Wales Trip Part 1 - Waterfall Country
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Well what can I say ? It's been one of the most amazing weeks i've ever had. So much has happened I will have to split this blog into several parts to get it all in !
So to start with I thought i'd do a guide to some of the stunning Waterfalls in Wales and how to navigate them and shoot them.
So to start off with Wales has so many waterfalls where should you start ? Well how about if I told you that you could go to one place and see four epic waterfalls in a short two or three mile stretch ? Sounds pretty good eh ? So what if I then told you,you could see another four amazing waterfalls a couple of miles from where you were parked too ? Too good to be true ? Not at all, this place isn't called Waterfall Country for nothing !
The Vale of Neath has more waterfalls than you can poke a stick at and the eight that I have just mentioned is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many waterfalls close by but to start with I'm going to talk about the two best known trails as you can do them both in a day and see 8 of the very best falls in Wales and be home in time for dinner like a boss !
The Elidir Trail
So when should you go for these ? Well anytime really as they are all worth seeing but it stands to reason if you want the very best from them then you should go after a prolonged spell of heavy rain to ensure they are in full flow. Also the seasons make a massive difference, Spring and summer bring their own special moods to the waterfalls, with green all around you and wildlife a plenty. It will also bring the main bulk of the tourists who visit them in droves and scare the hell out us anti social creatures called photographers.
Autumn is in my mind the best time as the trees are taking on amazing colours and there will be fallen leaves resting on the base of the waterfalls which makes a really attractive picture.
Winter has its place in terms of the very high flow rate you will get and the lack of people but it's a very sparse shot with no leaves and only really comes into its own in ice cold conditions in my mind, plus the paths have taken a battering over the summer & autumn months and can be an absolute mud pit and make it a less enjoyable route.
Now I have mentioned go after heavy rain, and this is probably the best time but this year (my third visit to these falls) I decided that I still wanted to shoot autumn but liked the idea of having a lighter flow on the rivers as it would give me access to different areas that I couldn't normally shoot and it turned out it worked very well for me so it is worth considering.
This brings me nicely onto another point here, Foot ware. You will not do these walks in anything but good quality walking boots or wellington boots due to the mud and often slippery rock banks. For your own safety don't even try. The best thing in my mind is wellingtons as they will enable you to access parts others can't reach and should score you a few bonus shots but I have to say beware as this is a very fast flowing river and care should be taken if you decide to put your feet in it, one slip could lead to a dangerous situation so try and make sure someone is with you and you are watching out for each other, plus it never hurts to share costs on a trip.
To start with you will need to get to the town of Glynneath and head for post code SA11 5NR, If you are driving from outside of Wales then don't forget to take cash with you for the Severn bridge toll which in a car will cost you £6.60 and more if you go in a large van etc... They don't accept credit or debit cards and pulling off the motorway to find a cash machine is a major pain.
This postcode will take you to the Waterfall Centre which is now sadly closed for good but the entrance to the first trail is here. There is another entrance to the trail but I'm not gonna give all the edges away, you will have to hunt it down if you want it ;)
You will start off following the Elidir trail which has 4 of the very best falls on it and its a really easy walk.
As you go through the metal gate and down the path there are several very small waterfalls which are really and truly just tiny drops rather than an actual waterfall but all the same some are very photogenic at the right time of the year and if you get excited by these then you will absolutely wet yourself when you get to the real waterfalls.
When you come to the first bridge you need to cross over it then you are presented with a left or right choice, Take the left fork to visit the first fall on the trail, Sgwd Gwladus (The Lady Falls)
Walk to the end of the path and you will be presented by a small pool and a beautiful cascade over the top.
Sgwd Gwladus (in light flow) Sgwd Gladus (In Heavier flow last year)
This waterfall is stunning and very beautiful and rightly deserves the name of The Lady.
If you have brought your wellingtons you will be able to cross the pool to the other side or even get up close and personal with her but do it with caution.
After enjoying The lady return the way you came leaving only footprints and head back to the bridge that you crossed to get here and when you reach it turn left and after a short walk up the path you will arrive at Sgwd y Bedol, The Horseshoe Falls.
This is a wonderful three tier waterfall and although its small its very, very beautiful and presents a number of options for shooting it.
