An industry that was dominant far beyond the reaches of Wales saw tens of thousands working the slate mines and quarries of North Wales, shipping roofing slates by the hundreds of tons from ports like Porthmadog - a commercial port in the 18th and 19th Century rather than a holiday hotspot as it is today. As World War I effectively wiped out the lucrative German market for roofing slate the industry went into rapid decline, and behind it a grey landscape of abandoned quarries, above and below ground, and spoil heaps remained.
Wales’ natural beauty has long attracted visitors, but it’s these post-industrial landscapes thare now seeing the sort of growth once associated with the slate mining industry. While the numbers employed in this fledgling, but growing, industry will never match the 17,000 employees of the slate industry at its height these numbers are dwarfed by the footfall of tourists 40 years after the first tourism developments at Llechwedd Slate Caverns.
The post-industrial landscape of centuries of slate quarrying and mining
In many ways the slate industry of North Wales is typical of the history of heavy industry of Britain; where once the UK was a world leader in coal mining and shipbuilding, in steel manufacturing and railways, the industrial process than typified and simultaneously scarred our landscapes has left todays society with a dilema on how to deal with the often brutal remains of centuries of exploitation. In Snowdonia one response has been to re-imagine these post-industrial landscapes as a resource for the increasingly important adventure tourism and leisure industry.
Since Zip World opened its doors to the public in 2013, it has welcomed over 1 million visitors and brought in excess of £251 million to the North Wales economy. Over the last 6 years, Zip World has become one of Wales’ largest attractions and boasts the world’s fastest zip wire and longest in Europe. Set in the former Penrhyn Quarry that once played a pivotal role in Wales’ mining industry the complex has created over 450 paying jobs and 93.3% of those employees were local to the area. In the process it's turned what was once considered an eyesore and a "blot on the landscape" into something productive and positive.
Working with Visit Wales we recently spent two days with the team from Zip World, not only checking out the zip lines and underground adventures, but also talking to both employees and visitors. Far from our preconceptions that the complex would be staffed by part-time workers, migrating in and out of the area seasonally we met people who were talking about "career paths" and a full time staff working all year round and drawn from the local communities. Of over 20 staff members chosen at random we met just one who wasn't born and bred with 20 miles. Our guide, Tina, celebrating her 24th birthsay, has already risen from an assistant position through 2 levels to become a Team Leader and sees Zip World as an opportunity for a real career with a pathway to progress further in a growing company.
The contrast between the stunning natural landscapes for which Snowdonia is renowned and this brutal landscape couldn't be greater, but the reality is that it would take decades for nature to reclaim what was once the deepest man made hole in the world and it's a dilemma that's replicated across the country. The very nature of many of our upland areas is one where the rocks and mineral deposits have given us both the hills and mountains loved by an increasing number of outdoor adventure seekers and simultaneously an industrial legacy of exploitation, and the two aspects will inevitably jar. In re-imagining this landscape as a resource the leisure and tourism industry has managed to preserve the important aspects of an industry recognised as a Global Heritage Stone Resource by the International Union of Geological Sciences while providing new opportunities for employment and site-suitable adventures.
The paradox of the outdoor industry, and particularly the UK outdoor industry, is that while we flock to the mountains of Europe every year to walk, climb, and ski, by default we're collectively "up in arms" at the very thought of the developments we see in the gondolas, ski lifts, mountain restaurants, and zip lines of Switzerland and Austria "desecrating" our "wild" landscapes. The common rsponse is "I have nothing against (insert ziplines, railways, mountain huts etc as appropriate), just not here". We have a communal sense of dissonance when it comes to developments in what, in the majority of cases, is far from a natural landscape anyway after millennia of human interference. It's a dissonance that's fed by a romantic vision of our countryside rooted in Victorian era poets, a period when, paradoxically, our "wilderness" areas were also at the height of their industrialisation. In the Lakes and the Highlands the physical scarring of our old industries is not as extensive and "in your face" as the acres of dark, depressing, spoil heaps of Blaenau Ffestioniog and Bethesda, and perhaps this explains why in North Wales it seen as acceptable where elsewhre it generates campaigns and demonstrations. A zip line across an abadoned industrial site doesn't jar to the extent that a similar development would in an otherwise serene landscape of lakes and wooded valleys.
Whatever the questions are over location, the example set in Snowdonia shows that, in the right place, the outdoor and adventure industries have the capacity to enhance, both socially and economically, while sitting geographically alongside our revered "wild area". The key lies in that phrase "in the right place".
In terms of adventure the rise and rise of Zip World has been amazing. The vision of one man, Sean Taylor, has seen the business grow from a single developement, Velocity, at Bethesda as recently as 2013 to a stable of activities; Velocity at Bethesda, a forest based zip complex at Betwys y Coed, Europe's largest zip line complex at Blaenau Ffestiniog, Zip World Caverns with it's giant underground Bounce Below trampoline complex and underground via ferrata. In the last 12 months these have been added to with an alpine style "taboggan on rails", Fforest Coaster, in the forest site and a new "Quarry Karts" course over 3km of the Llechwedd site.
Bounce Below and Zip World Caverns:
Bounce Below and Caverns are two of the three components of the Zip World Llechwedd complex, with Bounce below offering a series of net-based adventures where you bounce and slide through 6 levels with drops of up to 20metres below and Caverns offering an underground zipline and via ferrata complex in the depths of the old slate caverns.
The whole underground complex is monitored constantly by an emergency response team, always ready to assist if a customer freezes on the underground zip lines and via ferrata.
Zip World Titan:
Zip World Titan is one of two above ground, quarry based, zip line complexes in the area. While Velocity offers the World's fastest, and Europe's longest, zip line Titan offers the biggest complex of zip lines in Europe. With three seperate zip lines, each sporting 4 seperate cables, you get a great view of the post-industrial landscape as you make your way down from the high point to the main site's complex in the heart of the old quarry. Here old buildings have been converted into cafe's reception and breifing areas and even a pub.
Britain's greatest mountaineer,Alan Hinkes, ready to go - Zip World Titan