Wanted: £2m to rebuild 'highest slum in Wales'

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The Independent Online

Creating a place for refuge and refreshment at the 3,560ft summit of Mount Snowdon has never been a task for the faint-hearted. Seventy years ago, the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis installed vast windows in one such edifice to afford panoramic views of the surrounding Snowdonia mountain range, and found them smashed inside six months by one of the local storms that can bring 170mph winds.

Creating a place for refuge and refreshment at the 3,560ft summit of Mount Snowdon has never been a task for the faint-hearted. Seventy years ago, the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis installed vast windows in one such edifice to afford panoramic views of the surrounding Snowdonia mountain range, and found them smashed inside six months by one of the local storms that can bring 170mph winds.

Hospitality atop the highest mountain in England and Wales has since been reduced to a forlorn, decaying concrete construction just beneath the summit, once described by the Prince of Wales as "the highest slum in Wales". Salvation appeared to have arrived four years ago, with £9m designs from a leading contemporary architecture firm. But now the Snowdonia National Park Authority (SNPA) has revealed yet another obstacle: a £2m funding shortfall which must be made good within three months if those plans are to breathe new life into the summit.

The SNPA mounted an urgent fund-raising appeal yesterday in the hope that the summit - savoured by 400,000 people year and including Robert Plant, Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie among devotees - will soon afford a welcome befitting its location. Two weeks ago, an SNPA meeting was told the remaining funds must be found by the end of June, when a grant deadline must expire.

Support for the new building, designed by the architects Furneaux Stewart, is by no means universal. Some purists would rather tear down the existing flat-roofed structure (also erected by Williams-Ellis, an architect more celebrated for his Italianate village at nearby Portmeirion) and let the land return to nature. "It goes against the idea of being out there with nature and the wilderness and risks putting people on the summit who are not prepared," the editor of the British Mountaineering Council's Summit magazine said. "Many people who climb Snowdon go up there to escape people and then find thousands there when they reach the summit."

But the SNPA is aware that Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa as Wales knows it) is a symbol of Welsh invincibility and wants to encourage more people to reach a summit which, on a clear day, provides views of Ynys Mon (Anglesey), Pembrokeshire and Ireland. "Public expectation is very high," said SNPA's chief executive Aneurin Phillips, who appealed to the private sector to chip in with funds. "Unfortunately we are a very small authority and this ambitious scheme is an enormous challenge. The summit deserves a building which the Welsh nation should be proud of."

Such high-minded principles have been lacking in Snowdon's chequered history of summit hospitality. The first "café" was established by a local copper- miner, William Morris, who realised the profits to be made from thirsty walkers in the 1830s and began selling refreshments from a stone shelter. Two hotels - the Roberts and the Cold Club - took shape by 1850 but there were frequently more visitors than beds and the two hoteliers, avowed enemies, refused to help each other. Both places were acquired - and demolished - by the Snowdon railway company, which arrived in 1898 and decided to erect the Williams-Ellis establishment just beneath the summit.

That building's descent to near-ruin led SNPA to buy it and lease it back to the railway in 1982. One plan, proposed in 2000, was to knock it down and build from scratch but the £12m costs were prohibitive. Instead, the £9m would overhaul the old building, enabling people to use it over the two walking seasons needed to create Britain's highest new building site.

When it comes to fund appeals, Snowdonia has a happy recent history. When a local landowner announced he was selling the mountain's southern flanks seven years ago, the National Trust launched a £4m appeal to save them for public use. Buoyed by a £1m donation by Sir Anthony, the target was reached 10 days before the deadline for the purchase.

If the latest appeal succeeds, Snowdon will acquire a building that emphasises the experience of being on a nation's highest mountain, unlike the present "cave" which "divorces people from the beauty of this incredible landscape", says Furneaux Stewart, whose reputation for radical design is the result of creations such as the Rainforest House in Hanover and the Gaia Ecology Centre in Athens.

After talks with the British Mountaineering Council, SNPA has scrapped the idea of winter refuge areas at the new establishment because climbers in trouble might be tempted to push on to the summit. But it is prepared to take another gamble on large glass windows, one facing up to the summit and another down the valley. The glass is said to be "substantially tougher" than that deployed by Williams-Ellis.

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