A t the end of the nineteenth century, Penrhyn Slate Quarry in North Wales was the largest of its kind in the world. A mile long and 1,200ft deep, more than 3,000 quarrymen toiled in its depths.
The number of miners in Wales went on to peak at over 270,000 in 1920, with prosperous coal, gold, silver, copper, iron, arsenic and lead mines. But by the 1980s the industry had been devastated; disused pits lay across Wales like open sores on the landscape and North Wales remains among the most economically depressed areas in the UK. Some mines remain open, albeit at drastically reduced capacity, while others have become heritage sites, selling scones and teaching kids about Wales’ industrial heritage.
Sean Taylor had other ideas. The son of a local forester, he grew up on the western slopes of Conwy valley, leaving Wales in the 80s to join the Royal Marines. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan before moving into personal security, where he looked after stars including Tom Hanks and Pamela Anderson.
He returned home 26 years later with a plan: to breathe new life into North Wales’ industrial-era architecture, to convert the decaying mines and slag heaps into an adventure playground unlike any other. And flying at over 100mph at a height of up to 500ft above a submerged quarry is certainly a novel way to experience the local topography; on a clear day you can see as far as Ireland. It’s exhilarating but not exactly frightening – by the time you reach top-speed, enough adrenaline has kicked in that you’re too busy enjoying the rush to be scared.
The same can’t be said of Plummet, located on Zip World’s Betws-y-Coed site, a short drive along Taylor’s self-styled “Adventure Highway”. It’s essentially a 100ft telegraph pole: strap in, climb up, jump off. It’s like a bungee jump, except a brake kicks in part way down and lowers you the final few feet.
“It’s fine, I can do this,” I thought, looking dubiously at the ground far, far below.
Five minutes later I was still standing there, fighting against millions of years of evolution.
“You’re going to have to push me... Wait, no, no, no, no, no, nooooooooo.”
I screamed like a child all the way down, then I wanted to climb up and do it again.
On the same site is the marginally less terrifying Skyride, upon which you’re strapped to a metal bar, winched to a great height and fired off the side of a hill. Nothing can quite prepare you for the brute force of the first downward swing, after which you can start to enjoy the views over the green and pleasant countryside.
Taylor’s adventure empire has grown at a hell of a pace: first came a treetop rope-course – now redeveloped into a canopy zip-wire experience – followed by his series of vast mountain-top zip-lines, the simulated parachute jump, trampolines strung 100ft in the air inside Penrhyn mines and a vertigo-inducing indoor climbing and zip-line circuit. A mountain-top toboggan run and tree-top trampoline area are both in the pipeline.
He has invested tens of millions in the local economy – the spiral slides he recently added to the cave trampoline complex alone cost £700,000. It’s encouraged other local businesses to follow suit: last year Surf Snowdonia, a £12m artificial wave machine, opened in a former aluminium works at nearby Dolgarrog. There was a time when Cornwall or Scotland’s Fort William could have claimed to be the “adventure capital” of the UK – now there’s no competition.
For those travelling up from the capital, it’s a no-brainer: while Fort William and Cornwall are both a nightmare to get to, you can be in Llandudno Junction, a short taxi journey from the various sites, in less than three hours on a direct Virgin train from Euston.
Now the area’s infrastructure struggles to keep up: local B&Bs are at capacity for most of the year and you have to book in advance to guarantee a table for dinner at a local pub. Taylor is in the process of building a hotel to accommodate the extra visitors, with, naturally, a slide to exit the top floor of the building. In the meantime, book local accommodation as far in advance as possible. I stayed at The Fairy Glen, a comfortable serviced apartment in Betws-y-Coed that backs onto a series of walking routes. Also highly recommended is the nearby Ty Gwyn pub and hotel, a 15th century coach house with a great line in home-cooked food and local beer.
The next day we drove the Adventure Highway to Blaenau Ffestiniog in the heart of Snowdonia National Park, home to Zip World’s second large-scale zip-wire, Titan.
This time a storm had rolled in and the trio of lines were shrouded in thick white cloud; still fun, but I got the feeling I was missing some spectacular scenery as I was hurtling blindly down the mountainside.
Not to worry: on the same site is a vast disused mine in which there are two main activities: Bounce Below and Caverns. The former is a series of trampolines drilled into the cave walls hundreds of feet above the jagged rocks below, with various levels accessible by corkscrew slides. To access some areas you must navigate vast spirals of netting; it’s the kind of place you wish had existed when you were a child.
Even better is Caverns, which combines rudimentary rock-climbing with another zip-line experience. You’re trained to use a two-rope “lanyard safety system”, which makes it impossible to become unattached from the series of wires weaving throughout the cave complex – to “unclick” one lanyard, the other must be attached, and you move along the route clicking and unclicking every few feet. After some brief training, you’re on your way, which is, to begin with, both spectacular and terrifying.
It’s difficult to convey the vastness of this former slate mine, made up of dozens of subterranean caverns linked by winding tunnels and terrifying ledges. The route is dark apart from shifting, coloured spotlights, which results in an eerie, almost psychedelic atmosphere.
From the beginning of the route you’re scrabbling over slippery rocks and zip-lining over huge caverns entirely unaided. It takes a good 10 minutes before you fully trust your equipment, after which you can relax and enjoy the experience; the adrenaline thrill from the speed and height combines with a sense of wonder at both the natural beauty and the engineering prowess. The route is ingenious, every corner presenting you with something new: a rickety rope bridge over a sheer drop, vertical logs that sway woozily under your feet, a narrow ledge to shuffle across. Even going at a fair clip, it lasts 40 minutes, making it, for my money, the best value for money of all the Zip World experiences. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s the most impressive manmade attraction I’ve ever seen, quite unlike anything else.
If you prefer to be outdoors, Zip Safari at the Betws-y-Coed site is a similar experience, only up a series of pine trees; it’s great for getting rid of a hangover from all the Welsh beer you drank the night before. I squeezed everything into two days, although you could easily stretch it out over a long weekend.
Out of the ashes of North Wales’ fading heavy industry has risen a world-leading, sustainable, thoroughly 21st century business. It’s worth visiting to witness the transformation alone. Plus it’s hella fun.