Something called me back to the Brecon Beacons and Wye Valley this year and I responded to it like a knee-jerk impulse (since we hardly needed yet another trip this busy year…), booking it almost before I had time to think. It was as though it had an answer to a question I didn’t knew I was asking and plugged into a sudden nostalgia for a much earlier trip there that I had thought little about in years, though its ghost had never left me. Last time consisted of exploring those winding mountain roads on the back of a motorbike, stopping at remote youth hostels that (by and large) no longer exist but which left a magical imprint of waking-up in often rugged locations nestled against a backdrop of blue-shadowed hillsides with views of golden valleys, sheep coming up close to the windows, tiny streams and starry skies. I responded to this sudden nostalgia by booking a week in a glorious cottage within the Brecon National Park dark-skies zone, in the lovely village of Llangynidr between Crickhowell and Tal-y-bont and then, being only January at the time, we left our planned holiday to cook on the back-burner until, suddenly one July day, we were on our way.
Reverting briefly to the old format for holiday-planning, I started by asking myself where we “should” be heading for during our trip and, being in mountains, my first impulse was to assume we should climb lots of peaks. Wobbling in the desire to do this (being not one of life’s natural climbers) I worked at making this more interesting by seeking out ancient sites; typically bronze age hillforts of which there are several in the area – maybe I would unearth some leyline activity as I had on the ridgeway…yet none of this research seemed to gel with what my heart was telling me. Many of these places were notoriously difficult to get to for a non-climbing, vertiginous type like me and typically seemed to reward your efforts to get there with just an exposed, flat-topped site when, really, my heart was calling for something gentler, less stark. The first long walk we went on, the day after our arrival, was just a well-trodden ledge near the summit of the hills above Crickhowell and the Usk Valley yet this was high enough, challenging enough, to remind me (for all its splendid views) just how much vertigo takes all enjoyment out of very sheer drops, especially when your dog insists on exploring every path edge. In my youth, this deep dislike of high-up edges used to embarrass me and (in an effort not to disgrace myself in front of hardier friends, especially all those outwardly-bound guys I gravitated towards) I fought against it, tried denying it and only made it worse by forcing myself up to those places. Then a badly sprained ankle on a teeth-gritting walk up Kinder Scout in my early twenties weakened my left foot into a tendency to “turn” and sprain so easily, thereafter, that I began to protect, and distrust, that ankle until this only added another seeming handicap to the mix of my hill-walking fears – my self-doubt had now manifested into form! Rugged hills now took me so far out of my comfort zone that a part of me started to wonder why I had ever suggested coming back to this part of the world.
The next day, the Usk Valley Trail – following the easy route of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal – provided a gentle alternative to hilltops but I knew we wouldn’t get what I had come here for (whatever that was…) by sticking to the comfort-zone of the valley paths and neatly hemmed-in waterways. My heart was definitely seeking excitement, thrill and gasp-factor, something that would make it beat a little faster, for all my head tried to fill it with fear, and something told me a waterfall would provide what it was looking for; after all, Wales is full of those.
