Monday, 18 May 2020

Pen- Y- Gwryd...The Early Years

The history of the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, founded nearly one hundred and forty years ago is closely interwoven with the development of rock-climbing and mountaineering and with the great figures responsible for those innovations. It may be argued that few individual places in the world can claim a longer or more honourable connection with the sports. In the same manner that the Wastwater Hotel became home for the Lake District climbers, so the Pen-y-Gwryd was to become for the North Wales school. The location of the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel is singular, and interesting enough. Perched high above the Gwynant valley, it stands alone below Cwm-y-ffynnon, in the shadow of both the Glyder and Moelwyn peaks. There is some confusion concerning the correct derivation of the inn's name. One plausible and attractive explanation put forward by Nea Morin in her book, 'A Woman's Reach' proposes that when the Hotel is viewed looking from upstream, or better still, from Moel Siabod, the twists and turns of the Afon Mymbyr resemble the links of a silver chain. 

The area to the fore thus taking on the Welsh " Pen-y-Gwryd", meaning simply, "head of the chain". Long before the formal construction of the Pen-y-Gwryd, the Romans occupied this vantage point. The large four-square earthwork bestriding both roads in front of the existing hotel bears testimony to their one time presence. The remains show it was a temporary fort, similar to those found near to Hadrian's Wall. This one, decidedly high and exposed for Roman tastes, dictated by the harsh surrounding terrain and the severe climatic variations. The interim following the Roman evacuation saw only pedestrian traffic traversing this location.

The divides separating the Snowdon, Glyder, and Moelwyn massifs were long avoided by the route-makers. There was only a drover's track permitting transit between the coastal plains and Anglesey and the English markets to the south. It was trodden by shepherds, livestock, indentured apprentices and the sons of rich landowners who moved with the drover's for adventure and security of travel. The mountains were a veritable haven for brigands, thieves and footpads. With the revival of scientific inquiry and the proclamation of philosophies by people like Jean-Jaques Rousseau pointing out the superior value of things simple, natural and wild, men's eyes were opened to the appreciation of savage landscapes. The number of visitors to the mountains of North Wales increased. 

The first access road to the areas was opened in 1805. The Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel began life soon after the road was completed over the Llanberis Pass in 1830. Its founder and first landlord was John Roberts of Pen-y-Bryn, Llanberis. On offer was a small parlour with half a dozen hair-bottomed chairs and a mahogany table, an upstairs kind of cock-loft which was divided into two compartments, one for the family, the other for the travellers. In 1847 Henry Owen, whom for some reason everyone called "Harry", took over from John Roberts. With his wife Ann he was to run the Hotel for the next forty years and more. Little is known about those first tentative years, most of the details in the visitors' book were destroyed. However the records do show that the Owens were hosts in their first year, to two of the most influential men in the development of mountain exploration in Britain.

The first was Fitt Bowring, a compulsive hill-walker. Regarded by many as an eccentric, he maintained his enthusiasm long enough to introduce Walter Parry Haskett Smith to Lakeland scrambling in the early 1880's. The second was C. A. 0. Baumgartner, one of the pioneer "Pillarites" of the Lake District, and the first man known to have traversed the airy Crib Goch crest of Snowdon. The year 1886 saw the cleric and novelist Charles Kingsley at the Hotel, also playwright Tom Taylor who was later to become editor of Punch, and author Thomas Hughes who was soon to find literary fame with his work 'Tom Brown's Schooldays'. Kingsley had been to the Pen-y-Gwryd before. He was a man of sound constitution, who embraced wholeheartedly the cult of physical fitness. Born in 1819, he is reputed to once have walked from London to Cambridge, a distance of some 52 miles in one day. With Taylor and Hughes, Kingsley enjoyed the fishing in nearby waters. They also clambered around on Snowdon and Glyder Fawr, and found pleasure in their activities in a way particular to successful Victorians. 

In 1887, Kingsley included a colourful account of the Pen-y-Gwryd in his novel Two Years Ago. Oscar Eckenstein, regarded as one of the most formidable characters the early climbing scene produced, came first to the Pen-y-Gwryd in the Spring of 1887. Particularly fascinated by the classic mountain lines of Lliwedd, Eckenstein partnered most of the leading men of the time. A man of superb ingenuity and inventiveness who applied his engineering skills toward the design and manufacture of original climbing hardware. He was perhaps the first great theorist of rock-climbing. Like Dan Tyson's  Wastwater Hotel in the Lake District, the success and reputation of the Pen-y-Gwryd flourished on the strength of the homely and welcome atmosphere created by "Harry" Owen and his family. The popularity of the place rose especially amongst the public school and university elite. Holiday and reading parties were fashionable in those days. Regular visitors to the Hotel included a group of masters from Winchester College. 

