Quarries were first opened in the Ordovician-era slate of the blaenau (uplands) of the parish of Ffestiniog by experienced workmen from Cilgwyn quarry in Nantlle around 1760. In 1800 William Turner arrived from the quarries of the Engish Lake District to take over Diffwys quarry, and the area came to attract investment.
The industry was capitalised by a combination of local landowners, such as the Oakeleys of Plas Tan y Bwlch and Lord Newborough of Glynllifon, by businessmen who made the area their home, such as Liverpool-born Unitarian Samuel Holland, and the Greaves banking family from Worcestershire, and by outsiders, most prominently Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister and statesman.
The workforce was drawn from the rural areas of North Wales. Within a hundred years, the tips of waste slate had come to dominate the growing quarrymen’s town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, a settlement which took root on the natural shelf on the lower slopes of the valley. Initially the slate was worked in open pits, but Ffestiniog veins lie at an angle of approximately 30⁰, so by the early nineteenth century open-cast working was becoming uneconomic, as the various quarries followed the slate ever-deeper. From the early nineteenth century onwards, most of the slate rock and the rubble was extracted from honey-combed underground chambers, then hauled to the surface on powered inclined planes.
Ffestiniog quarries constructed steam- and water-powered mills from the 1850s onwards to reduce the raw blocks of slate before they were split by hand to produce roofing elements. The Greaves circular saw, which became standard throughout the industry and which was exported to quarries in continental Europe, was devised at Llechwedd quarry.
The Ffestiniog area was innovative in making use of water-resources to generate electricity. A remarkable Edwardian hydro station remains intact and functional at Llechwedd quarry. Although most extraction came to be carried out underground, a feature of the Ffestiniog industry is the scale of the open workings on the hillslopes. These are particularly visible from anyone travelling on the A470 across Bwlch Gorddinan/the Crimea Pass. These form a vista which also includes the quarry tips and inclines, the town of Ffestiniog and the rural lower parts of the historic landscape extending to Trawsfynydd, the Rhinogydd and towards the sea.
Travellers reaching Ffestiniog from the Glaslyn area, whether by road or on the Festiniog Railway, on the other hand, are instead impressed, or overwhelmed, by the scale of the tips which dominate the town and by the way in which inclined planes and pathways form strong visual links between the source of the slates and their means of distribution.
A distinctive feature of the town are the transport routes for carrying slate, both the earlier cart-roads to the quays on the river Dwyryd, and the Festiniog Railway, opened in 1836. Later social space is organised far more formally, around planned squares and streets, with substantial chapels sited prominently. Housing illustrates the change from the rural vernacular to the industrial and it is clear that the arrival of the railway substantially altered the architectural character of the growing town by making imported timber, stone and brick available.
Patrician investment in the Ffestiniog industry is evident in Plas Tan y Bwlch, the home of the Oakeley family, which lies on the course of the Ffestiniog Railway near the estate village of Maentwrog. The character of the present house and gardens reflect the taste of the nineteenth century and the profits which their quarries generated. It is now the Snowdonia National Park’s residential study centre, and offers courses on the archaeology and history of the slate industry. Both industrial heritage and adventure tourism are on offer at Llechwedd Quarry.
The Ffestiniog Railway and Porthmadog
The Ffestiniog Railway itself is a remarkable engineering achievement; constructed with the help and advice of Robert Stephenson in 1832-1836, by James Spooner and his son Charles Easton Spooner. It took forward the tradition of the horse- and gravity-operated narrow gauge mineral railway into the age of steam traction and passenger transport. It inspired not only the Talyllyn Railway and the Penrhyn Quarry Railway in Gwynedd but countless imitators world-wide, including the World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. It is now among the best-preserved nineteenth-century railway ensembles in the world; its slate wagons are regularly operated on demonstration gravity runs, recreating the historic method of bringing the slate down the railway.
The quays at Porthmadog, constructed between 1824 and 1869, where slate was loaded for export to Germany and elsewhere, and the seven small river quays on the Dwyryd, built between 1812 and 1836, still exist. Those at Porthmadog have seen considerable new built from the 1960s onwards in the form of maisonettes and a community centre.