Snowdonia Slate Trail

Slate Trail Map

The project     [Top]

This project creates an 85 mile trail from Porth Penrhyn to Bethesda, through the Snowdonia slate villages. Potentially, it will generate £1.5Mpa for the economies of these needy communities.

The route starts at Porth Penrhyn near Bangor, commencing along the established Lon Las Ogwen and North Wales Path before climbing through fields and woodland to the village of Llanllechid. After dropping down against a backdrop of the Carneddau and Penrhyn quarry to Bethesda, the Ogwen valley is crossed to reach the bleak open moors above Llanberis. After a visit to the National Slate Museum the trail wanders past long-abandoned slate pits and spoil heaps to Waunfawr and the Welsh Highland Railway.

From here, the North Wales Pilgrim's Path is followed up onto the moors below Mynydd Mawr before dropping through spectacular slate workings to Nantlle. Walking below the Nantlle Ridge, Rhyd Ddu is reached before taking to the forest track and Lon Gwyrfai to Beddgelert. The narrow path through the Aberglaslyn Pass, narrow lanes and old drover's roads takes us to the remote slate outpost of Croesor, where the café makes wonderful brownies.

Then it's high into the Moelwyns, through Croesor, Rhosydd and Cwmorthin quarries, down to Blaenau Ffestiniog and Llan Ffestiniog. From here, the hidden treasure of Cwm Cynfal gorge, followed by the wilderness of the Migneint, takes the trail to Penmachno. Mainly forest tracks continue to Betws y Coed, past Miner's Bridge and Swallow Falls to Capel Curig. From here, the Llugwy and Ogwen valleys take you through the very heart of the mountains back to Bethesda.

The trail also connects a number of social enterprises and community run facilities such as Antur Waunfawr, the Coed y Brenin Café in Bethesda run for and by disadvantaged people and the community Pengwern Inn in Llan Ffestiniog.

This project runs in parallel with a Gwynedd County Council initiative to designate the slate villages of Snowdonia as a World Heritage Site on account of the impact of the industry on the landscape, life and culture of the area and its influence on the development of the UK.

The community element of the project includes:

The £85,000 project is funded by a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund with support from: Magnox, Snowdonia National Park CAE Fund, The Foyle Foundation, The Garfield Weston Foundation, The Oakdale Trust, Community Fund in Wales, HF Holidays, Horizon, First Hydro, The Laspen Trust, Bethesda Town Council and Ffestiniog Town Council.

The timescale commenced in June 2016, for completion in October 2017.

For more information, contact

Secretary, Cwm Community Action Group, Cwm Penmachno.


Slate an introduction     [Top]

Slate is a rock formed from metamorphosed shale and has the unique quality of being able to be split along the grain into very thin, but durable, sheets. It can also be cut into large blocks or slabs. When you walk the Slate Trail, you will see many examples of the use of slate. Some villages, such as Cwm Penmachno, are constructed almost entirely of slate.

Slate has been used in construction since at least Roman times. The fort at Segontium (Caernarfon) was roofed in slate as was the much earlier fort at Caer Llugwy, beside the Capel Curig - Betws y Coed road. Conwy castle, built in the late C13th, was also roofed in slate, probably quarried at Dolwyddelan or Penmachno. On the arrival of King Richard II at Conwy Castle in 1399, the Frenchman, Creton wrote:

"So rode the King, without making noise, that at Conwy, where there is much slate on the houses, he arrived, with scarce a pause, at break of day."

St Asaph cathedral, not so far from the Slate Trail, was roofed in slate and, when renovations were undertaken 250 years later, the original slates were reused.  In more recent times, Welsh slate roofed the Houses of Parliament in the nineteenth century, while Downing Street was re-roofed in Welsh slate in 1962-63. Other uses for Welsh slate included the electricity panels of the Cunard liners, Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth in the 1930's, and the damp course for Guildford cathedral in 1960.

