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Llechweddd Slate Caverns by Ivor Wynne Jones

" Winner of every major tourism award!"

Having won every major tourism award, Llechwedd Slate Caverns, at Blaenau Ffestiniog, offer a great day out, wet or fine. Two very different underground rides are available into vast subterranean workings dating back to William IV, and there are numerous free surface attractions.

Surrounded by the rugged splendour of Snowdonia National Park, Llechwedd Slate Caverns pioneered the presentation of the unique heritage of the Welsh slate communities and is now the home of Slate Heritage International. Six million visitors have taken the Llechwedd Slate Trail, including six members of the Royal Family and the Crown Prince of Japan.

This is no dead museum but a vibrant centre, created and run by the
families whose ancestors made the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog to provide roofs for every continent. The inventive genius of Llechwedd devised much of the patented machinery that enabled other slate centres to join the rush to house Europe's industrial revolution. Specimens of these inventions are included among the surface displays.

However, it is the unique rides into the slate underworld, using techniques described in the Bible, that visitors want to experience at Llechwedd. The Deep Mine Tour begins on Britain's steepest passenger railway (1 in 1.8). Alighting at the bottom, visitors meet the ghost of a Victorian mining apprentice who ages as he guides them through ten sound and light sequences, unfolding his changing social conditions. One of the highlights is a picturesque lake 450 feet beneath the surface, which has been used for two Holywood film productions.

The other ride is aboard the Miners' Tramway, dating from 1846, which remains at one level to explore vast man-made chambers where mining skills are demonstrated. Above the 25 miles of tunnels and cathedral-like caverns the Victorian Village offers a full range of catering, including a pub, and there are several gift shops using re-minted Victorian coins, available at The Old Bank.

One of the most interesting buildings in the village square is the cottage where the famous Blind Harpist of Llechwedd was born and died. He was the teacher of some of Wales' most famous harpists,
and his old home has retained its character.

Ready-while-you-wait slate name and number plates are available at the craft shop.

Slate Caverns are open 10am daily (except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day). Last Trains into mines: 5.15pm, March to September; 4.15pm October to February. Full range of catering facilities, including a Victorian Pub.
Telephone: 01766 830306 Fax: 01766 831260. For off-peak discounts phone
Freephone: 0800 252914.

About our location:
Llechwedd Slate Caverns are situated on the A470 between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Dolwyddelan. We are only 3/4mile from Blaenau in the one direction and A470 major improvements completed in Autumn 2004 mean that we can now be reached in little over 15 minutes along a stunningly scenic route from Betws-y-Coed.
Ready-while-you-wait slate name and number plates are available at the craft shop.

  Deep Mine Tour
  Miners Tramway Tour
  Victorian Village
  The Miners' Arms
  Wildlife at Llechwedd
  What is Slate?
  Slate Products at Llechwedd.
  Llechwedd Online Gift Shop

1. Deep Mine Tour
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Admission: Adults £8.75; Children £6.50; Children under 4 FREE*

Visitors descend on Britain's steepest passenger railway, with a gradient of 1:1.8, to make the Deep Mine tour. They travel in a specially made 24-seat car, on a track with a gauge of 3ft (0.914m).
Historically the 16 floors at Llechwedd mines are all identified in relation to the point where the slate was found in 1849, after three years of costly exploration. This became known as Floor 1, the entrance to which is now hidden behind the concrete lining inside the passenger incline, but is 49ft (15m) beneath the modern working surface.

The floors were numbered upwards (1-7), and lettered downwards (A-I), so that passengers board the vehicle on Floor 2, which is at 849ft (259m) above sea level. Alighting at Floor A, 99ft (30m) lower down, passengers eventually descend a further 32ft (9.75m), via 61 steps to Floor B, by which time they are 450ft (137m) beneath the summit of the mountain.

The tour was opened to the public in 1979 and upgraded in 1992, using new technology installed by one of the main Euro Disney
contractors. It involves a 25-minute walk through ten chambers, each with a different sequence of son et lumiere presentations. It is normally heard in English but, by prior arrangement on the surface, groups may hear it in Welsh, French or German.

