On account of our unparalleled skills for getting lost even with a satnav we left the campsite stupidly early to get to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns to take advantage of their 20% discount offer if you went on a tour before 10am. “Llechwedd” contains three consecutive sounds across two syllables that make a non-Welsh speaker feel drunk when they try to say it properly. It’s sort of a Kchleckchwyth. We had plenty of time to practice this given that we arrived before they even opened and amused looking staff in hi-viz vests helped us manoeuvre into a very precise position in an otherwise empty car park and told us we could hang out in the cafe until reception opened. To be fair, the caves are located in our closest town, Blaenau Ffestiniog, which we’d only just stopped called Blonde Fisting and learned to say properly because it was getting awkward when people asked us where we were staying. We could probably have rolled out of bed at 9.30 and still got here in time but nope, tourism takes priority over sleep.
As soon as reception was manned we pounced, brandishing our voucher like an OAP at an Asda checkout, and parted with £32 for both of us for the pleasure of being shown round a slate mine. It’s so worth it! It was just the two of us on the tour which made it totally worth the early start and our guide, Rich, was a legend. He’d been working in the slate industry since he was 15. We were loaded into a little cable car thingy which rolled us down into the mine with helmets and lights strapped to our heads, and once we’d been lead through some tunnels we came out into a cave. Rich told us how they used to work by candle light back in the day, the mid-1800’s. You can barely see shit, he held his lighter against the wall to show us how little you can see with just a small flame which basically amounts to two tenths of fuck all though to be fair I don’t see well in the dark anyway and generally require floodlights to function day to day.
So this isn’t your bog standard kinda tour where your dragged around and just shown shit. The Deep Mine Tour was redesigned after flooding (I think) at the end of last year and it reopened in March as a more interactive experience. As Rich was telling us about an Englishman called John Whitehead Greaves being convinced he could find slate under Llechwedd a projection of the man himself sprung to life and told us all about how his men dug for a couple of years until he ran out of money with no joy. It damn near bankrupted him. The miners carried on digging for free until, one day, they finally found the blue vein they were looking for. Then Greaves made a fucking fortune whilst the men of Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town which exists purely because of the slate mining industry, worked their bollocks off and pretty much remained broke.
We were lead through another tunnel into another cave, past a rusty set of stairs I silently thanked the deities we weren’t required to climb, where we were greeted with another projection, this time of a miner. He was talking to other miners, represented by shadows, about their lives in the mine. It was really well done though. Turned out they were all related one way or another, by blood or by marriage, and after a bit of banter about their wives it was ascertained that what was said in the mine stayed in the mine. Even the child knew that, he’d been working in the mine since he was eight years old, but whilst kids were allowed in the mines women certainly weren’t. That was considered bad luck. Fine by me, gentlemen, I’d quite happily stay at home and knit if it meant I didn’t have to work in the mines. I can’t cook for shit though, you’d have to be happy to live off sandwiches.
Turned out they lived off sandwiches. For half an hour a day they’d sit in a little hut in the mine, play cards, chat and eat cheese butties. Again, this was presented as if it was the blokes themselves were on their lunch break and we learnt through their conversation. Every day it was cheese sandwiches. Cheese must have been way cheaper back then though to be fair I live in Brighton; we buy our cheese from shops with French names and it’s probably handmade by a man with a beard and a waxed moustache, and injected with port, and soaked in brandy, and is from a rare Tibetan mountain goat on the endangered species list which can only be milked at midnight during a full moon. It probably wasn’t that kind of cheese. And Rich was adamant that actually it was jam and cheese and spent the rest of the tour intermittently insisting we should try jam and cheese sandwiches when we got home. Yeah… I’m probably not gonna try jam and cheese, Rich, as I’m pretty sure only sociopaths mix sweet and savoury like that. Weirdo. We also learned that they were a very close knit community. When a man died in the mines, which happened all too often, his widow would be taken care of financially by the rest of them.
Then we headed through more tunnels to a cave where metal poles were driven into rocks. Turns out these were the drills the men used, Black & Decker wasn’t a thing back then, drills were metal poles with a heavy weight about a quarter of a way up from the bottom. We both had a go and yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever complain about my job ever again. Ok, that’s a lie and we all know it but I appreciate that it doesn’t involve driving a metal pole into a rock and twisting it for twelve hours a day. That’s about how long it takes to drill a hole deep enough to pack it with gunpowder. Twelve hours of that same repetitive motion with only a half hour break.
Once the hole was deep enough they’d feed a rope into a cone which they’d stick in the hole and funnel gunpowder into it. The cone would be removed, a metal rod and a hammer would be used to compact the gunpowder, the rope (acting as a wick) would be lit and everyone would bolt. I mean, fucking leg it! Trouble was, no one ever knew how long it would take for the rope to burn down and touch the gunpowder. No one knew if the rope was even still lit half the time. This was how a lot of deaths occurred back then. Mine and Tarrant’s memory differs at this point, I thought that the mine owners didn’t supply the equipment, the miners had to buy everything right down to the candles and this was a system designed to keep them in debt. If they couldn’t afford the stuff they’d be given it but they had to pay for it when they had the money, thus keeping them in a cycle they can’t escape from. Tarrant thinks the miners were provided the stuff. We welcome input…
The next miner we met wasn’t a projection, he was a real live human acting as a Victorian Danger Man. He told us that he’d stay behind when the other blokes finished their shifts, because when you blow up rock it leaves bits of precariously hanging rocks that would kill a man if they broke loose and hit him. So the Danger Man would climb up his ladder and hit the rocks with a stick so they’d fall whilst the mine was empty. If the ceiling was too high he’d tie two ladders together. If he needed to move around the cave he’d use he body weight to jump the ladder around rather than climb down and move it. Bloody nutter! But it gained him a lot of respect from his peers and he lived in hope that if he did a good job he could get his family assigned to a cave lower down where the better slate was, as specific caves were assigned to families.
