People have been living in these parts of millennia, such was the attraction of the fertile land and lively weather conditions. Farming was key in the area, and what today makes up Blaenau Ffestiniog and its surroundings was once little more than a disparate collection of farming villages, of ordinary Welsh folk minding their own business with their sheep and their families. The development of the slate industry in the 18th century changed all that.
It didn’t happen overnight, nothing truly does in industry, but the explosion of the slate industry seemed to take place in the blink of an eye. The slate beds in the area were well known but mining had remained largely low-key, until the fantastically named Methusalem Jones led a group of men and established a quarry at the very end of the 18th century. In 1800 this was purchased by William Turner and William Cooper, and production was expanded significantly.
Okay, maybe it did happen overnight. Quarrying well and truly took over, and in 1830 a number of quarries came together to form the Oakeley Quarry, then the largest underground slate mine on planet Earth. The entire area was in thrall to the industry, and the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog was born. Transport was poor so houses were built near to the quarries, allowing the men to shuttle back and forth with little problem. Blaenau exploded, an 1851 population of 3,460 becoming nearly 11,500 in 1883, and this new town was second only to Wrexham in North Wales. It was the place to be, for jobs, for money, for development.
And just as quickly as it started, the mining industry began to decline. The 1890s saw the start of the fall but it was World War I that did the first real number, as the quarrymen went off in their huge numbers to fight the war, by which we mean to go and die in the war, and production practically stopped. World War II almost finished the job. Industry moved elsewhere, and Blaenau Ffestiniog almost became lost in time. Oakeley closed in 1970 before reopening in 1974, only to shut its doors for good in 2010. A number of small quarries still work, a far cry from the glory days of the 1870s.
A stroll through Blaenau Ffestiniog today tells its own story. The town is undeniably tired, in need of development and a second golden age. It is home to some of the most engaging people in Wales, but it is tourism that runs the game these days. The town is right in the centre of Snowdonia National Park but isn’t a part of it, and it also happens to be the Welsh town with the most rainfall, an impressive feat. The monolithic heaps of slate waste that are found on the outskirts of the town remain one of the most awe-inspiring sights in a region full of the things. Blaenau’s history is vital to the development of Wales, but it is difficult to ignore the struggles it faces today.