‘The mad water rushes thro’ its sinuous Bed, or rather prison of Rock with such rapid Curves, as if it turned the Corners not from mechanic force, but with foreknowledge, like a fierce & skilful Driver; great Masses of Water, one after the other, that in twilight one might have feelingly compared them with a vast crowd of huge white Bears, rushing, one over the other, against the wind – their long white hair shattering abroad in the wind’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letters, vol. 2, p.853
‘What a sight it is to look down on such a Cataract! – the wheels, that circumvolve in it – the leaping up & plunging forward of that infinity of Pearls & Glass Bulbs – the continual change of the Matter, the perpetual Sameness of the Form – it is an awful Image & Shadow of God & the World.’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letters, vol. 2, p.853-4
‘The Precipitation of the fallen Angels from Heaven, Flight & Confusion, & Distraction, but all harmonized into one majestic Thing.’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letters, vol. 2, p.854
What had fired Coleridge’s imagination was observing the waterfalls of the Lake District in summer 1802. He would have felt at home in the valleys of the Mellte and the Hepste rivers, where fine waterfalls cluster, and would have relished the experience of walking behind the finest of them, Sgwd yr Eira (the ‘falls of snow’). (Coleridge did travel in Wales on more than one occasion, but not, it seems, in the Waterfall Country.)
A week ago we walked in the rain from Cwm Porth, past the three falls on the Mellte – Sgwd Clun Gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn and Sgwd y Pannwr – before climbing out of the muddy valley and across towards the Hepste, and descending the steep bank to Sgwd yr Eira. With recent rains Sgwd yr Eira, if not a crowd of fallen Angels or huge white Bears, pulsed with a machine-like energy. Water droplets from the falls hung in the air all around, enough to soak the body long before approaching the path behind the torrent.
Sgwd yr Eira, or Sgwd Cilhepste Uchaf, has long attracted visitors from far, and was the subject of artists from the early 1800s. An insipid oil painting of the scene by Penry Williams from 1819 is in the collection of the National Museum of Wales, and prints of the falls began to appear in volumes on the ‘beauties of England and Wales’. Seldom do these images come anywhere close to Coleridge’s freshness of vision and fecundity of thought: they were already slaves to a conventional landscape manner.
My photograph of Sgwd yr Eira was taken on 4 April 2010, from the south bank of the river, and was reproduced in The Observer on 11 April 2010.