We started from Craig y Ddinas a towering stone wall which translates as ‘Fortress Rock’. The car park was busy and groups of adventurers were donning wet suits and crash helmets ready for ‘gorge walking’ activities in this area famous for its beautiful waterfalls.
We kept to the southern side of the Afon Mellte as we set off and stayed on the lower path so that we could enjoy the sights and sounds of the teeming water below us. The valley was strewn with bluebells, was sheltered from any wind and felt warm even though the day was fresh.
After a short while we came to a bridge, with an excellent view of the river which led to the Gunpowder works. The Glyn-Neath Gunpowder Works, or Powder Mills, were established in 1857 to produce blasting powder (known as black powder) for use in coal mining and limestone quarrying. The works operated until 1931. It may seem strange to place such a factory in a steep valley but the location was actually well suited to the dangerous process of manufacturing gunpowder.
The site was large and remote, stretching over a mile and a half along the north bank of the River Mellte, with room to create plenty of space between each factory building to ensure that any explosions were localized. Safety was paramount; employees at the works wore leather slippers fastened with wooden pegs over their shoes and boots. Trousers were not allowed pockets or turn-ups to prevent grit to be carried into the works in case it caused sparks.
The river provided energy to turn waterwheels etc. and the raw materials required were sourced in the vicinity and moved upriver on a tram road. This tram road is used today as a level footpath, ‘The Powder Trail’ allowing visitors to explore the remains of the works.
Moving back across the bridge we climbed out of the valley and continued upriver until we arrived above the huge waterfall which is Sgwyd yr Eira – ‘fall of snow’.
We descended the steep and uneven path and a few people walked behind the waterfall to look at the world through a wall of water, very refreshing and exciting. The space behind the waterfall has been created by water eroding the soft rock behind it and there may be loose rocks so it isn’t advisable to stay too long.
As we came to the head of the valley we heard our first cuckoo of the year and as we emerged into open countryside its call became loud and clear. Then the terrain changed and we found ourselves stepping across tussocks in the moor trying not to dip into any of the waterlogged areas or turn an ankle (boots really earn their keep at times like these) but also enjoying some gentle climbing and the sunshine.
After a while we found ourselves in a very boggy area and although most of the group successfully negotiated it someone at the back (yours truly) stepped on a tussock which promptly descended at a rate of knots leaving her with one leg up to the knee in brackish water, and falling forward onto the peaty bog. A nearby friend quickly grabbed her arm and helped her out, one leg now soaking wet from knee to toes and the other knee soaked. As the sun was hot the trousers were soon drying.
The path was easier near Penderyn, although tempted to stop, we walked past the Tavern Llew Goch and arrived at St Cynog’s church. It has a distinctive weather vane that looked like a peacock but on closer inspection is a cockerel.
Lunch was in a nearby field and we could hear a peacock calling. Lunch took a little longer than usual as a certain person changed into spare socks (carried for years but never used before) and spread various items out to dry in the sun. It was a very pleasant spot and our view splendid.
We were now on the final leg of the walk going generally west. Our route took us around Penderyn resevoir and through Trebanog Isaf. Then we came across a bunkhouse with a tap for people to wash their bicycles and next to it a brilliant gate made from old bicycles.
After crossing a very steep gully, with slippery stone – a challenge for many of us, once again helped by friends- and an open area we made our way back to arrive at Craig y Ddinas once more.
A lovely day’s walking, though a bit wet underfoot at times we clocked up 8 miles and 1500ft.