Monday, 6 August 2012

Hills, hydropower, and hot air!

I have just returned from a lovely family break in north Wales on the beautiful and relatively isolated Llyn Peninsula. The region, at the heart of the Welsh speaking core of the country (Y Fro Gymraeg), boasts an overwhelming amount of interesting sites, smells, and sounds for someone interested in the natural environment and history. From prehistoric burial sites, to the remains of early industry such as tin mines, a hike through this region is certain to throw up interesting remnants of the human relationship with the land.

The Ffestiniog Railway. 

On the final day of our trip we decided to venture off the peninsula and take another reminder of the regions industrial heritage, the Ffestiniog railway from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog in the heart of Snowdonia National Park. The narrow gauge railway was built in the 1830s to transport slate from the burgeoning slate mines of the area. Originally horse drawn up the mountain and returning using gravity alone, the line was converted to steam in 1863 and began carrying passengers shortly after.

Before the penultimate station on the line, Tanygrisiau, the train ran along the parched bank of theTanygrisiau Reservoir. Not low because of summer drought alone, but because the reservoir is the lower body of the Ffestiniog pumped water storage scheme which sees approximately 2 million cubic metres of water transferred between Tanygrisiau and the upper Llyn Stwlan reservoir, generating up to 360MW of electricity.

Although this hydro-power scheme was the first major pumped storage power facility in the UK (built in 1963), the area has an even longer history of producing electricity using the power of its abundant streams and rivers. Dol Wen hydro power station was built in 1899, and in 1902 Blaenau Ffestiniog became the first town in Britain to have its streets lit with electricity created using hydropower.
Unfortunately there is little written about this early hydro venture on the internet, and I haven't come across any articles or books on the regions hydro history during my research (if you know of any, please let me know). For readers interested in learning more about the history of hydropower in the UK, see Emma Wood's book The Hydro Boys: Pioneers of Renewable Energy which documents the development of water power in the Highlands of Scotland.

Tanygrisiau Reservoir from the platform at the train station.
The Ffestiniog railway is one extended, beautiful juxaposition of natural scenery, rural idyll, and industrial scars. From the Cob, the 1.5km embankment which dams Traeth Mawr, to the ominous slate tips which hang over the destination town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, often the distinction between the "natural" and the industrial is imperceivable. Blurred by centuries of insitu development and the subsequent encroachment of damp greenery, the industrial sites on view during the 13.5 mile journey clearly highlight the limitations of considering humans as seperate from the natural world. Paradoxically such a distinction between the industrial and natural is evident on maps of the region as Blaenau Ffestiniog and the surrounding mining waste, despite being in the heart of Snowdonia, were excluded from the National Park when it was created in  1951.

So...all that is left to be said, is that if you ever get the chance to visit the area, make sure you visit both the Llyn Peninsula and the coastal flank of Snowdonia National Park. And if like us, you need to shelter from the slate grey rain in the slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog I highly recommend the cafe at the towns cultural hub Cellb.

2 comments:

  1. . Blurred by centuries of insitu development and the subsequent encroachment of damp greenery, the industrial sites on view during the 13.5 mile journey clearly highlight the limitations of considering humans as seperate from the natural world.

    Glyn Willmoth

    ReplyDelete
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