The things they didn’t tell you about unlikely story of a small welsh mining village and Surf Snowdonia…
Nestled in a glorious slice of the north Welsh countryside seven miles up the winding Conwy valley the unsuspecting hamlet of Porth Llwyd in 1906 was chosen as the site of a large aluminium smelting plant, the hamlet’s fate was sealed by its proximity to the lakes of the Carneddau mountains, not only where these lakes the source of reliable, clean and plentiful peat brown water, but crucially they were at elevation.
The Aluminum Cooperation Ltd were blazing a new industrial trail
The Aluminum Cooperation Ltd were blazing a new industrial trail, hedging a bet that they could bring the price of aluminum production down by extracting it from the aluminum ore (bauxite) using the relatively new technique of electrolysis. The clues in the name; electrolysis on this scale requires large and readily available amounts of cheap electricity.
I surveyed the surreal scene around me, I could see the century old pipes leading down from the mountains toward the adjacent hydroelectric station, I could make out the hustle and bustle of spectators through the chain link fence that prevents any entanglements with the unforgiving machinery of the foil.
Needless to say I was very excited…
I tentatively paddled out, no salt in the water. There was a bit of wind, the light chop of capillary waves on the surface, I’d spoken to a guy who had just finished his session, he’d given me a few hints, ‘stay close to the pier and paddle hard’.
I’d hired a perfectly respectable fish from the on-site surf academy, and made my way to the takeoff spot. There was a gurgle and deep mechanical screech, a ripple gathered speed, quickly evolving into a head high lump, instinctively I turned and started paddling hard, very un-instinctively I got to my feet and bottom turned towards the chain link fence.
I raced toward the pier as fast as I could never reaching it, I did top turns and cutbacks, there was a pitching lip and fast section, this was actually surfing. I had a one hour advanced session that gave me and two others about 15 waves.
A large contoured membrane lined lagoon is filled with 33,000 cubic liters of tea coloured, UV filtered Welsh Water; transported directly from lake Eigiau (four miles away) down the same two giant pipelines to the hydro-eclectic plant that once ensured a pioneering aluminium plant had access to cheap; reliable electricity.
That same system now provides Surf Snowdonia with access to the water necessary to provide ride-able-ripable-waves for to 36 stoked surfers at a time. The large man-made lagoon uses some clever engineering technology to conjure up waves on call.
Yet the 12 million pound project is more than just a hyped-up-sports facility, it is a regeneration project and the latest chapter in the unlikely story of a small Welsh village of which the principle protagonists are gravity, aluminium, electricity and most importantly water.
Given the soul-crushingly steep nature of the local terrain, these were major engineering feats
The 1906 corporation set to work constructing Eigiau, Coedty and Cowlyd dams to raise the levels of the lakes on high ground to the west, thus providing the potential for hydro-electrical power generation. Given the rugged and the at times soul-crushingly steep nature of the local terrain, these were major engineering feats – and engineering feats require workers and their families to bring them to fruition.
Before long, the hamlet of Porth Llwyd grew into the bustling industrial village of Dolgarrog. By 1907 the smelting plant was up and running, herculean efforts had made it made it possible, not only where several dams constructed, but a network of canals had been dug to transport the water from the dams to supply the plant 300 meters below.
A steel pipe had been constructed to negotiate the improbably steep drop at ‘marble arch’ high above the village, along with the construction of railways to transport both materials, finished product and workers around the various sites and to the coast for shipping.
All this activity placed Dolgarrog at the heart of a fledgling industry; for the next hundred years water and gravity provided the electricity to drive an industrial operation dedicated to producing refined aluminium to a world hungry for airplanes, caravans and kitchen utensils.
Nothing is more certain than a world that turns, and by the end of 2007 the un-profitable aluminum works closed it doors for the last time, leaving 170 people to find new work. Theses would have been dark days for Dolgarrog, suddenly a tiny, relatively quiet backwater of north Wales in a world headed for fiscal meltdown.
its doubtful anyone would of seen beyond the very bleak looking horizon
The hydroelectric plant remained open, but would never be able to provide the employment opportunities necessary to sustain a now defunct workforce. Even with the incredible vision of Dolgarrog’s forefathers, its doubtful anyone would of seen beyond the very bleak looking horizon to what was coming next.
2012 and the aluminium works had been decommissioned and remained a prospect-less brown field wasteland, it was acquired by Ainscough Strategic Land Ltd who ingeniously and resourcefully set about developing the site; recycling 25,000 cubic meters of on-site material, three years and several grey hairs later Surf Snowdonia opened its doors to the public.
The central pier that runs down the middle of the vinyl lagoon, sat between two stout motor houses drags an elusive top-secret hydrofoil up and down at approximately one minute intervals, the foil creates waves, waves create stoke.
This revolutionary technology has been developed by a group of Spanish engineers know as Wavegarden, who have answered the dreams of every landlocked surfer on the planet; at the push of a button a head high peak can be mustered from the depths and sent rifling down the lagoon.
So what’s the deal?
It’s a real wave, but don’t go expecting an ocean wave, you’ll be disappointed. You can do real surfing here, its all been worked out so that everyone gets fun waves, it’s a totally unique experience, something every surfer given the chance should try.
At £45 ($70) an hour it isn’t cheap in comparison to the beach
At £45 ($70) an hour it isn’t cheap in comparison to the beach, but I didn’t feel ripped off. I suspect the lagoon will come into it’s own as a learning and training facility for inland grommets who will have a chance to get on a board, get to their feet and wiggle to the vinyl shore, unburdened by the treacherous ferocity of the sea. It’s a great spot for families and groups alike to have fun.
Surf Snowdonia have big plans for the future with further water based activities and events, they have on site accommodation, restaurants, a bar, good transport links and the whole place feels well-thought-out and exciting to be around.
All in all, whatever your view on the place, it’s a regeneration project worthy of celebration, they have a taken a negative and turned it positive, provided local jobs where there where none, with a projected 75,000 visitors are year it should be profitable and self-sustaining, they are striving for and achieving a good environmental impacts, the ripple effects from a project like this could really benefit Dolgarrog and the surrounding areas for years to come.
If you are fortunate enough to find yourself riding this mechanical wondrous, try to make some time to explore the local area, it’s a fascinating landscape, steeped in industrial history and full of rugged splendor. As I paddled back toward the crowded shore, tired and stoked the next three guys where paddling out, wild in the eyes and exited as hell, just as I had been an hour before.
Dan Kerins is photographer, writer, surfer and horticulturalist specializing in ill-planned and under-funded excursions into the lesser known.
To see more of his work please visit: dankerinsphotography.com or keep up to date on Facebook
Map courtesy of tonykerins.com