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At the foot of the Ffrancon Pass, alongside the A5 and the River Ogwen, lies the old slate town of Bethesda. The town comprises sombre, grey stone quarrymen’s cottages, roofed in slate, clinging to the hillside in irregular terraces. Paradoxically, for the size of the town, there are a disproportionately large number of public houses and chapels.
Bethesda was once a large mining community in northern Gwynedd that shipped Welsh Slate to Port Dinorwic on the Menai Straits. Today the town has given way to its larger neighbours in Caernarfon and Bangor.
In and around Bethesda, the natural grandeur of Snowdonia competes with man made phenomena. Bethesda slate has long been renowned for being the finest slate available and the slopes around Bethesda have been chiselled away, creating the world’s largest open cast slate quarry, a quarry which is still being worked today.
The land, on which the slate was extracted, belonged to the Penrhyn Estate and for two centuries, the owners of the estate managed the quarries themselves, acquiring immense wealth in the process. The quarries provided employment for the local workers, but they felt exploited and helpless in any dispute over pay or conditions. In an effort to improve conditions, during the 19th century, several strikes were held, much to the annoyance of the management. The Penrhyn Estate refused to accept the collective bargaining of the unions and a strike in 1896 led to the quarry workers being locked out for eleven months. In 1900, the Estate’s managers banned the collection of union dues from the workforce, which led to Britain’s longest ever industrial dispute, not ending for three and a half years. It was a strike which bitterly divided the community, had no resolution and kick-started the slow demise of the slate industry in North Wales.
Today’s visitors to Bethesda are likely to have their eyes set on the rugged beauty, misty heights and jagged peaks that sandwich the glacier gouged, Ffrancon Pass. The raw Carneddau to the east, Snowdonia’s second highest range of peaks, including Carnedd Daffyd 3424ft and Carnedd Llywelyn 3485ft, both named after medieval Welsh nobility. Whilst to the west, are the Glyders, including possibly the most challenging peak in Snowdonia, Tryfan 3010ft, near the lovely lake, Llyn Ogwen. It was in this region that members of the first successful Everest exhibition trained in the early 1950’s.
Hidden from the roadside, another lake, Llyn Idwal, is hidden away within Cwm Idwal, a natural amphitheatre. A dark cleft in the midst of the cwm is known as Twll Du, Black Hole, or Devil’s Kitchen, where legend has it, ‘no bird ever flies’. The area around the lake is Wales first ever designated National Nature Reserve.
Bethesda is ideally positioned to take advantage of the possibilities for outdoor pursuits in the Ffrancon Pass. Whilst access to the A5, gives motorists easy touring to the Menai Strait, Anglesey, Snowdonia and other attractions within Gwynedd.