It had been a long, arduous day on the trail, my feet felt heavy and my stomach ached with hunger. I was ready to stop and make camp but I knew it wasn’t a place I could spend the night. Not alongside that dark eye of the tunnel – the one that led into the slate mine they once called ‘the Slaughterhouse’. Not amongst the crumbling remains of the village that once stood here at Cwmorthin, high up in the mountains of Snowdonia, where the silence could be broken by the echoes of the long lost community. Perhaps even the ringing of the bell that used to hang over the ruined chapel I was slumped against. Cold air seeped out from deep within the mine shaft and swept past my bare shins. I shivered, picked up my bag and carried on along the trail.
I was on my third day of hiking along a new path called the Snowdonia Slate Trail. Starting at Bangor, it heads inland to the town of Bethesda and then forms a complete loop of 83 miles around the heart of North Wales’s National Park. Devised as a way of connecting people to the area’s industrial heritage, the route visits the places where the world’s largest slate mines and quarries once stood; the places that at one point in the late nineteenth century had been responsible for over 90 per cent of the UK’s slate exports. The places where the average life expectancy of a slate worker was as low as 34 at one point.
Sea to Summit
A few days before, I’d arrived in the late afternoon at the coastal town of Bangor where I left my car and headed straight up into the hills which were hidden in the clouds. I spent my first night camped at the foot of a huge slate tip that smothers one side of the mountain of Carnedd y Filiast. These tips would become a familiar site along the trail – only 10 per cent of the stone that was extracted from the quarries was usable after all. It had to go somewhere.
The clouds were still low the next day and the mist over the jagged and black slate pile I was traversing created an eerie, moon-like atmosphere. I walked along through the clag with my head down tucked underneath my hood, the stones tinkling and cracking with each step. Then, as if in an instant, the clouds parted and the sun burst through to reveal colours all around me.
Snowdonia slate wasn’t just sought after throughout the world for its quality, but also for its aesthetic, coming in rich purples or a kind of patina-like green. From the hilltop I was walking across I could see Anglesey and the whole north west coast of Wales. I could see that long and high flowing line of Nantlle Ridge, and not much further in the distance, Snowdon in all its glory.
On the other side of a jungle of ferns I found Dorothea Quarry where 350 men were employed during the 1930s. Today, all that remains are the skeletons of the buildings; piles of slate formed into tall gables and leaning walls waiting to fall one day, perhaps during a particularly harsh Snowdonia winter. Rusted machinery and tools lie strewn around here, unmoved since the last days of the industry in the 1970s.
That night I pitched down by the lake within the valley, and, while the water in my stove bubbled gently, the sun began to set, and the swallows swooped around me, I looked back up to the quarry, trying and failing to imagine the chaos of sound and sight that would once have come from it.
A Wander Through Waterfall Country
The Slate Trail’s route sticks mostly within Snowdonia’s valleys, going through the mountains rather than over them. The occasions when it does rise up high is to visit the quarries, and these are long, tough slogs. One of the hardest ones for me was on Day Three of hiking with the lung-busting, calf-straining ascent to the ruins of Rhosydd mine. Back in the slate days, those who worked here would have set off from their homes late at night on a Sunday in order to reach work on the mountaintop by 6am. They’d then stay in the barracks during the week. Short, tough lives.
"...this trail could earn itself the status of ‘a Classic’"
Discovering the fascinating slate heritage of the area was something I had expected before I had set out on the hike, but there was a completely different aspect that I hadn’t pre-empted, and this was the amount of incredible deep river pools to swim in. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve visited that’s been better for it. One of the finest spots was within an area surrounding Blaenau Ffestiniog which, despite being slap bang at the centre of Snowdonia, isn’t actually within the National Park. (The ‘town that once roofed the world’ is still very much recovering from the end of the slate days and a decision was thus made to make it exempt from the Park’s regulations so as not to scare away any potential employers).
The Slate Trail markers guided me from the old high street of Blaenau Ffestiniog down off the hill, through fields and eventually into sun speckled woodland to weave between the pines. I came to a ravine with a waterfall streaming down into it from a narrow gap above. Below me, a deep, clear pool glistened. I threw down my pack, kicked off my shoes, emptied my pockets and jumped down into the cool water.
The Perfect Ending
By my fifth and final day on the Snowdonia Slate Trail, my body and mind had just about made the adjustment to life on the move; when I can tolerate the physical strain and my mind seems to calm, declutter and become focussed simply on enjoying my surroundings.
The route led me right through the length of the Arthurian landscape that is the Ogwen Valley, following the river as it flows between the towering mountains on all sides and skirting along the base of that gem of Snowdonia: Tryfan. Ask a six year-old to draw a picture of a mountain and something resembling Tryfan will be what they will produce, a perfect pyramid of rock that’s pinched to a point at the top.
In the latter stages of the West Highland Way, you reach Rannoch Moor to be presented with a perfect view of the beautiful shape of Buachaille Etive Mor – the reward for your efforts and toil over the last few days. And it’s the exact same case with Tryfan at the end of this route.
The Snowdonia Slate Trail reminded me so much of that trail through Scotland. They're a similar length, they’re both equal in their wildness and in their difficulty, and they both seem deliberately designed to give you the greatest slice of a country.
Unlike the West Highland Way, however, no one has cottoned onto the Snowdonia Slate Trail yet. Once they do, I think this could earn itself the status of ‘a Classic’.
“I was wondering if you could help me with a bit of a strange request,” I overheard a man asking a waitress at the cafe I had stopped off at on my last day on the trail. “I was here in Snowdonia about 30 years ago to film a movie at one of the abandoned slate quarries around here and I’m trying to find it again. Can you think where that might’ve been? It was a very, very atmospheric place – like somewhere from out of this world.”
Where to start? I thought to myself.
F10 GR 45:50
Outdoors Magic's editor Will used F10's new GR 45:50 for the Snowdonia Slate Trail. With its ergonomic, adjustable back system, excellent load distribution and range of storage options, it's a backpack that's perfect for any multi-day adventure.
Walk The Snowdonia Slate Trail Yourself
Distance: 83 miles
Start: Bangor (served by regular trains from stations around the country)
Finish: Bethesda (regular buses link Bethesda with Bangor)
Time: 4-6 days
Difficulty: The terrain is varied. Expect some steep climbs and rough, boggy ground in parts. The waymarking is very good though navigation skills are still essential.
Accomodation: A number of campsites and B&Bs line the route (visitsnowdonia.info)
More info: snowdoniaslatetrail.org