From a Bloody Big Hole to a Lucrative Blue Lagoon

Folk Perspectives on Precarious Times

From Planet 244

by Phil Jones

Congratulations to the winner of our 2021 New Writers’ Article Competition! Phil Jones describes how an Abereiddi folk musical generated reflections on the ways in which the turbulence, profiteering and stark inequality of the industrial revolution are paralleled in our pandemic era.

‘We were here; the slate people came and dug a bloody big hole; the slate people left; we’re still here.’ – villager in Abereiddy, or What Did the Industrial Revolution Ever Do for Us?1

Twelve miles along the coast from Abereiddi (or Abereiddy, to use the anglicised spelling) in Fishguard’s St Mary’s Church, two narrators set the scene with the help of Abereiddi villagers who enter and leave the stage as almost-ghosts while the audience is drawn into the hamlet’s past – ‘Our cottages are made of stone. We work on the big farm and we keep a few beasts of our own.’2 There are two lime kilns and a handful of small fishing boats. There is optimism and the village is jovial – the quarry is growing and work is coming.

If you missed the three performances of Abereiddy, or What Did the Industrial Revolution Ever Do for Us? in 2019 then I’m afraid you’re out of luck – it’s unlikely to be put on again. It left a lasting impression on those who saw it; as Pembrokeshire-based folk trio Broadoak (Chris and Peter Kay and Wendy Lewis) and the Fishguard Folk Singers brought the hamlet of Abereiddi to the stage as it was in the nineteenth century. Sadly, Broadoak’s other commitments keep them from hosting more performances. However, their tale of how the Industrial Revolution reshaped rural life in north Pembrokeshire provides a folk perspective on a turbulent time that resonates with present-day issues affecting the same stretch of coastline: those of displacement, precariousness and economic exploitation by remote, unknown forces. With the pandemic exacerbating these stresses, the performance of a hamlet in crisis seems to ring truer every day.

Abereiddi’s quarry is started in 1838, and is initially a small operation run by local men, though the landowner loses patience and leases the quarrying rights to Londoners. This is when everything changes. Boom times arrive. And so do workers from north Wales, doubling the population of Abereiddi. Previously the hamlet had evolved over time with no master-plan – structures were built where and when people needed them, resulting in the gentle disorder still familiar across north Pembrokeshire’s villages. With the influx of workers, a terrace of new cottages is built in a straight line – all of them identical in their modest size – to house the quarry workers. Residents take in lodgers and six or more people cram into two-room cottages. William John has the bright idea of opening an inn to serve the community beer. Drunk on misplaced confidence in the quarry’s providence, they don’t expect how quickly it will all come to an end.

The musical is a purposefully narrow north Pembrokeshire story of one community’s participation in the radical changes of the Industrial Revolution. It taps into a sense that the Pembrokeshire slate story is a largely forgotten one due to Welsh slate being so strongly associated with north Wales slate, a superior product. Pembrokeshire is likely to have produced less than a tenth of what came from the north but though the industry was smaller in the south it still had its own culture and character. A ‘Slater’ was the title for a skilled worker who might have broken, split or trimmed the slate. This title doesn’t appear in the quarries of north Wales, where a ‘Slater’ was someone who laid slate on roofs.3 There was also a cohort of peripheral workers such as smiths and carpenters making and maintaining tools and infrastructure, though no Pembrokeshire quarry is likely to have been large enough to employ them on a full-time basis.4 It’s clear the industry was precarious for those who worked in it – tales of bad management define the ebb-and-flow of quarrying activity alongside the industry decline Wales-wide in the early 1900s.

Abereiddi’s deindustrialisation begins early, however. The quarry changes name with worrying regularity: The Barry Island Slate and Slab Company, St. Bride’s United, The Saint Bride’s Welsh Slate and Slab. These variations on a theme hint at something not quite right in the business, and each change is greeted with sarcastic fanfare by the musicians. There are lay-offs and workers drift away, though not all – because some have married and laid down roots. In 1879 things reach a head as the slaters work on but the pay does not end up in their pockets. A heart-breaking moment unfolds on stage as the quarry closes. A letter sent by the workers to the quarry management, uncovered by Broadoak in Pembrokeshire’s archives, is read aloud. They ask only for an explanation for the dismissals and what they are to expect for the wages due. The letter is signed off, ‘apologising for having to trouble, we remain your humble servants’.5

Despite the smaller scale of Pembrokeshire slate and the quarries on its borders, company records show a total authorised capital (the maximum amount of capital that a company can raise through the issue of shares to the shareholders) of almost £1 million at its height, over £59 million in today’s money.6 Someone was making serious money, but who? Certainly, it wasn’t the villagers of Abereiddi. It seems there was an art to promoting a new slate company and trading the shares quickly for cash, making an earning off the back of the trade – hence the regular name changes. For those looking to make a quick profit from some dubious share handling without worrying about the consequences, Pembrokeshire slate was a susceptible market. The musical refrains from bringing any figures from management or trading on stage – the profiteers remain nameless, remote and shady.

In his article ‘Regions and place: music, identity and place’, geographer Ray Hudson writes that places are complex entities that can be thought of as ‘ensembles of material objects, people, and systems of social relationships embodying distinct cultures and multiple meaning, identities and practices’.7 The musical’s writers state from the offset that they don’t care if it contains historical inaccuracies – it is a ‘show, not a lecture’.8 Broadoak are evoking on stage a community that existed in the past, based on the names found in the census, such as the unlucky innkeeper. They seek out small tragedies such as that of Jane Williams, the widowed grocer with two children, Margaret and Joseph and, by the end of the musical, a third called Martha. Where there were no names, characters have been imagined for those people lost to time, such as the Miller and the Slater. Rather than a top-down view of Abereiddi, Broadoak seek a folk truth of the place – a perspective on what the changes that befell the hamlet meant to the workers and the community immediately around the quarry, a perspective that is submerged and hidden from the outsider’s casual gaze by the passage of time and veneer of tourism. The musical is lifted from the now-flooded depths of the quarry pit and small, personal histories that are difficult to trace. During the musical the villagers often speak as a collective ‘we’. At the close, the ones that remain are left reeling but still united: ‘The quarries were the big thing, once, but the farms never went away … there is work here, for a few.’9 A rooted, static and authentic Welsh peasantry is a common trope, but it’s clear that Abereiddi was a community uprooted.10 Like the earth itself, the characters of the musical are torn up and left to dissipate or resettle once there is no more profit to be made.

