An extract from Peter Goulding’s upcoming ‘Slatehead: The Adventure of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene.’ This article delves into the quarrymen and how they once climbed and navigated this grey and slippery landscape for the exploitation of slate in the 19th and 20th centuries, a source of vital employment in the area; how the decline and decay of the industry then saw a spike in interest in climbing as a leisure activity particularly in the 1980s and then, in turn, how this ‘professionalisation’ of climbing has become another mechanism of employing people.
Down the road from the pass, Nant Peris is the first place I see the plum-purple scree slopes of the slate quarries, stepped levels and galleries. Four-fifths of every piece of slate taken out of the ground stayed in the quarries, just tipped out down slopes, pouring down to the water at Llyn Padarn or Llyn Peris.
«Get in!» I think, «I’ll be up there tonight». Bus Stop at worst, but maybe a further stroll in, have a look at something in Nuremberg or Serengeti, not far from the old quarry road.
But first. Dive into Pete’s and feed my face, meet up with my mates at the campsite and get ready for the week. I’ve got a wallet stuffed with notes – cash-in-hand hasn’t entirely died out in the building trade. Some of that will be spent on a fry-up, and I need a new harness, which I can buy from one of the many gear shops on the High Street. I’ll be lucky – or worryingly disciplined, borderline depressed – if I manage not to buy anything else, like a shiny gadget or a climbing book.
Llanberis is a village well known for being smack in the middle of eight different types of climbable rock. Tourism is massive for the local economy; with gear shops and cafés, huge numbers of walkers, climbers, day-trippers and cyclists drop their holiday money into the local tills. Outdoor centres dot around the valley, running courses for new people who know that the only thing they know is nothing. This means jobs, both for long established climbers and guides, and new starters in the guiding and leisure industry who might equally come from a local Welsh-speaking local school, or anywhere across Britain.
It wasn’t always like this. Llanberis and the villages around – Nant Peris, Deiniolen, Dinorwig – were the mountain quarrying villages. The skilled quarrymen had a respected culture, as well-defined as coal mining communities across England, Scotland and South Wales. Slate-splitting was seen as a quintessentially Welsh skill, one of the main competitive events in the National Eisteddfod alongside poetry and singing. For the two hundred years when the quarries had shipped roof-slates across the world, the quarrymen’s wages had supported the local economy and Welsh-language culture. Meanwhile the owners – the aristocratic Assheton-Smythe family – had grown filthy rich.
But from the middle of the twentieth century, the trade in slates had started to decline. In 1969, following collapses of scree and cancelled French orders, the owners closed the quarry. The managers sent out three hundred redundancy notices to the remaining quarrymen while they were taking their two weeks holiday. At the stroke of a pen, the line of father to son quarrymen was cut.
The community reeled and adapted as best they could. They had a headstart on the rising unemployment that would grip the country in the late seventies and early eighties. The climbers who moved to Llanberis had ageing ex-quarrrymen as their neighbours, who tried to warn them about rock-fall and who needed help cutting wood because their lungs were full of dust.
On a slab in Nuremburg, I step up and stack my fingers in a smooth sided shothole. I’m still low down, barely off the ground so I’m not scared yet. I’m on good ledges so far, the crux of the route is still up above my head – I’ve got time and mental space spare to look at what I’m crawling up. The shothole sinks into the face of rock, rays and fractures spread out from it. These are the marks left – years ago – by the explosion of a handful of blackpowder that levered off the blocks that hid this slab.
There are pieces of film of the quarrymen, easily available on the internet, footage in scratchy black and white, British Pathé newsreel. This was the equivalent of the little clips and snippets shown on the One Show, except broadcast through cinemas to crowds waiting for Gone With The Wind or Ice Cold in Alex. It is good to watch the quarrymen with a modern leisure climber’s eye, especially if you’ve had a few days on sport routes, or done Snakes and Tunnels and Ladders. When I look at them, I try and identify the bits of rock, ask myself is that the corner of German Schoolgirl or the niche at the back of the Rainbow Slab? I haven’t spotted anything I could solidly identify and I’m unlikely to. The sheets of rock the quarrymen are working on would likely be blasted off the next day.
