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Slate slag in Wales

(Photograph) - What does Hemel Hempstead produce? What put Loughborough on the map? Gazeteers list paper-making and guides tell of lace and a little light engineering. But would you know it?

Would you guess, peering out of your car window, that Swindon was born of the Great Western Railway? Does Sheffield still shout cutlery? Is Kettering shaped by shoes?

Britain's freight sidings are retail parks now, its clay pits filled to the brim with the contents of our wheelie bins. Even the coalfields have ironed out their slag heaps. But then there's Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Just as a green caterpillar that lives and dines on lettuce must be essentially lettuce, so this small, hard town just beyond the edge of the Snowdonia National Park is essentially slate.

In a vale to the south lies the sister village of Ffestiniog, where artists such as Samuel Palmer and writers like George Borrow would come in search of sylvan beauty and heroic stories. But Blaenau Ffestiniog is a different matter. Built on slate, and with slate all around, it is as grey as a lettuce is green.

Ever since 1818, when an Englishman called Samuel Holland opened the first huge quarry, the waste has piled up. It's inevitable, of course.

Nine tons of slag must be hewn in order to produce a ton of useful slate. And where can you put nine tons of slag that isn't a little obvious?

It was worth the despoilation though, if not for the workers whose lungs filled with slate dust and who were lucky to survive beyond 40, then certainly for Mr Holland and the other English entrepreneurs who followed him.

Because that ton of useful slate was very useful ideed. For blackboards and billiard tables, for fire surrounds and gravestones, but most of all for roofs - the millions of terraced roofs that topped out the Victorian building boom - slate was the thing, and Welsh slate the best thing of all.

By the 1880s, North Wales was producing nearly half a million tons of slate each year, and exporting it the world over. At its peak, the industry employed 16,700 workers, nearly a quarter of whom worked in Blaenau. The town had 18 quarries, 26 chapels and 11,300 souls.

A hundred years later, only two open-cast quarries survived (in the old days, the finest stone came from deep galleries) and today the population has halved and unemployment is up with the roof slates.

Still, there's no escaping history. Vast heaps of slag dominate the town on every side, dwarfing the houses and glowering like a judgment over converted chapels. Only the careful construction of these near-vertical slate cliffs, which were built in the manner of dry-stone walls, prevents the past from literally engulfing the present.

It might not be a pretty sight, but there's no denying its grandeur. And there's no mistaking what it says about Blaenau Ffestiniog. Photograph by Chris Thomond.

Web linksFor information about Ffestiniog's preserved narrow-guage railway, which once carried slate from the quarries, visit http:www.festrail.co.uk

Learn about the slate industry at http:www.nmgw.ac.ukwsmindex.en, home of the Welsh Slate Museum, Llanberis.Volcano World, at http:volcano.und.nodak.edu vw.html, is bursting with facts about slate and the other metamorphic rocks.

DAVID NEWNHAM

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