Weather – that hardy perennial among British conversational topics – is particularly crucial in planning visits to Snowdonia. Few regions of Britain are more hilly, or more westerly, than North Wales, and western hills attract rain. My sense, from having lived in the area for 50 years, is that the best weather arrives with the spring. If you’re looking for long, bright days and clear horizons, come between April and June. And better weather won’t be the only benefit of timing your visit then.
This is the season when the mountains emerge from under winter blankets of mist and occasional snow. Across moorland aprons that spread around the high peaks, bleached grasses of last year suddenly take on carmine and lilac tints of new growth; dark rocks of the craggiest places are cushioned or festooned with relict arctic-alpine flora that’s one of the particular glories of these northern Welsh hills. Birds that have overwintered in lowlands or distant countries suddenly return.
Call of the curlew
The great flocks of curlews gathered around the estuaries of Dwyryd and Dyfi disperse now to nest high, the stillness of the hills informed by their bubbling, redolent calls. In valley oakwoods, pied flycatchers dart and flit. The wood warblers’ song is liquid enchantment. Grey stones and mosses on the high plateau of the Carneddau – Europe’s southernmost expanse of arctic tundra – seethe with movement of dotterel, a lovely little wader that passes through each spring on northbound passage from the Maghreb, north-west Africa, to its Arctic breeding grounds. Wheatears, gorgeous little passerines scarcely larger than a robin, scamper across mountain turf, probing for insects, feeding voraciously after their epic spring migration from sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, the early-nesting ravens feast on sheeps’ afterbirth and stillborn lambs.
In the lower reaches of Cwm Nantcol, one of many beautiful glens that lead up from Cardigan Bay to end among the heather and boulders of the Rhinogydd – roughest of all Welsh hills – stands of the small, frilled, early daffodils of Wales spring up along the banks of a lively, clear stream that purls between mossy banks spangled with wood anemones and subtly starred with primrose and violet.
Farther north, below the village of Llanystumdwy, the Afon Dwyfor flows into the sea at a little-visited estuary. Swathes of last year’s beech leaves are piled along the tide-line, vantage points for the pipe and scurry of oystercatchers, and the sky is enlivened by monochrome flicker of hundreds of knot rising as a marsh harrier hunts over the saltings.
Drifts of bluebells
Following the river upstream past the village, with its ancient bridge and welcoming little pub of The Feathers, where poets meet on Thursday nights to discuss writing in verse-forms 15 centuries old, and by Lloyd George’s grave, suddenly you walk into a realm of ethereal blue. Drifts of bluebells are like a low spreading flame, more shimmer than substance as shafts of light filter through translucent green of new beech leaves, the hyacinth scent a synesthetic charge. Otter prints mark the shingle.
If you were to follow the Dwyfor from sea to source – a true journey, and at a dozen miles or so not a long one – it would take you into what, for many, is the loveliest of all Welsh valleys. This is Cwm Pennant, the name of which simply means ‘valley at the head of the stream’. Welsh poet Eifion Wyn wrote of the place: “Pam, Arglwydd, y gwnaethost Gwm Pennant mor dlws/A bywyd hen fugail mor fyr?” – “Why, Lord, did you make Cwm Pennant so beautiful/And the life of the old shepherd so short?”
But that prosaic translated sentiment doesn’t capture the lilting music of the old language, yr hen iaith, as the Welsh call their own tongue. Pennant is a place of transcendent loveliness; the shape of the hill-ridges surrounding its head are so melodic that perhaps only musical notation can adequately describe them.
Make your way over the col at the valley-head – Bwlch y Ddwy Elor (‘the pass of the two funeral biers’) – and what confronts you on the far side of the valley beyond is Snowdon itself.
This finest and most complex of British hills may be over-familiar, crowded, railwayed, but what other mountain has such echoing richness of human story attached? Theodore Watts-Dunton, in Aylwin, his appealing novel of 1898, the crucial scenes in which are set here, wrote of “the mysterious magic… which no other mountain in Europe exercises”.
Of all our native hills, Snowdon has the most astonishing wealth of cultural texture. From Neolithic cairn-builders, through the legendary out of which grew those Arthurian stories that, when they had migrated to mainland Europe, became known as The Matter of Britain; to the arduous industry of copper-miners and the travails, controversies and achievements of modern eco-management, humanity has inscribed the sense of its own passage down through the ages on its stones and crags. It has to be climbed.
As you’ll have gathered, here in North Wales, Snowdon may be the top storey but it’s not the whole story. The region it dominates is the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd, which remained resolutely independent until the tactically astute English king Edward Longshanks (also known as Edward I) conquered here towards the end of the 13th century. How threatening the native Welsh princes had been to his rule can be judged by the castles – the mightiest project of military architecture in medieval Europe – with which he encircled the rebellious Welsh mountain heartland: Rhuddlan, Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Cricieth, Harlech.
Slate that built Britain
And if you’re looking for more of the mighty works of man, the roofs of the British nation came out of the vast slate-quarries – Penrhyn, Dinorwig, Dorothea, Oakeley – pitted along the flanks of the national park. Derelict and echoing now, they give a kind of definition to the community of North Wales, with its chapels and slate fences and rain-lashed uplands. Go to Bethesda, Llanberis or Blaenau Ffestiniog on a dank day when the slate glistens and you’ll feel the weight of Calvinism on this nation’s soul, which only the singing of these dour hillside communities could help lift.
Better, though, to make for the high ridges, and though Snowdon stands supreme she does not stand alone. Try walking the glorious switchback “ridge of the red cairns” that bounds Cwm Pennant to the north-west; or scramble up the perfect rock of Daear Ddu to arrive right at the summit of Moel Siabod above Capel Curig and be granted perhaps the finest of all views along Snowdonia’s valleys and into her hills.
Go south to Dolgellau, take old pathways straight out of town to gain the gable end of Cader Idris’s 10-mile highway-crest, and walk seawards into the westering sun. Come down off the Rhinogydd at the end of an arduous day and pick your way down by zig-zag gradients into the throngs and pubs of Barmouth – more Brummagem than ancient British, and another aspect of that ubiquitous presence, felt in a saturated filminess of light, seen continually from hill-slope and summit, of the sea.
Head for Llyn Ogwen and scramble to the summit of Tryfan – the only British mountain, they say, that you cannot ascend without use of hands. Best of all, sit by its dark corrie-lake looking up at Clogwyn Du’r Arddu on the north flank of Snowdon. Sleep here, the tale goes, and you wake insane or a poet, so powerful is this epicentre among peerless hills. And the ravens will tell you their story, and a peregrine sears past in a blink of light.