Once a booming centre of industry, Blaenau Ffestiniog – “the town that roofed the world” – has been reinvented as a centre of excellence in outdoor pursuits. And it’s the town’s residents that are leading the initiative.
Blaenau Ffestiniog is a fascinating place. This close-knit slate quarrying community in the Vale of Ffestiniog has been the butt of a good-natured joke or two over the years, it’s true; one such jibe being that it never stops raining in Blaenau, an accusation its residents vehemently – and cheerfully – deny. Another oft-quoted peculiarity of Blaenau Ffestiniog is that sheep apparently have the right of way on the roads. A song – “Dawns y Glaw” (Rain Dance) – by one of Blaenau’s most famous (or infamous) exports since the industrial slowdown – the musical group Anweledig (“Invisible”) – dealt with both claims quite neatly:
“Defaid ‘sgen yr hawlia yn fama
Wel chwarae teg nhw oedd yma i ddechra
Yn y gaea’ mae nhw’n cael eu cneifio
Ac yn yr haf mae nhw’n gwisgo sombreros
…Pawb yn deud fod hi’n bwrw glaw yn Blaenau Ffestiniog
Wir i chi, mae hi’n braf o hyd yn Blaenau Fffestiniog”.
Roughly translated, this means “sheep have the rights here / fair play, they were here first / in the winter they’re sheared / and in the summer they wear sombreros / everyone says it rains in Blaenau Ffestiniog / truly, it’s still fine in Blaenau Ffestiniog.”
If quoting these lyrics seems a bit odd in an article promoting a tourism destination, bear with us a moment: there is a point to it all. And this point is that the community spirit in Blaenau and the surrounding villages in the “Bro” (the Vale of Ffestiniog) is so strong, and such a focal point of life in the region, that it will come as no surprise that the regeneration of the area has been largely led by the residents themselves.
In the 18th and 19th centuries Blaenau Ffestiniog sprang into existence – and grew rapidly – as one of the world’s premier sources of quality slate. From a cluster of farms a bustling town grew, and a number of quarries were opened; one, the Oakley, was at its peak the largest underground slate workings in the world, with 50 miles of railway track snaking its way through the quarry’s underground levels. Another – Llechwedd – is today one of Wales’ top visitor attractions, where visitors flock to experience life as a Victorian miner.
But all good things come to an end, and when the slate industry nosedived, unemployment levels grew and – like in so many parts of Wales where the Welsh language is dominant – people started to move out to look for work further afield, taking the language with them.
The community wasn’t going to take this lying down, though. Yes, the town had been built upon the fortunes of the slate industry; but the relics of the Bro’s industrial past would not be left to rot. Instead, the people of Ffestiniog decided, the post-industrial landscape would be regenerated, and turned into something that the community could continue to be proud of for many more generations. And thus, Antur ‘Stiniog was born.
Antur ‘Stiniog is a publicly-funded group which is tasked with not just putting the landscape to good use, but also with training local people to become outdoor activity guides, so that they may find – or even create – employment in an area that has been hard-hit by economic woes in recent decades. Quarrymen’s trackways are being converted into mountain biking tracks; slate-strewn mountainsides provide routes for walking and running (Ras y Moelwyn – the Moelwyn Race – is a big draw every April); and negotiations have taken place with Network Rail to turn disused railway lines into a Velorail, a pedal-powered railway system that will give visitors an unusual (and fun) way to explore the Bro. All going well, the Velorail will make its debut at the end of summer 2012.
Industry comes and goes, it’s true; when it comes, it brings boom economies and prosperity, and when it goes, it can leave behind a pockmarked, scarred landscape that some poor soul is always going to be lumbered with cleaning up. But in towns like Blaenau Ffestiniog, where the community works as one body, it’s all by-the-by: like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Bro won’t be kept down, and the challenge of reinvention and regeneration is an opportunity not to be missed.