The Slate Landscape of North West Wales has just been announced as the UK’s 32nd and Wales’ 4thUNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was a popular boast that North Wales roofed the world – and the evidence makes for some extraordinary landscapes in and around the mountains of Snowdonia. Join us and discover the six areas that make up the remarkable Welsh slate landscape.
Until now, these quarries and mines have been off the beaten path for most visitors. Yet they are a hugely significant part of Welsh heritage. Unlike the coal industry of South Wales, which attracted thousands of immigrants (my own ancestors included), the North Wales slate industry drew upon the local population for its workforce, most of whom spoke Welsh as their first language.
Extracting the slate from mountainsides changed the landscape, and the vast mounds of it above Blaenau Ffestiniog are a forbidding yet captivating sight. Walk up into the valleys above the town and you’ll encounter long-abandoned roofless cottages where industry once thrived, difficult to imagine in these forgotten mountain refuges.
The country is better known for its hundreds of castles, but now that UNESCO has recognized the significance of its slate landscape Wales has another string to its bow. As many of these sites may be unfamiliar, we’ve included a list of other places to visit in North Wales close to each.
Where Is The Welsh Slate Landscape?
It is spread across the eastern part of the county of Gwynedd in north west Wales. Parts of it are in, or on the fringes of, the Snowdonia National Park.
How Old Is The Welsh Slate Landscape?
The Welsh slate industry dates back around 1,800 years – the Romans used some to roof their fort at Segontium in Caernarfon. However, most of the Welsh slate landscape we now see dates back to the late 19th century, when it grew rapidly and slate was exported all around the world.
What Is There To See In The Wales Slate Landscape?
There are remains of slate quarries in each of the areas describe, and also some of the towns themselves, which only came about because of the slate quarries and mines.
Some additional locations are also included in the World Heritage Site, including two narrow gauge railways built to transport slate to port. One of the ports – Porth Penrhyn – is included in the UNESCO Site, as is the nearby Penrhyn Castle. The University of Bangor was founded on 1884, largely with donations from local slate quarrymen determined to make higher education available to their children.
1. Welsh Slate Landscape – Penrhyn Quarry, Bethesda, and Bangor
Penrhyn Slate Quarry dates back to the 16th century, if not earlier, and is on the opposite side of the same mountain as Dinorwig quarry (see below) in Llanberis. The village of Bethesda – known locally as Pesda – at the lower end of the Ogwen Valley – grew up around it, mainly in the 19th century, when it was the largest slate quarry in the world.
The slate quarried there was taken to nearby Porth Penrhyn, on the outskirts of the city of Bangor, from where it was exported worldwide. The quarry owners also lived close by, in the Romanesque Revival pile that is Penrhyn Castle, now in the care of the National Trust, which is also part of the UK’s latest World Heritage Site.
Some locals refuse to this day to set foot in Penrhyn Castle, such is the depth of feeling towards the treatment of his employees by Lord Penrhyn. They were involved in two long disputes – the second of which, the Great Strike, lasted from 1900 to 1903 and caused deep divisions within the community.
As mentioned above, quarrymen played a huge role in founding the University of Bangor, whose main building dominates the skyline of the small city. Porth Penrhyn, from which the Penrhyn slate was exported, is also worth a visit.
Bethesda is at the foot of the Ogwen Valley, with the gorgeous glacial landscapes of Nant Ffrancon, Cwm Idwal and formidable Tryfan, one of the toughest mountains and most famous landmarks in Wales, just up the A5.
It’s also well-placed for reaching three of the premier castles in North Wales, with Conwy half an hour along the A55 to the east, Caernarfon the same distance to the south-west and Beaumaris just across the Menai Strait on Anglesey.
2. Welsh Slate Landscape – Nantlle Valley
The enthralling Nantlle valley (Dyffryn Nantlle) has always been one of the hidden gems of Snowdonia, which is quite a mystery as one of the most famous paintings of Wales, Richard Wilson’s Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, depicts the stunning view from there.
Nantlle, a few miles to the west of Snowdon and south of Caernarfon, is home to Cilgwyn quarry, one of the oldest known Welsh slate quarries, possibly dating back to the 12th century.
The Nantlle slate quarries were smaller concerns than Penrhyn and Dinorwic, but have some fascinating remains. Moel Tryfan is one of the most remarkable North Wales slate landscapes, occupying a mountain-top site two miles north of Llyn Nantlle.
Down in the valley, the Dorothea Quarry, just outside the village of Talysarn, is a sprawling site around three lakes. The pits dug at Dorothea were unusually deep because the slate seams there run vertically. The Cornish beam engine house above one of the lakes was the last of its kind to be built. It was completed in 1906 and was used to pump water out of the pits.
The Dorothea Quarry lakes are infamous because over 20 divers died there in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Diving is banned at the site and there are no facilities, so stick to the footpaths.
