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The Waterfall

By ‘Jock’ Orr.

It was Monday and the sight of Alan Thomas crouched over his camera, in the act of photographing a freak horizontal icicle hanging under Ladywell aqueduct by Plantation Swallet reminded me of the waterfall I discovered on a hot summer day many years ago. It was up in the hills away on the far side of a valley at a place called Roman Bridge.

I daresay other people knew about the waterfall before I did.  It’s there if anybody takes the trouble to look for it.  There wasn’t anyone around on the day I, or rather we, found it.  And since that day happened to be arranged so that everything was just right, and as it should be, and because the surprise of finding this perfect waterfall put the finishing touch to a perfect day; she named it Enchanted Waterfall.

After this, we kept in touch fairly regularly for the next few weeks and then I had to go away for some time; there were no replies to the letters I wrote and I got to wondering about this and losing sleep over it I shrugged it off as one of those things. I never heard from her again.

Alan noticed my apparent lack of interest in the icicle and he remarked that it was a pretty good icicle and deserved a photograph.  I replied with some absent-minded comment, and still thinking about Roman Valley, which I hadn’t thought about for many years because I had forgotten all about the place long ago, delivered one of those seemingly disconnected remarks that tend to annoy people by saying that the appearance of the aqueduct would be enhanced if it was demolished and reconstructed in the form of a stone arch instead of just being a leaking pipe.

 “Oh! I don’t know,” say Alan, “The pipe is quite adequate for the purpose.” – and I suppose he was right.

We set off then along the path to the Mineries and inspected the ice which was giving off a sound not unlike a deep and mellow xylophone note, which we thought was quite unusual, and listened to it attentively.  We then proceeded on our way over towards Priddy Pool, where buster, the dog, who had been trailing us condescended to join the walk.

In the forest we found the peculiar shapes of ice formations on the underside of the ice lying in the track ruts quite interesting, and then decided it was time to retire to the Hunters. It was about then that I thought that since Roman Bridge was somewhere in North Wales and I happened to be living there, then it would be a good idea to find it on the map and go and see the waterfall again some day.

We finished our beer and then set off on tour of the ruins of what Alan described as the site of the Old Iron Masters of Mells, which felt held a fine dramatic echo, steel, and ringing hammers about it.

The walk finished in fine style with a pounding march along a mile of railway track, and back again, to see some non-existent antique railway engines which had evidently been stolen from the derelict engine shed and carted away by someone with a mania for collecting old steam locomotives.

During this perambulation my boots appeared to have spouted extensions which tripped and kicked against the concrete railway sleepers and caused my gammy ankle to buckle and jar agonisingly at every step.  I must admit I was a bit sick of watching Alan’s springy step ten yards ahead of me and by the time we reached the car I felt as if I was dragging along a bag of looses bones tied together with string inside my left boot and was glad of the chance to sit down.

In the evening Alan retired to his caravan to prepare for an appointment in Wells and I departed from Mendip and drove home through snow covered countryside to Anglesey and went to bed, dead beat!

On Tuesday I lit a fire and cooked a hefty mid-afternoon breakfast and out of curiosity had a look at the map whilst eating and spotted Roman Bridge almost straight away.  It was near enough to get there within three hours and having nothing else to do for the rest of the day I gathered outdoor clothes and rations and set off from the cottage in search of Roman Bridge.

Usually I do my driving at night to avoid the day time traffic, but there wasn’t much on the road this day.  The freezing east wind came rampaging down out of the snow-covered mountains and bellowed through the Francon Pass.  And Bethesda Town had put up the shutters.  On the way up the pass the wind gusted under the car and lifted it on its springs and then swooped up and belaboured the sides until it felt like a speed-boat bumping across choppy waves.  At the side of the road the telegraph wire snaked and whipped around on the ground where it had torn free from the leaning poles.  Road grit and small rocks and lumps of frozen snow flew along above the road surface as if the law of gravity had gone mad. Overhead, the sky was grey-black, and on the other side of the pass, as if guarding the entrance to some titanic lair up in the mountains.  Perfedd and Foelgoch and Y’Garn crouched and steamed in frost haze like might stone beasts covered with great black-rock scare stark against the snow on their backs. Their supper was cooking, a fine brew of boiling black cloud and writhing veils of sleet spouted around inside the Devil’s Kitchen.  Except for the reassuring presence of two R.A.F. Mountain Rescue Land Rovers standing on the car park at the Mountain Rescue Post there wasn’t a sign of humanity to be seen anywhere.

The whole place brooded and skulked under the lead coloured sky.  Llyn Ogwen was a solid sheet of ice and nearby Tryfan glared across the wilderness from under his black crags.  I looked over my shoulder, half expecting a troop of abominable snowmen to come marching down out of the murk, and got the car away off down the road as fast as I could.

Along the road, Betws-y-Coed was still digging itself out of the snowdrifts and I noticed ice flows on the River Conway as I drove over Waterloo Bridge. When I turned off the main road to Roman Bridge, where the headwaters of the Lledr have their source, I met the full force of the penetrating east wind blowing flat out across the wide snowbound expanse of open ground.  It looked as bleak and as bitter as deserted wastes of the Artic. I shivered in the warmth of the car, and if the track had not been clear of snow I would have turned round and got myself out of the place.

Evening was drawing near and light began to fade and it was a long way back to Anglesy.  Now I had arrived I decided to stay where I was for the night and drove the car in behind a stone wall which afforded a convenient wind break.  I left the engine and heater running while I settled down inside my sleeping bag for the night remembering to switch off the engine before going go sleep.  Outside, in the frozen night, the wind moaned and soughed through the branches of some nearby pine trees with an eerie persistence while I thought of food, bright fireplaces and comfortable armchairs and a book.

I awakened in the dark and struggled out of my sleeping bag, cursing the freezing cold, and switched on the interior light.  The car windows were covered with snow and the air inside was stuffy.  According to my wristwatch it was ten o’clock, but I wasn’t sure whether it was night or morning; whichever it was I needed some fresh air.  I dressed swiftly and covered up in nylon waterproofs.  There was probably a blizzard blowing and I would need protection when I got out in it.  The car doors would not open and I noticed that the inside of the car was festooned with small icicles from the condensation.  Eventually I succeeded in winding down one of the windows and started digging upwards thorough the snow by scooping it into the car!

It was Wednesday morning alright and I was relieved to see it was daylight and that it had stopped snowing.  My hands were frozen stiff and the gloves were wringing wet with the tunnelling but there was nothing else for it but to get down to the luggage boot for the spade and dig the car out of the drift which had accumulated in the shelter of the wall.  The effort soon warmed me up, and ravenously hungry with the keen air and cold I lit the primus stove and prepared a steaming bowl of porridge and raisins. Between mouthfuls I contorted my face to produce a most satisfying reflection of glowering disgust in the driving mirror, which despite the toiling and the traumas of the morning incarceration, put me in a good mood.

After breakfast I emerged from the fuggy warmth of the sopping-wet and steamed-up interior of the car glad to get out of it and after leaving a note stuck on the inside of the windscreen to say “gone for a walk, back soon” set off towards the hillside in the direction of where I remembered the waterfall to be, climbing the first two hundred feet or so at a steady pace.

It was all very different from the last time I had been there; the warm peaty-herby scents and the blue sky and the blazing summer day.  I stopped for a moment to ease the gasping of cold air to normal breathing and slow pounding heart to a steady beat, and then continued on upwards across the snow-covered side of the hill until the waterfall came into view.

And there it was.  I gazed in astonishment at the transformation. The waterfall had changed itself into a surprise of cascading ice crystal; a flow of gleaming glass; an intricate candelabra of glittering icicles and the water scintillated, chattered, chuckled, tinkled, hissed, splashed and sprayed like a shower of sparkling diamonds over and through the ice and on into the frozen pool.

I made my way cautiously down the side of the gorge, which wasn’t all that deep but nevertheless a trap with all the ice underfoot, and settled myself in a niche in the rocks at the edge of the stream and gazed at the spectacle, at the same time trying to make myself as unobtrusive as I could for fear of breaking the spell.

No doubt there were bigger frozen waterfalls than this.  There was, maybe, a waterfall turned to ice and stuck to the side of a mountain somewhere, too magnificent and lofty and wide to inspire anything except awe at the grandeur of it all; but this one was indeed a truly enchanted waterfall set in a secret place amongst the wilderness of black rock and frozen snow.

