Slate landscape for world heritage

Materials World magazine
19 Dec 2018

The slate landscape of North Wales could become a world heritage site. Ellis Davies investigates.

A UK panel of experts recently announced that the Gwynedd slate landscape will be put forward as the country’s preferred nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2021. The region of North West Wales is an example of a cultural landscape formed by centuries of quarrying, working and transporting of slate to global markets, and is commonly said to have ‘roofed the 19th Century world’.

The bid was developed over several years by Gwynedd Council on behalf of a number of partners, including the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales, Cadw, the National Slate Museum, Bangor University, the National Trust, and Snowdonia National Park Authority. It has been devised as a serial nomination comprising seven sites, which Gwynedd Council see as the best examples of quarrying techniques, human interaction with the landscape and social changes in the region.

The proposal outlines a number of reasons why the area is important.
Among these are that it is a demonstration of the regional manifestation of the industrial revolution and the seizing of worldwide markets, technological and expertise transfer, an example of a complete quarrying landscape, and a profound influence on architectural style the world over, with material use on all types of buildings – from terraced houses to palaces. The bid also highlights the adaption of an area from agriculture to an industrial society and the reinforcement of minority culture by global industrialisation.

A bit of history

Between 1780–1940, Wales became a world leader in the production of finely grained roofing slate, of ingenious technical innovation in quarrying and stone processing and a prototype for narrow gauge railway technology for mountainous environments. The transformation through large-scale slate exploitation took the region from a sparsely populated area to a landscape dominated by industry.

Roland Evans, Senior Manager for Culture and Communities at Gwynedd Council, told Materials World, ‘Physical testimony is characterised by exceptional survival – the vast majority of this evolved landscape remains intact and highly legible. The extraction of Gwynedd’s mineral wealth shaped not only the landscape, but also the communities that lived and worked in its mountains. A rich and enduring social legacy is partly sustained by continued slate exploitation sustaining a living tradition, knowledge and know-how. This industry remains an important employer, and continues to support communities who take pride in their heritage, their distinctive culture and everyday use of a minority Celtic language.’

Affecting industry and tourism

Michael Bewick, Managing Director of J W Greaves, the company that owns and runs the Llechwydd Caverns site in Gwynedd, spoke to Materials World about managing the possible restrictions of a world heritage bid. ‘Each area involved in the world heritage bid has a management plan that will reflect what may be developed in the future. At first I was troubled by this because there is no real way of knowing what developers will want to do 10 years from now,’ he said. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are subject to restrictions on development so as to preserve the site in question. This can have an impact on businesses, both commercial and industrial, in an area that may wish to expand.

‘There’s a lot of trust, but we have worked closely with the council for many years [and feel that we] will retain some influence. But, it is an interesting challenge to balance the needs of businesses with that of the heritage site,’ said Bewick.

In terms of industry, Bewick said, UNESCO guidelines say that active quarrying or mining sites cannot form part of a world heritage site. ‘[This is] a little odd when you’re making a site out of a quarrying and mining landscape,’ commented Bewick.

To compensate, the bid does not include the areas of ongoing industrial practice in Gwynedd, such as the Penrhyn quarry and the Llechwedd slate quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog. Active planning permissions will be upheld for these and other such sites, so they will be able to continue their practice should the area become a World Heritage Site.

A study titled An assessment of current and potential economic impact of heritage, 2015, notes that if the world heritage status was secured and maximised to its full potential, jobs in the area could rise from 8,250 to 14,000, turnover from £515m to £850m and gross value added from £180m to £307m from 2014 to 2030 respectively.

Gwynedd Council believes it is important that an industrial landscape such as the region be considered a world heritage site because ‘human-kind was founded on stone, and there is no landscape based on the oldest industrial activity – extracting and working stone – on the World Heritage List’.

Bewick added to this, saying, ‘Slate created a unique combination of industrial and social culture. I think, therefore, it’s very important for somewhere like Gwynedd, which is remote, to be able to talk about its industrial story and how that affected the landscape and the people.

‘I think the world heritage bid really validates and emphasises the culture. What we’re trying to ensure is that the physical traces of an important historical and industrial culture are retained.’