The nearest town of any size is Caernarfon, whose Castle and Town Walls are part of the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Wales, the Castles and Walled Towns of Edward I in Gwynedd. The Roman Fort of Segontium, where Welsh slate was used in the 2nd century AD, is on the outskirts of the town.
The northern terminus of the Welsh Highland Railway is also in Caernarfon, just down the Quay from the Castle. Trains run from there down the west side of the Snowdon massif to Beddgelert, Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog – a wonderful scenic adventure.
The Nantlle Valley is also close to some of the best Llyn Peninsula beaches – Dinas Dinlle and Aberdesach are a few miles down the coast from Caernarfon.
The Nantlle Ridge Walk, on the southern side of the Valley, is one of the best walks in Snowdonia, where even on a sunny summer’s day you’ll barely see a soul – they’re all on Snowdon!
3. Welsh Slate Landscape – Dinorwic Quarry, and National Slate Museum, Llanberis
The Dinorwic – also known as Dinorwig – quarry – is an astonishing sight, with tiers cut on top of each other from the shore of Llyn Peris lake to the mountain top. This was the best way of extracting the seam of Cambrian slate which lay close to the surface. The result, close to two centuries on, is one of the most dramatic slate landscapes of Wales. The quarry, which closed in 1969, was the second largest North Wales slate quarry – and indeed the second largest in the world.
The remains of the Dinorwic slate quarry form part of the National Slate Museum, which is located on the shore of picturesque Llyn Padarn lake. The Museum runs demonstrations on splitting slates and cutting them to create works of art. You can also explore a row of quarrymen’s cottages, each furnished to reflect different times in the history of slate quarrying in Wales, very much along the lines of the Rhydycar Cottages at the St Fagans National Museum of History near Cardiff.
It’s also well worth hiking some of the way up the mountain, Elidir Fawr. The higher you climb up this Snowdonia slate quarry, the better the views get. Snowdon – Yr Wyddfa – the highest peak in Wales (and England) is just across the Llanberis Pass, and you also get a great view of Crib Goch, the mighty ‘red ridge’, an arete that provides the most challenging hiking in Snowdonia.
While visiting the Llanberis slate museum, it’s also worth taking a ride on the Llanberis Lake Railway. This follows the bed of the track of the Padarn Railway, a narrow gauge line that originally ran to the company’s harbour at Port Dinorwic (known far more commonly as Y Felinheli) on the Menai Strait. The views across Llyn Padarn lake to Snowdon are wonderful.
Climbing Snowdon is one of the best things to do in North Wales, and there are six paths up the mountain, including the long, but easy, Llanberis Path. This runs close to the track of the Snowdon Mountain Railway for much of the way. In 2021, the train is only running to Clogwyn station, around a 40-minute walk shy of the summit.
Dolbadarn Castle, one of the native Welsh castles, commands the ridge above Llyn Padarn lake, and is well worth the short, steep walk up for the extraordinary views.
The Llanberis Pass is one of the most scenic roads in Wales, and if you turn right at the end, you’ll pass Llyn Gwynant and Llyn Dinas, two of the most beautiful lakes in Wales.
Otherwise, Caernarfon is only 6 miles (10 km) away, and Anglesey is another 20-minute drive from there. Check out our article on Things To Do In Anglesey for more ideas and places to see.
4. Welsh Slate Landscape – Gorseddau Quarry, Tramway And Ynysypandy Slate Mill
This is one of the most remote Wales slate landscape sites, in the south-west of the National Park to the north of the coastal town of Porthmadog. Gorseddau Quarry is located beyond Llyn Cwm Ystradllyn, an isolated lake like the quarry, in the shadow of Moel Hebog.
The first sight you encounter is the stunning Ynysypandy Slate Mill, a grand cathedral of industry built in 1856-7 to process slate from Gorseddau, two miles up the tramway track, which entered the building at two levels. I’ve always considered this one of the most atmospheric buildings in Wales, one whose setting in the shadow of the Snowdonia mountains enhances it greatly. It was only used for around 15 years, after which the Gorseddau site was exhausted, and it has been roofless since around 1906.
Follow the road to the car park at Cwm Ystradllyn lake, a popular local fishing spot. The historic narrow gauge tramway runs around a mile from there to the actual quarry, the main feature of which is the curving base wall which holds up the immense spoil heap above. There are also some evocative remains of quarrymen’s cottages close to the sloping wall.
This part of the Welsh slate landscape is close to the coastal town of Porthmadog, which has good links to the surrounding area. It’s also close to the lovely town of Criccieth, with its superb Castle and two beaches. As you head west down the south coast of the Llyn Peninsula, you reach some of the best beaches in North Wales, including those at Llanbedrog, Abersoch and around Aberdaron.
5. Welsh Slate Landscape – Blaenau Ffestiniog And The Ffestiniog Railway
Blaenau Ffestiniog could feasibly make the claim of being the slate capital of the world. It grew exponentially in the 1820s and 1830s, as more and more of the Ordovician seam of slate was mined. Several of the largest slate mines in Wales are in the vicinity of Blaenau Ffestiniog, including Diffwys, Maenofferen, Llechwedd, Oakeley and Manod.
