Blaenau Ffestiniog

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Blaenau Ffestiniog
Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Cymru - Wales 04.JPG
Church, Blaenau Ffestiniog
Blaenau Ffestiniog is located in Gwynedd
Blaenau Ffestiniog
Blaenau Ffestiniog
Location within Gwynedd
Population4,011 (2011)
OS grid referenceSH705455
Principal area
Ceremonial county
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Historic county
Postcode districtLL41
Dialling code01766
PoliceNorth Wales
FireNorth Wales
UK Parliament
Senedd Cymru – Welsh Parliament
List of places
52°59′38″N 3°56′20″W / 52.994°N 3.939°W / 52.994; -3.939Coordinates: 52°59′38″N 3°56′20″W / 52.994°N 3.939°W / 52.994; -3.939

Blaenau Ffestiniog is a town in Gwynedd, Wales. Once a slate mining centre in the historic county of Merionethshire, it now relies heavily on tourists, drawn for instance to the Ffestiniog Railway and Llechwedd Slate Caverns. It was once the second largest town in North Wales, behind Wrexham.[citation needed] After reaching a population of 12,000 at the peak development of the slate industry, it fell with the decline in demand for slate. The population of the community of Ffestiniog, including the nearby village Llan Ffestiniog, was 4,875 in the 2011 census: the fourth most populous community in Gwynedd after Bangor, Caernarfon and Llandeiniolen. Blaenau's population is now only about 4,000.[1][2]

Etymology and pronunciation[edit]

The meaning of Blaenau Ffestiniog is "uplands of Ffestiniog". The Welsh word blaenau is the plural of blaen "upland, remote region". Ffestiniog here is probably "territory of Ffestin" (Ffestin being a personal name) or could possibly mean "defensive place".[3][4] The English pronunciation of Blaenau Ffestiniog suggested by the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names is /ˈbln fɛsˈtɪnjɒɡ/,[5] but the first word is pronounced [ˈbleɨna] in the area, reflecting the features of the local dialect.


Looking down towards Blaenau Ffestiniog town in summer

Farming (before 1750)[edit]

Before the slate industry developed, the area now known as Blaenau Ffestiniog was a farming region, with scattered farms working the uplands below the cliffs of Dolgaregddu and Nyth-y-Gigfran. A few of the historic farmhouses survive at Cwm Bowydd, Neuadd Ddu, Gelli, Pen y Bryn and Cefn Bychan. Much of the land was owned by large estates.[6]

Slate (1750–1850)[edit]

Blaenau Ffestiniog town arose to support workers in the local slate mines. At its peak, it was the largest town in Merioneth.[6] In 1765, two men from the long-established Cilgwyn quarry near Nantlle began quarrying in Ceunant y Diphwys to the north-east of the present town.[7] The valley had long been known for its slate beds and worked on a small scale. The original quarry has been obliterated by subsequent mining, but it was probably at or near Diphwys Casson Quarry. Led by Methusalem Jones, eight Cilgwyn partners took a lease on Gelli Farm for their quarry. In 1800, William Turner and William Casson from the Lake District bought the lease and expanded production.[8] Turner was also the owner of Dorothea quarry in the Nantlle Valley, adjacent to Cilgwyn.[9]

In 1819, quarrying began on slopes at Allt-fawr near Rhiwbryfdir Farm, on land owned by the Oakeley family from Tan y Bwlch. Within a decade, three slate quarries were operating on Allt-fawr. These amalgamated to form Oakeley Quarry, which became the largest underground slate mine in the world.[10]

Quarrying expanded fast in the earlier 19th century. Notable quarries opened at Llechwedd, Maenofferen and Votty & Bowydd, while Turner and Casson's Diphwys Casson flourished.[6] Further off, Cwmorthin and Wrysgan quarries were dug to the south of the town, while at the head of Cwm Penmachno to the north-east, a series of quarries started at Rhiwbach, Cwt y Bugail and Blaen y Cwm. To the south-east another cluster worked the slopes of Manod Mawr. The workforce for these was initially taken from nearby towns and villages such as Ffestiniog and Maentwrog. Before the arrival of railways, travel to the quarries was difficult and workers' houses were built nearby. These typically grew up round existing farms and roads between them. An early settlement was at Rhiwbryfdir, for the Oakeley and Llechwedd quarries. As early as 1801, new roads were built specifically to serve the quarries. By 1851, there were 3,460 people living in the new town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.[6]

Urbanization (1851–1900)[edit]

A view of Blaenau Ffestiniog from Graig Ddu, c.1875 NLW3361243

During the 1860s and 1870s the boom in the slate industry fed the nascent town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. It gained its first church and first school and saw much ribbon development along its roads.[6] By 1881, its population had reached 11,274.[11] The slate boom gave way to a sharp decline. The 1890s saw several quarries lose money for the first time, and several fail entirely, including Cwmorthin and Nyth-y-Gigfran.[12]

Blaenau Ffestiniog hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1898.

