Snowdon summit

Snowdon summit

Wales’ highest railway station is at the summit of Snowdon (3560 feet/1085 metres) where for many years there was essentially a proper station with ticket office and waiting rooms, plus semaphore signals and point rodding, levers, etc, all the ‘mod cons’ needed to make the site every inch a true working railway environment. This state of affairs lasted just over thirty five years before it was decided the environment at the summit should benefit from a combined modern summit hotel and restaurant.

Alas this meant the old summit station had to go and the space for this was taken over by the new hotel. The railway was relegated to a new set of platforms squeezed onto the north east side of the hotel perimeter and to all purposes and appearances it was little more than a basic terminus. For quite a few decades this situation proved to be ideal and the mountain railway made do with a motley collection of buildings that were added on from time to time (whilst some were taken away too.) These included stores buildings, generator huts, and so on.

By the time the nineties had arrived the situation was once again less than ideal and so plans for the replacement of what had by now become known as Wales’ ‘highest slum’ – the old Snowdon summit building, were brought about.

That came about in 2009 with a brand new design by Ray Hole, called Hafod Eryri, and that means roughly summer residence. It was built to better match the summit of Snowdon than the old building did. Thus it has a stone facing frontage and a sloping roof. It is also compliant with accessibility regulations and includes a lift from the train platforms to cafe level.

Aerial view of Ray Hole’s building at the summit of Snowdon. Source: Twitter.

Originally agreed to be completed and opened by July 2008, construction slipped nine months due to constant bad weather. When the railway was unable to reach the summit due to conditions, construction staff were forced to walk from Clogwyn to the summit in often inclement weather! There were even times when the railway would be suspended completely and that left the workers with no choice but to walk all the way back down the mountain – a good three hour walk! Some days the weather was so bad absolutely no-one could go up anyway.

Another view of Hafod Eryri with the summit of Snowdon above it. Source: Twitter

In early April 2008 Carillion were quite confident they could get the job done with ‘just twelve weeks to go.’ The weather was so bad however and the summit remained snow bound for many more weeks which slowed down progress enormously. Winds were regularly over 100 miles per hour too!

The summit was still frozen and deep in snow by the end of April and by this time it was obvious no-one would be getting the new summit building ready for that summer! The only problem was the advertising for 2008 had already been printed and was out of date!

Snowdon Mountain Railway’s 2008 leaflet: Haford Eryri ‘Opens Summer 2008.’

In light of the dire situation the Snowdonia National Park authorised an extension of the building’s completion to Autumn 2008. Although it was mostly finished by then it would need another couple of months in 2009 before it could be considered fully completed.

The building was in fact opened a few days early, however the official ceremony remained for the 12th June 2009. On this day the media descended upon the summit and most reports give the impression that was the first day it had opened.

Welsh minister Rhodri Morgan was given the honour of officiating at the ceremony. He in fact walked up the mountain with his entourage, and that explains why climbing gear was being worn. They however took the train back down with the remainder of the official party.

Welsh Minister Rhodri Morgan unveils the plaque at the official opening of the new summit buildings. 12th June 2009. Source: Daily Mail.

Embed from Getty Images

Rhodri arrives at the summit cairn after the opening ceremony. Slide show source: Getty.

The name Hafod Eryri was chosen from a list of more than 400 suggestions. See this report from the BBC.

A brief history of Snowdon Summit station and its adjacent structures.

Let’s go back in time to learn what this was all about when it was decided a new building was needed at the summit of Snowdon. History shows the group of summit buildings that had gradually grown about the 3,560 foot (1085m) summit since the 1820s were something many, including, the new Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company (aka the Snowdon Mountain Railway) saw as undesirable.

Its quite surprising people’s sense of environment and perspective was quite strong in those days. From where ever one looked towards the summit of Snowdon, this group of motley buildings could instead be seen and it didn’t really endear people that the summit could be crowded out by these ramshackle wooden huts.

Two hundred years ago the first of this collection of buildings went up and soon others followed. It was like a village high up in the sky. The facts these huts were there showed the sheer popularity of this particular mountain – something that has endured right up to the present day. In view of the sheer number of visitors who reach the summit and long queues at the height of summer with people waiting for their turn to touch base upon the actual summit cairn itself, its no surprise the top of the mountain is sometimes known as ‘the Piccadilly Circus of North Wales.’ Indeed the summit must be one of the world’s most busiest!

