A Paddler’s Guide to the Afon Conwy

The Afon Conwy is a true North Wales whitewater classic. Draining an enormous area, it holds water for a little longer than some of the other rivers in the area, and the tributaries are classics in themselves. Starting high on the Mignient Moors, it flows and gathers strength to meet the sea on the North Welsh coast. The Conwy is steeped in kayaking history, and has sections for every type of paddler, from placid touring to twisting and powerful gorges.

‘Upper’ Conwy – A5 road bridge to Rhydlanfair Bridge – Grade 3 (4)

Above this section of the Conwy, there are several more classic sections, and it is possible to kayak from Ysbyty Ifan to the put in, and indeed from even higher up on the moors close to Llyn Conwy. From the large lay-by just west of Pentrefoelas, it is a short walk to the river where you can put on downstream of the bridge where there is a physical gauge. Anything above three on the gauge is good to go, below that the river becomes pretty rocky and you risk leaving rather a lot of plastic on the riverbed! Once the gauge is underwater the run becomes committing, fast and furious. The rapids come gently at first with some nice ledges and corners and you wind through the Pentrefoelas Estate. As you past under the first bridge the banks start to gorge up, and from there on in it is classic grade 3 water.

Occasionally a bit blind, the ‘Upper’ provides challenges for everyone. As a large retaining wall is reached on the river right, you are at ‘Bryn Bras Falls’. A twisty grade 4 drops with a cheeky stopper waiting on river left at the bottom, but it is easily scouted on river right by balancing along the ledge on the wall. The run out from here contains some great waves for styling it up in a creek boat, then there’s just one more nice bedrock rapid and then a gentle cruise to the takeout.

Take out either on the outside of the river right bend (beware of the fences), or, more conveniently, run under the bridge and down several more excellent ledge rapids before taking out by the small stream and boulder on river right. A small path leads back up to the A5, and the Lay-by with Rachel’s Cafe caravan in it. It is worth checking this take out beforehand as it is easily missed.

‘Middle Conwy’ – Rhydlanfair Bridge to Conwy Falls – Grade 4 (5)

WARNING: YOU MUST IDENTIFY THE TAKE OUT BEFORE YOU RUN THIS SECTION, MISSING IT IS NOT AN OPTION!

A ‘two hit wonder’; the appeal of this section comes from the two grade five rapids. Usually this section is a continuation of the previous ‘upper’ section, however, it can be treated as a standalone section. See above for put-on info, again it requires similar water levels as the ‘Upper’. The first serious drop is reached soon enough, a series of ledges into a powerful hole with a rock in it – a rare treat in low water! It’s best scouted or portaged on river left. Shortly afterwards the second grade five arrives, ‘The Gobbler’. The name refers to the hole at the bottom of a twisting flume of folds and cushions that can back-loop all but the most astute. Again scouted or portaged by the path on river left. You are now deep into a Site of Special Scientific Interest, please stick to the path and don’t wander about trampling on the rare mosses and lichens. Several brilliant grade 4 rapids follow, but all too soon it is over. On river left there are a series of bright yellow marker posts and a number of high-visibility jackets hung in the trees. These mark the imminent approach of the end of the run and have been placed there after a number of groups have missed this takeout. A very bad thing to do indeed! The river turns sharply left and plunges under the bridge next to the Conwy Falls Cafe, tumbling under and over a series of sumped and unpleasant boulders. This has been the scene of a number of Mountain Rescue situations and is definitely a bad place to be! By the time you see the bridge, chances are it is too late – don’t become a news item, make sure you get out in time. From here it is a short walk to the cafe car park. Excellent grub awaits you inside the cafe!

The Fairy Glen – Conwy Falls to Beaver Pool – Grade 5

Below the ‘Middle’ section of the Conwy lays Fairy Falls and just below is the infamous Fairy Glen, the stuff of whitewater myths, legends and, occasionally, nightmares. First tackled in the late 80s, it has remained a respected test-piece of Welsh paddling ever since. While Conwy Falls has seen a few auspicious descents over the years, most will choose to put on below! The easiest way to access the river is on the river left. From the A470 towards Blaenau Ffestiniog, turn left over a small hump-backed bridge (crossing the Afon Lledr) and then follow the road up the glen. Various glimpses of the river are available to the paddler, and the best view is of Fairy Falls roughly half way up. Park in the large rough lay-by and you can follow the small path down to the river. You are looking for a reasonable flow and clean lines, but river-wide and brown will be an eye-opener!

From here the only way is down with steep rapids and blind drops. It all goes somewhere, but scouting is difficult. Double points for making it into the cave on ‘Cave Drop’ and collecting a magical glen rock – it brings good fortune, but will one day run out and need to be swapped… After the gorge opens up you are into Fairy Falls. Stop in plenty of time for a look! The second gorge is shorter but just as awkward to scout; all too quickly you are fired down the last drop and wash out into the pool at the bottom. Take out on the grass where the Afon Lledr comes in from the left, or carry on down to Beaver pool just below the A470 road bridge.

Lower Conwy – Beaver Pool to Llanrwst – Grade 1/2

From Beaver Pool, it is a very pleasant float down to Llanrwst, or even on to Tal Y Cafn. In big water, this section also hides some sneaky play-waves for the exploratory freestyler who is not afraid of paddling to their playspot.

Other Rivers In The Area

Afon Lledr

A mixed bag of hard rapids, easy rapids, very hard rapids and just plain great rapids. Doesn’t need loads of water to run, and it’s not run as much as it should be.

Afon Machno

Grade one through pleasant farmland with a feisty drop by the Mill for those who like to huck.

Afon Llugwy

You’d heard of the Llugwy right? More fun for everyone!

Afon Crafnant

Tipper Dam and gnarl. Home of the other Fairy Falls…

Tom’s Top Tips:

You need to…
Get a pasty from the Spar in Betws Y Coed.
Have a brew in the Conwy Falls Café.
Wander round Cotswold Outdoors and get shiny things.

You need to avoid…
Missing the take out on the middle Conwy!
Missing the take out on the middle Conwy!
MISSING THE TAKE OUT ON THE MIDDLE CONWY!

Useful Info:
Welsh Canoe Association – www.canoewales.com
Conwy Falls Café – www.conwyfalls.com
Betws y Coed – www.betws-y-coed.co.uk
Welsh Rivers Online Water Levels Guide – www.welsh-rivers.co.uk
Welsh river guide book – Buy It Here