Seven Wonders of Wales
There are many roads that can take us to Snowdonia National Park in Northwest Wales. One of these is the new highway that travels high above the Dee Estuary, bypassing
industrial Deeside, historic Flint and Holywell, skirting the holiday resorts of
"the Welsh Riviera," and tunnelling under Conwy and Penmaenmawr before reaching Bangor. Here we leave the main London to Holyhead road and enter the mountains.
It is hard to imagine Mt. Snowdon today "without its people"; it is climbed by approximately half a million each year, on foot, in wheelchairs, on crutches, roller skates, on horseback, bicycle, piggy-back, and by men and women on stilts. Perhaps the words of the little rhyme should be changed to include Snowdon's mountain with its people , for on no time of the day or season of the year are they absent from its slopes. Heavy erosion from the sheer mass of people is fast taking its toll of the footpaths and ridges of this, the most magnificent yet most abused of our seven wonders.
Snowdon gets its English name from the Saxon Snow Dun, the snow hill or fortress; it is but one mountain inside the largest of the three
national parks of Wales (845 sq. miles). Within the park (Parc Genedlaethol Eryri) are several mountain ranges, with 15 peaks over 3,000 feet. For many US visitors, the park, whose Welsh name Eryri means "home of eagles," resembles a miniature Western Colorado because of its extremely
steep and rugged slopes. Though tiny by world standards, the precipitous heights found in many areas of the park helped train the British team that conquered Mt.Everest in 1953 The highest point is Yr Wyddfa (3,560 ft), named after Rhita Gawr, a giant killed by King Arthur said to be buried in a cairn (Gwyddfa Rhita) on top of the mountain. Into one of its lakes, Llyn Llydaw, the mighty Excalibur,(Caledfwlch) was thrown by Arthur, mortally wounded nearby. Other heights on the same mountain massif are Crib-y-Ddysgyl, Crib Goch, Lliwedd and Yr Aran.
In 1896, the Snowdon Mountain Railway was completed from its starting point at
Llanberis. Some of the little steam engines date from that year. The railway replaced the local guides with their sturdy mountain ponies which for decades had been taking Victorian tourists to the summit to watch the sunrise. The engines run for about five miles on a narrow gauge rack-and-pinion line, the only one in the British Isles. The journey covering a maximum gradient of 1 in 5.5, is completed in about two and a half hours, with half an hour allowed for refreshments at the little wind-swept cafe just below the cairn on the summit. When the weather allows, for Snowdon is notorious for its sudden mists and complete lack of visibility, the views are as spectacular as any in the whole British Isles.
The railway got off to a bad start. On opening day, Easter Monday, 1896, Engine No 1 (named the Ladas) fell into a ravine. The coaches did not fall, but two badly-frightened passengers jumped out, and one was killed. In the one hundred and one years since that time there has never been another accident connected with the railway; neither has the company ever again used a No. 1 engine. The trains do not operate in high winds or in severe weather during its season between Easter and the end of October.
One of the most well-known climbers who chanced the weather and his luck on Snowdon's mountain was the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, 83 year-old William Gladstone, who gave a speech (ironically on freedom for small states including Wales and Ireland), from a large rock that was then named after him. Before Gladstone, Wordsworth's Prelude had described the author's experiences climbing the mountain before sunrise. Despite the indignities heaped upon it by decades and multitudes of climbers, indifferent to its history, to its legends, and to its place as a refuge for Welsh armies defying
the might of Edward 1st, Yr Wyddfa's majesty, as well as its position as the highest peak in the British Isles outside Scotland, make it deserve its inclusion as one of the true wonders of Wales.
To return to our hotel, we take a more leisurely way home through delightful mountain and moorland scenery. From the foot of Snowdon at Llanberis, (where a plaque erected by the National American Welsh Foundation commemorates the ancestors of Thomas Jefferson, whose home was located nearby), we head through narrow, rock-strewn Llanberis Pass for Capel Curig before reaching the overcrowded, gift-shop- littered Betws-y-Coed. Luckily, however, we can leave the hordes of holiday makers behind by turning off the main road at Pentrefoelas and heading for Denbigh. Be sure to look for Ugly House (Ty hyll), built between the hours of sunrise and sunset and thus eligible to be claimed by the family who put together the huge undressed stones.
Our journey now takes us over the bleak, tree-less, sheep-filled moors to Bylchau (the Passes), where a pleasant stop at Tafarn y Heliwr (Tavern of the Hunter) allows us to take in spectacular views of Clycaenog Forest and Llyn Brennig, and as we partake of refreshment in the highest pub in Wales, contemplate the fate of the ruined hunting lodge behind us, silhouetted stark and grim on the horizon and shrinking year by year as it is battered by winds, snow and rain. We then descend into the Vale of Clwyd, fight our way through the narrow, traffic-clogged streets of Denbigh, bypass Rhuthin (well worth a separate visit), to rejoin the main highway to Chester or Wrexham.
Next Stop: Overton Yew Trees