Discover the Diverse Industrial Heritage of Wales
The industrial heritage of Wales is well worth exploring. Not only is it important, but also diverse. In 1750, Wales was a mostly farming country. By 1850 there were more people earning their living from industry than from agriculture, making Wales one of the first industrial nations in the world.
There is no doubt that the Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on the world we live in today. During a short time, the way goods were produced and transported changed forever. On our roadtrip through Wales, we visited sites where the diverse history of the country’s Industrial Revolution is preserved and displayed.
We hope you enjoy this post about the different sites we discovered in Wales, and will be encouraged to visit some of them, or discover others for yourself.
Raw Materials: foundation of the Industrial Revolution
Availability of raw materials usually played a large part in the development of industry in particular areas during the industrial revolution. Wales was rich in these raw materials, giving rise to sites, which are now part of its industrial heritage. South Wales had coal (‘black gold’) and iron ore, and North Wales had slate.
Iron and Coal
Our first site in South Wales, just south of Machynlleth, was Dyfi Furnace, a small blast furnace from the 18th century. This industrial heritage site is managed by CADW. While in Wales, we had a membership with CADW, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service . They manage many of Wales’ heritage sites, both large and small. This site is so small that it has free entry and you’ll only need about half an hour to see it all.
The furnace used water power from the adjoining river, and burned charcoal made from locally grown timber, for smelting iron ore. It has been restored and you can clearly see each part of the process, which is also described on information boards.
It took a little longer, but we also visited the World Heritage site of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape. There are 3 main parts to this site.
1. Big Pit National Coal Museum
The Big Pit might be one of the best known coal mines of Wales. The name sits in my memory due to the media coverage of its closing back in 1980. It had been operating for over 100 years, probably the oldest coal mine in South Wales. Since it closed so recently, most of the workings above and below ground are still in excellent condition, making a visit to this museum as close to reality as is possible. It became a museum in 1983. We spent more than 2 hours walking around the above ground site. The rest of the afternoon’s underground tours were booked out, so we decided to return the next day to go down the pit.
I was somewhat nervous about going so far underground. In fact, I seriously considered sending Juergen on his own and relying on photos – until we discovered that photos are not allowed due to safety issues. You cannot take anything down that has a battery in it! The danger of igniting gases and causing an explosion are very real, even now. Thankfully, the batteries that powered our headlamps were safe.
But the climax of the visit is beneath the ground. Kitted out with helmets, lamps and safety batteries, visitors descend by cage 90 m down the mineshaft and then are guided by ex-miners on a tour of the underground workings and pit ponies’ stables.
quoted from DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Great Britain
I am so glad I faced my fear and got in the cage to go underground. It was a fascinating experience, but I certainly wouldn’t have liked it to be my day job. And I wouldn’t like the life of the pit ponies – they seldom came to the surface.
If you really can’t face going underground, there is always King Coal: The Mining Experience. This is a multimedia show above ground that recreates the underground activity in a coal mine. We were surprised at how well it is done.
2. Blaenavon Ironworks
This part of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape is the main reason the rest of it exists. The mines produced the iron ore and coal which were essential for the production of iron and later steel. The remains of the furnaces are the best preserved in the United Kingdom. There are also casting houses, kilns, workers housing and the water balance tower used for lifting heavy loads. On one of the information signs I read: “The promise of a house and a wage attracted workers to this hell on earth.” So let’s not be too nostalgic – life was never easy during the industrial revolution.
The Blaenavon Ironworks operated from 1789 until 1902.
3. Blaenavon town
UNESCO calls it “the best preserved iron town of its period in the United Kingdom”. We have honestly seen many more picturesque towns in Wales , but we were welcomed by several volunteers into the Community Museum, when the building caught our eye. It’s housed in the original Workmen’s Hall, built by workers’ subscriptions in 1894. It holds an eclectic collection of historical objects, which display the cultural heritage of Blaenavon and the South Wales coalfield. Upstairs is a large hall, which has been a theatre, cinema, and function centre in its past. One of the volunteers took us on a complimentary guided tour. Entry to the museum is only £2. Unfortunately, the World Heritage Interpretation Centre was closed when we visited. It is housed in the fully restored St. Peter’s School, which was built by the ironmaster’s sister, Sarah Hopkins, in 1816.
