There is a part of the river just above the falls that balloons slightly so that its edges are shallow and clear, disturbed only by wavelets in spite of the main channel’s turbulent white water.
Here at the edge, a grey wagtail works its way up the stones of a miniature waterfall, poised and apparently undisturbed by the river’s tumult, its yellow under-plumage contrasted by green moss.
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The Cynfal is short and swift. Racing over rock, it gallops through a glacial gorge, its white noise thunderous, its speed alarming, almost violent. And yet there are moments of calm. A permanent water-mist creates conditions in which liverworts and mosses thrive. The fall’s whiteness, joined by the almost hypnotic sound of crashing water, has the effect of enhancing the tiniest details – a miniature fern sparkles with wet light.
Gardens of ferns
The small slate-quarrying village of Llan Ffestiniog is a good place from which to visit the Cynfal. Picnic benches by the chapel give you views of the Moelwynion Mountains and the disembowelled slate quarries. Here is where, in the 17th century, the well-travelled mercenary, bard and sorcerer Huw Llwyd lived. “Your ripple I recognise, welcome to fertile country,” he wrote in Council of the Fox.
There is height and sky in Llan Ffestiniog. Yet, around it, the land gently slopes and then suddenly plummets to the steep wooded sides of the gorge where hanging gardens of moss and ferns drip on rock walls.
Light on water
Heather and whinberry, star moss and cylindric beard-moss cushion the ground between the slim trunks of the sessile oak forests that populate the banks. The valley walls are so steep that the oaks across the water appear to stand on top of each other like tree-patterned wallpaper. The sky is a narrow strip, bristled by sessile oak eyebrows. Far below, the river is mostly inaccessible, announced only by its noise and smell and sudden glimmers of light.
But there are places, such as the Victorian footbridges at the Ceunant Cynfal National Nature Reserve, where you can get really close to the white water as it snorts between the scoured black walls around the pulpit of rock from which Huw Llwyd was said to exorcise demons. And there are other places where you can sit and watch grey wagtails or a tiny whinberry plant, taken root in a cradle of moss in the swaying crook of a slender branch, reaching over the water.
Main image: High humidity in the Afon Cynfal ravine creates an ideal habitat for mosses, lichens, ferns and more than 2,000 species of liverworts © Alamy
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