2. Miners' Tramway Tour
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Admission: Adults £8.75; Children £6.50; Children under 4 FREE*

Except for a few privileged outsiders such as Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had used Blaenau Ffestiniog as his first political platform, the slate caverns which had roofed Europe's Industrial Revolution were a mystery to all but the miners who made them, until 1972, when a half-mile level section of the Miners' Tramway was opened to the world.

The revelation of these vast workings was immediately given the top awards of both the British Tourist Authority and the Wales Tourist Board.

Boarding a train in a corner of the original slate slabbing mill of 1852, visitors now ride into an 1846 tunnel, hauled by battery-electric
locomotive. Entering through the side of the mountain this journey into the early Victorian past remains on the level, and traverses some spectacular caverns.

Passengers alight at various points to learn something of the strange skills needed to extract the slate - conveniently bedded between layers of granite-like chert, which gave integral strength and roofs for the mine's 16 floors, aligned through a vertical distance of 1,000ft (305m) underground.

There is a sound and light tableaux deep underground and guides describe other chambers.

* If both tours are taken: Adults £13.25; Children £9.25. Off peak discounts are available. Phone 01766 830306 for details.

3. Victorian Village
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Admission: FREE

At its peak, in 1904, Llechwedd employed 639 men, and Pentre Llechwedd was the hub of the operation.

The most prominent building on Y Maes (the local Welsh name for the village Square) is Crimera House, bearing the date 1854 - the year of the Crimean War, when the first turnpike road was laid from Beaver Pool toll house, near Betws-y-Coed, to Penrhyndeudraeth, through what is now known as the Crimera Pass. J W Greaves, founder of Llechwedd, paid the turnpike trustees £75 to bridge their road over his new incline connecting his mills to the Ffestiniog Railway.
Beside Crimea House is Siop-y-Gornel (i.e. the Corner Shop) of Angharad Ellis. Both sell a variety of confectionery made to Victorian recipes. Remember how sweet shops used to be years ago? Well go ahead, indulge yourself - for you may never see such a variety elsewhere.

Behind the, shops is Victoria Street, beside which the Victorian river-flushed privies are preserved as an exhibit. Steps by Siop-y-Gornel lead to Tavern Row where there are two small workshops, one
labelled Swyddfa'r Herald, meaning Herald Office, to remind us that Llechwedd was the editorial agency for the Caernarvon & Denbigh Herald during 1858-1908. The village Smithy is where the miners used to have their tools sharpened - there was a competing smithy at the top of the incline.

The oldest house for miles around is the birthplace of David Francis. This can be found to the right of the old post box - just follow the soothing sound of the harp...

4. The Miners Arms
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Admission: FREE

The Miners' Arms has long been a favourite refreshment stop for travellers on the A470 Llandudno-Cardiff trunk road through the Welsh heartland.

Located at the end of Tavern Row (Rhes-y-Dafarn in Welsh), it overlooks the Victorian village at Llechwedd. On a sunny day there is nowhere more pleasant than the garden of the Miners' Arms for either an outdoor drink or a full lunch; conversely, on a cold winter's
day there is nowhere more welcoming than the fire inside the tavern.

The Miners' Arms takes its name from an earlier tavern in Glanypwll Road, close to the bridge which carries the picturesque Conwy Valley branch railway from Llandudno. The line was opened in 1879.

A century ago there were 22 pubs in Blaenau Ffestiniog; today there are five, with another two at Llan Ffestiniog. In 1882 Marianne Greaves, wife of the Llechwedd chairman, was less concerned about the evening consumption of ale than with what she saw as the
health risk to the miners of stewed tea, taken to work in the morning and constantly reboiled for the rest of the day!