Suddenly, we were heading for Henrhyd Falls – a BIG waterfall, the highest in South Wales at 90 feet (famously, the entrance to the Bat Cave in the recent movie) – and the mood that filled me up as we drove there through pea-soup and heavy rain, and as we stepped out of the car high up those hills, was different already; our comfort zone had been left at home and it felt exhilarating to just the right degree. On the journey there, the bright July day had been cloaked by a mist that came down so swiftly that it smudged away all of the mountains and hills just as surely as if a giant hand had applied a putty rubber to an artist’s landscape. Instead of green-sided slopes hemming us in all around, all we could see now were sheer rivulets of torrential water pouring down green-tinged clefts in those slopes nearest to the road edge…in fact, there was water pouring relentlessly everywhere, not least against the windscreen as the heavens opened up with sheet rain. After all that blur, the steep walk down to Henrhyd Falls came sharply into focus like an oasis of lush green; we could have been transported to the rainforests of the Amazon and nothing prepared us for the splendour of those falls, the tangible “hit” of vital energy, of sheer life-force, in the form of a heavy torrent of water plunging deep into the gorge below. This water was so noticeably earthy that it appeared almost sepia-coloured, dragging copious amounts of brown mountain soil into the frothy cappuccino below. There was such a strong sense of this landscape being impermanent and subject to restructuring at a moment’s notice (a fairly recent landslide had necessitated the creation of new wooden steps from the level above); as though a skilful set-change, a pretty tableau, had been put together, complete with extra water-effects, just for us and would be moved around again in time for the next “scene”. Soaked by rain and, now, by mist so penetrating, so powerful that it was like a fire hose had been turned directly onto us, we were very glad of our waterproofs, yet surprisingly carefree with our camera lenses, as we grinned our way through mouthfuls of water to have our pictures taken on slippery rock edges. Underneath the exhilaration and shared smiles, you could tell our hearts already bled at ever having to leave that place; we each wanted to bottle it and take this life-force with us, whatever it was; an exquisite feeling way beyond capturing with words.
All of that splendid afternoon, we walked alongside river gorge and over rapids and next to small cascades on slippery boardwalks, slid and stumbled on mud and rock edge yet none of this had the exposed vulnerability of a high mountain top and, with water always closely by my side, this all felt acceptable somehow, was immediately a “happy place” for me, complete with watery sounds and echoing birdsong. There was such a lush intimacy to it; a paradisiacal quality. My daughter felt it strongly too and neither of us wanted to be anywhere else or to leave; it was home-turf, like plugging back into something fundamental and deeply recognisable to the soul. It felt like being incredibly close to source and was deeply rejuvenating, as though the very life-force was being topped up in us. Without question, this was a divinely female force at work, weaving its magic; a goddess energy that was filling us up. We felt light-hearted, almost deliriously joyful, and we couldn’t stop smiling and being playful with each other, pulling silly antics and faces for the camera. It felt deeply grounding, like being plugged back into a cycle where we were in the water, of the water, being the channel that was literally pouring with water – from our limbs, our feet, our noses – onto the earth, and then taking more in, as much as could be thrown at us, and laughing all the time. The water’s most powerful flow as the river, which was never very far from our feet, seemed to be drawing us onwards and it felt poignant to eventually have to turn back and retrace our steps to the car but we felt better for our time there – fully charged, you could say. Back on the road, though it was still afternoon, I fell into the deepest lucid dream sleep…just briefly…then was suddenly wide awake again, rejuvenated, like I had been taken off-line for just a few minutes while something new was being fully integrated, a new application uploaded, a light-switch flipped on, across many lifelines. There was a distinct feeling of “before the waterfall” and “after it”, like a great shift had just happened.
After that, the holiday really took off as we were fully in the flow, we were feeling what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go without paining over it. For our next trip out, we decided on Hay-on-Wye, which had been gently calling me back across all the twenty-seven years since my last visit on that motorbike holiday; had left its imprint as a glorious lemon-yellow valley snaked with glistening water, a pretty town nestled at the foot of blue-shadowed hills…very steep hills! On that first trip, these were hills I had been forced to climb, all the way back to the very remote youth hostel where we were staying, high above at Capel-y-fin – a seventeen mile round trek – wearily carrying all my valuables, heavy motorbike jacket included, on a hot summer’s day (this bravado-inspired walk was the brainchild of my male companion). A day of bickering, black-moods and blisters grew into being just one of many bitter-sweet legends that came out of that first-ever trip into these magical mountains where even all of that didn’t prevent this lemony valley of light from leaving its imprint and a reminder to return.
