Historic Landscape Characterisation

Vale of Ffestiniog - Area 1 Blaenau Ffestiniog

A horseshoe-shaped settlement built on a natural shelf near the break of slope at the head of a valley, surrounded by slate-rubble tips; the largest town in the former county of Merioneth. A number of sub-medieval farmhouses survive near the break of slope, together with dwellings associated with nineteenth century smallholdings carved out of the farms.


© Crown copyright. All rights reserved, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, 100017916, 2005

Historic background

The town arose from a number of separate settlements on different estates, principally those of the Oakeley family of Maentwrog and Lord Newborough of Glynllifon, though other land was owned by local squireens and yeoman farmers. Slate was worked from c. 1760 at Diphwys (Casson), but the industry developed with the arrival of English capital from 1800 onwards. The individual settlements which coalesced to form the present town came into being in the 1820s and 1830s. The population explosion of the late 1860s to early 1870s led to the construction of the planned rows and squares which characterise the central part of the town, as well as of many of the substantial chapels and other social infrastructure. House-building continued into the 1890s, but thereafter few dwellings were constructed until the provision of social housing after the second world war. The twentieth century saw relentless economic decline as the slate industry contracted, partly alleviated by the opening of the pumped storage scheme in 1963, Trawsfynydd nuclear power station in 1963, the opening of part of Llechwedd Quarry as a tourist attraction in 1962 and the completed re-opening of the Ffestiniog Railway as a visitor attraction in 1982.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Nineteenth-century urban slate quarry community

Blaenau exemplifies a variety of industrial housing types and street patterns. The one surviving ty uncorn of the several built on Glynllifon land in 1826, at SH 7032 4603, is typical of Newborough estate architecture. Short rows of crog-lofftydd survive in some locations, such as at Llwyn y Gell (SH 6983 4627), but the community is dominated by two-up-two-down houses which predominate from the late 1830s. At Tan y Grisiau the earlier examples (early 1840s to late 1860s) are free-standing, built alongside, and facing, the railway, the main thoroughfare for all purposes in the early days. From the 1850s onwards they tend to be constructed in short rows along the newly-built road through the village to Rhiwbryfdir. Similar ribbon developments of two-storey rows are evident between Congl y Wal and Tabernacl (SH 7051 4434 to SH 7065 4553), Church Street and around Rhiwbryfdir (SH 6958 4635).

The centre of Blaenau is dominated by planned developments, mainly confined to the area of the former Newborough estate, in which rows of two- or three-storey dwellings are laid out in succession, between Church Street and the railway (SH 6992 4596 C), or around a pattern of squares, with chapels in prominent locations (SH 6984 4581), evidently for a wealthier clientèle. Abortive planned development is evident at Oakeley Square (SH 6928 4571). The houses are characterised by different styles, suggesting that quite a number of local builders were involved. Many are constructed with a distinctive pointed dormer roof. The use of render on the reveals of doors and windows, but nowhere else, is a common motif. There are many substantial villa- dwellings for quarry managers, often with wrought-iron verandahs and other ornamentation.

Several large chapels survive, some converted to other uses, some closed and a few in use as places of worship. Many have been demolished. Blaenau’s surviving social infrastructure is also on a grand scale. The Market Hall (SH 6979 4593) has been preserved but many of the substantial late 19th-century shops on Church Street have closed and fallen into disrepair. The Oakeley Quarry Hospital of 1848 (SH 6964 4633) and the Heroes’ Memorial Hospital of 1925 (SH 7021 4546), designed by Clough Williams-Ellis, are impressive landscape features, as are the schools.

The use of locally-quarried Ordovician (grey) slate is practically universal. Building material is in many cases local field-stone, with some use of larger blocks, possibly from Gelli Grin near Maentwrog (see also area 29) or from Porthmadog harbour. The use of setts is common for ornamentation, such as on the chapels or as coping-stones, and it is possible that these came either from the setts quarry at Tan y Manod or Brookes’s quarry at Llyn Ystradau.


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