On the crackly old black-and-white film, the quarrymen ‘abseil’ down ropes to get to the area they need to blast next. They grip the rope with their hands and walk their feet down the rock, no harness, no prusik. They reach a ledge, the kind of big-but-nervy stance you might find on Tomb Raider or Slate of the Heart. Rather than tie into a belay, the quarrymen would wrap a loop of rope round their thigh to hold them in place.
To make the shothole, they wrapped the pneumatic cables of the heavy steel rock-drill around their body, a bit like the old Joe Brown-era body belay. Then they would start to bore the hole, periodically having to blow the dust out of the hole, or it would jam the body of the drill which would kick and jerk with enough torque to wrench a shoulder elbow or wrist.
Once the hole was in, a handful of blackpowder would be poured in and tamped down, the fuse set with enough time for the quarrymen to escape to their blast shelters. When the flame scurried down the fuse and touched off the blackpowder, the explosion – a sudden expanding cloud of gas – forced its way out along weak-points, loosening the rock away from its face. More powerful explosive wouldn’t have worked, it would have obliterated the rock. Paper-covered gelignite charges were used only for getting rid of bad-rock: the pillars of dolerite, and warped slate too wavy to use.
After the blast, back down the ropes, and unsling their iron bar to lever off big dice-like blocks or coffin-lid sheets of slate to crash below. The blocks were hauled away on narrow gauge railway tracks to the splitting sheds there to be converted by the slate-splitters into roof-slates. All this hillside, all the big sinks like Twll Mawr or California, the huge levelled crater of Australia were made like this. Two hundred years of small explosions, then levering off the rubble with simple iron bars.
On my laptop at home, I watched an old bit of footage of one of the quarrymen shinning up a rope. He climbed it easily, like a Royal Marine on his training course, or a kid in an old school gym. He gripped the rope with his feet, it is inch thick hemp rope which is fat and hairy, hard to imagine doing this with something as skinny and smooth as 10mm smooth nylon. Then he reached and hauled up with his hands. Up that rope as clean as anything, because he had been doing it every working day of his life since he was fourteen. The footage stops just before he had to mantle up over the edge of the cliff he’s been working on. I’m disappointed, I wanted to see if he used his knee or not.
The quarrymen’s skill wasn’t really in drilling the hole, setting explosives or going down the ropes. The greatest part of the skill was reading the rock, understanding the planes and swirl and the grain, and knowing what bits would be bad-rock, and what bits would cleave roof-slates ‘fel menyn’ (‘like butter’). Some of the quarrymen, after thirty or more years working on different levels could identify the origin of any given roof-slate by its colour and grain. The Welsh-speaking men who did the work were distinct from the usually English-speaking managers and owners, who assumed they could apply what they had learned from brickworks and factories to the quarries. This led to the quarrymen’s core belief that ‘only the Welsh could read the slate,’ if you spoke to the rock in English it wouldn’t listen.
The work was highly dangerous, especially working on the levels and galleries. Explosives, long drops, stacks of loose rocks, the kind of lethal territory that rock-climbers spend time ‘cleaning’. Heavy machinery. A lump of slate as small as half a brick could be fatal, landing on a quarryman’s cloth cap-covered head. Steel helmets only came in well after World War Two.
By the time the Dinorwig quarry was shut down, 362 quarrymen had been killed – this is the origin of the name of Colin Goodey’s route 362. This doesn’t count the numbers of men who died before their time. Working in the splitting shed was just as dangerous, the little puffs of stone dust being breathed in, microscopic scar tissue inhibiting the function of the lungs, silicosis, pneumoconiosis, industrial diseases that led to death.
Stevie Haston’s 1981 route Comes The Dervish proved that slate could be really good. It wasn’t the first route, there had been climbing explorations in the various quarries since the early sixties. But Comes the Dervish was important because it was accessible enough – walking distance from the village – and a very high-quality route at a desirably dangerous grade. Throughout the wet middle years of the eighties, when only the slate was quick to dry in between showers, hundreds of routes got put up. From peak-danger on the Rainbow Slab of Cystitis By Proxy and Rainbow of Recalcitrance, to Cliff Philips’ solos Looning the Tube, and California Arête to early emerging sports routes like The Take Over by Department C, for a few years the slate was where it was at.
