Caught by the River

The Dulas Brook

Nina Lyon | 17th February 2015

Along an ambiguous boundary edge between England and Wales, Nina Lyon contemplates the natural lines and etchings, before coming upon man’s destructive scrawl impinging on these stretches of land.

unnamedThe Dulas Brook. Copyright Jonathan Billinger

By Nina Lyon

The story always went that Offa’s Dyke had to be built to keep the marauding Welsh of the hills well away from Mercia, because stories like clarity, but the line of Offa’s Dyke fragments from time to time, and there are many parts that were never even built, existing geographically like the Hatterall Ridge, or unneeded, as where political settlements with the lawless border people of Archenfield rendered fortification unnecessary.

I used to live on part of the old border, where the border veers down from the high ridge and follows a tributary of a tributary, the Dulas Brook, which meets the Wye at Hay. I lived close enough to the Dulas Brook that it ran over a ford on the track to the house, and it would sometimes swell after heavy rain so you couldn’t get out for the rest of the day, trapped in England by a watery border control. I had never been sure, though, at what point on the mountain the brook became the border, and curiosity got the better of me.

The Offa’s Dyke path, which runs along the ridge and down the side of Hay Bluff, forms most of the border, a discrete paved track with an official feel. At some point, if you follow the border’s seemingly arbitrary line as it turns away from the line of the hill, a spring rises. It is a spring so minor that it has no name, a spring among the many springs that rise along the hill, forming shaded rivulets along it and blue-tendrilled tributaries that finger the map.

It is hard to determine which tributary it is. The hillside is striated with giant claw-marks, the marks of other brooks. The border seems to run between the last two. The tributary is best described as the last one at the bottom of the side of the hill; even so, in order to follow the line of the border towards it, you would need to leave the sensible path along the crest of the hill and scramble down an escarpment so steep that scrambling itself seems unlikely. When sheep avoid a hill you know something’s up.

There is a small stand of firs to the south, next to the quarry where there used to be raves that felt like the surface of the Moon or Mars or some more distant and desolate celestial body. The quarry makes more sense at night. The brook seems to rise at the top of a dingle just beyond these trees. It runs down to the bend in the road where potholes and a sign mark the border: Welsh roads are, for some reason, superior. England starts where the fresh tarmac ends, and then the brook crosses a sloping field and enters a deep valley, where there is the rush and rumble of larger waters, the Dulas Brook.

Another unknown: from which of the little springs at the top of the forest is the Dulas sprung? I’d always favoured following it uphill, past the ford where you cross from the mountain, through the bulldozed pool with no obvious function in the most beautiful bit of the waterfall, a place where my children were once certain you could find fairies, although they’ve probably moved on now, sick of bulldozers and the men who drive them in the short-term hope of flogging stone. I used to fantasise about shooting them – the men, not the fairies – for tearing up this perfect, ancient stream so that parts of it could be carved up into someone’s fucking patio. A part of me wanted the stone cursed, so that all who cross it come to harm, but I digress.

In the proper woods – not these old, broadleaved woods by the brook but the pine forest further up, behind the confused human maze of old and new logging tracks and incompetent fencing, there are three springs. If you consult the old Victorian maps there are more, and with a little digging you can usually find them.

All taxonomies are like springs in the end, and all springs like taxonomies: they defy singularity, breaking down into ever smaller bits. They waver like the arbitrary border-line down the side of the hill, so that it is never clear exactly how England is supposed to differ from Wales, or where exactly it does; the nature of the wild Marches was always rooted in a political failure to taxonomise them as one thing or another.

The succession of waterfalls that mark the border down the valley into Hay are not named on the map, but the children categorised them over time upon discovery, so that the Bumpy Waterfall, the first and grandest, where the border-brook meets the Dulas Brook, is so called for its impressive slab of rock where the water turns, perpendicular, over the bump. The winter is a good time to find it, when the brambles and bracken that usually hide it are low. There is the Tractor Waterfall, bigger and wider and near a mass grave of tractors. Another mile across the fields and the High Waterfall runs down from Cefn Hill to the longest drop of all and meets with the Big Waterfall, where the Dulas Brook, fed by Esgyrn Brook, pour over a vast curved mouth carved out of time.

I had always thought this part of Cusop Dingle, a wooded waterfall-fed fairyland of green-gold light, the most magical place for miles. Descending the path into Hay here, where children would once have made their way home from the schoolhouse on the side of the hill, you could feel all those old supernatural rumours come to life. It was supposed to be haunted by some sort of mischievous sprite or other; if a haunting is the habitation of these sorts of ideas in the mind, then it made complete sense. The waterfalls down below thundered movement and possibility. The woods were never still.

Something bad had happened, though. It might have been a storm, at least at first. A tall ash had snapped at its base across the top of the High Waterfall. A couple more had fallen further down, and along the sides of the path were freshly cut tree-trunks. The steep-sided valley was strewn with branches in awkward piles. A deep muddy track had torn into the ground where the path used to be. Further down, bits of tree had been logged and stacked by the old lime kiln. The tall, wavering lines of trees and the long silver grasses by the path had gone. The tree-trunks were cut perpendicular, the logs lined up in rows.

I used to think that civilisation only encroached when you got into Cusop proper, the respectable side of Hay with its orderly houses and shiny cars. The sort of vandalism weather does is somehow less offensive than the human desire to intervene and clear it up, or, worse, to profit from it, so that the temptation to tidy up intervening bits of forest has its own incentives. Civilisation, if you can call it that, had come sooner than expected, too far up the Dingle for comfort. The hill people of the borders aren’t unruly or scary enough these days, and something needs to be done about it.

Nina Lyon will be among the speakers at the Caught by the River Faber Social taking place in London on Monday 13 April.