At the Shrine of Snowdon.

From: On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Arthur C. Fifield 1908 London

At the Shrine of Snowdon

  IT is commonly said that the approach to Snowdon begins at Capel Curig; but this is a very shortsighted and unimaginative way of regarding so rich an experience as a pilgrimage to the heart of Wales. To the true mountain lover, the approach begins at Euston Square. Yes, there, in the great busy station, when you have uttered the magic word, “Bettws-y-Coed,” and have received what looks like a mere railway ticket, but is, in fact, a passport to the enchanted fastnesses of the hills—from that moment, and all the day, as you glide swiftly through the broad fields of the Midlands, you see before you (if you are fitted to be a pilgrim at all) the distant ridges and cloud-capped peaks of Snowdonia, and hear the music of the streams.

  For let it not be supposed that Capel Curig is, as other mountain hamlets are, a mere halting-place in the “circular tour” of North Wales. An old writer has called the place “an excellent inn in a desert,” but it is much more than that; it is an excellent desert round an inn. It is the. special glory of the Capel that it lies, not in a sunken hollow, but on an open upland, some 700 feet above the sea, where the air, even at the hottest noontide, breathes crisp and bracing from the hills. The distance from Bettws-y-Coed is only five or six miles by road; in climate the difference is one that no mileage can express. From the low, moist woodlands you mount gradually up till you reach the point where the Llugwy river winds in a series of rocky falls round the base of Moel Siabod; then there is a bend, and yet another bend, in the valley, and you find yourself at St. Curig’s shrine. Great mountains are all around you, but there is a sense of space and freedom, with wild slopes of grass and rock stretching up and back to the higher ridges that lie behind. One is not oppressed, as so often in mountain districts, by the nearness of the overhanging heights.

  By climbing one of the low hills that border the junction of the streams, you may learn the general features of the place at a glance. Facing westward, with your back to Bettws-y-Coed, you look into two bare, bleak, converging valleys, of which the southern is topped by the clear-cut peaks of Snowdon, the northern by the bulky range of Carnedd Llewelyn, while between them is the great mass of the Glyders. You are face to face with the wildest region of North Wales—a foreground of broad, marshy moorland, where you see little life but an occasional herd of black cattle, and a background of mountains that rise above 3,000 feet; yet the dreariness of the scene, so striking in its first impression, is relieved and varied, on fuller acquaintance, by the unsuspected tenderness that it enfolds. Simple and severe as the outlines are, there lies beneath them a wealth of loveliness that no intimacy can exhaust—lakes and mountain streams, unsurpassed for purity and freshness; secret nooks and lawns, and green terraces of turf, interspersed with grey crags and buttresses; and, crowning all, the great circle of mountains which for ever attracts and holds the eye without laying a burden on the mind.

  Capel Curig, as a glance at the map will show, is the ideal centre for the exploration of Snowdonia, lying as it does at the junction of the two chief valleys, from which any of the mountain ranges may be approached; and there is in Capel Curig (for those who know it) the ideal cottage in which to spend a memorable fortnight among the hills. A more welcome resting-place, for one who loves a wild country, than this little home among the mountains, with the plash of streams and the cry of curlews all around, it would be difficult to imagine; but it is less as a resting-place than a starting-place that it is here referred to. Let it be supposed, therefore, that we have once more spent a night in the cottage, with the moon looking down on us from over the ridge of Siabod; that we have paid yet another morning visit to our bathing-place in the Llugwy, with the dipper and the grey wagtail flying up and down the stream, and that we are now starting out to make renewed acquaintance with the grim giants couched around.

  The sense of severity and aloofness which haunts these mountains as compared with the Cumberland “fells,” is due chiefly no doubt to their sterner physical features, and to the greater depth and bleakness of the bare valleys which intersect them, each group of peaks rising apart, like a mountain system of its own; but we Saxon visitors are also moved, perhaps, by a feeling of racial strangeness in a land which has no interpreter for us—no literary associations such as those by which the English lakes are endeared—nothing but a dim record of earlier inhabitants, with wild tales of battles and feuds, soldiers and banditti, insurrections and invasions, now alike buried in the past. We seem to be looking on savage mountains in a foreign land. For me at least the first impression of “angry grandeur” in the Welsh mountains1 has never been wholly obliterated by the intimacy of years, and has lent an unfailing zest to my walks. I can still recall the youthful eagerness with which, after my first ascent of Snowdon, I set off, then and there, to toil from Pen-y-Gwryd up the long ridge of Moel Siabod, and how on a later occasion, after crossing Snowdon to Beddgelert, I was not satisfied until I had stood on the opposite crest of Moel Hebog in the afternoon. There must assuredly be some strong attraction about the mountains that can draw one, even in the fervour of boyhood, to pay them double homage such as this.

