Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Adventures In An Abandoned Slate Quarry

Outdoor enthusiast Emily Woodhouse reflects on risk, reward, and the echoes of an area's industrial past she uncovered on a slate mine climbing mission in North Wales

When I was at university, some friends took me around a disused slate quarry in North Wales. It was a washout weekend. Our options were: get drenched and blown off a hillside, or get drenches and cold on a valley trudge. We’d spent the day before scrambling up Tryfan into face-first hail. Not quite ready to resign ourselves to two pints of tea in Pete’s Eats, we’d found a more exploratory option. Something outside and interesting, which might keep us a little bit drier on some sides.

“The climbers stepped in almost as soon as the quarrymen stepped out”

There is a long history of slate mining in Wales. There’s also a long history of rock climbing. Often in the same places. The climbers stepped in almost as soon as the quarrymen stepped out. The route we took through the quarry was not quite rock climbing. It was also not quite legal. It involved winding in and out of quarry pits via a series of tunnels, abseils, rusted metal access ladders and a little bit of rock climbing. We put on helmets, harnesses and full waterproofs, packed a head torch and set off. Although we were following someone else’s route, one that’s well enough known in the rock climbing community, we did have to step over a single chain link fence to get in. Whether the sign said Private, No Access or Survivors Will Be Shot Again, I can’t remember. But it had the feeling of sneaking out of bounds at school.

Credit: Emily Woodhouse

We were there over 10 years ago, but that dismal day is right up there on my most memorable days out ever. Yes, we got completely soaked. But we climbed broken ladders and dangling chains up smooth slate cliff faces. We walked down dark, dripping tunnels into what, for us, was the unknown – funnelled, crouching and wondering if we’d read the notes right… until a slab of flat, grey sunlight appeared around the corner. Atmospheric conditions were favourable. It was fantastic.

We snaked in and out of pits, tunnels and slate workings all day, until the finale. It looked like a scene from a movie. Just when we thought we’d cracked the maze and escaped, there was one final obstacle. High above ground level, a landslip had collapsed the slate shale slope, leaving a gaping slash out of the landscape. This huge gorge, with scree-like stability, was spanned by a single railway track, hanging in mid air like a thin, twisted metal ladder. That was the way.

We roped up and I crawled across second. The lines were only shoulder width apart. I could feel the bridge wobble below me and shake in the gusts of wind. It had at least stopped raining. Over halfway, there was a gap in one rail, where the rusted metal had buckled. I’d like to say that I stared down at the drop beneath me as I transitioned, to take in the view. But all I remember is two sets of wet metal handrails, burned into my memory, and the lurch as I crossed over.

Trespass and access are very much in the news in the UK at the moment. Right to Roam campaigns and access movements are popping up, in counterbalance to the Countryside Right of Way Act deadline and the proposal to criminalise trespass. It’s made me wonder about that time I stepped over a fence in Wales, left no trace and had an unexpectedly brilliant day.

“It turns out that where we were is still very much off limits”

I’d just been following friends at the time (“It’s fine, everyone does it”) but it turns out that where we were is still very much off limits. The British Mountaineering Council, who negotiate access rights for climbers, advise the current situation is sensitive but tolerated, as long as climbers cause no damage and leave if they are asked by security staff.

Why is this the case? A bit of research led me to only one main reason: fear of litigation. The owners don’t seem to be particularly worried about potential damage – it is a disused quarry after all. But they do seem to be very concerned that someone might damage themselves on their land, then sue for it. This seems rather sadly ironic, given rock climbers are probably more concerned about being sued themselves for being there.

Certainly the area is not without risks. There is regular rockfall in the area and a bothy we popped into is now under 10 metres of stone. Luckily, no one was trapped. A few years after we were there, the swaying bridge of doom finally fell down in a storm. There was no one on it, but there could have been.

“It looked like the miners had just popped out for five minutes and forgotten to come back”

Would any of those risks have stopped any of us? Unlikely. Would anyone actually sue for damages sustained in a place where they shouldn’t have been? I can’t imagine it – certainly not in the traditional group of people who might use it. Would the owners really prosecute trespassers? They haven’t yet. If only we could all trust each other to act fairly and responsibly.

