Celebrating Snowdonia

The UK's first four National Parks turned 70 in 2021. One of them was North Wales's craggy, mystical jewel – a blend of forest, valley and the highest ground in Britain south of Scotland.

Llyn Crafnant and the peak of Crimpiau at dawn, Snowdonia National Park. Snowdonia – or Eryri in its native Welsh – has been beloved by generations of wanderers for its spectacular mountain scenery and evocative, myth-drenched history. 

Photograph by Alan Novelli, Alamy
Published 20 Dec 2021, 12:51 GMT, Updated 23 Dec 2021, 18:43 GMT

OF ALL the arguments in favour of designating the UK’s most distinctive landscapes as national parks, the case in favour of Snowdonia (Eryri in Welsh, meaning high land) was arguably the toughest. The gnarled mountains of North Wales had long welcomed walkers and climbers, without any significant landowner dissent, while the danger of encroachment by neighbouring towns and cities was remote. Other than waning slate mining, there are no centres of industry on its doorstep – the mines and steel works of South Wales lie well beyond the horizons visible from Snowdonia’s peaks, while the port of Liverpool is too far north-east to be a concern.

Indeed, arguing against the need to create the national park, Lord Harlech’s fears were that the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in charge of its establishment was more accustomed to town planning than overseeing a mountain range.

He told the House of Lords in October 1949 that he was, “not afraid of the hiker, the mountain climber or the youth club,” but expressed doubts that a ministry which specialised in town planning would have the skills, knowledge and experience to advise on “what forms of animal and plant life are to be preserved.”

Stormy light bursts over Llynnau Cregennen, beneath the massif of Cadair Idris in Southern Snowdonia.

Photograph by CW Images, Alamy

A climber abseils from a steep cliff in the Ogwen Valley, on the Glyderu mountain range. Snowdonia's history of rock climbing and mountaineering is as prestigious as it gets: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay both trained and tested equipment on Snowdon and the Glyderau before their 1953 ascent of Everest; George Mallory even gave a part of Everest – the Western Cwm – a Welsh name due to its reminiscence of Snowdon.

Photograph by David Pickford, Robert Harding Picture Library, Alamy

A hiker looks from Glyder Fach to the summit of Tryfan – two of Snowdonia's 3,000ft mountains and keen objectives for mountain walkers and scramblers, due to their engaging and challenging ascents. 

Photograph by DuncanImages, Alamy

Sniffily referring to ‘new Stevenages’, Lord Harlech spoke with exceptional foresight when he said, “What I dread is some super-authority coming into that area, on representations that another canteen is needed, and something that is planned as an admirable canteen for a park in Wigan being put down in the middle of Snowdonia.” More on that in a moment.

A Welsh frontier

At the vanguard of the UK’s national park designations in 1951, Snowdonia National Park covers 823 square miles of varied landscapes, including ancient woodland, steep valleys, rivers, waterfalls, beaches and, of course, the mountains whose summits offer spine-tingling views.

(In pictures: This Scottish national park is Britain's deep freeze.)

In 1952, these awkward, rugged crags and razor-thin ridges provided the training ground for the climbers who would undertake the first successful ascent of Mount Everest the following year. Their Snowdonia basecamp, the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, between Llanberis and Capel Curig, acts as something of a shrine for high altitude mountaineers with their artefacts and mementos hanging on the walls. Rewinding to the 1920s to cement the connection, Everest’s Western Cwm gained its Welsh name from George Mallory, who had trained in Snowdonia before his doomed 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest peak. (Climbing Everest to try to solve its greatest mystery.)

A scrambler tackles the knife-edge ridge of Crib Goch – one of the more challenging approaches to the summit of Wales, Snowdon, seen just left of centre in this image. The summit itself – Yr Wyddfa – is said to mean 'the grave', due to its links to Arthurian legend. It's one of the busiest – if not the busiest – mountain summits in the world, but remains a formidable objective. 

