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 minister 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 body of work is the initial part of a broad documentary which will continue in Blaenau Ffestiniog. It records the last remaining elements of a major industry and hints at the crossroads the town is facing.
This project was shot on 5×4.
The Project from Start to Present
I met a guy in a pub once (all the best stories start like that!). We’d just opened the gallery and he was interested in what we were doing so at a later date he came round to see the place and the work I was doing on post-industrial Teesside. He recommended a trip to Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. read more
This is Alan – an ex-slate quarryman who now has a workshop at his home in Blaenau Ffestiniog. He and his family are friends of a friend but are quickly becoming good friends of mine too I hope. They’re really hospitable – some of the best grub in Wales I recon! read more
I’ve been given access to Trawsfynydd nuclear power station as part of my ongoing project in North-Wales. Trawsfynydd is currently being de-commissioned and is a major employer in the area. Here are a few images from my initial trip. read more
These are two panoramas takes and stitched on an iPhone in Blaenau Ffestiniog. Again I was shooting on 5×4 but I wanted to show for this purpose the sheer scale of the man-made mountains and the iPhone is so handy! read more
Re-visit to Blaenau last week on a pretty full on 5-day shoot. The sun was shining all week for once so we made some hay (not literally!). Here’s a taster. Again – 5×4 transparencies re-photographed on a lightbox for now… read more
An afternoon spent with Alan while he collected slate for making wine racks in a now closed quarry. We’re stood here 3/4 of the way up the largest slate tip in the world. The building on the far left in the first image was built by Alan and some of the 60 men working below him. He spent the majority of his working life on this man-made mountain splitting slate. read more
Slate aggregate for roads and gardens (etc) is made in a relatively small scale at Llechwedd compared to the huge amount of slate waste that could be used for such purposes. With major issues in employment, Blaenau needs jobs. However, both the feasibility of the aggregate scheme and the potential visual changes to Blaenau’s ‘man-made mountains’, which are to many seen as the industrial heritage of North Wales, means this new industry is often viewed with apathy… read more