Anyone wanting to get a sense of the magnitude of the industrial revolution in Wales should visit Tanygrisiau near Blaenau Ffestiniog, in Gwynedd.
On a hike up the side of a mountain range here, the industry’s effect is in plain sight, machinery lays in abandon throughout a landscape favoured by hardy plants such as gorse, and up a sheer staircase fashioned from slate, rows of worker’s stone dwellings lie in ruin.
Climbing and exploring these peaks is both equally fascinating and unnerving, feeling almost apocalyptic, as if the workers one day just stopped coming.
Dafydd Walters has lived in Tanygrisiau his whole life and about 30 years ago he bought Moelwyn Mill, an early eighteenth-century water-driven fulling mill, one of two known fulling mills in Wales to survive with its machinery intact.
The mill is a two-storey building, with a slate roof, flagged on the south side by a large overshot water wheel. When Dafydd initially bought the mill, he had so many plans- however, these have been stalled at every turn.
Dafydd said: “I wanted to turn the mill into a museum, but just couldn’t get the planning permission. There are no grants and the lottery just won’t entertain the idea. The council has also failed.
“Initially I was planning on bringing my sheep down and shearing them for schools, as well as showcasing the museum. There are thousands of artefacts in the mill. They want Blaenau to be a tourist destination, it’s really disappointing.”
The area in which Blaenau Ffestiniog sits, the Slate Landscape of northwest Wales, recently won Unesco Heritage status, representing an exceptional example of an industrial landscape which was shaped by the quarrying, mining and transportation of slate from 1780 to around 1940.
This was a time when the region produced around a third of the world’s output for roofing slates and slabs. There are parts of this landscape that have lain very much untouched since this time.
Around the closure of the mines, many workers moved to find work elsewhere, some of which were hired in America, to pass on their innovative and adaptive technologies such as waterpower.
Standing on top of one of the momentous ranges and taking in the view, the contrast between the visual impact of that proud industrial heritage on the landscape and the helplessness of not being able to get one water wheel turning again was rather stark.
Down in the south west of Wales the situation was similar. Here, one of Wales’ best-known mills, Melin Tregwynt has faced similar red-tape issues in their pursuit to utilise the water wheel again in a bid to become a more sustainable business.
The water wheel initially powered the mill with the help of the stream, Glethe Goch and has recently been restored. However red tape from Natural Resources Wales has meant that it remains unused.