Waterfall Country: a grand adventure
What is it about waterfalls? There’s something surreally magical about a torrent of water plunging off a cliff and into a crystal pool. They belong in fairy tales, or Hollywood fantasies. Like the 2012 Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, in which the Batcave was hidden behind – wait for it – Henrhyd Falls, the tallest of dozens of cascades in the western Brecons Beacons, the bit of Wales known as ‘Waterfall Country’.
Henrhyd Falls, Brecon Beacons by Paula J JamesAnd you can see why Hollywood chose Henrhyd Falls. As well as being epically tall, it’s one of the easiest falls to reach: a short, steep walk down steps from the National Trust-run car park, and you soon arrive at the foot of a jaw-dropping 27-metre cascade.
Spectacular as this is, the true heart of Waterfall Country lies a few miles to the east, where three rivers – the Mellte, Hepste and Neddfechan - have carved their way through soft rocks to create steep wooded gorges full of caves and cascades.
Four Falls walks
Today, on a bright February morning, my children and I are setting off to discover some of the most stunning, on what’s known as the Four Falls walk. It begins in the Cwm Porth car park, where the River Mellte vanishes into the biggest cave entrance in Wales. It’s hugely popular with potholers, and we can hear the chatter of several school groups echoing from the caverns down below.
Upper Clungwyn Falls, Brecon BeaconsAs we walk alongside the dried river bed, it’s odd to think that the actual river is thundering through tunnels far beneath our feet. When it eventually emerges, a few hundred metres downstream at the aptly-named Blue Pool, it becomes a lovely woodland stream, where we stop to watch a pair of dippers, a pretty little bird which feeds by walking along the river bed.
Before long, we arrive at Sgwd Clun-Gwyn – the ‘fall of the white meadow’, which is actually two sets of falls, a few hundred metres apart. The upper falls are the highest - a broad Niagara with a scarily big drop – but we like the lower falls even more: a picturesque series of cascades that flow like a magical staircase into a steep gorge. It’s popular with white-water kayakers and, in summer, canyoning groups, although today we’ve got the place entirely to ourselves.
From here we walk along the river to Sgwd y Pannwr, whose Welsh name reveals that it was once used for washing wool. Here I demonstrate my epic parenting skills by producing a flask of hot chocolate, which will prepare us for the 30-minute hike to our final stop, Sgwd yr Eira, the ‘waterfall of snow’.
Walk behind a curtain of water
Sgwd yr Eira, Brecon Beacons by Paula J JamesThis is the most photographed of all our waterfalls, because you can actually walk behind the curtain of thundering water on a rough path used by sheep farmers. Today it’s looking especially pretty, with icicles hanging from its fringes, and pied wagtails frolicking in the spray below. Every country in the world has its ‘hidden gems’, but this genuinely deserves the title. It’s a perfect spot, made all the more special because it’s far from any road.
A word of advice on the walk, by the way: it’s safest to stick to the waymarked trail, which tends to follow higher ground. You can follow the rough riverside paths, but there are moments when the path hugs the cliff on one side, with a scary drop on the other – definitely not the place to be with young children, especially when the rivers are in full spate. The Four Falls is a long walk, too – at least three hours, plus snack-stops, with a fair amount of up-and-down terrain, and no toilets en-route.
But as an unforgettable family experience – well, Waterfall Country beats anything that Hollywood has to offer. Sorry, Batman.