The roof of the world — exploring Snowdonia’s sublime slate landscapes

Ours was the last original roof on our east London terrace. It dated to the end of the 19th century, when the houses were built: it had known thick smog and New Year fireworks. It had survived the Kaiser’s Zeppelins and Hitler’s V2 bombs. It had been a perch for dynasties of pigeons.

As decades passed, clay and concrete tiles replaced slate along our road — but our roof held firm into the new millennium, increasingly wonky and fixed in place by tufts of moss. A few Christmases back, water began to leak through the ceiling. The roofer explained we needed a whole new roof.

“You can have another lot of Welsh slate — which is the best stuff,” he said. “Or Spanish slate — which is the cheap stuff.”

One morning, the builders put up the scaffolding and dropped the original slates into a sack of rubble, sending up a little cloud of dust. These rocks had provided a faithful shelter through births, marriages, deaths — had been unyielding through storms, snows and bombs. They were also little shards of a mountain range that I knew well.

Wild goats roam the ruins of Dinorwic quarry in Llanberis © Nicholas J R White

They had come from the slate quarries of north Wales — places which, this summer, were awarded Unesco World Heritage status for their cultural and historical importance. Placing the quarries on a footing with some of the world’s greatest wonders, from the Taj Mahal to the Grand Canyon, might have raised some eyebrows. Almost nowhere in Britain did the Industrial Revolution rip apart beautiful landscapes with such unchecked ferocity. Green mountains were hollowed out to leave bare stones. The geological upheaval of an ice age took place within a few decades, and the valleys of Merlin, myth and the Mabinogion were turned into the Mordor of the quarries.

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These little shards of Snowdonia have adorned roofs across the world: from the Houses of Parliament to Buckingham Palace, from the Royal Exhibition Centre in Melbourne to Copenhagen City Hall. The industry blossomed in the Victorian building boom but production fell sharply in the 20th century and almost all quarries were eventually abandoned. Some have changed little since the last workers downed tools; they are places defined by the absence rather than the presence of rock. There is a lingering sense of loss, and I have long loved stumbling on them when hiking in these hills.

It is a cloudless August day when I pass through one of the great quarries — the Dinorwic quarry in Llanberis. It is a mesmeric place: ramparts of slate rise over turquoise lakes, ravens perch on steeples of rock, serpent-like cables run down the slopes. This summer, north Wales thronged with millions of tourists who came to seek solitude in nature: country lanes became gridlocked and there were queues to climb Snowdon.

Few think to find solace in the immensity of these quarries. Admittedly, access here is a murky issue: authorities do not encourage people to detour from official footpaths to pick their way through the detritus. But in truth many quarries are too vast to police, and the presence of climbers has been tolerated for years.

“It’s not like climbing on any other kind of rock,” says my climbing friend Jessica Dreese. “There’s no friction: it’s less about power, more about agility. Climbing slate is almost balletic.”

As you touch it you understand the subtleties of the rock: indeed, you see that grey is often the wrong word. Welsh slate is technicolour: in Dinorwic, the rock is lilac, over the hill in Penrhyn it is heather red. Other Welsh quarries produce slates of willow, sea green, sage and bronze — old rocks are flecked with buttercup-yellow lichens. Under mountain streams they can take on the charcoal shade of thunderclouds, and spoil heaps glitter like jewels after rain showers. I’ve learnt that walking through loose slate creates music too: large, loose pieces chime underfoot like a xylophone; little ones ring like tinkling bells.

A lone tree clings to the slate slopes of Dinorwic quarry © Nicholas J R White

“There is a beauty within these quarries,” says Cadi Iolen, curator at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis, who was also involved in the Unesco bid. “They have a potency. But we can’t romanticise them. Getting Unesco status was about achieving recognition, not a celebration.”

The National Slate Museum lies at the foot of the Dinorwic Slate Quarry, occupying what were once old workshops. Slate is a metamorphic rock — formed from layers of mud exposed to heat and pressure some 500m years ago. So, too, the museum shows its story to be a complex compound of pride, pain and protest.

The quarrymen of the Victorian years lived brutal lives: inhaling lethal dust, carving apart strata with muscle and sinew, sometimes working through the night. Little railways — such as the Ffestiniog Railway — carried gunpowder to the quarries, and returned with slates for waiting ships at the Irish Sea. For those in the villages who saw men with broken bones carried down from the mountains, who felt the constant quake of explosions, it might have seemed like the quarrymen were waging war up in the clouds.

