Each morning the residents of Llanberis wake up to one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. Named after an early saint, this mainly Welsh-speaking village lies on the shores of Llyn Padarn, in the shadow of the highest mountains in Wales, including Yr Wyddfa, known across the border as Mount Snowdon.
This is a place of myths and legends, the stronghold of the Celts as they repelled the might of the Roman army and home of the great Welsh princes who fought valiantly against the invading Plantagenet kings.
To paraphrase the legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Llanberis today is an ugly lovely village, the traditional quarrymen’s cottages interspersed with modern housing estates and Victorian hotels. Dominating the village, on the opposite shore of Llyn Peris, is Dinorwic Quarry, once the second-largest slate mine in the world. After the quarry closed in 1969, the village went into a brief decline but today, with its endless possibilities for outdoor enthusiasts, the spring is definitely back in Llanberis’s step.
For the casual tourist, Llanberis has much to offer, including the slate mining museum at the foot of Dinorwic Quarry and guided tours of Dinorwig Power Station. Railway enthusiasts are spoiled for choice with the Snowdon Mountain Railway and Llanberis Lake Railway, plus the Highland Railway passing through nearby Beddgelert.
However, Llanberis is most famous for its wide range of outdoor sports. Walk down the high street at any time of year and you will encounter herds of walkers and climbers. Many of them will follow Llanberis Path, one of the six main routes to Snowdon’s summit, 1,080m above sea level. Sir John Hunt brought his team of mountaineers here to prepare for the first successful ascent of Everest, which he lead in 1953. Their base, the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, remains a place of pilgrimage for mountaineers the world over. Cwm Idwal, a beautiful corrie lake surrounded by an amphitheatre of rock, three miles to the east of Llanberis, helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and more recent pupils to this open-air classroom include none other than the great Sir David Attenborough. With such notable visitors, Llanberis should be on everyone’s to-do list.
Snowdon attracts more walkers each year than any other mountain in Britain, with an astonishing 440,000 visitors to the summit in 2016. Of the six main routes to the top, the most varied and interesting is the Watkin Path, which starts at Nant Gwynant and approaches the peak from the south, taking in the oak woods of Hafod-y-Llan, the stunning waterfalls of Coed-yr-Allt and the abandoned slate quarries of Cwm Llan en route.
One of the joys of Snowdonia is the many footpaths to choose from. A personal favourite of mine starts at the Moel Siabod café in Capel Curig and climbs towards Crimpiau before descending to Llyn Crafnant, one of the most beautiful lakes in north Wales. After a steep ascent towards the heather-clad rocks of Creigiau Gleision you cross the dam at Llyn Cowlyd then head back alongside the reservoir’s north shore, through the gap below Pen Llithrig y Wrach, down towards the A5 and back to the cafe. It’s a route of about 12 miles but the flapjacks and mugs of tea that await make every step worthwhile.
A much shorter, less rugged route that still offers stunning scenery leads from the village of Abergwyngregyn on the north coast up the valley towards the spectacular Aber Falls. The 4.5 mile walk starts in the village itself and follows a quiet country lane before crossing the Afon Rhaeadr Fawr river and taking a track alongside some beautiful ancient oak woodland. The path climbs slowly to the impressive Rhaeadr Fawr waterfall then turns right along the foothills of the Carneddau mountains, offering incredible views over the Menai Strait towards the Great Orme, Puffin Island and Anglesey before heading back, above the tree line, towards the village.
The Llanberis area boasts a cornucopia of wildlife and attracts naturalists from all four corners of the globe. Cwm Idwal, above the Nant Ffrancon valley, is a mecca for botanists in search of rare plants, including the Snowdon lily, which is only found at a handful of sites in Snowdonia. A short walk brings you to the Padarn Country Park with its ancient oak woodland. In spring and early summer, the branches vibrate to the songs of migrant birds such as pied flycatchers, wood warblers and redstarts and the footpath that traverses Dinorwic Quarry should bring you into contact with ravens, peregrine falcons and wild goats.
Dippers, grey wagtails and common sandpipers are found on all the rivers and streams in Snowdonia and otters are often spotted along the shore of Llyn Padarn. Ring ouzels, a threatened species of mountain blackbird, are holding their own here and some of the old quarries offer a chance for a glimpse of the red-legged and red-beaked chough. In winter, the eastern end of the Menai Strait is home to waders and wildfowl and the North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Aber Ogwen reserve is a great place to see kingfishers and water rails from the comfort of a bird hide.
