Thursday, 17 July 2014

Adventures in Slate City: Blaenau Ffestiniog

Gosh, it's over a month since these things happened. Doesn't time whizz by?

The Snowdonian town of Blaenau Ffestiniog - roughly pronounced Blyna-fest-innyogg - Slate City to you and me - is one of the places to go to if you wish to hear Welsh spoken in the street. For me, on the evening of 9 June, a mother calling after her little son on a scooter duly obliged. The little lad was scooting vigorously up a side road towards the main drag. Up a street like this:

He was scooting towards the anything-but-busy main road through the place, which looks like this:

It was his bid for freedom. Really, there was no danger whatever - it's such a quiet little town in the evening - and there was no need to tell him not to go past the corner, but mum bawled something at him that contained the word 'cornel', as in 'Dafydd, I'm telling you, don't go further than the corner!!'. And he answered using the word 'yma' (meaning 'there', as in a phrase such as 'I'm not there yet, Mum!'), making the nature of the exchange adequately clear. I don't think she spoke to him in Welsh for my benefit, nor to keep things a secret. It's just what you do in this part of North Wales.

Welsh spoken naturally is encountered not only in Blaenau Fffestiniog. I'd heard Welsh spoken by an older couple in Waitrose at Menai Bridge, two days earlier. And I would overhear a street conversation between two thirty-something women (professional types) in Abersoch, two days later. This part of Wales is the heartland of the living, spoken language.

That said, Blaenau has the air of a closed, secret town where outsiders are noticed at once, and kept an eye on. At least in the evening, after the tourists have gone. The tourists come because this is the terminus of the famous narrow-guage Ffestiniog Railway, a steam line, and in the centre of the town there is a station that this outfit shares with the regular standard-gauge line that comes down from Llandudno on the north coast. This is the station complex. Imagine it teeming with visitors, cameras clicking:

In the evening, it's just a short cut for the locals. People walking dogs, children going home from whatever after-school activity they had attended. I stopped to chat (in English - she didn't mind) with a local woman walking her dog across the railway lines. The narrow-guage part of the station had closed for the day. But not so the (equally-deserted) Network Rail part, served by the Arriva trains from Llandudno - more on that in a bit.

One thing you'll notice is that Blaenau is surrounded by hills, many of them converted into gigantic, tottering piles of slate. It was a mighty slate-quarrying centre in the nineteenth century, with the world's biggest underground slate mine. Slate was of course the standard roofing material for a very long time. Most of the male population in the town was in some way engaged in prising top-quality slate from those hills, in slabs big and small. It was very dangerous work. A quarryman faced serious injury on a daily basis. And this danger, and living in a somewhat remote highland location, created a tight-knit working community with an inward focus, whose spirit has not vanished, even though the industry itself has almost gone and is now mainly a tourist attraction.

So you come to Blaenau by railway to see slate. You might also come for a number of other touristy things that have been developed to provide a revenue for the town.

It's a compact place, easily taken in. I'm thinking that if you don't care for its history or the rather overwhelming (and somewhat worrying) piles of slate, there is little to bring you here. I saw for instance only two bookshops. One was open in the daytime, but sold mainly quirky stuff, including (apparently) bits of slate. The other was in a dingy and uninviting little building off the main road, open only once a week on Fridays. (What a way to run a business!)

There were in fact quite a lot of closed-up shops, which seemed to be the flip side to the bright new tourist facilities.

The one-time premises of J Ephraim, TV rental, sales and service, whose phone numbers, when trading, had been 0756 831621 and mobile 0831 590326, which indicates that the shop closed a long, long time ago. Similarly with the Central Co-op building next door, which the local estate agent had marked down to a 'New Reduced Price' without much hope. These closed shops were right in the town centre, where, if it ever buzzed in Blaenau, the buzzing would be loudest. And yet there were no takers.