Anglesey Barracks, abandoned mine worker cottages at Dinorwic © Nicholas J R White

English landowners — known locally as “strangers” — grew rich from slate. Among them were the Pennant family, who invested wealth from Jamaican slave plantations in the development of Penrhyn Quarry: once the largest man-made hole in the world. Their family home was Penrhyn Castle — a stout 19th century pile among green lawns, now in the care of the National Trust.

Meanwhile, Welsh labourers lived in poverty. And yet slate forged a local identity: the quarrymen’s mess — the caban — was a place of song, nurtured Welsh-language poets, hosted lectures and was a campaign headquarters for Britain’s longest-running labour dispute — the Great Strike at Penrhyn of 1900-03. Welsh slates were exported across the British empire — in the midst of a great project to enforce anglophone culture on the globe, these slates were produced with barely a word of English spoken. A local saying went that “the rock did not speak English”.

In a little workshop at the National Slate Museum, I meet Carwyn Price: he worked at the Penrhyn Quarry from 1981 to 2003. He says that in his first days, caban culture was still present — he played percussion in the brass band — but by the time he left he said it was gone.

Today, the industry in Wales clings on as a shadow of its former self: down from 17,000 workers in 1898 to little more than 200 today. In the surviving quarries, there is little singing in the canteen: he hears everyone has their heads buried in their phones at lunch. Carwyn wonders if new technology has taken pride away from the industry. And yet, even in the 21st century, one job is still done by hand.

“In over 100 years, no machine has ever learnt how to properly split slate,” he says, picking up a piece and placing it before him. “Computers cannot recognise the grain — they never will. It is unpredictable: you need to touch it — to feel it — to understand it.”

The roof of the world — exploring Snowdonia’s sublime slate landscapes
Former quarryman Carwyn Price at the National Slate Museum © Nicholas J R White
The roof of the world — exploring Snowdonia’s sublime slate landscapes
Skilled hands split slate, a process yet to be automated © Nicholas J R White

Carwyn squints at the slab and places his chisel. With a gentle tap of a hammer, a wafer thin panel peels away from the rock, like a page falling from a book.

My own maternal family worked with slate: counting slates at the docks of Port Dinorwic on the Menai Strait, and making billiard tables. The heirlooms in my mother’s house in Anglesey whisper of past lives in the shadow of this rock: a slate clock (now stopped), a tiny slate chest of drawers, and a slate mirror carved by a great-great-grandfather whose portrait watches over from a slate frame.

For generations in north Wales, slate was a companion from cradle to grave: schoolchildren learnt to write their names on slates, pubgoers sank pints by slate fireplaces and peed on slate urinals, the dead would be buried under slate tombs with their names etched into the rock.

From childhood holidays spent by Snowdonian lakes, I’ve learnt little shards make for the best skimming stones: spinning lightly, almost weightless over the water, before slipping down into the fathoms.

Ruins overlook the quarry lake at Dinorwic © Nicholas J R White

Some of the best skimming lakes are in the Nantlle Valley: where the western hills of Snowdonia open out to the sea. It was in the quarries here that the Romans first sourced roofing slates to keep out the rain of Britannia — the last workings in Nantlle’s Pen-Yr-Orsedd Quarry finished in about 2000.

I enter, passing a sign that says: “Danger blasting between 8am & 5pm” — now submerged by weeds. Beyond, the spoil heaps have the gentle, spilling contours of Saharan dunes: the sheer cliffs have a glassy, fractured symmetry like polar ice shelves, looking like they might calve and collapse at any moment. But the slate cliffs stand firm, as the buildings beneath them crumble.

Derelict huts are strewn with rusted machinery, the flotsam of crushed beer cans and 10-year-old tabloid newspapers. I step inside one hut and hear panicked footsteps inside — a lost sheep bolts past into the daylight. Nature has tried to reconquer the quarries: rowan trees grow on the fringes, sometimes the raspy call of a chough echoes up in the cliffs. But slate drains easily: there are no nutrients for saplings here. In an age preoccupied with environmental apocalypse, these quarries are a tiny premonition of a lifeless world. But so too they have an immortal quality.

