Twenty years after the idea was first mooted, Gwynedd Council has been successful in its bid to secure World Heritage status for the slate landscape of north-west Wales.
The bid, developed by a partnership led by Gwynedd Council and submitted by the UK and Welsh Governments, was endorsed by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in its July meeting in China.
This unique aspect of Welsh economic history now joins Wales’ coal industry, represented by the Blaenavon industrial landscape of south Wales; Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal near Wrexham; and the Norman castles at Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Conwy and Harlech, in being recognised by UNESCO as having outstanding universal significance.
I had the privilege for the past six years of chairing the partnership that brought together public sector agencies and private businesses to formulate a bid that reflected slate community aspirations and met UNESCO criteria.
The campaign to gain this recognition for our slate landscapes was led by Gwynedd Council’s Economic Development Department, under Cabinet Member Cllr Gareth Thomas and directed by Sioned Williams, with Roland Evans and Hannah Joyce playing key roles.
Gwynedd Council’s motivation in pursuing this project was three-fold. The first was economic – to increase employment opportunities for young people within their home area.
Second, it wanted to enable these communities to better appreciate their rich social and cultural heritage and thereby augment their self-confidence. And third, it wanted to help Wales expand its international profile and attract overseas visitors.
At its peak late in the 19th century, the slate industry was exporting huge quantities – to continental Europe, the United States, and Australia.
In Gwynedd, it employed 17,000 people at four major quarrying and mining complexes – at Bethesda, Llanberis, the Nantlle Valley and Blaenau Ffestiniog – and a host of smaller operations.
Equally significant was the cultural and social heritage associated with slate quarrying communities. Welsh was the overwhelmingly dominant vehicle of communication.
“The slate communities have much about which to be proud”
Slate quarrying expanded at the time of nonconformist religious revivals, so the area saw an explosion of chapels that provided a focus for community social and cultural life.
The social conscience of slate quarrymen was significant. In a highly dangerous industry, slate workers depended on each other for their safety. Mutual assistance and shared responsibility were central characteristics.
Between 1820 and 1860, workplace hospitals were developed in three quarry complexes, funded jointly by quarry
owners and workers. These represented among the first workplace-based hospitals in Britain.
But there were also tensions between quarrymen and quarry proprietors. The conflict between Penrhyn quarry workers and the owners led to one of the longest strikes in British history (1900-03).
So the slate communities have much about which to be proud – economically, industrially, culturally and socially.
Today the only fully operational commercial quarry is the Penrhyn Quarry, Bethesda. Smaller slate-related operations, including craft industries, are undertaken by a number of businesses.
Several slate-related tourist attractions have been successfully established, including narrow-gauge railways and an iconic zip wire experience.
Having secured World Heritage status, there come responsibilities – to safeguard the nominated properties and protect their lasting value for future generations; and to secure an acceptable balance between the needs of visitors and those of the local communities.
I have no doubt that Gwynedd Council is up to this challenge; but its work is only just beginning.