Today I’m joining the blog tour for Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene with a guest post by the author, Peter Goulding. My thanks to Julia Forster.
About the Book
Bobby Drury left Liverpool after O-levels, knowing he had f***ed them up. Free now, he hitched to Snowdonia. His mum came crying on the phone, ‘You’ve failed them all.’ Bobby knew that. ‘No, Mum, I’ve led Vector.’ This was Thatcher’s lost generation. The slate quarries were walking distance; they’d have a smoke, a party in an abandoned hut, try and climb something. A small culture emerged of punks, nutters, artists and petty thieves, crawling up abandoned rock, then heading to the disco at the Dolbadarn. These were the Slateheads.
The people in these interleaving worlds – the punk dole dropout star- climbers; the Victorian quarrymen pioneers; the Welsh-speaking grandson of a ropeman, abseiling in to bolt sport climbs like Orangutang Overhang in the Noughties, Lee and his mates slogging west today – all are polished like nuggets in this 360° view over patience, pride, respect, thrill, movement, the competing claims of home and agency, and above all, a belief in second chances.
‘Good and clear and honest. Like the climbers it presents, the story is careful and risk-taking, ambitious and humble. These are the things of great writing.’ Cynan Jones
‘Peter Goulding gives a personal account of falling in love with the north Wales slate quarries, immersing himself in the climbs and the history… As well as the climbing scene, Peter has done a great job of looking into the life and hazards of the quarrymen themselves, their past times and some of the histories of the conflicts between the communities and the clueless aristocratic quarry owners who cared little for the health of employees… An intriguing read.’ James (Caff) McHaffie
‘Incredibly gripping and emotional… a cast of wonderful characters… thrilling and nerve-wracking… I longed for these heroes to achieve their aims… Feels like a group rock and roll biography.’ Cathryn Summerhayes, Curtis Brown
You Are Now Leaving the Future
May 2018, Norfolk to Snowdonia
Why did I fall so hard for climbing on slate? Maybe I thought it liked me. It was letting me move in a beautiful way, it felt good, and we looked good together. I got compliments the first time I went into the quarries – new friends who were hard climbers called me ‘nails’.
‘So you’re a slatehead now then?’ someone asked. I didn’t know the word, but I thought I was.
Last night I was at the climbing wall, taking it easy, careful not to pop a tendon just before I climb on the real rock. No one could commit to coming to Wales this weekend. Doesn’t matter. I’ll meet up with Lee and Becky when they come from Sheffield.
I’d have liked to have left hours ago, but it’s after nine be- fore I kick my van into life and drive out. All being well, I’ll be in Llanberis by half-past two.
I can’t do this as often as I like. I’ve got a son, a house, a partner and a dog. I live in the wrong part of the country for climbing – Norfolk, where sand lies over chalk, dumped by the last melting glacier.
I’ve got a cheap sports bag with clothes. Nothing special or technical. Just jeans, cotton T-shirts and checked shirts, sling it in the back. On top goes a very expensive climbing rucksack, and a fluorescent yellow duffel bag. My rope, my rack, my climbing shoes – a hundred quid a pop, and pink. I get a new pair every year, and last year’s gets relegated to warm-up, all- day, or indoor; their soles soft and worn, sliced by slate’s sharp edges.
I drive out, flick the stereo on, listening to music I liked ten years ago. I’ve got a shopping bag of snacks on the passenger seat. I’ve tried to be healthy and most of it is dried fruit and nuts, but the plastic packets are a nightmare to open doing sixty westbound. I wouldn’t have this problem with a bacon roll.
Past Cambridge is my favourite piece of graffiti. The full side of a small brick building, in the middle of a farmer’s field, on the westbound side where the traffic follows the path of the sun. It reads:
You Are Now Leaving
in big bubble letters sprayed to look like chrome. It makes me laugh every time.
Quick piss in a lay-by at Oswestry. I have a walk around to loosen up my back, keep the old injuries from swelling. Then on the road and the first sight of real hills, the switchbacking road into Wales.
Through Betws-y-coed – call it Betsy, and I slip a little ‘u’ sound before the ‘s’, which is my attempt at proper Welsh pronounciation, though it’s not quite right. This is the gateway to Snowdonia. The tourists walk on the High Street, wearing bright mountain jackets spun out of petrol silk. I keep going. Up and out towards Capel Curig, the start of climbing territory.
On the left is Plas y Brenin, an old hotel, now a training centre. I did a few courses there, learned some basics about ropes and building anchors, how not to automatically die by knowing nothing. On the other side of the road are the RAC boulders, good low-grade bouldering with grippy rock and good holds, then a long road past the lake, good for overtaking.
At the head of the lake, below Snowdon, is Pen-y-Gwryd, stone walls and dark green holly trees. It is built on the site of an old roman fort, you can still see the earthworks, from Caesar’s chase of the Druids back to Anglesey. Maybe there’s been a pub on the spot all that time. From dice and tired women for the legionaries, to today’s mountain rescue post and souvenirs of Hillary’s Everest expedition.
Then up the steep road up to Pen-y-pass, the carpark for getting up onto Snowdon. There is a youth hostel across the road, called Mallory’s after the famous mountaineer. I’ve seen a picture of him and Siegfried Herford standing against that very wall – black-and- white, both of them looking moody like they belong in an arty band. Herford was killed in the trenches: grenade. Mallory disappeared on Everest in 1924; they found his body a few years ago.
Down the pass, narrow lanes barely wide enough, tight cor- ners. On either side, the mountain crags, Dinas Cromlech, the open book corner with the climbs Cenotaph Corner, Cemetery Gates and Lord of the Flies. Good climbs; great climbs, even, total classics. There are eight different types of climbable rock in north Wales. I look at them from the road, but I am only curi- ous. I have only really got eyes for climbs on the slate.
Down the road, through Nant Peris, this is the first place I see the quarries. The waste slate scree cascades down the hill, in stepped levels. When it is wet, it is a dark blue purple like a juicy sloe berry. It is dry now – it hasn’t rained for days – and so it is a pale fag-ash grey. The pits, sunk into the mountain, dug out roof tiles that got shipped around the world for two hun- dred years. In 1969, the quarries were closed down, and work stopped. Nothing happened in there, until the eighties, when a load of climbers moved in. All these climbs have stories, and as I’ve climbed, I’ve learned some of them; tales of obsessive vertical movement and funny, awful climb names.
Below all the levels, opening onto the lake of Llyn Padarn, is the concreted entry dock to the hydroelectric power station. It tunnels under the quarries and within the mountain, and looks like the floodlit entrance dock of the Death Star. The vibrations from the turbines deep in the hill loosen cracks and fissures in the rock. With big rain storms, whole cliff faces collapse, sloughing off sheets of rock.
Up there amongst the levels and galleries are hundreds of climbs. I’ve done a handful of them. Not the hardest ones, either; not even close. As soon as I tried it, I loved it: it didn’t seem like anything else was worth doing. Part of it was the movement. Deeply satisfying to be stretching up, twisting my body to reach a thin sharp edge, pulling my body weight through half a pad of my fingertips. I liked the fear, not the anxiety of unpaid bills, but deep old fear of death. Then the fear turned to joy when I either made the impossible-looking move or fell, to bounce safely on my rope…
About the Author
Peter Goulding is a climber and writer from the north of England. He was born in Liverpool in 1978, lived in County Durham for years, and currently lives with his partner and son in rural Norfolk. He works at Center Parcs as an instructor, and goes climbing to north Wales and the Peak District as often as he can. In 2019, he won the New Welsh Writing Awards: Rheidol Prize for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting.