Snowdon’s Hafod Eryri 10 years

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Wales’ so called ‘highest slum’ – the old Snowdon summit building – was replaced in 2009 with a brand new design by Ray Hole, and called Hafod Eryri, which means roughly summer residence. It was built to better match the summit of Snowdon than the old building did and has stone facing and a sloping roof. It is also fully compliant with accessibility regulations and includes a lift from the train platforms to cafe level. This is the tenth anniversary of the building’s official opening.

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Aerial view of Hafod Eryri at the summit of Snowdon. Source: Twitter

Originally contracturally agreed to be completed in early summer and opened in July 2008, construction slipped nine months due to constant bad weather. When the railway was unable to reach the summit due to conditions, construction staff were forced to walk from Clogwyn to the summit in often inclement weather! Its amazing they ever attempted this. There were even times when the railway would be suspended completely and that left the workers with no choice but to walk all the way back down the mountain – a good three hour walk! Some days the weather was so bad absolutely no-one could of course go up anyway.

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Another view of Hafod Eryri with the summit of Snowdon above it. Source: Twitter

In early April 2008 Carillion were quite confident they could get the job done with ‘just twelve weeks to go.’ The weather was so bad however and the summit remained snow bound for many more weeks which slowed down progress enormously. Winds were regularly over 100 miles per hour too!

The summit was still frozen and deep in snow by the end of April and by this time it was obvious no-one would be getting the new summit building ready for that summer! The only problem was the advertising for 2008 had already been printed and was out of date!

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Snowdon Mountain Railway’s 2008 leaflet: Haford Eryri ‘Opens Summer 2008.’

In light of the dire situation the Snowdonia National Park authorised an extension of the building’s completion to Autumn 2008. Although it was mostly finished by then it would need another couple of months in 2009 before it could be well completed.

The building was in fact opened a few days early, however the official ceremony remained for the 12th June 2009. On this day the media descended upon the summit and most reports give the impression that was the first day it had opened.

Welsh minister Rhodri Morgan was given the honour of officiating at the ceremony. He in fact walked up the mountain with his entourage, and that explains why climbing gear was being worn. They however took the train back down with the remainder of the official party.

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Welsh Minister Rhodri Morgan unveils the plaque at the official opening of the new summit buildings. 12th June 2009. Source: Daily Mail

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Rhodri arrives at the summit cairn after the opening ceremony. Slide show source: Getty

The 10th anniversary of Hafod Eryri is due to be commemorated with a plaque unveiled by the First Minster of Wales. See this report from the Snowdon Mountain Railway.

The name Hafod Eryri was chosen from a list of more than 400. See this report from the BBC.

Clough William-Ellis’ summit hotel 1934 – 2006:

Let’s go back in time to learn what this was all about when it was decided a new building was needed at the summit of Snowdon. History shows the group of summit buildings that had gradually grown about the 3,560 foot (1085m) summit since the 1820s were something many, including, the new Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company (now of course the Snowdon Mountain Railway) saw as undesirable.

Its quite surprising people’s sense of environment and perspective was quite strong in those days. From where ever one looked towards the summit of Snowdon, this group of motley buildings could instead be seen and it didn’t really endear people that the summit could be crowded out by these ramshackle wooden huts.

The facts these huts were there showed the sheer popularity of this particular mountain – something that has endured right up to the present day. The first modern replacement for these huts was sited about sixty feet below the summit itself. After more than sixty years this structure was no longer up to standard and a new building was deemed essential. That’s how Snowdon got a new building known as Hafod Eryri.

Let’s have look at what could be found on the summit in those early days…

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View of the summit, showing its motley collection of wooden huts, photographed by Francis Bedford around 1880. Source: Sublime Wales

The summit changed considerably when a railway was opened from Llanberis to the summit in 1896. The first ever building to be sited below the summit was the station itself and that soon made people aware there was no need for any buildings to be sited right upon the summit itself.

In fact a concrete summit hotel was proposed as early as November 1897, just one year after the railway had opened. By 1902 most of the old wooden huts had been bought by the railway and these continued under its ownership right up to the 1930s. In 1908, it was reported the railway company ‘hoped to substitute an unobtrusive hotel a little way below the actual top.’

