Snowdon summit by Francis Bedford in the 1870s or 1880s
Michael Freeman collection
This page includes the following brief summaries with links to other pages (as they are uploaded) with much more detail:
- Why Snowdon?
- Descriptions of ascents and comments on Snowdon
- Burial mound – Bronze Age or fable?
- Stories of Rhita’s and Arthur’s graves
- People at the summit before 1639
- Early scientists (1630s-1800)
- Calculating heights of mountains
- The Ordnance Survey
- John Dalton’s Experiments
- Experiencing the landscape
- Artists and poets
- The earliest descriptions of views from Snowdon
- A popular tourist attraction
- Improvements in infrastructure
- Huts on the summit
- Coach trips around Snowdon
- Published guide books
- The arrival of the railways
- The first package tour
- Excursions to Snowdon
- The National Eisteddfod 1862
- A photographer on the summit
- Mountain Climbing
- The Snowdon Railway
‘The Last Half Mile of Snowdon’ from Ward-Lock’s guide book.
Although a great deal has been written about Yr Wyddfa / Snowdon, very little has been published about what actually existed at the summit over the years and what little there is rarely quotes sources adequately.
This is an attempt to gather all the manuscript and published information about ascents of Snowdon written before about 1900. It includes only a little about the history of the Snowdon railway because so much has been written about that already.
Full details and sources are on pages to which this page has links.
Yn nês i’r nèn,
Ac uwch ben byd.
(Approaching heaven, and above the world) [or out of the reach of the world.]
This was quoted in many accounts of ascents of Snowdon.
Many visitors to Caernarvonshire make the ascent to Snowdon as a matter of course; but whether they consider it as a privilege to be availed of, a solemn duty to be performed, or the “correct thing” to be done, it is certain that few indeed have regretted having undergone the fatigue of have forgotten the wonderful experience acquired.
Anon, The shortest and most picturesque route to Snowdon is via the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway. Official guide with illustrations.  p. 3
Getting to the summit of Snowdon is an objective that many have achieved during the past 200 years. What is it that has attracted millions of people to devote time, resources and energy to stand on this tiny area of ground, the highest place in England and Wales? Whatever their experience, whether good or disappointing, it was likely to become deeply ingrained in their memory.
Most went for the spectacular views from the summit, especially at sunset and sunrise (and occasionally moonrise). Many were lost for words when trying to express their emotions on experiencing such scenery.
Arrived at its summit, a scene presented itself magnificent beyond the powers of language !— Indeed language is indigent and impotent, when it would presume to sketch scenes, on which the great Eternal has placed his matchless finger with delight. … A scene like this commands our feelings to echo, as it were, in unison to its grandeur and sublimity: the thrill of astonishment and the transport of admiration seem to contend for the mastery; and nerves are touched that never thrilled before. We seem as if our former existence were annihilated; and as if a new epoch were commenced: Another world opens upon us; and an unlimited orbit appears to display itself, as a theatre for our ambition. … Few ever mounted this towering eminence, but, for a time, they became wiser and better. Here the proud may learn humility; the unfortunate acquire confidence; and the man, who climbs Snowdon as an atheist, feels, as it were, ere he descends, an ardent desire to fall down and worship its Creator.
Bucke, Charles, Beauties, Harmonies and Sublimities of Nature: with occasional remarks on the laws, customs, manners, and opinions of various nations. (1821) and subsequent editions
Inevitably, many were disappointed because Snowdon ‘had its cap on’ (i.e. was covered in mist) although the majority were able to experience good views from lower levels.
Some simply wanted to ‘do’ Snowdon and get to the top and back in the shortest possible time; botanists searched for rare plants; geologists tried to understand the formation of the mountain; surveyors used Snowdon to take measurements for maps; others climbed Snowdon to test new scientific theories and equipment and a few went to test their endurance, especially in winter. Those who climbed Snowdon during the past 200 years for solitude would have been disappointed, for by the early 19th century Snowdon had become extremely popular, especially between May and September.
Snowdon holds an important part in Welsh identity but it isn’t firmly linked with any major event in Welsh history or with any famous Welsh person (but equally, it isn’t linked to invaders, as are many of the popular castles in Wales); the summit has no firm links with Welsh folklore (most of such associations date back only a century or so); the summit itself was never particularly attractive (except from a distance) – from the 1840s it was cluttered with huts and increasing quantities of rubbish but recent developments have made great improvements in its appearance. It wasn’t even seen as a challenge to climbers (except in winter) once ponies and later, the Snowdon railway, were available to take people to the summit.
It is easy for members of the Alpine Club to depreciate Snowdon because it can now be ascended on horseback; but the mountain though it has lost much of its romance, still retains all its grandeur.
Mackintosh, Daniel, F.G.S., The Scenery of England and Wales, – Its Character and Origin,… (1869), p. 320
A finer scene of mountain grandeur cannot be found. But it is not merely the outline of form, or the intensity of desolation that almost paralyses the senses; it generally happens that some atmospheric effect heightens these striking impressions.
F.S.A., A guide to Snowdon and the Glydwrs with notices of Llanberis, Nant Ffrancon etc. (Manchester: Abel Heywood & Son , p. 8
DESCRIPTIONS OF ASCENTS AND COMMENTS ON SNOWDON
Many of the recorded ascents were by English men and women who began to tour Wales in significant numbers from the 1770s.
Over 350 descriptions of ascents of Snowdon have been transcribed for the period 1630 to 1859 (with more to come for 1860-1899). Many of the earlier accounts are from manuscripts; the earliest full published description of an ascent dates to 1770. Manuscript and published accounts of tours gave way to newspaper and magazine articles by the 1860s.
see Snowdon ascents
BURIAL MOUND – BRONZE AGE OR FABLE?
It is possible that there was a Bronze Age burial mound – a cairn of stones over a human burial – on the summit of Snowdon. There are cairns of the summits of lower peaks such as Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llewellyn on the opposite side of Llanberis pass to Snowdon, but no archaeological evidence for a mound or the remains of a burial on the summit of Snowdon has ever been found. It is surprising that only one of the early antiquaries who visited Snowdon mentioned the possibility that there was an artificial mound at the summit (Farrington in 1765), but it is likely that he did not actually visit the site. William Williams, a local surveyor who wrote two substantial books on the area in 1802 and 1806, said that there was no mound on the summit. If any remains of a burial had been found, it is likely that a story about their discovery would have survived.
Many of the earliest recorded ascents of Snowdon were by well-educated people who intended to study the botany or topography of the mountain but would probably have had an interest in remains of early human activity and would not normally have ignored any traces of a mound or other prehistoric remains on the summit. However, they might have been so immersed in their own interests or were suffering from cold, wet and hunger, or were so overawed by the views (if the day was clear), or were distracted by others on the summit that they took little notice of any structures there. It must be concluded that if there ever was an artificial mound on the summit, it had been removed by the 1770s, or the materials were reused so thoroughly that it was never recognised as a former mound.
No illustrations of the summit are known before 1828.
Snowdon in the centre, under a cloud. From the Snowdon Ranger station.
RHITA’S AND KING ARTHUR’S GRAVES
Local traditions suggest that if there was an artificial mound on the summit, it covered the remains of Rhita Fawr, a giant who was slain by King Arthur. This story, however, was not well known causing Professor John Rhys to appeal for information about it in Bye-gones magazine as late as 1899. It seems that stories of Rhita and Arthur were transferred to Snowdon from other places in Wales and beyond during the 18th and 19th centuries. Much earlier local stories suggest that Rhita was buried at the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn, the second highest mountain in England and Wales, 12.5 km to the north-east of Snowdon.
