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How UNESCO status for slate landscape can boost Wales on the world stage

29 Jul 2021 8 minutes Read
The awarding of UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the slate landscape of north west Wales. Lord Dafydd Wigley in Llanberis for the announcement

Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter

While Gwynedd slate once roofed the world, what was then the region’s dominant industry now employs a mere fraction compared to its 19th century heyday.

But Wednesday’s awarding of UNESCO World Heritage Status to the landscape that towers over communities across the north west has prompted fresh hopes that the resulting global interest could prompt an economic boom.

According to bid leaders this could be the case thanks to people across the world wanting to learn more about the area’s rich past and the Welsh speaking quarry culture of ‘y Caban’ that continues to live on in many forms, but potentially following differing visitor patterns to those traditionally witnessed in the region.

Meaning that the once mighty quarries and mines of Bethesda, Llanberis and Ffestiniog share the same internationally recognised status as the Taj Mahal, Great Barrier Reef and Grand Canyon, securing such recognition is no mean feat according to campaign bosses hoping to now capitalise on the accolade.

Lord Dafydd Wigley, who chaired the Wales Slate Partnership Steering Group, paid tribute to those who persevered with the successful bid over a decade in the making.

“The success today is the culmination of over ten years work, led by Gwynedd Council but involving local businesses and communities who see the opportunity to gain a worldwide profile and that this will help attract people from overseas,” Lord Wigley told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

“The sort of visitors that come to an area, very often providing more benefit than those from closer afield, this international profile will help Wales in other realms as well and that local businesses, we hope, will be able to take full advantage of this and provide greater employment opportunities for young people.

“It raises the profile of the area, not only in terms of industry and the slates that were exported, but in terms of the technology we also exported to the world as well as the skills of the people.

“Also the culture that goes along with it, the slate quarrying industry helped mould the culture of this area, linguistically in terms of music and drama and art, there’s such a range of culture that has its roots in the slate quarrying communities and getting that better known around the world is something we hope will be of benefit to the whole of Wales.”

‘Roofed the 19th Century world’

Covering both Gwynedd and parts of the Snowdonia National Park, from Dyffryn Ogwen to Abergynolwyn and Tywyn, the landscapes are said to have “roofed the 19th Century world” due to the sheer amount of slate exported around the globe.

Indeed, in 1830 half the buildings in New York had roofs made of Welsh slate, while also being used on other structures including Westminster Hall in London’s Houses of Parliament and the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, Australia.

But while it employed 17,000 men at the turn of the 20th century, its subsequent demise was hastened due to war and a series of bitter industrial disputes, resulting in only a handful now being directly employed within the industry.

Wales Office Minister, David TC Davies MP, described Wednesday’s announcement as “brilliant news for north Wales” and that the region would also benefit from a tourism boost following a “terrible” time for the industry.

Shadow Minister for north Wales, Darren Millar MS, added: “The decision will help attract visitors, boost investment, and create jobs in the region and adds yet another feather to Wales’ cap as a significant cultural exporter on the world stage.”

But the advent of such a potential tourism boost has not gone down well everywhere, with a language pressure group fearing it will only add to an existing “over tourism” issue in “honey pot” areas of Gwynedd.

With the industry said to contribute over £1bn a year to the local economy, 2016 saw over seven million people visit local attractions within the county.

But the authority has also warned of an over dependence on low paid and seasonal jobs within tourism, compared to other industries and areas of the UK, while also raising concerns that the county cannot cope with “unsustainable” visitor numbers as seen in some parts last summer.

Forewarning Wednesday’s expected announcement, Cylch yr Iaith said in a statement: “The experience of other areas within the county shows how the character and language of a community are changed as a result of incompatible tourism developments.”

“Whatever the hope of the county council, it must be honestly acknowledged that gaining World Heritage Site status would increase tourism to the areas concerned.”

But welcoming UNESCO’s decision, the council leader believes such status will provide a confidence boost for communities across the county.

“Its very important that the whole project is based on what the communities want and there’s an important role for young people to not only realise their history but to also move ahead with a thriving and prosperous future,” said Cllr Dyfrig Siencyn.

“I think it also ties in with our principles of sustainable tourism because we hope to attract people who are interested in our culture, language and history, and to see how we have adapted to a new future. I’m very optimistic.”

‘First Minister’

The First Minister, who was also on hand in Llanberis for Wednesday’s announcement, was equally optimistic about the opportunities it may bring.

The awarding of UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the slate landscape of north west Wales. First Minister Mark Drakeford in Llanberis for the announcement.

“The benefits will be recognition on a global scale of this area’s history, heritage and what it means for the future of this part of Wales,” Mark Drakeford said.

“In terms of tourism, I think it emphasises the need for sustainable tourism, tourists who’ll come to this part of Wales because of its history, who want to respect the landscape and leave the area in a state that future generations who come after us will also able to see, enjoy and respect.

“Its positive change, it will lead to investment, the Welsh Government has significant plans to build on the platform that’s been created today, but I think it does put an emphasis on a tourism that respects the nature of the place that people are visiting.

“This world recognition, I think, puts extra emphasis not just on tourism itself but on the nature of tourism and the sorts of people we want to attract to come but also respect what this part of Wales has to offer.”

