Snowdonia is without doubt my favourite holiday destination and not just because Cyrmu is the Watts family’s motherland. The Scottish highlands are bigger but Welsh mountain scenery is somehow more mysterious, full of gushing streams and mystical woods, and adorned with a myriad of patriotic myths and legends. So it is a fitting subject of my first ‘holiday’ blog.
It is thought that Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales, derives its Anglicised name from the Saxon “Snaudune”, meaning snowy hills. But to Celts it is Yr Wyddfa which has a more interesting meaning, describing the burial mound of the mythical giant, Rhita Gawr, who was slain by another Welsh legend, King Arthur.
Arthur, Merlin and his Knights of the Round Table loom large in many of the hundreds of other myths about the mountain. Ramblers who make the gentle Miners’ Track ascent of Yr Wyddfa will, for example, pass Llyn Llydaw from which both the Lady of the Lake returned Excalibur to Arthur, and where the slain King was later laid to rest on a barge to be taken in by the mountain fairies (who didn’t seem to be in residence during our visit, although our guidebook singularly failed to advise on the right time of day to converse with such entities).
Stories about Snowdon are also intimately bound up with the Welsh yearning to get the upper hand over the English. The sixth century Welsh leader upon whom the Arthur myth is based*, lived and died fighting the Saxons and his knights are said to rest in stone in the mountains awaiting the day when Wales needs them again.
Similarly, Yr Wyddfa is said to have once been the home of two rather sleepy dragons, one white and one red. Upon being rudely awoken by some ancient construction work they burst into the sky in a misplaced mutual rage and proceeded to fight each other to the death. The red dragon won, of course, symbolising for the Welsh that Wales will ultimately be victorious over its stronger neighbour to the west.
Today there is no chance of a dragon sleeping getting a good kip as Snowdon is Britain’s most ascended mountain (not least because of the sneaky mountain railway, which obviates the need to strain muscles on the steep paths), so we have found it is best to visit out of season.
Indeed, I write this in mid-November following an exhilarating cycle ride from Betws-y-Coed to Llanberis, during which we stopped by at Pen-y-Pass for a quick hike up the Miners’ Path as far as Llyn Lydaw. A few lone ramblers passed on their way down, but otherwise our only companions along the way were the mickey-taking builders re-fitting the Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel and a laundry service van that must have been lost given the number of times it puttered past us in both directions.
When I started writing this blog it was supposed to be a North Wales addition to the ‘Places’ section of markontour. I had better get back to that task as I enter my last forty-eight hours of free time before starting a demanding new job. But for now, one last Snowdon tit-bit: as any rambler knows, mountain walking helps build up an appetite. Usually hikers have to wait for a pub meal back at base to replenish lost calories, but a useful tip for anyone hiking in Snowdon is that the woman who runs the kitchen at the aforesaid Pen-y-Pass Youth Hostel likes to put the next day’s bara brith** on to bake at about 3pm. That means that if she’s in a good mood and you’ve timed your descent to eke out the last of the daylight, you can catch an early taste straight out of the oven while you’ve still got your gaters on. Perfect – another reason to love north Wales.
* Having mistakenly ended up on ‘Myths and Legends’ course in my first year at university, I vaguely remember that an Arthur-like figure is likely to have existed in the early 6th century. This bloke was a military leader of some prowess, who scored a series of victories against the marauding Saxons and made Snowdonia his stronghold. However, he is unlikely to have benefited from the support of a wizard or a magical sword. Neither is there any evidence of a round-table knightly equality or quests for the Holy Grail, adornments of the legend popularised by the twelfth century ‘historian’ Geoffrey of Monmouth and which helped cement Arthur as a chivalric hero in the Middle Ages.
** A Welsh delicacy that some might describe as fruit-bread.