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The History & Majesty of Snowdonia

Firmly established as one of the British Isles’ most enduring tourist attractions, Snowdonia – one of the UK’s 15 National Parks – plays host to around 10 million visitors from around the world each year. It’s not hard to see why the region’s such a consistent draw for tourists, either. Aside from the stunning Snowdon mountain itself, Snowdonia has a wealth of attractions and of course a wealth of beautiful natural scenery. Aside from all that, the area also has a fascinating history – including a rich tapestry of myths and legends – which attracts many visitors in its own right.

While Snowdon itself is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the area and its star attraction, there’s far more to Snowdonia than this mountain. The national park stretches across 823 square miles – that’s twice the size of Anglesey. You needn’t be an avid mountaineer to enjoy the scenery, either, as a Snowdon Mountain Railway journey offers you the chance to take in the spectacular views Snowdonia is renowned for.

Here’s our guide to the unique history and stunning scenery that keeps millions coming back to Snowdonia every year.

Snowdonia’s geology

The Snowdonian scenery has been hundreds of millions of years in the making – about 500 million years, to be (fairly) exact. It’s thought that the oldest physical feature in Snowdonia is the Harlech Dome, a huge geometric feature with Blaenau Ffestiniog at its northern edge and Tywyn at the southern. It is thought to date from the Cambrian period, the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era. Snowdonia used to be under the seabed at one time, and the ancient fossil shell fragments on some rocks at the summit of the mountain are testament to that.

Snowdonia’s geology has also been transformed by volcanic and glacial activity over the years. In the Ordovician period – between 485 million and 443 million years ago – volcanoes formed Snowdon’s distinctive rocks. Glacial activity in Snowdonia peaked much more recently; around 18,000 years ago. The glaciers had a dramatic impact on the landscape, creating the huge U-shaped valleys and the corries (or ‘cwms’) so clearly visible in Snowdonia today.
History and culture

Human activity in Snowdonia stretches back thousands of years. There are numerous prehistoric sites in the region. The most important of these is known as Tre’r Ceiri (Town of Giants), an Iron Age settlement which is an instantly striking presence on the Llyn Peninsula. The remains of the settlement – which stands 400 feet above the Irish Sea and was built in around 200 BC – include a large rampart and 150 stone huts.

The Romans knew the inhabitants of north-west Wales as the Ordovices, and the invaders undertook a long-running military campaign to conquer the area led by Agricola. The Romans built several marching camps and forts in the area to strengthen their grip on it. The occupiers also brought with them new agricultural techniques, investing much in the way of both manpower and equipment.

Snowdonia has also been at the centre of fierce political rivalries in the past. The collapse of the Roman occupation left something of a power vacuum in its wake, with the Principality or Kingdom of Gwynedd emerging from its ashes. The area attracted the interest of Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and Normans alike, so the local nobles were forced to be on their guard. To protect their territory and to make it clear who was in charge, they built impressive fortifications – some of which can still be seen today.

Situated at the base of the Llanberis Pass, Dolbadarn Castle was built by Llewelyn ap Iorworth (‘the Great’) in either the 1220s or the 1230s. In 1284, the invading forces of Edward I captured Dolbadarn, taking some of its timbers away to help build Edward’s new castle at Caernarfon. Visitors to Snowdonia today still visit Dolbadarn to admire its impressive stone keep. The ruins of Llewelyn’s reputed birthplace at Dolwyddelan Castle – the subject of extensive restoration work in the 19th century – also still stand. This castle also fell to the English during the invasion of 1283, its capture proving to be a turning point for Edward I’s military campaign against Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the last sovereign prince and king of Wales.

The arrival of Christianity also made an unmistakable mark on Snowdonia, as visitors to the region will soon see. At the village of Clynnog Fawr – on the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula – is St Beuno’s Church, a stunning parish church said to stand on the site of a 7th century Celtic monastery.

Arthur in Snowdonia

As you might expect from a region with such a rich and turbulent history, many myths and legends have sprung up around Snowdonia over the centuries. While the legend of King Arthur is perhaps most closely associated with Cornwall – his reputed birthplace is at Tintagel – it is also linked to Snowdonia. In fact, there are several place names in the region which bear Arthur’s name. These include Ffynnon Arthur and Cegin Arthur, both reputed to have special healing properties.

According to legend, Arthur is also supposed to have killed Rhitta, a fearsome giant said to have lived on Snowdon in ages past who created a cape for himself from the beards of his fallen enemies. Dinas, Ogwen and Llydaw are among the lakes said to be home to the fabled Excalibur, Arthur’s legendary sword.

Snowdonia’s industrial heritage

Although Snowdonia has long been a world-renowned tourist destination, it also has a fine industrial past. Its most famous product was slate, which was used for roofing on houses, factories and more for buildings all over Great Britain. At the industry’s peak, it produced more than 485,000 tons of slate and employed 17,000 men in Snowdonia. There are still some quarries operating in Snowdonia today, although these are much smaller than their counterparts in previous years and employ only a fraction of the workforce.

It wasn’t only slate that was mined in Snowdonia, either – copper and gold were, too. Still, those wishing to find out more about Snowdonia’s slate industry should definitely consider paying a visit to the Welsh National Slate Museum at Llanberis.

That history – both natural and human – has served to make Snowdonia the fascinating and thrilling destination it is today. If you’re planning a trip to Snowdonia and you want to know how to make the most of your trip, we’ve already compiled a handy guide to some of its most impressive walks. However you choose to explore Snowdonia – on foot or in the comfort of a Snowdon Mountain Railway train – you’re sure to have an unforgettable visit.

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