At the bottom of our garden in Wales is a waterfall. It is the biggest waterfall on our river – the Afon Cwm Mynach. That means ‘the river of the valley of the monks’. People must have wondered why the valley was so called until at the beginning of the twentieth century a gold treasure was dug up high up in the valley, which was the chalice and other possessions of the nearby monastery, buried to prevent King Henry VIIIth from claiming them.
The river tumbles down the valley and makes waterfalls and pools all the way. The glacier which used to fill the valley has also left great boulders which have deeply scoured potholes in them where the water has swirled round. As children, we loved to ford the river. We felt so brave, so agile! We even, at our own waterfall, somehow managed to clamber across a gully which, had we lost our footing, would have meant us slithering down on to the great waterfall itself, and then, inevitably, over the top and into the deep pool below. Now the waterfall is much lower, less terrifying, but still I cannot imagine how we dared to stretch our short legs across that gully and land safely on the other side. We used to do what they now call ‘canyonning’ – a pity a welsh term for it isn’t used instead of the American one. We clambered up the sides of the waterfalls and the pools until we reached the ford where the little old chapel overlooks the junction of the two streams which unite there. There were mine workings in the cliffs at the edge of the river, and you could wade into them until you could no longer see the daylight, and could only hear the ‘drip, drip’ drip into the black water round your gumboots. Your voices echoed. It was always my brother who led the way, and I followed rather timorously, not wanting to be seen as a coward, but glad when he decided to turn back.
The cliff on the other side of the river, opposite the bottom of our garden, is steep and has shrubs clinging on to any little pocket of earth they can find. Above it the trees, small and gnarled sessile oaks, climb to the causeway built for the pit-ponies to drag the gold ore down to the beach beside the stone bridge, where my parents thought some industrial process must have been carried out. But perhaps the causeway simply brought the ore to the dirt road past the farm and out to the estuary, where boats carried it, I suppose, on to Barmouth and the sea. We loved the stone bridge, and, inevitably, played pooh-sticks from it. I think I seldom won. When the cloudburst came that reduced our waterfall to half its former size, the water knocked down the beautiful curved parapet, and the authorities replaced it with ugly stone piers and metal rails, and made a tunnel beside the arch of the bridge, to carry any future cloudburst. I expect children nowadays crawl through it. We played between the bridge and the waterfall, and my mother let us, though the pool would have been deep enough to drown in. Probably we had to promise not to go in. But we could play in the shallows, and we spent hours there, making dams and diverting the water, until the cold made my legs ache unbearably – growing pains, they said. My father built a coracle and it turned round and round in the pool and was fun for a day. Better, really, on the Thames, which was where it lived.
Since then, somebody has attached a great rope from an overhanging branch of the oak that grows out of the rocky headland by the waterfall, and you can swing from it and then land in the pool. A great test of bravery. One of my granddaughters managed it, the other could not bring herself to do it. I don’t think I should have had the courage had it been there when I was a child.
Some years ago our farmer neighbour suddenly took over the land by the river, gave it a hard surface and put his digger, his fish and chip van and a mobile home on it. Then he claimed that he would take us to court to say that he had ‘adverse possession’ of it, having used it for nineteen years without any protest from us. When he finally gave up, we put a fence at the edge of it, put seats on the land and plan to make a wild-flower meadow there. But we hope, and have said, that all our neighbours are welcome to go through it to gaze at the waterfall, as they, and we, have ever since I remember.