FALLS OF SNOW (and balls of gold) By Nick Hallissey – Country Walking Magazine
The waterfall trails of Pontneddfechan are that rare wonder: a walk that actually improves with rain. It’s raining now, as Tom and I wander the labyrinth of south Wales’ ‘Waterfall Country’. The mist is down over Moel Penderyn (“that’s a lovely view, when it’s there,” says our guide Ceri). The rocky path to Craig y Ddinas is a tad slippery, and we’re glad of the helpful handrail that’s been put in for just such a day. But these discomforts are easily outweighed by the pure drama of Pontneddfechan in the rain. The trees are saturated and breathing beautifully. The air is cool and intoxicating. And most obviously of all, the water in this complex river system is surging, spraying, roaring. It’s alive with pressure and power. I’ve seen it in nice weather, and of course, that’s lovely. But when it’s wet here, you’re treated to a storm in the landscape. And I couldn’t love it more.
There’s also a sense of being part of history here, and mythology too. Obviously any corner of the British Isles has several aeons of history and heritage just beneath its skin, and almost anywhere you step has been trodden previously by a Celt, a Roman, a Viking, a Norman or a Victorian. But here the stories are so clear, and so much part of the fabric of the place, you can almost hear the whispering of your predecessors, up in the trees and down in the water.
Specifically, we’re on the trail of cattle-herders, silica miners, gunpowder monkeys – and fairies. The Welsh tourism bods have christened 2017 as the Year of Legends, a time to celebrate the mythos and mystique of Wales’ ancient past. So anyone who comes here and dares dispute the existence of fairies in this wispy place may find themselves nobbled by the tiny men of Pontneddfechan – if not eaten by a dragon.
The most famous story relates to the River Nedd, and was first recounted by the 12th-century clergyman and writer Gerald of Wales. He told of a schoolboy by the name of Elidyr, who did a runner from a cruel schoolteacher and hid among the rocks by the side of the river. After two days of hiding,
he was approached by “two little fairy men of pygmy stature”, who promised to lead him “to a country full of delights and sports”.
They duly led him through a cave into a hidden paradise of tiny but beautiful people, with silken-gold hair. Elidyr was introduced to the king of this otherworld, and spent his time playing with a golden ball with the king’s son.
Eventually Elidyr found his way back to our world, and on reaching home and being welcomed by his mother, he told her his tale. He went back to the hidden kingdom many times, but one day his mother begged him to bring back the golden ball so that they might be rich. So, after playing with the king’s son, he ran off with the ball. He was chased by two little men, all the way back to his mother’s house. As he crossed the threshold he tripped and dropped the ball. The little men seized it up and left, “showing the boy and his mother every mark of contempt and derision.”
After bawling out his mother for her avarice, the lad ran back to the riverside – but despite searching for over a year, he found no trace of the cave that would take him back to the otherworld. (I hope you weren’t waiting for a happy ending; Welsh legends seldom provide them).
Chastened by it all, Elidyr gave himself to a life of holiness, becoming known as the wise priest Elidorus. Little wonder then, that Gerald of Wales – himself a priest – would choose this cautionary tale to illustrate the dangers of greed.
This is all very much in my mind as I’m walking up the Nedd valley, searching, like so many before me, for some hint of Elidyr’s cave. There are plenty of caves here, of course – none more impressive than the great gaping letterbox of Porth yr Ogof on the River Mellte. But while the average pedestrian can (with a bit of daring) get a little way into the cave and expert cavers have gone much further, sadly no-one has managed to find a single little pygmy man or silken-haired fairy within.
Like all the rampant geology around here, the caves come from the millennial dance of ice and water. During the Ice Ages, the floor of the area was gouged out by retreating glaciers, exposing layers of sandstone, limestone and mudstone. Rivers then scythed their way through the softer mudstone. Wherever the two rock forms met you get a waterfall: the top shelf is hard sandstone, which has resisted the water’s relentless pressure far better than the mudstone that sits below.
But nowhere is the clash of stone illustrated better than at Craig y Ddinas, or Dinas Rock. Here a long promontory, some 80ft tall, juts out over the confluence of the Rivers Mellte and Sychryd. At its western end is an act of geological insanity that has called to climbers, artists and Outward
Bound parties for generations: a great tilted wall of carboniferous limestone, grippy and perfect for rock-botherers. It is an astounding sight, even if you don’t plan to lay a hand on it.
Head a little further up the Sychryd and you’ll reach Bwa Maen, another astonishing rock, but this time a peaked tor whose stratified layers have been bent into a near right-angular arch – hence its name, which means ‘bow of stone’.
All around this end of the valley are the remnants of the silica mining industry. The rocks around the River Sychryd are 95% pure silica. And during the Industrial Revolution it was as sought-after as gold: with its robust structure and high melting point, it was perfect for lining blast furnaces. So silica was mined at Dinas Rock from the mid-18th century right up to the 1960s, creating firebricks for furnaces across Britain and the world. Even today, the Russian word for firebrick is ‘dinas’.
To mine it, engineers would blow up parts of the rockface at night, leaving the dust to settle until the morning when the miners could rush in and pull out the purest silica.
But that wasn’t the only industry here. A little way to the west was a gunpowder works, which from the 1800s supplied the mining industry right across Wales with its primary explosive material. The complex was vast, stretching almost two miles across the valleys, but remote enough so that any explosion (and there were apparently many) could be safely contained. The works used water from the Mellte to power its equipment, and charcoal from the surrounding forests as a key ingredient.
