Amgueddfa Blog: National Slate Museum

The gardens of the Quarrymen’s Houses at the National Slate Museum are a popular part of the visitor experience - but the planting choices are not just there to look nice - they're there to add an extra layer of meaning to the stories of the quarrymen’s families and lives.

The gardens are mostly tended by a hardworking team from Gwynedd Council working from their base at Melin Glanrafon, Glynllifon. The team is part of Gwynedd Council’s adult, health, and wellbeing department, and offers training and experience for adults with learning difficulties. The team are contracted to look after the gardens all year round and to ensure that they are in tip top condition for visitors.

Cadi Iolen, Curator of the National Slate Museum explains more about the history and context for the gardens:

“The Quarrymen’s Houses were moved from Tanygrisiau to the National Slate Museum 21 years ago. Each house reflects a different period in the history of the slate industry – from 1861 in Tanygrisiau at the rise of the industry to a household in 1901 on strike during the Penrhyn Lockout of 1900 -1903 and a house in 1969 in Llanberis  - when Dinorwig quarry closed for the final time.

Initially we sought advice from the head gardener at our sister site,  St Fagans: National History Museum, who outlined what we should use for each house in order to further interpret the living conditions at the time. After that it was over to the gardeners to grow and prepare all that was need for the gardens.

Our 1861 house has a herbal garden including  fennel, mint, and st john’s wort. The 1901 house is more practically planted with a vegetable garden in the front as well as the back as the family would have needed to grow their own food at a time of particular hardship.  By 1969, the gardens become much more decorative with wallflowers, begonias and lots of colourful planting similar to the gardens that we grow ourselves today.  We also grow potatoes and rhubarb in the back of the Education House which our actors in residence refer to when on site and which are occasionally used in the cafe. ”

Like so many events during these unprecedented times, our Quarrymen exhibition was curtailed last month when Waterfront Museum closed its doors for lockdown. We wanted to find a way to continue to share it with you, so here’s some background to the exhibition by Carwyn Rhys Jones, who developed it. In it speaks about how it came about and how it was shaped by the stories and memories of five quarrymen. We’ve illustrated this with images from the exhibition and hope you enjoy the experience.

I began this project as a development of some work I’d previously done at university about the landscape of quarries. The project included some quarries in North Wales including Parys Mountain, Dorothea, Penrhyn, Alexandra and Oakeley. It focussed on how the natural landscape had changed due to industrialisation and how a new landscape formed around the quarries. The natural next step was to look at the people of the quarries. Sadly, few quarrymen remain, so it became timely to capture and record this important history and heritage.

Ideas for this project were driven by the quarrymen I interviewed, so it was only fitting that it would be titled Chwarelwyr which means Quarrymen. The exhibition is formed of two key parts: a short documentary and photography stills to accompany it with. The first quarrymen I interviewed was based in Trefor. He was known locally as Robin Band due to the fact that most of his family were in bands. He worked in the stone quarry of Trefor for a few years, and shared fantastic memories of the good, bad and humorous times there.

The next was Dic Llanberis, which, as his name suggests, was based in Llanberis. Dic had years of experience and so much knowledge about the history of the Dinorwic quarry. I used the same process for each of the five quarrymen, interviewing, filming and then photographing them. Dic worked at the quarry even after it had closed down in 1969, helping to clear the remaining slate.

Then it was the turn of Andrew JonJo and Carwyn. They had both worked at Penrhyn quarry in Bethesda on the outskirts of Bangor. I interviewed them both at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis where they both now work. Andrew is the last of six generations of quarrymen in his family that had all worked in two quarries: Dinorwic and Penrhyn. As you might imagine, he spoke movingly of how he was bread into the industry. Carwyn also comes from a large quarrying family, some of them had worked at the slate hospital in Llanberis for injured quarrymen. A number of his ancestors’ signitures can be found in the slate hospital museum’s books, recording surgical procedures.

Finally, I met up with John Pen Bryn, based in Talysarn just outside of Caernarfon. This quarry was so large that it contained a village, and John had been raised there. He now owns the quarry and has lived in Talysarn all his life. He showed me around the quarry and where the village used to be – difficult to imagine now that it was once a bustling place with three shops, within the quarry. John was full of stories and knew everything that had happened in his quarry over the years.

Sadly, both Robin Band and Dic Llanberis have passed away since completing the exhibition, and so the film that accompanies it finishes with their images. They, and I are very glad that we managed to capture some of their stories and document this important heritage and history just in time. I am very grateful to all who were involved in making this exhibition possible. I hope you enjoy it.  

All the preparation and planning for the Slate Garden began before Christmas, but all the hard work began on the actual garden itself in February. We worked together with Gwynedd Council’s Residential and Day Services to create our fantastic new garden - and here are some pictures of the proses.

The pictures on this blog will allow you to see the whole process, from beginning to end.

We love our new Slate Garden, and we hope that you will get the chane to come to Llanberis to enjoy the garden too!