Looking at a map of the Snowdonia National Park, there is an obvious circle highlighting the fact that Blaenau Ffestiniog has been, (most would say unfairly), deliberately omitted from the national park. The original thinking was that because of its industrial past and the heaps of splintered slate surrounding the town, Blaenau Ffestiniog was a blot on the landscape. Blaenau Ffestiniog responded, by turning the town into a tourist hotspot.
Surrounded by craggy mountains on three sides, Blaenau Ffestiniog sits in a south-facing natural bowl. All around are the tell-tale, blue-grey slate spoil tips, bleak and yet fascinating and somehow ruggedly beautiful. It’s the slate that today’s visitor come to see and slate artefacts they come to buy. Slate was and is the basis of prosperity in this town and slate will forever be the landscape.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Welsh slate roofed the world and a lot of it came from these parts. Great seams of slate 40-50ft in thickness lay beneath the surface at a 45 degree angle, meaning that underground excavation was the optimum method of retrieving the natural resource. One of these tunnels beneath the mountains is Llechwedd Slate Caverns, which has benefited from the demise of the Welsh slate mining industry, by reopening as a tourist attraction. Railways take visitors deep beneath the ground for a fascinating tour of the caverns. Tableaux and sound and light presentations, demonstrate mining skills and graphically describe the hardships suffered by the miners. Above ground there is a Victorian village with old-fashioned shops and a pub.
Many of the visitors to Blaenau Ffestiniog will have arrived on the Festiniog Railway, whose trains wind their way up the mountains from Porthmadog through magnificent scenery. This narrow-gauge railway was originally built to transport slate from the mountains to the sea and from there, around the world.
Another popular tourist destination is the site of the UK’s first pumped storage hydro-electric power station at nearby Tanygrisiau. Ffestiniog Power Station and Hydro Centre, on the shores of the Tan-Y-Grisiau reservoir, is the starting place for a guided tour of this fascinating power station. An audio-visual presentation, displays, exhibitions and moving models show how electricity is generated and used. The tour can include a startling drive up an amazing, narrow, twisting road to Stwlan Dam, where the views are outstanding.
Blaenau Ffestiniog has had new life breathed into it, thanks to the tourist industry. A period of decline has now been reversed, making this town once again the bustling, cheerful place it once used to be.