Anyhow, it was less than a hundred years ago that the first replacement for these ramshackle huts was built about sixty feet below the summit itself. And after more than sixty years this very structure was no longer acceptable – which is why it was often described as ‘Wales’ highest slum.’ By the early 2000s a new building was deemed urgent – and its how Snowdon got a new building known as Hafod Eryri.

First let’s go back in time and see what could be found at the summit in early days.

View of the summit, showing its motley collection of wooden huts, photographed by Francis Bedford around 1880. Source: Sublime Wales.

In those days people either walked up or hired a pony. In many of these early scenes there’s almost always the sight of tourists who have arrived by pony. It was an extremely popular destination and that soon prompted minds to entertain the idea of providing a rack railway to the summit.

No doubt the summit changed considerably when a railway was finally opened from Llanberis during 1896. Yes the first day’s train services met with disaster as one of the locomotives derailed and hurtled more than a thousand feet down the mountain side! Its another story however because the circumstances of that were quite unforseen and it takes a lengthy explanation.

1896: The new station for the Snowdon Mountain Tramroad. One of the hotels at the mountain’s summit can be seen. Note how the pair of tracks ended at different levels. This was probably done in order to reduce the amount of backfilling needed as the side of the mountain falls away quite steeply here.

Anyway in 1896 the first ever building to be sited below the summit was the new railway station – and its very location soon made people aware there was no need for buildings of any sort to be sited right at the summit itself. In fact a concrete summit hotel was proposed in lieu of the ramshackle huts as early as November 1897, just one year after the railway had opened. By 1902 most of the old wooden huts had been bought by the railway and these continued under its ownership right up to the 1930s. In 1908 it was reported the railway company ‘hoped to substitute an unobtrusive hotel a little way below the actual top.’ That didn’t happen for nearly another thirty years though!

Later plans made during the 1920s included a hotel with the railway station sited underneath – something generally seen on Swiss mountain summits. This being the years of the depression, that idea didn’t get far. Money was an issue, made all the more critical by the difficult nature of the site.

William-Ellis’ summit hotel 1934 – 2006:

Clough Williams-Ellis, architect Source: Twitter.

By the 1930s the need for replacement of the summit’s wooden huts was urgent. Things were taking a turn and the idea of conservation in the face of tourism was becoming prominent. In 1931 the Government introduced early plans for National Parks and although nothing came of this pressure grew and by 1936 pressure had grown enormously upon the idea for National Parks to be established. It is within these sensitivities that the old ramshackle buildings at the summit needed to go for they were an eyesore and the need for a new summit structure became urgent. It wasn’t until 1951 that Snowdonia itself became a National Park.

The architect appointed for the new summit building was no other than Clough Williams-Ellis, the Welsh aristocrat who built the world-famous Portmeirion Italianate village in North Wales. His plans for a new summit hotel were drawn up sort of basic because of the costs and materials. It was certainly a unique building for nothing in Britain had been built like it before and certainly not at such heights. Thus the materials were largely bought off peg. There were some embellishments of course, but given the tight budget and the remoteness of the site, these were somewhat minimal. The interior of the hotel had decorative pillars but these didn’t help especially when the building became more dilapidated.

How Williams-Ellis originally envisaged the new building. This impression was first given to the Manchester Guardian for an article on 23rd Feb 1934 in which William-Ellis writes his thoughts (see below) on the new building. Source: Twitter.

It was felt that the new building, though substantial, should be as plain, unobtrusive, and straightforward as possible, with nothing of what is too commonly misunderstood as ‘architecture’ about it. In other words, the building is a frankly modern, functionalist erection, designed to do its necessary job in the most convenient and economical fashion, yet in its general lines and proportions seeking to accommodate itself without unnecessary offence to its unique and responsible position. (Clough Williams-Ellis in his own words. Manchester Guardian 23rd February 1934.)

The reason for the building having a rather slab like approach was obviously due to it being cheaper and easier to use off the shelf materials such as the windows, steel framework, roofing slabs and so on. Williams-Ellis himself said the use of specialist stone and other materials would make the cost prohibitive.

Any new building still required considerable work, including demolition of the old 1890s summit station buildings, and complete relocation of the railway station. In fact the platforms were relocated a short distance down the line. No new railway buildings were provided but rather it was expected railway staff would use part of the new hotel building. That provided slightly problematic as the facilities were not big enough and additional out-buildings for station management and generators were later constructed.