Every element of life in the works was geared towards the prevention of sparks. Workers wore slippers held together by wooden pegs. Horses wore copper shoes so as not to strike sparks as they hauled wagons along the tracks. Women were banned from wearing metal hairpins. Walls were whitewashed so any sign of stray gunpowder would show up. It would have been very easy to die here. Today you can follow the Powder Trail to witness the scale of the operation for yourself.
But the star attraction of Waterfall Country is still to come. Way up to the north-east, where the River Hepste rushes in to join the Mellte, is the waterfall everyone talks about: Sgwd yr Eira, or the Falls of Snow.
You may have read about it before; seen pictures before. But very little prepares you for the actual moment of Sgwd yr Eira. You hear it before you see it; as you descend the bank on either side of the river, you’ll hear the roaring – and the shrieks of those lucky souls already inside it.
Inside it. That’s the big attraction of Sgwd yr Eira, of course: the fact that it’s a perfect curtain of water sitting in front of a lip of limestone, worn away over the millennia to create a balcony behind the falls. It is, therefore, the waterfall you can walk behind.
The path round the back hasn’t always been for thrillseekers; in the past it was the only viable way for farmers to move their cattle from pasture to pasture, or from pasture to market. One can only imagine the thoughts of a bemused heifer being ushered through an apparent tunnel in the water; presumably they found it as exciting as we do. The Alton Towers of animal husbandry.
And then we come back to the rain. Of all the attractions of these valleys; the monstrous rocks, the surging rivers, the fantastic legends, the gunpowder and the silica; it’s Sgwd yr Eira that really celebrates the art of wetness. If Mother Nature pushes an autumnal downpour through the Nedd system, the Falls of Snow just get bigger, louder, more spectacular. And given that a degree of splash and spray is inevitable here even on the sunniest of days, I’m betting you brought a waterproof and won’t mind the dampness too much anyway.
The more I think about the legend of Elidyr, though, the more I come back to that description of the otherworld: “a country full of delights and sports.” There’s a bit of an argument to be made that Elidyr never needed to go anywhere. On this walk I’ve watched kids leap into natural plunge pools; seen rock climbers slither about on Dinas Rock; eaten lunch with walkers loving every minute of their day. Later on I visited the Penderyn distillery, where the lost art of Welsh whisky has been saved – partly, of course, by that magnificent water they use. I even saw a girl with silken-gold hair, even if she did turn out to be Finnish and not tiny. So it’s hard to think of country with more delights and sports than here. Maybe this is all the otherworld you’ll ever need. Fair enough, I never found the golden ball. I’ll just have to go back and look again.
THE FIVE RIVERS
Five rivers piledrive their way through the southern Brecon Beacons to meet here in Pontneddfechan: the Pyrddin, the Nedd Fechan, the Mellte, the Sychryd and the Hepste. The two largest are the Nedd Fechan and the Mellte, and they forge parallel valley systems which the walker can hop between during a single day, using a myriad of enthusiastically waymarked local trails.
The Nedd Fechan has the longest journey; it rises on the slopes of Fan Gyhirych in the lonely acres of Fforest Fawr, then carves its way seven miles south to Pontneddfechan, where it’s joined by the Mellte and its tributaries. Together they form the River Nedd (Neath), which then flows down to the sea at Swansea.
The whole river system plays host to an abundance of wildlife; rare species you might spot are the dipper (likely to be bobbing up and down on the rocks in the middle of the river) and the grey wagtail, who’s likely to be hunting for insects along the banks.
Pontneddfechan is in on the A465 between Neath and Merthyr Tidfil. The car park at Dinas Rock is ideal – but it can fill up with climbers’ and walkers’ cars pretty quickly, so try and get there early.
A whole range of waymarked trails covers Waterfall Country, but very few of them are long enough to cover all the points of interest. Our 8¾-mile walk covers almost everything except Porth yr Ogof, and you can download it at here.
Where to stay
The three-star Ty Newydd Hotel (01685 813433) is a fine country seat located a mile up the road from Pontneddfechan, offering doubles for £100 per night.
Gosh, local websites are queuing up to tell you all about this area. A selection includes: www.thevalleys.co.uk (great for general information and walks), And you can find general tourist information on the Rhondda Cynon Taf council website. Finally, visit Penderyn Distillery for more about the wonderful things they do.
Looking after yourself and the countryside
Waterfall Country is a fragile landscape that can be easily damaged by the large numbers of people that visit. Follow these guidelines and with your help we can keep this place unspoilt for future generations.
- Keep on the waymarked paths – they will offer you the safest route.
- If you bring it here, take it home – litter can spoil everyone’s visit.
- Watch where you step! – plants, especially mosses, are fragile and slow growing and easily trampled.
- Fires are devastating, leave standing and fallen trees for the wildlife.
- Peace and quiet are appreciated by the local residents, both people and animals.
We care about you too, so please:
- Remember to wear sturdy footwear; the walking trails can be steep and slippery underfoot. Be aware of unguarded steep drops, especially when taking photos.
- Don’t be tempted to swim in the water – it can be cold and fast flowing. Even the strongest swimmers have been known to get into trouble.
- Mobile phone coverage is unreliable in Waterfall Country. For walking, rock climbing or caving accidents call Police on 999 or 112 and ask for Mountain Rescue.
Before making your trip, check the Brecon Beacons website.
Written By: NICK HALLISSEY
Photos by : TOM BAILEY
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