  Next to the fact that they fall into the three great groups of Snowdon, the Glyders and the Carnedds—with Moel Siabod, and the heathery moorlands that link it to Cynicht and Moelwyn, forming a boundary on the south-east—the first point that strikes the watcher of these stimulating heights is that they offer, for the most part, a precipitous face on their northern or eastern fronts, while to the south and west they sink less formidably, though often with great steepness, to their dividing “bwlchs.” This structure is very marked in the central range of the Glyders, where for four miles around the head of Nant Ffrancon the great escarpment looks down on the waters of Llyn Ogwen; on the south there is but a formless steep of intermingled heather and rock, so that it would be surprising that strangers should be instructed to ascend the mountain from that quarter, if the art of climbing—that is, of selecting the routes that yield the greatest satisfaction to the climber—were not so entirely overlooked.

  To understand the Glyders, therefore, it is from Ogwen that we must start, that beautiful dark lake which lies, a thousand feet above sea-level, in the great mountain basin from which Nant Ffrancon descends—

Where all is rocks at random thrown,
Black waves, bare crags, and banks of stone.

  There is much truth in the remark made fifty years ago by Mr. C. F. Cliffe that “there are few parts of these isles in which elemental effects may be seen, or heard, to such advantage as in this enormous valley, enclosed on nearly three sides; Aeolus sports here to his heart’s content”; for owing to the sharp northward bend which the glen takes at the foot of Llyn Ogwen, the play of wind and cloud in this boisterous amphitheatre is often a wonderful sight. Looking southward from this point, we have above us the beetling front of the Glyders, and by striking up the spur known locally as the Gribin, with Llyn Idwal on its right and Llyn Bochlwyd on its left, we gain a natural causeway, at first broad and bulky, then narrowing to a knife-edge, which leads us through the heart of the mountain, with intoxicating sights on either side, to the high plateau between the Glyder Fawr and the Glyder Fach. Across Cwm Bochlwyd, as we ascend, rises the great mountain tower of Tryfan, which, since the outrage done to the majesty of Y Wyddfa, is rivalled only by Crib Goch for the supreme honours of Welsh summits; on the other hand we see, above Llyn Idwal, the famous black rift in the mural precipice, known as the Devil’s Kitchen, with its cataract of disgorged boulders streaking the slope below. Having reached the top of the Gribin, we pass at a step from our narrow staircase into an upper storey between the two summits of the Glyders, described in early guide-books as “the chilly mountainous fiat”; nor to this day is there a spot that more often merits the name, though there are times, too, when it may serve rather as a basking-place in summer heat. From this pivot we have the whole mountain, with its wide prospects, at our command, and can either turn to the right toward the Glyder Fawr, and thence follow the sky-line over Y Garn to the Great Elidyr, the western buttress of the range, or walk leftward (which is by far the better course) to the Glyder Fach, from which we can cross the gap to Tryfan and descend by its precipitous northern ridge to our starting-place at Llyn Ogwen.

  The character of the Glyder itself is that of a wild stony desert, upbreaking here and there, as notably at its summit, into bristling “horns” and “pikes”—stacks and shafts of rock piled together in fantastic disarray—wonderful in all weathers, but most when the spell of cloud is upon them. Of many journeys across this mountain, I best remember those which were fought step by step against the storm, when the wind was so strong that one had to clutch at the crags to avoid being blown away, and the mist so thick that even the unforgotten rock-figures-grotesque shapes of beasts and fowls and reptiles without name were blurred and transformed, so that in the compass alone was there certainty; but the fair days also are not less treasured in the mind, when one could sit and watch the Ogwen stream, like the river in the poem, “flowing ever in a shadow greenly onward to the sea,” or southward the glitter of Portmadoc Bay, hung like a picture in the sky, or far to the south-east the Berwyn Hills, and other distant and more distant ranges, covered with snow (I recall the wonders of one long-past winter afternoon) and gleaming like fire in the sunset.