Sgwd y Bedol
This is another waterfall that when its in lower flow you can walk out onto the very edge of it. You will see from the pictures the difference when its wet season and then fairly dry, my personal preference for this one is full flow as the tiers really cascade down into a bottleneck and make the flow all the more dramatic but if it is in full flow it will prevent you from getting to the next waterfall by walking up the river bed.
Once again I can't stress this enough, be very VERY careful and don't underestimate just how slippery these rocks are and exercise extreme caution if you decide to go to the edges or any of the wet and leaf covered areas.
Once you have shot this one you can either follow the path further up or the better option, walk up the river bed to Sgwd Ddwli Isaf, Translated this means the lower gushing falls and theres actually two of them here both equally divine.
Now if you have walked up the path you will have quite a scramble to get down to this area and its pretty dangerous hence I said walk up the river bed if conditions and flow allow.
Sgwd Ddwli Isaf
This waterfall is the main reason I wanted to go when the river wasn't in full flow because it exposes this gorgeous pool which twists n turns and makes a heavenly foreground when you do a slightly longer exposure.
When its in full flow you wouldn't even know the pool is there so choose your times wisely if your after this type of shot. Also worth mentioning that if the river is in full flow you will have to shoot these falls from the bank and the top waterfall is almost obscured by the deep channel it runs through.
The fall at the very back is like an ice rink and while I have been up on the top of it a few times I wouldn't recommend it for your own safety plus the spray it generates will have you cleaning your lens or filters after every shot and that gets pretty frustrating. The better option I feel is to shoot them both and from the front.
The above shot is taken at ground level and shows the lower waterfall of the two which is a pretty little cascade and doesn't present too much spray when the river is in light flow.
The picture to the right is the same waterfall but shot by climbing up the slippery rocky side.
As stated before its a bit of a scramble and only recommended when you have someone with you and your quite experienced on the wet rocks.
It pays to have someone there to watch over you and to hand you your gear when you have made it up rather than trying to scramble up with precious camera gear in hand and risk damaging it. That said it can be done as I have several times but be careful.
After you have had your fill of these falls the best tactic is to walk a short way back down the river bed till you find a suitable gap to the footpath through the trees.
This will then take you to the jewel in the Elidir trails crown in my humble opinion, Sgwd Ddwli Uchaf - The upper gushing Falls.
Sgwd Ddwli Uchaf
This is without doubt my favourite waterfall on the trail and probably the most spectacular one of the four as well. It really is a beautiful fall straight out of a fairy tale, only this one has come true.
It has been well photographed and you will have probably seen it many times even without knowing it in various different states of flow and season and it seems to be a real favourite with Welsh Tourism and the press and I can see why, special doesn't even come close to describing her.
The first picture is during the rainy season and was taken last year.
The second two pictures on the right are from this year and as you will be able to see its a lot lower.
I was able to walk right to the other side of the bank and get a few shots but in truth I wasn't as keen on them so they didn't make it up here.
It did however reveal a whole series of boulders and large, smooth pebbles that made and interesting lead to the shot.
Wellington boots are the order of the day for this shot if you want to get up close and personal but be warned the water flows very fast and hard at this point and the waterfall generates a larger amount of spray than most of the others so have a lens cloth handy and keep checking to make sure your lens hasn't misted up or your filters.
Depending on the time you shoot it and how bright it is I found you could usually get a good few seconds exposure time without the need for filters. This brings me on to yet another point with shooting waterfalls, I would usually bang on about light and how important it is, Well with waterfalls it can actually be the enemy sometimes when its too bright. You have to remember that these waterfalls in full flow are basically bright white and most of the foliage around you is quite dark so exposure problems can become apparent and you will blow the highlights out on the falls itself. I found that dull light made them a lot easier to shoot but obviously doesn't give such a dramatic effect on the foliage so the ideal time really is the soft light of morning with a little cloud.
Also the number one item to take with you is a CPL or Circular Polarising Filter. This will not only reduce the glare of the water but it will add roughly one stop of light onto your exposure times to give you that dreamy water effect and in the case of the Lee Landscape Polariser which I use it will actually add a slightly warmer colour cast to the image which I personally really like. Go without one at your peril.
After this waterfall you can either walk back down the path and return to your car or you can go above this waterfall and see a small but very pretty fall which doesn't have a name but I personally really and felt was worth a picture if for nothing else but the colour of the leaves resting on its edge.
