One of the seven wonders of Wales, Pistyll Rhaeadr, the waterfall above Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochant in the Tanat valley, stands over 240ft high. Although it doesn't have the volume or the width it is in fact higher than Niagara Falls in the USA and Canada.
The waterfall collects its water from the heather and bog moors of the Berwyn Mountains, which feed into the little Afon Disgynfa (meaning descent or landing place) and then over a series of rapids over bands of volcanic rock till it approaches the 240ft drop.
Here mudstone and shale are exposed, and the water is able to carve itself shapes and pools. Indeed, there are four plunge pools, four cascades and a fairy bridge. In summer, when rainfall is light, there are two delicate streams which sparkle and gurgle as they tumble over the rocks, but after heavy rain this changes and the peat-red waters thunder into the pools, creating walls of spray and spouts through the fairy bridge.
Winter and freezing temperatures turn it into a fairyland of ice sculpture where spray blown to the side of the falls freezes on the vegetation and trees, forming a wonderland of hanging icicles and hoar frost.
Many have pondered the name Rhaeadr; Welsh dictionaries will tell you it means waterfall, and yet it is two words, dwr meaning water and Rhaea. The Welsh are very good at sticking lots of little words together to ensure you get an accurate description. So we have Rhaea dwr, the water of Rhea.
Who was Rhea? Legend has it she dates back to the Roman battles with Carthage. The oracle at Delphi in Greece informed the Roman army commander that if he wished to defeat the army of Carthage he must carry an icon (a carving in black meteorite iron) of Rhea, mother of Zeus and grandmother of Hercules, before the Roman eagle onto the battlefield. This the commander did and the battle was won.
Rhea became the patron saint of Roman soldiers and we do know that in this little valley, where the Rhaeadr River begins, there was a Roman settlement and fort. The Romans, partial to wine, also grew grapes in the main valley after the monopoly laws were lifted in AD 240. They called it Tanat after the sort of grape grown here. Even though it is not grown here today, Tanat wine is still produced in Italy.
As you would expect, with iron age forts on top of the Berwyn Mountains, standing stones called after Gwyn ap Nudd (the king of the underworld) and viewpoints named in honour of the great Arthur of the Britons, the village, the surroundings and the waterfall are alive with legend and myth.
Ancient times always begin with the lands of the giants and, below the waterfall, are two great stones called ffedoga. The names mean 'the giant and the giantess's apronful'. One of the stories goes that a giant and giantess were sheltering in the Berwyn Mountains and they made a plan to build a house for themselves below the waterfall. Both carried a big stone in their apron to be the foundation stone. One night they began work and threw down their stones but as they did so the cock crowed and they were forced to leave.
Other legends refer to this as the Druid's Bowl, telling of the love between the giant and the giantess and how they are now held within the two rocks, their faces clearly showing within the contours.
There are stories about giants to be found in all of Wales and in Ireland, where they seem to represent a very tall race that came and settled. If I quote you a description of the early Celts (also Vikings) from the writings of the Greek Historian Diodorus from 400BC, he described the Keltoi in this way:
"Their aspect is terrifying... They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles beneath their clear white skin, their hair is blond but not naturally so as they bleach it to this day, artificially washing in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Those of high rank shave their cheeks but leave a moustache which covers their whole mouth. The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts with breeches and chequered or striped cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a large brooch."
We know the Celts settled in this part of Wales, as did the Vikings. The first intermarried and settled, bringing with them their metalworking crafts. The second came to rape and plunder, but both were much taller and bigger-built than the small dark descendants of the Iberians and indigenous population.
Rhos y Beddau
Above the falls is the Moor of Graves, Rhos y Beddau. We do know that 3000+ years ago the climate was much warmer and the sea level higher. People settled on hilltops above the dense forest and here we find the signs of earlier civilisations and fresh water wells used by travellers.
As the climate changed from the 'golden age' to a mini-ice age the ice caps enlarged and the sea level dropped by up to 300 feet. It was possible to wade across to Ireland, to walk across to Calais, to farm areas now under the North Sea. Forests died off in the cold air and people moved into the valleys and away from the mountains. They left behind signs of their values and beliefs.
The small circle of standing stones above the waterfall, with its avenue facing the midsummer rising sun in the northeast, may have had many purposes. We are beginning to understand that these ancient people possessed very advanced technologies and mathematical understanding of the star systems and the long passage of time.
The people of the Berwyns
Here in this small and sacred spot; people understood about living with a spiritual connectedness to the land they lived on. Their ceremonies and rituals were about giving thanks for the fertility that the land gave them; the giving of daily prayer in the recognition of the unseen and eternal forces that these peoples knew about. We know the Celts revered both landscape and sun and moon. The land was the mother, the matron who provided all things essential for life. Where the shape of hills could be perceived as a sacred landscape they were thus named and revered.