  But it is to Tryfan, even more than to the Glyder Fach, that the heart of the pilgrim is drawn—that huge rocky bastion which juts out from the battlements of the main ridge, and has been the marvel of generations of travellers on the coach-road which it overhangs. Well might Pennant, looking across to it from the verge of the Glyder a hundred years before rock-climbing was thought of, feel dismayed at its frown! “In the midst of a vale far below,” he wrote, “rises the singular mountain Trevaen, assuming on this side a pyramidal form, naked and very rugged. A precipice, from the summit of which I surveyed the strange scene, forbade my approach to examine the nature of its composition.” There is no difficulty in approaching Tryfan from this side, indeed the very precipice of which Pennant spoke is now recommended by rock-climbers as a good training-place for beginners; but so formidable is the look of the mountain that until about twenty years ago it was ascended by only one route, nor even now, when it has lost its former terrors, has it lost one jot of its impressiveness. After visiting Tryfan some dozens of times, I still feel its attraction as strongly as when I first discovered it (for it comes to every mountain lover as a discovery of his own), and I have sometimes thought that a summer might be well spent in making a thorough study of the peak, until one became familiar with the many unexplored recesses which the climber passes by, that labyrinth of cyclopean masonry -terraces and galleries, slabs and spires, turrets and gargoyles-with which it uprears itself, like the great cathedral that it is, to the two standing stones which form its crest.

  No hermitage certainly could be more sublime, for him who would dwell above the pomps and vanities of the world, than a nook in one of the rocky pent-houses or caverns that yawn along the sides of Tryfan; and such anchorite would at least enjoy the best natural observatory, and the finest mountain berries, that Carnarvonshire can produce. Plain living and high thinking might there be practiced in excelsis.

  When we turn from the Glyders and Tryfan, still in their primitive state of utter wildness, to their great neighbour, Snowdon, scarred and maimed by copper-mine and steam-engine, the change is a striking one; it is like passing from a perfectly preserved work of art to some broken monument, the torso of a giant form, in which we have to reconstruct, from the beauty of what remains, the once exceeding splendour of the whole. Capel Curig, as I have said, is the point from which “Snowdon and all his sons” (to use Pennant’s quaint expression) are best seen; to ascend from Llanberis or Beddgelert is to go up by a back staircase in neglect of the front one, a mistaken course at any time, and doubly so now that the summit has been spoiled, and the interest of the mountain in great part shifted to its attendant peaks, which rise on the Capel Curig side.

  But crippled as Snowdon is, we may still find on it one incomparable excursion, the circuit of the great hollow of Cwm Dyli by the ridges of Lliwedd and Crib Goch, which, if we can shut our eyes to the abominations of slag-heap and railroad that must be passed on the way, will hold its own, even against the Glyder and Tryfan, as the grandest mountain walk in Wales. Lliwedd itself, which rises so finely from the shores of Llyn Llydaw, is a beautiful object from every side but the south, and may be described as a sort of glorified Skiddaw—as if the Cumbrian hill, while losing none of the graceful lines and curves that distinguish it, had been cut down, on its front, from a mere steep of shale and heather into a mighty precipice. Along the edge of this rock-face, the haunt once of the wild goat, now of the cragsman, and over the twin peaks, with their bird’s-eye views of Cwm Dyli and its two lakes on one side, and the lakeless Cwm Lian on the other, we have an ideal route to Snowdon.

  Arrived there, what a scene awaits us, especially if the train has just steamed in with its latest freight of trippers! For consider on what ground it is that we stand the very summit of the sacred hill, the shrine of Snowdon, once the pride and stronghold of the Cymry.

  “We may very properly call these mountains the British Alps,” wrote the historian Camden, more than three centuries ago, “for besides that they are the highest in all the island, they are also no less inaccessible by reason of the steepness of their rocks than the Alps themselves; and they all encompass one hill which, far exceeding the rest in height, does so tower its head aloft that it seems not merely to threaten the sky, but to thrust its summit into it. It harbours snow continually, being throughout the year covered with it, or rather with an aged crust of snow; hence the British name of ‘Craig Eryri.’ and the English ‘Snowdon.’”