The Four Falls Trail
Once you have got back to your car you drive straight ahead and follow the road round to the left up the zig zagging hill and drive for roughly three miles till you see a car park on your right hand with several posters marked for BUNK and over night stays and usually a few police beware signs not to leave valuable items in your car (very wise advice as its a known hot spot for crime but don't let that put you off). Pull in here having navigated the maze of wild sheep that roam these hills and seem to take every opportunity to play chicken with a tone plus of car !
Seriously though please drive with caution, this is their home not yours and you need to respect it.
Once you are in the car park follow the path down the hill and go through the metal gate making sure you close it firmly behind you, walk through the field to the next gate and do the same, The path is clearly marked "to the waterfalls" so you can't really go to wrong.
A nice leisurely stroll down the hill which will punish you when you return will lead you to your first waterfall, The mighty Sgwd Clun Gwyn, Translated the upper fall of the white meadow.
You will arrive with the waterfall on your right and if you don't mind a pretty slippery scramble down a rocky outcrop too an ice rink floor then you can shoot this waterfall from the base. I did this but I have to say the shot just didn't work so well for me which was a shame as I have seen it done very well for others but it just wasn't happening for me on the day so I decided to leave it off. Also since my visit last year there has been a huge tree come down and broken in half directly in front of the waterfall and again I felt the composition was compromised so I decided to leave it. Walk down the river bank heading upstream from the waterfall and you will come to a bridge, cross this and follow the path back down stream. This will take you level to the top of the waterfall and you will be able to get some nice views right down the river.
This river system is used by a lot of groups doing potholing so I would recommend shooting it either first thing or last thing to avoid them all being in your shot and throwing themselves over the waterfalls in pursuit of "fun".
Sgwd Clun Gwyn
The branches in front of you are unavoidable unless you shoot it from the ledge below on the other side of the river but as stated earlier there is now a fallen tree blocking that view so this is the lesser of two evils in my view.
From here you will be offered two different paths to take, but if you are a competent walker/climber you can follow the contours of the river to the next waterfall which in my mind was actually the easier route even if you do have to scramble quite a bit and try and keep two free hands to help pull you up the rocky paths.
after half a mile or so you will come to the next waterfall which is called Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn and translates to the lower fall of the white meadow.
This fall is spectacular when it is in full flow and sadly I don't have a picture of it like that due to a hard drive failure and the loss of thousands of images (always back up on at least two drives or you don't have a back up, I found out the hard way)
Saying its spectacular in full flow you would think i'd want to shoot it again in that state, well I do but at the same time it limits the position of which you can shoot it to only one place really so I opted for the low flow meaning I could get further out on a ledge and get a better view and I'm glad I did as it was a much better picture of it than the previous one I had done.
Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn
Once again this is pretty slippery and care should be taken when stepping out onto the wet rocks and ledges, its a long way down and doesn't look like it would be fun (although the pothole brigade will tell you otherwise)
In full flow this waterfall is a handful with the spray it produces, it really is a raging torrent and a lens cloth here will be a must.
When you have finished at this beautiful spot you should again follow the contours of the river down stream where after 30 paces or so you will be rewarded with a couple of small pools that have multiple small waterfalls running into them including the lower part of Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn and its this part that produced my favourite image of the waterfall trips (Image below and main header image). I don't often see this area shot as people tend to go for just the four well known waterfalls and hurry to tick them off their list as soon as possible missing out some of the really nice areas along the way which is a great shame as they are equally stunning.
From here you once again follow the contours of the river downstream to the next waterfall, Sgwd y Pannwr or Fall of the Fuller (sometimes also referred to as the Fall of the Woollen Washer)
This beautiful waterfall is again a completely different animal when in full flow and when its much dryer.
I have included pictures of both so you can pick your times you would prefer to shoot it.
When in full flow it has many areas of rocks for the water to bounce off and there is a very handy viewing platform made by nature on the rocks below.
In the top left picture you will see Sgwd y Pannwr in full flow taken in October 2015 and the picture below it was in very light flow during October 2016. Im sure you will agree that the full flow version is more spectacular and by far the more favourable to shoot. However, low flow will give you the opportunity to scramble down the bank onto the ledge and get really close to the waterfall.
This area is almost always submerged when its heavy flow and puts it totally off limits so I specifically wanted to be able to get down there for a different perspective this time.
