By: Alexa Spiwak
Quarrymen from Dorothea slate quarry in the Nantlle Valley of Wales worked alongside jackdaws, using the birds as an early warning system for rock falls: “They always warned the rockmen of the dangers that hung above them,” quarryman Owen Humphreys explains in a 1980 documentary titled The Slatemakers, “They were very curious birds, these jackdaws were, they warned the workers… As sure as God is in heaven, something would drop from the rock face to the bottom…. They saved many lives.” When the quarrymen left for the last time and the pits filled with water, the jackdaws left, too.
The story is the same across much of Northwest Wales, where the world’s largest deposits of high-quality slate led to the establishment of hundreds of mines and quarries. Beginning in the late 18th century and stretching through the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wales’ slate industry was the world’s primary provider of stone roofing tiles. Gwynedd County, containing the two largest quarries, Dinorwic and Penhryn, became known as the region that “roofed the world”. A combination of economic depression, reduced demand, and bitter labour disputes began to atrophy the industry in the early-19th century, and by 1980 all but a small handful of the quarries were permanently closed. The din of blasting, hammering, and sawing turned to silence as the dust settled over ruined stone structures. With the quarrymen moved out, other things began to move in.
Decades of natural succession has led to the establishment of an unusual constellation of species within the quarries, one that was — and still is — shaped by humans. Goats and sheep have been turned loose to roam the tips and galleries, grazing as they go. Without their quarrymen companions, there are no jackdaws anymore, but in their place kestrels, buzzards, and peregrine falcons have begun to circle overhead. Bats roost in the dark, empty tunnels, while fish and eels establish breeding populations in flooded pits. Plants, too, have begun to turn the purple-grey waste tips a mottled shade of green; these plants, by and large, are misfits among the native flora which grow elsewhere in the Welsh countryside. Comprised overwhelmingly of “alien” or “invasive” species, they are generally disregarded as insignificant weeds.
Gwynedd is a place where nature has always been deeply intertwined with culture, where jackdaws and working men formed relationships, where quarrymen spoke of slate as if it were kin. It makes the perfect place to ponder whether the cultural landscape concept is able to capture these myriad entanglements. Furthermore, I question whether traditional notions of heritage leave room at the table for the ever-accumulating remnants of our industrial past. How does our understanding of nature, of culture, and of heritage writ large affect the way we care for and interact with post-industrial landscapes? My project therefore endeavours to better understand the complex entanglements of human and non-human actors within these landscapes and how they relate to the (re)creation of heritage