out?


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