Snowdonia Slate Trail, Day 1: Bangor to Llanberis (13.5 miles)

It was only a short walk from Bangor train station to where I dipped below the road and went into the trees. The trail began on a cycle path, a languid and dappled start to a trail where the landscape would become unruly and desolate and achingly bleak many times. For now, I enjoyed the trees and the gentle paving and the greetings from passing cyclists.

Bangor is the oldest city in Wales; its roots heading back to a monastic settlement in the sixth century. It was also the first ever UK city to try and impose a curfew on under 16s; this experiment in 2012 didn’t last very long. It seems that residents didn’t find the kids that threatening to begin with and, well, parents weren’t too happy with having to spend extra government imposed time around their smelly, argumentative adolescents either.

The Welsh Language

Gwynedd county, where Bangor sits, has the highest population of Welsh speaking residents with 65.4% claiming fluency on the 2011 census. The national percentage however, had fallen to below 20%.

In recent years, there have been great strides taken to prevent a further decline of the language, including establishing a Welsh Language Tribunal and requiring companies to provide services in both English and Welsh. It is also a compulsory school subject up to the age of 16.

At present, there is a move to popularise the use of Welsh names for Welsh landmarks above the use of the English names. The native nomer ‘Yr Wyddfa’ (uhr-with-va) for Mount Snowdon is becoming increasingly recognisable throughout the UK – despite the panic that overcomes anyone across the border when it comes to speaking out loud.

After a few miles, the path turned away, joining the North Wales Path and the mountains opened up, pressing on the skyline ahead as I set my pace alongside the Afon Ogwen River after a short but alarming dash across the A road.

Time went quickly on these easy, shaded lanes and paths, and soon I was at the Halfway Bridge between Bangor and Bethesda. Whilst the weather was mild and clear now, I knew it wouldn’t last. The Mountain Weather Information Service forecast a drizzly and foggy few days ahead, confirmed by the moaning of several travelling families on the train up.

The first signs of slate appeared – in stiles and fencing – slabs suspended by chicken wire. In the villages and towns I would pass through, slate pieces were used for everything from paving slabs to furniture. With so many tips still lying in place it was there for the using. As I neared Bethesda, the first great slate tip of Penrhyn Quarry suddenly sprawled in the distance beyond.

Unlike the vast, vast majority of slate quarries in the area, Penrhyn is still operational. The main pit is almost a mile long and 2,500 feet deep. Slate has been extracted from the quarry since at least the 1500s and in its heyday, 3000 men were employed here.

Whilst the quarry operations historically brought great wealth for the owners, it became a significant feature in the history of the British Labour Movement after two large strikes demanded better pay, safer working conditions and better living quarters. The first, in 1896, lasted eleven months. The next, in 1900, lasted three years.

The barracks that the miners lived in while working were tiny and without plumbing or fresh water, often housing four to a room. Their already abysmal pay (27.5p a day in 1870) was garnished for rent, and also for the candles and gunpowder they required to go about their work. Work which was hazardous and would inevitably lead to an early death, often from respiratory diseases; at its worst the average life expectancy of a labourer was 37.5 years old. A few grumbling improvements would bring this up ten years eventually, but there wasn’t a role available where a man could realistically hope to see 50 years old.

Of course the link between the slate dust and the early deaths was vigorously denied. It would only be in 1979 that the quarrymen of Wales became entitled to compensation – far too late for most.

The three year strike at Penrhyn Quarry was a large factor in the start of the end of the dominating industry in Wales – the production was now seen as unreliable – and the decline began rapidly. The locked out quarrymen were either employed by other quarries taken over by cooperatives, or lost their livelihood completely.

Whilst those much smaller numbers that work at Penrhyn Quarry today do so in far safer and better paid conditions, the income of the quarry is aided greatly by the modern zipline – where tourists can now come to experience the world’s fastest, and Europe’s longest, zipline. Flinging themselves 1500 feet above the workers below.

A grassy boulderfield brought me to Bethesda. The drizzle started slowly as I bought a pint of milk and an apple and made my way to the riverbank to refuel. The good thing about cooler weather is that now I could bring chocolate with me without fear of it melting and I squirreled around in my bag for some fun sized confectionery to complete my snacktime before heading onwards towards Llanberis.

Now slate walls piled up to the sides of the path – remnants of the old workshops and the walls of the old Felin Fawr Mill. Mist came in with the ongoing drizzle as the path went upwards, soon onto wide and wild moorland, strewn with heather. The brightness of the purple plants would be gone in about six weeks time. As it was many plants had wilted from their summertime glory into shrivelled and dark stalks, and a third of remaining buds strained for the last of their survival.

Initially I followed a wide track that soon became narrowed and familiar long, dark grasses started to intrude – bogs. I picked my ways to the left and right, trying to avoid the worst of the damp clamp and pull, but despite valiant efforts, my boots still became sad and sodden.

I was concentrating too hard on looking at the ground, that on giving up on trying to avoid wet feet (they were about as wet as they could get by now) and looking up, the Yr Wyddfa massif ahead took me by surprise.

There’s little gentleness to the sights of the mountains here – where they were formed by a story now familiar, of the impact of landmasses and the ensuing volcanoes, their glacial sculpting created the famously treacherous aretes of Crib Goch and Y lliwedd. The great cliffs of Wales’ tallest mountain were used by Sir Edmund Hillary as he trained for his Everest excursion.

Unlike Everest, Snowdon wasn’t named in honour of a rich, white man; the Anglicised name came from the saxon snaw dun – ‘snow hill’. The Welsh name of Yr Wyddfa means ‘barrow’ or ‘tomb’, thought to refer to the cairn that was thrown over the body of the giant Rhitta Gawr after the legendary King Arthur defeated him.