The Industrial Revolution saw a huge increase in demand for slates and landowners took advantage of the Enclosures Acts to take over common land and the associated mineral rights. Landed gentry such as Richard Pennant of Penrhyn, Thomas Assherton Smith of Faenol and John Whitehead Greaves of Blaenau Ffestiniog developed large slate empires on the backs of impoverished quarry workers. Initially, growth in the slate industry was held back by the Slate Tax, imposed in 1794 on all slate carried to the coast in order to pay for naval escorts, a tax which stayed in force long after the necessity for such protection. Although building to cope with the demands of the Industrial Revolution grew apace, the demand for slates did not and it was not until the repeal of the Slate Act in 1831 that the industry really took off. The next seventy years saw a golden age of slate manufacturing.

The great Penrhyn strike of 1900 - 1903 probably saw the start of the end for the slate industry. This dispute, the longest in industrial history, was set to change the life of the slate villages of Wales.

The advent of cheap foreign slate and clay or asbestos roofing tiles drastically reduced the demand, while the English Board of Education discouraged the use of writing slates in schools. The Great War took away many of the skilled workers and the industry never recovered from the blow. The Second World War further reduced the demand for slate and production fell from 271,000 tons in 1935 to 54,000 in 1958. By 1970, this had fallen to 22,000 tons.

Since then, the slate industry has limped along, struggling to survive. The industry employs only a few hundred men these days. In an effort to keep the industry alive, companies are diversifying their activities and products. Much slate now goes for road construction while slate powder is used in cosmetics and toothpaste. Gardeners use slate chippings for decorative surfacing and architects use it for decorative features in their buildings.

In the past, slate has been used for snooker tables, beds (like one made for Queen Victoria for her stay at Penrhyn Castle in 1859), lintels, fences, gravestones, blackboards and whetstones. See how many uses of slate you can identify while walking the Slate Trail.

Port Penrhyn     [Top]

In the early days of slate quarrying, slate was shipped out from Aber Ogwen, the estuary of the river Ogwen, a few miles east of Bangor. This estuary was shallow and the smaller boats had a limited carrying capacity of some sixty tons. This constraint was overcome when, in 1790, Lord Penrhyn built Port Penrhyn on the river Cegin estuary. Within only a few years, Thomas Assheton Smith, whom we will meet later on the trail, built a similar facility at Port Dinorwig (Felinheli), while Pothmadog served the Blaenau Ffestioniog quarries. Llechwedd quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Dinorwig and Penrhyn each operated their own fleet of slate carrying ships.

Port Penrhyn was the location of the first factory to mass produce school writing slates., established in 1798, although a smaller operation previously produced 133,000 such writing slates in 1778.

Listed 10 seater toilet in Port Penrhyn

Actually, this is a walk for the railway enthusiast as well

Penrhyn Slate Quarry Narrow Gauge Railway     [Top]

I will always remember rushing down the road from school to watch the locomotives, Blanche and Linda (now running on the Ffestiniog Railway), and Charles (on show in Penrhyn Castle) chugging down the track through Tregarth. I also remember the local quarrymen riding in seated open wagons on their way to work, and, on occasion, a human powered inspection wagon would pass through, two men pushing down and pulling up the drive lever. (You can see examples of these wagons in the National Slate Museum of Wales, Llanberis, later on this trail).

The original railway was built in 1798-1801 for horse-drawn wagons and included three inclines. Trains of up to twenty four wagons, each carrying a ton of slates, were hauled by teams of two or three horses. It is said that sixteen horses replaced four hundred carts. The elderly Edward Gordon Douglas-Pennant, owner of Penrhyn estate, seemed to oppose the move to steam, such that Dinorwic quarry overtook Penrhyn in importance. However, the construction of a standard gauge branch from Bangor to Bethesda threatened to give minor quarries in the Ogwen valley cheaper transport for their slates. George Sholto Gordon Douglas Pennant, now Lord Penrhyn was forced to improve his competing transport route and the 1ft 11ins gauge line was upgraded to allow steam powered trains, the work being completed in 1879. Initially, most of the locomotives were vertical boilered de Wintons, manufactured in Caernarfon.

Penrhyn Quarry in the late 1800s Became the largest hole in the world.

I remember as a kid dropping pebbles down the shafts of the vertical water balance lifts to try and calculate how deep they were.

It is 1200ft deep and a mile long. Unfortunately, many of the galleries have been obliterated what with current quarrying techniques.

But of course, we now have the zipwire crossing it instead of the Blondins or aerial ropeways.

