Sunday, 20 October 2013

All change at Blaenau

Ffestiniog is not the end of the line but where it all began, with slate heaved out of mountains onto wagons for a thirteen mile descent by gravity to ships at sea. It’s also the top of the Conwy Valley line from Llandudno. A railway mecca; relics of tracks on, down and inside the rock with slate the Victorians reason for it all.

Chisels in the sun
The industry is about 1% of what it used to be and the steam trains are busy with passengers not freight. Stepping off the train your eyes are drawn through twin pillars towards the rocky horizons that frame the town. Each pillar made with 9,000 stacked slates from Llechwedd quarry, a CROESO welcome and directions indicated by the motif of a slate splitter’s chisel. Steps to the street are framed by four huge chisel-shape sculptures with slates stacked at an angle; not any old angle but 30°, the typical lie of a bed of Blaenau slate. 

Bands of single line poetry encircle the pillars and also dissect the town’s pavements. Some, such as ‘a bracelet of a town on the bone of the rock’, by famous poets and others by local schoolchildren.   All carved in Welsh with translations provided online and in booklets. Reading these and their explanations brings a deep insight to the community past and present. Even the bus shelters are a revelation with ‘fat ladies’ on the floors! Most sizes of slate were named after aristocratic women such as ‘duchess’, ‘marchioness’, ‘narrow lady’ and so on. Replicas with their names and dimensions are embedded in the ground. 

Howard working on the river of slate
Across the street is another set of twin pillars with a small quarry train pulling slate wagons down from the marshalling yard. But before you reach this, stop and admire the river of slate, a pavement mosaic with a river running down the middle. On either side are the names of over 350 quarries from across Wales each carved into a block of slate that matches the colour from that particular quarry. A rich mix of greys, reds, purples and greens set in alphabetic order. 

Local artist Howard Bowcott, creator of the works, described the significance of the river: ‘it symbolises the formation of slate with river mud washed out to sea four or five hundred million years ago. The river was also the vital corridor for exporting slate before the Ffestiniog Railway opened in 1836.’

Each bank of the river has a line of poetry by Gwyn Thomas, one in Welsh and one in English. ‘Time flows on and water too but not the life of a rockman’ and ‘Men die. The rocks and empty darkness of these mountains endure’. Worked out slate chambers are the ‘empty darkness’ and both poems reflect the perilous work conditions of the ‘rockmen’ and their transience, but a blink compared to the life of rock.

A version of the
Lightning Strike by David Nash
London has the Shard and the Gherkin but we’ve got our Chisels and the Lightning Strike. This sculpture by David Nash reflects the zig-zag shape of the quarryman’s path descending the slate spoil from the Oakeley quarry. It now stands on the main road midway between the quarry and the centre of town – the only Nash work of art on permanent display in Wales.  

If words and symbols of Blaenau’s slate heritage are not enough, keep on walking about ten minutes out of town to Llechwedd Slate Caverns where you can literally get beneath the surface of it all. They offer a choice of two underground tours and provide exhibits that bring to life the incredible stories of rock cannons and wild cars. This is also the place for downhill biking; a bit like skiing, the riders buy a ‘lift pass’ for the day hurtling down a choice of runs ranging from the gentle blue to the double black. It makes a good spectator sport.

Everywhere is unique but Blaenau takes the biscuit! Local artist Falcon Hildred says in his recent book ’I believe that Blaenau Ffestiniog and its landscape are the best and most complete surviving industrial landscape in Britain’.  It’s not stuffed away in museums but all around you. Shops are one-offs where you buy bread from a baker, local meat from a butcher and discuss the finer points of DIY with the ironmonger. Cafés are homely and good value.

No amount of words can describe this place, it must be experienced. If you’ve been before, you won’t recognise it.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Blaenau Pristine, Blaenau Ymlaen!

Twenty volunteers enjoyed a steam train ride courtesy of the Ffestiniog Railway from Porthmadog to Blaenau where they met up with members of the Blaenau Stations Support Group. Together they filled twenty bin bags full of rubbish which the council whisked away for recycling and disposal. Amongst the volunteers was a group of ten students from Glynllifon and also Gwynedd councillor Paul Thomas.

The event was organised by Cymdeithas Eryri the Snowdonia Society and designed to complement the work of the Council focusing on areas off the normal litter picking routes. It also took account of suggested hotspots from the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. It’s amazing how much litter gets stuffed into the privet hedge around The Square or caught up in fencing around Cae Peips.

Ours was a once off litter pick but the Blaenau Stations Support Group does it every Sunday meeting at 10:15 and focusing on the station area. If you would like to lend a hand they would appreciate a few more volunteers; please contact Sally Horn on 01766 830403. 

 Blaenau is looking brilliant these days and lots of visitors are taking a look at the sculptures, the poetry and the whole town with its dramatic backdrop. Things just got even better with the reopening of the public toilets in the car park. This grade II listed building, that was once the Diffwys Railway Station, has taken on a new lease of life with great artwork linking the slate with Blaenau and its journey by train to the sea.

Blaenau Ymlaen!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

From the Rock ... of Blaenau Ffestiniog

The streets of Blaenau are paved with slate, at least slate bands of poetry. There’s the River of Slate, a pavement mosaic with a river running through and on either bank the names of the 350 slate mines of Wales, each engraved on a block of slate the colour of that quarry. And then there are the massive slate sculptures, the 7.5 metre tall chisels, each made up of 15,000 stacked slates. They’re at a 30° angle, the lie of the Blaenau seams of slate. There is more to this town than meets the eye and recent developments cause people to stop in their tracks and wonder why?

The town is home to many relics of its industrial past and Falcon Hildred’s recent illustrated book is a great way of seeing what’s on offer. Another great way of discovery is to join the Snowdonia Society’s guided walk on Saturday 4th May led by Kevin Hall.  

