Wales’ Highest Mountain: Snowdon by Funicular Railway

Snowdon's Summit, the right hand peak - without the clouds

The world is full of over-used proverbs but the ascent of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain (at just over 3,500 feet) proves that one of them, at least, is true. In my experience, nowhere better exemplifies the truth of the saying to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Snowdonia. But I’m sorry to say that just at the moment the tallest peak isn’t appearing at its magnificent best. There’s too much cloud, for one thing, wrapped around the summit like a cold, wet dishcloth. And there are way too many people, queuing and jostling to get their pictures taken at the damp grey trig point.

In Your Bucket Because

  • The mountains in Wales may not be very high – but Snowdon’s the highest
  • If you’re lucky with the weather you can see three countries from the top – England, Ireland and Wales
  • Thanks to those Victorian engineers, you don’t have to be fit to get to the summit
  • Good for sightseers and scenery lovers.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’re enjoying ourselves. For days we’ve been sitting in the garden of our holiday cottage, staring out at the serrated edges of the mountain peaks, sharp against a perfect blue sky. “We must take the funicular railway up Snowdon,” we’ve said to one another over evening drinks.
“Let’s look at the weather forecast.”

Old-fashioned rolling stock on the Snowdon Mountain Railway

But that isn’t how it works. So popular is the trip that all the tickets for our preferred date had gone. In high summer, if you want to ride the popular funicular and avoid the long (and, it seems, equally crowded) paths, you take what you’re offered. And after days of perfect weather our day is… miserable.

You stand crammed on the platform as the tiny engine shunts its two coaches in: then there’s a rush for uncomfortable seats. The whistle blows and the engine crawls upwards along an ever-narrowing ridge. So far, so Victorian. I can only imagine what it looks like on a good day: even this one offers fabulous views on the lower and middle slopes and, as we creep above the cloud line, tantalising snatches of dramatic vistas as the slopes fall steeply away to the north.

Snowdon Summit and Visitor Centre

But when we pile off the train at the top it’s a bit of disappointment. Even the new visitor centre (reportedly a great improvement on its predecessor, which gained a reputation as Wales’ highest slum) is small and cramped. You can get a cup of coffee there and a postcard but the place is crammed, mostly with woolly-hatted hikers flaunting their walking poles. Am I paranoid or are they regarding us train trippers with a look of pained superiority?

Trying to pretend we’re the real mountain deal, we shoulder our way out into the mist for the final ascent. “Wow!” says someone behind us – in horror, I think, rather than awe. The summit of Snowdon is just a few yards from the visitor centre. Like all the best mountains it’s a near-perfect pyramid – which means that as it tapers to its peak there isn’t a lot of room. And there are dozens – no, hundreds – of people milling around, all desperate to have their picture taken against that flat grey background.

Room at the top? Snowdon summit on a busy day

We join them. Of course we do. It’s what we came for. But by the time we’ve taken the fuzzy snaps and wandered around to look at the visitor centre from the outside it’s time to head back to the train. You only get half an hour at the top and if you miss your return journey, you descend on foot. There are a few tired-looking hikers hanging optimistically about in case of a spare seat, but we’re not planning to walk down – not in this weather, thanks.

We dip below the mist very quickly. The cloud is lifting and it’s breaking up into a beautiful day: the views down into the Llanberis Pass on one side and the interior of Snowdonia on the other have acquired a sheen of green that they didn’t have on the way up and everything is brighter. As we wave, cheerily, at the long lines of walkers trudging up the half a dozen paths of varying degrees of difficulty that converge on the summit, I feel a bit of a fraud for doing it the easy way. I shouldn’t: the ease of access is one of the reasons why hundreds of thousands of people visit the top each year.

The other reason is that the views, when you get them, are stupendous. Snowdon isn’t always shrouded in grey, although its geography does mean that such cloud cover isn’t unlikely, even when its clear in the valley below. We may have to make do with the postcards we bought in the shop, but on a good day you can look down on ice-gouged scenery, deep blue lakes and treacherous narrow ridges, with layers and layers of moutains around and below.

Once upon a time Snowdon, haunt of eagles and wreathed in tales of giants and a claim to be the resting place of King Arthur, might have passed as a wilderness. That was before the Victorians applied their talents to it: these days it’s well and truly tamed. But, as they say on the reality TV shows we all pretend we don’t watch, it’s all about the journey – and, weather notwithstanding, this one’s a bit special.

Practicalities

  • Book ahead. You’ll have to take your chance on the weather but if you decide not to turn up because it’s pouring with rain you won’t get your money back (unless the train is cancelled).
  • If you want to do a one-way trip, it’s best to take the funicular up and walk down (it’s not a difficult walk which is one reason why there are so many people up there). If you choose to do it the other way round there are stand-by tickets available – but there’s no guarantee you’ll get one
  • The journey takes about an hour each way, plus half an hour at the top. Don’t hang around – the train won’t wait !
  • You’ll pay around $40 for a full adult return fare but there are concessions available and discounted fares on the day’s first trip. Or you can get off at Clogwyn station, three quarters of the way up, and walk the last bit

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