The Giant’s Cairn, the Last Battle and the Lady of the Lake
In just a few weeks I’ll be scaling Snowdon’s lofty heights with a group of friends. It’s been suggested that as the leader of this expedition I should be able to point out landmarks and the history of the place.
Entering the Horseshoe
From the west, Snowdon is a big hill with grassy slopes. On a pleasant summer’s day you can just put one foot in front of the other and get to the top (or take the train if that is too much bother) There’s even a cafe at the top to help you enjoy the breathtaking views of Snowdonia.
However, from the east, Snowdon shows it’s true majesty. The car park at Pen-y-Pass is overshadowed by a peak (Crib Goch) that looks like a true mountain and a taster of what is to come.
Taking the southern Miner’s Track you skirt round the edge of “The Horns” to the mouth of the horseshoe and, assuming the weather is clear, the grandeur of this chain of mountains opens up before you.
Ahead the huge pyramid of Snowdon, to the right the imposing peak of Crib Goch hiding the knife edge ridge that connects it to the wallflower of Garnedd Ugain. Peeking out from over Crib Goch’s shoulder, this mountain (second only to Snowdon) is unfortunately overshadowed by it’s siblings.
To the left stand the twin peaks of Y Lliwedd a massive wall of rock used by Mallory as a training ground for his Everest expedition and possibly the birthplace of modern rock climbing.
Such stunning scenery, it is no surprise that it is a place of legend, and perhaps no lesser legendary figure would suit it’s purpose than King Arthur.
In the time of Arthur, this country was a collection of small kingdoms with Arthur as the High King or Battle Chieftain (depending on which version you prefer). North Wales was ruled by a giant named Rhita Gawr.
When two foolish kings Nynio and Peibio started a furious war over who’s herds and flocks had grazing rights to the night sky, Rhita stepped in and vanquished them both shaving them and taking their beards as a prize of battle.
When the kings of the surrounding countries heard of this shame inflicted on their fellow kings they joined forces in order to exact revenge against Rhitta.
The conflict was tremendous, but the giant achieved a great victory and took the beards of his enemies which he used to trim a great cloak that covered him from head to heel.
Having won such a decisive victory, Rhita sent a messenger to the court of King Arthur challenging him to either send his beard to Rhita to adorn his cloak or to meet him in single combat.
Arthur was outraged by Rhita’s gaul and set out at once to face the giant.
The duel on top of Snowdon was hard fought, but finally with a mighty blow to the head Arthur drove his sword through armour, flesh and bone and cut the giant in two.
Rhita was lain to rest on the summit and each of his soldiers brought a stone and laid it on their fallen leader. The mountain became known as Yr Wyddfa (The Cairn).
The Miner’s Track continues into the centre of the mountain range past the remains of old buildings and a small tarn before opening out to Llyn Llydaw a large lake in the basin formed by the horseshoe (more about the lake on the way down).
From here the Miner’s Track crosses a causeway and heads along the side of Crib Goch to meet the Pyg Track, but our route turns to the left towards the twin peaks of Y Lliwedd. The path is easy to follow having been paved and steps created to help you climb the flank of this mountain until you come to an easy scramble which brings you to Lliwedd Bach (Little Lliwedd)
With Snowdon seen as the objective of these mountains and those doing the horseshoe usually travelling anticlockwise (Traversing the Crib Goch ridge is considered easier that direction) these peaks are a tranquil place in the morning and you can go for some distance without meeting up with other walkers.
The ascent of these two peaks is nowhere near as difficult as it looks from a distance, gravel paths wind their way in between rocks with a little bit of easy scrambling in places.
Looking down to the left the Watkin Path comes up from Nant Gwynant through Cwm Llan joining our route ahead at Bwlch y Saethau (The Pass of Arrows), and whilst on the mountain it may be interesting to keep a look out for any caves.
When King Arthur came back from fighting in Europe, he found his nephew Mordred had usurped the throne and he was forced to wage war to regain it.
