‘For it is a vast wilderness, rendered very dismal by many crooked ways and high mountains ...’ so Camden, the medieval topographer wrote of the country through which I was travelling. It was a wild blustery day, and the sky was shot with slashes of rain as I struggled on. The ground was soggy and treacherous with thick, dark bog water. Once I caught my foot in a tussock of coarse grass and stumbled and fell. And I lay still a moment listening to the quick fitful gusts of wind careering over the waste.
In my knapsack, apart from cheese, spring onions, and bread, the only other things were two old guidebooks. I was on a trip from the source to the mouth of the river. And these were just two of hundreds of books which made their appearance in those times when rustic romanticism had become the fashion and this particular river had been identified as a particularly fruitful source of the romantic pleasures. About the source of the river, which I was now approaching, there seemed to have been little change. It was the same sinister region as ever. ‘Upon the mountain of Plinlimmon,’ said one of my guidebooks, ‘a clear day has scarce ever occurred.’ The account given by the other was, perhaps, less probable. A Welsh prince, it said, was here accustomed to have pleasure of his girl friends and then hurl them over a precipice.
The Wye, like most rivers, rises in the midst of a bog. It’s very hard to tell where bog finishes and river begins. Certainly you can choose – but the choice may be the wrong one, there are so many pools and trickles amid the boggy turf. I chose a trickle almost at random and looked up and out into the force of the wind. The mist was closing in now and the wind whisked white flecks of fleecy cloud round my feet. I screwed my eyes up, peering into this wind. Watching how, for mile after mile, the round-backed hills stretched away to the West. The air was full of moisture. Distantly I even wondered whether I could distinguish the occasional glint of the sea.
I stood here till my ears were filled with the roar of the wind and my lungs with the fierce mountain air. Then, like a stealthy army, the mists began to thicken. Later I was to read in ‘An Excursion: or Picturesque View on the Wye, 1797’; ‘The horrors of the mountain are increased by sounding cataracts and deep ravines. The voluptuary will find little to detain him.’
I was glad to reach the shelter of a pub. The other book I carried, ‘The Wye, a Picturesque Ramble, 1833’ had made this sound nice. It described the bread, butter, cheese, and eggs, the blazing turf fire. And the writer had taken particular trouble over his description of what he called ‘the substantial form of the serving maiden, her cheeks round and flushed, her eye beaming with innocent gaiety, and her full and swelling chest.’
No such sight, unfortunately, greeted me now, but the beer tasted good. After eating, I walked on, following slowly down the burbling river. The weather improved as the stream grew wilder. Soon I was no longer able to jump from side to side of it. I had to pick my way precariously over boulders. I was lonely. ‘No river passes by so few habitations,’ said one of my guidebooks, and this may well still be true.
I was in my canoe now, a construction of wood and canvas that had taken me on many expeditions. In these earlier stretches of the river, I was still too busy avoiding rapids and boulders to notice much, though I did see Clifford Castle, birthplace of fair Rosamund, standing up defiantly on the last bastion of the Black Mountains at the head of the Golden Valley. Then came Moccas, an old manor house by the river, with its oak trees a thousand years old; and Bredwardine with its graceful brick bridge.
I wanted to visit Bredwardine because it was the last home of Francis Kilvert, the Victorian diarist, and I ran my boat into the shore here, where the river flowed rapidly, a deep dark green. Here was the bridge with its toll house and here, perched above, on banks woody with orchards, was the peeling stucco from Kilvert’s vicarage, looking with its castellations and its bow windows like a piece of decayed sugar cake. How he must have enjoyed it, and how proud he must have been when in 1879 he brought his wife here just after their marriage, through the trellised arches that the villagers had put up to welcome them.
But Kilvert was no longer a healthy man. Earlier in the year he wrote in his diary that he had been ill; ‘I went out for a little while on the terrace this morning; after how many illnesses have I taken my first walk here and always at this time of year when the honeysuckle leaves are shooting green and the apricot blossoms are dawning and the daffodils in blow. But some day will come the last illness, from which there will be no convalescence ...’
A month after his marriage the illness came again and this time there was no convalescence. His coffin was carried out through those same arches that had been erected to welcome him home from his honeymoon.
