A Visit at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis, Wales
Great Britain was at the heart of the early Industrial Revolution in Europe. Many of the historic mines and factories have long been closed down. A good number have been demolished, others found a new use, and some have been preserved as museums. One excellent example is the National Slate Museum in Llanberis in Wales.
The museum covers much of the former Dinorwic slate quarry. Opened in 1787, this used to be one of the largest slate quarries in Wales. It once employed over 3,000 people. To this day, slate from Wales has the reputation of being one of the best slates in the world; apparently it outlasts most other slates by many decades.
After having visited a couple of other museums in England, we were a little apprehensive about the Slate Museum in Wales. You see, we don’t like the new trend in museums, where everything has to be presented in a slick manner – with lots of bold graphics, special effects, videos, interactive displays, and other gimmicks. Thankfully the National Slate Museum hasn’t gone down this contemporary path!
The National Slate Museum is housed in the old Dinorwic workshop compound, where the mined raw slate slabs were brought in for processing and shipping. Many of these rather beautiful old industrial buildings have been left in their original state, to the point that the workshops still contain many of the old tools. This almost gave us the impression that people had walked off from their workplace only a few months ago – it feels like a natural setting.
The only real hint that you’re walking into a museum is the entrance, with its modern reception pavilion-cum-souvenir shop. But this is a relatively small structure, set to the right of the entrance, inside the large yard of the old factory.
Once through the entrance, we actually split up. Yasha followed the suggested path to the left to visit all rooms in order. I (always the rebel) went right in search of some photo opportunities. You see, since we had arrived late, the place was already emptying out, and at that stage we were almost certain we would return the next morning. To me it looked like a good time to get some photos without too many people in them. In the end I caught up with most displays Yasha had seen on her ‘prescribed route’ anyhow.
So let’s follow Yasha’s route first – the official order of displays. To the left are the former quarters of the Chief Engineer. That he used to live right in the main building, shows his status and importance to the entire facility. Actually, we had come across a similar status of the leading engineers on our visit of the former Saltpeter mines in Chile , where the engineers even had their own social club and other amenities.
The next room you come to shows an introduction video, mostly based on historic footage. This is a good starting point to learn about slate: the material, the labour intensive mining, the processing, and the economic significance of it to Wales.
Next, there’s the cordoned off old mess room. Not much to see here except hard wooden benches and tables set with rows of old crockery. Let’s stop here for a moment, because the bland set-up actually belies the importance of the canteen in former working times. It was not only a place to eat, but also for social interaction. Football matches and other activities were planned here, and during the workers’ unrest and consequent ‘lockout’ in 1885/86 this was the place for political gatherings.
Following on the left side is another temporary video room and then a display “From Rock to Roof”, where there are numerous historic photos, models of the old mine, and another video display. I later spent quite some time in there, resting my legs and watching a number of the historic “Newsreel” reports about slate mining, slate export, the workers’ living condition, and so on. Quite interesting.
The final room on this side is a small auditorium where, at set times, a retired Dinorwic worker demonstrates the process of splitting slate. This is where Yasha and I finally met up before we left, so let’s get back to this at the end of this post…
My tour led me on through the various workshops of the old Dinorwic factory compound. It was quite fascinating to see how self-sufficient this company was. Not only did they have their own blacksmithing workshop, and their own foundry to produce machinery parts and tools, they also cut their own timber beams, and repaired their transport carts and steam locomotives on site.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
One of the outstanding and fairly unique features of Dinorwic is that this company built its own hospital. This is a good way away from the main compound. Unfortunately, we had run out of time, and the hospital building was closed before we could visit (it closes half an hour before the main museum).
A sight, which other visitors seem to bypass, is the waterwheel. This is set in a tower, in the far right corner of the compound, and you have to climb external stairs to get to it. It’s fascinating because, at over 15 meters in diameter, this is the largest remaining waterwheel in Great Britain – and it still works, turning in slow and steady circles, creating its own kind of “music”. I stood and watched for a considerable period; it’s almost like a meditation to watch the wheel go round and round and…
If the video preview doesn’t load please follow this link directly to vimeo to watch it!
Behind the wheelhouse is a row of reconstructed workers’ cottages you can visit. For some reason I didn’t go inside, Yasha did and was quite intrigued. Along the path you will find a modern on-site coffee and refreshment shop. On a nice day, you can sit outside and enjoy a cold drink or icecream.