Cycling for all
Llanberis is one of the principal local hubs of cycle-racing with the gruelling Slateman and Snowman triathlons based in the area. Antur Stiniog, in the nearby village of Blaenau Ffestiniog, offers downhill mountain-bike trails and mountain-bike coaching for all levels. Gwydyr Forest around Betws-y-Coed and Llanrwst has bike trails for beginners and experienced mountain bikers alike.
Families with young children can follow a short bike route along the banks of Llyn Peris on the outskirts of Llanberis itself and super-fit mountain bikers in search of a challenge can bike five miles up to the summit of Mount Snowdon following the route of the Llanberis Path, although cyclists are asked not to use this key route between 10am and 5pm from May to the end of September.
The water that puts life into the lakes, streams, rivers and gorges around Llanberis provides endless opportunities for outdoor fun. Llyn Padarn, the deep lake that laps at Llanberis’s feet, is an ideal place to go for a paddle, with Canadian canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards all available for hire. Llyn Padarn is also home to the Snowdon Star, a covered boat that runs trips along the lake between Easter and early September.
Plas Menai, the National Outdoor Centre for Wales, is a few miles down the road, where watersport enthusiasts of all abilities can push themselves to the limit or sit back and have fun, safe in the knowledge that they are in very experienced hands.
With so many beautiful lakes and rivers, wild swimming is a popular pastime in this part of the world too. The 17m-deep lake in Vivian quarry, adjacent to the slate museum, has been converted into a dive centre.
Llanberis is synonymous with climbing. Mountaineers from Victorian times to the present day have cut their teeth on iconic climbs such as Cenotaph Corner, and there are routes to cater for all abilities, with equipment available to buy locally. Serious runners can participate in the Snowdonia marathon, one of the most difficult marathons on earth. Speed junkies can brave a visit to Zip World Velocity at Penrhyn Quarry near Bethesda, the fastest zip line in the world and the longest in Europe.
Escape the rat race
Llanberis has scenery, action and adventure by the bucketload.
Nowhere else in Britain will you find such a variety of outdoor sports in such stunning scenery. Whether you are looking for an adrenalin fix, to conquer Wales’ highest mountains or simply to ramble away the rat-race blues, Llanberis is the place for you.
Fact file: Llanberis
Highest mountain: Snowdon (1,085 m)
Mountains over 500m: 47
Nature reserves/SSSIS: 50+
Miles of cycle trail: 50+
Miles of shoreline: 16
Number of lakes: 70+
Outdoor shops: 9
Where to stay
There are campsites, caravan parks, bunkhouses, B&Bs and hotels here to suit all budgets.
One of the best camping options is at the Snowdon Inn near Cwm-y-Glo with friendly owners, new toilets and showers, and onsite fishing.
Lodge Dinorwig is an excellent bunkhouse and cafe situated on the slopes of Elidir Fawr near the village of Deiniolen. The food is excellent and the cakes are to die for.
There are plenty of hotels in and around Llanberis from the historic and atmospheric Pen-y-Gwryd hotel, where you drink and sleep in the shadows of Everest’s first conquerors Hilary and Tenzing, to the luxurious Seiont Manor hotel near Llanrug with its indoor pool and excellent food.
Wild camping is discouraged as most of the land around here is privately owned, but with so many campsites, this is not a problem.
Where to eat
No visit to Llanberis is complete without paying homage to Pete’s Eats. From baths of tea to chunky homemade chips, it’s the place to meet and eat for climbers and walkers alike.
Top-rated pubs include; Faenol Arms in Nant Peris for beer & food; Snowdonia Parc Inn near Waunfawr for real ales; Tyn-y-Coed at Capel Curig , with around 60 different malt whiskies. Bryn Tyrch at Capel Curig has excellent food, great views and good beer.
Llanberis is the third contender for Countryfile’s Where Is Britain’s Outdoor Capital? feature.
Iolo Williams is a conservationist, TV presenter and writer. Now president of the Welsh Ornithological Society, he began his career with the RSPB.
Illustration: Kerry Hyndman