In which The Author covers more ground
My previous advice about exploring the waterfall country goes double here: Please don’t attempt this walk (especially the second part) without suitable footwear and a properly detailed map of the area (1:25,000 or similar).
On Thurday it looked as though it would stay fine all day. I took a chance mid-morning and jumped on the bus towards Glynneath. By about 1130 I was in the village of Pontneddfechan again.
The Angel Inn was open, so I had a glass of Coke and studied the walking guide displayed just inside the door. I had the OS map with me, of course, but the guide is more visual. I decided to head for Sgwd Gwladus first, and see how the time went before making any further plans.
The path to the waterfall originates just behind the pub, just above one of the two bridges connecting the two halves of the village.
Just inside the gate there’s a large outcrop known as the Farewell Rock. The river Nedd Fechan is some distance below the path, and over the millennia it’s carved quite a substantial cleft into the surrounding rock. The area around Pontneddfechan and Ystradfellte is full of geological curiosities, including the famous cave at Porth yr Ogof (see Further Up the River
), and it’s now part of the Fforest Fawr Geopark.
Beside the river I spotted part of a fallen tree, and went down the bank to have a closer look. I was surprised to see that it had somehow surrounded some fairly large stones while it was growing, and brought them down when it gave way.
A few minutes later I arrived at a tranquil reach of the water. A large smooth rock slopes gently down from the path, and it’s a real sun trap in the early afternoon. I sat there for a while, listening to the gentle rushing of the water over the rocks further downstream. I threw a small stick into the stream, reflecting that Stella would have been soaked to the skin already if she’d come with me.
Then I saw something slowly making its way across the river. At first I thought it was a small fish, but as it got closer I realised that it was swimming across the surface of the water. Intrigued, I watched until it came closer. It turned out to be a yellow-brown newt, about four inches from head to tail. It stopped a couple of inches short of the water’s edge, then hauled itself onto the nearby rock and started sunbathing. It wasn’t at all camera shy, either, as it took me several attempts to get a decent photo from above.
I made my way back to the path and carried on upstream. The ground was a bit muddy in places, but the path is well-made and fairly easy to negotiate. I still wouldn’t advocate wearing flip-flops, but a decent pair of trainers would probably be suitable for this part of the walk. You don’t exactly hug the riverbank, but you rise above it a lot of the time, giving you some great views of the surrounding gorge.
There’s a bridge not far south of the waterfall. You can cross the river here and make your way up along the east bank, or stay on the west side (as I did) and approach the waterfall that way. There’s a small waterfall nearby, but don’t get too disheartened – that’s just a taste of what lies ahead.
You hear Sgwd Gwladus a minute of so before you see it. Actually, after this prolonged spell of (mostly) dry weather, it wasn’t too impressive. I’ve seen it in all seasons, and in the winter it’s spectacular, crashing over the whole wide lip of the overhang. It’s still a thrilling sight, though, and the photos don’t give you a sense of scale. The chap with the camera was standing about twelve feet away from the base of the fall, if that’s any help.
There’s a little observation platform at the end of the path, which is a good vantage point for photographing the fall. It gives you an idea of how deep the gorge is, too.
From here I made my way to the bridge and crossed onto the opposite bank. There are paths leading to Sgwd Gwladus, Pont Melinfach, and back into Pontneddfechan. I decided to keep Pont Melinfach for another excursion (maybe including a detour along the Pyrddin to Sgwd Einion Gam, too) and took the path towards Pontneddfechan.
Back when I started seriously thinking about the Vanishing Valleys Project, I wondered whether I’d have to include the southern edges of the Brecon Beacons National Park. I was, after all, trying to record the industrial heritage of the South Wales Valleys, and not venture too far into the agricultural heartland (see Where Do We Draw The Line?
). Even here, though, at the upper end of the Vale of Neath, there are industrial relics to be discovered. I think this might be part of the old silica mine. (I’m sure someone will tell me if I’m wrong.)
There are a couple of small caves on this side, too, but I doubt if they go very far underground. I didn’t have a torch with me, so I stayed on the path until it curved sharply around and went steeply uphill. I climbed high above the river and up into thick woodland, with knee-high ferns lining the path. I’d taken this path on a previous walk, some years ago, but I’d come at it from the other end.
I had a vague idea where it came out, but I’d forgotten how long it takes to walk across this high ground. I crossed a few stiles (one of which was in quite poor condition) before reaching the summit and dropping gradually towards some big houses. I emerged onto a minor road, and realised that I was more or less next to Pontneddfechan School. Since the village had now earned its place in the Vanishing Valleys Hall of Fame, I took a couple of photos before heading back down the hill.
There was another relic of the past some distance away: a bus stop. I wonder when the last bus came to this part of Wales. I’m thinking October 1986, probably, just before deregulation. Again, if you know different, please let me know…
A public footpath beside the bus stop runs quite steeply down into Pontneddfechan, and emerges near the other side of the stone bridge. I walked back to the Angel Inn, which was now quite busy with people sitting at the tables outside, or having lunch inside. I had another glass of Coke and studied my map for a few minutes, in between talking to a group of older people from Abercrave. They’d also been to Sgwd Gwladus, and were wondering where to go next. (Unlike the couple I met in Penderyn last year, at least they were dressed for gorge walking.)
