An extract from our new Book of the Month – Matt Gaw’s fantastic The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain, published by Elliott & Thompson on the 5th of April.
We follow the rat runs created by dogs and fishermen down the bank, slipping with the canoe onto our arses and coming to a juddering stop by the water’s edge. The river rolls from under Hereford’s Wye Bridge like scalded milk, the whorls that spread across its surface are as big as dinner plates. The Wye. It couldn’t be more different from our last river, the Colne. Its flow is broad and powerful; it’s the fifth-longest river in the UK, stretching and twisting 134 miles from its source at Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains to reach its sister, the Severn. The Wye, or in Latin ‘Vaga’, meaning wandering. Its Welsh name, ‘Gwy’, perhaps rooted in ‘Gwybiol’ or ‘Gwyr’, has a similar sense, along the lines of crooked, wandering hills. They are old names for an old river; a river that hasn’t lost its magic, its stories, its sense of adventure. Perfect for riparian thrill-seekers.
This waterway was once busy with trade. Iron, coal, lumber, wheat and flour, wool and cider were hauled and sailed in barges and trows. There were even said to be pirates on the river: men and women who waited in the shadows of the Forest of Dean to board barges and remove bushels of corn. A lawless river, gloriously free.
The Wye lives up to its name; it is a place of wandering, of pleasure. With an undisputed right of navigation extending from Hay Town Bridge all the way to the Severn Estuary at Chepstow, it is one of the most popular destinations in the UK to canoe and row. I’ve been told it is a paddler’s dream: a beautiful river with meandering and tumbling waters that flow through wooded valleys and limestone gorges, enjoyed by everyone from beginners to seasoned canoeists and kayakers.
We push off into water that is just deep enough for a full stroke, not that it’s needed. The river carries us away from the town, running over flat rocks with the sound of polite applause. Sunday afternoon at the cricket. It’s hard not to be hypnotised by the constant movement of the water. The surface rucks and rumples round stones; froths, hiccups and foams over gentle rapids that don’t so much as rock the Pipe, but lift and carry her over with an ‘On your way, on your way.’ The patterns on the water’s surface are a map of the bed, the wrinkles and eddies, contours of rocks and sunken branches that change the flow even if they are deep enough not to scrape the canoe.
On the east bank the ground rises quickly to form a steep, wooded slope. Houses sit at the top, perched on stilts, flights of stairs traipsing down gardens that lead down to the river. The water level is high, bolstered by Welsh rain and tributaries, but the trees, flagged with rags and cluttered with river-crafted walls of wattle and daub, show it has been higher still. The sun, hidden behind clouds for most of the long drive from Suffolk, now winks between the trees, green and gold, bouncing off the water with a light like a Bonfire-night sparkler.
The warmth of the afternoon has brought other life to the river. The air is full of tiny wings. At first I think they are moths who have finally given up on the dim light of the moon. But these are caddis flies. They hang in dense, fluttering clouds, a brown, wind-blown blizzard, dipping back to the water from where they have sprung before drifting upstream on the breeze. There are so many that we have to paddle with our mouths closed, picking them from our hair and clothes while using our paddles to rescue those that fly too close to the water.
The river turns, heading south-west, and we come to a series of rocky steps that create a bulge of green, sun-scalded water: a river roller that pushes the Pipe on like the jerking contraptions of a theme-park log flume. A gentle thrill.
The far bank is awash with colour: explosions of linen-white blossom, cherry, a May mess of hawthorn mixed with candyfloss pinks, all set against the soft ochre of sandstone and the green of hard bud and leaves. There are so many greens. Hundreds. It feels like there should be more words: for the yellow-tinged green of the old grass by the water’s edge; the lighter green of new grass and meadow; the winebottle green in the jagged hearts of nettle leaves and flowerless plants; the darker shades of the small thorns, moss and fern, the ivy-draped oak trunks and pine. Peppermint, emerald, gentlemen’s club, old welly, bin juice, toad’s back. Small fish dart under the Pipe, clearly visible in the shallows, while in the deeper pools their bigger cousins glide against the current, their backs moony white.
We make camp on a small floodplain of water-smoothed mud on the east bank, which sweeps up to a bund separating the river from a farmer’s field and hiding us from view. Watching the river, both here and in the canoe, I have had a real sense of how the Wye fills the valley, or, rather, of how it made the valley. Millions of years of water on rock, of freeze and thaw. Laid out in this valley is not just a river of this time, but of all times. These trips, my life, are shorter and dimmer than a match flame against the grinding, scouring geological processes that have made this riverscape. It is something that is too much to really comprehend, or hold onto. It comes in quick, startling, lightning flashes that are almost like pulses of adrenaline. Perhaps this is also what draws people to this river, or any river.
The Pull of the River (hardback, Elliott & Thompson, 288 pages) is available in the Caught by the River shop, priced 14.99.