Top left: Phil Jones at Abereiddi Bay, October 2021 © Evie Davies. Top right: New sign at Abereiddi Bay, 2021 © Phil Jones. Below: the Blue Lagoon © Jim Monk / Alamy Stock Photo.

Left: Phil Jones at Abereiddi Bay, October 2021 © Evie Davies. Right: New sign at Abereiddi Bay, 2021 © Phil Jones.

And what does this story mean to people of Pembrokeshire today? The now-flooded quarry is commonly known as ‘The Blue Lagoon’, and Abereiddi has become a kind of adventure playground. Adventure companies run coasteering and kayaking from here – the quarry’s steep sides are perfect for jumping into the lagoon without risk of hitting the sides or seabed, while the old quarry structures provide a number of different heights from which to jump. Redbull put Abereiddi on the global adventure map when they hosted the World Series Cliff Diving Championships at The Blue Lagoon. In the car park that’s being eroded by the sea, there’s an ice cream van. It’s so busy in the summer with hen parties and corporate away days that a field becomes an overflow car park at the top of the hill, where a charge is paid to the attendant. There is once again work at Abereiddi, though like most tourism work it is seasonal. With staycations in the area becoming so popular due to the pandemic, the Blue Lagoon has had to shut this autumn to most visitors so as not to disturb the grey seals’ breeding colony there. Pre-arranged coasteering groups are still granted access (following training for activity providers on avoiding disturbing the colony).

While work is welcomed, it’s hard to see how those working again at Abereiddi can buy property in the county. Holiday homes and second homes are squeezing out the local population from the property market and have been for some time. The narrator of the musical informs the audience how much it costs to hire the Corn Mill to the south of the beach for a week’s holiday via a holiday cottage website – since the musical’s performance that has now gone up to £2,107 in the high season. The area is just too desirable to be affordable on a local wage. Broadoak find links between the extractive capitalism of the slate industry and the less visibly brutal but still damaging tourist industry. There are echoes of the musical’s blighted quarry workers in the current conversations about second homes in the county: there is no one to complain to and there is no one coming to help, just as when the absent quarry managers and promoters cared for profit rather than their workers. Over one hundred years later and the landscape of Abereiddi is still being exploited beneath the feet of the community by an industry that is too big to be resisted by those doing the work.

Today, the lagoon of Abereiddi’s old quarry pit is like a brilliant blue eye, even on cloudy days, the kind of blue that’s hot with a cold heat. It stares up at you when you stand on the cliff whose sheer cut into the earth still looks as unnatural as it is, even after all these years. The straight row of cottages for the slaters remains as waist-high ruins, while the watchtower near the end of the headland makes a stunning outpost for those intrepid enough to walk out to it. The yells and cheers of those throwing themselves into the lagoon echo around this hewn-out ‘bloody big hole’. The old buildings of Abereiddi huddle behind the beach. The sand is black with slate. The vein that runs through the headland was laid down at least 440 million years ago and has come to be the defining aspect of the landscape as it was excavated from 1838 onwards.11 The physical remains are here for all to see, but there are only the most fragmentary traces of the people who did the digging. The stone attracted a callous form of capitalism to the north Pembrokeshire coast, tearing at the physical and social fabric of the place. And now, the scars of the past are one of the attractions of a tourist industry that is wounding the current community. Abereiddy is a performance of a place in trauma, an act of remembrance. As modern folk artists, Broadoak are performing a refrain they still hear in the landscape of Abereiddi, and they ask what lessons, if any, have been learned. While life is once again precarious for so many in Pembrokeshire, who are the absent, invisible people profiting so greatly from the county’s landscape?

  • 1: Broadoak, Abereiddy, or What Did the Industrial Revolution Ever Do for Us?, performed at the Fishguard Folk Festival on 25 May, 2019, St Mary’s Church, Fishguard.
  • 2: Ibid.
  • 3: Gordon and Mary Tucker, ‘The old slate industry of Pembrokeshire and other parts of south Wales’, National Library of Wales Journal, 23:2 (1983).
  • 4: Ibid.
  • 5: Broadoak, Abereiddy, or What Did the Industrial Revolution Ever Do for Us?
  • 6: Gordon and Mary Tucker, ‘The old slate industry of Pembrokeshire and other parts of south Wales’.
  • 7: Ray Hudson, ‘Regions and place: music, identity and place’, Progress in Human Geography, 30:5 (2006), pp.626–634 (627).
  • 8: Broadoak, Abereiddy, or What Did the Industrial Revolution Ever Do for Us?
  • 9: Broadoak, Abereiddy, or What Did the Industrial Revolution Ever Do for Us?
  • 10: Katie Gramich, ‘Creating and destroying “the man who does not exist”: the peasantry and modernity in Welsh and Irish writing’, Irish Studies Review, 17:1 (2009), 19-30, DOI: 10.1080/09670880802658117
  • 11: Andy Mitten and Jamie Pringle, ‘Geology of the Blue Lagoon’, Geology Today, 34 (2018), 35-38, DOI: 10.1111/gto.12218