‘Areas’ 

The successful bid includes six specific areas, namely:

  • Penrhyn Slate Quarry and Bethesda, and the Ogwen Valley to Port Penrhyn
  • Dinorwig Slate Quarry Mountain Landscape
  • Nantlle Valley Slate Quarry Landscape
  • Gorseddau and Prince of Wales Slate Quarries, Railways and Mill
  • Ffestiniog: its Slate Mines and Quarries, ‘city of slates’ and Railway to Porthmadog
  • Bryneglwys Slate Quarry, Abergynolwyn Village and the Talyllyn Railway
  • Wales’ existing world heritage sites are the Castles and Town Walls of Edward I at Caernarfon, Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech, the
  • Blaenavon Industrial Landscape and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, with Gwynedd’s landscape becoming the 33rd in the UK.

One of the local Senedd Members, meanwhile, acknowledged the pride felt within communities who personally recall how big of an impact the slate industry had on their day to day lives.

Sian Gwenllian, who represents Arfon, concluded: “I know local people, many of them direct descendants, as am I, of families that depended on the quarrying industry, will feel pride about this announcement.

“We know very well that Arfon’s slate quarries were once an industrial epicentre of the world. Slates from Gwynedd were shipped across the world.

“Little did the local communities of Gwynedd see of the immense wealth generated, and I will be thinking of those generations today.

“As we reflect on the rich history of the area, we won’t just be thinking about the quarrymen, like my great grandfather, but also of their families.

“The strong women who without their contribution we wouldn’t be celebrating today. Our ‘resilient grandmothers’ as the local poet Gwyn Thomas once said.”

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

We were doing fine for international tourism before Brexit…take a run and jump TC and Millar etc

Mandi A
Mandi A
1 month ago

Nice to see the FM up in North Wales. And some good news for North Wales as well. This is the kind of thing we need to be developing if the Welsh economy is to move on. Here is an opportunity to show not just tourists, but school groups and adult education too, a microcosm of economic history. The slate quarrymen were the prime movers of the adult education movement. This is a chance to build them a legacy. We already have a very fine Slate Museum and Electric Mountain in Llanberis. So go easy on the capital spending and… Read more »

Mandi A
Mandi A
1 month ago

Just one more thought, Henry Hadyn Jones, the Liberal MP for Meirionydd, who saved Abergynolwyn and the Tal-y-Llyn Railway, and LTC Rolt who preserved the railway as we know it, must be very proud that their efforts have been recognised.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

All this talk of landscape, don’t they mean ‘manscape’ aka the obliteration of landscape!

A view of the old manganese mines of Ardudwy from the air is landscape…

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Trouble is, where to begin? Most ‘landscape’ in much of the world, and certainly in Europe has come about through the interaction of humans and the environment, and whilst slate quarrying could be regarded in the critical manner that you term ‘manscape’ it’s perhaps paradoxical that the spectacular appeal of the slate quarries as ‘landscape’ were first appreciated by the waves of well-heeled early tourists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who, deprived of the possibility of a European Grand Tour due to the depredations of a certain N. Bonaparte sought alternative itineraries, including North Wales. A ‘spin-off’… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Sian Gwenllian gets one line to provide some ‘balance’ in that piece. I would say if it is history you want lets have it warts and all…will UNESCO feature a plantation next…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

My thanks to Dylan of Electric Mountain for revealing the contents of the ‘Accident Book’…one man, judge, jury and executioner…always the quarry man’s fault…

hdavies15
hdavies15
1 month ago

Recognition is all well and good but most likely the end game in all this will be – More Tourism ! Not really what is needed. Perhaps a better class of tourism, one that secures a higher spend per capita with local service providers, which enables the development of locally owned ventures rather than corporate plunderers from farther afield. After all we are looking at industrial heritage and it would be nice for a change to have some modern industry alongside it all as show pieces defining how the area has progressed. But one gets the feeling that government has… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  hdavies15

It’s not just north west Wales. There are plenty of communities equally left economically high and dry. Blaenafon with the iron works, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and also Big Pit is also equally as economically devastated, as are most of the South Wales Valleys. Their sole economic purpose has vanished, and unless new industry is developed, i.e. making things, then the prospects are bleak. Even Cardiff, which appears to be doing well, has lots of poverty, much of it driven by the expansion of retail and hospitality, which will never provide the prosperity we need. You’re… Read more »

hdavies15
hdavies15
1 month ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

Multiple up ticks for that Padi – I agree with your entire comment.

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
1 month ago

I am pleased for the people of Gwynedd and this important world wide recognition.

However….I am always suspicious of figures banded about allegedly showing how important the tourist industry is to us.
So a little maths might not go astray. Given the figures here on what the tourist industry is worth to the area and then divide that by the number of visitors and…..each visitor spent £142.
A good meal and a pint or two. That’s the way forwrad!

Quornby
Quornby
1 month ago

This is thinking man’s tourism. I’ve no beef with that, though “boom” isn’t the word I’d use to describe it.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Quornby

Ah but if it was a walk round Cookes Explosives in Penrhyn it might be…

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