Pursuing his enemies through the mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia) he came upon the host at Tregalan just above Cwm Llan.
Battle ensued and Mordred and his host were forced up the pass to the area now known as Bwlch y Saethau, the Pass of Arrows, and from their elevated position they let fly a rain of arrows upon the pursuing force. One of the arrows mortally wounded Arthur.
After the battle, Arthur’s knights retired to a cave under the peaks of Y Lliwedd, closing the entrance behind them, they lie in slumber waiting for the time that Arthur will rise again and return the throne to the original Britains.
From the top of the second peak, the route ahead across the top of Bwlch y Saethau can clearly be seen just below the ridge line (offering some protection from the winds that get funneled up through the horseshoe. and about halfway along the Watkin path joins from the left.
I’m not sure who Watkin was, but he seems to have had a perverse notion of what a path looks like… the final ascent up the shoulder of Snowdon is probably the steepest part of the walk and although well packed by the millions of feet that have taken this route, the rock is loose in places and care must be taken.
You are greeted at the top by an upright stone, put there as a way-marker for those travelling in a counter-clockwise direction and showing the safest point of descent.
From here the path curves round the southern shoulder of the mountain and up to the cafe/visitor centre at the summit (for some reason never open when I visit), in good weather offering stunning views towards the Irish Sea.
The trig point at the summit stands upon a huge plinth with stairs leading up to it. For those lucky enough to go on a calm day or brave enough to face the winds this offers a great view of the whole mountain range. Of course the other option is to watch the trains coming up and down the mountain and convince yourself that the challenge you faced making it this far makes the experience so much more satisfying.
While there are multiple ways down from the summit, the fact we parked at Pen-y-Pass means the obvious route leads back in that direction.
Following the path that runs along side the railway most of the way is sheltered from the winds coming through the horseshoe by a ridge, so the sudden gusts as you pass a gap in the ridge can be quite disconcerting although you often get advanced warning as a cloud shoots across your path at high speed.
As it’s probably late morning/early afternoon by now the Pyg Track will be obvious from the steady stream of people appearing from the right. It starts with a steep winding descent before taking a more level path along the side of Crib Goch. Alternatively you can drop down further onto the Miner’s Track and skirt the lakes of Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw. Both routes are paved and easy to follow back to base camp.
Of course back at the start I said we would return to Llyn Llydaw, and it is as we leave the centre of this Arthurian scenery that we pass once again the scene of one of the most iconic parts of the legend.
As Arthur lay mortally wounded, he issued a final command to Bedivere.
“Take my sword Excalibur to the lake that lies over there and to throw it into the water and to come back and tell me what you saw.”
Sir Bedevere carried Excalibur to the water’s edge, but when he looked at the fine sword, with its golden pummel inlaid with gems, he thought that it was a waste to lose such a valuable weapon, so he hid it under a tree and returned to where King Arthur lay.
“Well?” said Arthur, “What did you see?”
“I saw nothing, my king; just the ripples on the water when it entered.”
The king grew angry, saying, “You are trying to deceive me! Go now and throw Excalibur into the lake. My life depends on it.”
Sir Bedevere went back to the lake and picked up Excalibur, but when he looked at it he still could not bring himself to throw the sword into the lake, so it returned it to its hiding place and went back to the king.
“Well?” said Arthur, “What did you see?”
“Nothing, my king, just the ripples on the water.”
King Arthur’s face flushed red, “You traitor! You have betrayed your king twice and placed more value on a sword than on my life. I will kill you with my own hands if you do not throw Excalibur into the lake. Hurry, for I don’t have much time and I am feeling the cold grip me.”
Sir Bedevere went back to the water’s edge and this time he took Excalibur in his hands and threw it with all his might into the lake. A woman’s arm, clad in white silk that was interwoven with gold and silver thread, rose up out of the lake and caught Excalibur by the hilt and then shook it three times before slipping silently beneath the surface of the water.