By mid 1934 the station site and its track had been moved whilst work on the new hotel had begun.

Work began in March 1934. News headlines describe the new structure as a luxury hotel. A few weeks before construction commenced, Mr A. Kirkham, Mr. William-Ellis’s chief architectural assistant, stated in an interview: ‘The new hotel is designed to obliterate the present ‘blot’ on Snowdon. It will be built on a ledge about fifty feet below the summit, so that it will not be seen on the skyline from any direction.’ (Manchester Guardian 16 February 1934.)

Clough Ellis’ summit building under construction & how it originally sported a somewhat grand appearance. Source: Twitter.

The idea of the new building not being seen on the skyline was quite apt. The old summit buildings were right at the top of the mountain and they could be seen from anywhere, thus in many ways were seen as defiling the true summit of Wales’ highest mountain. The new building would at least be on the slopes just below the summit, even though it could easily be seen from most perspectives from the north and the south west.

The first year or so the new building just had the one floor. There was no second storey – which was to be the actual hotel accommodation where people could stay for the night in order to see the starry skies and hope for a beautiful sunrise the next morning. Eventually that was built but in a considerably more austere format to what Williams-Ellis had envisaged.

The Snowdon summit building – probably in 1937 after acquiring its upper floor – at least with its big windows the structure did look somewhat smart. Source: Twitter.

In regards to earning the title of ‘Britain’s highest slum’ it has to be agreed Williams-Ellis’ design was indeed somewhat spartan on the outside, but originally made somewhat forgiving with the provision of French windows and external seating areas. The interior of the building did at least have some embellishments though its general condition was soon compromised by the ravages of the mountain top weather.

It was meant to be a proper hotel, accommodating a maximum of eight guests, and a purpose it served faithfully for the first few years of its existence. It however suffered rather badly from the elements because it was a structure designed for a town or city, not the top of a mountain where the weather could be extremely harsh. What follows is an extract from a review of the hotel in 1938…

The concrete building is a comfortable hotel, not the luxurious place one would get for its price two or three thousand feet nearer sea level, but nevertheless adequately and solidly comfortable. Our little party of four – the hotel’s normal maximum of guests is eight – did not seem a sentimental one, but it did not escape an odd sense of being stranded together. We supped four at one table in front of the blazing fire. We walked the few yards to the cairn that marks the summit, and chilled by the cold air, came back to the fire. We talked and listened to variety on the wireless, with frequent excursions to the windows that occupy three sides of the big dining-hall to see the changing phases of the shadow show of white mist and russet green. The drifting mist opened and closed last night chiefly on the deep, fluted cup of mountainous scenery in which lie the Snowdon lakes. (Source: Guardian 2nd July 1938.)

There are very few pictures of the interior of the 1935 building as it originally was, however here’s one…

The building in its first year – already damaged by water ingress.

World War Two

Huge damage also endured from converting the premises into a radar station during World War II – the work of which included substantial alterations to the building and its roof, as well as constant vandalism and break-ins, which rendered it a rather less than salubrious building.

Pics of the summit hotel during war time are exceedingly rare. This shows the hotel roof with initial equipment for the experiments that were conducted here during 1943-44.

Very little has been written about what went on at the summit in wartime. However what happened here was radio dishes, radar and other paraphernalia were set up later mainly for the benefit of the RAF. The scientists working on this wartime secret project were Frederick Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Cyril Domb – a trio of extremely noted physicists. The idea was to develop enhanced radar detection equipment that could detect enemy aircraft and submarines. Magnetrons were an important part of the work and these were also improved by way of experimentation at the summit. Since the railway was not in operation for most of the war (apart from the first year and then occasionally taking essentials and equipment to the summit) it fell to the scientists and military personnel having to regularly make their own way to and from the summit.

During late 1944 sensitive documents were lost on the mountain in bad weather. The Admiralty didn’t want the enemy getting their hands on this stuff and finding out what the RAF were up to thus it ordered Hermann to find these. He gathered a party of 35 commandos to locate the documents – which were found after many hours of searching. One little known aspect of the experiments at the summit gave some fresh insight into quantum physics and how the universe might have originally developed. In other words the scientists shared the notion we live in a steady state universe (eg one that has always existed) and there was no such thing as the big bang. Even in 2022 the court is still out whether it was one or the other – and of course there are other theories too as to how the universe originated.