The morning walk begins at 10:30 and is described as easy, about 1.5 miles mostly on pavements, to see the architecture and culture of the town, including the new O’r Graig ('From the Rock') structures and inscriptions. There will be a break for lunch, either a picnic or at a café or pub in town. In the afternoon at about 13:00 there will be a moderately strenuous walk to Pant yr Ynn, the mill where Falcon Hildred will show us his fascinating building with his collection of paintings and artefacts. If enough water is flowing the millwheel will be turning.

Later that afternoon there will be a walk of about 4 miles on more difficult terrain with some steep ground and rough terrain returning to the centre of town (by about 16:30) along footpaths via Cwm Bowydd.

The walk is open to anyone with a suggested minimum donation of £3 for members of the Snowdonia Society and £5 for non-members. Please bring a drink, a raincoat and wear appropriate clothing & sturdy footwear. All children should be accompanied by an adult.

If you would like to book onto the event please contact

For those who can't make a 10:30 start there will be an alternative shorter walk led by Huw Jenkins starting at 1pm. The meeting point is underneath the canopy next to the 4 giant chisel-shaped sculptures. No need to book and donations to the Snowdonia Society will be welcome. There will be lots going on in Blaenau this weekend which is the celebration of 150 years of steam.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Souvenirs of Blaenau Ffestiniog

Tens of thousands of people will visit Blaenau this year and I’m confident that they will be amazed at what they see.  Slate sculptures and poetry reconnecting the town centre with its industrial heritage; dramatic and stylish. But there’s even more beyond to be discovered. Apart from hiring a local guide you may like to consider two classic books.

The first is titled ‘Worktown: The Drawings of Falcon Hildred’ and provides a designer’s perspective on the various buildings around the town. Falcon states ‘I believe that Blaenau Ffestiniog and its landscape are the best and most complete surviving industrial landscape in Britain’.

Another book I would recommend is simply titled ‘Blaenau Ffestiniog’. Fantastic photos by landscape photographer Jeremy Moore and words by Gwyn Thomas, the one time national poet of Wales, whose poetry is in the sculptures, on the pavement and either side of the slate river. 

You could probably buy both books and get free supersaver delivery from an online retailer but, for the authentic experience, why not go to Siop Yr Hen Bost.  The bookshop is about a 3 minute walk from the station (south) along the main street and you’ll find lots of other treasure inside. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Worktown – The Drawings of Falcon Hildred

I’m biased: I like Falcon, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him in his home, of witnessing his uncluttered way of life and hearing him describe his hopes and disappointments. I also live next to Blaenau Ffestiniog, so any comments about his book (written by Peter Wakelin) are not wholly objective.

The book contains 200 of Falcon’s drawings, now in the hands of public bodies for posterity, and the bulk of them record the industrial heritage of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Falcon’s home for over forty years. 

In the course of the book I learnt a lot about his life: how he got the impressive name of Falcon; how he came to move from Grimsby to Coventry, to London and eventually to Blaenau Ffestiniog; his bold decision to give up job security to follow his calling. I loved the drawing he sent to his mother depicting the layout of his bedsit in Putney during the times when he designed, amongst other things, first class bars and cabins for cruise liners.

Within the book there are many favourite drawings for me including the series depicting Tŷ Uncorn, the one chimney house with four tiny cottages sharing a central chimney. Was this a pioneering attempt at central heating? I like knowing what it looks like inside as I walk past it near the police station.

The final chapter is written by Falcon and titled ‘My Working Process’. On the last page he talks about the drawings made in other industrial towns in which the buildings have long since been demolished or renovated. ....’After half a century of recording, I believe that Blaenau Ffestiniog and its landscape are the best and most complete surviving industrial landscape in Britain’ .... ‘I feel we should save one example of a nineteenth-century industrial town as a complete cultural and historic entity. So my final message is: if you like my pictures, then please take care of the subject that inspired them.’  

And so we should. As for the book, not only do I recommend it, I suggest you get three copies. One for cutting out and framing images on left hand pages, another for the right hand pages and the third for a good read.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ffestiniog on the tube map

An old London underground railway carriage, built in 1892, was in use as a garden shed until recently renovated at the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway’s workshops in Porthmadog. Spick and span after 15 months TLC, and twelve coats of varnish, the carriage will undergo trials at Loughborough before returning to London. In January 2013 it / she will be pulled by Metropolitan Railway steam locomotive No. 1 on a journey through the old Metropolitan Line tunnels of Paddington, Euston, King's Cross and Farringdon to Moorgate to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the world's first underground railway.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Princess dragged out of Porthmadog pub

Don’t worry, it’s not Kate Middleton on a night out with the lads, but the world’s oldest, narrow gauge steam engine. She was delivered to the Ffestiniog Railway in 1863 and was retired from service in 1946 as the last working loco when the railway ran out of steam. For some years she sat on a plinth at Blaeanu Ffestiniog, a symbol of the epic reconstruction of the line. In the last 31 years she has been in the museum and latterly the expanded bar at harbour station.

On 10th November she was dragged out of her corner, having first been jacked up and then jacked across on a pair of metal sheets lubricated with Fairy Liquid. Shifting ten tonnes of loco within the confines of a pub is no easy task – the first ten metres took about three hours. With the help of a tractor with forklift she was eventually dumped onto the railway track and towed across The Cob for a bit of restoration.

Next year she will travel by road to Paddington where she will be on display for the six weeks beginning St David’s Day (1st March). Thereafter she has several other ambassadorial appearances to make including a beer festival at Olympia in conjunction with The Purple Moose Brewery

This is how she was dragged out and her corner in the pub taken by a steam (horse drawn) fire engine.