How UNESCO status for slate landscape can boost Wales on the world stage
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.”
The First Minister, who was also on hand in Llanberis for Wednesday’s announcement, was equally optimistic about the opportunities it may bring.
“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.
— Gareth Wyn Williams (@LDRMonGwynedd) July 28, 2021
“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.”
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.”