Photograph by Jethro Kiernan, Alamy

The mystical Fairy Glen near Betws-y-Coed. The town's position makes it one of the key tourist destinations in Snowdonia, and a Mecca for adventurers keen to experience its gorges, bike trails and proximity to mountains. It is one of the wettest places in the United Kingdom.

Photograph by Adam Burton, Alamy

Dawn at Cregennan Lakes, backed by the mountain of Cadair Idris, in Southern Snowdonia. 

Photograph by Alan Novelli, Alamy

At 1,085m above sea level, Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) is the tallest mountain in Wales and England, and also logistically one of the most accessible thanks to a narrow-gauge railway that shuttles visitors from Llanberis to the summit. The five-mile rail route opened in 1896, using Swiss steam locomotives to tackle the hour-long fight against gravity, leading to Britain’s most visited mountain top; about 400,000 people walk to the top each year, while a further 130,000-plus let the train take the strain. This makes Snowdon's summit the busiest mountain peak in the world. (See more images of Wales's wildest places.)

Tourism and adventure

Greeting them at the top is Hafod Eryri [closed for refurbishment until 2022], a café, visitor centre and unsurprisingly the highest habitable building in Wales. It even has its own post box for visitors who want to send a post card from the roof of Wales. The building opened in 2009, an award-winning triumph of architecture and engineering – it faced 150mph winds, bone-chilling temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius, and more than 5,000mm of rain a year during its three-year construction.

But Hafod Eryri was not without controversy, thanks to its roof of Portuguese stone, despite slate mined in Snowdonia roofing the world during the 19th century. The building replaced the unloved Snowdon Café (allegedly condemned by Prince Charles as ‘Britain’s highest slum’), designed in the early 1930s by Clough Williams-Ellis. He also created and built the mind-blowing Italianate village of Portmeirion, which lies a few miles away on the coast. According to the Snowdon Railway, visitors have been able to buy a cuppa on the top of Snowdon since the 1820s, making this an extreme tea-stop of impressive vintage.

Autumnal trees near the village of Capel Garmon. 

Photograph by David Noton Photography, Alamy

A feral pony, high in the Carneddau mountain range. Despite being technically owned by local landowners, around 300 individuals belonging to this tough breed live wild on the open hillsides for much of the year. 

Photograph by Gareth Kelley, Alamy

The Bryn Cader Faner at Sunset Snowdonia North West Wales dates from the Bronze Age, though the purpose of the stone circle is obscure – though it was likely a grave. With thin pillars of slate emerging from a stone pile, reverence from the site is comparatively recent: gunnery units in World War Two reputedly used it for target practice.  

Photograph by The Photolibrary Wales, Alamy

But there’s more to Snowdonia than the soaring peak that gives the national park its controversially English name. The park extends from the cliffs and beaches of Cardigan Bay in the west, to the sheltered River Conwy valley in the east, and is topped and tailed by the Irish Sea inlet of Conwy Bay and River Dovey (Dyfi) estuary respectively. Its perimeter is punctuated with Edward I’s formidable 13th century castles – including Beaumaris, Harlech, Conwy and Caernarfon – constructed to maintain control over an area that roughly equates to the modern-day county of Gwynedd.

An independent Welsh spirit continues to this day; Plaid Cymru holds both parliamentary constituencies that cover Snowdonia, and Welsh continues to be spoken by many people - in the town of Betws y Coed half (49%) of the local population was bilingual at the last census in 2011, admittedly down on the 79% of the population who spoke only Welsh in 1901.

(Related: Striking views of the slate landscapes of north Wales.)

The national park is also home to the rare and threatened Celtic rainforest, its wet climate supporting the damp conditions in which mosses, lichens and fungi can thrive. These pockets of rare ancient woodland, tucked in ravines and between crags, are now the focus of a conservation and restoration project, says Gethin Davies, Celtic Rainforests Senior Project Manager.

Stretching nearly 2,000 acres, the Beddgelert Forest is a plantation forest nestled between the mountains that has become popular with walkers and mountain bikers for its challenging terrain and picturesque setting. 