When I look back at what was most challenging, most out-of-my flow, about that time and a subsequent Welsh holiday with another male companion (hitch-hiking, that time!), it came back to this. With the kind of guys I was naturally attracted to – those who seemed to love nature and the great outdoors in the same way that I do (though, as in everything, I later learned you could never judge a book by its cover) – there was always such pressure to join them in going to the top, taking the plunge, the rockiest route, being dare-devil, taking risks and conquering every hardship like a bull in a china-shop and without thinking things through. It all seemed to be about saying you had won something over, or hammered it into submission. In order to live up to their expectations of me, I put myself into situations that (while they gave me glimpses of a world I longed to come back to) took me very far out of my joy until I was sufficiently put off these kinds of partner to marry (in the form of my first husband) a complete couch-potato who demanded none of these things, clipping my own adventure wings in the process. It had taken me years to unearth my own ideal balance, my version of a happy place that meant the great outdoors didn’t have to be harrowing or mean leaping straight off the top, and then (only then) opening to the possibility of a husband alongside whom I could experience such balance because his version of happy matches mine. What immense distance, across my own landscape, had I travelled since that first trip to Hay, I suddenly realised; first getting to know both my own peaks and valleys then seeking to harmoniously integrate, and own, them in myself before even starting to seek their match on the outside. Once that inner work had been done…quite incredible how the life showed up as perfect match!
The first thing I was decided about, this time around, was that I was heading straight to the Wye Valley, not up those steep-sided hills. Yet, nestled in the heart of that valley, Hay-on-Wye is a town that is all about bookshops; the book capital of the world, some would say – so, what did that offer me these days, as the confirmed kindle-reader? I had to laugh as I read the tongue-in-cheek comment that drawing a kindle out of your bag is enough to get you stoned by the locals in Hay…but I laughed on the other side of my face when I managed to drop my own kindle to the bottom of the slippy roll-top bathtub the night before we were due to go there; a freak accident that made it feel like Hay had just had its say on the matter!
As expected, as a town in the Welsh Marches, my research also had much to say about Hay’s castle; a turmoiled town history encapsulated in a pile of bricks-and-mortar that have been sacked, ruined, rebuilt and burned down many times over, both in its current location (again, damaged by fire as recently as 1977) and as the long-gone original motte and bailey castle that used to stand somewhat away from the current town centre. Around its later permeation (more manor house than fortification) grew a busy market town, a place of many taverns (once, over 30 of them) and all that went with that, including bear-baiting (there are bear clues all over the town). Then, in more recent times, as though diluted by its own river flow, the town has mellowed into a sleepy watering-hole with just a few remaining pubs and, these days (here’s for a switch-around), 30 or so bookshops; it plays host to the annual literary festival and a steady trickle of bookish visitors, growing into a high-water floodtide of them once a year when the festival is actually running. When I recall that first visit, back in 1988 (ironically, the very birth-year of that now famous literary festival) it was the valley, more than the town itself, that left a lasting imprint of a glistening yellow landscape; the town had left very little impression on me and the same ambivalent feeling, as we parked-up this time around, triggered an impulse to head off on our walk away from the town, along the river, before doing anything else.
I had done my research and had a walking route planned out. From the carpark, we headed for the first waymarker, somewhere near the mound of the original castle – a church; and was I surprised to find it was a St Mary’s, as is so often the case where an early Christian church has superseded an earlier spiritual site connected with the sacred feminine? Obviously (if you’ve read my other posts about the Michael and Mary leyline) no, although I had given the church’s name almost no thought at all until we were standing looking at her. The building we found was plain and functional to the point of near-ugliness but the sheer quantity of mature yew trees in the churchyard, on this raised mount of a site, hinted this was something else entirely as where yews stand there is often a long tradition of them going way-way back across the years. The internet later confirmed to me that this building was a nineteenth century replacement for a much earlier church going back to at least the twelfth century – and, likely, considerably earlier than that as pre-Christian sacred sites (typically on raised ground with the highly symbolic yew in situ) were often “replaced” by early Christian ones dedicated to Mary, especially next to springs and flowing water. As though in answer to that thought, we found, just steps away from the modern churchyard boundary, a flowing mountain stream incorporated into a modern municipal park (with a carved bear-bench, presumably put there in the spirit of apology to those long-sufferers of the town), until it formed a small waterfall dropping down into the River Wye below. On this “accidental” riverside walk, mainly sought in avoidance of climbing those very steep hills, I had apparently got myself back in touch with the flow of the sacred feminine and was being led off on yet another journey of self-discovery, revealed by the very landscape itself.