Later plans made during the 1920s included a hotel with the railway station sited underneath – something generally seen on Swiss mountain summits. This being the years of the depression, that idea didn’t get far. Money was an issue, made all the more critical by the difficult nature of the site.

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Clough Williams-Ellis, architect Source: Twitter

By the 1930s the need for replacement was urgent and the architect responsible for the new building was no other than Clough Williams-Ellis, the Welsh aristocrat who built world-famous Portmeirion. His plans for a new summit hotel were drawn up sort of basic because of costs and materials. There were some embellishments, but given the tight budget and the remoteness of the site, found somewhat minimal.

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How Williams-Ellis originally envisaged the new building. This impression was first given to the Manchester Guardian for an article on 23rd Feb 1934 in which William-Ellis writes his thoughts (see below) on the new building. Source: Twitter

It was felt that the new building, though substantial, should be as plain, unobtrusive, and straightforward as possible, with nothing of what is too commonly misunderstood as ‘architecture’ about it. In other words, the building is a frankly modern, functionalist erection, designed to do its necessary job in the most convenient and economical fashion, yet in its general lines and proportions seeking to accommodate itself without unnecessary offence to its unique and responsible position. (Clough Williams-Ellis in his own words. Manchester Guardian 23rd February 1934.)

The reason for the building having a rather slab like approach was obviously due to it being cheaper and easier to use off the shelf materials such as the windows, steel framework, roofing slabs and so on. Williams-Ellis himself said the use of specialist stone and other materials would make the cost prohibitive.

Any new building still required considerable work, including demolition of the old 1890s summit station buildings, and complete relocation of the railway platforms.

Work began in March 1934. News headlines describe the new structure as a luxury hotel. A few weeks before construction commenced, Mr A. Kirkham, Mr. William-Ellis’s chief architectural assistant, stated in an interview: ‘The new hotel is designed to obliterate the present ‘blot’ on Snowdon. It will be built on a ledge about fifty feet below the summit, so that it will not be seen on the skyline from any direction.’ (Manchester Guardian 16 February 1934)

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Clough Ellis’ 1935 summit building under construction, showing how the structure had elements of a grand appearance. Source: Twitter

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The new hotel in 1935 with its windows onto the world.

The first year or two the building just had the one floor. There was no second storey. Eventually that was built but in a considerably more austere format to what Williams-Ellis had envisaged.

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The Snowdon summit building – probably in 1937 after acquiring an upper floor – and with its big windows did at least look somewhat smart. Source: Twitter

In regards to earning the title of ‘Britain’s highest slum’ it has to be agreed Williams-Ellis’ design was indeed somewhat spartan on the outside, but originally made somewhat forgiving with the provision of French windows and external seating areas.

It was meant to be a proper hotel, accommodating a maximum of eight guests, and a purpose it served faithfully for the first few years of its existence. It however suffered rather badly from the elements because it was a structure designed for a town or city, not the top of a mountain where the weather could be extremely harsh. What follows is an extract from a review of the hotel in 1938…

The concrete building is a comfortable hotel, not the luxurious place one would get for its price two or three thousand feet nearer sea level, but nevertheless adequately and solidly comfortable. Our little party of four – the hotel’s normal maximum of guests is eight – did not seem a sentimental one, but it did not escape an odd sense of being stranded together. We supped four at one table in front of the blazing fire. We walked the few yards to the cairn that marks the summit, and chilled by the cold air, came back to the fire. We talked and listened to variety on the wireless, with frequent excursions to the windows that occupy three sides of the big dining-hall to see the changing phases of the shadow show of white mist and russet green. The drifting mist opened and closed last night chiefly on the deep, fluted cup of mountainous scenery in which lie the Snowdon lakes. (Source: Guardian 2nd July 1938.)

There are very few pictures of the interior of the 1935 building as it originally was, however here’s one…

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The building in its first year – and already damaged by substantial water ingress.

Huge damage also endured from converting the premises into a radar station during World War II including substantial alterations to the building and its roof, as well as constant vandalism and break-ins, which rendered it a rather less than salubrious building.