5. Wildlife at Llechwedd

The Chough at Llechwedd

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Admission: FREE

Llechwedd Slate Caverns make an unexpected contribution to the conservation of Wales' endangered wild life. Choughs' Cavern, which visitors see while riding the Miners' Tramway, was named after the shy crow-like birds which nested there for many years, returning in 1969, disappearing in the 1970s but rediscovering the same unlikely spot in 1991, since when annual nesting has been re-established. Choughs' Cavern was named by miners long before visitors were first admitted in 1972.

The chough is distinctive with its red-orange legs, and matching long beak with pronounced downward curve. It was once common on the coastal cliffs of Celtic Britain but inland breeding sites were rare, and never very far from the sea.

The Chough is now a rare bird but a pair returns year after year to nest at Llechwedd Slate Caverns - quite undisturbed by trains and passengers, which rumble by every quarter-of-an-hour.

During the summer of 2000, visitors had the rare experience of seeing the adults regularly feeding one of their chicks that had fallen to the ground, but had not acquired the flying skills with which to return to its nest on the slate cliff.

"This ability to habituate to certain types of disturbance is one of the keys to choughs' successfully nesting in areas such as Llechwedd, and the adjacent slate quarries," says Dr Siān Whitehead, ornithologist at the Bangor headquarters of the Countryside Council for Wales.

She says that despite past blasting and other quarrying activities, choughs have historically nested in parts of the slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog, having learnt that the noise and disturbance was of no direct threat.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been ringing the Llechwedd nestlings since 1996, with some interesting results. Of the 1996 brood of three nestlings, one was recorded spending its first autumn 17 km away, at Llanberis. Four nestlings were ringed in 1997, and two spent their first autumn in Cwm Croesor, 6 km away. One of these was subsequently recorded several times during 1998 and 1999, some 15 kin away, near Llanberis.

Of the 1998 brood of four, one spent its first autumn in Cwm Ystradllyn (14 km) but subsequently took up residence 46 km away at Cilan Head, where it was seen several times during 1999 and 2000. There were no subsequent sightings of those ringed during 1999, but all three of the 2000 brood spent part of their first
autumn at Cwm Croesor, two of them later moving on to Barmouth, 32 km away. Four chicks were ringed in 2001. There are two other nesting sites within the Llechwedd complex. The male of one of these nesting pairs was hatched and ringed at Beddgelert in 1996 and was two years old when it began nesting at Llechwedd (at the Foty & Maenofferen site) with a female ringed in the same nest in 1997. The pair returned in 1999 and 2000.

Choughs mate for life and may live into double figures. They will return to the same nesting site year after year - Llechwedd Slate Caverns' obviously having been colonised by successive pairs over many decades. Continuity is maintained by the survivor's finding a new mate when one of the pair dies.

Oddly, the chough is not an inland bird. Its real habitat is coastal cliffs. Until about 1865 it was a common sight from the Dyfi Estuary to the Little Orme, at Llandudno. By the end of the 19th century most of its habitats were deserted, Meirionnydd being one of its last haunts in North Wales. There is a large colony of choughs in South Wales, living amidst the noise of Army tanks and artillery on the Castlemartin range and the adjacent Stackpole National Nature Reserve.

The chough's scientific Latin name is pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax. It has several Welsh names. In the North it was once known as bran Cernyw (meaning "Cornish crow") but is now usually called bran big coch (meaning "redbeaked crow"). In the South it is known as bran goescoch (meaning "red-legged crow"). It is also known as bran Arthur (meaning "Arthur's crow").

The chough is a protected species. There are only 310 known nesting sites in Britain.

Other Wildlife at Llechwedd

Bats have never colonised the old workings at Llechwedd. They do not like draughts, and apart from a few places like Choughs' Cavern, where the side of the mountain has been pierced, the underground temperature remains almost constant at a cool 12C (54F).

On the surface hovering kestrels are a common sight, evidence of some wildlife amid the sparse patches of vegetation. Buzzards nest on the northern rock face, which has never been quarried, though once inhabited by Victorian miners - the ruins of their barrack ruins are visible from different parts of Llechwedd, including the viewing point which rises behind the Smithy.