  We smile at the hyperbole of these ancient writers, but even now, in these days of its utmost wrong, the natural sovereignty of Snowdon stands confessed; so truly imperial is its form, and so symmetrically do its superb ridges radiate from the parent peak. Its everlasting snow was a fable; but deep drifts may be seen as late as midsummer in its northern gullies, and in the winter months, when the zigzag tracks are deeply covered, it is often no easy matter, for any but trained climbers, to make the ascent from Capel Curig; there are times when the high cornice of snow, overlapping the brow of the ridge at the head of Cwm Dyli, offers a formidable barrier.

  It was well that so noble a mountain, rich in legend and tradition, should continue to stir public sympathies2 and to draw pilgrims to its shrine; the pity is that the shrine itself should have been despoiled—not, be it noted, by the number of its votaries, which was great even before the middle of the last century, when the mischief was still undone, but by the hideous “accommodation” provided for them. It would not have been difficult, with a little care and forethought, to build a mountain hut in a sheltered place a few feet below the top of the ridge, where it would have been practically unseen; unfortunately what was done, about sixty years ago, was to erect some unsightly buildings on the very summit, and these have lately been enlarged into the present Summit Hotel, of which it need only be said, as was said of the nose of a certain philosopher, that “language is not vituperatious enough to describe it.” I never see the place without thinking longingly of the last scene in Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher, where a certain accursed mansion obligingly topples over and disappears in a neighbouring tarn; might it not be hoped, then, that on some wild winter night, when these buildings are untenanted, they would be blown by a south-west hurricane over the edge of Clogwyn Garnedd into the waters of Glaslyn below? But such wishes, however pious, are unavailing; to take a cup of tea in the refreshment-room, in preparation for the advance to Crib Goch, is the wiser course.

  It is pleasant to exchange the crowded mart on Snowdon for the space and solitude of Carnedd Ugain, its high northern shoulder which overlooks the Llanberis side; but though solitude will now be ours, space must soon begin to fail us, as the broad expanse dwindles and contracts to a mere rocky curtain. A glorious ridge it is that we enter on, which under the two names of Crib-y-Ddysgl and Crib Goch, but in reality one and indivisible, runs with hardly a break for a full mile eastward, with Cwm Dyli on the right, and the still greater depths of Cwm Glas and the Pass of Llanberis on the left, until, after dipping to the grassy saddle known as Bwlch Goch, it rises again to the famous Pinnacles, and then narrows in once again, and more acutely, to the two summits, at a height of 3,000 feet. Though the whole “Red Ridge” from end to end is narrow, and a passage along it is apt to bring to mind the Gendin Edge in Peer Gynt

Nigh on four miles long it stretches
Sharp before you like a scythe—

it is to the eastern section of it, between and adjoining the two cairns, that the main interest belongs, and hither for years past all lovers of the Welsh hills have aspired. Yet owing doubtless to the fact that every one who has written of Crib Goch has written of it in the terms of his own powers as climber, and these powers vary immensely, it is by no means easy to obtain a clear and trustworthy idea of it from the published descriptions. The old writers, for the most part, spoke of it as a place of terror, where it was foolhardy to venture, and where the least slip would be fatal; in the literature of the new school of rock-climbing, on the other hand, it is treated, like Striding Edge on Helvellyn, or Sharp Edge on Saddle back, as just a pleasant scramble, and it is said to be a moot point among cragsmen whether they could pass along it with their hands tied. So differently does a mountain present itself, according to the capacity and confidence of the mountaineer!

  I have heard the story of an ardent pilgrim, by no means a cragsman, who had once braced himself, with some misgivings, to the crossing of Crib Goch, and was just entering on the most awkward bit of the journey, when he was met by another traveller coming from the opposite end. Pleased to think that he was about to receive, in his straitened circumstances, a word of encouragement from a fellow-climber, he was startled by the stranger breaking out into an almost passionate reprobation of the perils of mountain edges in general and in particular of Crib Goch. “I am now a married man,” he cried, “and it is not right, it is not proper, for me to be here.” My friend felt that there was a lack of reason in addressing these remonstrances to him; but his own position, astride of a knife-edge, was not favourable for argument, and he was indeed so taken aback by the inauspicious character of the meeting that he sorrowfully renounced Crib Goch and retired the way he came.

