Travel: ‘Hanging tough’ for underground adventures in old slate mining town

The historic caverns which are now an innovative attraction.
The historic caverns which are now an innovative attraction.

It used to be the slate capital of the world, tiling the roofs of customers across the globe thanks to its international reputation for outstanding quality.

Today, the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia is still characterised by the remains of its mining heritage, including the screes of broken slate which topple down the steep hillsides.

Gael in her overalls for the mine tour.

Gael in her overalls for the mine tour.

The Welsh town’s mining industry is a shadow of its former self and the bleak, grey mountainsides make it feel like you’re on the moon – but this place still attracts hundreds of thousands of eager visitors a year.

Why? For the answer, we’ll need to head underground...

Welcome to Zip World Blaenau Ffestiniog – offering up the most fun you will ever have below ground level. I guarantee it.

Now an innovative activity centre, the historic caverns which were drilled and blasted out by the hardy miners of yesteryear are home to Bounce Below, the largest subterranean trampoline in the world, as well as Zip World Caverns, a heart-in-the-mouth adventure course complete with foot-holds hammered into the sheer rock faces and zip lines which whizz you from one end of the mighty caverns to the other.

An hour of jumping and squealing on the gigantic bouncy nets hung within the vast underground chambers is just as much fun for grown-ups as children.

If you’re still not worn out after that, this Zip World site – one of three in Wales – also offers Titan, a four-person zip line experience from the top of the steep-sided mountains, all the way down.

In my opinion you can’t visit the attraction without wanting to discover more about how those vast underground chambers, today illuminated by funky, multi-coloured lights, came to be here in the first place.

Thankfully, the site provides the opportunity for visitors to do just that by experiencing life in a mine, Victorian style, on its Llechwedd mine tour.

Clad in overalls and a hard hat, we travelled down 500ft – and back in time – on the steepest cable railway in Britain.

Once down there, the story of a Victorian mining family and the highs and lows of their way of life is told through a brilliant use of digital technology.

And when you’ve heard the family’s story, and discovered more about the history of this town, suddenly those ‘bleak’ mountainsides covered in broken slate don’t seem so bleak after all.

They are, after all, the by-product of generations of hard, Welsh graft which this town is, rightly, very proud of.

This attraction is just scratching the surface of what Snowdonia has to offer.

A short drive away in Portmadog, we boarded the Welsh Highland Railway and took a return scenic train journey through the lush, green, sheep-filled fields on the outskirts of town and out to the harsh but spectacular highland at Rhyd Dhu. If you’ve got time to make a day of it, stay on board the comfortable carriages and gaze out of the window at some of the most beautiful scenery in North Wales all the way to Caernarfon. We’ll be back to do the whole route.

There are plenty of places to stay in Snowdonia. Our base for a two-night break was Plas Tan Y Bwlch, a mansion with gorgeous gardens in the Maentwrog valley at the heart of the national park.

The mansion’s former owners, the Oakeley family, earned their millions in the slate business – of course.

The head of the family spent his wealth on a variety of exotic plants for his Victorian gardens, cherry-picking his favourites from India, Japan, Australia, South Africa and other far corners of the world.

The house, still adorned with family photographs from yesteryear, is now the Snowdonia National Park Centre. It offers basic but pristine accommodation to groups of students and businesspeople as well as tourists like us. And the food – poached salmon, hearty cooked breakfasts, roast dinners – is as delicious as you would get in any top restaurant.

A two-day break in Snowdonia is a wonderful trip but there’s so much more to see and do. We’re already planning a visit back to this stunning corner of the world – bleak mountainsides and all.

Travel facts:

- Discover all that this part of Wales has to offer on the Attractions of Snowdonia website at www.attractionsofsnowdonia.com
- TOP TIP: Save on your trip by using the new Snowdonia Pass, a discount card which gives you access to a number of exclusive discounts at participating visitor attractions, activity providers, shops, restaurants, historical sites and accommodation providers. Visit www.snowdoniapass.co.uk