There is something very pleasant about canoe travel. The canoe alters hardly at all the scenes through which it passes. I sit on the broad stern, my knees bent in front of me, and water drips down the paddles onto my wrists. My knees feel numb – there is always a lot of water swilling about on the bottom of the canoe.
In Hereford, I went in search of the riverside cottage where the celebrated Nell Gwynne was born, that attractive girl who rose from orange seller to King’s mistress and thence to Queen.
Hereford has never quite known whether to be proud or ashamed of her. Perhaps their attitude is best expressed by a couplet quoted in one guidebook:
‘Save for one fault – and who is free from sin?
Our city need not blush for fair Nell Gwynne.’
I wonder what the fault they had in mind was.
On the swelling side of Dinedor, a little further downstream, I ran the prow of my canoe into the leafy shore, and followed Spenser’s instructions regarding this hill by once more leaving my canoe and, on the shore, pressing my ear into the rich red earth. The instructions say:
‘Here, standing high aloft, lay low thine ear,
And soon wild ghastly noise of iron chains
And brazen cauldrons thou shalt rumbling hear
And oftentimes great groans and grievous sounds ...’
Could I hear them or not? The longer I listened the harder I found it to make up my mind. At any rate, I’m a great believer in the facts of this story, which are that the magician Merlin once set some men to work inside the hill while he went to keep a rendezvous with his friend the Lady of the Lake. ‘Carry on till I get back,’ he told them. But the Lady in question played him false. Some say she drowned him in her lake. At any rate, he never got back. The workmen are working to this day.
It was evening when I reached the most famous reach of all the Wye. The air was soft and rosy tinted. Ahead of me, a score of swans swam down the river abreast and then flew back over my head, calling to one another.
Then, like a dream, Goodrich Castle appeared on its crag at the end of a long woody vista of the river. Its towers and turrets were shrouded in trees and caught the last rosy daylight against a sky that was barred with blue. I drifted down towards them, as slowly they became one with the darkness; and then the moon came out and Kerne Bridge rose before me, a silver ghost against a back-cloth of trees.
I climbed from my canoe here and pitched my tent in the dewy green, surrounded by cows that were softly munching.
Next morning I visited the castle. I scratched the floor in various places to see whether what my guidebooks told me was true – that earth had been specially brought from Ireland so that no toads could live there. Then I plunged down the intervening valley to go in search of Goodrich Court, the home of a Victorian antiquary, built to be an exact imitation of a fourteenth century castle. One of my guides spent many pages in gloating over ‘THE ENTRANCE HALL, profusely arranged with stags’ heads and ancient weapons ... the ASIATIC ARMORY containing Hindu idols and a Chinese gong ... the SOUTH SEA ROOM given over to the feathered coverings of the inhabitants of the Pacific, and the PAGES’ VESTIBULE.’
Unfortunately my search was in vain. After I had stumbled for some while through coppices and among nettles and brambles, I met a farmer who told me that it had been shipped bodily to America a few years ago.
Back on the river, I was so taken with the beauty of it that I frequently forgot to paddle and ran into things, submerged branches, and once into the bank. And especially at that time when the woods suddenly fell back and there towered above my head the Coldwell rocks – those strange weather-beaten craggy walls of sandstone that rise perpendicular or overhang from beside the water. Stern and eternal they seemed, overhung with Traveller’s Joy and Clematis, and I noticed that my Guide here quoted a German Prince who, it said, had mistaken them for the ruins of some building. ‘Castles, towers,’ he said, ‘amphitheatres and fortifications, battlements and obelisks mock the wanderer, who fancies himself transported into the ruins of a city of some extinct race!’ How curious it is that the eye is taught by the fashion of the time one is in to see things that aren’t there! The same scenery continued with ever increasing grandeur; and that evening found me at the famous Symonds Yat, an immensely high chunk of land which separates a loop of the river.
I scrambled up the several hundred feet of precipitous slope and climbed onto a rocky eminence. In the sunset it was surrounded by gloomy yew groves, dusky, and filled with the soughing of the wind, and I looked down through the trees at the river gliding on its way what seemed miles below me.
I saw, as if it was what I had all along expected, the dark figure of a woman appearing to creep through them. What a woman she was! She was shawled and dark, and without saying a word stood and gazed into the abyss below her. Then she scowled and turned, and went back whence she came.
