And so the river begins its run to the sea and I will follow it, through all its many faces; of small trickling, mist laden moorland stream; to shaded pools, trees drooping their branches down into the water; branch choked, weed filled country river, fish chasing in and out of shadows; deep cool water, cows coming, lowing to drink; wide curves and loops culling and spitting the earth to shape ribbons through flood flattened valley, to white water, falling into gorges, rushing, pushing around boulders, grain by grain the water will carve holes in stone, shaping the land with its transient, unyielding force. Finally the river will widen, become a great, unknowable mass, growing away from me, becoming sea.
These are the rivers of Wales, we fish in them, trade on them, drink from them, grow towns around them. Around us they move, silently slipping from land to ocean.
First we followed the Tywi, my sister and I. No planned route, just maps and a will to follow the river as closely as possible. Away from the sea at Carmarthen, unfortunately it seemed that many people throughout history had already had the same idea and so there were roads on either side of the water, no footpaths just yet. We had a couple of long days of road walking; hot, sticky, boring, faintly dangerous, looking out for cars, making sure they saw us as they rushed, sometimes too fast, towards their important destinations. We walked, we drank water, we paused at bridges, in the welcome shade of tree lined gardens. Sometimes the river came into view, shrinking incrementally as we passed the small streams flowing into it; we said hello, we paused to admire. A nights camping in a field next to six small black ponies, woken early next morning by the confused owner; a night in a field high above the river valley, eating the usual couscous and mackerel, watching the sunset colours fade from the sky, peeped at by sheep and we reached Llandovery. The river changed from there, smaller, straighter, no wide valley to twist around in, it was coming from the hills and we followed it up towards them. The farms got bigger, the soil thinner, mountain sheep ranging wider for nibbles of juicy grass. We came to the change that humans had wrought to this river, damming and trapping it, filling valleys, drowning habitat until the river rose to the hilltops and became Llyn Brianne, a jagged, stretched reservoir, five distinct corners where water drained into the pool from separate valleys. We walked six miles around the curving sides, cars appearing far away and arriving to pass us minutes later. Stopping for lunch in the roadside ditch, dry and grassy, feet and head sloping up to either side, perfect for resting, fighting sleep. Out to the bridge on the other side and we were in the mid-Wales highlands, pine forests and wet moorlands, the river less now, running white around boulders, blurring at boggy edges. We stopped overnight in Dolgoch hostel, a strange dark building, still with its feeling of a scratched survival in the harsh landscape, huge stone flagged floors, gas lighting running pipes along the walls, no electricity, solar showers, boil the water before drinking. We meant to make it to the bothy but it was too far, we collapsed grateful into the soft sponge beds of Dolgoch and slept thick dark sleep in the silence of the valley. Rain came overnight and hung around the next morning, mist whitening the hilltops and hanging thick in the trees. We suited and booted up and pressed on - to the source! Fording the river, ankle deep, a friendly brown stream, cold water tingling my tender feet leaving them freshened. The next ford was not so friendly, knee deep and wide. Luckily, just as we reached it, four Landrovers came along behind us; we stuck our thumbs out and grinned, they took us as passengers through the next three river crossings. I felt bad about cheating.....but only a tiny bit. It was worth the time and effort. We got out where the river, a stream by now, split in two. The Tywi disappeared into pine forest where it would slowly melt away into bog, no track to follow any more and just a reedy, boggy mess of land to cross. We said goodbye and took the track curving around the side of the hill that birthed the river, watching the sides where the water drained down and formed the trickle that became the torrent that became the path we'd just followed, all the way from the sea at Carmarthen.
Less than three miles away, over the rolling, smooth hills, lay Llyn Teifi, source of another river, another birthing that would, again, trickle down, gathering strength, pushing earth away, carving a path to the sea.
The clouds thickened, tiny drizzling rain gathering around us. The decision had to be made; over the hills or follow a path down into the valley and back up again, more safe, less bog. No compass means we chose safety, not wanting to get lost in disorientating cloud. So we walked, following the bridleways, through the dank and dripping forest, tree roots holding peat sludge, leather boots long since saturated, wet feet, socks, ankles, legs. We walked into mist, following sheep tracks over hillsides, the maps showing a dropping down of the ground, the beginning of another draining, the water sitting in the ground until overflowing down the slope. We followed down to a farm, then a track then a road before branching up to another farmhouse, abandoned this time, rabbits scurrying away from the front garden, wallpaper hanging ripped from the ceiling. We peeked through the windows, the remnants of an elderly life still inside the house, wooden chairs and a worn laminated tablecloth, no frills washing powder and rusting tins of custard.
Dumped the bags and it was upwards, into Cwm Teifi and towards the lake, water rushing downwards past us and the mist clouding, confusing the path. A red kite slammed past my sister, falling into the stream and then crawling out, head pushed into the bracken. We watched, waiting for it to move before deciding that this was the bird's death and we had no power to interfere. Upwards to the dam, climbing the side to the silent stretch of Llyn Teifi, a lake, sitting quietly with itself.
We took a ceremonial mouthful of the Dolgoch-boiled river Tywi water and spat it into Llyn Teifi. The two rivers mingled and ran away from us as we followed them down the hillside, back towards the sea.