Feature: The Battle of the Boulders
Ray Wood climbing the classic Edge Problem (V5) on the Roadside face of the Cromlech Boulders (photo: Simon Panton)
In the realms of mountaineering there are some very significant dates; most people will be able to make a stab at answering the question “What happened on the 29th May 1953?”, but what about 6th December 1973 a few years later?
Well, 30 odd years ago there was nearly a requiem for the Cromlech Boulders, features that are today even more important to the sport of rock climbing and mountaineering than they were then. On this morning they were within an hour or two of being blown up by the Gwynedd County Surveyor’s men for road widening purposes.
Let me explain.
In those days I was the joint manager of Pen y Pass Youth Hostel. Each morning I drove down the Pass to take the children to catch the school bus in Nant Peris. The county surveyor had decided late in the autumn of 1973 to devote some of his department’s resources to widening the A4086 road, about a mile above Nant, more to the standard that was required of an “A” class road. Each morning as I drove past I viewed their handiwork as they slowly progressed upwards, and somewhere deep down I had a nagging question about what they would do when they reached the stretch of road by the boulders, and of course what they would do with the old stone bridge, which was clearly the biggest hazard to motor traffic on the whole section?
Being a fairly optimistic type of person, I could not really get hold of the prospect of them planning to drive the road straight through the site of the boulders. When I stopped and examined the site it was clearly possible to realign the road a little to the right, and so not disturb the feature that was probably one of the most important in the Llanberis Pass. This would have meant encroaching into the lay bye but I felt that the trade off of a section of the lay bye was a fair deal if we kept the boulders.
As the days changed into weeks, so the width of the road grew by about one and a half metres. The work had reached the first boulder, and by this time I was starting to get a little more anxious. The new road had arrived at a position where the big boulder partially blocked its way. Driving back up the Pass one afternoon I found that a set of traffic lights had been set up and a sizeable lump of the boulder was missing. (Mind you they did create an overhang, which today is covered with patches of chalk!).
Despite this initial destructive act, I was still convinced that the road builders would not remove anymore of the rock, that they would leave the others alone, after all everyone respects and loves the Cromlech Boulders. They were a part of local folk lore; from times long forgotten tales were told of Giants and Fairies living under them. Hetty an 18th century character had made her home here. I guess she was someone the road builders would not have argued with, for she is described as being both a farmer and a wrestler, who supplemented her earnings by transporting - before the road was built - copper ore in a rowing boat across the lake. It is even said that Joe Brown, the legendary climber used to sleep under them.
Suddenly though, things took a turn for the worse. Thursday 6th of December arrived and I did my daily trip down the Pass, but when I got to Pont y Gromlech and looked up at the boulders, I got quite a shock. “Christ” I said to myself “What are those two blokes doing with that pneumatic drill on the top of the boulders?” It was a silly question, but I had time to consider it whilst I continued the journey to Nant.
By the time I was returning a plan started to formulate itself, about how was I going to stop them drilling holes in the top of the rocks. Soon I was back at the boulders - there seemed to be a way forward. I would climb up to them and tell them that there was an unholy row going on in the council offices in Caernarfon about the work, there had been a change of mind in the highways department, and that they were to stop drilling until the County Surveyor, Tegid Lloyd Roberts came on site. Which is what I did. When I got on top they fortunately stopped drilling for me to have my say, and I must have sounded convincing, as they appeared to believe me.
Scrambling down quickly I then shot back up the Pass like a bat out of hell – well let’s say I drove fast! The phone was the key to the next chapter. I rang everyone I knew who might have some influence or could be of some help. At that time I was the Honorary Secretary of the Snowdonia National Park Society, so the first person I rang was Mrs Esme Kirby, the Chairperson; anyone she didn’t know in the National Park wasn’t worth knowing. Having explained the situation and my action so far she set to arrange a site meeting ASAP. I then rang Plas y Brenin and quickly they agreed to move things on via the BMC and use the contacts that they had through their management committee to bring pressure to bear on the Highways Department. The regional office of the YHA, who have a countryside department, were soon brought on board, and by 10 am the ‘Battle of the Boulders’ had been well and truly launched. The next line of action seemed to be very clear, I would drive down the Pass and park my car under the main boulder; an action that I hoped would at least temporarily scupper the road builders plans, and so gain a little time. Returning to the boulders there was no sign of the workmen, so it appeared that in the first skirmish we had a little success. Parking the car then meant I had to walk back up to Pen y Pass to continue the fray.
