Snowdon café revamp: from concrete brutalism to curves and granite cladding
Digon hawdd dweud “Dacw’r Wyddfa”,
nid eir drosti ond yn araf.
Easy to say “That is Snowdon”,
but you will only go over her slowly.
THE LINES OF THE OLD WELSH SAYING were going round in my head as I plodded towards the top of Snowdon one day in late September, having been asked to contribute something about the new summit building that has attracted so much publicity. Uphill mantras can get tedious however, so to divert my mind I played back some memories of the mountain.
Like the first time, in the summer of 1950 with two school friends, when we met a young Dutch nurse and accompanied her to the top. On the way down we diverted over Lliwedd and I remember hurtling down to the path and the company of our new friend for the last part of the descent. During those years it became a bit of a tradition to go up on Boxing Day, sometimes getting a lift to Pen-y-Pass from members of the local hunt — whose interests that day would be very different to ours. In my memory there was always snow on the tops and we always went up over Crib Goch. Getting into the old hotel for lunchtime shelter was never a problem — indeed there were so many gaps in the defences that the place was often half-full of snow.
Come summer we would try and eat our lunch inside without paying the 6d they charged for the privilege — then we would have the audacity to ask for a glass of water, which we could have for free. I also remember, as previously mentioned in these pages (TAC68 p17), being on the top for a summer sunset. As the only customer, I enjoyed what was undoubtedly the highest pint in Britain.
The Ed asked had I been up on the train, and no, I have not. I did however once try to race it up. I gave myself a ten-minute start, but was beaten somewhere above Clogwyn station when the train’s unrelenting progress and the knowledge that it would not feel the strain as I did finally sapped my will to go on. My grandfather told me that he had heard of workmen sliding down the line by sitting on a stone placed on the central trough housing the cogs of the rack with their nailed boots on the rails. My attempts at doing this never worked, perhaps just as well: heaven knows what might have happened had I met a train coming up. (This practice also makes an appearance in The Villain, Jim Perrin’s 2005 biography of Don Whillans. On p164, in one of the book’s many entertaining footnotes, Perrin writes: “Not many of these stones left now — sliding down the track was a traditional pursuit of Welsh climbers for so long that they’re all at the bottom, and no one has yet had the nerve to ask the Snowdon Mountain Railway Company to organise a train to transport them back up (the activity not receiving much official approval after a few near-misses involving trains).” — Ed.)
The recently demolished building was completed in 1935, and was designed by Clough Williams-Ellis (1883–1978). It is in stark contrast to the flamboyant Portmeirion village ten miles to the south, for which Williams-Ellis is justly famous. The Snowdon structure replaced a collection of wooden huts that crowded about the summit. Many pre-dated the railway and were owned and run by local families or hotels. Frank Smythe, in Over Welsh Hills (1941), described the peak as sharper and more shapely than ever he had seen it after the “hideous buildings” on the summit had been pulled down. So, although it was no charmer, many thought that the Williams-Ellis building was an improvement on what went before. Outside, the architectural style might best have been described as concrete brutalism, and the interior was not much better. In recent years I believe attempts were made to improve the amenities — but I am not well placed to comment as it has been a long time since I set foot inside.
What of the new edifice? On the day I was there the site was pretty well cleared up, but work was going on indoors. As we stood by one of the entrances two workmen spilled out in a lather of sweat. Apparently the heating was being given a test run — “Ac mae hi’n ddiawledig o boeth I fewn yna.” (“It’s devilish hot in there.”) So we looked in through the windows, and as well as men sitting on the (heated!) floor eating their lunch we could see an attractive wood-panelled interior with a serving counter along the far wall. It looks to be somewhat smaller than the old café, but I could be wrong. It remains to be seen how it will perform when there are two or more trainloads of people in there as well as numerous walkers in their soggy clothes on a wet afternoon with 100% humidity and half a gale blowing on the outside.
The curved lines of the new building sit more snugly into the hillside below the summit than did the old. It is roofed with blocks of granite and the walls are clad in rough-hewn rectangular blocks of the same material. I liked the detail-work, and there are various carved inscriptions that add interest. There are more of these inside, but we could only try and interpret them through the windows. I gather that beneath one of the floor slabs is a selection of artefacts selected by local school-children. This is to be lifted and opened in 2058, when the building will be 50 years old.
Work has also been done on the outside, where new stepped pathways provide access to the summit cairn. Some might find this work objectionable, but as the railway and the café do exist I think that it is sensible to provide safe access to the top for people who are not used to rough terrain. The summit cairn itself was rebuilt a few years ago with a direction indicator replacing the trig pillar on the top. I discovered some time ago that that pillar had not been part of the Ordnance Survey’s triangulation network, but was placed there so that people would stop asking why the highest hill in Wales did not have one. The active trig pillar in the area was the one on Carnedd Ugain, half a mile away.
I think we have to put on one side any argument as to whether there should be a building on the summit. The railway exists, so inevitably there will be some sort of facility at the terminus. The old building was a disgrace; Prince Charles, no less, described it as Britain’s highest slum. A replacement was required and the question that remains is whether £8.35 million has been well spent. Visually, the outside is a huge improvement on what was there before, and it will be interesting to see how it looks in a few years’ time, by when it will have weathered in a bit. As to the inside, that too looks quite pleasing and in good visibility the sloping windows look out over a fine view of Moel Hebog and the hills of Llyn.
One last thought. What if Carnedd Llewelyn (1064m) were 11m higher and Snowdon (1085m) lower by the same amount? Then the hordes (and perhaps a railway) would be heading up from Bethesda or thereabouts. Snowdon, with its superb ridges and numerous cwms, might have remained a somewhat mysterious mountain in the west.
As mentioned in TAC74, updates of building progress can be found at http://blog.snowdonia-active.com/ See also www.rh-architects.com/?section=news&newsid=42&page=1 The current target for opening appears to be this spring.