Nothing’s solid here; all’s sketched and coloured in shifting tones of water and light.

Jim Perrin, The Rivers of Wales

When I started out the forecast had been for rain on this final day, but the walking gods had decided on festival weather, and once again, the sun shone. It struck me as extraordinary on the bus ride out how quickly one can traverse the landscape, and what an odd thing it is to travel so thoughtlessly fast. I had become used to experiencing in slow time the life of this river, from its birth in the mountains. Today it was to achieve the last of its metamorphoses from waterfalls to gorge-carving to marsh to estuary to river-mouth, and finally its apotheosis in the sea.

The Falls at Cenarth were a terrific overture to this last day, and I was glad in a way to be able to enjoy them this morning, rather than having been really too tired to appreciate them last night.

I could imagine the terrific force of the storm-swollen river, scooping and smoothing and polishing the rocks into wave-like forms

although today it was milder in temperament. I would love to come back in the autumn to watch the salmon and sea trout leaping up the rocks by the old watermill, powering upriver from the sea until the water loses all its brine, to spawn on the gravel shoals created by those meanders. The miller used to poach salmon through a trapdoor in the floor, whilst others fished the river illegally at night from coracles.

The bridge at Cenarth was built in 1787, the engineer having learnt lessons from the spectacular collapse under its own weight of his bridge at Pontypridd. William Edwards removed volume from the span here by designing it with circular voids, which have the happy side effect of being decorative, although they were not designed to be so.

The quiet pools downstream of the bridge were spectacularly beautiful – beyond words, really.

It was all beautiful, even the massive debris creating a natural bridge from the banks to the island mid-stream out of entire trees and huge branches swept downriver. The forces involved must have been tremendous — all that water from the whole catchment basin, gathering and swelling the floodwater, tearing out trees and whirling away branches. It looked like a colossal beaver dam. No beavers here… although apparently there are otters.

Once again the route was to have a kilometre of climb and descent today, and after Cenarth I looked down on the river from high above, one of several long stretches of woodland covering the steep slopes down to the water. I had my binoculars out, determined this last day to spot anything interesting going, and at the start of the wood I spent a while watching tiny goldcrests hopping from branch to branch. Great tits and coal tits scolded me from branches above my head, and a woodpecker drummed at a particularly resonantly hollow tree. At the end of the wood the suggested route bent inland, but there was a perfectly decent unmarked road which tracked the river itself, so I shunned the fields in favour of staying as close to the water while I could. I wanted to see a kingfisher, as promised by yesterday‘s dog walker…

But kingfishers there were none, perhaps because the river is flowing too fast here. I did look very carefully, stopping frequently and scanning the riverbanks with my binoculars. I listened out too for the kingfisher’s call. I think I might have heard it, but the only bright blue I saw in a tree was a piece of agricultural plastic caught there in flood water. There was a dispiriting amount of that – and of traffic cones and even orange road barriers. And more detritus associated with bank collapse.

Most worryingly of all there were also winter stalks of strands of horrifically invasive Japanese knotweed which will eventually devastate the waterway if not religiously controlled.

But there were also cormorants flying overhead in formation down to the coast, and heron. And a blindingly white egret with a long, piercingly sharp beak, fishing for worms in a flooded water meadow.

Alternative methods of transport

Once under the ancient bridge at Llechryd, a secret section of the path commenced, which I reckoned could be my best chance of seeing kingfisher and maybe, if I was very quiet, otters. The river was as slow and green as the opening lines of Of Mice and Men, quite different to the startling blues upstream.

In general the atmosphere had changed: the banks were high and closed in here, and I was walking in shadow through the tunnel of what would eventually become a deep, steep-sided gorge. A grand, abandoned hotel contributed a gothic undertone to even this most sunny of winter days.

The path grew rocky and uneven, and despite watching my step carefully, I did slip over once, watching out too much for kingfishers. They still didn’t make an appearance.

I left the waterside for a while to climb up to the castle at Cilgerran, and to grab a coffee from Adele’s cafe, fully booked and happily jam packed with cheerful pensioners enjoying a Warm Space Day.

Woodland, especially characteristic oak woodland, has been a feature along the entire length of the river, but the woods are sadly reduced now little more than fragmentary coppices. Vast oak forest had once covered this part of Wales right up to the middle ages, before being exploited and cleared for farming, and lost forever. The largest of the forest remnants is the spectacular Coedmor just south of Cilgerran, now protected as an important national nature reserve.

Aside from sessile oak it cherishes a number of other deciduous trees, small-leaved lime, wild service tree, beech, ash and sycamore. The steep sides of the developing gorge trap moist air making the ecosystem humid and creating the conditions for the temperate rainforest to survive. The polypody flourishing on moss-covered branches is a key indicator for temperate rainforest

as is the presence of lichens. There are more than 200 species of lichens in Coedmor. Their importance to the ecosystem is suggested in their names – Tree Lungwort, for example, at the top of this picture:

Others rejoice in more fantastic names, like ‘Beardy Usnea’. At the time of the mighty oak forest they were used for medicinal purposes, usnic acid having powerful antibacterial and anti fungal properties. The lower of the two lichens here is I think an Usnea, but which of the many species, I don’t know.