Local people may well have had theories about the significance of the highest peaks in the area, but if so, few stories have survived and most of them were recorded by Welshmen in Welsh or English. One of these was the infamous forger of mediaeval Welsh documents, Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) whose archive includes a version of the Rhita story which he might have written or adapted to endorse his republican views during the war with France and enhance his own status, since he claimed that Rhita was an ancestor of his.
PEOPLE AT THE SUMMIT BEFORE 1639
Thousands of people must have climbed Snowdon before the first recorded ascent in 1639. Yr Eryri, Yr Wyddfa and Snowdon are mentioned in very early documents, many of which relate to the defence of the area from invading armies but no detailed records or archaeological evidence of their activities are known to have survived.
See Snowdon before 1600
EARLY SCIENTISTS (1630s-1800)
Most of the earliest descriptions of ascents of Snowdon were by scientists, especially botanists. The earliest recorded ascent was by Thomas Johnson in 1639.
A number of Welsh speaking botanists and herbalists lived in north Wales and their local knowledge attracted others with whom they were in correspondence.
These early scientists rarely described the views or recorded their emotional response to being on the highest place in southern Britain: they came to see the plants which attracted them mainly because they were rare but like other herbalists at the time, they thought plants which grew in such rugged and exposed places had special properties not shared by those which grew lower down.
see Snowdon Botanists
CALCULATING HEIGHTS OF MOUNTAINS
Botanists were followed by those who used Snowdon to check various methods of calculating the height of mountains.
In 1682 John Caswell (1656-1712, Savilian Professor of Astronomy, 1708-1712) measured the height of Snowdon trigonometrically to determine whether the theory that atmospheric pressure decreased with height for which he used the recently invented barometer.
Several other famous scientists visited Snowdon to test and refine equipment for calculating the heights of mountains. These included Edmond Halley (1656-1742) [after whom the comet is named] who was appointed deputy comptroller of the Mint at Chester in 1796 by his friend Isaac Newton who was Comptroller of the mint in London. Halley visited Snowdon on the 26th May 1697 which he described as ‘this horrid spot of hills’. He came to carry out experiments for the Royal Society using a barometer to establish the relationship between atmospheric pressure and height above sea level.
Many others climbed Snowdon during the next 150 years either to measure its height or to test equipment and formulae for calculating the height of mountains.
See Snowdon Scientists and Surveyors The height of Snowdon
THE ORDNANCE SURVEY
Caswell was employed by John Adams to help in the preparation of a map of Britain for the Royal Society. The Ordnance Survey arrived in north Wales in 1802 as part of its project to survey of the whole of Britain. They used the summit of Snowdon as one of their triangulation points linking it with many other prominent features of the landscape, forming a series of very large triangles which were measured with enormous accuracy.
In 1827 a cairn of stones, supporting a large post was set up on the summit by engineers. The Ordnance Survey were surveying Ireland at this time and it is thought that the post was part of a triangulation survey linking the west coast of Britain with Ireland, using Thomas Drummond’s recent inventions of the Halioscope and Acetylene lights which made distant points visible. Although there is no firm evidence that sightings across the Irish Sea were achieved in 1827, (as they were in 1842 and later) there is no other obvious explanation for the cairn and post which was sketched by a visitor in 1828.
The Ordnance Survey returned for a resurvey in 1842 when they stayed for 4 months from 16th July and 21st November. The Bishop of Norwich, the father of one of the officers employed on the survey, climbed to the summit on a snowy October day and stayed during a freezing night. He wrote a very detailed description of his visit to his wife, describing the excellent meals he had in the huts on the summit and the views the surveyors had of trig points 60 or more miles away.
The Ordnance Survey returned again in 1886 and 1887. When they completed a resurvey in 1937, the summit of Snowdon was so busy with visitors that they constructed a trig point on Carnedd Ugain, about 850 metres to the north of the summit and 25.6 metres lower than the peak of Snowdon.
