Blaenau Ffestiniog is a town that nestles between the Moelwynion mountains, winding its way along the edges of the rocks. There’s a certain thrill in reaching ‘Stiniog’ (the local short name for ‘Blaenau Ffestiniog’) over Bwlch y Gorddinan and seeing the scars of the quarry industry stretching out in front of you. Traces of its industry, history and people can be found easily on the land. One’s sights instinctively turn towards the heights – the inviting mountains for walkers, the sun bouncing brightly off slate heaps, and a few adventurers climbing way above the town. But before scaling the heights, it’s worth keeping your feet on the ground and going for a stroll around town, which is full of independent and welcoming cafes, shops, and pubs. Here you’ll see the colour that I see, and the warmth that hides beneath the slate.
‘A bracelet of a town…’
Blaenau grew as a result of the 19th century slate quarries, and it’s difficult not to see their influence on the town. Pillars of slate welcome visitors in the town centre, and across the road from the train station you’ll see colourful murals created by the local artist, Lleucu Gwenllian, which contain references to local mythology and the area’s connection to the Mabinogi.
If it's foggy and ‘the Moelwyn is wearing its cap’ (a local saying), why not wander through the town learning about its literature and culture. From one end of the town to the other, a selection of local sayings, quarrying terms, historical references, and quotations have been engraved in the pavement. Explanations and translations of the sayings can be seen in an interpretation booklet, which is available in the shops in the town. Outside the chippy, Trish & Chips, one of the poets Gwyn Thomas’ most famous lines can be seen, which refers to Blaenau as ‘a bracelet of a town on a bone of rock' (Breichled o dref ar asgwrn o graig). And if your feet are itching and ready for an adventure, this rock has plenty to offer.
Antur Stiniog is home to 14 different mountain bike trails – some suitable for beginners and others that are challenging enough for the world’s best cyclists. If all this cycling makes you hungry, then there’s a café on site offering a variety of meals, from homemade cawl and sandwiches to the Special Stiniog Burger.
The Antur Stiniog centre is located on the site of Llechwedd Quarry, and if mountain biking isn’t your thing, the site is also home to Zip World Llechwedd. There you can fly over Llechwedd’s caverns at an altitude of 1,400ft, and enjoy views of the Rhinogydd in the distance, the tranquility of Trawsfynydd Lake on the horizon, and Stiniog’s tidy rows of terraced houses underneath.
If you prefer to be underground rather than above it, you can jump, bounce, and slide your way around Bounce Below’s underground playground and trampolines. Stiniog’s slate quarries were underground, and guided tours escort visitors to the depths of Llechwedd on the steepest cable railway in Britain. The clock will turn back about 160 years as you get transported back to the golden age of the slate industry to learn about some of the men who chipped their livelihoods from the rockface.
Blaenau has plenty of interesting shops, including Siop Seren, which sells attractive clothing and bags, and Siop y Gloddfa which is full of Welsh and local gifts. Siop Antur Stiniog, in the town centre, sells a variety of clothing for walkers, or you can sit under the bright little lights of the café eating cakes or sipping on a hot cuppa. It’s possible to lose yourself among old books about local history at Siop Lyfrau’r Hen Bost, which sells new and second-hand books, or why not buy a map and head for the mountains?
Scars of a community
Come rain or shine, one of the town’s most spectacular walks is the short journey up to Cwmorthin, beginning in Dolrhedyn above the village of Tanygrisiau. There, you can see the ruins of the old houses of Cwmorthin Quarry, Plas Cwmorthin, and Rhosydd Chapel, and follow the shore of Cwmorthin Lake towards the end of the valley. On reaching the far end of the lake, the trail climbs up a steep incline – which is quite uneven and unsteady under feet – towards Rhosydd Quarry. More of the scars of the former community can be seen there, including the ruins of an old mill. From there it is possible to follow routes towards the summits of the Moelwynion. The Snowdonia Slate Trail passes through Stiniog, rising and falling through valleys and over mountains.
Welsh beer and Greek gyros
After all the roaming, Caffi Kiki at Lakeside Cafe Tanygrisiau, offers a feast of Greek food in the evening, the Canolfan Prysor Centre near Trawsfynydd Lake makes homemade meals over lunch, or the Red Chillies Indian restaurant in Blaenau is sure to impress. If you’d like a lighter meal for lunch, why not try Y Gorlan in town which offers sandwiches and fresh, home-made foods.
If you’re looking for some of Stiniog’s most colourful characters, you’ll probably find them in the local pubs. Why not spend a couple of hours drinking Welsh beer in the Y Pengwern Arms in Llan Ffestiniog, or in the King’s Head Hotel (or ‘Y Tap’ to the locals), in Glanypwll? Every now and then, bands and artists perform at the Bryn in Gellilydan, or on wet evenings you can shelter from the rain watching a good film in CellB, the town’s former police station which is now also a hostel.
If you’re looking for a place to bed down, the Treks Bunkhouse hostel in Llan Ffestiniog is located in a wonderful site with magnificent views toward the Llŷn Peninsula. There are also some unique campsites in the area or you could glamp in style at Llechwedd.
Whatever you choose to do in Stiniog, you can be sure that the welcome will be warm, and the adventures will be awesome. But remember your raincoat… just in case.
Exploring the outdoors is fantastic fun and provides great opportunities for adventurous activities, but please read up on the risks and make sure you are prepared.
- Find safety advice for exploring Wales' National Parks
- Follow tips from the RNLI for staying safe on the Welsh coast.
- Visit AdventureSmart.uk for further information on how to stay safe while exploring Wales.