In fact I found almost nothing open for the residents except a couple of kebab houses and one or two pubs, which had 'men only' written all over them. I strove to imagine that somewhere in the back streets there was a Rugby Club, the entertainment hub of the town, the place where all the grown-up boys and girls go. But all I saw was a group of bored girls sitting by the bus stop (they ignored me), and a couple of bored lads driving aimlessly around in the usual kind of boy-racer-on-a-budget Ford Fiesta, the type with lowered suspension, squealy tyres, and a pointlessly loud exhaust. You know. Which suggested to me that the Rugby Club wasn't open that evening. Or that all the young persons in the town were skint.

That there was a Rugby Club was proved by a poster I found stuck in a window:

Geoff Jukes and his retinue of girls to ogle. Now I've heard of him before. Might have been some TV documentary. Anyway, here he was in the poster, looking every inch the seasoned stag or hen night impressario, inviting every young (and not-so-young) man in town with red blood in his veins to join him in a celebration of boobs, bottoms and beer. A euphemistically-termed 'Gentlemen's Evening', nudge nudge, wink wink. His shows are supposed to be 'legendary'. All for £10 - which, as I have pointed out in these annals, is what you must now pay for only slightly more than two hours' parking at Wakehurst Place, the ruinously-expensive-to-visit Kew Gardens outpost in Sussex. On balance, I would for preference actually go and see the 'legendary' performance, just for the experience. I might come away feeling that (a) it was far better value for money; and (b) I had been privileged to see small-town Welsh life from the inside - which would be well worth the effort.

And despite being a hoity-toity Sussex person, and allegedly trans*, I think a hen party at a Welsh Rugby Club would be one of life's singular events, not to be missed.

And would I dress up like a shameless tart? Would I drink too much, giggle myself silly, shriek with laughter, wet my knickers, and bay for more exposure from the male strippers, just like the rest of the girls? I probably would. How could you not? And why would you hold back on this kind of female hysteria, this kind of bonding, given the opportunity?

But I wouldn't want to live in Blaenau. It's too grey, too close-knit, too Welsh. It's cheap, though - look at this, for instance: Yes, three bedrooms, a garden and a garage for just £89,950! Tempted?

I turned mine eyes unto the hills eventually. The A470 heading north, taking Fiona up to to the pass over the mountains; and then back down again, and away to the caravan. I couldn't help noticing the standard-gauge railway line that runs north to Betws-y-Coed, Llanrwst and Llandudno.

It has to use a long tunnel to get through the local mountain. It's a very long tunnel indeed: 3,726 yards, or more than two miles. It is in fact the longest single-track tunnel in the UK. I pulled in to look at the south portal. Something in my memory...about when a train might appear...from when I wandered over the tracks at the station in the town centre. Yes, I'd vaguely taken in that the next Arriva train would depart from Blaenau at 8.20pm, or thereabouts. And therefore it must arrive shortly before. If, that is, my casual glance had indeed gathered in the right information.

It was now 8.10pm. And it was spitting with rain. Was it worth waiting? The rain spat. The boy racers passed, then came back. They must have wondered why that woman with the posh Volvo was staring at the slate mountain. After five minutes, I felt rather a chump. But I would kick myself if I drove away, and missed this unlikely-to-be-seen-again happening. So I stuck to my post. Ah, could I hear a slight rumble? Then I saw a light, and delightedly watched the train emerge from the tunnel, right on time:

  Good things come to those with a bit of patience!


  1. Correct me if I am wrong but the Severn Tunnel is also a single track and is 4.5 miles long ?

  2. I am no expert in these matters! Perhaps the Severn Tunnel was built to accommodate two tracks, even if only one now remains, and so its bore is larger. A local friend may decide to comment and settle the issue.


  3. Well Lucy I have travelled down that tunnel many times when travelling from Ireland to Bristol and if memory serves me correctly the tunnel is hardly wide enough to accommodate two trains and I have never met another coming in the opposite direction.

  4. I'm happy to agree with you then! It was Wikipedia who gave me the longest-tunnel information, and they do occasionally get things wrong.


  5. The Severn Tunnel is twin track, though like Heron, I've yet to met another train coming in the opposite direction. There's currently a nice 2009 photo showing the inside of the tunnel on the NetworkRailMediaCentre.



This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford