A brief history of Snowdon

The history of Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) starts some 450 million years ago, during the Ordovician geological period.  Rocks were laid down underwater, to be later accompanied by underwater volcanic action. Periods of earth movement saw this elevated to a great height, and account for why today we see both volcanic rock and sedimentary rock on the mountain; the latter includes the fossils which can still be found in bedrock at the summit today. In Victorian times guides used to collect or chip out fossils to sell to their customers.

A brachiapod fossil found at the summit

The mountain has been affected by millions of years of erosion, but it was the last Ice Age, which ended about 12,000 years ago, which is mostly responsible for the landscape we see today, i.e. the cwms, glacial lakes, ridges and valleys that give Snowdon its distinctive shape.

The lower slopes of Snowdon have been home to settlers since Iron Age times. Cwm Brwynog, for instance, is the site of many old hut circles, house platforms and longhouses, as is the area immediately north of Cwm Dyli, where there are the remains of two Iron Age hut circle settlements.

For centuries people have farmed on Snowdon. In addition to growing crops such as oats on the lower areas, farmers kept cattle and sheep; cattle predate sheep on the mountain, the latter taking over from the start of the 18th century. Peat was also commonly dug for fuel.

The first documented ascent of Snowdon was in 1639 by Thomas Johnson, a London apothecary and botanist. This was by no means the first ascent, for he was accompanied by a guide who had clearly been up numerous times before. The first people to ascent Snowdon had a professional interest, such as botanists, geologists and naturalists. Not until the middle of the 18th century do we start to encounter travellers who came to Snowdon simply for its own sake, rather than for reasons of study.

The first mail-coach road passing Snowdon ran from Caernarfon to Beddgelert, which explains why the Snowdon Ranger Path was one of the first routes used, being close to Caernarfon and its inns. As Beddgelert then grew in importance, so tourists would stay at the inns there and walk along the road to Pitt’s Head, to then join the Rhyd Ddu Path (for a long time called the ‘Beddgelert Path’) at Pen ar Lôn.

The Llanberis Path became increasingly popular after the road was completed from Cwm y Glo in 1826, the path originally starting through Coed Victoria. Ascents on the ‘Capel Curig Path’ initially headed up Cwm Dyli to reach Llyn Llydaw, though Pen y Pass took over once the Gorphwysfa Inn at Pen y Pass and the Penygwryd Inn developed. The Miners’ Track was built in the early 19th century by the copper mine owners. The Watkin Path was constructed by M.P. Sir Edward Watkin and was opened in 1892 by William Gladstone, the Prime Minister. The first part of the Pyg Track up to Bwlch y Moch (‘Pass of the Pigs’) was the last of the main paths to be made, the path before this starting at Pen y Pass and going over The Horns. The first recorded traverse of the Snowdon Horseshoe was in 1847. Challenges and races on the mountain paths largely took off in the 1930s, including the Three Peaks challenge.

The two main copper mines on Snowdon are those of Clogwyn Coch (near Clogwyn station) and the Snowdon Mine (often called the Britannia Mine) on the slopes above Glaslyn; they date from the later 18th century. From Clogwyn Coch, the copper ore was taken down the Llanberis Path on horse-drawn sledges. The Snowdon mine was a larger concern. It had mixed fortunes and changed hands and names many times; its last successful incarnation was as the Britannia Mine from 1898 onwards. Originally, a water-powered crushing mill was built in 1850 at the outflow of Glaslyn, and the ore was then taken by horse up to Bwlch Glas along the Mule Track, then down the Snowdon Ranger Path on horse-drawn sledges. An easier route out to Pen y Pass was made in the early 19th century. The Causeway across Llyn Llydaw was built in 1853 to avoid the use of boats, and the crushing mill on the shore of Llyn Llydaw was built by the Britannia Company. This was powered by electricity (water coming from Glaslyn in an overhead pipe turned a Pelton wheel) and the ore came down from the mine on an aerial cableway. It closed in 1916.

Snowdon also provided slate, and the main quarries were those near Rhyd Ddu (Glanrafon) and in Cwm Llan (Hafod y Llan). The main slate quarrying era was from the mid-19th century into the early 20th century. The mines and quarries had barracks, where some workers stayed during the week, returning to their homes at the weekend. There are various examples on Snowdon, the most prominent being by Glaslyn.

On the subject of industry, the pipeline from Llyn Llydaw to Cwm Dyli hydro-electric power station was built in 1905/6. It is Britain’s oldest working power station, and is believed to be one of the oldest Grid-connected hydro-electric stations in the world.

Legend has it that the first man-made structure on the summit was a cairn, built following the death in the 6th century of Rhitta Gawr, a giant who warred with the kings of Britain and cut off their beards to make himself a cloak. He was subsequently killed by King Arthur, who himself reputedly died on Bwlch y Saethau (‘Pass of the Arrows’) and a cairn was built to him too. The first documented building of a cairn on the summit was in 1803 when military men erected a small one to assist an Ordnance Survey team. In 1826 a second survey saw the cairn built higher, with a post, and it was further enlarged in 1842 for a third survey.

Cairns aside, the first other man-made structure on the summit was a wall, reputedly a boundary wall. In 1804 it was recorded that a “stone-vaulted hovel” had been built, then, around 1815 a basic dry-stone beehive-shaped shelter was constructed by a Beddgelert guide; this became known as ‘Snowdon Cottage’. The first wooden hut appeared at the summit in the early 1840s, when Morris Williams, a copper miner, reckoned that there was more profit to be made selling refreshments to tourists. He was joined soon afterwards by John Roberts, who built a second hut. By the early 1850s both huts had been extended and doubled in size. Walking up to see the dawn became popular, so beds were made available too.  At this time there are reports of some 200 – 300 people reaching the summit a day during the season.