The lawyer C. E. Mathews came to the Pen-y-Gwryd in the opening months of 1854. Although a great deal more creative during his forays in the Alps, Mathews was remembered amidst "Gwryd" circles for his amiability. It went on record that during his lively career he climbed Snowdon and Cader Idris more than a hundred times each. The list of distinguished guests staying at the Pen-y-Gwryd grew rapidly. The Pendlebury brothers, Charles Pilkington (a pioneer of guideless climbing in the Alps) and Frederick Morshead, whom Geoffrey Winthrop Young described as, "the finest and fastest Alpinist of the day." H. G. Willink, the artist and Clinton Dent were also of the band. Included in the convivial gatherings came Horace Walker and A. W. Moore, the latter accompanied Mathews on the original ascent of the Brenva Ridge in 1865. Christmas 1860 witnessed Professor Tyndall, Professor Huxley and Mister Busk taking up a stay at the Hotel.

Significant though it was, Tyndall's motivation was overshadowed by the sustained interest of C. E. Mathews in making the Pen-y-Gwryd's name. From 1861 onwards he went there almost every year. Forty years later he was still coming to the rendezvous, but on a more occasional basis. The arrival of the Alpinists, especially their coming outside the normal tourist season, established the Pen-y-Gwryd, and made it both possible and necessary to expand facilities. In 1859 a coffee room was built, and the existing pension was given a new roof. During the 1880's a complete new wing was added. Come 1890, the Owens were prosperous enough to be able to install a hot water facility in each bedroom — considered an advanced feature at the time! 1889 saw the premier visit to the Pen-y-Gwryd of two men who were to play essential roles in shaping the development of rock-climbing in Snowdonia. A. W. Andrews and James Merriman Archer Thomson. The latter had lived in Bangor, only a few miles distant, but previously had paid no attention to the neighbouring mountains. Several years were to pass before he began his pioneering climbing. Sadly, in May 1891, after forty-four years as landlord, "Harry" Owen died. From that point forward the Pen-y-Gwryd embarked upon a period of disturbance and decline. With "Harry" dead, his wife Ann struggled to keep the hostelry a going concern. Regrettably the standards once known were to be a thing of the past.

Deterioration in the house facilities were equalled by the decline in the health of Mrs Owen. In 1896 she died and joined her husband in the churchyard cemetery at Beddgelert. The closing years of the Nineteenth Century brought fresh recruits to the Welsh hills. Just some of the quality names included amongst them were W. R. Reade, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, and Owen Glynne Jones who in turn introduced his very able friends from the Lake District, the Abraham brothers. For the most part, the Abraham brothers were not made to feel welcome at the Pen-y-Gwryd. Resentment from the regulars stemmed from seeing the steady flow of choice first ascents put up by the brothers. The class difference helped to aggravate their case. The situation was further exacerbated by their own character and approach to the sport. Hostility reached a climax when the Abraham's business and commercial sense took hold of things. As impressive photographers, the prospect of a book in preparation met with outright condemnation from the conservative quarter. Even with the Pen-y-Gwryd as home of the Climbers Club (Formed there in 1898), the raging Abraham brothers' controversy, progressed out on to the crags.
Lakeland Artist Alfred Heaton Cooper's painting of Yr Wyddfa from just below the PyG.

In the summer of 1901 the Pen-y-Gwryd went up for sale. It never reached its reserve price at auction and so was withdrawn from the market. What remained of the trade succumbed to the acumen and superior accommodation just a mile up the road at Pen-y-Pass. This establishment in turn took on and embraced the great names of the day. It followed an equally colourful advance. The Pen-y-Gwryd was to stand in awe of personalities and events at Pen-y-Pass for many years. Drained of enthusiastic management and climbing world patronage, only with the passage of time was there to come a change in circumstances. Another chapter in the hotel's life was to be opened with the spread of climbing as an activity for the "working" and artisan classes. An era of new "Hard Men" and "Carpet-baggers" was on its way . . . 

Eammonn Dolan: First published in Clinmber & Rambler-September