I already had the next part of the journey in mind, so I drank up and walked through the village, following the line of the Mellte roughly east. When the houses end, the road leads across a narrow bridge to a small car park, and the mighty outcrop of Craig y Ddinas.
There’s a rough steep track beside the outcrop which goes high above the river. At the top, the narrow path opens into a small clearing in thick woodland, with incredible views for miles around.
Incidentally, there aren’t many photos from this stage, because (surprisingly) my camera batteries were running on fumes. I wanted to make sure I had enough juice for my next stopover. I did find an intriguing tree which was worth a picture, though. Actually, I’m not sure whether it’s a tree or an Ent, straight out of The Lord of the Rings. Have a look and see what you think.
There are signposts and waymarkers all along the route here, so it would be difficult to lose your way. The path is quite well-worn, too; it leads across small patches of marshy ground, skirts conifer plantations, and dips uphill and downhill until you arrive at the high point. There’s a seat here, and I had a breather and took another couple of photos. (I still need to get a new tripod, so I can make the most of the panoramic feature on my camera.)
The path took me through more high woodland, and far below I could hear the river Hepste as it rushes towards the Mellte. (There was a horse running at Royal Ascot yesterday named Watersmeet. If I’d seen the list earlier, I might have been tempted to back it.) The sound of water grew louder, and before long I came to a fork in the path. The right-hand fork leads to Penderyn; the left-hand fork leads to Sgwd yr Eira.
Sgwd yr Eira was where a middle-aged couple were aiming for when I met them in Penderyn last year. I took one look at what their footwear (he was in trainers, she was in sandals), and the not-very-detailed road atlas he was carrying, and managed to talk them out of breaking their necks on the approach to the waterfall. Instead, I directed them to Pontneddfechan, where they could at least attempt Sgwd Gwladus without involving the Mountain Rescue team and/or the air ambulance. Have a look at the ‘path’ leading down the hillside, and you’ll see why I was concerned for their welfare.
Mind you, they were missing out on a real treat. It’s one of the wonders of the area, and a tremendous draw for outdoors enthusiasts of all ages.
Sgwd yr Eira means ‘fall of snow’, and it’s worth visiting at any time of year. Even after the dry spell we’ve been enjoying, it’s still an amazing sight. I was there at the right time of the day, too; the sun was shining directly onto the plunge pool, and the fine spray from the fall had created a mini-rainbow above the water.
A gang of about a dozen older teenagers, presumably relaxing after their exams, had set up their gear on the other bank. A few of the boys were wading in the water, and as they got closer, I called out to them.
‘Is it as cold as it looks?’
One of them grinned and said, ‘It’s even colder than that!’
I didn’t venture in myself, but I took a few more photos before crossing to the other bank. Apart from wading across, there’s only way of getting there.
Surprisingly, the shelf of rock behind the curtain of water isn’t as slippery as you might think. You still need to keep your wits about you, as there probably isn’t room for two people to pass each other. Last time I was here was with Stella, and the spray killed my old camera. I was understandably wary about trying to photograph it this time, but I took a risk and it paid off.
On the opposite bank I found a large rock just downstream from the youngsters, and sat down to listen to the thundering water a few yards away. I estimated that I was about thirty feet from the fall, but every so often the breeze blew some of the fine mist in my direction. A little way down from the plunge pool, the Hepste turns back into a gentle upland river and flows on down towards the Mellte.
After enjoying the scene for a while, I decided to head for civilisation again. I made my way back behind the fall and climbed the ‘path’ to the top of the slope. From there I picked up the track to Penderyn.
The track has been improved greatly since our first expedition there, many years ago. It’s properly waymarked and provided with stiles and gates for easier access. It leads you over high ground and through a couple of marshy patches before descending gradually into the village. Again, the views from here are worth making the effort for. You’ve got the curving mound of Moel Penderyn to the south, and rolling farmland to the north and east, running away into the foothills of the Brecon Beacons.
I walked past some intriguing patches of exposed stone, which might be the remnants of early quarrying activity. Hanson operates a large limestone quarry on the east side of the village, and also account for a tremendous amount of heavy lorries thundering along the road between Brecon and Hirwaun.
I went through a gate and along a well-made gravel path crossing through some farmland. There were geese and chickens roaming around in the fields on either side of the path, and some sheep were wandering around on the scrubby moorland. I emerged by some quaint cottages and walked as far as the main road. Less than a minute later, I saw a building which is always a welcome sight at the end of a day’s walking.
It would have been rude to pass without calling in, so I did. As it turned out, I’d got to Penderyn just in time to miss the 1605 bus back to Aberdare; the next one was an hour later. It was a good excuse to have a pint and a chat with Philip, the landlord. In the event I had two pints, and chatted to Philip and his son until just before six o’clock. I didn’t have to make my excuses and leave, though – the 1805 departure is the last one. Welcome to the world of semi-rural public transport in Wales.
I might attempt to find the River Pyrddin next time, or even strike out for Pont Melinfach. (I’ve no idea what I’ll find there, but it’s signposted from a few places and marked on the map, so it must be something interesting.) With three decent pubs on the radar (two of which serve food), I might even make a whole day of it and treat myself to lunch somewhere. Watch this space…