The Berwyns guarded the southern aspect of the holy valley of the river Dee, with its mountain of Mabon (Ruabon) the divine child, set in the heart of the valley near to Llangollen. The silent moon, the feminine deity whose name from ancient Mesopotamia was Sin, and whose regularity allowed the understanding and art of measuring and monitoring the cycles of life and the earth to be developed. The sun however, the exuberant child, drove daily across the sky in his flaming horse-drawn chariot to everyone's delight and apprehension.
The stars were the library of knowledge moving very slowly in a preordained pattern of precision that could be used to pinpoint time with great accuracy. Mankind has always sought to measure time - it has always been a fascination for him. The Godhead was as always unnamed and invisible, the essence of everything and untouchable and unknowable, except through his children, the identifiable gods. When you walk to the small stone circle, take with you a sense of awe and excitement of the ancients, who had their own wise men and women to do the interpreting for them, who knew where and how to hold communion with the Creator and his creation.
Dragon lines, lines of earth energy, often follow rivers, as the movement of water itself creates changes in the magnetic field, which can be measured and monitored by dowsing rods and other instruments. Water creates negative ions and can change the way your body reacts, making you either feel very well and enervated or, alternatively, making you exhausted and disorientated.
Those with an imaginative eye will want to watch the falling water to see if you too can discover the lady of the waterfall and the guardian of the falls, a monk in his long robes. She hides her skirts behind the longest drop of water and drops her long hair in front of her face. Certainly if you look long enough, all sorts of shapes will emerge. Allow yourself to be mesmerised by the continuously changing pattern of water and the spirit of the falls emerges.
The fairies live here in the dappled shadows of the trees and beneath the moss-green banks and stones. Their bridge on a sunny day positively glistens with all their shining wings and they can be heard singing in tune with the falling water.
You may wish to bring your camera to try to capture an image, or your paints to create one. A pencil and pad are useful as the beauty of the place often inspires visitors to want to write. Some wish to make music and write songs about the place. The waterfall is always alive with movement and has an amazing effect on many of its visitors.
Of course, we have our own dragon, the Gwybr of Llanrhaeadr. Above the waterfall is a lake called Llyn Luncaws. The story goes that in this lake lived a serpent with wings who, once every few days, would fly down the valley to the village and there seize children, women or animals, taking them back to the lake to devour them.
The people of the village got together and, as nobody knew how to kill the gwybr, a number of them set off and walked over the mountains for many days to reach the wise woman of the hills. They told her the frightening story and she listened in silence. When they were finished, she bade them sleep whilst she thought on the problem.
Next morning, when the villagers awoke, they gathered round her and she explained to them in detail what they had to do when they got home. As soon as they arrived back the men got together and went to the blacksmith's shop, where they worked all day and all night creating three enormous spiked collars of different sizes. The women worked together and gathered in all the linen in the village, sewed it together to make a huge sheet and dyed it blood-red.
In the afternoon of the second day, when all was ready, the whole village set off to the tumuli and great standing stone in the field at the foot of Rhos Brithin. Here the men dropped the three spiked collars over the pillar and the women wrapped the whole lot in the red linen. Then they set about building a circle of fire round the pillar.
The warning was given; the gwybr had been sighted on its way down the river. Quickly they lit the fire and hid amongst the bushes and hedges to watch. As it approached the village, the ring of fire attracted the great serpent and, as it flew closer, it thought it saw another dragon illuminated by the flickering flames. It roared with anger and threw itself to the attack, spearing its breast on the hidden spikes.
Again and again it attacked and each time the spikes drove deeper into its body until it dripped with blood and grew weaker. Eventually it could fight no more and collapsed bleeding and dying at the foot of the pillar.
The villagers, with the help of the wise woman of the hills, had outwitted the gwybr and once more the village was safe.
The pillar and the tumuli are still there, and with the farmer's permission, as this is private land, you can walk round the edge of the field to touch the great stone. It's called Pillar Coch, the red pillar, and may have stood there as a route marker, a grave marker, a river-crossing marker or a sentinel to those buried in the adjacent tumuli, for over 5,000 years. Please treat it with respect.
If you are wanting to unpick these tales. I suggest you consider the difficulty that early Christianity had with the pagan beliefs and superstitions in these isolated communities. Killing the dragon and despoiling standing stones was a Sunday afternoon activity after church, encouraged by the churchmen, yet the people knew there was more to the old ways than the church would allow.
Tan-y-Pistyll, Waterfall Lane, Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, Powys SY10 0BZ, Wales
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