Makeover for 'highest slum in Wales'

That was Prince Charles's description of Snowdon's old visitor centre. He will be more impressed by its £8.5m replacement, says Jonathan Brown
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The Independent Online

Those seeking to conquer Wales's highest peak have long had to forsake the wild mountain experience. The paths are studded with plastic bottles and discarded banana skins. But many people don't even walk, instead they take the tourist train which has ferried lavender-scented ladies to the summit since Victorian times.

However, having made the 1,085m ascent, on sunny days the views towards the Irish Sea more than compensate for the crowds. And from next month there will be another incentive to ascend Snowdon. More than a decade after it was first planned and nearly a year late in completion, the finishing touches are being put to the mountain's new visitor centre.

The £8.5m structure, due to be officially opened next month, melts seamlessly into the wild landscape and is barely visible – even when conditions are good – until walkers are almost upon it. That Portuguese rather than local granite was used for the outer skin, a controversial decision during construction, will go unremarked by all but the most observant visitors.

The centre is a far cry from what it replaced. The previous incumbent for the title of highest building in Wales (or indeed England and Wales) was an unloved blot on the landscape described by Prince Charles as the "highest slum in Wales". Built in 1935 by Clough William-Ellis, who gave the world the nearby experimental village of Portmeirion, later home of The Prisoner, the concrete terminus to the mountain railway-cum-café stood for all that is bad when man seeks to impose his vision on an ethereal landscape inhabited – in the imagination at least – by mythical trolls, fairies and kings.

So when architect Ray Hole submitted his idea for the new structure, it was clear that whatever was proposed would be scrutinised by the custodians of the national park as well as by landscape lovers throughout the world. What has arisen is a sensitive new destination, Hafod Eryri, a name selected from 442 submissions sent in from around the world. In Welsh it means a summer residence or upland farmstead on the mountain of Eryri, but it is hoped that the naming ceremony will mean much more for Wales and national pride. Llinos Angharad, of the Snowdonia National Park Authority, said: "This will be a tremendous boost not just for Llanberis, Snowdonia or North Wales but for the whole of Wales. It is something to be proud of."

Progression towards completion has been hard. The project was saved only after European Objective One money and an appeal brought in enough cash to augment funds from the Welsh Assembly, the national park and the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Navigating the public consultation process and satisfying strict planning rules also took time. But it was the weather and isolation which caused most delays.

All the construction materials, including the giant steel frame, had to be hauled up by the old 5mph diesel tourist railway, built by the Victorians. Torrential rain last spring and summer repeatedly halted proceedings, and last winter proved one of the coldest and snowiest in decades. And that is not to mention the wind, which routinely blows at speeds in excess of 100mph.

But when the ribbon is cut – weather permitting – all that will be history and visitors will be able to experience the centre's new interactive screens and information panels detailing the mountain's unique geology and history. And so-called "whispering windows" will tell the story of the mountain through the voices of the people that have lived and worked there over the centuries. The building's new tenants, who run the tourist railway, can boast a host of environmental features including rainwater-harvesting toilets.

The visitors that had made it to the summit when The Independent took a sneak preview last week were more preoccupied with the appalling weather conditions than the architectural merits of the new centre. But Mark Wormald, 42, from Shepshed in Leicestershire, a professional mountain guide, was impressed: "It is a vastly better place than it was before. Yes it is a shame the mountain is not completely wild but it does mean that people can use it and it may introduce them to other truly wild mountains."