Industrial History

Remnants of our past are scattered all along the 870-mile-long Wales Coast Path. From industrial heritage to medieval churches to Bronze and Iron Age sites, the Welsh coast is littered with some magnificent and unique places

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From the outskirts of Chester in the north to Chepstow in the south east, read about these special places and find out how they contributed to Wales’ growing industrial history through the ages. Understanding the industrial past in Wales is integral to understanding Wales today. Much of the remains of our past are still there, but the way they are used is often different.

An unusual vessel on the Dee estuary

The estuary of the River Dee leading up to Chester was at one time an exceptionally important waterway.

In medieval times, Chester was a more important port than Liverpool, whilst Parkgate on the Wirral side of the estuary was once the port for the packet service to Ireland. Heavy silting and the growth of Liverpool reduced the significance of the Dee from the eighteenth century onwards, though ships were built at locations such as Saltney and Connah’s Quay well into the twentieth century and Mostyn is still a busy port today.

Walkers travelling along the Wales Coast Path on the estuary’s shores today might, however, observe an unusual vessel which has revived maritime trade on the upper Dee estuary and which has links to one of Wales’ most ‘high-tec’ industries.

The barge Afon Dyfrdwy (Welsh for River Dee) was built specially to carry massive wings for the A380 ‘Airbus’ which are built at Broughton, on the first leg of their journey to Toulouse, where the planes are assembled.

With the wings weighing in excess of 30 tons and some 45 metres long, road transport was considered impractical, so the shallow draft, low-profile barge was acquired in 2005 to carry each wing down to Mostyn. There they are landed and transferred on to a deep-sea ‘roll-on-roll off’ ferry for onward transport to France.

Each short trip between Broughton and Mostyn has to be planned meticulously with regard to tide, weather conditions and the ever-shifting sandbanks of the estuary. Too low a tide and the Afon Dyfrdwy could run aground; too high a tide and she could not pass under the bridge at Queensferry. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that an estuary that has seen commercial traffic from the earliest times still such traffic – albeit highly specialised – today.

As well as its industrial heritage the Dee Estuary is renowned for its excellent bird life and has been identified as a Wetland of International Importance. It is a busy spot during the winter, offering a home to some 120,000 waterfowl and wading birds along the shore.

Common birds like ducks, geese and swans can be seen in numbers along parts of the Coast Path in this area. The rare hen-harrier is sometimes visible hunting its prey along the Dee estuary and in the evening’s short-eared owls can sometimes be seen in the marshland.

Moelfre lifeboat station – Richard Evans

Near the Wales Coast Path at Moelfre is a statue of a stocky man in oilskins and a sou-wester with his hands firmly grasping a ship’s wheel – this is a tribute to perhaps one of the most remarkable of Wales’ many brave lifeboatmen, Richard Evans of Moelfre.

Since the early nineteenth century, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has been intimately concerned with the safety and rescue of those in difficulty off our coasts.

The tenacity and bravery of the lifeboat crews is legendary, and those operating from the Welsh lifeboat stations have proved themselves more than equal to their difficult task upon scores of occasions since the first Welsh station was established at Fishguard in 1822.

Anglesey has an honourable place in this history. The ‘Anglesey Association for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck’ was established by Frances Williams and her husband the Rev. James Williams, vicar of Llanfairyngnghornwy, after she had witnessed the tragic loss of the Parkgate - Howth sailing packet Alert near the Skerries in 1823. They established a station at Cemlyn in 1828 and the Rev. Williams was a regular volunteer crew member.

In the best traditions of his native village, Richard Evans of Moelfre went straight from school to sea on a coaster aged sixteen in 1921 but he later returned home where he joined the local lifeboat crew. Eventually appointed coxswain in 1954, he is remembered for his exceptionally bold rescues of the crews of two ships driven ashore on the Anglesey coast – the Cardiff coaster Hindlea in 1959 and the Greek motor vessel Nafsiporos in 1966.

On both occasions he brought his lifeboat alongside the stricken vessels, urging crew members to jump aboard and returning repeatedly until he had rescued them all. For each of these rescues he was awarded the RNLI’s gold medal.

After retirement in 1967 he became a noted ambassador for the service; with typical modesty, he used to claim that the dangers of the sea were as nothing compared with the stresses of public speaking!

The seas near Moelfre can still be stormy, but a walk along the Wales Coast Path along this area of Anglesey is the perfect way to see a typically traditional little fishing village up close. This area in north-east Anglesey is known for its excellent beaches and wildlife, and you can often see grey seals and their pups dotted around the coastline.