At lunch time on our quarry adventure, we ducked into a ruined building to escape the thunderhail. It was a simple, stone, outbuilding above a cliff with the roof fallen in and slate on the floor. No doors or windows left. There was a wooden bench in the corner though, and we sat on it silently munching our sandwiches.

On one wall there was a wooden coat rack, with a jacket still hanging on it, and a shabby pair of old boots left in the far corner. There was a broken tea pot on the windowsill. I couldn’t believe it. My friend took his red GoreTex jacket off and hung it to dry on an unused peg. You get so used to seeing the stone shells of empty buildings, but it looked like the miners had just popped out for five minutes and forgotten to come back.

A large area of northern Snowdonia has been recognised as having special cultural heritage in the Welsh Slate Landscape. It has recently been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, with a decision to be made in 2021.

The recently developed Snowdonia Slate Trail hopes to let people explore the industrial heritage of the slate villages throughout Snowdonia. It is an 83 mile loop for walkers that starts and finishes in Bangor, passing through Llanberis, Beddgelert and Betws y Coed as well as many smaller villages along the way. Walkers are taken along valleys and around the main mountain ranges, through areas that are rarely visited. 

“A large area of northern Snowdonia has been recognised as having special cultural heritage”

These initiatives could be great for the area. It could share and preserve local history, help visitors understand the area’s wider context and boost the local economy. But an UNESCO stamp does also highlight it as something “worth” visiting.

I think of the tiny pocket of chaos on the summit of Snowdon and the 350,000 people who climb it each year (when just one ridgeline over the hills are empty).

Then there are trails like the North Coast 500 in Scotland. Designed only six years ago, it’s been so well marketed that it’s become a victim of its own success. The Herald Scotland reported it “attracted an audience of 3.3 billion people around the globe in 2018” and has become so commercialised that places are actually asking to be removed from the route to escape. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, before you even knew what you had, you packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox (or, more likely, a bamboo coffee mug). 

One of the most recent additions to the UNESCO family in the UK and the first National Park to be recognised is the Lake District. It got UNESCO status in 2017 to much fanfare and celebration about what it meant for protection and conservation of the area. Yet there is a lot of recent news about fly camping and overtourism.

I’m sure it’s not always like that. In fact, I know it isn’t. I’ve spent tens of days in the Lake District that have been the exact opposite. But I’ve never been to the Lakes in summer. Did people visit before UNESCO? Certainly. Is it a contributing factor? Maybe – or the Wainwright challenges or the Three Peaks or the lack of international travel options this year. Do the conservation and protection benefits outweigh the extra tourism? My optimist says yes. My cynic points at the Thirlmere zip wire plans and raises a single snarky eyebrow. 

That was all pretty negative, but things really could swing the other way. Recognition of heritage areas and creating new routes could help landowners and planners see new value in protecting and opening up landscapes. No sneaking through back doors with the risk of a confrontation for trespass, but a simple celebration of local history.

“Would that quarry have been so special if we were supposed to be there?”

The more I think about it though, the more I wonder if that would take away some of the magic. Would that quarry have been so special if we were supposed to be there? If those boots and coats had been accompanied by shiny information boards and QR codes there would have been no feeling of discovery.

The difference between visiting a museum and finding treasure. Put anything behind glass and you’ve made it even more separate from the present. An old boot in an exhibit is pretty boring, but found by chance it’s a magic the like of which I’ve never recreated. It brought what, to me, was a distant and abstract past starkly into the present. They stood here, on this floor, by this wall. They sheltered here, just like you are right now.

Surely this is a selfish attitude. Why should history be left hidden on hard-to-reach cliff tops? I guess there needs to be balance. But an average does still mean leaving things at either extreme – as well as everything in between. Plus, heck, I’m a mountaineer. I’m caught in the tension between accessible and impossible, known and undiscovered. I thrive off risk and edges. Maybe that’s not how everyone thinks, but it’s certainly not uncommon in the mountain-loving community. It’s a complicated cocktail of protection and management, conservation and wilderness – access vs ownership vs commercialisation. I don’t propose to have the answers, but I hope that there will always be some places left to simply be.


For more from our Wales Issue 

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