This walk took us away from the town, along a river-following path under trees and into open pasture, to a bend in the broad Wye where the water was shallow enough – insistent enough – for my shoes to be discarded in a jiffy so that I could eagerly wade in. After acclimatising to the sharp cold and seeking out the more rounded, comfortable stones to stand on in the river bed, I positioned myself in the water just a few yards from a natural weir, with water swirling all around me and, anchoring myself in that place, it was as though I took root. Both profoundly aware of the current and, in no time, at one with its layered rhythms, my own counterpoised stillness became a conscious entity in its own right, minutely observing what was taking place from both within the experience and expanded way beyond it. This simplest of acts felt deeply grounding and, at the same time, energising to each and every cell in my body, like standing in an effervescent elixir that worked its way through me from my feet upwards before cascading out of my crown like I was a human fountain held in an energy-loop. If I focussed my eyes softly on the trees opposite, it was as though I was on a slow moving conveyor-belt, was being transported gently but surely, effortlessly, in the direction of those very hills that rise steeply above Hay’s valley, without hardship or blisters. Surrounded by water straight from that mountain source, feeling myself in dynamic counterpoise to the river’s own impulse to flow, I was already at their summit or, rather, they had come down to meet me where I already was. Once I was fully surrendered to this switch-around of reality, the sensation was so “real” to me – that is, the fast-moving river seemed to be the thing that was standing still and me the one that was now flowing – that I could have been stood on the prow of a boat moving steadily across the serenest water. I stood like that, in dynamic meditation, for the longest time and then, with dog and daughter, and my husband laughingly watching our antics from the shore, we “lost” a playful hour or more stood in the Wye, taking photos and laughing, arms wrapped around each other, creating memories.
Yes, this river felt gentle and healing, activating, yet this was no dainty current and we were quickly forced to assess where best to position our feet to avoid toppling over with our cameras in hand. A few strides further one way than the other and we would have been tugged firmly in her rip-tide, then swiftly tipped over the same lively rapids that we watched others in canoes brace for and then laugh and squeal over. We learned very quickly to bow to what was tangibly formidable about this pure, gentle water; to respect her impulses and take her most seriously whilst enjoying her rhythms and her playfulness. This was a woman’s energy at work and she knew what she was all about, without showiness or battle cry; she was passing herself off as passive, shallow water but I knew far better than that what she was fully capable of and, yes, she had hidden depths. Over time, slow and steady, she had carved this entire landscape from nothing, had honed its steep slopes and painted its meadows with lush colour, making it all to her own design; and I could strongly sense she knew all this about herself and would have it thoroughly respected.
Then time gave us the nudge; we had come to see the town and the town would soon be “shut” so we walked back along the river to a broadly spanning bridge that hits the eyes with such a punch of utilitarian concrete-greyiness that you are left in no doubt that the only priority, in its construction, was to conquer the river’s breadth with not a thought to work with her beauty. Turning away from its ugliness, we stepped into the sleepy town of Hay with its half-timbered pub and shop frontages and book displays literally everywhere. The bibliophile modern owner of Hay castle (and the name behind its showiest bookshop) who helped stimulate the bookish heights of Hay’s glory days when the literary festival took off three decades ago, also the self-declared “king” of the “Kingdom of Hay”, has now retreated to Germany, so they say, but his cultural imprint is still there like the supper-time anecdote of its own greatest hour. Though the annual festival continues to attract crowds, it still feels like the town’s Hay-day has slowed pace in keeping with the summertime river’s most gentle current, as enjoyed so recently by my feet; it has become an almost sleepy place of fading window-display books, literary tourists and hill-walkers.