See Snowdon Ordnance Survey
John Dalton’s experiments
The summit of Snowdon was one of the places from which samples of air were sent in sealed bottles in 1826 and 1828, to John Dalton F.R.S. for his research into the relative proportions of oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere.
Beacons (bonfires) were lit on Snowdon mostly to celebrate Royal and local gentry family events from 1832. There is no evidence that it was used in the time of Elizabeth I or during the wars with France (1792-1815) to warn of enemy invasions.
see Snowdon beacons
EXPERIENCING THE LANDSCAPE
The earliest recorded visitors to the summit had specific reasons for their ascents – collecting plants, testing scientific instruments and measuring the landscape. They might have enjoyed the scenery but recorded very little about their experiences of it.
At the beginning of the 18th century, when the first travellers wrote about North Wales, they generally made disparaging remarks about the mountains and the people who inhabited them. In 1702, north Wales was described as ‘The fag end of Creation’ – on the ground that if God had created the world, it should have been perfect but the mountainous regions were considered to be imperfect. Daniel Defoe in 1726 described north Wales as horrid, frightful and barbarous, and the Bishop of Bangor described Snowdonia as the ‘rubbish of creation’ in 1737.
ARTISTS AND POETS
By the 1740s artists had begun to sketch and paint Snowdonia, poets began to celebrate it and the negative language previously used to describe the mountains was transformed to the positive.
Although Lord George Lyttelton (1709-1773) did not get to the summit of Snowdon, his popular letters describing nearby mountains. written in 1756, furnished a new vocabulary for later writers.
See Snowdon artists
THE EARLIEST DESCRIPTIONS OF VIEWS FROM SNOWDON
From the mid-1750s, a number of wealthy people toured north Wales for pleasure and instruction but most of their surviving records were not published at the time. The anonymous author of Letters from Snowdon (1770) is the earliest published description of views from the summit; Joseph Cradock’s An account of some of the most romantic parts of North Wales (1777) was the second and Pennant’s The Journey to Snowdon (1781) the third.
See Snowdon 1769-1799
A POPULAR TOURIST ATTRACTION
During the 1780s and 1790s large numbers of travellers attempted to climb to the summit; some were prevented by bad weather while others ‘viewed the mist but missed the view’ when they got there. Those who climbed on a clear day published brief accounts of the extensive views as part of their memoirs or diaries of a long trip around Wales. The hundreds of published and manuscript accounts probably represent only a fraction of the numbers of those who climbed the mountain. It is almost certain that by 1800, those who wanted solitude on a mountain top would not get it on Snowdon except during the late Autumn, winter and early spring when bad weather would normally prevent them.
See Snowdon 1769-1799 Snowdon before the huts Visitor numbers Visitors’ books
IMPROVEMENTS IN INFRASTRUCTURE
see Snowdon roads and railways
By 1800 improvements were being made to the roads and accommodation around Snowdon. Inns were built and extended and the first hotels were opened.
Improvements were probably also made to the paths up Snowdon but other than comments in guidebooks, little is known about who was responsible for these, or when they were carried out.
In 1864 a local newspaper published the following:
We were now approaching the Clawdd Coch, or Red Ridge, locally termed “The Saddle,” which is the terror of all tourists who ascend Snowdon by the Beddgelert route. The prospect from this spot is awfully sublime, for the depth on each side is something fearful, for one feels that a single false step would inevitably be fatal. I was glad to find, however, that in a short time the danger will be greatly reduced, for the narrow bridge, or saddle, is being widened by Mr. Prichard, of the Goat Hotel, Beddgelert, so that in future the most timid will not have any fears on that score.
The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality, 13th August 1864
Dozens of local people took advantage of seasonal income by taking tourists to the summit of Snowdon. Some of these were very knowledgeable, especially in botany while others spoke only Welsh and simple led the way.
see Snowdon guides
HUTS ON THE SUMMIT
The first reference to a hut on the summit was in 1804. This might have been improved when the Ordnance Survey set up the first cairn for surveying in 1827. There were plans to build a new hut in 1832, but no huts were reported by visitors until 1837 and this was soon joined by another. These two sets of huts remained, with some repairs, extensions and rebuilding until the arrival of the Snowdon Railway in the late 1890s when both were rebuilt. They were demolished soon after the new station building, designed by Clough Williams-Ellis, was opened in 1934.
