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Blaenau Ffestiniog

Coordinates: 52°59′38″N 3°56′20″W / 52.994°N 3.939°W / 52.994; -3.939
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Blaenau Ffestiniog
St David's Church, Blaenau Ffestiniog
Blaenau Ffestiniog is located in Gwynedd
Blaenau Ffestiniog
Blaenau Ffestiniog
Location within Gwynedd
Population4,011 (2011)
OS grid referenceSH705455
Principal area
Preserved county
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
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; -3.939

Blaenau Ffestiniog (Welsh pronunciation: [ˈbleɨ̯naɨ̯ fɛstˈɪnjɔg]) is a town in Gwynedd, Wales. Once a slate mining centre in historic Merionethshire, it now relies much on tourists, drawn for instance to the Ffestiniog Railway and Llechwedd Slate Caverns. It reached a population of 12,000 at the peak development of the slate industry, but fell with the decline in demand for slate. The population of the community, including the nearby village Llan Ffestiniog, was 4,875 at the 2011 census: the fourth most populous in Gwynedd after Bangor, Caernarfon and Llandeiniolen. The population not including Llan 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 features of the local Welsh dialect.


The Old Market Hall
Looking down towards Blaenau Ffestiniog town in summer

Farming (before 1750)[edit]

Before the slate industry grew, present-day 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 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 slate beds worked on a small scale. The original quarry has been wiped out 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 also owned 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 grew 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 drawn initially 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 for the quarries. By 1851, there were 3,460 people living in the new town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.[6]

Urbanisation (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] The Old Market Hall, which also served as the town hall, was completed in 1864.[11] By 1881, its population had reached 11,274.[12] 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.[13]

Blaenau Ffestiniog hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1898.

Slate decline (1901–1950)[edit]

The slate industry recovered only partly from the recession of the 1890s. The First World War sent many quarrymen into 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.[13]

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 became a close friend of his fellow writer George Orwell.[14]

Blaenau Ffestiniog, 1959
Blaenau Ffestiniog in the Autumn

The remaining quarries served by the Rhiwbach Tramway closed in 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.[15] Maenofferen and Llechwedd continued, but Maenofferen finally closed in 1998.[16] 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 does the Antur Stiniog downhill mountain-biking centre,[17] 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

Some 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 exclude it and its substantial slate-waste heaps. Blaenau Ffestiniog has one of the highest rainfalls in Wales. It has several reservoirs, one of which supplies the Ffestiniog Hydro Power Station. Stwlan Dam lies between two of the mountains in the area, Moelwyn Bach and Moelwyn Mawr. The mountains round 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, 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 had 309 pupils in 2016.[18] Some pupils travel to neighbouring towns.

There are five primary schools in the area.

Welsh language[edit]

Most Blaenau Ffestiniog people habitually speak Welsh. At the 2011 census, 78.6 per cent over the age of three said they could speak it, as against 80.9 per cent at the 2001 census.[19] 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.


Double Fairlie locomotive David Lloyd George at Blaenau Ffestiniog station

The main access to Blaenau Ffestiniog is the A470 road 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. Just 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.

Town bus services 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 placed among Wales's top five visitor attractions.[20] 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 competitions. Bikes are available for hire.


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 intended to respond visually to the slate hills and mountains. Poetry and local sayings have also been engraved on slate bands set in pavements in the town centre.[21]

Various walkways have been installed, and a series of downhill mountain biking trails by Antur Stiniog.[22] 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.[23]


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, to protect them from damage or destruction. The large steel gates are still standing and the for preserving the paintings remains in the caverns.


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

Notable people[edit]

In birth date 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". Archived from the original on 12 April 2021.
  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. Vol. 28, no. 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}}: 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. ^ Cadw. "Old Market Hall (70483)". National Historic Assets of Wales. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  12. ^ Davies, John (1993). A History of Wales.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ "The Untouched Legacy of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell". 24 February 2016. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  15. ^ "Quarry losses hit Snowdonia town". 17 March 2010 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  16. ^ Sallery, Dave. "Maenofferen slate quarry in 1975".
  17. ^ "Blaenau Ffestiniog mountain bike centre given go-ahead". BBC News. 22 March 2011.
  18. ^ "Ysgol Y Moelwyn". mylocalschool.wales.gov.uk. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  19. ^ "Census results by community". Archived from the original on 22 October 2013. Retrieved 9 September 2013.
  20. ^ "The top 10 attractions in North Wales". www.dailypost.co.uk. Archived from the original on 18 August 2006.
  21. ^ "Visit Blaenau Ffestiniog Snowdonia Wales - Things to do and see". blaenauffestiniog.org.
  22. ^ Antur Stiniog website accessdate: 13 November 2013
  23. ^ "Linkliste Railbike". 9 January 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2013. lists 14 vélo-rails in France, totalling 146 km.
  24. ^ "Inside the Inner Wheel". International Inner Wheel. Archived from the original on 24 July 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  25. ^ "Patagonian dignitaries to visit for twinning | News". Archived from the original on 18 July 2015. Retrieved 7 June 2015. |Patagonian dignitaries to visit for twinning.

External links[edit]