“A material like this can’t be manufactured,” says John Lloyd of Inigo Jones, one of the last slate works in north Wales, manufacturing items from this rock since 1861. “It’s made by geology and time. You are buying something that might last for ever.”

A precipitous ledge at Dinorwic quarry © Nicholas J R White

Born into a slate quarrying family, John is frank that cheap imports from Spain, India, China and Brazil have led to the decline of the older, nobler rock from which his products are crafted. But times change: Inigo Jones is now partly a tourist attraction, and visitors can buy souvenir Welsh slate coasters and house signs in the gift shop. Tourism, too, has seen the old Penrhyn Quarry reinvented as the home of the world’s longest zipline, the Llechwedd Caverns are now home to underground trampolines. Underneath the Dinorwic Quarry lies a hydroelectric power station. I wonder if these things speak to an anxiety that something must be done with these strange, awkward spaces.

For most quarries, their afterlife is a silent one. One afternoon, I walk up into Cwm Croesor, where a winter wind blows out of a mine shaft into the hot August day, and Croesor village, where I swim all alone in the open-air village swimming pool, part lined with slate. I drive past the deep mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog, where the paintings of the National Gallery were stored during the second world war.

The post-industrial landscape of the Croesor Valley © Nicholas J R White

And late one evening I hike towards Cwm Eigiau: one of the loneliest quarries, deep in the Cardennau range. There is a sea of heather as soft as eiderdown, wild ponies canter along the ridges and buzzards ride the cooling air. In the midst of the scene is the familiar, dark avalanche of slate: collapsed inclines, workers huts with nettles growing in the hearths. Welsh slate stores heat well — its smoothness remembers the afternoon sun in the shadows of twilight — so I lie on one slab until dusk descends.

The quarrymen who worked in places like this were often devout chapel-goers: local villages — Nasareth, Carmel, Bethesda — take their names from the Bible. So, too, the immensity of these quarries often suggests some Old Testament endeavour — you might imagine an Act of God caused the abandonment of these little lost cities in the mountains.

But the truth of their undoing is more mundane. The realities of higher production costs and cheaper imports. The forces of profit and loss. The customers like me who, when faced with the bottom line for my new roof in east London, opted to go for the cheap Spanish slate.

The National Slate Museum in Llanberis open daily 10am-5pm (free admission). Inigo Jones Slateworks produces all manner of goods from Welsh slate, and is also available for commissions. It is dangerous to go exploring slate quarries and mines beyond the designated paths; the Llwybr Llechi Eryri, or Snowdonia Slate Trail is an 83-mile walking route through Snowdonia’s slate mining landscapes that can also be broken into shorter sections

Where to stay in Snowdonia

The roof of the world — exploring Snowdonia’s sublime slate landscapes
Portmeirion, with the Dwyryd estuary and the hills of Snowdonia behind © Alamy

Portmeirion The Italianate village created between 1925 and 1973 by architect Clough Williams-Ellis is a popular draw for day-trippers but also makes a magical place to stay. There is a smart 14-room hotel overlooking the sandy flats of the Dwyryd Estuary, an 11-room Victorian castle up on the hilltop, or guests can stay in one of 34 rooms scattered throughout the village houses. Dinner, bed and breakfast for two people costs from about £210 per night;

Coed y Bleiddiau Built of local slate and granite, this remote cottage is only accessible by foot or steam train. The Ffestiniog Railway, built to carry slate from the mines around Blaenau Ffestiniog to the harbour at Porthmadog, runs right past the door and trains can be hailed with a raised arm. Built in 1863 to house the railway’s superintendent, it has been restored by the Landmark Trust and is now a holiday rental for four. From £397 for four nights;

Pen-y-Gwryd A gong still rings for dinner at this classic climbers’ hotel, celebrated as the training headquarters for the 1953 Everest expedition. Built in 1810, it sits just below Glyder Fawr and Snowdon, with fabulous walking from the door. Doubles from £95;

Bodysgallen Hall Just outside the north edge of the national park, Bodysgallen Hall is a 17th-century manor house surrounded by 200 acres of parkland and one of Wales’s finest gardens. There are 31 rooms and suites (spread between the main house and cottages in the grounds) and an award-winning restaurant. Afternoon tea on the terrace, overlooking the parterre, lily pond and rose garden, is a delight. Double rooms from £225;

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