Meander if you want to get to town

Michael Ondaatje

After a very thin breakfast of a semi-uncooked porridge pot, and a glass of orange juice in the only café open early in Lampeter, I set off rather apprehensively on the longest stretch of this walk. Down the Barley Mow I went, past scrap metal merchants, the sewage facility, and empty lots full of stacked wooden pallets and 10-gallon drums. The back streets of Lampeter.

Then, from one step to another, passing through the gate to the water meadows, I was transported into another world.

I had seen the loops of the meanders on the map and I had imagined the river as seen from above. Close to it was a revelation. The river looped and wound sinuously, folding in on itself. The banks were edged with frost, and curls of hazy vapour rose and floated dreamily over the current.

The footpath sometimes followed the curves, and sometimes cut them short, but each new encounter with a loop of the river was a thrill, whether it was watching swans preening, white egrets taking flight, herons coming into land, or even simply the frost on the grasses.

I had the whole place to myself, just gazing my full, while the frost sublimed into the chilly sunny air.

It seemed hard to imagine that this was the same river which I saw birthed in pulsing beats over the lip of the dam at Llyn Teifi three days ago. Here it curled, swirled, was bourne implacably seawards, now depositing gravels on the inner sides of the bends, now riffling with more energy, as it carved its way through the gentle inclination of its water meadows.

In places there were silty deposits permanent enough to allow saplings to grow in the middle of the river. A dozen mallards rose noisily from the weeds.

There had been sizable floods recently, though not as bad as those in January 2021. The floods had fed the little lakes scattered close to the winding banks, and the flood water had been extensive enough to jam leaves against the mesh of the footpath gates some way away from the river. The edges of the banks were showing visible erosion from the force of the water as it had swung round and ground away the outer edge.

I was glad of the hard frost which enabled me to walk quite swiftly over what would later in the day be extremely boggy ground. I walked on, spellbound still. On another lake, thinly coated with ice, last year‘s bullrushes, had mostly lost their fluffy seedheads. The first soft white willow catkins were out.

I had to wrench myself away from the river.

The right of way stops about four kilometres downstream of Lampeter, and it is now my path which has to meander, looping around the course of the river, crossing it twice during the day. As I took to the track at right angles from the river, I met a couple who were trying to figure out how to walk to Lampeter from the farm here, where they live. They moved here last August — two small fields away from the Teifi — and have spent the last six months not knowing how to walk up the river to the town. Odd! I mean, the river is right on their doorstep.

Because the route for today is so long (28km), and because my foot was becoming distractingly painful, I decided to slice one of the loops short. Once I was away from the river and on quiet roads, I was able to pick up a fair pace. In fact, the postman whose van route I was leapfrogging agreed that it would be quicker if he walked! We caught up for the final time where he was chatting through the window of his van with a friend of his, whose farm displayed a fine range of tractors, all sparkling clean and perfectly lined up.

The shortcut I determined on cut out two kilometres and took me over farmland and through some beautiful isolated old farms. One farmer wound down the window of his pick up to pass the time of day, and I told him I was walking to the sea. “Are you, by damn!” he said.

The slice did mean a bit of road walking, but it wasn’t all bad. In one of the villages seven red kites wheeled, tumbled and feinted overhead. Their call was a strange two-tone whistle I had not heard before. They circled so low above me the dramatic patterns of their plumage were clearly visible. Another consolation of the road walking was the view.

I hobbled down into the little town of Llanbydder that sits either side of a bridge over the Teifi with an Edward VII postbox fitted into the stones.

I reached the bridge at the same time as the recycling and bin lorry, which blocked the traffic sufficiently long enough for me to take some photos of the river as it flowed under the bridge.

O little town, provider of comfort! The Pharmacy was almost the first shop, I saw, and I restocked my Compeed, and took advice about the pain from the bunion. I walked out of the shop with some thin gel pads to put under my feet which promised the unlikely effect of ‘instant pain relief’. There was a bench outside the tiny church gate, and I sat down a while to rest my feet, eat a cheese and tomato roll from the bakery (which I needed to fuel me after that paltry breakfast) and to see whether the gel pads could deliver on their extravagant claims.

And by damn, to quote the farmer, they did!

The town even had some public loos. Rested, fed, relieved and not hobbling, I now had a 7-km road section to walk. The first four were on a busy A-road and I spent all of this stretch with my attention fixed on the cars and lorries thundering past, making sure they had seen me, and pressing myself into the hedges where possible. I was mighty glad to turn off onto a little back road for the last 3 km to the second bridge over the Teifi, back down to the river. It was a little-used road, and I was grateful for the leaf litter composting itself softly in the middle of the road, providing cushioning for my feet. It was so peaceful.

The sun had really warmed the air, and although the last of the frost still lingered in the shadows, hazel catkins were fully out and shedding pollen.

I felt quite dehydrated and then realised that I had run out of water. I stopped at a pretty little house and knocked hopefully; an extremely kind householder filled up my water bladder for me. A little further on the road met the river again, with further evidence of flood damage on one of the streams as it fed into the main river.

This was the hamlet of Maesycrugiau, the crag of its name being an extraordinary, towering rock which formed one side of the first chasm on the river.

There was nowhere for flood water to go except through the chasm

and this boiling river was a very different beast to the quiet, slow-flowing water which came out the other side. I photographed its mirror-like surface from the bridge as I crossed the Teifi again.

I had been apprehensive about the section of the walk I now embarked on. The elevation on the map showed two very steep, climbs and descents one after the other, right at the end of the long day. The first descent was down another of the ubiquitous old tracks, at first quite decent

And then disintegrating in quality.

I now saw that these meanders in the vertical plane were also caused by water at work, the Avon Clettwr carving out a steep-sided valley of its own as it took the path of least resistance to join the Teifi. This left me to haul myself up the path of greatest resistance, a mental challenge quite as much as a physical one. My friend Jenni got me through it by text from Abu Dhabi, mixing her lesson preparation for teaching Anglo-Saxon Beowulf with my walk: ‘Steepishly steep for step under sole, and for soul even steeper.’ At the top, I caught my breath, and looked back the way I had come, some compensation for the climb.

The final descent down an unforgiving road made for hard pounding on the soles of my feet. I was looking for a garden wall to sit on to adjust my boots and I found it at Faerdre Fawr where Louise was saving her half feral, tailess rescue cat from its scavenging tendencies by picking up food packaging litter from the side of the road by her farm. It was just so nice to sit for a while with my boots off, chatting to Louise and Paul, hearing about their move from Berkshire to West Wales in the first weeks of lockdown, exchanging city life for a small farm and holiday cottage. Not so much a meander as a hairpin bend!

From there, it was a short and more importantly, flat to kilometres to the days’ end at Llanysul. Paul and Louise said that the Porth hotel was an absolute gem, and the food was delicious. The hotel certainly was a sight for sore feet, and the food was exceptionally good. Louise promised me I wouldn’t be able to walk tomorrow after a meal there, and I think she might be right.

2 thoughts on “Meanders”

  1. Glad we could offer you the respite of a garden wall of the fishermans cottage at Faerdre Fawr. We enjoyed meeting and hearing about you walking journeys – enjoy the rest of the river

    Liked by 2 people

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