At the close of the 19th century, Penrhyn was the largest slate quarry in the world, employing more than 2,800 people and exporting around the globe. More than 100 years later, it’s is the setting for the world’s fastest zip line, the aptly named Velocity 2. Riders can reach speeds of 125 mph as they swoop and whoop their way along the wire for almost a mile.
The quarry’s history is probably not at the forefront of their minds, but without it there would be no Velocity 2. The effort to turn industrial heritage into adventurous visitor attractions has proved a remarkable success in Wales. It’s one of those ideas that suddenly seems obvious to everybody, now that someone else has done it.
That someone was Sean Taylor. Born and bred in the Conwy Valley, around 10 miles from Penrhyn Quarry, Sean spent 22 years serving with Britain’s armed forces all over the world as a Royal Marines commando. After years of leaping from aircraft, trekking through jungles and dropping in to war zones, the time came for a change. In 2004, he headed home to North Wales.
Sean decided to offer something that could capture some of the thrills of his career, in a way that was safe and fun. The obvious choice was to use zip wires, which he describes as the closest thing to skydiving without jumping out of an aircraft.
“I’d been all around the world going on zip lines,” he says. “I wanted to translate those experiences into something that everyone could do. The area around North Wales was known for its climbing and I wanted to do something that was more fun and mass-market.”
His first venture was Treetop Adventures (now known as Zip World Fforest) in 2007. Zip World followed in 2013, and the family of attractions now takes in three locations across North Wales: Fforest at Betwys y Coed, Penrhyn Quarry at Bethesda and Slate Caverns at Blaenau Ffestiniog.
At the last of those three, the Zip World team have been particularly creative in their engagement with what heavy industry has left behind. Above ground, there are zip lines that are just as exhilarating as those at Penrhyn Quarry. The real surprise is hidden beneath the ground.
A huge cavern created during slate extraction now houses Bounce Below, an idea first suggested to Sean by the sight of fishing nets strung between boats. Intrepid visitors of all ages can spring around on huge trampoline-like nets in a space that’s twice the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. Multicolored lights reveal the strange beauty of their subterranean surroundings.
The impact of the Zip World attractions has been massive, putting North Wales on the map for adventure sport fans – including such notable visitors as the actor Matthew Rhys. They have generated a sizeable income for the local economy, while rewriting Wales’s relationship with its past.
Other nearby industrial sites that have sat unused for years are being repurposed. Surf Snowdonia, near Conwy, has re-used the site of a former aluminium factory to build an artificial lagoon, offering surfers the chance to ride the perfect wave many miles from the coast.
What’s next for Zip World? Sean Taylor’s colleague, marketing director Andrew Hudson, admits that the company has had lots of approaches from sites within Wales, the UK and around the world, and that expansion may well on the horizon.
However, not all locations are equal. Andrew explains that when Zip World considers a site, its past will play a big part in the decision-making process. “The story of the location is everything,” he says. “That heritage is so important to us.”
Whatever the future may hold, the formula is certainly working in Snowdonia. Zip World began with just eight staff but now employs around 250, making it a major player in the local economy – and the “fastest zip line” tag has given the nearby town some unassailable bragging rights. “People are proud to say ‘I live in Bethesda. We’ve got the fastest zip line in the world’,” says Sean.