…not as into a pool, stagnant, passive, motionless, but as a noble river that received its tributary waters and bears them onward in larger and statelier volume

Johannes Brahms

Nothing much was happening in Tregaron this morning… Andrea had told me Tregaron was known as ‘the wild west’ locally, but today it was somewhat more akin to a ghost town.

Nonetheless it seems that however short a time one spends in a place, one makes human contact, and as I was photographing the town square, a car drew up beside me. It was Pasha the taxi driver, wishing me well for my walk today. I commiserated with him about the news of the appalling earthquake in Turkey overnight. He was very affected by it; his family had felt the quakes. Very frightening.

Rather thoughtfully, and counting my very many blessings, I took the frozen path over the hill behind the town. It had been another cold, clear night, and the earth turned up by cows was frozen solid, long crystal shards of ice growing out of the hoofprints in the mud.

Once into the sheep fields, I climbed up over a mixture of turf and thick, icy moss, each axis rimed with sparkling ice where the sun had not yet melted it.

A curious, symmetrically-horned ram watched me with its disconcerting slotted eyes as I negotiated a stile next to it. Its fleecy legs seemed better adapted for life outdoors in February than those of the skinny creature behind it.

Despite the cold air, sharp on my face, it was only minutes before I found myself taking off my jacket and walking without gloves, in just one thin layer. It’s extraordinary how much heat one generates walking uphill. The trick is not to get too sweaty: it is easy to get too chilled that way, and hard to dry out cold, damp clothing.

My path was an ancient l right of way, a rising track bordered on one side with beech trees, buds tightly furled against the coming of the spring, and the low winter sun flickering through the bare branches as I moved.

Startled blackbirds flew away from me, calling their alarm with sun shining through the tips of their wing feathers. Where the track was sunken, it was lined with Welsh polypody and thick moss, of a fern-like branching type that is unfamiliar to me.

I did not meet a single person all morning, as though the world of people had simply disappeared. The track seemed lifted out of time.

It wound between fields across the landscape, sometimes with stone walls on either side, sometimes sunken, sometimes marked with hedges grown out into trees. There was no possibility of missing my way, leaving me free to look around, to the Cambrian Hills rising to the west,

and, as the track crested a hill and the misted lenses of my glasses cleared, forward, south into the smokey distance. On the face of it, it was beautiful: clean and well-managed agricultural land on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains AoNB. The view quite called to mind Joseph Downes’ observation from 1836: ‘Affording us water and trees, and yielding a dim and remote picture, wrapped in purple sunset haze, of some fine country far far down, where a chasm of hills gave egress to the water, it appeared quite an oasis to us travellers of this Desert of Wales’.

George Monbiot, however, has sounded the rallying call to understanding these seemingly idyllic landscapes of the 21st century as the real deserts of Wales – where our farming practices are so inimical to biodiversity that they have created ‘ecological wastelands’. I was conscious of the birdlife – but it was mostly of the garden bird variety. On and on the track wound, and I scared up mini murmurations of whistling starlings. There was the occasional thrilling frissant: a kite flapping off out of a beech tree above my head, gliding off perhaps for feeding time at one of the local red kite stations, which have been so successful in bringing back this bird from the brink. The oak woods of the Cambrian Hills had been the last place in Britain where a tiny remnant population survived before the feeding and reintroduction programmes started in the late 1980s.

The track changed character, now being little more than the stony bed of a water course trickling under thin sheets of ice,

and further on I found myself wading through a thick stratum of fallen oak leaves laid over humus-rich mud. As I laboured awkwardly uphill through the leaf litter I tried to remind myself that the oak leaves were sacred to the genius loci. A little bit of druidical magic had certainly been in the air overnight: temperature and humidity had conspired with frost and a particular species of fungus to create this hair ice – ‘a rare and fleeting phenomenon’.

Surely the river Teifi must somewhere be winding its way through the river valley below me, as the high track finally turned into a long road section and the birdsong gave way to livestock: the first tiny lambs stuck close to their mothers in one field, the next housed a jet black bull, breath steaming in the cold air, a ring in its nose.

Mild-mannered agents of desertification

Thus far, I had not seen anything at all of the river. I had crossed many streams during the course of the morning — the Avon Brennig at Tregaron, Nants y Fleiniog and Carfan coming up over the hills, and now the Arvon Brefi flowing through the middle of the hamlet of Llanddewi Brevi as I descended into the river valley. Countless more unnamed little brooks and flushes. All, even the water flowing down the ditches at the side of the road, was headed to the Teifi. Today’s walk in river terms wasn’t so much about the Teifi itself, but about its 389-square mile catchment, about the tributaries that gather and conjoin, and swell its waters.

It wasn’t until midday that I reached the Teifi at Pont Godoyan, a grade 2 listed bridge the stone piers and graceful arches of which span the river, now very much more stately as it meandered through its floodplain. A solitary curlew called in a field. A swan and an adolescent cygnet paddled silently upstream, and a heron lumbered its ungainly way down the river from me as I crossed, disappearing away round a bend.

And that brief meeting was my only encounter with the Teifi today. The rest of the day’s walk was spent up in more hills, on the other side of its valley. For a walk which I had fancied would be all downhill to the sea, there was an awful lot of climb today — of near Escheresque proportions.

At the edge of Longwood Community Woodland, I met Ajijo, sitting down in front of the visitor centre by its horseshoe fire pit to have lunch . He offered me coffee, and brewed it up in a little mocha pot on a camping stove, serving it to me in an enamel mug with a VW campervan on the side. It was a fantastic opportunity to just sit for half an hour, listen to the birds, and discuss such matters as the folkloric and spiritual origins of traditions of walking either clockwise or widdershins. I said would feel very strange to me to walk anticlockwise — round Anglesey, say — and more than a little unlucky. I would expect at the very least to be dragged off to fairyland.

Rested, and fortified by the caffeine, I set off again through the woodland. Plantation had been completely logged and re-planted with broadleaved native saplings. Longwood obviously has a special place in the hearts of locals: apart from the visitor centre there is a forest school, coppicing and green woodworking operations, and a beautifully built bird hide looking out over a pond.

There are green woodworked tables and benches in memory of local people. Unexpected hand-painted boards of poetry and quotations.

Where the track just outside the wood was an impassable morass of deep leafy and watery puddles

my path, just next to it within the boundary of the the woodland, was soft and moss-lined.

The first of the daffodils are in bud — hopefully all ready for a good showing on Dydd Dewi Sant — and a few slender clumps of snowdrops. Apart from those very few flowers it’s that quiet time of year when everything is waiting for longer days and milder temperatures.

The barrenness of the winter vegetation casts more attention on the shapes of the trees: the path along the edge of Longwood is lined with moss-covered beech trees, forming a kind of processional avenue leading up to the first of three Iron Age earthworks standing in a line, marking the approach to Lampeter.

The path took me widdershins around the first two, and I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, this was why I initially lost my way, finding myself halfway down the hill on autopilot before I realised my mistake and had to track back up again, and surely why I inadvertently shocked myself on an electrified stock fence. Huffing and puffing, grumbling to myself, I was herded by the beech trees past the second of the earthworks and down the track towards the third. I think I was only about a kilometre and a half away from Lampeter by this point, but of the town there was no sign.

Finally, dropping down beneath the beach wood, the university town opened up before me.

I crossed the last of today’s sky-mirroring tributaries to walk through the town, quite discombobulated by the number of vehicles and people, relieved to have reached the day’s end at the Royal Black Lion Inn. Tomorrow is a much longer day.

4 thoughts on “Tributaries”

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