By the end of the war it was evident the large panoramic windows were being bricked up. Clearly the rot was setting in on what should have been a fairly decent, if not brilliant, structure.

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The summit building in 1945 with evidence the large windows were bricked up at the time. This picture was screencapped off a You Tube video seen some years ago. Its no longer available because ‘the You Tube account associated with this video has been terminated.’

One account of vandalism found at the summit comes from 1947. Mr Williams the then railway manager relates:

One of the intruders had pushed a brick through a large perspex window installed by the Admiralty. The door leading to the cafe’s roof had been smashed and left open and snow had accumulated to a good depth. Even if they did want to keep warm they could have been a little more intelligent about it. (Source – D. Hoare. Snowdon: That Most Celebrated Hill, 1987)

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The old summit hotel probably in the fifties. Source: Twitter

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By the 1950s the summit facilities had been pared down to a basic cafe. Source: Twitter

In 1967 Lord Snowdon (Tony Armstrong Jones) wrote a letter to the mountain railway complaining of the ‘unsightly’ building at the summit and wanted ‘a building of architectural merit that blends in with the scenery.’

An official for the railway claimed to the the Guardian on 13 June 1967 that ‘nobody has complained in 30 years about the design of the building.’

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis himself was also interviewed in regards to Lord Snowdon’s criticisms and claimed that ‘the structure was a poor utility building. My building was not properly finished off.’

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Lovely late sixties view of the summit, with loco no.4 Snowdon (it has been out of use since the early 2000s and is stored at Cwm y Glo.)

In 1982 the Snowdonia National Park Authority agreed to buy the summit buildings, renovate them and lease it back to the railway. A lot of money was spent in the next few years on refurbishing the cafe, both inside and outside making it look good for the modern generation. That improved things quite considerably however it wasn’t helped by the fact it no longer sat well at the top of the mountain.

This Flickr image shows the amount of work that was being done in 1987 – new walls, new station platforms etc.

By the mid 1990s the numbers visiting the summit building were unprecedented and the SNPA conducted a review with various bodies and it was agreed a replacement building was needed, one more suited to modern needs.

Proposals were presented by the appointed architects, Ray Hole, in 2001. Planning approval was gained in January 2004, and then the money had to be raised, with a number of bodies making a contribution. These include the Welsh Assembly, the SNPA, Wales Tourist Board, the SMR and the European Objective One Fund. Both the SNPA and the Snowdonia Society raised a considerable amount of donations through appeals and collections at various information centres.

It was built by the renowned Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis and has stood there since 1936, serving generations of visitors with shelter and refreshments. But the building on top of Snowdon has been described by Prince Charles as a slum, and John Disley, the Snowdonia Society’s president is not one to argue.

As he helped to launch a pounds 2.2m worldwide appeal to replace it yesterday, Mr Disley said the cafe was a disgrace to Snowdonia and Wales. ‘It is a slum and I am always ashamed to take visitors from abroad to the summit,’ he said. ‘The site deserves the best. Wales now has the best stadium in the UK, and concert hall. Now our highest mountain needs a summit facility that we can be equally proud of.’ (Source: Western Mail 5th April 2005.)

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September 2006: The ‘slum’ sailed off into the sunset… Aerial view of the summit with the Glyderau and Carneddau ranges beyond. Source: Twitter

Construction of the new Snowdon summit building 2006 – 2009:

The old building was closed in early September 2006 and demolition work began in earnest a few days later to build what would be known as Hafod Eryri. It would not just be a mountain top cafe, but also a visitor centre with information and displays about the mountain itself, its history and its geology.

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The cafe on 12 September 2006, after it had closed.

Work on the older building officially began on 12th September 2006 when Welsh Countryside minister Carwyn Jones used a hammer to begin the demolition process. The ceremony was almost dropped because of very high winds but it eventually went ahead.

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Carwyn Jones signalling the official start of the demolition of the old building. Source: Internet Archive

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Ray Hole, the new building’s architect, with Carwyn Jones at the official demolition ceremony, Snowdon Summit 12 September 2006. Source: Internet Archive.

