The Fairy Glen Gorge of the Afon Conwy is a river lost in time. It is a piece of the past, where kayakers travel a river accessible only to them that looks and feels the way it did before human discovery. But only because they have fought to keep it this way.
Snowdonia National Park, or Eryri, covers 823 square miles and is Wales’ largest National Park. Eryri’s landscape is steeped with culture, history and heritage. Its towering mountains and breathtaking valleys have fostered some of the world’s greatest climbers and mountain bikers—and a decent kayaker or two.
At the heart of Eryri flows the Afon (River) Conwy. From the high moors of the Migneint to the medieval port town of Conwy, its 55 kilometers provide some of the best whitewater in the UK. With six sections ranging from Class II to IV, it holds something for everyone, and on rainy weekends people travel across the UK to paddle its waters.
The test piece is the Fairy Glen, a three-kilometer gorge that winds from the thundering Conwy Falls to the peace and tranquillity of Beaver Pool. Some say there are two types of kayakers in the UK: Those that believe the Fairy Glen is the best stretch of whitewater in the country and those that are wrong.
As you push off from the eddy at the start, the river picks up immediately and never drops off. At good flows, every rapid is solid Class V. The rapids come thick and fast, yet a clean line exists on them all. At high flows, the rapids blur together, giving no rest between and the need to stay firmly on your game. When it’s lower, the pool drop style is as fun as it gets.
The river has a long history. Many of the rapid names have changed over time. The earlier more esoteric and perhaps pretentious ones, “Doors of Perception,” for example, traded for more descriptive titles. We have Sticky Hole, Monkey Drop, Speeder Biker, Pipeline and many more. But the one rapid to hold onto its original moniker is Fairy Falls.
The main drop sits conveniently in a break in the gorge walls, which allows easy inspection on the drive up and provides a viewing platform for onlookers. This technical ramp into a powerful constricted rapid is the highlight of the run and one of the most photographed rapids in the UK.
Sometimes looking around you in the Glen is difficult, as the rapids require focus and precision. But if you do, you know why this place is so special. Ancient oak woodland covers the top of the gorge, and the temperate rainforest status means that ferns and lichens hang heavy from the rock walls.
The Fairy Glen is every bit as special for its biodiversity as it is for its whitewater. The river is home to endangered Atlantic salmon, brown trout, and the otters that feed on them. A dusk run reveals horseshoe bats flying the length of the gorge catching the invertebrates that hatch from the river’s surface. It’s a magical place.
Like every river in Wales, to paddle the Fairy Glen, you need some rain. If it’s on and you arrive at dawn, there will be a group of locals for you to join on their pre-work run. There will likely be some there post-work, at dusk, too.
A community of kayakers has grown up around this river and has made their home close to its banks. Many have paddled all over the world, yet chose to call the Fairy Glen their “Home Run.” I am stoked to be one of them.
The Fairy Glen has proven the power of community, particularly kayaker communities, when it comes to protecting our last free-flowing rivers. In 2013 a multi-national power company (RWE) planned to dam and de-water the entire gorge. They had the support of two government agencies and the largest landowner in Wales. They were confident nothing would stand in the way. Until the kayaking community stood up, formed an NGO, and got to work, using their determination and resilience to achieve a different, more selfless goal.
For three years, through two rounds of planning applications and environmental permitting, kayakers have fought and stalled and blocked RWE until all the plans were abandoned. That NGO still exists in the form of Save Our Rivers. Today, Save Our Rivers assists local communities in fighting for their own rivers, wherever they may be.
Although Fairy Glen is rain dependent, it’s always raining in Wales, which makes this a year-round run. To paddle Fairy Glen, head to Betws-y-Coed, Snowdonia National Park, Wales. Pop onto the RiverApp, which will show you the exact put-in and take-out as well as flow levels. At a minimum, you need 1.3 meters on the Cwmlanerch gauge but it’s better closer to 2 meters.
Guest Contributor Dan Yates is a passionate snowboarder, split boarder, mountain biker, climber, and a poor, if enthusiastic, surfer. He has paddled some of the remotest and hardest rivers across Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia, his love for kayaking driving his love of the environment and his desire to protect it. As an environmental ambassador and co-founder of two environmental NGOs, Dan has focused on engaging the outdoor community in preserving our last wild places, be they in the heart of the Himalayas or behind the local village.