Lack of care and maintenance at the summit during that wartime period meant the buildings – less than ten years old – had been ravaged quite badly by the elements and a considerable amount of work was needed to make the summit hotel fit once again for tourists. The large panoramic windows had to be replaced by smaller windows and the excess space bricked up. Clearly what should have been a fairly decent, if not brilliant, structure, was already falling apart after less than a decade.

The summit building in 1945 with evidence the large windows were bricked up at the time. This picture was screencapped off a You Tube video seen some years ago – its no longer available for ‘the You Tube account associated with this video has been terminated.’

One account of vandalism found at the summit comes from 1947. Mr Williams the mountain railway’s manager relates:

One of the intruders had pushed a brick through a large perspex window installed by the Admiralty. The door leading to the cafe’s roof had been smashed and left open and snow had accumulated to a good depth. Even if they did want to keep warm they could have been a little more intelligent about it. (Source – D. L. F. Hoare – Snowdon: That Most Celebrated Hill, 1987)

Clough Williams-Ellis’ summit building in the fifties. Source: Twitter.

By the 1950s the summit building had been pared down to basic cafe facilities. Source: Twitter.

In 1967 Lord Snowdon (Tony Armstrong Jones) wrote a letter to the mountain railway complaining of the ‘unsightly’ building at the summit and wanted ‘a building of architectural merit that blends in with the scenery.’ However an official representing the Snowdon Mountain Railway claimed in an interview with the Guardian on 13 June 1967 that ‘nobody has complained in 30 years about the design of the building.’

About the same time Sir Clough Williams-Ellis himself was too interviewed in regards to Lord Snowdon’s criticisms. Williams-Ellis claimed ‘the structure was a poor utility building. My building was not properly finished off.’

Sixties view of the summit with no.4 Snowdon on a passenger train. Next to the locomotive can be seen ‘The Truck.’ This was a utility train that ventured up to the summit at least once a day with water, diesel for the generators, and fresh food supplies for the cafe. It can be seen one of the windows (of which there were several) at the summit building was boarded up. This image was scanned from the seventies’ monthly journal History of Railways.

In 1982 the Snowdonia National Park Authority agreed to buy the summit buildings, renovate them and lease it back to the railway. A lot of money was spent in the next few years on refurbishing the cafe, both inside and outside making it look good for the modern generation. It did look nicer for a while and that improved things quite considerably. This Flickr image shows the amount of work that was being done in 1987 – new walls, new station platforms etc.

By the mid 1990s the numbers visiting the summit building were unprecedented and the SNPA conducted a review with various bodies and it was agreed a replacement building was needed, one more suited to modern needs. The old summit hotel was simply not up to scratch and couldn’t cope with the huge number of visitors. Plus its condition had deteriorated again no doubt helped by the weather.

The end comes for Clough Williams-Ellis’ summit building…

Proposals for a replacement building were presented by the appointed architects, Ray Hole, in 2001. Planning approval was gained in January 2004, and then the money had to be raised, with a number of bodies making a contribution. These include the Welsh Assembly, the SNPA, Wales Tourist Board, the SMR and the European Objective One Fund. Both the SNPA and the Snowdonia Society raised a considerable amount of donations through appeals and collections at various information centres.

It was built by the renowned Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis and has stood there since 1936, serving generations of visitors with shelter and refreshments. But the building on top of Snowdon has been described by Prince Charles as a slum, and John Disley, the Snowdonia Society’s president is not one to argue.

As he helped to launch a pounds 2.2m worldwide appeal to replace it yesterday, Mr Disley said the cafe was a disgrace to Snowdonia and Wales. ‘It is a slum and I am always ashamed to take visitors from abroad to the summit,’ he said. ‘The site deserves the best. Wales now has the best stadium in the UK, and concert hall. Now our highest mountain needs a summit facility that we can be equally proud of.’ (Source: Western Mail 5th April 2005.)

2006: The ‘slum’ sails off into the sunset. Aerial view with the Glyderau and Carneddau ranges beyond. Source: Twitter.

The old building was closed in early September 2006 and demolition work began in earnest a few days later to build what would be known as Hafod Eryri. It would not just be a mountain top cafe, but also a visitor centre with information and displays about the mountain itself, its history and its geology.

The cafe on 12 September 2006, after it had closed.

Continued in Part Two – building Hafod Eryri.

Originally written during 2010 & expanded for Hafod Eryri’s 10th anniversary in 2019. Updated and further expanded 2022.