24th June 2015
After tea and a rest in the railway cafe at Fairbourne and to avoid yet another stretch of main road without pavements I catch a bus out of Fairbourne to Arthog, a couple of miles up the valley, a place I cannot go by without visiting, this is where king Arthur’s body was taken after Camlan on route for Bardsey island, to see if he could be saved.
the battlefield of Camlan
The driver asks where I want to get off, Arthog is a long thin village stretching along the bottom of a mountain. I say I don’t know exactly, but maybe to drop me where there are most houses. He doesn’t know where the waterfall I have promised myself to visit to celebrate midsummer’s day, at least according to the solar calendar is. ( I will celebrate the lunar midsummer, St John’s Eve, in a couple of days. This feast day is very important in Brazil, part of the festas juninas,June parties, where the corn harvest is celebrated with traditional corn desserts). When we get to the first lot of houses and a bus stop the driver slows down, then, spying two men says
I get off and call to the men, one young, one old, cups of tea in hand, heading for the garden in front of the old man’s house, across the main road in this thin sliver of land between mountain and estuary.
They turn with smiles and come to my aid. They know exactly where the waterfall is, the local Christian outward bounds group, of which the young man is a part, take children up there regularly. They tell me the various ways up to it, and suggest I also visit the lakes that are there too but I don’t think I will have time to do that much exploring and still get to Barmouth at the other side of the estuary in good time.
Well come and buy one of my postcards of my watercolours of it then
says the older man with glee. When we get to his house at the other side of the road where sweet smelling roses in a jug scent the lounge with its old beams and woodburner he shows me a collection of cards of local scenes. They are good and I buy one from him, his favourite of the lake. He worries if God will be displeased with him doing business on a Sunday but I say I am sure God will like us to talk to one another and that he can consider it an exchange for the directions. He signs it for me.
I set off up the narrow lane he has indicated. Immediately it is steep, steeper than any road I have climbed since my days in Ambleside in the Lake District, training to be a teacher and dragging myself up Scale How for maths lessons once a week with other weary students more than 30 years ago. It was a fifteen minute slog up a steep lane for double maths at the top. The tutors would drive up and every now and again stop to pick up a pretty girl student or a couple of the more boisterous lads. This lane was, if anything, steeper and went on for nearly a mile. It took me a lot longer than 15 minutes and then finally I reached the top. A gate to the side led to a property called Myrddin. I carry on till I find the track leading to the top of the waterfall. Here is an ancient ford, huge stones across the mountain river worn with use. It is very easy to imagine the Merlin and the others carryng their king across here having brought his body, probably by horseback, over the mountain passes from Dinas Mawddwy. I cross it and then cross back, so that I am doing the same as they would have done. On the other side is a flat plateau where I imagine them camping. There may have been a structure here. The old artist, Eric, has told me there used to be a judgement hall here where peasants could be tried, and I think maybe there was something there from before that even. It is certainly a very strategic place. The river has now to find its way down to the estuary below, and I know how steep it is, and that this is 200 feet above the road.
I find the footpath by the side of river easily. It is well signed and well kept.
I follow it down. It turns out to be much easier than returning down the steep lane would have been as it loops back on itself and has steps cut into it in places, all devices to make it less steep to walk down.
It is a well maintained path, but after fifteen minutes or so I begin to sense the presence of my old companion fear. I am not a person who enjoys the presence of adrenalin in my body, one who seeks out amusement parks for cheap thrills, so when I feel afraid I am not able to find any excitement in it. The issue, I realise, is that the gorge is steep, its vertical sides dropping away to my right, and it makes me feel dizzy which makes me unsteady on my feet making the otherwise perfectly safe path quite treacherous and potentially lethal.