Stepping into Hay’s grandest book emporium, we set about asking for the book my daughter regretted not bringing on holiday with her and received eager assistance from a woman who was very keen to show us all the books that related to recent author-visitors to the town, during the festival, but persistently skirted around our direct question until we, at length, discovered it was out of stock. Meanwhile, I fingered a cover with a glorious woodcut print of trees (oh, how the artsy book-cover is undergoing a revival since the kindle whipped up the competition) yet its content seemed to be a very long-winded account of a kleptomaniac’s view of the world so I put it back down. An apt topic, though, since book collecting has become such a domain; one where (for a time) even my own desire to collect, to possess and to display did not always correlate with an actual desire to read the content; one where ownership of the beautiful book as “object” sometimes overtook any remotest interest (if I was being honest) in the subject “inside”. Painted ladies of the book world, such coffee table offerings have become; their covers frequently photoshopped into crystal view in this week’s interior mag or Sunday supplement or, for those not given a publisher’s makeover, ignored into obscurity though their words may be pearls (some of the most profound things I have ever read would not make it onto a bookshop display). Yes, I freely confess to my own wobbly book-purchasing trends before kindle restored some sort of democracy to my selection methods. Like a sugar-avoider let loose in a sweetshop, I noticed myself salivate at some of these beautiful offerings, so temptingly and bewildering laid out…yet this was no way for an art-addict to choose reading matter, I knew from past experience, and so I got myself out of there. With an almost regretful glance over shoulder, I issued one final reminder to myself that none of this eye-candy had anything to do with the actual words inside the covers and I might as well purchase armfuls of gorgeous wrapping paper, of which there was also a plentiful display, as impulse-buy any of these (and it later came as a huge relief when my kindle dried out…). I smiled at the perpetual gift in the reminder that you should never judge a book by its cover.
Hay’s bookish streets, shop windows and ad-hoc displays were, undeniably, photogenic and it had been so good to go back there to find that this town wasn’t anywhere near as wild and woolly as I remembered it to be as a youngster with a backpack, sore feet and precious little disposable income for book shops and tea rooms. It felt even more significant to have spent time stood in the stretch of river that I told myself (long ago) that I must, one day, return to with no questions asked; that felt incredibly important, like standing in it had reset something or, perhaps, activated something in me that had long been waiting for the ultimate “go ahead” sign.
The next day’s plans felt almost counter-intuitive to this flow-vibe as we were heading for a castle – Carreg Cennen – a picture-perfect medieval ruin perched on a hill close to the Black Mountain villages of Trapp and Bethlehem, yet what we found there fitted in perfectly, after all, as what remains of this place is like the very antithesis of the conquering fortification or the military stronghold dominating the landscape. These defensive stones were half-dismantled in 1461, to prevent it from being used as the refuge of robbers and rebels. What remains has mellowed down into gently tumbledown walls, becoming a picturesque tourist attraction; a nice little enterprise for Lord Cawdor had his estate manager not, inadvertently, included it along with a farm they were selling-off in the early 1960s, when the deeds were drawn up to accidentally include the hill (and its castle) within the farm boundaries. A legal battle ensued once the mistake was realised but the farmer was able to hold the deeds to the letter and so his family still own the castle, running it as a tourist attraction complete with weddings and tea rooms. I loved the whole turn-turtle aspect to this anecdote; it only added to the feel of these one-time defensive stones having mellowed down to become part of the fabric of “ordinary” life, with working sheep dogs keeping the farmer’s flock in order on its slopes and his wife and family baking cakes and selling tickets to daily visitors (as proudly advertised) 365 days a year. You can tell they are putting their whole heart into the venture and I couldn’t help wondering if the castle would have been as pleasantly accessible if “ownership” had not been switched around by this bizarre fluke. As it was, the vibe there was just glorious and the site was incredibly picturesque, with stunning views from the top. Its exposed mortar was in full bloom with wild flowers sprouting from the crevices and, just as we left, the sun came around to where it seemed as though light orbs were floated in from those expansive green vistas, only to dissolve those heavy grey walls some more before our very eyes.
