European Minerals and Welsh Slate – searching for something to do

Once upon a time there was a flunky. And this flunky was responsible for authoring blog posts and updates for the website, but his writing mojo deserted him and he grew distracted and disillusioned with the whole process. He likes to blame the lack of updates over the last five year on the pandemic curtailing activities. But it is also possibly down to the onslaught of social media on the exploring community that has sucked some of the fun out of it (see a previous blog post for our thoughts on this). But lo! The gaffer came unto him, who struck him about the head with a shoe paddle and spaketh with a Great Voice. “Good game, good game! Stop dicking about and get on with updating that bloody website, you great sack of jobbies”. And thus the flunky raised his eyebrows in alarm and muttered “I must write Things” and got to work*.

*Footnote: this may or may not have happened. We just forgot about the website for a while. So here goes.

I had planned to write this about a few short trips to Wales recently, but realised we have not written a blog post on our wanderings in close to five years now and thought a more general update may be of interest. We do still explore, but 17 years of poking about derelict, unseen places means the enthusiasm wanes from time to time . A lot of where we visit has already been covered extensively by either a 45 minute long jarring YouTube videos of someone stumbling about the place, or 28000 photos on an Instagram reel. Whatever happened to the days of posting five photos because your 56k dial up couldn’t hack it and the local lights dimmed if you uploaded too many? Grumble grumble, now where are my slippers? This hasn’t stopped us from exploring, and we do enjoy a weekend trip every now and then.

Wales

If you have ever driven through North Wales and the Eryri National Park (nee Snowdonia) you will have noticed the enormous piles of broken grey rock that sit upon the mountains like errant slugs. North Wales was a hotbed for Slate Extraction from the late 18th century until the late 20th century and dominated the world slate industry during this time.  In recognition for its part it played in the world, the North Welsh slate communities were awarded UNESCO status (see image below) as the ingenious development of technology, intact remains of the quarries and their supporting buildings, and the impact on the world were considered outstanding and in need of preserving. As an explorer, someone who likes large underground spaces as a photographer, it is hard to ignore this huge playground that the area has to offer, where many old quarries sit silent, accessible and intact; providing you are ready from some serious walking and prepared to embrace the welsh weather.

5 of the 6 UNESCO Areas

For years we slept on North Wales slate as we never truly understood the extent of the opportunities on offer – it was simply to far away to have a good local knowledge, and information online was scant, or buried deep within obscure websites and books we rarely visited. Our interests lay at the time with other things, such as Asylums and ROTOR bunkers, and local day long explores in the early days meant we didn’t need to travel to the other end of the country! We made a fleeting visit to Dinorwic back in 2011, and a fast trip into one Blaenau quarry in 2016 that left us wanting to pay the area another visit. It wasn’t until we started visiting the area for a few holidays did we realise just how much there was. You can’t move for the slate tips, old mills and remnants of the many transportation systems. After a few conversations with friends, one who lives up there, and after delving into a few books, did we start planning to visit. Then the Covid lockdowns happened and all plans were shelved.

In 2023 we finally made it.

Cavern

The tricky thing with exploring in Wales is that everything is quite close together (as the crow flies) but large mountains and long winding valley roads mean you spend a reasonable amount of time observing the scenery. It’s the same in Scotland, it’s ok though – everything is 20 minutes away. Once you arrive at your destination, you then have to locate the tiniest of adits buried in a landscape that all looks the same, or sometimes, the path you need to take to even get to the quarry. Lastly, the Welsh weather will always cause an affray and attempt to battle you down off the mountain.  Especially if you left your waterproof jacket in South London like a complete idiot (n.b. Betws-y-Coed has some great outdoor shops if you are ever caught short).

Adit

The great thing about the Welsh Slate Quarries is that every quarry is very different. Some like Dinorwic are huge open cast pits carved into the side of the hill, with inclines criss-crossing the landscape where thousands of tonnes of slate were extracted. The slate quarries around Blaenau and Bethesda have large underground caverns, and a few large holes, dug into the mountain at a reasonably shallow angle, their only (bloody huge) noticeable feature being the vast spoil tips surrounding the town; finally the Corris quarries are near located in near vertical slate veins that have left deep, cathedral like caverns buried deep within the mountains. Many of the quarries around Blaenau will see you to walking to the top of the mountain before you descend down to the lower working levels back beneath where you started, only to have to climb back up and down again. It’s the sort of explore that you feel for days after. And if quarries aren’t you thing, there are plenty of other sites to see in the area.

Apparently.

Something else

If you happen to find yourself in Llanberis on a wet Welsh summers day and need something to do, the National Slate Museum is a worthy visit. Situated within the old the preserved 19th-century workshops of the now disused Dinorwic quarry, it takes you through the history of slate quarrying in Wales and how it left an indelible mark on the Welsh. The live demonstration of how slate is split by hand and the foundry are well worth it alone. Following this, a walk up the restored Vivian incline will give you a taste quarrying life, and how hard and exposed it must have been. The main quarrying areas of Wales were around Blaenau Ffestiniog, Bethesda, Llanberis, Corris, Nantlle, and Llangollen/Glyn Ceiriog. Their development was spurned on by the explosion of the industrial revolution in towns like Manchester in the late 18th century and with the coming of mills and factories, there was an enormous demand for slates to roof the long terraces of houses built as homes for the workers – as well as the foundries and factories themselves. In 1882 the county’s quarries produced over 280,000 tons of finished roofing slates, and in 1898 the slate trade in Wales as a whole reached its peak with 17,000 men producing 485,000 tons of slate. Given roughly 90% of slate extracted is waste you can understand why the slate tips are so huge! By the end of start of the 20th century, the industry was largely dead with only Penrhyn and Oakeley operating and producing slate; some untopping work still occurs at Manod and around Maenofferen.

The Quarrymans Cathedral

I had planned to write a bit more about the history of welsh slate quarrying, and the weekend roadtrips, but this blog post took a different direction a little way through and i’m sure people don’t want to know about cups of tea in the pitch black, MRE’s in an old slate workers hut or the excruciating muscle burn walking back up from the lowest levels of an underground working.

Europe

British explorers love a bit of Euro Action.  The UK does have a lot of large and interesting sites, but it feels like they are becoming fewer and further apart, with an added side dose of aggy security. Europe also has massive derelict buildings, large labyrinth underground workings  and vast industry, it is also a short hop over the Channel and amusingly closer than somewhere like Yorkshire!  I’ll probably Jinx it, but they seem more chilled out about idiots poking about in their old buildings taking photos. This isn’t strictly true – Germany are very swift and efficient at sealing anything to do with the underground and access to the French Forts changes quickly and access is pure luck.

Tunnel

We’ve made a habit of visiting once a year with a good bunch of bunker perverts and when we go, we take a simple approach to what we want: underground and large, or military in style, or both. We have a few contacts in Germany who are always happy to show us a few sites, or point is in the right direction of travel. In one area we were within walking distance of an old Gypsum mine, one of the largest Maginot forts constructed and a small Abri that was mint. It’s rare for us to be somewhere which has that much in close proximity

If you find yourself in the Saarland (it’s a hot tourist destination), the Volklinger Iron Works and the Coal Mining Museum are both worthy of a visit, and if you go to Metz, you’ll fall over Forts.

How did that get there?

The one thing we do love about a French Quarry is that they have developed a national sport of seeing how far you can get a derelict car into a tunnel. They’re always surprising to find and are very photogenic.

Now we got to the end of the blog, have some photos – that’s what you’re really here for. The text was just random filler to plug the gaps between the images that’s just the words of a wittering middle aged man.