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This demi-paradise: The lowdown on the Snowdon Summit Cafe.

Martin Plimmer
Friday 26 September 1997 23:02 BST

So it isn't very high. So you would have to pile four Snowdons on top of one another for it to draw level with Mont Blanc's frosted peak. Yet Snowdon is England and Wales's highest point (3,560ft), and its rhapsodic depiction by every geography teacher (Welsh to a man) makes it a place of pilgrimage.

Think of it not as a dwarf mountain, rather as a colossal hill; then you get some sense of its hulking power. The ancient Greeks would have bunged a temple to Apollo up here, or, at the least, a Doric visitor centre. The power which reigns on Snowdon makes do with a concrete shed, where visitors are urged to buy polystyrene cups of tea, souvenir pension-book holders and "Over the Hill" T-shirts.

Surprisingly, this place was designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who built Portmeirion and who fought all his life for beauty: "that strange necessity". In this case, the strange necessity required magnificent landscape- hugging windows. The mountain weather disagreed and promptly blew them in. Then they were bricked up by tutting dwarves.

The Summit Cafe, which the much-diminished building now imprisons, and which is vaunted in one of the many notices that adorn Snowdon as "more than just a cafe", is a gloomy, 1970s works canteen smelling of disinfectant. Big laminated notices warn customers not to try eating their own food on the premises. Those daring to bring sandwiches are forced to consume them outside in the driving rain.

Yet the Summit Cafe doesn't sell food as we know it. The most savoury thing here is a flapjack. When asked why there is nothing hot, the assistant says, "We run off a generator." So you must chew oats and dream of the schnitzels and potato salads you have enjoyed in Alpine cafeterias at three times the altitude.

You'll find this annoying if you've just walked four miles to get here; even more so if you've come by the single-track railway and shelled out pounds 40 for the reduced-rate family ticket. You've had to wait around for a train (you can't book), then sat sweating for an hour on a hard seat in a sealed railway carriage, while a noisy diesel engine pushed you to the top.

By the time you get there and read the notice "Friendly advice: the company cannot guarantee return on any train other than that which you ascend by", and realise you have half an hour in which to look at the view, eat a flapjack and buy a plastic Snowdon back-scratcher, you feel well shunted about.

Actually, 30 minutes is too much time. In fact, it seems hours before the railwaymen, mystically absorbed in narrow-gauge contemplation, signal your release. There is one last notice to read as you go, stuck on a much- Sellotaped cardboard box with slit cut in the top, asking for a 10p contribution towards the upkeep of the toilets, in the poignant hope that some compulsive spendthrift, or madman will chance by and warm to the notion.

For a thrilling alternative: visit Dinorwig Power Station, under Mount Elidir, opposite Snowdon, where, in a hollowed-out machine hall higher than St Paul's, First Hydro's water turbines whip up enough power to run several cities. It's a spectacular tour and there's a superior visitor centre and cafe. They've got the generator problem sorted

Next week: Carole Hayman's lofty life

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