  In reality, though this “crib” offers no obstacle whatever to an active person who is quite free from giddiness, it is much narrower and more precipitous than any of the Cumberland “edges,” and for the ordinary climber, as distinct from the expert, needs to be taken with more care. Imagine yourself, reader, perched on the roof, so to speak, of a mountain—a colossal roof, some fifteen hundred feet above the valleys below, where for sparrow on housetop you have raven or buzzard—and further, imagine the angle of this roof to be a ridge of spiky and crumbling rock, averaging a foot in width at the top, and dropping almost sheer on the north side into the hollow of Cwm Glas, while on the south it falls away in an extremely steep slope, which the timid would call a precipice, but which offers an abundance of friendly ledges and notches as foothold. Such is Crib Goch, and along this ridge you must travel to reach the higher cairn, whether you approach it, as I have described, in a descent from Snowdon, or more directly by a stiff climb up its eastern gable from Pen-y-Pas. In any case it has the distinction, among Snowdonian summits, of being accessible only to those pilgrims who are prepared to climb.

  But if the glory of Snowdon lies in its shapely ridges, and of the Glyders in their wilderness of rocks, it is for the very different qualities of breadth and bulk that we admire the great mountain range of which the centre and crown is Carnedd Llewelyn. Look at a graded map of Carnarvonshire, and you will note that this conspicuous group, extending from the steep spur of Carnedd Dafydd, above the shore of Llyn Ogwen, to the sea-washed promontory of Penmaenmawr, comprises a much greater extent of high ground—say, of over three thousand feet—than either Snowdon or the Glyders; and, owing to its larger area, its hidden recesses are wilder, more desolate, and more primitive, than any other hill-tract in North Wales. Sharp peaks it has none; but in places, as at the head of Cwm Eigiau or Cwm Llafar, there are huge crags and precipices, nor are there wanting grand ridges, such as the rocky isthmus that unites Pen Helig to Carnedd Llewelyn, or the high saddle between the two Carnedds themselves; but for the most part what impresses one in these mountains, as compared with those already described, is the greater spaciousness of their massive wind-swept heights, and the greater openness of their outlook, both skyward and seaward.

  For those who love such wilds, nothing is better than a long day’s wandering in the heart of this secluded district, whether the start be made from the Capel Curig quarter, or from Nant Ffrancon on the west, or from the Conway Valley on the east, or from the northern seacoast at Aber; in any case there is need of strong and steady walking to surmount the marshy slopes, the haunt of plover and curlew, by which the great Carnedd is encircled, and to place oneself on the high plateau above. The compass, too, will have to be brought into play, if there are clouds on the hills, for nowhere are mists more bewildering than on these vast moorlands, where there are no natural signposts for our guidance, and where the bare grassy spaces stretch away for miles without a distinguishing mark. The best of all these walks is that from Capel Curig to Aber, which takes us by Llyn Llugwy, the source of the Llugwy River, to Carnedd Llewelyn, and thence across the great flat tops to Y Foel Fras, and down past the little Llyn-an-Afon through a narrow glen to the sea.

  For myself these strange lonely mountains, perhaps because I knew them earliest, have always had a peculiar charm; and I have found their fascination as strong in wintertime as in summer. Great as are the delights of Llyn Llugwy on a hot June day, I also think of it with affection as I have known it in December, lashed into fury by the winds, and its black waters in sharp contrast with the surrounding snow. What the temper of the wind can be in these uplands on a gusty winter afternoon, when it lifts up flakes of snow and ice from the hillside and flings them broadcast in blinding showers, only those will understand who have plodded to the top of Carnedd Llewelyn or Carnedd Dafydd at such season.

  Enough has now been said, perhaps, to make plain at least the leading characteristics of Snowdonia, as viewed from our central starting-point at Capel Curig. But what the pilgrim to these mountains can never make plain, for he has only half guessed it himself, is the deeper meaning which they have for him, the higher vision which he has caught from their stern companionship during his solitary rambles in their midst.

1 The expression was used in E. D. Clarke’s Tour through Wales, 1791.
2 A proof of the sentiment attaching to Snowdon may be found in the number of counties which claim to have a distant view of it from their own highest points; we are told, for example, that it can be seen from the Worcestershire Beacon, at Malvern, across nearly a hundred miles of hill and plain. From what I have been able to discern of the Welsh heights as viewed from the hills of Shropshire, at a range of about fifty or sixty miles, I suspect that “Snowdon” must often be understood as a generic term, and that outlying summits such as the Arenig Fawr, near Bala, sometimes do duty for their chief.

All Sub-Works of On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.