Llanberis slate quarries – A photographic essay

Chris Hughes has often passed by the Dinorwig quarries across the lake from Llanberis and has photographed them from afar. For this photographic essay he got inside, to reflect on the miners, the climbers and the wildlife that have staked a claim to this corner of North Wales:

In the late 1960s we visited the slate quarries of Tilberthwaite in the Lake District, usually on wet days when we had been rained off climbing on the ‘better’ crags. Later we set up long abseils in the Cathedral quarry to impress the PE students we took there as part of their outdoor activities course. But it wasn’t the activity that was remembered, it was the incredible grandeur of the rock architecture, the wonderful effects of light and shade created within these deep pits and the quiet and stillness where once there had been the noise, constant movement, and the general mayhem of the hard and dangerous job of quarrying slate.

Driving through Llanberis you could not fail to notice the monstrous heaps of slate waste and vast rock faces of the Dinorwig quarries across the lake. The whole side of the mountain, and a good part of the inside, had been chopped, sliced, split and generally smashed into pieces. Much of it was thrown away, creating the huge heaps and screes of spoil, whilst the good bits were carted off for roofs, walls and garden rockeries, until it all came to a grinding halt as the price of slate made it all financially unviable.

The scale of the workings is huge, some of the rock faces being 75 metres high. The structures built within the quarries can also be huge, the supporting walls for the inclined planes being particularly impressive. So immense is the whole undertaking that it is difficult to believe that men made this with basic tools, no safety gear and the minimum of mechanised equipment. Yet all around are the reminders of these men, the old boots, rusting shovels and graffiti still seen inside some of the remaining buildings.

It was not surprising that rock climbers had eyed up the steep, clean rock faces for new route possibilities and moved in very quickly as soon the quarrymen had moved out – the first two routes recorded in the most recent guidebook are 1964 and 1969 (the year the main quarries closed). Although the first climbers tended to be English, often ex-Bangor students, usually unemployed, just living simply and climbing very hard routes mainly in LLanberis, it is the great Joe Brown who was attracted – and impressed – by the huge, clean walls of steep grey rock. His first route, called Opening Gambit being done in 1971.

Abandoned quarries, mines, farms and even whole settlements are found across every wild area usually left to decay many, many years ago but occasional surprisingly recently left by the owners or tenants. Sometimes there are poignant reminders of those who lived and worked there – old bedsteads, fireplaces and pots and pans – but mostly just the stones of the walls and few decaying timbers gradually fading back into the earth. It is this that I find I am attracted to time and again, seeing the remains of a life now gone slowly being the reclaimed by the surroundings in which it once flourished or struggled within. The building stones carved from the land locally once more becoming a part of the landscape.

Scattered around are a few buildings and winding drums from the inclined planes that once dragged the slate blocks around the site. Here and there are the spitting sheds where the pure roof slates were cut and trimmed to size. But up high in the quarries the cutting benches still sit which once cut up the large slate blocks, silent now where once their screaming, deafening circular saws once filled the air all around and the unprotected ears of the men who worked them. Nearby the huge machines  that provided the power for the saws are  rusting and quiet, birds’ nests built nearby and ferns growing all around with the manufacturers proud name plates still prominent, read only by those who make the journey through the spoil heaps, passed the gigantic rock faces and up the inclined planes to get here.

The Dinorwig quarries have attracted me in the same way for many years and I have photographed them from afar many times. Recently, with help from a very knowledgeable  and successful climber, I made a journey deep into the quarries to see close up the rock faces, the spoil heaps, old buildings and general jumble of an abandoned industrial lathe huge chunks of machinery and landscape albeit one set within a area of outstanding natural beauty. The day was overcast, a typical leaden Snowdonian sky, lessening the deep shadows that would otherwise have made photography difficult. Late in the day the sun came out to light up the details of the place as I made my way out once more. I love the colours of the rock, the greys, blues and purples streaked with orange, red and green. One area is called the Rainbow Slab and it is clear why this should be.

It is a place of awesome beauty, great ugliness, adventure and fear in equal measures but not one that can be ignored. Visiting is easy either from Llanberis itself or nearby Denoilian and follow the various paths. Getting close to the rack faces and higher up into the quarries requires you to climb over fences – notices advise your visit is entirely at your own risk – to scramble across loose slate heaps and possibly up and down rusting ladders. It is not a place to be taken lightly but it is rewarding on many levels. Many birds have taken advantage of this place, no doubt many mammals have too, plants that specialise in reclaiming such sites and flourishing and more will no doubt move in as the soils build up once again over the loose rock. A recently published guide to the climbs in the quarries will probably increase the climbing activity in the next few years and without doubt one keen photographer will be returning again and again to try to capture the unique nature and undoubted beauty of this landscape.

Words and Pictures: Chris Hughes

More Information:
Llanberis Slate –    Ground Up Productions Ltd. (2011)
Welsh Rock – Trevor Jones and Geoff Milburn Pic Publications (1986)
The Slate Industry of North and Mid Wales
The National Slate Museum in Llanberis
Information on and photographs of the quarries

About the author:

As a potter, artist and photographer, Chris Hughes’s work reflects his own interest in the landscape, birdwatching, mountain walking and climbing. He has exhibited work in exhibitions all over the NW of England with the Art and Craft Guild of Lancashire and now at their Gallery at the Wharf in Burscough.
Profile at the Arts & Craft Guild of Lancashire

5 thoughts on “Llanberis slate quarries – A photographic essay

  1. Phil Scraton

    A fine essay, Chris, that really captures the evocative atmosphere that I experienced on several visits to the quarries. While I went there initially to climb, for me, impossible routes I was soon reminded of the sacrifices made by so many men who worked the slate. I came across the ‘accident log’ for the quarries. Lost fingers, lost limbs, lost lives. The slate was blown from its moorings, hewn and split. It was hard, dangerous, demanding work in often appalling conditions as the quarriers earned pittance and the owners reaped the harvest … until slate became unprofitable and safety too costly. The phrase ‘collateral damage’ has been used all too frequently from Vietnam to Afghanistan to ‘soften’ the destruction of ordinary village communities by ordnance ‘guided’ via supposedly sophisticated technology. As I read the catalogue of broken lives in the Llanberis log, it provided chilling evidence of the ‘collateral damage’ inflicted by unsophisticated technology on the villages around Llanberis – the real cost of slate. Looking across Llyn Padarn to the haunting beauty of Elidir Fawr, a least-walked mountain broken but not humbled by yesteryear’s blasts, voices once again echo from the quarries’ recesses. What a place, what a history …

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  4. Karolin

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon every day.
    It will always be exciting to read through articles from other writers and practice something from other websites.

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