Although it was sheltered and out of the wind down in the gorge, the cold was beginning to gnaw at me and I shifted around carefully with a wary eye on the smooth ice at the edge of the frozen pool.  The last thing I wanted was a ducking in the chilled water.  I changed position, all the while muttering and marvelling to myself, and then, without warning, a huge white and brown bird floated out from a recess hidden behind a cluster of icicles high in the back of the gorge. Startled for a second by its sudden appearance, I nearly lost my footing and slipped into the freezing pool, before I recognised that the bird was a large owl.  It hovered for a moment and started at me intently out of its round eyes and then swooped over my head and glided away down the stream on sharp, thin wings, like a silent phantom.

I stood stock still for some minutes hoping that the owl would return but the cold began to creep in on me again and I to leave take my leave of the waterfall, reluctantly, pausing at the top of the gorge to look back at the scene.

Up on the high ground a real eye-stinger of a wind let fly across the frozen snow, sweeping scuds of drift snow through the air.  Dark clouds wracked across the whole sky and the hills glowered and hulked in their solitude.  Everything in sight was black and white with touches of grey.  Black rock and black laceries of walls and boulders across the white snow.  Black trees and black forests in the distance.

I took shelter from the wind in the lee of a rock and ate my rations of dry oatmeal and raisins and lit a roll-your-own cigarette and puffed away at it with great enjoyment, calculating how long it would be safe to say up here before the light faded.

Away to the west behind nearby hills, the clouds thinned to a murky yellow glow and revealed the triangular peak of Snowdon illuminated a lurid orange from the evening sun.  To the north, rearing in the foreground, the black ramparts on the flank of Moel Siabod; and further to the right, Moel Siabod himself towered, glowered and grim, in shredded cape of flying black cloud.

I stood up out of the shelter and took a hard long look at Moel Siabod.  A few moments ago the summit had been visible, and now Siabod had his head buried in the cloud and was sniffing the blizzard.  I felt an extraordinary compulsion to start climbing upward towards his slopes and into the streaming cloud, and it was an effort to look away from this remote and fearsome dominance.  Away to the east, the hills had vanished from sight under the advancing snow.  The first flurries of white granules swept in on the wind, hiding the valley below.  It was time to get off the hills and sown to the shelter of the car.  I made the descent with care, anxious to avoid any ankle trouble on the way down, but content with my walk in the hills and feeling fit and fresh from the cold clean air.

Back at the car I was in the middle of packing up when the farmer from Coed Mawr came, driving down the track on a tractor.  He stopped and I walked over to meet him.  “Did you enjoy your walk?” he bellowed through the wind.  “Yes thank you,” I shouted back. “Very much indeed! I’ve been up to the waterfall.” He looked at me with some concern. “Oh yes? nasty place that, very dangerous.  I remember there was a bad accident there a few years ago.”

“Can’t say it struck me as being dangerous,” I said.  “In fact I’ve always thought of it as a pleasant spot.  Accident did you say?”

“Aye!” he shouted above the wind.  “Young lass, it was.  She fell off the top of it and got drowned in the pool.”  He blew hot breath into his cupped hands.  “A mighty cold day to be out walking, I reckon.  Looks like more snow.”  I stared up at him. Stuck for a reply, and nodded my head.  He shrugged his shoulders and revved the tractor engine. “Well, I’m off.  Cheerio.”  I watched him lurch off up the track and then got into the car and drove away from Roman Bridge Valley, slowly, because I was thinking that it was a sad, bitter place.

That night, the weather report on the radio announced blizzards pouring into Kent, Dorset, Somerset and North Wales.  Down at the ‘Stag’ the talk was all about Anglesy being cut off from the mainland.  I gazed into my beer and said nothing, there are some people you can talk to and others you can’t

I drank my beer in a silent toast to the enchanted waterfall, and I thought about what the farmer had said up at Coed Mawr, and remembered about the letters that never got an answer, and I also thought too about the white and brown speckled owl and its staring eyes and sharp thin wings and wondered if it was sitting snug and warm in its roost amongst the icicles; then I imagined it slipping through the warm summer night air on its silent wings.

Maybe I’ll go back and look for the owl again someday.  But, thinking it over, maybe it would be better not to.