It appears to be November. The clocks have gone back, my office is almost permanently in the clouds and I’ve just returned from a fantastic week amongst the Red Deer on Mull. Before I embrace the coming of winter however I wanted to share a few trips from the end of last summer which up until now had never quite made it onto the blog. Coming up we’ve got our first ever single night camping trip to mid-Wales, my favourite castle and then of course that aforementioned trip to Mull (technically in autumn not summer but whose keeping track). Kicking things off though is a sweltering walk through another side of the Brecon Beacons that seems as far removed from the likes of Pen y Fan as it’s possible to get.
Waterfall country. The name alone evokes images of water crashing over towering drops and there can’t be too many areas that offer quite such a concentration of these natural wonders as can be found along the Neath valley. A couple of years ago we spent a grey winter’s day exploring a series of cascades around Ystradfellte and September 6th saw us returning, though this time to walk the banks of the Afon Nedd-Fechan up from Pontneddfechan (great names all). Despite it being September conditions were very warm indeed and it was a welcome relief to enter the dappled shade afforded by thick woodland, a landscape which was to accompany us for much of the day. Once, like many valleys in the area, this seemingly timeless habitat would have appeared very different with mining and manufacturing both leaving their scars. The passage of time has managed to restore much of what was lost but even today you don’t need to look that hard to see remnants of a lost age poking through. Fenced off mine entrances are perhaps the easiest features to spot yet even the path beneath our feet was once a tramway bringing raw materials (principally silica) down to the railways beyond. Its broad, well graded character belies this earlier purpose with several sections still showing the original stone sleepers along which the rails would once have run.
With the going easy there was plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings and take in the sheer number of Dippers which call this stretch of river home. I’ve seldom seen such a concentration of these delightful birds with at least six individuals along the mile or so stretch up to our first waterfall. Most were actively feeding and we got fantastic views of one individual in particular which was swimming for extended periods both above and below the water’s surface. If you’ve ever wanted to photograph Dipper’s this has to be one of the best places there is given that even I managed to get a halfway decent shot.
Keeping the Dippers company was a supporting cast of Grey Wagtails (as is often the case) plus an unexpected trio of Goosanders. The latter were either young birds or adults in eclipse plumage and again were actively hunting in the shallow water. Our elevated position gave a slightly bizarre vantage point from which we got crippling views as they chased prey, often ending up circling the same mid-channel rock time after time. In hindsight I should have shot some video but hindsight, as the saying goes, is a wonderful thing. I blame my short-sightedness on the proximity of Sgwd Gwladus, our first significant waterfall of the day and arguably the most impressive. With a clean drop of some six meters tumbling over a prominent stone lip it makes for an imposing sight, especially when viewed from directly above.
The river beyond adopts a far gentler profile and made for a perfect spot to take lunch and contemplate our surroundings. Dippers and Grey Wagtails were once again present in good numbers, as was a Wasp which refused to leave my sandwiches alone. Humph.
From here on the going became steeper and more uneven as we left the old tramways behind and headed deeper into the valley. All the while we had the accompanying soundtrack of crashing water off to our right, a mere hint at what the flow rate must be like following heavy rain or snow melt. Periodically the narrow channel would open up onto expansive areas of exposed, flat rock, each forming another unique waterfall as we passed Sgwd Ddwli Isaf, Sgwd y Bedol and Sgwd Ddwli Uchaf.
Only when we reached the bridge at Pont Melin-fach did the trees finally open up onto a grassy glade which long ago once held a mill. What I think are the remnants of that structure can still be discerned along with a possible route for its chase but the real attraction were the reflections being thrown up onto the underside of the arch. It also goes without saying that there were another couple of Dippers here but I failed to get anywhere near as close as I had done earlier in the day.
Retracing our steps brought us back to Sgwd Gwladus but from there we decided to walk down the opposite side of the river from that which we’d approached. It was clearly a less walked route with the path in places slipping into the river but it was worth persevering for what came next. First we passed the sizeable entrance to what was once the main Silica mine here, quickly followed by substantial ruins of the buildings which supported this operation. There were some superb details preserved including fireplaces, rusting beams and an almost intact waterwheel pit. This sort of industrial heritage is right up my street as regular readers will already know.
The final part of our route was something of a surprise as we climbed steeply out of the valley and out onto the open hilltops above. I always find the sense of peace that arrives when one leaves the side of a river quite dramatic and this occasion was no different. Where once crashing water had filled our eardrums we were once again able to hear the birds and reflect on what, for us at least, had proven to be a real hidden gem. If you think the Brecon Beacons is just about hill walking then hopefully this will prove that there is much more besides.