Is the secret of the Welsh slate quarries finally out?

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 12/11/2018
Pete Robins gets technical in the Rainbow Slabs area. Photo: Alex Messenger
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The slate quarries of north-west Wales have just been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. How does that affect climbers and walkers?

Every year, Britain can nominate one region for UNESCO consideration, and this year the spotlight has fallen on the lost worlds of north-west Wales' former slate quarries. Last year, thanks to National Lottery input, a long-distance route called the Snowdonia Slate Trail opened, linking up a lot of this heritage. Is all the attention on these forgotten landscapes going to affect access for climbers, walkers and trail runners, though?

No other stone industry has ever dominated world markets like Welsh slate did. Gwynedd’s slate quarries literally roofed the 19th-century world – gargantuan amounts of slate were shipped around the world – and then the industry largely collapsed. As well as building the backbone of the region's culture, the industry had also irrevocably shaped the landscape, leaving behind prescient apocalyptic wonderlands for outdoor-lovers to explore. These mountainsides were shaped by man, once boomed with their industry, but are now being reclaimed by nature.

Check out our follow-up article: a brief history of the Welsh slate quarries.

When the quarry owners moved out, the climbers, walkers, swimmers, divers and off road runners cautiously moved in, stepping over the barbed wire and 'Private Property' signs. Today, climbing is tolerated in the quarries away from the main paths – but the owners make it clear that access away from the main paths is entirely at your own risk and offically not encouraged. Will the UNESCO bid lead to guaranteed protection from development for the slate quarries? Or will the media attention lead to more fencing outdoor people out?

It's important to note that the designation would cover many of the slate quarrying areas in North Wales, not just the Llanberis ones, so the interest is considerably wider than the areas climbers are directly interested in.

The quarries included in the bid are: Ogwen Valley, Dinorwig, Nantlle, Blaenau Ffestiniog (with its famous railway), Cwm Pennant; and in the south of Snowdonia, Bryneglwys, Abergynolwyn a Rheilffordd Talyllyn and Chwarel Aberllefenni (one of the oldest in Wales, possibly dating from the early 1500s).

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

The parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Wales, Mims Davies, told the Guardian that she hoped the bid would help “revive and grow the economy” of the slate areas. “An accolade such as this not only highlights the immense beauty and history that Wales has to offer but also acts as a catalyst to investment and tourism.”

Dr Dafydd Roberts, Keeper of the National Slate Museum, told us: “The process of, and eventual inscription of, a World Heritage Site can bring significant economic and social benefits to an area.”

Elfyn Jones, BMC & Conservation officer for Wales, commented: “This has been discussed for a long time. I don’t think, if successful, that the bid would directly affect access for climbing in any way. What it may do is provide better and improved interpretation and understanding of the historic and cultural significance (possibly including climbing?) of the slate industry in North Wales. 

“My understanding of the UNESCO designation is that it has no statutory or legal standing – it’s simply another cultural badge that can be given to a landscape and should be taken into consideration by planning authorities when responding to any development proposals.

“For example, if this designation was in place, then planners would have had to consider the impact that the recently approved Glynrhonwy planning application for a pumped storage power scheme near Llanberis, would have on the designation. That was granted planning permission despite considerable opposition (albeit a lot of support as well, mainly for the jobs that would allegedly be created).

“There isn’t, as far as I know any funding or money made available to protect the area as a result of the designation but I guess the designation could help for example to support a bid for funds from bodies such as Heritage Lottery funds to protect the site.”

There are currently 32 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Britain, including the Lake District, the Tower of London and the neolithic monuments of Orkney. Three are in Wales: the Blaenavon industrial landscape, the 13th-century walled towns and castles and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Worldwide, there are over 1000 sites – Italy has the most with 54.


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