With its long lake and steep mountainsides, the Llanberis Valley has much of the look of a Norwegian fjord — but for the old slate mines which dominate one of the slopes. There are massive strip mines all the way up the mountainside, rivaled only by the mountains of tailings piled up to recreate the slopes.
Slate and slateworking are an enormous source of pride for the Welsh. Llanberis is called "the town that roofed the world," and they have an outstanding free museum on the site of the now-quiet Dinorwig Mines. We learn about famous buildings roofed with Welsh slate, the labor history of slate including an incredible three-year union strike. Slate is one of the only industries where Welsh has always been the dominant language in the worker community, and many of the tools of the trade only have names in Welsh.
The kind man who demonstrates slate splitting in the museum is sixth generation at this quarry. He shows us how slate has a grain, that the rock must be treated like wood. With two taps of his chisel, the slate block splits into two tablets. It's an art, and he has been practicing it most of his life.
He tells us that 92% of the slate extracted from the mountain goes to waste — but that now they call it a byproduct and use it as gravel, in makeups, even in glass.
"But if it's used in products now," Eileen asks, "why are there mountains of it on the hillsides here?"
He frowns. "It's a memorial, like. So many men have died there."
And what a monument; it looms over the town, unmissably huge. We have to be told this mine isn't active; to my eyes it looks like any massive strip mine.
Other slate mines in the area, the slate splitter tells us with an encouraging nod, are reopening due to increased demand.
There is something I can't quite place about the pride that people feel about this kind of work. When you work very hard, and are skilled, you should be proud — but there is also something very specific, maybe generational. At one point he disparages the wages, "they call it a wage," for the splitting work he knows. He speaks of the danger and death this work brought his forbearers. I can't quite grasp what brings the smile to his voice when he describes six generations in a job where workers have always been ill-used.
The museum itself is tonally strange. I see nearly as many staff as visitors, and at least three lit coal fireplaces in different…