The region that roofed the world: striking views of the slate landscapes of North Wales

The latest UK site to be added to UNESCO's World Heritage list is place of wild beauty and brooding industrial heritage.
Photograph by Alamy
By Simon Ingram
Published 29 Jul 2021, 10:46 BST, Updated 17 Dec 2021, 12:13 GMT

SPLINTERY heaps of industrial spoil towering behind crouched houses, remote uplands scattered with miniature ghost towns, threads of rusting infrastructure and tunnels leading deep into high mountains beneath a sky frequently pregnant with rain: some might call it bleak. The ghost of a once colossal industry, now mostly spent and crumbling to ruin amidst its scars.

But the slate towns of North Wales are undeniably thick with atmosphere and cultural significance, its sliced and terraced rockfaces inscribed with the history of a country, the tenacity of its workers, and the proud identity that has arisen as a result.

It’s a sentiment clearly shared by UNESCO, which has awarded the slate landscapes of North Wales – including the Ogwen Valley, Dinorwig Slate Quarry, the Nantlle Valley, the Ffestiniog Railway and Porthmadog as well as Llanberis and Blaenau Ffestiniog – World Heritage Status.

Related: pictures of Wales' 'landscapes of imagination.'

UNESCO’s criteria lists a combination of natural and cultural attributes for selection – of which sites must meet at least one to merit inclusion. In a press release, UNESCO – which made the inscription at the World Heritage Meeting in Fuzhou, China – said ‘the status recognises the regions 1,800-year history of slate mining, its people and culture, and its role in ‘roofing the nineteenth-century world’.’

Mark Drakeford, First Minister for Wales, tweeted: ‘This is a time to celebrate slate, its history and its strong future.’

Roof of the world

Welsh slate has been coveted since Roman times, and heavily quarried for at least 500 years. During the Industrial Revolution, it was cut from quarries such as those as Dinorwic and Penrhyn – at their peak the biggest such mines in the world – was exported across the world throughout the 19th century. The slate, the best of which is considered a dark variety dating from the Ordovician period around 480 million years ago, was prized for its durability, and is found in the roofing of London’s Westminster Hall, the Royal Mint and buildings in countries as far from the quarries as Australia.

At its peak in the 1890s employing over 17,000 people and yielding 485,000 tonnes of slate a year, World War One decimated the workforce. The industry fell into slow decline; while some quarries such as Penrhyn are still operational on a small scale, the heritage of the quarries has become a key part of the region’s tourism. Sites such as the National Slate Museum in Llanberis, and the Llechwedd Slate Caverns in Blaenau Ffestiniog pull in visitors curious to understand the hard lives of the quarry workers, or experience the underground caverns themselves.

In more remote areas, much of the mining infrastructure still stands on the mountainside, the workers’ barracks and old cart lines and tunnels still standing on sites such as Rhosydd, and Cwmorthin.

Aesthetic merit? 

The area’s industrial heritage has not always been venerated for its natural beauty; Snowdonia National Park has an infamous ‘hole’ in the centre, in which the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, once a hub of the slate industry, sits. At the time the National Park charter was drawn up, “the quarry and its slate heaps did not satisfy the criteria of exceptional scenic beauty” – but the exclusion was also to allow the development of industry free from the constraints of National Park status. Residents have since lobbied for its consecration in the past.

With this new inclusion, there are now 32 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK. The number is dynamic of late: Earlier this month Liverpool’s historic maritime waterfront lost its status following a period of development which the committee ruled an "irreversible loss of attributes conveying the outstanding universal value of the property".

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