Snowdon: The Story of a Welsh Mountain By Jim Perrin

An iconoclastic survey of Wales's highest mountain peak is infused with the writer's identity

James Cusick
Saturday 29 December 2012 01:00

Jim Perrin is unequivocal: Snowdon is “the British mainland's finest mountain”. Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis, high points of their respective nations, are but “lumpen and uncouth masses” in comparison.

It is a judgement calculated to make the Scots splutter over their porridge. Devotees of the English Lake District might be a little more thoughtful. Architecturally, Snowdon is undeniably magnificent. However, it is hardly elitist to prefer one's mountains without a railway rack-and-pinioned to its flank and a café on top.

Perrin is uncharacteristically pragmatic about the railway and other indignities inflicted by the sheer popularity of Snowdon - at 3,559 feet, the highest point in Britain south of Scottish Highlands. Some 150,000 people ride the Snowdon Mountain Railway each year and thousands more ascend on foot. With almost a sigh, he concludes that management and wardening have not only been inevitable but have proved minimally intrusive and valuable.

This is just about Perrin's only nod of approval to any kind of establishment. Elsewhere he is in erudite, rebellious form, hurling barbs at the English (only Edward I whose castles encircle Snowdonia gets grudging respect as a “tactically astute” warrior king) and second-home owners, and railing against the class prejudice that afflicted climbing on the mountain in the first half of the 20th century. It is this debunking revisionism that makes Snowdon a piquant treat. George Mallory is deflated from mythologised hero to distinctly ordinary climber.

Bear in mind that Perrin is telling “the story” of the mountain, not writing a guidebook or an official history. And as with his fine biographies of John Menlove Edwards and Don Whillans (both complex and ultimately tragic individuals who pioneered bold routes on Snowdon's cliffs), much of the author emerges in the telling. Perrin is gladdened by the sight of wild goats that raid the cottage gardens of “prissy Surrey retirees” and annoy National Park conservationists; he describes the goats as “bold and playful anarchists of the hills” - very much how Perrin would like to be seen himself.

Snowdon contains no photographs or maps, which is to be applauded. The lack of the latter might make the first chapter, on the lie of the land, difficult to follow topographically for anyone unfamiliar with the mountain. Better, though, to enjoy the impressionist portrait as Perrin follows paths that clatter their “slaty way” by old mine workings and tarns and over ridges radiating from the focal point of Yr Wyddfa - only the summit itself takes this Welsh name.

From legendary inhabitants of fairies and sleeping Arthurian knights, Perrin moves on through Snowdon's centuries as a natural fortress of resistance to the English to early travellers, botanists and seekers after the Sublime - “Snowdon was the psychedelic trip of its Romantic day” - and then to despoiling industry and mountaineering.

It was as a rock climber that Perrin became intimate with Snowdon; today, he is attracted primarily by its natural riches of flora and bird life. A lifetime under the spell of the mountain has stirred the quirky magic of this book. Should you be seeking something to read on a weekend in North Wales, Snowdon would make a worthy companion: passionate and poetic - though sensitive Surrey folk might end up hurling it into the cottage fire.

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