Teahouse at the top is past its peak

Tony Heath on grand designs to replace the Snowdon eyesore
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THE Prince of Wales called it "the highest slum in Wales". And many of the 500,000 tourists - booted hill walkers and holidaying families alike - who make it to the summit of Snowdon every year agree that the cafe on the 3,560ft peak is indeed an eyesore.

The inappropriately named Summit Hotel is little more than a concrete tea house and souvenir shop. Ravaged by weather and often shrouded in mist, it looks for all the world like a war-time bunker minus the gun slits.

Designed by the celebrated architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, whose Italianate masterpiece, the village of Portmeirion, can be seen from Snowdon on a clear day, the cafe shows its age - 60 years to be precise.

A replacement in keeping with the mountain's grandeur is planned, however. If the Snowdonia National Park gets its way and if the Millennium Commission comes up with half the pounds 8.5m needed by the turn of the century, the mountain will be crowned with a better building. The park is holding a design competition and its deputy chief officer, David Archer, is enthusiastic: "We aim to commemorate the millennium with a high-profile centre to inform, educate and entertain visitors."

Transporting building material to the top will be a problem. Much will be taken on the mountain railway, a rack-and-pinion line in the Swiss tradition. Little trains hauled by locomotives, some built at the turn of the century, claw their way to the top from Llanberis.

Last year the railway took around 140,000 people up the mountain. It operated for only 232 days, reaching the summit on just 155. Ice, snow and gales halted the trains halfway up on remaining days.

Weather holds the key to most things in Snowdonia. It is unpredictable, and none are more anxious to see the sun than the four staff who live at the cafe during the tourist season. Winds of over 120mph have been recorded on the peak and mist can descend so suddenly that even experienced mountaineers find themselves lost.

It all adds up to a difficult construction task. But the elements have been defeated before. There is evidence at the summit of huts erected in the 19th century to feed travellers, and early engravings in Llanberis show shacks offering tea and brandy to the weary.

Derek Rogerson, managing director of the railway, which leases the cafe from the National Park, said cautiously: "The present building is, well, not as sympathetic to its surroundings as it could be. It doesn't beautify Snowdon in any way."