The appearance of the huts is unsightly; and the solitudinous stillness of the “lonely mountain top”—the great charm to us in mountain excursions—is now, in a great measure, destroyed.
Cliffe, John Henry, Notes and recollections of an angler: rambles among the mountains, valleys, and Solitudes of Wales with sketches of some of the Lakes, Streams, Mountains and Scenic Attractions in both Divisions of the Principality (London 1860), p. 150
TRIPS AROUND SNOWDON
By the 1840s, coach trips around the base of Snowdon were arranged. Some started at Caernarfon and travelled along the road to Beddgelert stopping off at The Snowdon Ranger Inn so that those who wished to climb Snowdon could do so from this point and descend to Llanberis. The coach continued to Beddgelert , trhen to the head of the Llanberis Pass and down to Llanberis where it waited to take the climbers back to Caernarfon.
Some coaches called at Llanberis in the morning and returned in the late afternoon to pick up those who had climbed Snowdon. In 1857, a tourist described how he was left at Llanberis at about noon and had to be back there by 5.15 p.m. for the trip back. (See J.P. Hamer’s guide, 1857)
Most of the recorded ascents before the 1840s were by people who spent several weeks touring Wales. From the 1840s there appears to have been a change in the type of tourist who visited Wales brought about by improved and cheaper transport and an increase in the number of people with more free time and disposable income. The wealthy appear to have gone further afield leaving the middle-classes to take their places in the inns and the new hotels of Wales.
PUBLISHED GUIDE BOOKS
During the 1840s, the number of accounts of tours of Wales published as books or circulated as manuscripts rapidly decreased but the number in newspapers and magazines increased as did the number of guide books. These were often based on previously published accounts including long extracts from them, particularly from Thomas Pennant (1781), Bingley (1800) and Bucke (1821). Several of the guide books went through many editions and contained well-substantiated information, written in an erudite, almost academic style, while others repeated out-of-date quotations and personal comments.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE RAILWAYS
Even before the main-line railway arrived in Wales, people were using the railway in England to shorten their journey to Snowdon. An advert in a Reading newspaper in 1838 stated that it was possible to get from London to Snowdon and back in three days. A rapid and cheap journey could be taken to Liverpool by train (and carriage), from where it was possible to take a steam ship to Rhyl, Beaumaris, Bangor or Caernarfon and from thence by horse-drawn carriage to the base of Snowdon.
As early as 1845 there were plans to build a direct railway between London and Holyhead, and one of these proposed building a viaduct across Llanberis Pass, but it was never built. The main-line railway arrived at Bangor by 1848, Caernarfon by 1851, Llanberis by 1869 and during the 1870s and 1880s the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways (The ‘Toy Railway’, now the Welsh Highland Railway) was opened from Caernarfon to the Snowdon Ranger station (opened in 1878) and the line was extended to Snowdon Station (now known as Rhyd Ddu station) in 1881. It was later extended to Beddgelert. From these it was possible to make day trips to Snowdon, as long as the tourist got back to the station in time for the last train back. Those who wished to take the train to Rhyd Ddu, climb Snowdon and return to Llanberis station (or vice versa) could book a return ticket on payment of an additional 3 old pence by 1897.
THE FIRST PACKAGE TOUR
Thomas Cook’s first commercial railway excursion, described in a 60-page guide book, was to Liverpool in the summer of 1845, when he arranged for cheap return tickets for 1,200 people from Leicester, Derby and Nottingham. 350 of these took a steamer from Liverpool to Caernarfon with the intention of climbing Snowdon but bad weather delayed the steamer leaving Liverpool and the passengers had only an hour in Caernarfon. A slightly more successful excursion took place a couple of weeks later.
