Journey into the depths of Llechwedd Slate Cavern in Blaenau Ffestiniog to discover the hardships of mining life, and the magical appeal of an underground world
Llechwedd Slate Cavern. © Crown copyright (2006) Visit Wales, all rights reserved
The road to Blaenau Ffestiniog matches the leaden colour of the landscape and under the cloak of an ashen winter sky the vast slate hills looming over the cottages below look menacing at best. The town appears resigned to its bleak surroundings, a centuries-old industrial role its reason for being. Although shockingly out of character from much of Snowdonia’s sweeping natural beauty, the contrast is no less mesmerising.
As the former slate capital of Wales, Blaenau once drew thousands to its mines where the raw material was hacked from its resting place. While South Wales is known for its coal, the north benefited from a product with equal global acclaim. Slate was formed by compacted mud and clay around 400 million years ago during major geological movement. Coal mining has always been a dangerous profession, but harvesting slate has its own hazards and the working lives of those at the Llechwedd Slate Caverns were characterised by great hardship.
Llechwedd comprises 250 chambers, and across the road at its larger sister quarry are a further 840, with excavations there extending over a mile down.
In 1833 some 23 slate mines were in operation around Blanaeu, connected by a network of 25 miles of underground tunnels. At the helm was John W Graves, the son of a Warwickshire banker, whose mind and money was set on deep excavation to reach the superior quality slate that he believed lay beneath the surface. It was not a cheap or quick process however; Graves spent £27,000 (in Victorian terms) looking for the elusive slate. Dynamite was too destructive to use in the mines so careful techniques using gunpowder, a low explosive, were used – placed into holes drilled into the rockface. Initially these were created by hand until pneumatic drills were introduced.
In 1836 the efforts of two of his miners paid off, when slate was found at last. From then on teams of four would work across a network of chambers, comprising a surveyor to pinpoint the location of the slate; a miner to dig, the splitter to shape the slate, and labourer, whose job was to keep the chamber tidy and load the goods wagons set to work.
Operating by lamplight, mining chambers were honeycombed beneath the mountains 16 levels down (extending 1800ft deep) leaving no room for error – get the measurements wrong and the ground would cave into the chamber beneath. In the same 30ft-wide chamber the men could toil for up to 15 years until the slate had been picked clean. The working day was broken up briefly for breaks in small huts known as cabans. Here, men would huddle for half an hour with their sandwiches and tea, reheating it as required over a candle, playing card games, discussing the politics or religious aspects of the day.
It wasn’t unusual to see an eight-year-old boy working at Llechwedd, and by 12 he would be considered a man and offered a five-year apprenticeship. By his late teens, he would be fully qualified and probably in charge of a chamber, though his wages would have little altered. To make things worse, the young man would by now be experiencing breathing difficulties as a result of years of slate dust inhalation. It was rare to see a man over 40 in the mine in Victorian times; many had pneumonia or the lung disease silicosis, and it wasn’t until much later that protective masks were introduced.
By the 1960s, just before Llechwedd’s closure as a working site, working methods were much faster and more productive, but new laws in health and safety guaranteed its days were numbered. Although the mine was closed on the grounds of health and safety in 1969, open cast mining continues, slate being as much in demand across the globe.
In 1972 Llechwedd’s caverns were opened as a visitor attraction, giving a new lease of life to the area. Many start their visit with a ride on Dewi, a narrow gauge miners’ tramway which rattles into the mountainside, much as it has done since 1846. Through the rock the train clatters transporting its haul of passengers, snaking its way to the heart of the caverns, passing chambers bearing old mining relics and mannequins set permanently to task. Visitors hop out midway to listen to stories of life here in the 19th century and handle some of the tools of the trade.
A stone’s throw away is the Deep Mine attraction, which descends 500ft and stretched 25 miles wide beneath the mountain, accessed by the steepest passenger railway in Britain. Arguably the highlight of the Llechwedd experience, the Deep Mine tour takes in 10 atmospherically lit caverns, left just as if the miners have finished their shift. From these depths, the finest quality of the area’s roofing slate was quarried and despatched across the globe. At the top of the narrow mine shaft visitors queue, hard hats on, waiting to board the carriages before being transported into the unknown, a first insight into the life of a miner.
Disappearing underground is a novelty, as is creeping around in the semi darkness with dank reality all around: water droplets roll off the cavern ceiling, a reminder of the conditions that workers faced, and a contributing factor to their respiratory problems. A contrast from the lively chatter above ground, a natural hush falls over the tour group as eyes adjust to the darkness. We have arrived at level six of a total 16 levels, the deeper chambers no longer accessible for safety reasons. Nonetheless, for the unsuspecting visitor they could just as well be traversing across the Earth’s core.