There is a nice pool that collects from the waterfall and in Autumn there are usually a few leaves laying around there which add a nice dash of colour to the image and foreground interest. If you manage to hit this waterfall around 10 or 11 O'Clock you will also stand a good chance of picking up some nice light from the forest behind (October time).
There are also a number of small waterfalls that run off the main part that can make quite interesting subject matter too and I spent a fair while shooting the below image of one of these as I found it very appealing due to the way the water dropped in a very sharp manner giving beautiful water spikes.
Seen here it gives the impression of being quite large but when you see it from the context of the image below you will infect see its actually tiny but in my mind it's perfectly formed and well worthy of an inclusion in this blog.
From here you will need to get your stomp on as its a bit of a trek up the stairs and round to the next and possibly best waterfall in Wales, Sgwd yr Eira.
When I first saw this waterfall I was simply in awe of it and it sealed my love of this fantastic area.
Its quite a walk to it but totally worth it. Once you have got to the top of the stairs follow the path down and the waterfall is signposted to the left, you will arrive to the top of a fairly steep hill and enjoy the winding walk down to the falls, however you will enjoy it a lot less on the way up ;)
When you get there you will be treated to your first breath taking view of Sgwd Yr Eira, translation Falls of Snow which is a fitting name for such a beautiful waterfall.
This is one of the few waterfalls that you can actually walk behind (bring your wet weather gear as you will get soaked) and it forms part of the waterfall walk which leads to the other car park which is located a mile or so from the waterfall centre (now closed).
You can shoot it from either bank if you are willing to cross underneath it, but this is a VERY busy tourist attraction especially on the weekends and summer holidays and can lead to some very frustrating moments when people literally stand in front of your camera while you are shooting or ask the dreaded question, what are you taking pictures off ? Even when your camera is pointing directly at the waterfall some people still feel the need to ask this. Choose your reply carefully as sarcasm is often misunderstood and can encourage a slap or two ! ;)
I found it best to get slightly into the river (being very careful) so you can avoid the banks and most of the people walking along them plus it gives you some nice rocks and leaves to add into the foreground.
I spent a fair bit of time at this waterfall last year just waiting for it to clear and for better light but it all takes time and light very much doesn't want to play ball in some months.
Patience is your friend here and you will probably want to put off the walk back up the hill for as long as possible. When you get your shot its a fairly lengthy walk back to the car.
Go back up the hill and follow the path till you come to the other path leading to Sgwd y Pannwr but instead of taking that path fork right and follow the much more comfortable footpath along the very top of the ravine.
This is a long journey but its far easier than the trek along the river bank itself and it will eventually lead you back to the first waterfall you saw, Sgwd Clun-Gwyn and the footbridge that you crossed to get there.
The walk back to the car is the same way you came in and shouldn't take too long if you have a fairly decent pace.
This walk is probably my favourite of the two but each one offers something different and I would go and do both if you can on the same day and once you learn them perhaps go back for a further visit to redo shots at different times.This is what I did but I have to say they are both an absolute pleasure to visit as is the whole of Wales and the Welsh people are so friendly and enjoy a good old chin wag.
From here there are several other waterfalls you can go for in the area or by this time you might be feeling pretty tired and want to call it a day. I won't list all the others as thats another blog for the future but this place is a really great starting point if you haven't shot them before or just fancy some new scenery.
It is possible to get round more and I once shot 15 different ones in a day but in truth I feel I rushed several shots and that cost me dearly in the long run as I never used them as I was simply unhappy with the finished article, Better to shoot fewer but with a better quality final image than to rush round happy snapping and go home with nothing special.
Pick your times very carefully for these waterfall trails, avoid like the plague any school holidays or weekends as they are generally packed and it makes shooting very difficult and very frustrating.
In peak tourist season they are best left in my opinion and worth knowing that the Welsh school holidays are usually a different time to the English school holidays so in this case Google is your best friend to be sure of a good trip.
So this was day one of eight ! A pretty full day I have to say and now I am off to Pembrokeshire to meet up with my good friends Eirwen & Ian who are putting me up for a few nights. Armed with the invaluable local knowledge of the area i'm hopeful of getting few decent shots. Part 2 of the blog will be out next Friday around 1pm on the site so please look out for it.
Once again thank you to everyone who reads, shares and comments on these blogs, I really hope you find them useful and sometimes entertaining and most importantly share in my experiences of getting these images.
As ever, Happy shooting.
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