After that, we headed well into the Black Mountains, towards the Usk Reservoir and where (we hoped) a pair of ancient stone circles could be found near the Nant Tawr; a glistening mountain stream we found easily enough yet those standing stones proved much more elusive, not helped by either misleading, or absent, information on the various signs. Yet we enjoyed a glorious long walk along a forestry plantation and past the blue reservoir in late afternoon sun and, all the time, I was still convinced we were due to have our encounter with those ancient stones before we left. For some reason, I had it in mind that seven o’ clock would be our meeting time and, as time continued to march on from our pre-five o’ clock arrival time, this predicted rendezvous estimate began to seem ever more likely. We finally reached the natural conclusion of our walk at (yes) just before seven, having reached a stile that our dog couldn’t manage, not to mention moorland full of sheep plus we (and he especially) were all tired after our long day. Try as we might, we couldn’t see what we were looking for – the stones we were seeking are extremely low to the ground and, in that lighting, every single sheep looked like a potential standing stone in the moorland. To our right, and more inviting than ploughing onwards, the Nant Tawr was in full evening glisten; a silvery thread omitting sparkles that seemed to dangle off all the lemon-yellow foliage and deep magenta foxgloves in that landscape. At the allotted time, I found myself stood in the Nant Tawr kneading tired toes into rounded pebbles as the sun began its tilt across a landscape crowned by the bluish landmass that is Fan Brycheiniog, the highest peak of the Black Mountains, with Fan Foel stood like a pyramid-guardian overlooking a landscape that must have barely altered in millennia.
It was then that I knew, without doubt, that my timing had been spot-on and I was stood exactly where I was meant to be for that rendezvous; with my feet (yet again) in flowing water. Those two ancient stone circles I had set as my target had not been the destination but, rather, the place marker (the clue was even in the title – this pair of elusive stone rings – like a pair of wedding bands hurled into the long grass of the moor – are known as the Nant Tawr circles). They had drawn me to a landscape made up of both high-up places and flowing water in a scheme held together by the dance of those two aspects within one; the yin and the yang locked together in contrasting partnership and yet also to be found within and around one another; both strengthening and cradling, supporting and allowing. The water around my feet had come out of those high-up mountains and those mountains had been forged by the very flow of the water around my feet; together they were a unit, they became both whole and somehow “more” than the sum of their parts.
In a flash of understanding, I could have been standing in the silvery water of the Kennet at Avebury, following its flow with my eye towards the base of the prominent pyramid-like mound of Silbury Hill, with Avebury’s own twin circles to the right and just below its prominence (see my earlier blog Where the Circle Meets the Line for much more on the relevance of this). With new certainty, I suddenly realised where the stone circles were in this broad landscape…squinted my eyes in the equivalent direction relative to this pyramid-like hill and thought I saw something more defined than grazing sheep through the sun-haze (and, later seen more clearly with zoomed-in photography, I suspect I may be right). Yes, with my own two legs like standing stones in the water of Nant Tawr, rather than standing by one of her two circles, I knew this was exactly where I was meant to be at this moment, just as I had stood in the Wye a day earlier cradled in hills that had once represented all that daunted me and so much that felt unviable about a life in which I only wanted to see beautiful things and to do this from a place of love, without the necessity of conquering anything or endlessly proving myself. On my particular life-journey, this landscape was my symbolic place and it told me so much about the completeness of where I am right now, stood in this moment, full of happily reconciled contrasts and contradictions, and nothing whatsoever to prove, just as I am.
We had decided straight after Henrhyd Falls that our week needed more waterfalls so we selected the four falls walk at Ystradfellte. This long and sometimes rugged trek took us four hours, missing out two of the falls due to the diversion these entailed in order to prioritise those we really wanted to see. The first was Sgwd Clun-Gwyn (The Fall of the White Meadow) which comes down in tiers and well worth seeing from the viewing platform opposite, if considerably less intimate than magical Henrhyd had been, especially with a constant flow of tourists by our side. Then we continued on to the furthest on the circuit, Sgwd yr Eira (The Waterfall of Snow) because this caught our attention for the fact you can stand behind it and because it falls in a broad curtain that, yes, resembles softly falling snow, like when the wind blows snow from a roof edge across your window pane; how magical is that.