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Bobcat operator Jack Owen demolishing the interior of the old summit cafe. 16 September 2006. Source: Internet Archive

Demolition of the old building took just over a month. It wasnt just a case of demolishing walls. Being a steel framed structure it also needed acetylene cutting to take the framework apart. By 14th October 2006 the once infamous building had been completely reduced to a pile of rubbish.

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The final remains of the old building 10 October 2006. The image is not available on the Internet Archive but came from my own archived pages of the summit blog.

Work on the foundations of the new building began in early November 2006. Despite the weather contractors managed to continue at least two or three days a week until 18th December 2006 when work stopped entirely until the following year. In terms of getting materials to the summit, generally most of the material was delivered by the railway, however a few items had to be brought to the summit by helicopter.

In December 2006 work moved from the summit to Shotton where Carillion began assembling the steel frame of the new building in a warehouse at Corus’ Steelworks to make sure it all fitted together. The following year, 2007, the new structure was transported to Llanberis and its new site via the Snowdon Mountain Railway.

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The structure under test in the warehouse at Shotton, North Wales. Source: New Steel Construction

The stone walls themselves were first erected in a Llanberis yard to see how the different pieces fitted together. The walls have a special geometry included some inverted sections and this initial build was to ensure it all fitted together properly before being transported to the summit.

Work recommenced at the summit on 26th March to build the steel frame and eventually the walls. For a good part of the 2007 summer the weather was good enabling excellent progress. It wasn’t to last though! July soon proved things rather more difficult. It rained and rained. Many delays ensued. Hafod Eryri acquired a roof but not the walls which had to wait until 2008.

The work was very difficult mainly because the weather threw its worst at the construction progress. One would think with global warming the weather would be kinder but no, it was some of the worst conditions on Snowdon for decades! There were oft times the railway just could not run to the summit and the workers had to climb for as much as an hour and thirty minutes from Clogwyn station.

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Construction workers seen walking their way to Hafod Eryri as the railway is only going as far as Clogwyn. Source: Internet Archive

December 2007 proved quite kind in terms of the weather and so contractors continued until the 21st December to try and get the building’s schedule back on track. The winter recess was much shorter too with workers re-starting at the summit on 25th February 2008.

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The Hafod Eryri workmen helping out the railway clear some substantial snowdrifts!

That wasn’t as bad as some of the other snowdrifts that have been seen on the railway. This year six to eight foot snowdrifts were encountered in trying to clear the line for the 2019 operating season. The one seen in 2013 was a belter. In that year the railway had been running for just two weeks when it was hit by gigantic drifts. Railway staff said it was the worst they had seen with drifts as high as 30 feet (9.1 metres.) BBC.

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March 2013: A twenty foot snowdrift blocking the Snowdon Mountain Railway! Source: Twitter

Getting back on track with the construction of Hafod Eryri… in March 2008 ferocious storms did considerable damage to the ongoing works. As if that wasn’t enough some of the worst snow conditions experienced at the summit in decades then followed.

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The galvanised steel frame in place at the summit. Source: Galvanizers Association

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Hafod Eryri in April 2008 after a heavy spell of snow and ice. Just part of its walls had been built. Source: New Steel Construction

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The new cafe area taking shape June 6th 2008. Source: Internet Archive

In June and early July 2008 things were looking good again weather-wise however when it came to holding a press day on the 18th July 2008 the elements as usual threw their worst. The press, having arrived by train, were at least able to see some of the atrocious conditions the workers had to deal with at the summit.

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The interior looking towards the shop and toilet area July 2008. Source: Internet Archive

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The cafe counter taking shape in mid August 2008. Source: Internet Archive

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One of the floor interpretation tiles for the building’s interior. Source: Internet Archive.

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The summit station area under construction. September 2008.

Several of the images shown above were taken from the Internet Archive containing the Snowdon Summit Blog. Its quite incomplete and whilst there are a fair number of images still extant, it takes going back and forth through the various archived pages to find some of those. I archived several pages of that blog at the time it existed (around 2011) thus a couple of pictures in this post were archived from that time. None of the larger images (1200px) seen on the original site were not cached by the Internet archive.

