Day out: Afon Cynfal, Gwynedd

Enjoy the hypnotising white noise, skipping wagtails and glittering ferns of the Cynfal river basin in Snowdonia National Park.

Afon Cynfal, Alamy
Published: June 18th, 2018 at 3:09 pm
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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.

Grey Wagtail, female. Getty
Grey Wagtails enjoy hunting near fast-flowing water, where aquatic insect life is plentiful © Getty

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.

Black Clough Falls running off of Bleaklow in the Peak District National Park. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Moist conditions allow moss and liverworts to thrive © Getty

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.

Sessile oak, Quercus petraea. (Photo by FlowerPhotos/UIG via Getty Images)
The sessile oak can live to be up to 1,000 years old © Getty

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.

Panorama sunrise landscape over Cregennen Lakes with Cadair Idris in background. (Photo by: Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Heather covered landscapes in the surrounding areas of Snowdonia © Getty

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.

Fern ©Getty
'A miniature fern sparkles with wet light' © Getty


Julie Brominicks is a landscape and travel writer who lives off-grid in a caravan in a mossy Welsh valley.


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