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Slatehead by Peter Goulding: Passion For Heights [book review]

Slate is boring isn’t it? It’s just the stuff used to make roof tiles or – if you’ve adopted the trend of recent years – to decorate your garden borders and paths. Definitely not something to get excited about. 

But for the people who class themselves as “slateheads”, slate is anything but dull. They revel in the way it changes according to the light and moisture. Far more significantly, they view climbing great slabs of slate as an unsurpassable, exhilarating experience. 

The abandoned slate quarries of North Wales are a magnate for these enthusiasts. Among them is Peter Goulding, a northerner by birth who has fallen in love with the ridges, fissures and square-cut galleries in the rock faces and the waterfalls of scree that plunge down to old quarry buildings and lakes. 

Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene is Goulding’s award-winning account of a slate climbing culture that has grown up since the 1980s. He was a latecomer to the party but, just like his predecessors, he fell in love with the quarries around Snowdonia. He has become, he says,  “a connoisseur of the beauty and fear of the quarries.” 

Slate carved from this part of North Wales was once sent all around the world. At their peak, each quarry employed thousands of men. But then the industry largely collapsed and, one by one, the quarries closed. The abandoned tunnels, train tracks, and explosives sheds present an alien almost apocalyptic vista, made doubly eerie by the noise of the rock plates as they rub against each other.

I can remember seeing these quarries on a family holiday in North Wales when I was a child. Driving through them in the mist and rain (yes it does rain a lot in Wales), they looked desperately bleak and ugly.

Penrhyn Slate Quarry, about 1900, one of the two largest slate quarries in Wales. Photo: Wikipedia, creative commons license

Slatehead illustrates both the awful magnificence of this landscape but also its natural beauty.

On a climb one day Goulding takes a backward glance at his route. Behind him is

the black chasm of Hades, a great split in the rock into which the screen pours down. The waterfall trickles away into the fissures and hollows of the mountain, never filling it up. I shudder, and not from the cold of the damp shadows.

On other days it’s the way the light catches the slate that attracts his attention, making flashes of purple and pinkish grey visible among the heather and moss.

It’s one of the reasons why, after his first visit in 2014, he fell in love with slate climbing. With each visit he challenged himself to tackle ever more technically difficult ascents and routes.

The technical aspects of the book passed me by. I know what a carabiner clip looks like but I’ve no idea what a belay involves (it’s a safety mechanism apparently) or the difference between clove hitch, lark’s foot and Italian hitches.

But that mattered not a jot because what kept me engrossed was the spirit of determination and adventure that unites Peter with the pioneers of quarry climbing. Working class climbers like the legendary Joe Brown, were followed by drop outs, punks, the unemployed and petty criminals.

Together they created some of the toughest, scariest climbs in the region, with ever more creative names. Cemetery Gates and Cenotaph Corner give you an inkling of the danger they present but where did Disillusioned Screw Machine, Jumping On A Beetle and Orangutang Overhang come from? I don’t imagine any of them are as much fun as their names suggest.

I’m certainly not in a hurry to get close and personal with any of them. Slatehead was an absorbing account of a deep and abiding love for rock and the joys and thrills of ascending its heights.

Slatehead by Peter Goulding: Endnotes

Peter Goulding, author of Slatehead. Photo credit: credit Benny Hiscocke

Peter Goulding is a climber from the north of England who spent most of his working life in pubs, kitchens and on building sites. He currently works at a Center Parcs village as an instructor. He completed the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia.

Slatehead, his first book, won the 2019 New Welsh Writing Award for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting. It was published by New Welsh Rarebyte, an imprint of the New Welsh Review in June 2020.

I’m counting this towards my #20booksofsummer reading project.

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