National Slate Museum

Llyn Peris looking towards Dinorwig
Llyn Peris
The Smelting Floor at the National Slate Museum
The Smelting Floor at the National Slate Museum

‘Look at that! We’d got a little bit lost driving through Llanberis, following signs to God-knows-where, trying to find the National Slate Museum and marvelling at the cute picturesque village of Llanberis, filling with tourists like Gore-tex covered sprinkles. 

We stopped outside of town, in a layby, and ran across the road to stare at the Llyn Peris mountainside opposite, and the Dinorwig Powerstation nestled between its two limbs. The hillside was cut vertically in massive rectangular shapes. Carved like peats from a bog – I could almost see a giant’s foot upon the top strut of a spade – pushing and slicing the rock like clay before me. 

This part of the mountain looked like the work of machines – but traditionally the miners would have scaled such sheers, in pursuit of slate, by hand. The men (for they were patriarchal places blessedly consigned to history)  were accomplished mountain climbers. Using counterbalances and ropes, they’d hack huge lumps of slate out of the mountain – letting them tumble – before whittling them down to size piece by piece. The site then used a narrow-gauge railway to help transport these loads back and forth between the sites. It was a site of investment and prosperity (for a time). 

As I looked over the edge of the lakeside, I noticed the ‘beach’ was a mixture of cut slate fragments lying perpendicular to each other in a semicircular bay. It was a beach from Hell – angular, jutting, cutting to the flesh. 

But we did find the Museum eventually, after turning around, popping over the bridge and gliding into the carpark.  It was a pretty reasonable £4 all day for parking and the Museum and accompanying sights were free. Someone remarked on Trip Advisor that £4 was expensive, but maybe they’d never been anywhere else before. The entrance was a great lawn of slate – cold and grey and slightly intimidating.  

Inside, the museum looked like the Mary Celeste – tools downed in great piles, slates half cut. It’s untidy and covered in industrial dust. Viewers are asked to squeeze into cupboard sized covings and watch old VHSs about the industry. One particular propaganda-style video shows miners re-enacting their tasks for a day of filming. It was obviously a welcome return – a hark back to the glory days that they cared for – but it was difficult to discern whether the men left with wistful hearts or were secretly glad they didn’t have to return. Maybe, their absence didn’t feel that long seeing at the mines were officially shut in 1969 and reopening in 1972 as a museum. These mines had trained the men in skills they would pay thousands for now – although that’s not to say that they had the better deal – apprenticeships were unpaid and the families forced to support their young men through the ordeal. 

The main smelting room was dark and cave-like. Grey-black sand layered the floor. It was saturated in the soot and the grot of many years. The blast furnaces, round and womb-like, bubbled like frog spawn at one end of the cavern. Warm light glowed from within like the comforting lights of a pub on a winter’s day – beckoning people inside. Of course, when stoked, these metal kilns would give off heat like the surface of the sun and we’d bow and tremble in their presence. Vulcan would work in their midst, hammer and anvil, pouring molten metals into compacted sand moulds in the ground – filing and sanding the metal struts and machine pieces that kept this great mining enterprise afloat.

Lining the wall along the upper staircase were a series of wooden cogs and whirlygigs with circular spokes like the sun, all painstakingly crafted with saw and chisel and skill. Up these stairs was the carpenters’ workshop, now dedicated to storing the original wooden moulds used in the casting process. The museum tells us that every millimetre, or imperial equivalent, was of the utmost importance, and the carpenter, like Jesus, stood head and shoulders above the other skilled workers in the pecking order of the mill. Up here the air felt dry – the smell of fresh-cut wood long since dissipated and the sawdust swept and thrown away. Here was certainly the neatest part of the exhibition. The floorboards clunked with dull warm thuds. 

In outside barns, came the snap and crackle of electricity and the loud whack of heavy metal levers, which were all driven by one enormous water wheel. Its radius is at least the height of two men. Rhythmically, hypnotically, whirring; the largest water wheel in Europe turns at just the right speed to make you want to watch. To bring on drowsiness and peace. The water movement makes you feel as if you are staring at a natural wonder – but it isn’t. It’s a machine, a tool, a carving of mother nature from her most troublesome child – humanity. 

Outside the compound are the workers’ cottages – each decorated in the style of a different time. The four houses (moved brick for brick onto the museum site) had decor that spanned the mid C19th to the mid C20th. Some of the older visitors looked at the C20th one a little amused. My mum told me it reminded her of her Nan’s flat. 

I wonder what would date our houses now? They seem timeless in the present, merely representing ‘house’ in our minds. But give it 50 years – what would we pick out as quintessential early C21st? A flat-screen T.V. and an X-Box? Eerily sterile furniture? Live, Laugh, Love wall hangings? Or will it be the absence of things that dictate our aesthetic – no books, videos, records; no hi-fi, no VHS, no cathode rays, no record players, no sculptures or candlesticks. Perhaps it will just be plastic, plastic, plastic.

The museum has faced some criticism from a Government-commissioned review which supported charging for certain exhibitions (what these would be weren’t specified – but slate is only so interesting). It implied that the visitor experience needed to change and  enhanced by additional funding and Dr Simon Tharly says the museum is ‘tired and old fashioned’. I mean there’s always room for improvement, but there is a danger in turning this from an experience of authenticity into yet another sterile museum environment. I also would like to remind people that this is a museum about slate mining. The average person really isn’t too fussed about cutting up rocks and making roofs. They’re lucky anyone visits to be honest. And the last thing this place needs is a kiddie centre – you know – with old toys bashed and frayed beyond recognition with no real educational use beyond parents wishing to abandon responsibility for their sprogs for 15min.  

The museum also offered live demonstrations of how to spilt slates, and you are free to walk the grounds, see where they’d extract the slates from, the hill winches and pullies and the hospital museum further up the hill. 

Later on, if you have time you can nip across to the other side of Llanberis and visit the round castle of Dolbadarn, built by Llywelyn the Great in the 13th century. It was plundered by Edward the I for beams, later used in Caernarfon castle. I don’t think he personally stole them though. That would probably be a little unkingly. The castle ruin, however, is so beautiful it has been immortalised by many romantic painters, like Turner and I spend good twenty minutes waiting for an annoyingly purposeless family to get out of the view so I could take this picture below. Please enjoy! 


8 thoughts on “National Slate Museum

      1. I don’t know actually, 😅I read about the place in a book and I love the place already. What, according to you, is the most picturesque place in Wales?


      2. I think The Snowdonia National Park as its the most mountainous part (and I love mountains). I used to live in Aberystwyth and the coast there is beautiful as well, as for the South I think its quite lush with rolling hills, but I’ve not visited. You can’t go to Wales without checking out Snowdonia though.

        Liked by 1 person

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