Vanished Wales: How a Gwynedd nature reserve was once home to the Cooke's Explosives Factory

Gwaith Powdwr was better known as the Cooke’s Explosives factory.

For 130 years, the community of Penrhyndeudraeth in Gwynedd had a unique factory on their doorstep. The work was dangerous, highly specialised and one false move could prove fatal.

It was Gwaith Powdwr, better known as the Cooke’s Explosives factory.

The site had been in operation since 1865. Every day, workers manufactured and tested high explosives. 

The explosives made at the site were exported around the world.

It required nerves of steel.

The factory produced millions of explosive cartridges.

Each one was packed with enough nitroglycerin to blow up a car.

Explosives from Gwaith Powdwr were used on large scale engineering projects around the world.

Will Evans worked on the site for 23 years. He told ITV’s Vanished Wales: “It was a different type of factory to anywhere else.

“The explosives were used in local quarries, the coal mines of South Wales, the tin mines of Cornwall.

"Some explosives were manufactured to go to Czechoslovakia, South Africa, to the big dams that were being built around the world. And it all came from this factory.”

Despite the dangers, Will remembers a great sense of camaraderie. 

“It was like one big family. They had a social club here, there was a football team here. It was a good place to work and everybody pulled together.”

Will remembers his dangerous but rewarding work.

The hillsides overlooking Penrhyndeudraeth were deliberately chosen as the location for the factory.

It was a remote landscape with a sparse population. In the outbreak of a fire, there was a natural barrier to that fire spreading.

In its heyday, Cooke’s Explosives employed more than 500 people. During World War Two, the factory produced 17 million grenades and women played a key role in production.

But the Victorian factory was hit hard by 20th Century economics.

Women played a key role in production during the second world war.

By the 1990s, widespread pit closures had led to a fall in demand for explosives by the coal mining industry. The economic climate was changing and it marked the end of an era. 

In 1995, the factory shut its gates for the last time.

The site was decommissioned and eventually transformed into the Gwaith Powdwr nature reserve.  

Rob Booth, from the North Wales Wildlife Trust, told ITV’s Vanished Wales: “Seven of the original buildings were kept. They’ve been designated as sites of special scientific interest, in particular for lesser horseshoe bats. 

“These bats require very specific roosting conditions and they're quite fussy. They like to fly into a building before they roost. 

“So we've adapted most of the old buildings and tried to make them as good as we can for our lesser horseshoe bats. And the good news is that the population of bats is now on the increase.”

The area is now a nature reserve.

The old factory is long gone. But for Will, seeing the few original buildings that remain still evokes strong memories.

“It's a shame that it came to an end, you know. I have a heavy heart.

“It was a great loss to the town and the community. A massive loss”

You can see more on this story, and many other lost landmarks, in Vanished Wales. Tuesday 25th April at 8pm on ITV Cymru Wales. You can also catch up with the series here.