Hafod Eryri was largely finished at the end of September 2008. There was no point in opening the building so late in the season thus it was agreed work should finish for the year and recommence in 2009. The work was completed at the end of May 2009 and the building handed over to the mountain railway, who set about preparing the new premises for business as soon as it was possible. It was Saturday June 6th when Hafod Eryri opened to the public for the first time – and just six days later the official opening was conducted.

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Cross-section through Hafod Eryri. The roof is from Corus Kalzip. Source: Architects Journal

Originally the plans had been for a two storied building however the second storey was dropped. It seems even though this was a new building attempting to get away from the old design, one element of that 1930s design was the rear part of the building accommodated a second floor, and that too was part of the new plans. That aspect of Hafod Eryri was soon dropped.

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Bear Grylls helped with the appeal to raise monies for the construction of Hafod Eryri. Source: SNPA.

Hafod Eryri wins awards in 2010:

The highest building in Wales and England has won two prestigious industry awards for its architecture and construction. One year after its official opening, Hafod Eryri, the pounds 8.35m visitor centre on the summit of Snowdon, has been named Project of the Year by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Wales. The award follows the Royal Institute of British Architects citing of Hafod Eryri as one of seven buildings in Wales to be praised for the quality of their design and contribution to the local environment.

Pierre Wassenaar, president of the Welsh branch of the RIBA, said Hafod Eryri had been chosen partly because of the sheer challenge of its construction. “It is a tremendous achievement. It would be difficult enough to build on the level ground -which they did in fact before dismantling it and bringing it up the mountain – so just from an effort point of view, I think it deserves accolades,” he said.

Although Hafod Eryri was shortlisted for the RICS Wales Awards Regeneration category, Hafod Eryri won the Construction Skills Welsh Project of the Year in competition with 15 finalists. Snowdonia National Park Authority chief executive Aneurin Phillips said the authority had insisted from the beginning on a building that the whole of Wales would be proud of. “Since the opening of Hafod Eryri, the response which we have received from the public, has been incredible,” he said.

Nearly 500,000 people visited the mountain between mid June and the end of October last year – an increase of 27% on the previous year’s figures. “In addition to this incredible response, receiving these awards by organisations which are internationally renowned for their expertise in the construction and architectural fields not only confirms that we were successful in the task we set out to accomplish, but they’re also a tribute to all the workers associated with the hard task of building Hafod Eryri.” (Source: Western Mail 15th June 2010)

Hafod Eryri picture gallery:

Here are a few more pictures of Hafod Eryri. These are mine, taken in 2010/11 when I undertook a number of 24 hour visits to Snowdonia. just like the old one, Hafod Eryri too has suffered from the ravages of the weather!

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On Hafod’s windows: Eryri (or Snowdonia in Welsh)

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On Hafod’s windows: Here you will see tranquillity. The Irish Sea, Mynydd Mawr, Moel Eilio and Yr Eifl can be seen.

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On Hafod’s walls: Copa’r Wyddfa: Yr ydych chwi, yma, Yn nes at y nefoedd/The summit of Snowdon: Here, you are nearer To heaven.

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Accessibility lift – to overcome the difference in elevation between the train platforms and cafe.

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The cafe – always an extremely popular venue!

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The counter at Hafod Eryri.

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One for the enthusiasts! No.6 Padarn, undoubtedly the favourite in the railway’s motive power fleet.

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No.3 Wyddfa and No.11 Peris at the summit. Of interest is the scaffolding erected to repair Hafod Eryri which was suffering a number of defects in its structure due to the weather.

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Hafod Eryri in October 2010 with scaffolding on its south western end – repair of major defects caused by the weather. The massive water tanks are needed to hold the scaffolding down, otherwise the powerful hurricanes which come straight off the sea nearby will blow it all away!

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Guys at work repairing the building in 2011.

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Just a couple of years after its opening the building shows evidence of substantial damage caused by the weather.

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The last short visit I managed to make to Hafod Eryri was the week the railway’s staff were celebrating 90 years of no.6 Padarn – originally called Sir Harmood.

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Some facts about Hafod Eryri. Source: SNPA.

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