In 1885, George Sholto Gordon Douglas Pennant took control of Penrhyn Quarry and appointed Emilius Alexander Young as quarry manager. Young was not a manager of men! The new Lord Penrhyn was also an arrogant man, impervious to the sensitivities of the men. In 1899, Lord Penrhyn refused to allow one of his twelve daughters to accept a wedding gift from the quarrymen on the basis that the collection was organised by the union. In that same year, E.A. Young decreed that Bangor Fair day would no longer be a holiday. This was at a time when Young earned £3500 a year, owned a yacht and employed seven servants. When he realised that reduced demand for slate would reduce his share of profits, Young's action became even more harsh and, recognising that the union was short of funds, he forbade the union to collect money on quarry property. As workers lived over a wide area, collection of funds would become very difficult.

Following disturbances, twenty-six quarrymen were prosecuted by Lord Penrhyn for assault, but, even though most of the men were found not guilty, Young closed a number of bargains, or slate quarrying pitches, so that 800 men lost their jobs. The remaining men walked out and the management locked the quarry gates.

The strikers received support from the unions and from around the country, including a two and a half ton Christmas pudding from a company in Ashton-under-Lyne. Bethesda children sang about this pudding a decade after the end of the strike

Lord Penrhyn enticed some workers back by providing new houses such as those in Tanrhiw Road, Tregarth, nicknamed Rhes y Bradwyr or Traitor's Row. Other strikers refused to capitulate, displaying signs in their windows saying "There is no traitor in this house". Unfortunately, union funds ran out and the strike failed. Meanwhile, the quarry managed to do quite well, using the labour of strike breakers and outside contractors, such as lead miners. Also, extraction was concentrated on easily accessible faces and maintenance work was delayed in order to maximise profit. In the end, the quarrymen had to give in and on 7 November 1903, they voted by a narrow majority to return to work. 1800 out of 2700 workers were given back their jobs.

Penrhyn Railway Society     [Top]

This small society is beavering away to open a short stretch of the railway with the longterm aim of running to Porth Penrhyn a real challenge. But here you can see they have built traditional workers carriages and their replica steam engine is nearing completion. I remember Linda, Blanche and Charles pulling trains of these wagons past the bottom of our back garden in Tregarth.

Llanberis Slate Museum     [Top]

This must be one of the most interesting museums in the area. You all know it, and it's free.

Padarn Railway. This four-foot gauge line was initially horse drawn with the wagons being lowered the last three hundred feet to the dockside down an incline. Steam locomotives were introduced in 1848. Passengers were never carried but quarrymen travelled the line using self-built human-powered vehicles. Eventually, workmen were carried in locomotive-drawn wagons, this use ceasing in 1947. The narrow gauge line itself closed in 1961.

Glynrhonwy quarry     [Top]

Glynrhonwy quarry closed in the 1930s but was taken over by the Air Ministry who used as a munitions store, containing some 18,000 tons of explosives within a two storey structure. Cost cutting during construction caused a major collapse of the building, burying 14,000 tons of munitions, along with a 27 wagon train which was in the process of unloading. After the war, the RAF School of Explosives used the site for training purposes, detonating bombs within the quarry. They were also involved in what must have been one of the major bomb disposal operations of that century and the site was finally closed in 1956. However, much explosive material remained and in 1969, systematic clearance of the site began, an operation which lasted for nearly six years, Since 1975, the site has been abandoned and plans for a mountain bike course or an ambitious indoor ski facility came to nothing.

Nantlle quarries     [Top]

There are some forty slate quarries within the Nantlle valley, the largest being the Dorothea, open in 1820. This quarry was a modern undertaking, making extensive use of steam power and at least eight waterwheels for pumping, haulage and machine power. The quarry was quick to see the potential of the Caernarfon-built De Winton steam locomotives and operated steam Blondins, or aerial ropeways. Also steam-driven was a large Cornish beam engine, installed in 1906 to pump water out of the 550ft deep quarry pit. Closed in 1968, the pit is now often used by divers, although it is not a place for the novice or the faint-hearted and a number of divers have drowned in its many submerged tunnels.