By 1988, the standard of technical excellence was leaps ahead, unbelievable pieces of kinaesthetic dance put up by Johnny Dawes, The Quarryman, Coeur de Lion and The Very Big and Very Small. The hard climbs put up in the eighties are still hard today, still desirable and impressive ticks in a hard climber’s CV.
Most of the climbers in the 1980s were on the dole, government sponsored, having a great time, living the leisured life of multi-millionaire playboys, climbing all day and partying all night. They weren’t just unemployed by choice, there was very little prospect of work at all; three million other people in the country were in the same boat. The dole-climbers didn’t add a lot to the local economy, just survived as best they could between benefits, odd shifts at Pete’s Eats, petty crime and cash-in-hand work.
The villages were real places with real people, no tourist trap or hollowed out by second homes like the winter-dead empty villages on the North Norfolk coast. Many of the incoming climbers found the villages to be like the places they were from, although with Welsh language spoken instead of regional accents of Scouse, Woollyback, Cockney or Brum.
The young dole climbers stuck it out in the slate village. They went to the same pubs as the local lads, the Padarn Hotel and disco at the Dolbadarn, and went out with the local girls. But the eighties bright lycra and punky armless t-shirts were way more visible than the previous generations of incoming climbers: «The old quarry men didn’t know what to make of them. The young locals react against them,» wrote Paul Pritchard in his book Deep Play.
Over time, the differences softened out. Very few of the local Welsh lads climbed: the rare ones who did such as Gwion Hughes, were a bridge between the young Welsh and the young English. Individuals built friendships, relationships formed and formalised and settled down. Some incoming climbers who couldn’t fit in didn’t last for long. By the time of the second summer of love, the coach-loads of young people going to raves were just ‘from Llanberis’. Climbers would ultimately send their kids to the local school that taught in Welsh and English. Andy Newton, originally from Liverpool told me, «It takes me a second to realise, that when my son says ‘We’re playing tonight’ – he means a Wales match.»
In 2016, I travelled across the country to do a course at Plas-y-Brenin with the slightly naff name of Ready To Rock. It was subsidised by the BMC, and for £120 I got a whole weekend’s instruction plus bed and board. We were driven out in a minibus on the way out to Holyhead Mountain, which was the only place it wasn’t raining. The instructors in the front were discussing climbs, working out how much of a ‘megaclassic’ Comes The Dervish actually was, even now, with its dropped grade and polish of popularity.
Most of the instructors were local, bi-lingual in Welsh and English having grown up in villages like Clwt-y-bont. Being a climbing, or outdoor activities instructor has become a regular job. It isn’t necessarily well paid – jobs that sound fun and involve working weekends rarely are – but it is a job, no worse than bar or kitchen work. Some senior instructors like Mike Raine and Andy Newton came to Llanberis in the eighties. The skills and experience they got as climbers, looking after themselves and their mates on trad-routes and killing time in the quarries, feeds down to today’s younger generations of instructors.
On the Sunday night immediately after the course finished, I went and joined people who would become new friends from my local climbing club – the internationally renowned Norwich Climbing and Mountaineering Club – who were in Wales for the week. Mates like Lee and Garry had watched videos like Stone Monkey, and dragged me into the quarries. They showed me how to clip, and to make myself safe while I threaded my rope through the chains at the top of low-ish grade sport climbs.
I loved it, straight away. I found out I could climb anything at French 6b – with one fall. The people I found myself climbing with quickly became brilliant friends. And I loved just being in the levels and galleries. I was scared of – but also intrigued by – the flight of stairs running down to an abandoned hut from the Looning the Tube level. When you climb in the quarries, there is an extra dimension of history. It is a human place, between the ghosts of the quarrymen who created the landscape and the climb-names of a generation of climbers who were on the dole but lived with the freedom of millionaires.
Autor: Peter Goulding
Photos: Peter Goulding – UKC Articles