Welsh Slate and the UNESCO World Heritage List
The first use of slate as a roofing material can be traced back to Roman times in Wales. But due to its weight and the fact that slate tiles are relatively brittle, this material originally was only used for construction in close vicinity to where it was found. This changed with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, which brought new developments in transportation with it, like narrowboats and later steam trains.
The Industrial Revolution, in the 18th century, also sparked a fresh construction boom: new cities with new factories; new row houses for the factory workers and their families; new transport hubs and port warehouses. All needed to be roofed, and slate was the preferred material.
Slate quarries became industrial sites, often with financial speculators or large corporations leasing or buying the mining rights from poor local farmers. As mentioned above, Welsh slate is considered the best in the world (or at least one of the best – depending where you read up). Thus new slate quarries sprang up everywhere, particularly in the Snowdonia region in the north of the country.
The slate industry also invested in their own transport network. All the narrow gauge railway tracks, now used for cute tourist steam trains, date back to the peak of slate mining. These were originally constructed to bring the finished product to the ports, where the slate was loaded onto barges or larger ships.
The slate industry of Wales was historically of such importance and complexity, that the UNESCO World Heritage Council is now considering including it on its list . The WHC listing will cover many other important sites of the slate industry in Wales, not only the former Dinorwic quarry. Other sites are nearer the town of Betws-y-Coed, like the Penrhyn quarry and its own harbour at Port Penrhyn. The UNESCO consideration of course triggered our interest; ever since we visited the Angus meat factory in Fray Bentos/Uruguay we appreciate the history of such places.
Slate quarrying is a relatively messy activity. The mountain side is blown up with explosives, and the enormous slabs are broken up into more transportable sizes, right on the hill. They are then loaded onto carts, or later trains, and transported to the work compound, where the uneven blocks are cut and split to more manageable sizes. Then specially qualified workers split the slate into rectangular tile shapes.
At the National Slate Museum we were lucky enough to watch a workman, who had previously been employed by Dinorwic, split slate and cut the resulting thin tiles into a rectangular shape. He also explained the different types of slate found around the world and their qualities.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
The museum tries to provide employment to a good number of former workers, who lost their job by the closure of the quarry. These people know more about the history and daily workings than anybody else.
All of the production steps to produce slate tiles, are best done in close proximity to the quarry, because each step creates enormous piles of debris. Everywhere, throughout Snowdonia, you can see large hills of slate tailings. Nowadays, the finer crushed tailings are being sold as road base or cover for decorative garden paths.
Summary and Practical Information
Entrance to the museum is free, parking is not! You can also take a ride on one of the old steam trains. We were too late for this, so we don’t know about the cost.
We found the National Slate Museum a very interesting one to visit. In hindsight I would go as far as to claim that this was the most interesting industrial museum of all, in Wales. It can be rather educational for kids too. With our computer age and clean robotic factories, children seem to have little concept of the harsh working conditions of only a few decades earlier.
I was born in a region, which is famous for its slate: the ‘Rhenish Slate Mountains‘ . The father of my former girlfriend was a specialised slate roofer, a labour intensive and therefore dying trade. Hence, I knew some of the work steps. But slate in Germany is used slightly differently than in England. Tiled slate roofs in the UK are made from overlapping horizontal straight lines of tiles, whereas in Germany the tiles are laid with one corner pointing downwards towards the gutter.
After our visit, I’m still curious to find out why German slate roofs are done so differently. Maybe the reason is connected to heavier rainfall, where the points of the tiles guide the water down the slope of the roof. I don’t know. I know that where I was born, many older houses were completely clad in slate to protect the walls from heavy rain. This created a very typical style of buildings for the region: greyish black slate walls, combined with stark white windows, whose shutters were painted a very particular green.
The slate museum is part of a larger park called Padarn Country Park, which includes several other tourist attractions like the aforementioned Llanberis Lake Railway. Unfortunately, the entire complex is locked up overnight, so you cannot stay on the parking lot after hours. We drove on and found an overnight spot in a lay-by, a fair bit down the road – with a vista of a huge tailing mountain from an old slate quarry.
What is slate? Wikipedia about the mineral composition of slate
The Story of Slate by the National Slate Museum (incl. some historic photographs from Dinorwic)
The History of Roofing Slate , an interesting blog post by a UK slate roofer
Interesting if you can read German! This German Wikipedia entry is much more comprehensive than anything I found in English.
Excuse the quality of some photos. My lens was defective and over-exposed outdoor photos. I have bought a replacement since…