Next morning I went down the most celebrated of the rapids, the violence of the stream and the roaring of the waters impress a new character on the scene; all is agitation and uproar, and every steep and every rock stares with wildness and terror. In these more prosaic years, and possibly because it was a time when there had not been much rain, the river seemed to me to be placid, although impressive enough.
My next memory is of the loveliest building on the river, perhaps in the whole of the Border country, Tintern Abbey. My Guides complained of the hovels and the beggars that cluttered up the ruins; but I couldn’t help feeling that we in our own time pay almost as big a price, what with the nasty iron railings that now surround it and, just under the west window, a black tarmac car park. And what about the lovers? In the old days it was a solemn ceremony to stand at the west end of the abbey on certain lush summer nights until the moon had appeared amid the tracery of the east window. This would reveal the truth. But now that the gates are closed at dusk, I can’t think, if I was a lover in that area, what I’d do.
Half a mile below Tintern I heard the cry of a seagull, and noticed for the first time something strange about the river banks – they were rimmed with a thin line of reddish mud. For, below here, the Wye is a tidal river. What’s more, the tide seemed to be stronger than me. It was a while before I finally realised that, however hard I paddled, I seemed to stay in the same place. There was only one thing to do. I paddled my way ashore through the bright white water, nosed my canoe into the muddy verge of the bank, and climbed ashore to wait for the tide to turn. This reach of the river was absolutely deserted, and the Wye seemed strange and impressive here, the banks reaching up to hundreds of feet, strewn with boulders and wild outcrops of rock. I climbed ashore and found myself a refuge under some ancient trees that were knotted and gnarled. It began to rain and, as I sat beneath them, I looked up at their branches. It couldn’t be natural, I thought, for any tree to grow of its own accord into so many kinks and turns. It was as if they were bewitched.
Beyond the trees, rain was falling softly onto a little meadow. I sat eating my lunch and then fell into a dreamless sleep.
When I woke, I realised that it was later than it should be. The sky was darkening and the water had been running out for some time. And, what was more serious, I wouldn’t get to Chepstow before dark. I pushed off into the current, now flowing rapidly downstream, and was at once swept away like a piece of brushwood. I didn’t bother to paddle any more, but only aimed to keep the canoe pointing in the right direction. The river seemed even more lonely.
Bands of jackdaws were launching themselves into the heavy dusk from leafless trees and solitary birds wakened from their daytime sleep and flapped out with eerie cries. Above the woods, tree piled on tree, rose the naked rocks, towering into the dusk. What’s more, these rocks sent strange whispered echoes from one to the next. Sometimes it was only the soughing of the wind in the trees, but sometimes it was not so easily explainable. It was almost uncanny. I remembered Shelley’s lines;
‘Woods to whose depths retires to die
The wounded echoes melody ...’
Now I was drifting along the bottom of a sort of chasm. And a few moments later it became completely dark. I had nothing to guide me now but the rush of the current and the silver shape of the mud flats. I was still impressed. I was also afraid.
The wind began to rise and suddenly a dense rain storm hit me. And then I saw against the sky through the driving water the castle of Chepstow, jagged on its cliff above me. The current had taken me even faster than I had realised. I was at the end of my journey. And I realised with a shock that there was one thing I hadn’t reckoned with. For the tide was nearly out and on either side of the river towered black sloping mud walls, thirty feet high. Too soft to stand on, too thick to swim through, and made slippery as butter by the rain! What was I to do? If I didn’t stop the headlong career of my canoe I would be carried powerless out into the channel. Desperately I paddled towards the shore.
The lights of Chepstow bridge seemed to be rushing over my head and now I was swirling through its piers – and then I saw an old rusty hawser lying part submerged in the mud. I grasped it in both hands and hung on. And as luck would have it, this hawser was attached to a crazy gangway staircase that led up the bank. I staggered up it, pulling my canoe after me. By the time I got to the top, I was covered with mud from head to foot. I tied up the canoe to the gangway by a long piece of rope and set out into Chepstow to get myself something to eat. People looked at me queerly in the streets. I left a trail of black footmarks behind me. It was extremely hard to find a Bed and Breakfast place that would accept me.
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