So far King Arthur has come up in reference to many hills and mountains on my long distance hiking this year. It seems that all pieces and places of the UK would quite like a part of him and his story. However, the legend has always been firmly rooted in Wales and South West England. So whilst the claims of the Eildon Hills up in Melrose that he and his knights sleep below them are faintly amusing, the great mass of this Welsh mountain could well have been the genesis of a story of the mythical slaying. It certainly has taken enough lives.

There are two specific black spots on Yr Wyddfa – the notorious Crib Goch arête and the scrambles on the Pyg and Miners Track. The latter are completely approachable in good weather, but the speed with which the clag descends can easily make them treacherous which, when combined with quick, high winds up on the already gruelling arête means that the exposure of Crib Goch should not be a first choice of route for the enthusiastic newcomer to the mountains. Most first timers take the Llanberis or Rangers tracks upwards, but the pushing on social media of the more skilled paths means that Llanberis Mountain Rescue is having to attend to and extract more and more people that ventured up underprepared and out of their depth finding themselves injured, exhausted, cragfast, lost, exposed, frightened or, occasionally, dead.

Call outs to Llanberis Mountain Rescue have increased 400% in 10 years. Last August there were 43 callouts, a record previously held only by the August before when there were 34 callouts. Numbers are not yet final for this August, but seeing as three days after I started the trail a group was having to be rescued after attempting to climb in stilettos, I’m not particularly hopeful that common sense has overcome.

(Edit: An update to say, sadly, August of 2021 continued this awful trend with 49 callouts now being the highest monthly total on record)

My path would not be going anywhere near Snowdon. Even if it was, I have the balancing skills of a walnut and Crib Goch is not the route for me.

The misty, marshy, moorland wander followed a stream among the peat and I forded two others with limited levels of success before a slate ladder stile emerged. Farmland and drywalls started to appear; many of the walls scattered down to barely knee height as sheep and ponies seemed to wander where they wished. One curious pony followed me across a field, at least I had thought he was just curious. Towards the end he flung his head, neighed loudly, bucked and started a mock charge. I quickly scrambled back, with a loud squeal of my own, over the pathetic drywall which, thankfully, the pony decided was distance enough. It pranced off, stopped, glared back at me, and went back to chomping grass. I scurried quickly while his back was turned.

Llyn Padarn, the large lake below Llanberis, took up the valley ahead as the path went down into the woodland. Apparently feral goats roam these woods, but they were avoiding me for now. I’m guessing they’ll be yet another animal that hates me on sight. I came to a lane and squeezed out the way of a car turning into a narrow drive. A lady wound the window down.

“You look like you’ve had a hard day!” She announced. I hadn’t thought I’d look that rough yet but apparently I was wrong. She offered me the opportunity to go inside for a cup of tea and whilst I was incredibly tempted, I knew anywhere to get a warm meal in Llanberis would likely close soon. Not because it was late, but because many places close early. She cheerfully waved me on my way and I eventually stumbled out the trees and across the bridge by the Slate Museum.

Vivian Quarry Inclines

On the steep hillside around Llanberis, there are the old incline tables that would carry the slate from the former Vivian Quarry.

The restored V2 incline was built in the 11870 and is formed of two level carriages. One would be lowered with a full wagon, whilst the other raised with an empty one.

They descended onto the Padarn railway, where the slate would then be transported away and out the valleys to the construction industry worldwide.

These inclines were built on the steepest traverses and operated by cables from a brakehouse up the slope.

The clocktower started to chime its bells and, with that, I knew the museum closed. Apparently it’s a great one and I do love oddly specific museums. There’s apparently fully recreated workshops, demonstrations of the V2 incline, and workshops on how to build a den. I’m not sure what den building has to do with slate, but for a person that lives on a second floor flat with no garden I was disproportionally disappointed in missing out.

500 million years ago, mudstone slowly started to build up in layers over the millennia in a shallow sea. As the volcanoes that blasted Yr Wyddfa into existence appeared, the mudstone became overlaid with hot lava and thick ash, the heat and pressure from which transformed the mudstone shale into the distinctive deep purple limestone. The glaciers that came next cut into the mountains, and when they retreated, the slate muscles of the mountains were exposed.

Mining started around what is now Llanberis 1,800 years ago with the Romans starting to clad their own roofs in it, but it was really the advent of the industrial revolution that boosted it into a prominence and a globe-supplying industry. The Penrhyn quarry still continues, but historical documents of the time of the revolution released by the Penrhyn family themselves now show the true extent of the greed of original owners – intentionally keeping their workforce in reliant poverty, and using their transporting ships to engage in human trade within the slave triangle.

I ate a hot curry before leaving in the early evening, climbing steadily up the contours of the hills. Behind me was the Glyderau range and the now derelict Dinorwig Quarry below. As I reached above the highest fell wall, I looked at the mountains on three sides and, down below, Llanberis and its lake; slate tips shining darkly in the lessening light. I set up my camp despite the cries of one particularly indignant sheep and crawled up into my warm bag, keeping the fly open until the last pieces of sunset stopped colouring the sky.

It was going to be a well-earned rest and a lovely night.

Wasn’t it?

  • Distance: 13.5 miles
  • Total Elevation: 2460ft
  • Terrain: Cycle paths, country lands, field paths, moorland, modest ascents and descents
  • Toughness: 4/10
  • Maps Used: OS Explorer Map OL 17 Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa, Conwy Valley/Dyffryn Conwy

7 thoughts on “Snowdonia Slate Trail, Day 1: Bangor to Llanberis (13.5 miles)

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