I had honestly imagined that this last stretch of the river would be flat — on the map the path just looks as though it follows the banks. But the contour lines are so close together as to be almost unnoticeable on the map. The gorge trail is billed as ‘strenuous’, with warning signs prominently displayed.

Having fallen once, I took enormous care to navigate the diverse selection of steps, and stairs, some of natural rock, and some of more or less disintegrating wood. Leaf fall, and the general dampness of the rainforest made it even more important to be circumspect. The signs had not exaggerated.

But there was respite from the laborious scrambling. And at those times, the light was beautiful, and the water so, so lovely.

Coedmor is the second reserve I have encountered along the course of the Teifi, the first being the Cors Caron hanging bog and the third and final one being the wetlands at Cardigan, the beginning of the estuary. All three are rare and precious habitats, all three depend upon the river and in different ways it shapes an essential part of their character, and survival.

As Coedmor gorge ended the marsh began, and at last I saw my otter at the wetlands visitor centre.

Hard to miss, really

I must return to do some more exploring of this beautiful habitat and its more perambulating paths, but for today, I simply walked the straight route which runs between the Rosehill and Pentood marshes.

The first hide I came to, brand-new and beautiful, was promisingly called ‘The Kingfisher Hide“.

I crept inside quietly, and sat expectantly with my binoculars. Total tally: two sleeping mallard, a pair of moorhen, a longtailed tit, and one performing robin, who was sitting on the dead wood by the edge of the water, taunting me.

But it was beautiful, and peaceful, and bewitching, and I particularly enjoyed the play of the waterlight on the branches, and the papery rustle of the wind in the reeds.

The second hide was ‘The Creek Hide’. There were five sleeping widgeon. Facing away from me. Nothing to see here. Not one single bunting or warbler in the reeds could I see.

Naked reed

At the final hide, I hit paydirt. ‘Curlew Hide’ gave out onto wide view over the estuary. Huge flocks of lapwing stood facing the sea with their beautiful green backs and smart crests shining in the late afternoon sun.

Nina and Ken were photographing enthusiastically and had a great eye for what I was looking at through my binoculars, which had finally come into their own: a line of female teal were walking in procession along the shoreline. A cormorant sat on a dead tree mid-river, preening himself. An enormous curlew stalked up and down near the opposite bank, and, a real joy and surprise, three snipe were picking through the mudflats right underneath the hide, jamming their long beaks into the mud. Their plumage was exquisite, beautiful stripes of buff and black. We were all delighted.

The seaward edge of the wetland affords wonderful views of another castle, this one at Cardigan. Saved, like so many attractions on this river, for another day.

Cardigan’s Welsh name is Aberteifi — ‘the Mouth of the Teifi. My own route now joined two waymarked national trails, the Ceredigion Coastal Path and the very much grander Welsh Coastal Path. Here was the last of the many Teifi bridges of which I have become so fond

and some firsts: boats, and seaweed. Incontrovertible signs that the river, and my walk, was coming to an end.

The light was starting to go, and, eager to get to the sea before the sun set, I turned the final bend in the river proper, surprised by how elegiac the realisation was.

I was struck then by the first real estuarine view, where the Teifi seemed to lose its identity in the transitional environment of mud flats and salt marsh, neither river nor sea, neither dry land nor water.

And now beyond the dunes was the sea at Poppit Sands, waves breaking far out at the lowest point of the tide.

The channel of the Teifi which enables boats to get out to sea curved way over to my right, but I stood, at last, on sand ridges that are memories of the receding tide, with my feet in the shallow pools of brackish water that was, here at the end of the river, both salt and fresh.

Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains

Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

Post Script

The five days have gone so quickly and I would like to thank you all for following this journey, and for your much-appreciated comments, messages and texts. Solo walking never really is solo, as one is walking the human landscape as well as the physical. It’s good to be away and so good to stay in touch.

The Teifi Waterside Hotel is a spectacularly luxurious treat to end a walk like this, but also a special place to eat and drink and most importantly rest, and watch the river disappear and reappear with the ebb and flow of the tide. I have written this last post over the course of a whole morning looking out to sea, watching flocks of widgeon and shelduck picking about in the weeds and saltmarsh, and being spoiled rotten by the staff. Come to this part of Wales, if you don’t know it! It’s beautiful. 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

9 thoughts on “Estuary”

  1. What a visual and descriptive treat your journey has been! Thank you for sharing it Sophie. I need to ‘brave up’ and do some exploring of my own. It really is a beautiful part of the world 🥰.
    Are you taking a break from teaching to explore? Xx

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I salute your decision! I’m in a similar career point and like the idea of taking a gap year to re-energise and reassess. Well done you! X

        Liked by 1 person

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