What we actually found there outdid anything I had seen on any website and, as at Henrhyd, we were fortunate enough to arrive when crowds were at an absolute minimum – just a couple of other people with a dog were our only companions heading down the steep steps to the gorge bottom, though many more people suddenly arrived just as we left. Our own huge dog wouldn’t have managed those steps, coming back up, so as before at Henrhyd, we went down in relays which happened to be gender specific, my daughter and I going down first into that rocky riverbed framed by lush green that could have been a scene straight from the Lord of the Rings. Inching our way across slippery boulders to the waterfall’s edge, we found ourselves – once again – being sprayed so relentlessly with fine yet powerful water droplets that we were soon fairly soaked and, this time, without waterproof layers yet, somehow, this felt so welcome in the sunshine and we laughed our way through to the slippery ledge behind the falls. Signs nearby urged “no lingering” due to recent rock falls yet it was impossible not to spend ten minutes or so behind that water curtain, utterly mesmerised by a foot’s depth of crystal water droplets falling as one from several times your own height to the pebbly river gorge down below and, with the sun arriving just in time and at perfect angle for our “moment”, each droplet charged with such radiance that everything in your broadest field of vision turned iridescent.
This curtain of light was both uniform yet absolutely dynamic, being in constant renewal as each tiny droplet was replaced swiftly by yet another unique orb of light, delivered in countless thousands at a time and with such force, such incredibly thunderous noise. It was one of those experiences you just wanted to go on and on…sensing each and every droplet of light-charged water was being matched by a similarly photon-pulsing cell radiating in your body like a quantum dance partner. Impossible to stop smiling – that is the other distinct factor in common about these waterfalls – so much so that your teeth try in vain to deflect the gulping volume of water coming into your mouth and your expanded wet cheeks start to almost hurt, like those childhood times when you giggled uncontrollably in a pool or during a snowball fight, plus you just know your pupils are as saucer-wide as a person in love; for you are stood, quite literally, in love when you are beneath this effervescent water. Everything tingles, you feel the life force coming at you and then mirrored in yourself, a quantum echo that reminds your stodgy cells how to be in their most-alive, most-vibrant state; both put back and sent forward “in time” to their factory-setting zenith, and all “happening” instantly in the single moment of now, like an instant wellbeing button is being pressed. For my daughter and I, it felt like another activation to be standing there side-by-side receiving this gift and it was only afterwards that I couldn’t help wondering if there had been design in the circumstance that had turned this into a girl-only ceremony, as though it had been a divine feminine initiation, a meant-to-be, on our journey into ownership of all that it means to be female in all the many ways that a waterfall demonstrates its own female qualities; that is, as something powerful, sparkling, dancing, playful, dazzling, vocal, determined, purposeful, direct, enlightening, healing, magical, resilient, complex, defining, creative, beautiful, seen…
The route of this walk was full of challenge and exertion; many steep climbs, so many tree roots seemingly holding the earthy banks into place like tightly gripping fingers and then rocks that became as slippery as ice whenever water was near (we were only glad it didn’t rain on us this time as the route would have become extremely hazardous but, instead, we had glorious sunshine all the way). Yet, I never felt better, less out of my comfort zone; by the end, I was laughingly comparing myself to one of those mountain sheep, tripping and skipping along that route in my “barefoot” shoes and yet, its true, I had noticed myself become much more nimble, more trusting of my own footing, less weak in the ankle or prone to sugar-lows, as the week went on. My vertigo had lessened considerably, I was no longer fazed by every challenge but, rather, exhilarated by what I found I could do – which was to walk longer, faster, further, harder, brisker than I had done for years without crashing. We snacked on “raw” bars and fruit and carried delicious Brecon spring water wherever we went (I was so taken with the low-sodium taste of this water that I looked up its source, online, and smiled to find that it is located right below Carreg Cennen castle; so even that trip had found a watery connection to me…as my drinking water for the week). Our lunches were modest but delicious picnics overlooking views like this one (below), complemented by great, organic home-cooking when we got back to the cottage, completed by fresh veg that we were invited to pick from the garden. My body was feeling optimised and raring to go and I was becoming hooked on that feeling, knowing how to recognise it, how to get back there quickly and, so, it was all building momentum – which felt like serious breakthrough territory in terms of my health-recovery. Though regular inflammation of muscles is part of my typical daily world, due to fibromyalgia, I experienced no discomfort or stiffness that was out of the ordinary for someone walking four of five hours a day and, in fact, felt far better than usual, even on waking in an unfamiliar bed. I did morning yoga whenever I felt the urge, stretching gently into my day and taking time in that routine to quietly meditate. We found we only managed a small evening “drink”with dinner, either one tiny beer or a single glass of wine, before our bodies said “no more” on this trip and so the old holiday tradition of over-indulgence quietly slipped away, unnoticed and unmissed. I found myself waking early to write and “working” on my photography late in the evenings, reading one of the two books I was enjoying or receiving sudden inspiration for new paintings, as though I was standing deeply in the creative flow with both feet.
