Blaenau Ffestiniog is a relatively new town, created following the discovery of the valuable slate vein in the area in the 18th century. But Ffestiniog parish itself goes back a few centuries. Many ancient remains can be seen dotted around the area, with sites dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages, and there is also evidence of the Roman period in the neighbourhood.
Towards Cwm Cynfal, some of the place-names remind us of the magical stories recorded in the world-famous folk tales, Y Mabinogi, where some of the tales are located. By following some of the local footpaths, we can reach a number of well-known valleys, Cwmorthin, Cwm Bowydd, Cwm Cynfal, Cwm Teigl, each with its’ own particular historical features, and superb views.
Sarn Helen is a noted Roman road, which covers a few miles in the vicinity, and reminds us of the arrival of the Roman legions to nearby Tomen-y-mur, a Roman camp, around the 2nd or 3rd centuries A.D. Evidence can be seen all around the town of mans’ pursuit for a livelihood from the slate rock, and the slate waste is a reminder of a thriving industry in the area. According to tradition, it was in the 1760s that one Methusala Jones, from Arfon, dreamt of a location where the rock slabs split perfectly, and ventured to start a small business at a place that later became known as Diffwys Quarry, here in this town. Diffwys was soon followed by many other slate quarries. One of those quarries, the Oakeley, grew into what became the largest underground slate workings in the world, which has, unbelievably, around 50 miles of railway track in its’ various underground levels in the bowels of the surrounding mountains. Hence the beginning of a thriving industry which developed into what became one of the largest slate centres in the world.
Out of a secluded partof Ffestiniog parish mushroomed a community that became the highest populated in all of Meirionnydd county, and the second largest in the whole of north Wales by 1901. At one time, over 4,000 men worked in the local slate quarries, which contibuted greatly to the local economy. To provide transportation for the slate products, and for the convenience of the increasing population, three railway branches were built from different directions to reach Blaenau Ffestiniog.
The L.N.W.R. (later L.M.S.), the G.W.R., and the Ffestiniog Railway, which was constructed in 1836. Dôl Wen hydro power station was built to provide electricity for the local quarries in 1899, and in May 1902, Blaenau Ffestiniog became the first town in Britain to have its’ streets lit with electricity provided by the power of water, which is in abundance in the area.
Later, in 1963, Ffestiniog Power Station was opened at Tanygrisiau, being the first pumped storage power station in Britain, and the largest in Europe at the time.
During the second world war, a different use was made of some of the caverns in one slate quarry in the locality and these operations were carried out in total secrecy. Due to the dangers of enemy bombing over London, it was decided to transfer all of the art treasures at the National Gallery, and from Buckingham Palace and other places to Manod Quarry quarry in 1941. Amongst the painting stored there over that period were works by Rubens, Rembrandt and Michelangelo. There were rumors at the time that the Crown Jewels were also stored there. But that’s another story!