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Touch me the moment where these worlds collide,

the river’s cord unraveled by the tide…

and I will show you nothing – neither high

nor low nor salt nor fresh – only the skill

of tiny creatures like the human eye

to live by water, which is never still.

Alice Oswald’s ‘Estuary Sonnet’, ll. 9-14, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile


 

It was not long after I first arrived in Aberystwyth that I determined to explore the beautiful environs of the Dyfi Valley. This is not an unreasonable desire for a local, especially given the proximate location. You can see the graceful folds and rucks of the estuary meandering inland from the top of Constitution Hill and the nearer you get to Borth along the coastal path, the more alluring the region directly north of the seaside resort town becomes.[1] Though I had at that point spent some days exploring the Ynyslas sand dunes and the RSPB nature reserve (famous for its associations with ornithologist-poet R.S. Thomas), I had not yet visited Aberdyfi itself: a famously picturesque harbour-side town on the facing side of the Dyfi estuary heading towards Tywyn.

In the end a friend of mine, a PhD student from Italy called Marina, volunteered to come along with me. We decided to take our bicycles on the train rather than taking my car, which though charmingly old-fashioned, was not altogether predictable.

When I picked her up from her house on Prospect Street, Marina immediately apologized for the condition of her bicycle: a relic from the eighties with white handlebars and garishly-painted frame. I told her it was perfect, and it was, with a few years of cycle touring behind me I had learnt to despise over-prepared cyclists.

The sky was already spitting rain as we turned out of Machynlleth train station, heading west towards Aberdyfi, but our spirits were high. We were pleased to have ‘got out’, to have ‘escaped’. It is curious that though Aberystwyth is surrounded by some of the UK’s most spectacular scenery it can often produce a much-commented on ‘bubble-effect’ in the local residents and student population that lives there. Slammed up against the sea and the weather, the effect can eventually become nauseating, like staying too long on an unsteady, long-suffering boat.

But now we were cycling away, bound for the horizon, on a serpentine road that dallied on the edge of the majestic Dyfi estuary. In fact, despite Marina’s rusty bicycle and my own lack of panniers, we managed to pick our way along the ululating road with relatively little difficulty. Light rain drizzled on our gleaming waterproof jackets, muscles as lazy and soft as our bicycle tyres needed to be coaxed up moderate hills. Occasionally we stopped for a revitalizing cup of one of Marina’s specialties: sage tea. A few cars lagged behind us on the way and then magnanimously swooped past – drivers aren’t generally in rush in West Wales – they wait for the right moment and then drift by.

There is something magical about first times aren’t there? You see things vividly, clearly, unencumbered with expectation. It’s only afterwards that the hungry mind begins to devour and dissect. But when you don’t know a geography at all, you experience a second childhood: you must put out the feelers, learn through assimilation, trust your senses to orient and guide you. There was certainly something magical, then, about the tree-shaded road leading to Aberdyfi along the river estuary, with its coiled tendrils of ivy creeping down to us cyclists and the battered remnants of a dry stone wall protecting us from the cool but ruthless scrutiny of the river below.

We stole glances at her while keeping an eye on the road. We followed the river’s contours and dips, peeped through gaps in box hedges to ogle the glamorous houses hidden away behind them in flowing gardens. We glided over prim bridges, peered into village shops and wondered how much more road lay between us and our destination.

Eventually we reached Aberdyfi. Its beauty exceeded even my expectations. Located at the mouth of the estuary, parallel to Ynyslas, Aberdyfi boasts one of the largest expanses on uninterrupted golden sand beaches in the region. The prospect out towards the horizon and back towards the slumping ridge of mountains that eventually comprise the austere summit of Cadair Idris, was breath-taking. Even on this grey day in advanced winter-time the estuary was beautiful. It glimmered with a calm, mauve light, uninterrupted by any sort of river traffic. A few curious walkers, like us, moved like ghosts upon the beach and sand-dunes.

We bought some chips and sat on the beach, shared a roll-up and looked at the pyramidical burnt-out stacks of old bonfires. It got dark. We had half an ale in a pub strangely named ‘The Britannia’. It was rather gentrified, but a lively ring of male regulars crowded round the bar and the fire was warm. The ale, though expensive, was full of the subtle flavours of hop and flower. Following the advice of a local lady who served us our dinner, we peddled out towards the largest sand dunes before heading home on the train.

It was completely dark now and not easy to navigate but we had bike lights. Eventually we nestled in the sand dunes, with contented, warm stomachs. As we looked out towards the red lights glinting on the Irish Sea I remembered what the restaurant owner had told us of her girlhood here. In the summers, she said, she worked at the large white hotel behind us. When a shift had finished, they would all make their way down towards the sand-dunes in the evenings and watch out for fishing boats. It was a beautiful picture. As I watched the face of the sixty-year-old woman tell her story, and saw with my own eyes the affection she held those days of long-lost youth, I understood why she never left Aberdyfi and why she had chosen to raise her children here, when her turn came.

 

January 2016

[1] I have tried to illustrate the miraculous effects of light and colour playing over the estuary at sunset elsewhere. See Walk to Borth from Aberystwyth along the Ceredigion Coastal Path  

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