LLYN Y FAN FACH | Katie Pankowski escapes to fabled Welsh waters for an other-worldly swim.
by Katie Pankowski
Llyn Y Fan Fach is a wild tarn that hides in the shadows of the Black Mountains at the far westerly edge of the Brecon Beacons. Towering above the lake are a collection of peaks for high level circular walks. We had planned to trek to the lonely llyn and stop for a swim, before taking a mountain ridge route to Llyn y Fan Fawr; another isolated drop of blue beneath the Welsh hills.
The weather turned on us just as we reached the Llyn Y Fan Fach car park. What started out as a day of straightforward grey skies was soon imbued with storm energy. Charcoal lines of cloud fast approached and the air grew thick with rain. We hoped it might be a passing burst and decided to set off regardless, following the torrent of the Afon Sawdde upstream and along the lower Beacons way.
Gathering mist filled the dips in the hills and turned the surrounding peaks into looming shadows. We passed a series of waterfalls and a small trout farm in the middle of the mountain. The rain hammered down on the back of my hood. It had quickly carved water channels in the earth that sucked at our feet as we slipped up the footpath. So thick was the mist that I could barely see beyond my own hand when we reached Llyn y Fan Fach.
The source of the river looked like a small ocean, with waves of brown, grey and black violently rolling across its surface. Thankfully we found a stone rescue shelter by the dam, offering respite to walkers that find themselves caught in extreme conditions. The small bothy had no windows. We kept the door open for a little light and settled on a stone bench to share a flask of hot chocolate while watching the silver rain skidding on the wet mud outside. The weather appeared to be getting worse. We were cold, soaked to the skin and had no fuel to make use of the inviting fire grate. It soon became clear that we needed to review our route plans. A walk up to the escarpment wasn’t to be that day and we decided it would be wise to head back. The lake however had already cast its spell. Embedded deep in its history is an enchanting story. Before leaving, I was determined to attempt a swim in the water that Welsh legend claims to be home to the Lady of the Lake.
Given the setting and thinking of depths plummeting eighteen meters beneath the inky surface, it’s not hard to imagine mythical creatures dwelling here. In fact, it makes perfect sense that a beautiful nymph should choose such a place to make home. Versions of her tale differ but storytellers all agree that she was more beautiful than anyone had ever seen. When a local farm boy first saw her emerging from the water in the thirteenth century, he had no choice but to fall madly in love. The boy stumbled forward and clumsily offered his lunch to the lady. ‘Your bread is too hard,’ she rebuked, before disappearing back into the water. The boy returned early the next morning, this time with a fresh ball of unbaked dough. When he had all but lost hope she showed herself, only to refuse his offering once more. ‘Your bread is wet.’ And with another splash she was gone. On the third day she left him waiting until nightfall. The boy made sure he now had a perfect soft-baked loaf and the lady agreed to his proposal on the spot. She did so with a condition: ‘I will marry you. But should I receive three causeless blows I will leave you forever.’
“Before leaving, I was determined to attempt a swim in the water that Welsh legend claims to be home to the Lady of the Lake.”
The couple lived happily for many years and had three sons. The husband took great care, vowing never to strike his wife, but fate came knocking and over time the three blows fell. A playful flick of a glove at a christening, a light tap on the shoulder at a wedding and finally, a tender touch on the arm at a funeral. ‘Back home!’ the lady cried and she marched across the hills to her lake. Distraught, her husband tried to follow but the waters flooded his lungs and the lake rejected his soul. For many the tale ends with this tragedy, all three sons sobbing at the water’s edge. Others speak of the lady returning to teach the healing arts to her sons, of them becoming famed physicians. The lady is said to rise from the shimmering lake on the first Sunday of each August. In Victorian times entire families would climb the mountain in the summer sun, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. These days most walkers come to Llyn y Fan Fach in search of solitude.
I was grateful for the neoprene boots and gloves before even reaching the water, the wind and rain lashing at my skin. Great sheets of mist had rolled down and were hanging just above the surface of the lake, as though I had to jump through clouds to enter. Standing at the rocky edge, the angry surge looked wilder than my body could withstand, and I had second thoughts before allowing myself to be snatched from the damp air. The water was thick with mystery and it transported me somewhere different, entertaining fantasies about what company I might have; the lady watched my shadow above her bobbing about irresponsibly like a branch in a winter storm. With the haunted depths beneath me and heavy mist overhead it was as though anything could appear. In that moment I truly believed the lady could and would; a feeling that both thrilled and terrified me.
After struggling to put my wet jeans back on we emerged from the shelter, blinking through the rain to begin our descent. I would love to return on a clear day to this natural amphitheater: to see the towering escarpment high above Llyn y Fan Fach, to walk along the precipitous ridgeline of Bannau Sir Gaer and take in the remnants of the landscape’s glacial past. To spy red kites, buzzards and kestrels while floating through the lake’s fabled waters would be a real treat. Yet on a stormy day I learned that this place has a different kind of magic.
We reached the car shivering and limp, heavy with the fog that had smothered us. Behind us was an other-worldly swim and ahead the welcome of a blazing wood fire in an old pub.
Katie Pankowski | neapandspring.co.uk | @neapandspring
Katie is a writer and photographer showcasing her work on her blog, Neap and Spring. Here she shares collected tales from her travels across the British Isles; stories for curious folk who seek to be inspired by a place, uncover its quirks and find interesting characters along the way.