Sunday, 20 October 2013

All change at Blaenau

Ffestiniog is not the end of the line but where it all began, with slate heaved out of mountains onto wagons for a thirteen mile descent by gravity to ships at sea. It’s also the top of the Conwy Valley line from Llandudno. A railway mecca; relics of tracks on, down and inside the rock with slate the Victorians reason for it all.

Chisels in the sun
The industry is about 1% of what it used to be and the steam trains are busy with passengers not freight. Stepping off the train your eyes are drawn through twin pillars towards the rocky horizons that frame the town. Each pillar made with 9,000 stacked slates from Llechwedd quarry, a CROESO welcome and directions indicated by the motif of a slate splitter’s chisel. Steps to the street are framed by four huge chisel-shape sculptures with slates stacked at an angle; not any old angle but 30°, the typical lie of a bed of Blaenau slate. 

Bands of single line poetry encircle the pillars and also dissect the town’s pavements. Some, such as ‘a bracelet of a town on the bone of the rock’, by famous poets and others by local schoolchildren.   All carved in Welsh with translations provided online and in booklets. Reading these and their explanations brings a deep insight to the community past and present. Even the bus shelters are a revelation with ‘fat ladies’ on the floors! Most sizes of slate were named after aristocratic women such as ‘duchess’, ‘marchioness’, ‘narrow lady’ and so on. Replicas with their names and dimensions are embedded in the ground. 

Howard working on the river of slate
Across the street is another set of twin pillars with a small quarry train pulling slate wagons down from the marshalling yard. But before you reach this, stop and admire the river of slate, a pavement mosaic with a river running down the middle. On either side are the names of over 350 quarries from across Wales each carved into a block of slate that matches the colour from that particular quarry. A rich mix of greys, reds, purples and greens set in alphabetic order. 

Local artist Howard Bowcott, creator of the works, described the significance of the river: ‘it symbolises the formation of slate with river mud washed out to sea four or five hundred million years ago. The river was also the vital corridor for exporting slate before the Ffestiniog Railway opened in 1836.’

Each bank of the river has a line of poetry by Gwyn Thomas, one in Welsh and one in English. ‘Time flows on and water too but not the life of a rockman’ and ‘Men die. The rocks and empty darkness of these mountains endure’. Worked out slate chambers are the ‘empty darkness’ and both poems reflect the perilous work conditions of the ‘rockmen’ and their transience, but a blink compared to the life of rock.

A version of the
Lightning Strike by David Nash
London has the Shard and the Gherkin but we’ve got our Chisels and the Lightning Strike. This sculpture by David Nash reflects the zig-zag shape of the quarryman’s path descending the slate spoil from the Oakeley quarry. It now stands on the main road midway between the quarry and the centre of town – the only Nash work of art on permanent display in Wales.  

If words and symbols of Blaenau’s slate heritage are not enough, keep on walking about ten minutes out of town to Llechwedd Slate Caverns where you can literally get beneath the surface of it all. They offer a choice of two underground tours and provide exhibits that bring to life the incredible stories of rock cannons and wild cars. This is also the place for downhill biking; a bit like skiing, the riders buy a ‘lift pass’ for the day hurtling down a choice of runs ranging from the gentle blue to the double black. It makes a good spectator sport.

Everywhere is unique but Blaenau takes the biscuit! Local artist Falcon Hildred says in his recent book ’I believe that Blaenau Ffestiniog and its landscape are the best and most complete surviving industrial landscape in Britain’.  It’s not stuffed away in museums but all around you. Shops are one-offs where you buy bread from a baker, local meat from a butcher and discuss the finer points of DIY with the ironmonger. Caf├ęs are homely and good value.

No amount of words can describe this place, it must be experienced. If you’ve been before, you won’t recognise it.