The highest slum?

The predecessor to Hafod Eryri, the summit building, existed for some 70 years from the 1930s until 2006, when work started on its demolition.

It opened in a blaze of excitement (with the upstairs accommodation rooms added the following year), but its glory days were short-lived. As early as 1967 Lord Snowdon wrote to the railway company management, complaining about the ‘unsightly’ building at the summit. What was needed, he stated, was “a building of architectural merit that blends in with the scenery.” A railway official claimed in response that “nobody has complained in 30 years about the design of the building.”

Then in the mid-1990s, Prince Charles (now King Charles, who had walked up in 1969) famously called the then summit building “the highest slum in Wales”. (Reputable newspaper sources variously credit him with saying “… in Wales”, “… in Britain” and “… in England and Wales”. As it was an unscripted and unrecorded comment, his exact words cannot be established. What he definitely didn’t call it, as reported by some, was a ‘carbuncle’; that name was used at another time in another context.) Others called it a ‘concrete bunker’ and commented on its ‘brutalist style’, and it was ironic that it was “designed to obliterate the present ‘blot’ on Snowdon”, but how fair were their comments?

Let’s go back a bit to its inception …

In the mid-1930s, the railway company, who had long bought out the pre-existing wooden buildings on the summit, finally got round to what they had been talking about for decades, namely building a proper stone hotel at the summit. It was to be built lower down than the summit itself (where the former huts were) so that it would be less obtrusive, and would incorporate a station, replacing the former small stone station building.

The task of designing the building was given to Clough Williams Ellis, of Portmerion fame, and chairman of the Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales (later to be instrumental in the establishment of the National Park). This new “hotel-de-luxe” would be “a flat-roofed modern building of glass and reinforced concrete … equipped with tea-rooms, tea-terraces, and cloakrooms”.

In Williams-Ellis’ own words, his aim was to replace the “existing agglomeration of timber and corrugated iron hutments” by concentrating all the facilities on one site. It was felt that the new building, “though substantial, should be as plain, unobtrusive, and straightforward as possible, with nothing of what is too commonly misunderstood as ‘architecture’ about it. In other words, the building is a frankly modern, functionalist erection, designed to do its necessary job in the most convenient and economical fashion.”

The idea of using natural stone to build it was dismissed as being prohibitively expensive, and anyway, if this were to be taken from the mountain itself, it would greatly spoil it. Concrete, therefore, was the chosen medium, with the windows “largely of glass, because of the view”.

However, glass technology was not what it is now, and within a couple of years most of the windows had to be reduced in size after winter storms blew them in, and the glass doors at both ends were mostly bricked up.

(left)  as built, with mostly glass walls;  (right)  after alteration, it was more brick/concrete than glass

Damp was a problem almost from the outset, not helped by the flat roof.

In fairness to Williams-Ellis, there were considerable constraints upon him, both aesthetic, practical and political, and it must be agreed that the changes in window size considerably affected any visual qualities the building originally had. Following Lord Snowdon’s comments in the 1960s, Williams-Ellis claimed that “the structure was a poor utility building. My building was not properly finished off.”  He reportedly later disowned it.

The building was to last for nearly 75 years, with intermittent internal and external renovation; after a long battle with damp, in the 1980s the outside was coated with a reconstituted slate to try to better protect it. In 1997, a survey on Yr Wyddfa found that more than 75% of people questioned thought the café building should be replaced. Michael Senior (2010) likened it to a concrete air-raid shelter, saved only by the windows, and “inside, it is not much better; a large and echoing canteen, steamy with damp and tea.”  The smell of dampness is a memory that many still hold.

A replacement was limited by financial ties, but in 2006 work started on its demolition, to be replaced by today’s Hafod Eryri. Some would query whether there should be a building at the top at all, and certainly without the precedent of the former buildings, it would never have happened.

In part the old building lives on. Whilst some waste was taken down to Llanberis in skips on a flat wagon, most was reused; the new building’s foundations comprise lightweight pre-cast concrete containers which, delivered empty, were filled with some 400 tons of broken-up concrete rubble from the old building.

The slum is dead; long live Hafod Eryri.

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