On the 28th July 1847 George Owen of London was able to travel from London to the summit in less than 48 hours. He wrote in one of the visitors’ books: Left London on Monday 26th July 1847 at 6.30 am, arrived in Liverpool at 4 pm. left Liverpool 11 am [the following day] arrived at the foot of this stupendous unfinished mountain at 8 pm from thence safely conducted by young Roberts [to] his father’s summer house on the top of this mountain in the clouds where I have been well entertained.
One signatory to the visitors’ book on the summit demonstrated that it was possible to be on the summit of Snowdon within 12 hours of leaving Liverpool. On Saturday 15th July, 1848, he left Liverpool by steamer at 4 p.m. landed at Bangor at 9 p.m., took a carriage to Llanberis where he arrived at 11.30 p.m. After some refreshments he started at 1.20 a.m. for Snowdon and had a moonlit ascent until he was a few yards from the summit where he was enveloped in cloud.
By 1857, climbing Snowdon was considered by some to be no longer a challenge.
Europe has grown too small for our rovers, and quiet gentlemen and ladies to whom, years ago, an ascent of Snowdon would have furnished matter for the winter’s gossip,[now] think nothing of cooking their chops at the foot of the pyramids …
Review of ‘The Desert of Sinai’, Wells Journal, 28 February 1857
Early one morning in 1860 a London office worker took a train to Llangollen Road station. He arrived there at 3 pm and walked 5 miles to Llangollen. On the next day he walked 20 miles to Cerrig-y-druidion and on the following day he walked 28 miles to the summit of Snowdon where he sheltered from a storm in one of the huts over night. Very early in the morning he walked back to Cerrig-y-druidion but bad weather prevented him from travelling the following day. On his final day in Wales he took a horse-drawn carriage to Llangollen and walked the last 5 miles to Llangollen Road, just in time to catch his train back to London, where he arrived at 6 pm. The whole trip cost him less than £5 including the return journey by train which cost 11 shillings.
Anon, ‘Snowdon’, A Journey due [sic] North Wales, for Summer Excursionists by a Pedestrian Tourist, (London, 1860)
NATIONAL EISTEDDFOD, 1862
In August 1862 between 100 and 150 people, including bards who were attending the National Eisteddfod at Caernarfon climbed Snowdon at night to see the sun rise. It was reported that it was very unusual for so many to be on the summit at the same time, all of whom were Welsh. Following refreshments in the huts, they sang some Welsh hymns and songs and there was a prize for the best verse on the sun rise which they were fortunate enough to witness.
By the mid 1890s a photographer, James Leach of Dolgellau, then Caernarfon, was based on the summit. He may be seen in the centre of this photograph beneath a cloth, looking through his camera on a tripod. It is said that he had a small developing and printing studio near the summit.
Surprisingly few photographic portraits of people on the summit are known – most of those which survive are general shots produced commercially.
[Michael Freeman collection] see Photographs of the summit
The railways enabled those interested in Mountain climbing to spend as much time as they could in Snowdonia without wasting time getting there and back. From the 1860s there were serious attempts to ascend Snowdon and surrounding mountains in winter time and it later became a popular base for mountaineering clubs and the training ground for attempts on Everest. The Pen-y-Gwryd inn at the head of Llanberis pass became a base for mountaineers.
THE SNOWDON RAILWAY
There were several proposals to build a railway to the summit of Snowdon from Llanberis during the late 19th century but during the late 1870s and early 1880s the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway built a line around the west side of Snowdon enabling passengers to travel to Snowdon Station, at the start of a short and easy path to the summit. As a result, the owner of part of Snowdon withdrew his objections and allowed a railway to be built from Llanberis to the summit, for the benefit of the people of Llanberis. The first passenger train ran at Easter 1896 but an accident on the first day closed the line for a whole year.