Porthmadog’s slate trade with Germany

Remnants of Porthmadog’s industrial past remain today, in this popular tourist destination.  The small harbour, which is now home to mainly recreational boats was once a bustling commercial port at the heart of the local slate economy.

The trains of the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways follow the very same slate transporting route once so important to the town’s existence, carrying visitors up to the quarries.

Walking along this section of the Wales Coast Path towards the southern edge of Snowdonia is the perfect leisurely way to see this area of coastal Wales. The stunning views from the Porthmadog cob looking up towards the mountains are comparable to any you will see along the entire path.

Few ports in Wales were hit as hard as Porthmadog was by the outbreak of the 1st World War, as it relied heavily upon the export of slate to northern Germany. This trade had its origins in the wake of the great fire that destroyed Hamburg in 1842. Slate was used extensively as a roofing material during the reconstruction of the city, and thereafter came to be used widely by architects and builders in many parts of northern and central Europe. Porthmadog flourished economically as a result of this trade, especially as many of the wooden sailing ships engaged in this trade were locally-built.

What started as a purely commercial link soon developed deeper cultural and social associations. Some of Porthmadog’s sailing ships trading regularly to Hamburg and other German ports were given German women’s names such as Fanny Breslauer or Frau Minna Petersen, these being the names of the wives of the German slate merchants who imported the material.

And amongst Porthmadog’s young sailors home on leave, nothing was more fashionable, or more guaranteed to catch a young lady’s eye, than a pair of smartly-polished bluchers, an ankle-length laced boot named after the Prussian general who came to Wellington’s aid at the Battle of Waterloo. Many young German seamen too served on the Porthmadog ships, often becoming quite fluent Welsh speakers in the process. 

In 1895 some 24,000 tons of slate were exported from Porthmadog, chiefly to northern Germany. In August 1914, this trade came to an abrupt end, a blow from which Porthmadog, both as a commercial port and as the last place in Wales where wooden sailing ships were built, would never recover. A fascinating era in international economic, social and cultural history came to an end, never to be revived again.

Barmouth Railway Bridge

Some of the most stunning views from anywhere on the Wales Coast Path are from the Barmouth bridge, a rail and pedestrian bridge nearly half a mile long which crosses the estuary of the River Mawddach on the Meirionnydd coast.

Though the bridge itself is not perhaps the most attractive of structures, the views to be obtained of Cader Idris and nearby peaks on a clear day are without rival.

The bridge was built in 1867 by the Aberystwyth & Welsh Coast Railway - later taken over by the Cambrian Railways - and is almost entirely wooden in construction. It was provided with a drawbridge at its northern end to allow coastal shipping to access the up-river port of Penmaenpool, and this drawbridge was replaced by the present swing-bridge in 1901.

In 1937 this swing-bridge had a starring role in the filming of ‘The Ghost Train’, which used elaborate special effects to make it appear as if the train had plunged off the bridge into the river!

After well over a century of service, in 1980 it was discovered that the submerged parts of the bridge had been seriously weakened by teredo worms which had buried their way into the supporting piles, reducing some of them to the appearance of an Emmental cheese! Services were halted immediately; there were serious doubts as to the line’s future, and this just a decade after the coast line’s threatened closure had been successfully fought off.

Fortunately it was decided that repairs should be undertaken and the bridge has survived in full use, providing both the walker and the rail passenger with some of the most memorable views in Wales.

Pembroke Dock naval yards

The Pembrokeshire stretch of the Wales Coast Path is famous for its tranquillity and stunning natural beauty, but things were not always so peaceful.

The Milford Haven waterway has long been recognised as a fine and easily defensible natural harbour and it is not surprising that the Admiralty decided to locate a naval shipyard on the haven in 1802.

Initially located near Milford Haven itself, it was moved across the haven in 1814 to what was then an agricultural community called Paterchurch, but which would later become Pembroke Dock.

The first ships to be built there were launched in 1816, heralding an era of shipbuilding which would last for a little over a century. Amongst the more important ships to be built there were HMS Tartarus, the first steam ship in 1834 and HMS Lion of 1847, the largest vessel in the Navy at the time.

In the 1860s, however, the Royal Navy began to develop iron-clad warships, and this placed Pembroke Dock at a severe disadvantage, as it was so far from the UK’s industrial centres, especially the shipbuilding areas. Composite vessels (wooden hulls on iron frames) were built for some years, but by the early twentieth century the yard was hopelessly out-dated and unable to build the great steel ‘Dreadnought’ battleships of the day.

