Walking in a watery wonderland
I've swooned at the beauty and power of Niagara, snapped away with wild abandon at Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite and canoodled under the same Jamaican waterfall where Tom Cruise romanced Elisabeth Shue in the movie Cocktail. But back on home turf, waterfalls barely registered on my radar. Until a friend took me on a cross-country walk over the Brecon Beacons to Sgwd yr Eira.
This south Wales water feature may not have a 52-metre drop such as Niagara and hasn't, so far, attracted much attention from Mr Cruise and his lady friends, but here you can get up close and personal. At around 15 metres, it's not the highest waterfall in the Brecon Beacons National Park (at 27m that distinction belongs to Henrhyd waterfall). But despite its "lowly" status in the waterfall hall of fame, Sgwd yr Eira is picture-postcard perfect.
Sgwd yr Eira, the waterfall of snow, is on the Hepste river, and it's a curtain waterfall so when you have finished admiring the view from the front, you can step inside and admire it from behind. Sheep used to be driven along the walkway behind the curtain and although it is wet with spray, as long as you're wearing sensible shoes and don't make a dash for it, it's quite easy to cross.
As you step behind the veil of white water to view the world from a new perspective, your ears are pounded by the drumming of the water as it rushes off the cliff. If you stretch out your arms, the cascade is inches from your fingertips. Even if you manage to cross the ledge with your back flat to the wall, you won't escape a gentle splashing - a bit like being in the shower with your clothes on.
Out of the gloom, there's much more to admire. Like most waterfalls in the area, Sgwd yr Eira is set in a deep wooded gorge. A few metres downstream from the falls, you can enjoy a wider view of the gorge, and if you dare, plot your way back across the river via stones and boulders.
But it's not just the view of the waterfall that makes the trek worthwhile - there's some great scenery along the way. Sgwd yr Eira is in Coed y Rhaeadr (wood of waterfalls), otherwise known as the waterfalls area, and the combination of spray from the falls and shade from the thick canopy has created an area rich in plant life. Coed y Rhaeadr has more than 230 species of ferns, mosses and liverworts, and has been designated a site of special scientific interest.
The nearest village to Sgwd yr Eira is Ystradfellte, and there are two car parks, Cavers' and Gwaun Hepste, both of which are good starting points to get to the waterfalls. It is possible to take a circular walk to see a series of four falls - Sgwd yr Eira, Sgwd y Pannwr, Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn and Sgwd Clun-gwyn. It's 5.5 miles long and you should allow three to four hours. However, a brisk pace will get you to Sgwd yr Eira and back within two hours. Most of the walk isn't too testing, but the descent to the waterfall can be hazardous without the right footwear as it is muddy and slippery when it has rained (which is most of the time). And if you didn't break a sweat on the way to the falls, you certainly will on your way back up the steep embankments.
I've been visiting the Brecons, on and off, for more than a decade, and, like many, remained unaware of the charms hidden away on its southern fringes. I couldn't find a mention of the waterfalls in the latest visitors' guide, they are not signposted and it's not the sort of place you would happen to drive past. On my first visit, during the foot and mouth-free days of last summer, we encountered a few people as we meandered with a four and a six-year old in tow. But when we reached the waterfall, dozens of other people suddenly appeared. Still, it was hardly overwhelmed by visitors.
On a second visit last month, a week before a cull of 4,000 Brecons sheep was announced, we saw six people and one bawling baby. At the waterfall, we had the walkway to ourselves. It seems that even when the countryside is open for business, Sgwd yr Eira remains relatively hidden from the clamour of the crowds.
It is possible to reach the falls by taking paths across farmland, but this route will be off-limits for the foreseeable future. An alternative route through Forestry Commission land has also been closed for the time being.
The official Brecon Beacons site at www.breconbeacons.org has updated information on closed footpaths. The information centre at Brecon on 01874 623156 can also provide information on foot and mouth restrictions. Maps of the walking routes through Coed y Rhaeadr are available from the ranger at Gwaun Hepste car park. Directions to the falls are also available at www.neathporttalbot.gov.ukwaterfallshepste.htmlThe Cavers' and Gwaun Hepste car parks can be accessed from Ystradfellte, off a minor road off the A4059 south west of Brecon. A longer trek to the waterfalls is possible further south from the Craig y Ddinas car park near the village of Pontneddfechan off the B4242.The Brecon Beacons Bus Sunday network has a route that runs within hiking distance of the falls. Timetable info: 01873 853254; www.breconbeacons.org