Located in the shadow of Cader Idris, Nant Gwernol near Abergynolwyn in mid-Wales, is a rocky river gorge, replete with cascading waterfalls, lush green vegetation, a myriad of streams and pools, and dense forest comprising of a mix of deeply-packed deciduous and coniferous trees, including oak, ash, alder and hazel.
Rugged peaks loom high above the forested hillsides, and hidden amongst all of this natural beauty, is the remains of the now long-disused Bryn Eglws Slate quarry. The narrow gauge steam trains of the Tal-I-Lyn railway, chugging noisily along the hillsides carrying holidaymakers, were originally built to transport slate from the quarry to the coast.
The Quarryman’s trail is just one of a number of pathways constructed in the area. It is approximately four miles (6.5km) in length, with some very long climbs and steep descents. At its furthest point it visits the ruined slate mine workings of Bryn Eglwys.
The pathway starts a short distance from Abergynolwyn station; the penultimate station on the Tal-y-Lyn railway, and follows the original trail that would have been taken daily by the quarrymen on their journey to work.
Rusting iron rails, protruding from the undergrowth are evidence of the area’s industrial heritage, along these, wooden carts heavily laden with quarried material would once have rattled. Mounds of quarrying spoil litter the area, and hidden in amongst the trees can be seen the ghostly remains of long-abandoned buildings, these, now derelict, empty and deserted, with shrubs and other plants growing out from the gaps between the stone blocks from which they are built, these structures over time, with assistance from the elements are gradually being reclaimed by nature, and returned to the hillside from where the stone originated.
Walking along the trail as it climbs steeply up from the level of the river, you leave behind the sounds from the cars on road, and become aware of the natural acoustic signature of the area. The many blackberry bushes that run along the side of the pathway, are alive with the collective chorus of bees and other insects, no doubt lured by the scent from the early-summer blossom. The sound of water is an omnipresent, yet ever changing sonic feature, the audible sounds ranging from a subtle onomatopoeic gurgle, as a stream bubbles up from the hillside, to the full-throated roar of a waterfall cascading over a precipice, crashing onto huge boulders that have been swept down from the hillside above by the power of the river waters.
Following a very steep ascent from the level of the river at the far end of the valley, you finally reach the remains of the disused Bryn Eglwys slate mine. As a reward for your effort you are greeted by an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, with extended views of the hills to the one side, and to the other the wooded river valley stretching away, back toward the slopes of Cader Idris, situated some short distance away.
The scarred landscape here, although open and exposed to the sun, is littered with derelict, crumbling buildings and infrastructure. Mountainous piles of mining spoil cover much of the area, and fenced off for safety reasons along the one side of the peak, is the actual quarry, now flooded, the sound of water dripping eerily from overhanging rocks, the droplets echoing around the walls of the gaping pit. The miners that worked here would have been suspended from the surface of the quarry by ropes and chains, and working by only the light of candles attached to their hats, they would have chiselled endlessly away at the face of the quarry using just basic hand tools.
As with the rest of the Nant Gwernol valley, nature seems irrepressible, and absolutely determined to erase the scars left behind by the area’s industrial past. Slowly but very surely the forest is reclaiming the area, in amongst the towering piles of waste rock and slate, grasses and low-lying shrubs have managed to become established. Trees too have somehow managed to take root over the decades since the site was abandoned. The ground-cover vegetation and the trees, have in turn become the home to a whole host of wildlife.
What I found immediately striking was the wonderful and very loud biophony, created by the combined vocalisation of the huge number of insects, including bees, wasps, hover-flies and grasshoppers, along with the calls of various species of bird. The many sounds combining and coalescing together, into a beautiful collective symphony. The grasshoppers there basking on the rocky surfaces in the warmth of the early summer sunshine, the intensity of their stridulation gradually increasing along with the temperature.
The return leg of the journey takes you down and along a very steep pathway toward the river, and back into the deep cover of the forest canopy. Re-entering the forest, the change in the acoustic quality of the surroundings becomes noticeable, the sounds from your footsteps, despite the rocky nature of the pathway are muffled, and with the outside sounds now obscured, the sounds from the birds and scuttling animals in the trees and undergrowth become more prominent.
As you continue the descent down along the trail, the sound from the river gradually increases. For much of the outward journey the river was located several metres below the pathway, here, at least during the first part of the return journey, the water is running briskly right alongside you, tumbling noisily down over rocks, boulders and fallen trees. As it continues its steep descent it creates some visually stunning, and sonically very rich and extremely beautiful sounding waterfalls.
The river; the velocity of which has by now increased massively, moves down into a very deep gully during the final length of the return journey. This chasm has formed over millennia through the incredible erosive power of the torrent of water. Located immediately below Nant Gwernol station; the final stop on the Talyllyn heritage railway, are two incredible waterfalls, the river here cascades raucously down into very deep and extremely clear rocky pools, the thunderous sounds of the water echo off the rocky walls of the chasm.
If you’ve ever listened carefully to the sound created by a waterfall, then you realise that the sound; similar to that of a river or a stream, isn’t just a single continuous event, it consists of many subtle interwoven sounds. Behind the rhythmic movement of its fall and the low frequency rumble that it creates, there is a myriad number of other tiny sounds present. You can hear rocks and pebbles moving along with the flow of the water, there are drops of water dripping from overhanging branches and trees. Following the initial sound of the water hitting the river, there’s the sound as the water bounces up, then splashes back down again. All of these sounds coalesce, combining together to form an incredibly dramatic and ever changing symphony.