Grade B. 10 miles.
Date: Saturday 11 December 2015. Weather: High winds, heavy rain.
Nestled into the southern slopes of the Fforest Fawr massif, west of Merthyr Tydfil, Waterfall Country is one of the most beautiful and popular parts of the Brecon Beacons National Park and the Fforest Fawr Geopark, with steep, tree-lined gorges and an abundance of tumbling water. Known in Welsh as Coed-y-Rhaeadr (Wood of the Water), Waterfall Country lies within the triangle formed by the villages of Hirwaun, Ystradfellte, and Pontneddfechan. Old red sandstone and a long belt of outcrop limestone have created a highly distinctive environment of wooded gorges, caves, swallow holes and waterfalls. The Rivers Mellte, Hepste, Pyrddin and Nedd-Fechan, tributaries of the Afon Nedd (River Neath), their headwaters in the Fans, wind their way south through Waterfall Country via steep-sided, tree-lined gorges. The most famous waterfall is Sgwd-y-Eira, the Snow Waterfall, on the River Hepste, where a natural path leads right behind the curtain of water.
Cwm Senni was our programmed destination for today’s ramble. High winds and heavy rain caused us to abandon that route in favour of one offering relatively sheltered terrain. Our ramble thus began in Pontneddfechan, from a car park near to the Waterfalls Centre.
The ramble proceeded from the car park and through a gateway to the rear of the Angel public house. Shortly after passing through another gateway the route encounters a high rock face consisting of dark, sedimentary sandstone.
Traditionally known as Fairwell Rock, its name is understood to have orginated with coal miners, who identified it as marking the edge of the Coal Measures. Once encountered, it was “Fairwell” to coal—and profit—from that point onwards!
Just after a mile,① the Afon Pyrddin joins the Afon Nedd as a tributary, forming the Pwll Du ar Byrddin (Black Pool of Byrddin). A wooden bridge crosses the tributary. Following the gorge in a north-westerly direction brought us to the Sgwd Gwladus. This dramatic waterfall “falls over a perpendicular face of rock in a broad and nearly unbroken sheet.”
Returning to the course of the Afon Nedd, the route continues to ascend, past white water rapids and a series of waterfalls.② At one fall, formed by a narrow entrance cut into a table of millstone, kayakers gamely tested themselves against the demanding conditions.
At Pont Melin-fach,③ the route parted from the Afon Nedd and travelled up Heol Calch. This tarmac track was chosen in preference to the parallel footpaths because of their muddy condition, identified by the walk leader.
At the top of the hill, we turned left and followed a main road for about half-a-mile.④ At this point we turned down a north-easterly track, signposted to a bunkhouse and, shortly afterwards, to Sgŵd Clun-gwyn (Fall of the White Meadow). We were soon rewarded by seeing these spectacular falls, in full flow.
Having bridged the Afon Mellte, we encountered a signpost warning that the lower Waterfall Links Path was in dangerous condition. Accordingly, we opted to take the higher Four Falls Trail.⑥ As a result, we could only glimpse the powerful falls of Sgŵd Isaf Clun-gwyn, from high above, looking down through the trees. Chatting to other walkers, after the two trails converged again, suggested that, while a conservative approach was warranted in this instance, the path remains safely navigable to experienced walkers.
Shortly afterwards, we sheltered beneath some trees, in order to have lunch. Fed and watered (sic), we descended carefully from the higher path, in order to cross behind and beneath the spectacular curtain of water making up Sgŵd yr Eira, fed by the Afon Heptste.
Though our spirits were never entirely dampened by conditions, most of us were by this time soaked to some degree or another.⑦ Persistent rainfall had been relentless, throughout the day. Spray from Sgŵd yr Eira was the final straw for my waterproof trousers, which until then had done a fairly good job of keeping me dry.
Soon after socks and boots became waterlogged. On the positive side, waterproof jacket, mid- and base-layers did a fine job of keeping my core temperature up. Even so, the remaining two to three miles felt more like a survival course. A fine mist pervaded everywhere, light began to fail and conditions underfoot became constantly boggy, muddy or slippery for most of the route’s remainder.
Having started out adjacent to the Farewell Rock, the route fittingly ended adjacent to the equally foreboding, 45m high limestone face of Craig-y-Ddinas, which is lined with tilting strata.
Five hours and twenty minutes after setting out, we arrived back at Pontreddfechan, where we swiftly removed waterlogged boots and clothing and retired for warmth and refreshments in the Angel Inn, where a vote of thanks was given to the walk leader.