Slate decline (1901–1950)[edit]

The slate industry recovered from the recession of the 1890s only partly. The First World War sent many quarrymen join the armed forces and production fell. There was a short post-war boom, but the long-term trend was towards mass-produced tiles and cheaper slate sourced from Spain. Oakeley Quarry took over Cwmorthin, Votty & Bowydd and Diphwys Casson, while Llechwedd acquired Maenofferen. Despite this consolidation, the decline continued. The Second World War brought a further loss of workforce. In 1946, the Ffestiniog Railway closed.[12]

Since 1945[edit]

In August 1945 the secluded farmhouse of Bwlch Ocyn at Manod, belonging to Clough Williams-Ellis, became the home for three years of the writer Arthur Koestler and his wife Mamaine. While there, Koestler would become a close friend of his fellow writer George Orwell.[13]

Blaenau Ffestiniog, 1959
Blaenau Ffestiniog in the Autumn

The remaining quarries served by the Rhiwbach Tramway closed during the 1950s and 1960s. Oakeley closed in 1970, with the loss of many local jobs. It re-opened in 1974 on a much smaller scale and was reworked until 2010.[14] Maenofferen and Llechwedd continued, but Maenofferen finally closed in 1998.[15] Llechwedd is still a working quarry, working the David Jones part of Maenofferen (level two-and-a-half).

As the slate industry shrank, so did the population of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which fell to 4,875 in 2011. Tourism became the town's largest employer, with the development of Gloddfa Ganol in the Oakeley quarry and the Slate Caverns at Llechwedd quarry. The revived Ffestiniog Railway and Llechwedd remain popular attractions, as are the Antur Stiniog downhill mountain-biking centre,[16] and more recently the Zip World Titan zip-line site, which includes the Bounce Below slate-mine activity centre.


Blaenau Ffestiniog, seen from Moelwyn Bach, showing the large waste heaps that dominate the town

Blaenau Ffestiniog consists of distinct areas, several of which take their names from settlements that predate the town, including Rhiwbryfdir, Glanypwll and Cwmbowydd.[citation needed]. Other local villages, notably Tanygrisiau and Manod, are sometimes taken to be parts of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Although the town is in the centre of the Snowdonia National Park, the boundaries of the Park exclude the town and its substantial slate-waste heaps. Blaenau Ffestiniog is known as the town with one of the highest rainfalls in Wales. It has several reservoirs, one of which supplies the Ffestiniog Hydro Power Station. Stwlan Dam can be seen between two of the mountains in the area, Moelwyn Bach and Moelwyn Mawr. The mountains around the town form a watershed between the River Lledr flowing north as a tributary of the River Conwy and the River Dwyryd flowing west.


Glan-y-pwll School, Blaenau Ffestiniog c. 1895

Ysgol y Moelwyn is the main secondary school, covering Blaenau, Manod, Tanygrisiau, Llan Ffestiniog, Trawsfynydd, Gellilydan, Maentwrog and stretching into the Vale of Ffestiniog and Dolwyddelan. It came third in Britain's best county school list[clarification needed] in 2006 and had 309 pupils in 2016.[17] Some pupils travel to neighbouring towns.

There are five primary schools in the area.

Welsh language[edit]

Most people in Blaenau Ffestiniog habitually speak Welsh. At the 2011 census, 78.6 per cent of residents over the age of three stated that they could speak it, a slight fall from 80.9 per cent at the 2001 census.[18] The latest inspection reports of the town's primary schools, Ysgol Maenofferen and Ysgol Y Manod, both in 2016, put the proportion of pupils speaking Welsh at home at 87 and 85 per cent. At the town's secondary school, Ysgol y Moelwyn, 82 per cent of pupils came from Welsh-speaking homes in 2014, making its Welsh-speaking intake the highest among secondary schools in the former county of Meirionnydd and fourth highest among those in Gwynedd.


The main access to Blaenau Ffestiniog is the A470 road running north to Llandudno and south to Dolgellau and beyond. The A496 runs south to the coastal resorts of Harlech and Barmouth and connects with the A487 towards Porthmadog and the Llŷn Peninsula. Immediately north of the town, the A470 climbs steeply to the Crimea Pass and meets the A5 at Betws-y-Coed, giving access to Llangollen, Wrexham and Shrewsbury in the east and Bangor and Holyhead in the west.

Bus services in the town are mainly provided by Arriva Buses Wales and Llew Jones, with routes to Porthmadog, Dolgellau and to Llandudno via Betws-y-Coed and Llanrwst. Town circular services via Tanygrisiau are operated hourly on weekdays by John's Coaches.

Blaenau Ffestiniog railway station, on the site of the former Great Western station, is used by the Ffestiniog Railway and the Conwy Valley Line, their previous stations being no longer in use. The Conwy Valley line runs to the North Wales coast at Llandudno Junction, with links to Chester, Holyhead and Manchester.

