No, this isn’t a post about late Victorian rock ‘n’ roll…
Yesterday I walked up Snowdon with my eldest. We set off and returned to Bethania Bridge on the Nantgwynant via the Watkin Path.
This is the longest route up Snowdon in terms of vertical ascent from 60m OD. We almost reached the top: c. 950m of the 1085m. However, we decided to turn back halfway up the steepest and most precarious part: a section of loose scree just below the summit on the south-side. This was because my autistic daughter made her own decision that she would be too nervous coming back down this small part of the slope.
So we will reach the summit another day. In any case, we saw most of the mountain and we had a great walk and enjoyed ourselves.
One mean-spirited lone elderly walker took it upon herself to pass judgement on my daughter’s walking endeavours and her footwear for even attempting the walk. She was the only child we saw attempting the Watkin Path that morning and her presence clearly irritated the individual and their sense of ownership of the path. In my view, elderly people walking alone, even if experienced walkers, have a far greater likelihood of being a burden on emergency services than 10-year-olds.
Others, however, were more generous and commented on her intelligence and skill, plus her cautious decision not to go outside of her comfort zone. She walked 8 miles – but my Fitbit registers the equivalent of 12 miles of steps on the flat. So I’m very proud of her achievement on the first attempt to walk up Snowdon.
Anyway, en route there and back we passed by the famous Gladstone Rock. The Watkin Path was opened in 1892 by the fourth-time Prime Minster William Ewart Gladstone, aged 83 at the time. The path had been constructed by the order of Liberal industrialist Sir Edward Watkin from his slate quarry to the summit.
Gladstone spoke to a crowd that included other Liberal MPs including future Prime Minister David Lloyd George. It was estimated that between 1,500 and 2,500 people stood around the rock listening to Gladstone’s speech. Standing on this prominent landmark, Gladstone thanked Wales for returning 28/30 of its MPs to Parliament as Liberal party members, and outlined his vision for justice to Wales including the disestablishment of the Church of Wales and reduced rents.
The location is striking, a prominent isolated rock in the Cym-Llan beside the Watkin Path, and surrounded by the ruins of the 19th-century slate industry including buildings and tramways that provided the inspiration and context for the path to the summit.
The plaque itself is a phenomenon, a square slab of marble of proportions to impress itself onto an already monumental landscape. The text is bilingual but not fully proportionate: Welsh above, English below. The dedication is in English only. Here is the English part of the inscription:
SEPT 13TH 1892 – UPON THIS ROCK
THE RIGHT HONOURABLE W. E. GLADSTONE M.P.
WHEN PRIME MINSTER FOR THE FOURTH TIME AND 83 YEARS OLD
ADDRESSSED THE PEOPLE OF ERYRI UPON
JUSTICE TO WALES
THE MULTITUDES SANG CYMRIC HYMNS
AND “THE LAND OF MY FATHERS”
PUBLICLY DEDICATED BY SIR EDWARD AND LADY WATKIN, JUNE 1893
I’m unaware of any photographs or surviving representations of the scene, but I cannot but be reminded of Gladstone here deploying the landscape effectively as would any early medieval lord or king attending an assembly. The rock itself symbolises the moral and physical grounding of his politics in the bedrock of Wales, just as rocks and mounds might provide the focus for many early medieval assembly sites at which law, custom and the tradition were mediated by ancestors and the landscape.
Let’s not forget, this was the romantic era of the old North, where early medieval assemblies were seen as the progenitor of Parliament. For example, W.G. Collingwood’s famously painted Thingvellir, Iceland: the site of the island’s assembly from the pagan era of the late 9th/10th centuries. Hence, the entire setting, and the performance at Gladstone Rock, can be viewed as a classic example of the late Victorian political uses of landscape, drawing inspiration from the early medieval past.
It’s a pity Gladstone never spoke at the Pillar of Eliseg…