Photograph by Alex Treadway, Alamy

He is overseeing the removal of non-native conifers as well as invasive species, such as rhododendron and western hemlock, from patches of rainforest to allow native species to regenerate naturally. Sessile oak fares particularly well on these acidic soils, alongside ash, rowan, hazel, alder and willow, says Davies, and in some areas, bluebells are returning to the forest floor within one growing season of the clearance work.

“We have some of the best examples of rainforest in western Europe,” says Davies. “There are some really large veteran trees with trunks more than two metres wide, but because of the way the woodland has been managed in the last 100 to 200 years, it lacks a variety of ages. There are a lot of veteran trees but not many middle-aged trees to replace them.”

He singles out the steep-sided wooded gorge at the Coed Ganllwyd reserve as a particularly fine example of the Celtic rainforest, with the towering Black Falls (Rhaeadr Ddu) providing an added attraction for walkers.  

“That’s a pretty special place for me, and one where our restoration work is starting to bear fruit,” says Davies.

Snowdonia by numbers

Surface area: 823 square miles
Counties: Gwynedd
Highest point: Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) 3,560 ft (1,085m)
Visitors: 4.7 million per year
Public rights of way: 1,497 miles

Darkness preserved

In a region that is so visually stunning by day, Snowdonia National Park also comes alive at night as one of only 18 Dark Sky Reserves in the world. Its pristine night sky is important not only for star gazers, but also for biodiversity, with an increasing body of scientific evidence revealing how birds, mammals and invertebrates depend on natural darkness to survive, says Dani Robertson, Dark Sky Officer for the North Wales Dark Skies Partnership (known as Prosiect Nos) between Snowdonia National Park, the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley, Anglesey and Pen Llŷn Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

(Related: See incredible images of Wales by starlight)

She monitors light pollution, encourages the owners of premises to retro-fit lower impact lighting, and works with the planning authority to ensure any new developments have an appropriate light plan. “Light pollution is a driver of insect decline, and we’re facing an insect apocalypse as numbers crash,” says Robertson.

Moths aren’t the only insect drawn irresistibly to a flame (or light source) that denies them the chance to pollinate and mate, effectively removing them from the food chain. Bats, for example, won’t hunt in the light, while other predators are far more effective with artificial light to help their insect hunt.  

Left: Waterfalls tumble over rock in the remote 200 square-kilometre blanket-bog moorland of the Migneint, in north-eastern Snowdonia, which contains some of the remotest terrain of the national park. Right: the cliff of Clogwyn D'ur Arddu, on Snowdon's north face, which – nicknamed 'Cloggy' – is revered by British rock climbers for the length and precipitousness of its routes. 

Photograph by Stephen Lewis ARPS, Alamy left, Julian Cartwright, Alamy right

Migratory bird species, too, are confused and disoriented by light pollution which spoils the natural lighting cues, such as the glow of the western horizon, that they require to navigate.

“The light pollution of cities becomes the new horizon,” says Robertson. This helps to explain why a growing number of newly fledged Manx shearwater chicks, born in huge colonies off the west coast of Wales, are being found at the foot of skyscrapers in Birmingham. They need the horizonal glow to show them the way to Argentina for their epic migration, but are losing their way because of 24-hour urban light. (Light pollution explained.)

Truly dark nights are also vital for human mental health, and Robertson fizzes with excitement as she describes the star-gazing walks and night swimming trips she leads in the national park, showcasing the star qualities of its ink-black skies.

“There’s a lake called Llyn Conwy up on the peatland moors, which is only accessible with permission and which is one of the darkest locations in the national park. There’s nothing around for miles and it’s amazing to see the stars reflect on the lake. It’s a great place to see the Milky Way,” says Robertson.

“And before COVID-19, we took a group to a little lake, Llyn Cwm Bychan, which is just up from Harlech, and swam around the lake.  It was like floating in the stars.”

Jonathan Manning is a freelance journalist based in the East Midlands. He is the former editor of Country Walking and Outdoor Fitness magazines. 

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