Rocky road marks long decline of Liberalism: A famous Gladstone speech will be celebrated on Snowdon tomorrow. Stephen Goodwin reports

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FOR Liberal Democrats, ever ready at party conferences to invoke the spirit of Lloyd George and recall the reforms of long- gone Liberal governments, tomorrow brings a grand, if somewhat poignant, anniversary.

A hundred years ago the great names of the party were gathering not in Harrogate to pick over the business of pacts and deals, but on a wild mountainside to speak of justice for Wales.

William Gladstone, recently returned as Prime Minister for a fourth time at 83, stood on a rock with other Liberal MPs including David Lloyd George, to address a crowd estimated at 2,500 by the Times reporter and 1,500 by the North Wales Observer.

'There were all sorts and conditions of us from sturdy, stubborn, uncompromising Welsh radicals, to the flippant, lisping, insipid English tourist,' wrote the North Wales Observer's somewhat partisan columnist.

It will be a smaller number which gathers tomorrow by the Gladstone Rock - a huge boulder about 12ft high - in Cwm Llan on the south side of Snowdon. The celebration, organised by the National Park authority and the Ramblers' Association, will be not so much of the Grand Old Man's speech, but the fact that he inaugurated the opening of a footpath to the top of the 3,559ft (1,085m) mountain.

The path and the man who dedicated it to the public are on the same grand scale as the politicians of the time. Sir Edward Watkin, Liberal MP, railway tycoon and owner of the south side of the mountain, had his workers construct a graded pony track to the summit from the slate quarries part way up the valley. (His other great scheme was a railway from Manchester to Paris, but though he gained control of companies south to Dover and began work on a Channel tunnel, a nervous government closed the operation after nearly a mile had been dug on both sides.)

The following day Sir Edward, Gladstone and a sizeable party started out for the summit, but the luminaries retreated when the mist came down. Two women reached the summit.

The Watkin Path remains the most scenic of the main walking routes up Snowdon - allow four hours up and three down. The mountain railway, built three years later, and electricity works have scarred the northern approaches. But above 2,500ft (750m), the path has deteriorated badly, and each winter brings casualties.

The Ramblers' Association will use the anniversary to urge other landowners to offer paths for public use, though footpaths do not seem to have been on Gladstone's mind 100 years ago.

A plaque on the rock states that he 'addressed the people of Eryri upon justice to Wales. The multitude sang Cymric hymns and 'The Land of My Fathers'.' The GOM said he was happier to listen. He spoke briefly in support of disestablishment of the Church in Wales, promised the Government would deal with crippling agricultural rents and praised the Welsh for returning so many Liberal MPs.

Of the 30 members for Wales, 28 were Liberals. As Gladstone put it: 'There is a shrewd suspicion that the other two who do not agree with the 28 found their way into Parliament by some kind of particular accident.'

Last April the successor party's representation at Westminster was reduced from three Welsh MPs to one. No leading Liberal Democrats will be at Gladstone Rock tomorrow. The only MP expected is Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, Greater Manchester, and the Ramblers' Association's voice in the Commons.

The North Wales Observer's radical columnist enjoyed his day, but concluded that he hoped 'politicians will not take to holding forth on steep and rugged mountainsides eight miles away from a railway station'.

(Photograph omitted)