Blaenau is surrounded by towering slate spoil heaps, and it’s one of the most dramatic landscapes in Wales. There are few more arresting sights in Wales than the tiny row of houses at the northern edge of the town with a vast wall of slate twenty times higher looming behind it. It is surrounded by – but not part of – the Snowdonia National Park. It has been excluded from the Park since its foundation in 1951, long considered an eyesore, an ignominious hole on the map. So it’s wonderful to see Blaenau now get recognition from UNESCO.
One of the Blaenau Ffestiniog slate mines is now one of the top North Wales tourist attractions. Llechwedd Slate Caverns is magnificent, and you join a train ride through the enormous cathedral-sized caves and walk in the footsteps of some of the souls who had to work in this bleak environment.
Zip World Blaenau Ffestiniog now run the deep mine tour, and some great adventure activities within. These include Bounce Below, a series of trampoline nets in a cavern, and Caverns, an exploration of the underground through a series of zip wires, rope bridges and more. You can also ride a series of zip wires high above the Blaenau Ffestiniog slate landscape on Zip World Titan 2.
The Moelwyn mountains around Blaenau Ffestiniog also harbour many a secret. If you have time, it’s devoting a few hours to one or more Blaenau Ffestiniog walks around some of the disused Blaenau Ffestiniog mines. We recommend the walk from Tanygrisiau up to the eerily quiet Cwmorthin, and onto Rhosydd quarry, which looks over the ‘Welsh Matterhorn’, Cnicht, above the slate village of Croesor, which isn’t part of the Wales Slate World Heritage Site.
Blaenau Ffestiniog is also the terminus of the narrow gauge Ffestiniog Railway, which runs up from the coast at Porthmadog, one of two major slate exporting ports in North Wales. The run across the Cob, the causeway across the Glaslyn estuary, is breathtaking, with a full panorama of Snowdonia on a clear day. The train climbs above the beautiful Vale of Ffestiniog before the final run into the mountains and Blaenau.
See Also: Things To Do In Blaenau Ffestiniog
It’s a 5-mile trip north from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolwyddelan Castle and the Lledr Valley. This remote mountainous landscape has been carved out by the Afon Lledr, one of the loveliest rivers in Wales, which joins forces with the River Conwy a few miles downstream. It’s another few miles to one of the honeypots of North Wales and possibly the best gateway to Snowdonia – take a look at our article on things to do in Betws-y-Coed to find out more.
If you’re craving an antidote to all this grey slate, fear not. The Ffestiniog Railway train stops at Minffordd station a few minutes before it reaches Porthmadog, and from there it’s a 15-20 minute walk to the extraordinary fantasy village of Portmeirion, awash with a riot (after all that slate) of pastel shades and hues. Check out our article on things to do in Portmeirion for more information.
Blaenau Ffestiniog is on the main A470 road, with good links down to the coast, including Harlech Castle and Beach.
6. Welsh Slate Landscape – Abergynolwyn And Around
This slate landscape in Wales is the southernmost part of the new UNESCO World Heritage Site, tucked away below the massif of mighty Cadair Idris in the south of Gwynedd and the Snowdonia National Park. It’s part of a belt of Ordovician slate that has also been exploited in the nearby villages of Corris and Aberllefenni, a few miles to the east.
The village of Abergynolwyn was built to house workers at the nearby Bryn Eglwys slate quarry and mine. There are some foundations of buildings and spoil heaps at the site, though there’s less to see at the quarry than the others in the World Heritage Site.
That said, I wouldn’t miss out on it, partly because it’s surrounded by some glorious Welsh landscape. The village is in the Dysynni Valley, one of the most beautiful in the country, which flows from Talyllyn Lake (Llyn y Mwyngil), one of the most beautiful lakes in Wales.
The best way to enjoy the area is to take the narrow gauge Talyllyn Railway from the coast at Tywyn to Nant Gwernol, just below the Bryn Eglwys site. It was built to carry slate from the quarry to Tywyn, from where it could be transported by mainline trains. It’s one of the loveliest narrow-gauge railways in Wales, and was the first in the world to be staffed entirely by volunteers in 1951. One of these was the Rev W Awdry, author of The Railway Series and creator of Thomas The Tank Engine, one of our family favourites.
Abergynolwyn is close to many of the best places to see in Mid Wales. It’s a few miles south of the main town in the area, Dolgellau, a beautiful spot between the Mawddach river and Cadair Idris, one of the great mountains of Wales. Continue down the coast to one of our favourite Welsh seaside resorts, with a superb beach and astounding estuary views, take a glance at our Things To Do In Barmouth article to get an idea what to expect.
Otherwise, follow the minor road out of Abergynolwyn village to Bird Rock, a former sea cliff that is now 4 miles (6 km) inland where cormorants – which usually stick to the coast – remarkably still nest. It’s a short drive further along to another castle of the Welsh princes, Castell y Bere.