I identify for perhaps the first time that I suffer from vertigo. Now I understand the knee shaking, mouth drying fear that comes upon me when I am high up. I also realise that it is not so much the situation that is dangerous, but my fear causes it to be so. What Ii carry around inside of me in the form of fear of heights causes otherwise perfectly enjoyable
places to be dangerous, not the place itself. It is both reassuring and frightening to understand that my vertigo is causing my current challenge. Having accepted it as such I stop trying to look at the waterfall which is gushing splendidly, majestically and in full spate down it’s rocky channel, almost vertically throwing itself from boulder to boulder splashing and coursing its way to the estuary far below, and concentrate rather on placing one foot in front of the other carefully focussing on tree roots, stony steps and flint chip path holders. It is as far from the
You’ll not be able to see it, its not raining
response the man at the miniature railway in Fairbourne has told me as it is possible to get. He told me too about the community initiative to try and get a new sea wall built. The townsfolk have been told that their town will be under water within the next forty years due to climate change. We exchange stories of how our local train line for washed away by the sea in last winter floods. Fairbourne is built on totally flat river flood plains, product of the Welsh gold mining that took place here, that and its little steam train that carried the gold to the next place.
I am saddened that my phobia prevents me from sitting on the path and gazing far down at the magnificent sight of the maybe half a mile long stretch of waterfall in its native woodland gorge, all lime greens and whitewater against black mountain boulders. It is a veritable wonderland, quite possibly the most beautiful and spectacular waterfall I have ever seen. I feel sad the locals of Fairbourne do not make more of their treasure of a more enduring kind.
I wonder if I will be able to work through my phobia. Both of my parents have a fear of heights so it is not so simple as merely seeking the source of my own bad experiences.I
acknowledge that much as I love journeys I am very hobbit like, I do not do adventures through choice. I remember the old TV comedy my father used to love, Dads Army, and the frightened soldier who always walked at the back looking fearfully from side to side. This is me in this context. This is the role I play, this is the character I am stuck in. This is the archetype I have become identified with through stuck feelings that I do not know how to shift.
When I see the road below me and the last few steps I slow to appreciate it, I have made it to safety, and then I realise that i am trembling. I carefully negotiate the steep stone steps and am on the main road, there is no pavement and I am struck by the irony of this, this is potentially far more dangerous than the path. I cross carefully and head straight into Catherine’s church directly opposite the path on the other side of the road. In one of the stained glass windows is a beautiful heart filled with flowers. I thank myself for being loving and kind to myself as I descended the gorge. I also appreciate just how beautiful the waterfall is and am proud that I have walked its length.
Down in the village I reencounter Eric and the young man. They are pleased I found their waterfall and impressed that I managed the path in flip flops. It is lovely to see them and I am sad to walk on. I am on the Mawddwy path though and it follows the bed of the old railway that went to Wrexham, where my great grandmother hailed from, and is a beautiful walk. I am not alone, I share it with other walkers and cyclists, it is Sunday afternoon.
We follow the flat wide path all the way to the viaduct that leads from the Fairbourne side of the Mawddwy to Barmouth a mile away. It is windy but easy walking and the views breath taking. In one moment I think Scottish glens, in another Tibetan mountains, in another Shangri La and Macchu Picchu. I did not expect such scenery on this my pilgrimage to Ynys Enlii, but now I am in it I can quite see how these mountain passes and river crossings are the perfect backdrop for the Arthurian tales I have come to explore and understand.
I have now left Cadair Idris behind, i never did get to gaze upon her but saw many of her brothers and sisters and now I stay for the night beneath another equally mighty rock in the township of Barmouth nestled around its lower edge.
In a guidebook I read that:
If you spend the night on Cadair Idris
Either you will die and in the night
Will wake up insane
Or you will wake up a bard ( or poet)
Given my fear of heights I suspect it is just as well I am already a poet for I fear the mountain top might leave me insane!
My days pilgrimage ends at the last Inn to admire the spring water that seeps in through the rockface it is built against and I am reunited with those that told me of it, in this mornings b&b.
There I will leave this Solstice longest day, with a verse from RS Thomas spied in another guidebook the other day
In cities that have outgrown their promise
People are becoming pilgrim s
If not to this place
Then to the recreation of it
In their spirits *
Certainly if nothing more comes of this walk of mine, I shall be closer to my knowledge of myself, an inner journey, to become closer to my heart.
As I review my day I realise that I have found the eight treasure; the courage to face your fears with loving kindness, and still go on. Whatever our personal Cadair Idris may be is ours to recognise, face and learn from.
* from Saints and Stones, Davies and Eastham 2002