It was back in 2010 when I first drove through Blaenau Ffestiniog. The rain clouds hung heavily over the mountains and the huge piles of slate-waste that dominate the town. What an astonishing place! If one area of Britain more than anywhere else illustrates how vast the Industrial Revolution had been it was this part of North-West Wales. I later discovered similar landscapes in such towns as Llanberis and Bethesda. The industry had been vast! As a photographer based in a former heavily industrialised part of North-East England, I had spent time around disused mining sites, slag heaps and abandoned holes in the ground as well as working industry, but nothing on this scale and nothing in such a stunning natural environment.
I was visiting Wales with a friend who had once worked in London selling Welsh Slate as canapé trays, wine racks and place mats – often to high-end restaurants. We drove straight to the home of his once supplier and now old friend in the mountains. Alan Hicks and his wife Ianto run their small business from a workshop at home. Alan had worked in the quarries for decades before and he splits slate with a masterful hand and keen eye. Looking out over the landscape from there and watching Alan splitting slate convinced me to start what would become a two-year long documentary.
Welsh slate is still being quarried although in just a few places in North-Wales, and during that two years I documented the men working up in the mountains. Each trip I stayed at ‘Tudor Lodge’ – a great little place in Porthmadog and each day I set off into the mountains in an old 4×4 to photograph the slate splitters. Spanish and Chinese slate now dominate the market and yet the rock men and splitters still have a twinkle in their eye as they talk of their superior quality ‘old vein’.
Tourism rather than industry is now forging its way through the landscape. At Blaenau Ffestiniog a world-class downhill mountain bike run has been created and there are plans for the longest series of zip wires in Europe. Steam trains that once took slate to be shipped across the world at Porthmadog now take daily trips for tourists and enthusiasts. Most importantly Llechwedd Slate Caverns and the National Slate Museum both of which celebrate their 40th anniversaries in 2012, give tourists access to the history and lives of those who created with bare hands those man-made mountains.
I worked closely with Llechwedd and The National Slate Museum throughout the project and it was felt we needed a final output – a testament. How could we show a set of photographs in a way that linked the men and those mountains? At this point I should probably thank a man called Michael Bewick – Michael, from Llechwedd, has been my closest ally and support and when I hesitantly made a suggestion of a way to display the work I received a cheerful ‘that shouldn’t be a problem’.
Working with the type of equipment I do (a 5×4 view camera) gave me an option – to print huge. It wasn’t long before I found myself dangling from a rope or up a ladder in locations across North-Wales pasting images directly onto rock surfaces above and below ground. Images, which were up to 50ft high, were placed in former mine and quarry sites – often sites where tourism has found a new secondary industry. Climbing, diving and cave exploration have all made use of what the rock men left behind. The pastings were designed to weather – degrade and disappear – fade away and tear – like old advertising posters.
The work is on-going – while images have faded and disappeared in several locations they can still be viewed at Corris Mine Explorers where they survive underground and images will soon be appearing at Llechwedd, Llanberis and Bethesda. However – the Welsh weather dictates the length of the exhibition so keep your eyes peeled and visit soon!
This project was supported by:
Arts Council Wales, Gwynedd Council, Snowdonia National Park, The National Slate Museum, Llechwedd Slate Caverns, Tudor Lodge – Porthmadog.