The only thing that fazed me at all was that a tiny insect bite on my arm (extreme reaction to bug-bites being a classic side-effect of fibromyalgia) became a full-blown allergic reaction that turned the area from shoulder to elbow of my left arm into a red-hot zone of intense burning pain for a few days and started keeping me awake at night. As I lay there on the most intense of those nights, and having tried all of my best remedies, including the icepack I was now sleeping with, I turned inward to use visualisation and found myself imagining snow and then surrendered to allow this to do its work. Suddenly, the fact I had been standing behind the sparkling curtain of the “Snow Falls” just a few hours earlier helped enormously and got me back to sleep for quite a long while, without pain. When the tight, hot pain still persisted, even after we had returned home at the end of the week, I turned to applying earth to it – making a poultice of bentonite clay to draw the poison out – and then started bathing my inflamed skin in a tepid chamomile solution, enjoying the first significant relief in days as the intense inflammation started to subside. Together as a team, water as light and cool as snow and then a paste of earth (followed by the nurturer of all flowers, as found growing out of castle walls and along many rocky walks this week) had apparently healed my burning arm. I had found my relief in a mixture that seemed to mirror the very landscape of the Brecon Beacons that I had fallen in love with these last few day.
So why do I love them so; why do these hills and valleys make my heart sing as they do? This kind of landscape has a rounded quality to its heights, nothing too obviously jutting, razor sharp or steeple high yet it is certainly to be respected and more than capable of asserting itself. It is also a lush green landscape, rich with diversity, fauna and flora, bird and animal life, emerald moss and dense woodland. Made up of rock mixed with a soft brown earth that colours the water emerging from its springs makes it particularly open to being restructured into something new; it is malleable and open to reinvention, not obstructively fixed in its ways. “Substance” and “flow” are as though happily married in this place; divine masculine with divine feminine, like a playful partnership held together by good humour and respect, joined in perpetual dance, each adding something to the other. The presence of flow adds into that “hard” landscape a force that is as nurturing, healing, vibrant and playful as it is (equally) strong, determined and formidable; it melds that landscape to its desires as surely as those hills take their own assertive stand, creating new pathways and washing away the old and, yes, that landscape bows to the flow’s most heart-felt desires, melding into new shapes to accommodate it. Yet, where the landscape also asserts its will and stands tall, demonstrating its strength, these two impulses meet in a new kind of balance where they match each other, meet each other equally on neutral territory, to create a perfect portal of union. This portal relies utterly on the equal part played by hard rock and dynamic water – for, if rock gave way, if water stopped flowing, there would simply be no waterfall. In the hallowed places where waterfalls are created, the most incredible cascades of light and energy are born – and no less so are they born in each of us as we respond in our own perfect dance of structure and flow, of assertion and surrender, masculine and feminine held as one, recognising and mirroring these qualities in ourselves. In these places, it is as though you slip through a gap into the very pinpoint between complementary forces; a sort of energetic chasm in Nature’s fabric and you can’t help but come out of this altered or affected in some way. This, it seems, is what the waterfalls of Brecon were so eager to show me, why they called me back there after all this time; I see that now and am so incredibly grateful for the experience of our week there.