Tuesday, 9 April 2019


How attitudes change.  The North Wales quarries used to be considered bleak scars on the landscape, but now an application has been submitted for them to be awarded Unesco World Heritage status.   There is a haunting quality about the monumental relics of old quarries and mine workings (captured by contemporary painter James Laughton - see my blog of 26 October last year 'Stone and Slate').

On Saturday I went to the National Slate Museum at Llanberis.  The mountains were veiled in a milky haze and snow showed as white patches on north facing slopes.  There were plenty of early holiday-makers filling up the car parks in the valley.  Llanberis may have lost its working quarries but its proximity to Wales' highest mountain ensures that another industry flourishes - tourism.

I was at a special Welsh learners festival so there were lots of people, including me, wandering around wearing purple badges, carrying purple bags and trying to communicate in a language consisting of limited vocabulary, dodgy grammar and a plenty of hand gestures!  I felt as if I was on a school trip - even my school uniform had been bright purple (so that, we always assumed, pupils misbehaving in the town could be spotted immediately).

The museum centres on the old workshops complex of the quarries.  Its 19th century architecture, resembling a fort, makes a statement about authority and the power of industry.  When the quarries closed a foreseeing man lobbied for the workshops to be kept entire.   I watched the hazy spring sunshine illuminate a large metal-framed window and then, in the next room, saw the wooden mould from which the sections of window had been forged.  The machines slumber on, quietly rusting, their outlines softened by spiders' webs and dust.  But out in the yard the diminutive Una, a narrow guage quarry steam engine, puffed little clouds of smoke.

Looming above the workshops are the galleries of the vast Vivian quarry, its depths now filled with green water.    The quarrymen worked in groups who negotiated their wages and met together in a Caban.  Here they would have lunch breaks but also would meet to discuss literature, philosophy, politics and of course to sing.   But quarrying was a dangerous occupation.  There were deaths and serious injuries.  Slate dust caused silicosis.

A little terrace of quarrymen's cottages has been reconstructed behind the workshops.  They reminded me of the lines in Norman Nicholson's poem 'Millom Old Quarry' -

'Nonconformist gables sanded with sun
Or branded with burning creeper; a smoke of lilac
Between the blue roofs of closet and coal house:
So much that woman's blood gave sense and shape to
Hacked from this dynamited combe.'

(from the Collected Poems p181)

More information about Amgueddfa Lechi Cymru, the National Slate Museum at Llanberis, can be found at www.museum.wales 

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