Closure eventually came in 1926, plunging the community into hardship, but in 1930 the RAF established a flying-boat base in the town which undertook important convoy protection operations during the Second World War, using Sunderland flying boats. This facility closed in 1957 and the yard has since seen a number of uses, including merchant shipbuilding and, in 1979, an Irish ferry terminal, still operated today by Irish Ferries. But the days when Pembroke Dock was one of the foremost shipyards of the Royal Navy are long gone.

Visitors to the area today can follow the Coast Path through the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and pass through some of Britain’s most spectacular and breathtaking scenery, including 58 beaches, 14 harbours and the UK’s smallest city - St Davids.

Barry Dock – Wales’ foremost coal port

Walking along the Wales Coast Path at Barry today, it is hard to imagine that this was once the busiest coal port in Wales.

In 1870, Barry was a tiny community of barely a hundred souls, but just thirty years later it was a bustling town with a population of some 40,000. It was also the foremost coal-exporting port in the world, an accolade more normally given to its near-neighbour, Cardiff.

How did such a transformation take place?

Barry’s transformation was largely due to the vision and industry of one man – David Davies of Llandinam (1818-90). Starting life as a tenant farmer and sawyer in mid-Wales, he went on to build many road bridges in mid-Wales before turning his hand to railway construction in the late 1850s. He subsequently built railways in all corners of Wales, with his most notable achievement being the great cutting at Talerddig on what is now the Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth line.

Ever ready to grasp new commercial opportunities, he took out mineral leases in the upper Rhondda valley, sinking a pit at Maindy in 1864, the first in what would eventually become the Ocean Coal Co. Ltd.

The transport of coal from the Rhondda at that time was dominated by two concerns – the Taff Vale Railway and Cardiff’s Bute docks. Ever-increasing coal traffic rendered these two bodies increasingly ineffective and by the late 1870s Davies was at the head of a group of fellow coal owners advocating a new railway system and dock somewhere on the south Wales coast.

The choice fell upon Barry and there followed a lengthy battle with the Bute interests in Parliament before the enabling act was secured in 1884. The dock opened in 1889 and soon overtook Cardiff in terms of coal exports; at the height of the coal trade in 1913, Cardiff exported 10.5m tons whilst Barry exported a little over 11m tons.

Today, all the Ocean collieries have closed, as has much of the Barry Railway system, whilst the docks at Barry see little use. But on the edge of the docks at Barry and on the roadside in Llandinam, the fine statues of David Davies still stand, a fitting tribute to one of the most remarkable men in Victorian Wales.

The seashore and pebbly Knap beach at Barry are a great place to have a family walk and picnic, and the sea water monitoring shows that the water cleanliness is now considered to be high quality if anyone feels brave enough to dip their toes in!

Chepstow’s 1st World War shipyard

Right at the south-eastern end of the Wales Coast Path, on the banks of the River Wye at Chepstow, once stood Wales’s biggest – and possibly shortest-lived – shipyard.

Like many coastal locations around Wales, Chepstow had seen the construction of many wooden sailing ships over the ages, especially from the eighteenth century onwards. However, the advent of shipbuilding in iron and later in steel from the mid-nineteenth century onwards saw shipbuilding in the UK becoming concentrated in the north-east of England and on the Clyde, with just a few industrialised shipyards located elsewhere.

One of these was Finch’s yard established by Edward Finch at Chepstow in the late 1870s; he was not just a shipbuilder but a noted bridge-builder as well. His yard turned out a modest number of small cargo ships, tugs, dredgers and paddle steamers in the ensuing years, but the serious loss of merchant shipping falling prey to German U-boats during the 1st World War meant that all this would change suddenly.

In 1916 the yard was taken over by the government, additional adjacent land was acquired and the cattle market moved to a new location to enable the laying-out of no fewer than seven slipways on the banks of the Wye.

The original plans even envisaged further yards at nearby Beachley and Portbury with a total of thirty-four further slipways (!), but these were only partly completed.

Protracted delays in the layout of the yard and the construction of new workers’ homes in the area meant that it was September 1918 before the first ship was launched, though the building of ships continued until 1921. A successor company, the Monmouth Shipbuilding Co Ltd. was also short-lived and the site is currently being covered in housing.

What is truly significant about the yard, however, is that the ships it built were partly-prefabricated. This was a new technique at the time, though it is now the standard method of construction used in modern shipyards. And it happened in Chepstow first!

This section of the Coast Path is not only steeped in history – Chepstow is one of the oldest towns in Wales and boasts the oldest stone castle in the UK – but it also offers more up-to-date landmarks.

At Blackrock you can enjoy panoramic views of both Severn Bridge crossings and the estuary itself.

In contrast, heading west you will reach the Newport Wetlands National Nature Reserve (NNR) with more than 1,000 unspoilt acres providing a haven for birdlife and a host of walks and activities for all ages.