More frantic phone calls were made, another car was parked there (a mini van, from the Plas y Brenin I think), and because of all this desperate activity the drilling was halted. The media were sounded out and support began to trickle in. The story was fed through to John Hunt, who I believe was in the House of Lords. He immediately sent a telegram to Caernarfon protesting against the proposals. I’m sure that stories of Boulders being blown up in Snowdonia would have added something to that day in the exalted chamber!
Using Esme’s words,”It might be stretching a point to say that there was an international outcry, but the locals, climbers, historians, conservationists, geologists and the ordinary people who loved the pass rallied to the defence of these great rocks”. There was some confusion over who owned the land upon which the boulders stood. Initially it was believed that the land belonged to the Welsh Office so protests and appeals poured in to the Secretary of State, Mr Peter Thomas. Even the executive secretary of the Prince of Wales committee wrote to the Clerk of the council asking for details of the proposals, so that he could pass them on to the Princes private secretary.
We set about putting together a large petition against the demolition. A form was drafted out and soon Raj Jones’s printers from Bethesda had their printing presses rolling. Forms were distributed far and wide; not one letter left Pen y Pass hostel without a form in it and a covering letter asking for support. The forms in the Vaynol Arms did particularly well; this had an added advantage for publicising the campaign. Many thousands of signatures were eventually dispatched to the Welsh Office, including that of Sir Michael Duff the previous owner of the land. After a period that seemed an eternity Peter Thomas eventually intervened and the Boulders won their reprieve. But of course the county surveyor had an unfinished road widening scheme.
So nearly three years after the first plans were thwarted, plan B was announced.
This initially involved a site meeting between the Highways Authority and the National Park sub committee. The plan was to “Tidy Up” the road widening, and yes you’ve guessed it, the boulders were in the way. On an extremely wet and windy morning pre knowledge of the meeting meant that the opposing forces were on site when the dignitaries arrived. So were the police. This was not on the agenda, and the Chairman had to announce that sub committee site meetings were confidential to the public, and that we all had to go away. As this was not an option for the protesters the councillors decided that they would adjourn to the local School in Nant Peris, were they could come to a learned decision.
They had three options to look at, spending £74,000 to bypass them, £51,000 to blow a large piece off one, or £26,000 to blow two large pieces off two of them. It does not take a genius to work out that the councillors went for - the cheapest option. The protesters were not happy with the treatment they received. Edmund Hammond, owner of the Waterloo Hotel, Betws y Coed, and BMC area committee chairman was quoted as saying “I was told by the Clerk that I was not entitled to stand on the Queens Highway within earshot when a private meeting was taking place. While we object strongly to what has been done, we want to behave as responsible persons, so we withdrew. Climbers will not move or budge on the issue of the boulders”. He went on to say that people were not willing to stand by and see them blown up. If they will blow them up, they will blow people up with them. The headlines in the press were “The Explosive Battle of the Boulders!”
And so stage two of the ‘Battle’ commenced, the mood of the protesters was that the council should leave things as they were; there had been no traffic accidents, no congestion and as it seemed to everyone no inconvenience either. But Councillor Albert Owen of Llanerchymedd had different thoughts and told the park committee who were considering it, “These are two stones, and not two families. I doubt whether we would have paid so much attention to them if they had been people’s homes and family hearths. I move that we go ahead and split them for the sake of road safety”. The councillors agreed with him.
The media again played their part – we even got a mention in the Editorial of The Daily Post. But their sympathies were split - headlines like “Three Thousand Tons of Sentiment” and the fact that Caernarfonshire ratepayers were going to initially find £10,000 and later £26,000 were not found to be supportive by the protesters. But the resolve to save them could not be diluted – even a school from Caernarfon got together a petition that they should be saved, with both the children and the teachers signing it.
Again the Welsh office was targeted, and it was said that the Secretary of State knew the Pass and that our pleas would not fall on deaf ears. What ever his reasons, the protesters had found a receptive home and after another delay he found in favour of the protesters, nearly a unique event in the world of public protest. Interestingly the County Council never re aligned the curb, the proposed line is quite clear to see. One wonders if they have left it that way out of spite – or perhaps they will say ‘We told you so’ – if there is ever a road traffic accident on the site.
We all owe a great deal to a number of people that manned the front line. Esme Kirby was one of these and of course the BMC Officers too. But at the end of the day many, many people contributed and when I drive past the boulders today I am thankful that we were able to draw on their support and that it was readily given.
“This boulder is one of three lying beside the road in the Llanberis pass which were threatened with demolition for a road widening scheme. My friend Harvey Lloyd, in the picture, saw holes being drilled for blasting, and started a campaign which, after nearly six years, resulted in their reprieve.”
Caption of a picture in W A Poucher's 1981 book, Wales.