One of nature's most beautiful contributions is rhododendron ponticum which bursts into flower each spring. First imported to North Wales in 1763, it is the only shrub which thrives on mounds of slate waste.

The strange geological feature seen while walking through the Deep Mine, runs right across the mine, and is known as the Clay Slant. The white clay is aluminium sulphate, discoloured by manganese oxide to create the blue part.

6. What is Slate?
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Geologists are reluctant to describe their time scale in insignificant calendar years, but a consensus of international research tells us the Blaenau Ffestiniog beds of superb Ordovician blue-grey slate were heaved out of the sea about 500 million years ago. They are about 100 million years younger than the purple slate beds of the Caernarfon area.

That, however, is only a tiny fraction of a story that defies calculation, for slate is stone for the second time round! Countless hundreds of millions of years of wind, rain and chemical reaction eroded the world's first rocks, washing the resultant minute particles into the sea. There the tiny particles built up into layers of clay several hundred feet thick. Later volcanic reaction created folds in the earth's crust, heaving new mountains out of the seabed, with the accompanying compression and movement making all the
particles lie in the same direction. Heat from the intrusion of volcanic gasses and lavas caused some of the original mineral particles to make new chemical combinations, especially minute
flat ribbon-like particles of mica, which account for about 55% of the natural bulk of Llechwedd slate.

Mica crystals measure a virtually invisible 1/2000th of an inch in length and 1/6000th in thickness. Their presence gives Llechwedd slate most of its universally prized properties, notably the fineness to which it can be split. At the London Exhibition of 1862 John W. Greaves, founder of Llechwedd, won a medal with slates 10ft long and 1ft wide, but only 1/16th of an inch thick. At a competition in 1872 everyone marvelled when a Llechwedd quarryman split a block 2.5 inches thick into 45 layers. Today it is commonplace for splitters to produce about 35 sheets per inch when making delicate slate ornaments, such as fans using a chisel adapted from a table knife and blocks from the exceptionally fine quality Old Vein.

7. Slate Products at Llechwedd

Engineering Innovators

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England's Industrial Revolution, and the need for something more labour efficient than straw to roof the workers' terraces which sprouted around the "dark satanic mills," created the Welsh slate industry.

New skills were needed to speed slate production, and J W Greaves was in the forefront of the required innovation. The 1852 Floor 2 Mill, into which visitors alight from the Miners' Tramway, contains several specimens of his ingenuity.

He devised his own sawing table in 1850, using Blaenau Ffestiniog's abundant water-power to convert his newfound wealth into manageable blocks for splitting. One of these tables, made for Greaves by G Owen of
the Union Iron Works, Porthmadog, is on display. It was 1852 before Greaves was able to plane his slate to produce slabs - selling his first four to C H Hawkins, of Colchester.

An improved version of Greaves' sawing table was made in 1888 by the internationally famous de Winton & Co, of Caernarfon - to whom J W Greaves' youngest son, Richard M Greaves, was apprenticed until 1874, later to become engineer at Penyrorsedd quarry, Nantlle, before joining his brother as managing director at Llechwedd. One of these 1888 tables is also on display.

Another of John W Greaves' inventions - also in 1850 - was the slate dressing engine, still used wherever slates need trimming for roofing, and still known as the "Greaves' engine," though now usually meaning the improved version patented by his son Richard in 1886. Some of the original 1850 machines are still to be found at Llechwedd, made by R Jones & Sons, Porthmadog. The 1886 version which visitors see in use in the Floor 2 Mill was made by William Lewis, at the Ffestiniog Foundry, Tanygrisiau.

This high technology of its era made 1850 the real turning point in the career of J W Greaves, for during his financial year ended 30 September, Llechwedd sold 1,128 tons of finished roofing slates, with a value of
£2,114. After 14 years of investment and innovation he had joined the ranks of the big producers to leave behind a company still bearing his name, and still owned by his descendants.

8. Llecheddd Online Gift Shop

Engineering Innovators

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Associated Features

A470 Road Improvements

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