We spent 2 days discovering the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape. Entrance to all sites is free, but there is a parking charge at the Big Pit. According to UNESCO World Heritage:
Taking all these elements together, the property provides one of the prime areas in the world where the full social, economic and technological process of industrialisation through iron and coal production can be studied and understood.
quoted from the UNESCO WHC Listing
We also spent several nights camped at the Keepers Pond, a short distance outside of Blaenavon. This pond was built in 1824 as a water supply to the Garn Ddyrys Forge, further down the hill. It produced around 300 tons of wrought iron per week in its heyday. Later, a gamekeepers house nearby gave the pond its current name. Now it’s used by locals and visitors as a picnic area, for swimming (too cold for me though!), and sailing remote controlled boats. There are also wild horses visiting from time to time. And at 475m high, there are great views of the surrounding Welsh countryside.
As we discovered on our visit to the National Slate Museum in Llanberis , Wales has the reputation of producing some of the best slate in the world. And it has been at it for a very long time. The Romans first used slate in the construction of Segontium, founded in 77AD, outside modern day Caernarfon.
All over North Wales there are, or have been, slate mines. We discovered that there is a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site , comprised of several of the important slate mining and processing sites in North Wales. Their page provides GPS coordinates for all 7 sites. We chose to visit the Inys y Pandy slate mill, which is an impressive ruin about 10 km from Porthmadog. It was an adventure getting there along narrow country roads, but it was worth it. This ruin is not only interesting, but beautiful. And walking around and through it also gives you an extensive view. (We had thought it was called Pont y Pandy, since that was the name on the gate. Now we’ve discovered that is the name of the bridge over the millstream!)
Water: The Elan Valley supplied water for Birmingham’s Industrial Revolution
Water is an important raw material in production processes, but even more important for the health and survival of the workers. In the 19th century, the English city of Birmingham was full of men and their families, who had arrived from all over to take up work created by the Industrial Revolution. It was overcrowded and lacked the sanitary necessities to prevent the spread of diseases like typhoid and cholera. The city council searched for a clean water supply to solve these problems. They discovered the Elan Valley: it was an area of high rainfall; its valleys were narrow and easy to dam; and it was higher than Birmingham so the water supply would move by gravity. Work on a series of dams started in 1892 and the first water flowed into Birmingham in 1904. Birmingham now receives an average of 365 megalitres of water per day, which travels 118 km by the force of gravity. The dam system also produces hydroelectricity.
Other than meeting these necessities for daily life, today the Elan Valley is also 185 square kms of unspoilt nature, with walking and cycling paths as well as a narrow paved road. It’s used by locals and visitors alike for recreational activities.
On the advice of an English friend, we drove the valley one afternoon from the south to the north. The natural scenery is rugged and green, and the dams themselves are attractive examples of Victorian architecture.
Transport: The Menai Strait bridges radically improved trade with Ireland
The island of Anglesey sits off the North-West coast of Wales. The town of Holyhead, on the west coast of the island, is the closest place to Dublin by sea. The only barrier in this route was the Menai Strait, a 25 km stretch of tidal water, which separates Anglesey from mainland Wales. It’s mostly less than 1 km wide, but the water is treacherous to cross by boat. One part of it is called ‘The Swellies’ because of the strong, swirling, tidal currents.
In the early 1800s, Thomas Telford was engaged to solve the problem this small stretch of water created. A bridge was the obvious solution, but the high banks of the strait made a normal bridge difficult to construct. Telford devised a suspension bridge using cables (rather than the chains previously used), which was the largest built up to that time, and the first of this kind. It was opened in 1826. There was now a road link from London to Holyhead to meet the ferry link to Dublin.
With the increasing preference for using rail for travel and transport of goods, it soon became obvious that a rail link across the Menai Strait was also needed. George Stephenson, the “Father of Railways” was consulted for a solution. In collaboration with William Fairbairn, the Britannia Bridge was built a kilometre from the Menai Suspension Bridge.
The end result of crossing the Menai Strait with these two innovative bridges was to simplify and hence increase trade between Great Britain and Ireland during the Industrial Revolution, making them an important part of the diverse industrial heritage of Wales.
We hope you’ve enjoyed these sites through our eyes. They are just a small portion of the diverse industrial heritage of this small country. If you have discovered other sites on a journey through Wales, please share them with us in a comment below.