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Jonathan Manning packs his waterproofs and tackles the Four Falls Trail in the Brecon Beacons
Shampoo ads and I’m a Celebrity have glamourised waterfalls as natural spas, pristine waters tumbling enticingly over the heads of long-haired models. The scene invariably looks warm, lush and natural. A waterfall in the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) National Park at the end of winter ticks two of these boxes, but as for stripping off and taking the plunge – no thank you!
Happily, Sgwd yr Eira in the south of the national park offers an intoxicating alternative, with the chance to walk behind its giant veil of water, be moved by its force but feel only the mist of its spray. An experience like this would justify a journey of hundreds of miles, so it’s good to report that there are two Club campsites – Brecon Beacons and Aberbran – within 20 miles of here.
Sgwd yr Eira is the fourth and most impressive destination on the Four Falls Trail, a meticulously waymarked 5½-mile circular walk that follows the Rivers Mellte and Hepste, taking in Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn and Sgwd y Pannwr.
It doesn’t take a code-breaker to work out that ‘sgwd’ means ‘waterfall’ in Welsh, but the generally modest flow of water is more surprising – I am visiting after an unusual extended dry spell. The landscape is impressive nonetheless; giant tree trunks wedged at awkward angles across the gorge indicate the power of the river when it’s in Popeye-after-spinach mode, and there’s still enough white water to demand a ‘stop and stare’ at numerous points along the route.
The first glimpse of the Mellte is a little disappointing – a shallow river flowing gently towards a wooded valley. As its course descends, the path stays high along a wide, gravelled trail, bare trees affording a glimpse through their gnarled branches to the valley below. Bright moss on a dry limestone wall adds a welcome green to the winter beige that cloaks the woodland and forest floor.
About a mile into the walk, a sign at marker post number 11 indicates the first diversion, down a set of relatively steep steps, to Sgwd Clun-Gwyn – the Fall of the White Meadow. The river is barely at one-third capacity, exposing the giant stone steps over which it plunges with frothing intensity after storms farther up the valley. Hanging upside down from the top step is a fully grown tree, its bark stripped by the current, waiting for the next spate to continue its journey downstream.
Back on the main path, the waymarks reach number 25 before a sign points down a long, steep and potentially muddy path. Raised boardwalks offer a drier route and a way for walkers in white trainers – of which there are several – to keep their shoes clean. The trail leads to Sgwd y Pannwr – the Fall of the Cloth Washer – and it would certainly be an impressive rinse cycle: a broad surge of water bouncing off smooth stone steps before crashing into the pool below.
Staying with the river, I amble upstream, crossing more boardwalks and a rock garden to reach Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn – the Lower Fall of the White Meadow. Its school report this term might read ‘Could try harder’, the lack of water limiting its impact and drama despite its setting deep within a gorge. The upside, however, is marvellous visibility into the clear pools at the foot of the falls, as well as relatively dry and easily passable paths, although it doesn’t take much imagination to see how boggy they could become after rain.
A long slog heads back uphill to the main trail, which brings with it the prospect of the headline act. Sgwd-yr-Eira – the Falls of Snow – fully deserves its star billing on the Four Falls Trail. Once more, a steeply stepped staircase heads down into the gorge, where an uneven riverbed of rocks leads to a magnificent curtain of water. Access could be tricky when the river is in full flow, but today there are squeals of exhilaration from walkers standing on the narrow ledge behind the falls.
I tightly secure the hood of my waterproof jacket around my head before carefully picking my way past fern-covered rocks to reach the back of the waterfall.
The noise is deafening and the experience magical – a secret vantage point from which to look out on the world. The unrelenting flow of water is mesmerising – hypnotic even – and I stand transfixed until the bark of a Border Collie snaps me out of my daydream. The sense of wonder on everyone’s face, and the endless photos, videos and selfies confirm the thrill of walking behind a waterfall.
Please note that campervans can only park in the Gwaun Hepste car park, and not in the Cwm Porth car park. Both cost £5 per day. Last summer a free park and ride service from Glynneath and Pontneddfechan was available on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Monday.
Use a Club site to visit these wonderful waterfalls;
Pistyll Rhaeadr, Powys
Britain’s tallest single-drop waterfall plunges 80m (240ft) in the Berwyn Mountains, close to the Wales/England border. Access is free of charge (with a fee for parking), and there’s a tearoom too.
Stay: Lady Margaret’s Park Club Campsite (pic below)
High Force, County Durham
Follow the Pennine Way upstream from Middleton-in-Teesdale, past Low Force to the thunderous falls of High Force on the River Tees.
Aysgarth Falls, North Yorkshire
Visit one of the highlights of the Yorkshire Dales National Park as the River Ure crashes over three flights in less than a mile, with riverside walks up and downstream.
Stay: Lower Wensleydale Club Campsite (pic below)