At various times the town has been the terminus for four independent railway lines, each with its own station or stations:


Blaenau Ffestiniog's tourist attractions include the Ffestiniog Railway and the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, a former slate mine open to visitors. Llechwedd is often put as one of Wales' top five visitor attractions.[19] Near Blaenau Ffestiniog there are miles of mountain landscape with derelict quarries, rivers, various lakes and walking routes.

Several mountain biking trails have been created, some suitable for competition level. Bikes are available for hire.

The town centre has several cafes and pubs. Its other features include child-friendly potholing, poetry walks, art centres, and views of the area.[citation needed]


Cyclist on one of the new 'Antur Stiniog' tracks

The town centre has recently been regenerated, as funding from organisations, grants and the Welsh Government of £4.5 million are spent. A new bus station has been built along with new viewing areas for neighbouring mountain ranges. Several slate structures have been built with poetry engraved on them. These are about 40 ft tall and are intended to echo visually the slate hills and mountains. Poetry and local sayings have also been engraved on slate bands set into pavements in the town centre.[20]

Various walkways have been installed, as well as a series of downhill mountain biking trails by Antur Stiniog.[21] A kilometre-long zip-wire has been erected at Llechwedd Slate Caverns, which is popular with thrill-seekers.

If plans go ahead Blaenau Ffestiniog will have the UK's first vélo-rail, which is popular in France.[22]


Many artists come to Blaenau Ffestiniog for the landscape around it, perhaps inspired by the harshness of the slate tips. They include Kyffin Williams and David Nash.

During the Second World War, the National Gallery stored art treasures in one of the mines in the town in order to protect them from damage or destruction. The large steel gates are still standing and the system[clarification needed] to preserve the paintings remains in the caverns.


Blaenau Ffestiniog has a strong musical tradition from the quarrying days, ranging from the Caban, male voice choirs and brass bands, to the Jazz/ Dance bands like "The New Majestics" and the popular rock bands of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Llwybr Llaethog and Anweledig, to more recent bands such as Gai Toms, Frizbee and Gwibdaith Hen Frân. The local alternative-music training school Gwallgofiaid has over a dozen bands based at its centre at the Old Police Station in Park Square, which has five rehearsal rooms, a 24-track studio and Cwrt performance space.

Notable people[edit]

In birth order:


See also[edit]


  1. ^ UK Census (2011). "Local Area Report – Blaenau F. population (W37000076)". Nomis. Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 8 July 2021.
  2. ^ UK Census (2011). "Local Area Report – Tanygrisiau population (W00000278)". Nomis. Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 8 July 2021.
  3. ^ Mills, A. D. (2003). A Dictionary of British Place-Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198527589.
  4. ^ "Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru".
  5. ^ G. M. Miller, ed., BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names, Oxford University Press, 1971. ISBN 0-19-431125-2
  6. ^ a b c d e "Blaenau Ffestiniog: Understanding Urban Character" (PDF). Cadw.
  7. ^ "History of Slate and Slate Quarrying". Stone; an Illustrated Magazine. 28 (3). August 1907.
  8. ^ Gwynfor Pierce Jones and Dafydd Walter Dafis (2002). "Water Power in the Slate Mines of East Ffestiniog" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 May 2012. Retrieved 10 June 2019. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ Lindsay, Jean (1974). A history of the North Wales slate industry. David & Charles.
  10. ^ Jones, R. Merfyn (1981). The North Wales Quarrymen, 1874–1922 (Studies in Welsh history; 4). University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-0776-0.
  11. ^ Davies, John (1993). A History of Wales.
  12. ^ a b Boyd, James I.C. (1975) [1959]. The Festiniog Railway 1800 - 1974; Vol. 2 - Locomotives and Rolling Stock; Quarries and Branches: Rebirth 1954-74. The British Narrow Gauge Railway. Blandford: The Oakwood Press. ISBN 978-0-85361-168-4. OCLC 874117875. B1B.
  13. ^ "The Untouched Legacy of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell". 24 February 2016. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  14. ^ "Quarry losses hit Snowdonia town". 17 March 2010 – via
  15. ^ Sallery, Dave. "Maenofferen slate quarry in 1975".
  16. ^ "Blaenau Ffestiniog mountain bike centre given go-ahead". BBC News. 22 March 2011.
  17. ^ "Ysgol Y Moelwyn". Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  18. ^ "Census results by community". Archived from the original on 22 October 2013. Retrieved 9 September 2013.
  19. ^ "The top 10 attractions in North Wales". Archived from the original on 18 August 2006.
  20. ^ "Visit Blaenau Ffestiniog Snowdonia Wales - Things to do and see".
  21. ^ Antur Stiniog website accessdate: 13 November 2013
  22. ^ "Linkliste Railbike". 9 January 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2013. lists 14 vélo-rails in France, totalling 146 km.
  23. ^ "Inside the Inner Wheel". International Inner Wheel. Archived from the original on 24 July 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  24. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 18 July 2015. Retrieved 7 June 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) |Patagonian dignitaries to visit for twinning.

External links[edit]