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Man-Made Mountains

An on-going body of work shot primarily in Blaenau Ffestiniog – North Wales.

Throughout the U.K. industry or a primary employer once created a backdrop within communities and a social structure was built around that constant. People had an affinity with their environment where they lived and worked (local identity and belonging), and this affinity helped to create and strengthen communities.

For instance, each time a new slate pit was dug in North Wales, a school, a church and a pub was built as standard along with housing for the workers – the staple for a community to develop encompassing education, religion and social interaction. Such major industry has or is disappearing in many areas with little to replace it.

Blaenau Ffestiniog, located in the mountains of Snowdonia, is a prime example of a small town born from the need to house an influx of workers to extract the natural resources found there.

Known as the ‘City of Slates’, Blaenau Ffestiniog had at one point the second highest population in the whole of North Wales (12,000). Now with a population of less than 5000, Blaenau Ffestiniog’s native industry has all but gone with one final quarry extracting and splitting for roofing slates. Cheaper imports from China along with re-formed composite slates have to a large extent prices Welsh slate out of the market. Even in Blaenau, Chinese slate is often used instead of the local product.

The landscape around Blaenau Ffestiniog is testament to the decades of blasting and splitting that resulted in the largest slate waste tips in the world that dominate the town. While the final quarry hangs on above ground, below ground on the same site, Llechwedd slate caverns has run as a tourist attraction since 1972. Here bus loads of tourists are led around mine shafts where guides tell of the harsh life of a slate miner. This has created a fascinating juxtaposition of the two linked industries.

Although at the centre of Snowdonia, Blaenau has been ring-fenced and left out of the National Park. Opinions are split on whether the town should be included as slate extraction would be made even more difficult if the town was included and much-needed regeneration would struggle once in the park due to strict legislation. Money provided by central government is currently being put into a regeneration scheme to try and bring Blaenau back to life with a strong focus on tourism.

Blaenau Ffestiniog has options. Father Deiniol, an Orthodox Priest in the town has been campaigning for decades for slate waste to be crushed and used in a secondary industry as aggregate for roads. This is being done on a small scale by road already although a major (£10 million) cash injection would be needed to stabilise rail bridges and link the works to the existing rail system to make the industry viable on any larger scale. Opinions differ on this potential industry as others feel the ‘man-made mountains’ that surround the town should remain within their heritage as a testament to the men who made them. Tourism is a second option although this takes time, money and is only a seasonal income.

 

This project was shot on 5×4.