Llyn Dywarchen     [Top]

This is a privately owned lake beside the B4418 which has a rather complex shape and a small island in the centre, which is not uncommon in highly glaciated areas. There is a curious story attached to this lake. Once upon a time Llyn-y-Dywarchen had an additional floating island. Giraldus Cambrensis in 1188 told of the lake "having a floating island in it which is driven from one side to the other by the force of the wind". His explanation at that time was perfectly rational. "A part of the bank naturally bound together by the roots of willows and other shrubs may have broken off and being continually agitated by the cannot reunite itself firmly with the banks." The astronomer and scientist Edmund Halley swam out to the island in 1698 to verify that it did indeed float. Thomas Pennant in 1784 claimed to have seen the island and confirmed that cattle which strayed upon it when it was near the shore were occasionally marooned when it began to move.

The island is no longer there, and its legend has died....unless another knotted clump of the bank detaches itself and floats around in the future.

Pont Aberglaslyn     [Top]

The bridge carries a myth of its own, having being built by the Devil on the understanding that he would be given the soul of the first living creature to cross over it. On completing his bridge, the Devil called in at his local pub, Y Delyn Aur, where he came across Robin Ddu, a magician, who duly went to inspect the new bridge. With him was the pub dog, enticed there by the loaf of bread he was carrying. Robin suggested to the Devil that the bridge may not even be strong enough to carry his loaf of bread. The insulted Devil told the magician to throw his loaf onto the bridge to prove its strength. The loaf was duly thrown onto the bridge and the dog chased after it. Thus the devil was cheated out of a human soul and Robin Ddu returned to the pub to finish his pint.

Croesor Quarry     [Top]

High in the top right of the picture lies a reservoir built by Moses Kellow who was a pioneer in providing electric power in the slate industry, even having electric powered locomotives in the quarry.

The powerhouse can be seen with its turquoise door " the corporate colour of the Brondanw estate " visible on Conwy falls café " and owned by Clough Williams Ellis. Incidentally, Clough Williams Ellis was related to the Greaves family of Llechwedd Slate Quarry and to Lord Baden Powell.

This small quarry was highly mechanised, with a number of large waterwheels providing the power to the mills. Under Moses Kellow in 1895, the quarry was electrified, using motors obtained from Prague which were used to drive winches and run the first electric locomotives in Wales. His Kellow hydraulic drill, developed in 1898 could drill a 7.5 feet (2.3 m) hole in the slate in under two minutes, compared to the day required using hand drills. After closing in 1930, it was used later by Cookes Explosives of nearby Penrhyndeudraeth to store propellants. The Central Electricity Generating Board became aware of it in the 1970s and prevented the practice, fearing that a potential underground explosion might damage the dams of the nearby Ffestiniog pumped storage power station, located on the other side of the mountain, Moelwyn Mawr. There are underground passages connecting this quarry to those at Rhosydd, but it is understood to be rather a dangerous route for mine explorers.

Rhosydd and Cwmorthin quarries     [Top]

Workers' barracks, high in the inhospitable hills, as can be seen at Rhosydd quarry, above Tanygrisiau.

They would often leave their homes at 3.00am, carrying their week's provisions, to arrive in time for the 7.00am shift. Conditions were often atrocious with workers sometimes sharing a wooden bed with a straw mattress and, more often than not, unwashed sheets. In winter, having walked to work in the rain, they often spent all week in wet clothes, giving rise to high rates of illness. Water would be obtained from the stream which might also be the outlet for the lavatory sewer.

Rhosydd quarry and its barracks were considered to be the most god-forsaken and pestilent of all the local barracks. Yet men worked in these conditions and walked down to Cwmorthin to worship. I remember this chapel with its pews, its roof and its hymn numbers.

Slate was initially hauled down by horse and sledge through Cwmorthin but, when Cwmorthin quarry prohibited the passage of horse-drawn vehicles across their land, Rhosydd quarry suffered. When the Croesor Tramway was built in 1864, a wonderfully engineered high level tramway and a 750ft high incline, the highest single pitch incline in Wales, was constructed. Rhosydd quarry, along with Croesor, was once again connected to the outside world. By 1885, 200 men worked in this inhospitable place, producing some 6500 tons of slate per year. Rhosydd quarry closed in 1930.