The summit cairn in the 1880s

Throughout the 19th century many guides worked on the mountain, escorting tourists. They worked on most of the paths, but notably on the Llanberis Path. By the middle of the century there was enough work for them to work full time during the season, and they were often linked to the main hotels, which kept ponies. Guides charged 5 shillings (25p) one way, with extra for a pony. On the Llanberis Path the ponies were usually left at the old stables below Bwlch Glas (still existing today) where there was also a reliable spring. The opening of the mountain railway at the end of the 19th century largely ended the use of guides.

The first climbers were botanists and geologists, though by the latter 19th century it was attracting those who pursued it for pleasure. Snowdon played an important part in the development of the sport, and early favourite areas climbed were Y Lliwedd and Clogwyn y Garnedd (below the summit), then later Clogwyn Du’r Arddu (now often known as ‘Cloggy’). The inns at Pen y Pass and Penygwryd were known as climbers’ inns in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. In the early 1950s the Pen-y-Gwryd Inn was used as an Everest training base by Sir Edmund Hillary’s team.

Another area where Snowdon played an important role was the development of mountain rescue. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, climbers at both the Gorphwysfa and Pen-y-Gwryd Inns had been informally involved in rescue, and the Pen-y-Gwryd was designated an official Mountain Rescue Post from the early 1920s.

The narrow-gauge railway on the western (Llyn Cwellyn) side of Snowdon, built initially as a slate line in the 1870s, started carrying passengers, and was extended to Rhyd Ddu; in 1893 the station there was renamed ‘South Snowdon’ to draw more tourists, and soon afterwards became just ‘Snowdon’. This marketing ploy worked, and it attracted most of the tourist trade, to the detriment of Llanberis. Although the idea of a railway to the summit from Llanberis had been suggested as early as 1863, and an Act was put before Parliament in 1871, the main landowner, George Assheton-Smith was opposed to it. However, Llanberis was losing its tourist trade, and after pressure from locals he relented, and threw his weight behind the project. Construction of the railway started in 1894, and was completed in 1896. However, the first day of opening in April 1896 saw an accident near Clogwyn, and an engine plummeted into Cwm Hetiau. Gripper rails were fitted, and the line reopened a year later.

The railway company had in mind to buy up the wooden huts on the summit, and then demolish them in order to build a proper stone hotel. However, they could not get an alcohol licence (two at the summit was sufficient), so they delayed, and instead set about harassing the owners and threatening them with land boundary issues. By 1898 the company succeeded in acquiring the huts, and renovated them, such that their new hotel was no longer needed. In 1922 there were plans to build a proper hotel lower down on the station site; however, financial problems meant that only the station building was rebuilt, much the same size as before.

In 1935 the railway company finally constructed a new summit building, this combining a station, restaurant and overnight accommodation. It was designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (of Portmeirion fame) and opened to the public in 1935, though not until 1937 were the upper floor bedrooms completed. This building was at the railway terminus, and on its completion the former wooden huts were demolished.

The summit hotel in the 1930s, soon after opening

Another ordnance survey at this time (1937) saw Snowdon lose its status as a ‘First Order’ trig point (interference and refraction was being caused by the summit buildings) and a replacement trig point was built on nearby Carnedd Ugain. Snowdon’s summit cairn, once some 15 feet high, had by the 1960s been reduced to almost bedrock level, and in 1961 the first stone pillar was built at the summit.

During World War II the summit building was requisitioned by various branches of the armed forces. Some of this was linked to developing radar and the transmition of messages.

The new summit building fared badly in the weather. It was made of concrete with large glass doors and windows, but these were constantly blown in by storms. Over a period of years the windows were greatly reduced in size, and some doors were removed, destroying its few positive features. Internal and external renovation took place periodically afterwards, especially in the mid-1980s.

In 1951 the National Park was established, and in the same year the Nature Conservancy registered Snowdon as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 1964 it further announced the creation of a new National Nature Reserve on Snowdon, comprising some 2,300 acres (3.6 sq. miles); in broad terms it comprises a triangle on the south-east corner of the mountain.

In 1972 a report was commissioned at the request of the Countryside Commission to examine the effects of so many people on the mountain, especially regarding the erosion caused by footfall on the paths. Entitled Snowdon Summit, it was published in 1974, and the architect-led team took the opportunity to draw up plans for an elegant new summit building, but nothing came of this. The report did, however, lead to the establishment of a system of path maintenance – built on and continued today.

The summit pillar was rebuilt in 2001 with a brass toposcope on its top, and a set of steps was built up to it on either side. The granite approach steps to the summit area were laid in 2007.

By the end of the 20th century the 1930s summit building had reached the end of its life, Prince Charles famously calling it “the highest slum in Wales”. The National Park subsequently bought it from the railway, being in a better position to apply to grants, and a public appeal was also launched, with the result that the end of the 2006 season saw the demolition of the old building. The new building – Hafod Eryri (‘Snowdonia’s Summer Residence’) – cost £8.35m and opened in 2009, a year later than anticipated as a result of particularly poor weather at the summit. The building is leased back to the railway company who are now responsible for its management and day-to-day operation. It must be said that in the 15 years since it was first designed, visitor numbers have increased considerably, meaning that it struggles at times to accommodate the volume of 21st-century visitors.

The mountain as it is today is very much a product of all this past history.

If you’ve read down to here and you’re really interested in Snowdon’s history, you might be interested in some further reading.

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