The pet­ri­fied falls

Win­ter turns this deep-cut gorge and its crash­ing falls to a frozen cathe­dral of tin­kling ici­cles and pet­ri­fied pools, says Julie Bro­minicks

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Pistyll Rhaeadr, Powys

The falls are born in the Ber­wyn moun­tains. The Afon Dis­g­y­nfa is, at first, not un­like the other streams formed by rain leak­ing out of the moors. But the Dis­g­y­nfa doesn’t sur­vive its sud­den plum­met over a sheer shelf of vol­canic rock, a land­form tough enough to have es­caped the scour­ing of the glaciers in the last ice age. Trans­formed by the falls, the wa­ters con­tinue their jour­ney as the Afon Rhaeadr.

THE BIG FREEZE

Spray from the cataract nur­tures mosses and ferns. Around them, pro­tected from sheep in a walled en­clo­sure, beeches, birches, oaks and pines thrive. From a dis­tance, the wooded gorge and falls re­sem­ble an al­most Ty­rolean scene, which in win­ter is usu­ally a fe­cund refuge for squir­rels, wood­peck­ers and finches shel­ter­ing from the Ber­wyns’ icy blasts.

But on oc­ca­sion, the falls freeze. Green be­comes white. Like vin­tage lamp­shades, ici­cles fringe the ledges, en­cap­su­lat­ing fern fronds and grasses. The wa­ter freezes in­cre­men­tally, grad­u­ally ex­pand­ing and build­ing, pet­ri­fy­ing the scour pools, sculpt­ing holes and shapes and bridges to ri­val the rock’s own ar­chi­tec­ture, till the mur­mur and bab­ble of wa­ter is si­lenced. But the ice has its own lan­guage, com­mu­ni­cated through creaks and pops and moans and tin­kles. Few peo­ple see them like this – one or two gutsy ice climbers, and walk­ers more than mo­torists. The road from Llan­rhaeadr-ym-Mochnant is rarely closed but of­ten slip­pery.

OUT ON THE HILLS

Above the falls, the Ber­wyns, bare and blasted, hold snow for longer than any­where else in Wales. It’s easy up there to en­vis­age the Ice Age in which the falls were cre­ated and the val­leys gouged. Easier to imag­ine the frozen tun­dra of frigid winds, stunted shrubs, horses, Arc­tic foxes, lem­mings and steppe pika that re­placed the glaciers, than the for­est which re­placed it. The trees were de­stroyed by hu­mans and sup­planted by blan­ket bog and heath, both now ac­tively con­served. Rogue saplings are re­moved and the land in­ten­sively sheep-grazed to nur­ture the heather moor­land and game birds it sup­ports. The moor­land also sus­tains golden plover, ring ouzels and hen har­ri­ers, though their pop­u­la­tions are de­clin­ing.

If you do brave the con­di­tions, you may hear, above the ice crack­ing be­neath your feet and the bru­tal howl of wind in your ears, the chuckle of cow­er­ing red grouse. Or per­haps you’ll see a black grouse, lift­ing up and away from the frozen tus­socks in short whirring flight, like a moun­tain puf­fin.

“What shall I liken it to? I scarcely know, un­less it is to an im­mense skein of silk ag­i­tated and dis­turbed by tem­pes­tu­ous blasts, or to the long tail of a grey courser at fu­ri­ous speed,” wrote the 19th-cen­tury au­thor Ge­orge Bor­row in Wild Wales

Julie Bro­minicks is a travel and land­scape writer based in Snow­do­nia.

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