Blaenau Ffestiniog and Antur Stiniog     [Top]

 A social enterprise with the aims "To develop the potential of the Outdoor Sector in the Ffestiniog area in a sustainable and innovative way for the benefit of the local residents and economy",has already developed a world class downhill mountain bike course and an underground zip wire and trampoline attraction.

Blaenau Ffestiniog was not always associated with the blue slate tips which surrounds it. It is hard to believe that in 1756, Lord Lyttleton wrote of Ffestiniog, or Llan Ffestiniog, "If you have a mind to live long, and renew your youth, come and settle in Ffestiniog. Not long ago, there died in this neighbourhood an honest farmer who was 105 years of age. By his first wife he had 30 children, 10 by his second, 4 by his third and 7 by two concubines. His eldest son was 81 years older than his youngest and 800 of his descendants attended his funeral.

An important factor in the growth of the slate industry in the area, oddly enough, was securing the contract for supplying slates to Hamburg to re-roof the city following the disastrous fire of 1842, which brought Blaenau to pre-eminence, establishing itself as a leading supplier of slate to the international market. This fire, which raged between 4 and 8 May, destroyed three churches and many public buildings, and rendered some 20,000 people homeless. Reconstruction took nearly forty years, and most of the roofs were slated with Blaenau Ffestiniog slate.

Llechwedd slate mine was operated, and still is operated, by the Greaves family and became one of the most modern and innovative in the industry. The Greaves slate trimmer of 1856 became the industry standard, while a number of de Winton vertical boilered locomotives were purchased in 1878, probably influenced by Richard M. Greaves, who was an engineer with the Caernarfon company. In addition, the quarry started using hydro-electrical power from as early as 1891.

Cwm Cynfal a hidden treasure     [Top]

Cwt y Bugail quarry     [Top]

Storing the art treasures in the war

Rhiwbach quarry     [Top]

If you explore this site, you will find the ruins of quarryman's barracks, where workers stayed during the week, as well as a number of cottages, pig stys and even a toilet block. In 1908, the population was sufficient to support a school. This eased congestion in the Church School in Cwm Penmachno and avoided the long steep walk for children living in the quarry barracks. Their teacher, Mrs Kate Hughes from Blaenau Ffestiniog, travelled up to the school in all weathers in an empty slate wagon and travelled back down in a "wild car" at the end of the day. (A wild car is somewhat akin to a skateboard on rollers with a wheeled outrigger, which ran along the tramway tracks). The school closed in 1913 as a result of the wartime closure of the quarry.

It's possible that last June was no more summery than it will be next June. The sun will rise with intense heat every day. Despite the hot weather, I saw many a branch bud and I saw many a flower; but I only saw one die. Her name was Deborah. She was fifteen years old. She was the daughter of Ann and Evan Edwards, Rhiwbach Quarry, Penmachno. There were many traits of Deborah's character which made it appropriate to call her a flower. Here are some " beauty, simplicity, modesty, some which made her character wonderful during her life. All the quarrymen of Rhiwbach liked Deborah, and, not surprising, as her smile and kindness made everyone love her.

She was very fond of singing " she sang all the time, and her voice was full of magic. I don't know how many bards wept while writing in memory of anyone. She was very fond of books. Many a morning, they would be found beneath the sheets, having read late into the night. But suddenly, a withering frost afflicted the flower's beauty, and some kind white angel came to take her to a land "where the breeze will always be soft and the sky will always be clear, a land more fitting to her gentle nature, where she can grow to perfection Her last words were I'd rather die than live.

St Tudclud's Church, Penmachno     [Top]

This stone came to light on the opening of Rhiwbach quarry, near Sarn Helen, the Roman road which traverses Wales from Canovium fort (Caerhun) in the Conwy Valley to Brecon. Three more stones were found in Penmachno itself, suggesting that the village was of some importance. One stone includes the word, "Venodotus", suggesting that "Gwynedd" existed at that time, under its earlier name. The four stones are on display in St Tudclud's Church along with two others of the 7th-9th century and 13th century.

The window was designed and painted by village residents.

There follows a walk through the fleshpots of Betws y Coed with its Waterloo Bridge and other attractions. We then pass the steeply sloping and unusual Miner's Bridge and the spectacular Swallow Falls before reaching Capel Curig.

And the route ends with a spectacular walk along the Ogwen Valley.