Snowdonia National Park: Here be dragons

snowdonia national park
Snowdon. Credit: Dan Struthers. © Crown copyright (2019) Visit Wales. All rights reserved

The wild and magical landscapes of Snowdonia National Park in North Wales are steeped in myth and legend. Here, we explore more…

Wales has a strong storytelling tradition, and every schoolchild knows by heart the tales told in a medieval tome called The Mabinogion. Many of these myths and legends are linked to the towering mountains and shimmering lakes of Snowdonia National Park in North Wales, where every hill, lake and village seems to have a tale of giants, knights and dragons in its dim and distant past. 

Snowdonia’s mythical allure has bewitched visitors for centuries: after the Norman invasion of Britain, various princes of Wales evaded capture by escaping to the mists of Snowdonia, never to be seen again. 

It is not hard to lose yourself here. Craggy peaks are blanketed in Welsh oak and mountain ash, plunging to lush river gorges, churning waterfalls and vast green valleys. Looming above it all is Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Britain outside Scotland. Snowdon dominates the horizon at the north end of Snowdonia National Park, but even in the south of the park the scenery is never short of spectacular. 

The few buildings that punctuate the 823 square miles of dramatic landscape only serve to magnify its beauty: dry stone walls clinging to steep hillsides, ancient clapper bridges that cross gurgling streams, slate-roofed villages huddled against mountain slopes. Best of all, ruined abbeys and mighty castles cast their own romantic spell.

Snowdonia National Park: Caernarfon Castle

Snowdonia National Park
Caernarfon Castle. Credit: Adam Burton / AWL images

Many of these castles were the work of Edward I in the late 13th century, who, alarmed by the unruliness of his Welsh subjects, built an ‘Iron Ring’ of fortresses across North Wales to keep them in check. The mightiest of them all is just outside Snowdonia’s northern boundary. 

A masterpiece of medieval architecture, Caernarfon took 47 years to build, and as an unashamed show of royal power, it remains unparalleled. Its vast curtain walls and imposing King’s Gate were designed to intimidate the Welsh natives, while its polygonal towers, eagle statues and multicoloured stone echo the architecture of imperial Rome. Local legends also come into play: the location on the banks of the River Seiont recalls the Welsh myth of Macsen Wledig, who dreamed of a great fort at the mouth of a river – ‘the fairest that man ever saw’.

Snowdonia National Park: Mount Snowdon

snowdonia national park
The Snowdon Mountain Railway. Credit: Adrian J Evans 2017

From beneath the castle walls you can take the historic Welsh Highland Railway to reach the slopes of Mount Snowdon itself, steeped in local lore. King Arthur reputedly slew the mountain’s most famous resident, Rhitta, a fearsome giant who created a cape for himself out of the beards of his enemies.

You can take another historic train – the Snowdon Mountain Railway – all the way to the summit (where Arthur’s knights supposedly covered the giant’s corpse with huge boulders). It is one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys and the only rack-and-pinion railway in Britain, which carried its first passengers in 1896. This May, services will reach the summit for the first time since 2019 and the visitor centre will reopen, where you can admire the staggering views of the sheep-dotted valleys far below, and send a postcard from the summit postbox.

Snowdonia National Park
The boots of the 1953 Mount Everest team at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel. Credit: Andrew Hasson/Alamy

Hardy types ascend Snowdon on foot (a not-so-gentle round trip of 5–7 hours), most via the Llanberis Path. Many walkers stay at an old roadside inn at the foot of Snowdon, the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, which was used as the training headquarters for the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953. When the landlord received the news by phone at 1am that the mountaineers had reached the summit, he apparently woke up all of his guests, telling them that if they didn’t assemble in the bar within ten minutes for a celebratory glass of champagne they would be thrown out.

The team held reunions at the Pen-y-Gwryd for decades and it remains a place of pilgrimage for mountaineers the world over. Meals are still announced by a gong, and the Smoke Room is full of memorabilia of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, including ice picks, crampons, boots and a string vest.

Snowdonia National Park: Our favourite places that are worth a stop

Snowdonia National Park
Beddgelert. Credit: Robert Birkby/AWL Images Ltd

A short but scenic drive south, the stone-built village of Beddgelert is in a majestic setting in the Glaslyn valley. It is famous for one of Wales’s best-loved folk tales: the story of a faithful dog, Gelert, who belonged to the 13th-century Prince Llewelyn ap Iorwerth. Returning from a hunting trip to find his baby son missing and his dog covered in blood, the prince leapt to conclusions and killed the dog in a rage. But shortly afterwards he heard a cry and found his son safe, lying next to the body of a wolf, which had been slain by the faithful hound Gelert. There is a 19th-century grave for Gelert in a field outside the village, as well as a statue in his honour. 

Make a detour to the coast to visit the formidable Harlech Castle, another Edward I colossus. It crowns a high rocky crag overlooking the dunes below; in centuries past, the Irish sea lapped at its walls but is now a mile distant. Its location meant that the castle held strong during its many sieges, thanks to a path of 108 steps cut into the rock face, which allowed the defenders to receive provisions by ship. Climb the battlements for stunning views, unravelling from the sand dunes below to the purple peaks of Snowdonia. 

Snowdonia National Park
Harlech Castle. Credit: Alan Copson / AWL Images

Another essential stop on this coastline is Portmeirion, the wonderfully whimsical creation of one man, the environmentalist and architect Clough Williams-Ellis. Built from 1925 to 1973, the village is stage-set beautiful, seemingly transplanted from the Italian Riviera, with its campanile and ornamental garden, houses painted in ochre, rust and turquoise, and glimpses of an idyllic seascape behind. Williams-Ellis turned an existing house on the site into a hotel to raise funds for his ‘Home for Fallen Buildings’, shipping many endangered structures from across Britain and overseas to his whimsical Italianate piazza, and giving them a second life.  

In more typically Welsh shades of grey, the handsome former slate-mining town of Dolgellau is the national park’s southern gateway. It was built in the shadow of Cadair Idris, a brooding mountain named after a Welsh giant who fought a battle on its slopes. As legend has it, those that are brave enough to spend a night on Idris’s chair (cadair) will either return a poet, a madman, or never wake again.

snowdonia national park
Llynnau Cregennen and Cadair Idris. Credit: Adam Burton/AWL Images

Round off your Snowdonia tour in the park’s southeastern corner. Set in the tranquil Dee valley, Palé Hall is the finest country house hotel in Wales: a grand Victorian building built by Henry Robertson, a railway engineer. Even if you don’t stay here (as illustrious guests including Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill have done), afternoon tea in this splendid setting is not to be missed. 

Before you leave Snowdonia and its legends behind, stop at nearby Bala Lake. Wales’s largest natural lake, this tranquil place is popular with fishermen, being full of pike, perch, trout and gwyniad, a white fish unique to the lake. As legend has it, it also harbours another creature: ‘Teggie’, a prehistoric beast and the Welsh cousin of the Loch Ness Monster. 

snowdonia national park
Bala Lake. Credit: travellinglight / Alamy 

Another local tale is that of a giant named Tegid Foel, husband of the Welsh enchantress Ceridwen. Tegid’s palace, it is said, now lies at the bottom of Bala Lake, but when there’s a full moon the lights of the drowned court are said to shimmer up from the depths. Simply magic.

This is an extract, read the full version in the March/April issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from 10 February.

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