The myth of Carnedd Llywelyn

It’s tempting to wonder what Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) would be like today were it not Wales’ highest mountain. Certainly it would still be worth going to its summit given that it’s beautifully proportioned, visually exciting, and looks great from almost every angle.

In the 19th century the story periodically emerged that Snowdon was not, in fact, Wales’ highest mountain; rather, this was Carnedd Llywelyn, the highest of the Carneddau range, some 7¾ miles to the north-east. In 1852 this story was mentioned in A short Description of the Eryri Hills or Caernarvonshire Mountains:

“About once in every twenty years the assertion is made and refuted, that this hill is higher than Snowdon. It has even been repeated since the accurate authors of the trigonometrical survey pronounced the height of Carnedd Llewelyn to be 3469 feet, and that of Snowdon 3571.”

These stories reportedly sometimes emanated from official sources, such as in 1856 when Augustus Robert Martin wrote in A Week’s Wanderings amidst the most beautiful scenery of North Wales:

“It is said that the last Ordnance Survey gave Carnedd Llewelyn the honour of being a few feet higher than Snowdon.”

It wouldn’t go away, and decades later, in October 1890, the story resurfaced again, there being a great hue and cry after the North Wales Express, followed by other newspapers, reported that an Ordnance Surveyor “with a sublime disregard of all poetry and romance and sentiment” had gravely announced to the world that, according to the latest measurements, “Snowdon was lower, by a few feet, than Carnedd Llywelyn”. Much indignation ensued, and in the newspaper Y Genedl, one writer suggested that Sir Edward Watkin (owner of part of Yr Wyddfa and the creator of the Watkin Path) should employ 2,000 men and horses to carry rubble from Llanberis Quarry to the summit of Yr Wyddfa, to make it 100 feet higher than Carnedd Llywelyn.

Such was the furore that the Director General of the Ordnance Survey ultimately felt compelled to step in with a statement, and later that month a large number of Welsh newspapers carried the following article:

“HEIGHTS OF WELSH MOUNTAINS. Colonel Sir Charles William Wilson, director-general of ordnance surveys, writing … with reference to the statements in the newspapers that it had been discovered that Carnedd Llewelyn in Carnarvonshire, was several feet higher than Snowdon, says:- On the latest ordnance plans of Carnarvonshire the altitudes are shown of a trigonometrical station on Carnedd Llewelyn as 3,484 feet, and of a similar station on Snowdon as 3,560.”

The North Wales Express reported that, as a result of the announcement, “confidence was restored to the hearts of the sons of Eryri”:

“Snowdon, after all, is the highest mountain in Wales, being just six feet higher than Carnedd Llewelyn (er, wrong, those figures make it 76 ft higher). It is a “small majority,” it is true, but it is sufficient. It restores the fitness of things, and makes us happy once more. Things are thus once more as they should be.”

Depending on how you define a mountain, Carnedd Llywelyn (at 3,491 ft / 1,064 m) is arguably not even Wales’ second peak;  this accolade technically falls to Carnedd Ugain, 3 ft higher than Carnedd Llywelyn, at 3,494 ft/1065 m). Whilst its prominence denies it the designation of a Marilyn, it nevertheless classifies as both a Hewitt and a Nuttall. But had Yr Wyddfa indeed been found to be the lesser mountain, would it have retained its popularity? And would Carnedd Llywelyn be any different today as a result?  Discuss.

An equally confused postcard from the 1930s. The caption says that this is ‘Snowdon summit’; the sign states that it is 3,491 ft above sea level, i.e. Carnedd Llywelyn.

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