We bid the Danger Man farewell and moved on to a wall which had chains hanging off it. So this is how the men got up the walls. They’d wrap the chain around the top of their thigh using the links to keep it in place and hoist themselves up the wall. Fuck me backwards, this job just gets worse. Rich told us they developed really hard skin around the top of their thigh for this. Think about it; they’d basically end up spending twelve hours a day, six days a week, suspended by a chain wrapped around one thigh, 25 foot up a wall, using a metal pole to drill a fucking hole. We don’t know we’re bloody born these days.
Apparently the reason Llechwedd is a mine and not a quarry is because the vein runs at an angle between the granite. Rich showed us where it was obvious. The deeper you got the better quality the slate was as it was more compressed, but the better quality slate came with its own dangers. Firstly, it’s sharp. So sharp that you don’t even know you’ve been cut half the time so it can do a lot of damage to human flesh. It also contains a fine substance called crystalline silica which, when it gets into your lungs over a period of time, causes silicosis. Rich lost his grandfather to it. A lot of the people in Blaenau Ffestiniog have lost relatives to it. It’s not like the “black lung” of the coal miners as it shows up white, which is why it took them longer to start getting it recognised and for compensation to happen.
This last cavern was the most impressive. You could clearly see the columns, the sections which have to be left in place to stop it from collapsing, and which were used to separate the areas where each family would work. As time progressed they developed technology which made explosions more predictable and were able to be activated from a way away. You know those TNT plungers you see in cartoons? There was one there and Rich invited Tarrant to push it down which trigger a huge, albeit fake, explosion. I’ve never seen Tarrant jump like that before, it was fucking hilarious! I don’t know what she was expecting by pushing down a detonator but from her reaction it wasn’t that. We finished with a sound and light show projected onto the rock then Rich took us back to the surface and into the slate working room where he showed us how to check the quality of slate by tapping it and made us our own slate coasters to take home.
It was such a good tour, I highly recommend it. The caverns are home to other activities too including Bounce Below which is basically where someone has seen fit to install a maze of nets inside the 150 year old caves for your bouncing enjoyment. We went for it. At £25 each it’s a bit pricey but it’s still a lot of fun. There are three levels I think, it’s surreal lying on a net and seeing people above and below you, and I did a lot of lying down because guys, bouncing is fucking exhausting. I don’t know where Tarrant got her energy from, she must have had a secret stash of crack somewhere.
As I lay gasping for breath in a colour changing room made from nets she launched herself around me. At one point we found a tunnel which lead up and up and up and was probably designed for kids because it was fucking hard and it got narrow. As we emerged from it I swore never to go into a tunnel ever again. I was done after about 45 minutes, I’d had about as much bouncing as I could take, and Tarrant was pretty knackered too so we asked one of the staff if it was okay if we left before the hour was up. He said it was fine. He also looked about 13. Good too see child labour isn’t dead in the mines.
Poor Blaenau Ffestiniog, though. We liked it well enough but it’s not allowed to be part of the Snowdonia National Park because it’s not pretty enough, it appears as a blob of white in an expanse of green on the map. These days the waste from the open cast mines is only 10% but back in the day 90% of what came out of the mines was waste and it was just heaped up around the town. It’s bleak, grey looking place, you don’t realise how bleak until you drive into it in the drizzle. It’s in stark contrast to the stunning beauty of the rest of the region which is beautiful and green regardless of the weather, provided it’s not entirely shrouded in fog and cloud.
Once we’d had our fill in the caverns we headed off to Betws-y-Coed (not pronounced Betsy Coed) to shove a load of Swallow Falls into our eyeholes. This is nice and accessible. You just have to part with £1.50 which I would assume goes towards keeping those concrete steps nice and… well… concretey, then you can stand and stare at the waterfall for as long as you want, and what a lovely waterfall it is. It’s also opposite a pub which is basically everything you need in a tourist attraction, so we chilled out there for a while, charged up our devices because one of the joys of camping is the lack of electricity outside of the car cigarette lighter.
We headed to Conwy Falls next where you chuck a quid in a turnstile then try not to slip over in the mud. I don’t know where your quid goes but it’s certainly not on concrete, but these are really cool falls too. I do love a waterfall. There was a bloke with a DSLR who also seemed to love waterfalls because he jumped the fence and made his way down the rocks whilst brandishing his expensive looking camera to get a better shot. Owning a DSLR seems to decrease a person’s rationality by approximately 24%. It seems the more expensive the camera the more likely the human owning the camera is likely to put themselves in a position which would destroy said camera. There’s a direct correlation in there somewhere.
That was us for the day, then. The weather was on-and-off drizzly but we decided to risk a BBQ anyway because it was our last night by this fire pit and we didn’t know what our next campsite would be like, and it’s not a British BBQ without a spot of rain. We drank local ales, consumed dead stuff, hung out with Liz and Stuart, another couple staying on site, and made the most of our last night by the river until the rain got too… rainy… and retreated to our tent for the night.
Llechwedd Slate Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales
Stayed at: Llechrwd Riverside Campsite, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd