Llanberis Slate Mines
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 displays within the museum- economically implausible, at the very least. But beyond that, there's mixed messaging about the mines.
The same film that shows us fine Welsh slate the world over, also notes that the mines were opened using money the lords got through Jamaican plantations worked by enslaved people. They show the blasting of the mountain, and the funerals of miners dead from breathing the slate dust that the bosses apparently lied was salubrious.
There's an implication that the mines brought in a lot of money, but after the charge for tools and union and hospital, it doesn't seem like much of that wealth went to the workers.
So if the rich got richer by exploiting workers to destroy a mountain, 92 percent of which went to waste anyway, why the pride? Why does the Welsh government fund this paean to the slate mines?
There is a story that my mind tells. It isn't true, but I imagine the Industrial Revolution as an enormous leap of a gamble that humankind took: that by exploiting our livable planet and turning humans into machines, just for a while, we'd use that crazy productivity to raise the standard of living for all people and still have time to invent our way out of a fall.
The museum has a row house where you can walk from one real quarry worker's era to the next: 1861, 1901, and 1969. You see the kitchen become separate from the hearth, the upstairs family sleeping area morph into two separate rooms.
An old steam train, now a tourist attraction, clatters past while we explore. Its cloud of coal smoke expels me from the rooms in search of breathable air.
Outside the museum, Eileen and I hike a path around the V-shaped Vivian Quarry. The upward stairs seem endless as we pass level after level of ruins, infrastructure from the mining days. Steel cables still wrap giant bobbins that used to run carts down the mountain. A roof of slate has collapsed when a ceiling timber gave out.
A cuckoo calls above the ridge when we finally reach the top. The bluebells are lovely, but there is no view down into the quarry itself.
Our trail continues past the long row of barracks, and up again: the waste slate forms its own landscape, and there's a viewpoint at the top.
It's the top of this level, anyway. As we reach the viewpoint level, we look up to see much larger mine sites stretching out above us, the mountain half scar. I want to be impressed by the scale of human impact, and I suppose I am, but I think we're meant to feel pride instead of this twisting tightness just below the heart.
The world is laid out below us, and neither of us can bear it anymore. We turn quickly to the steep path down, away from the view. There are slate walls to our sides, slate steps underfoot. A few enterprising trees grow on top of the slate mounds, leaves raising green above the wasteland piles.
Slate is the heritage of this place. Slate is a chalkboard, a floor, a roof, a carving stone. Slate is beautiful, uniquely splittable. Slate is important to Wales, and especially to the people of Snowdonia. It's the reason this land that could not be used for crops was still a source of work. It's the origin of the villages we visit, the roads the buses use.
Willow seeds hang suspended in the spring air as we descend one final steep slate staircase. It's not my history. But I still can't get the smell of coal smoke out of my nose.
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