I was doing my usual ‘Can’t sleep let’s watch some television thing’ at stupid in the morning. My weapon of choice here is Film4, but I’d seen the film several times, and while this isn’t always a barrier to enjoyment I turned to my backup weaponry, BBC4.

As soon as it deigned to tune in, which can take a while, I thought, ‘Bloody hell. I know where this is, and it happens to be one of my best places on Earth.’ That may seem odd given it’s in Wales, but as you know Wales has a special place in my heart, and Blaenau Ffestiniog is very special, partly because of my childhood, and partly because of Susan when I was up there in October. Up  in Wales, just to be clear.

It was an entire programme about slate, so Blaenau is a good place to set it. I knew a bit, that slate is really just clays that have been compressed and heated by geology. Just as well geology got its act together or Blaenau would not exist in a literal sense. It consists of slate buildings.

Then I learned how to split slate to give the stuff we use for roofing. It’s pretty straightforward. The presenter had a go, and she did pretty well. Did you know that different sizes of slates are named after female nobility? I didn’t, I can tell you. There are 19 standard sizes, all based on Imperial measures. The biggest is an Empress. I did NOT make that up.


It got better then, because they showed how they shipped the trimmed slates down to Porthmadog. You may recollect I did this journey with Susan, but the train operator cheated a bit. The original trains didn’t have locomotives on the way down. They operated under gravity alone. Every wagon had a brakeman, with a lead brakeman on the front car to coordinate things.

I’ve driven down hills in a car using only the brakes, and you need some nerve. You need a lot in a string of wagons weighing 250 tons* a go. It was a fascinating documentary, though perhaps to everybody’s taste. But I was riveted.

And it rained. Hallelujah!

*Long tons, 2240 lbs plus the car.