TOAST Magazine

A Journey Along The River Wye

TRAVEL & PLACE

Our theme for this month is 'Canvas & Grass' and our shoot depicts a meadowy, Arizona landscape, with a tent tied between trees. While it is little too cold to be sleeping beneath the stars, we asked the poet Nina Lyon to recall warmer climes and the time she camped on the riverbanks of the Lugg...

It was midsummer, or close enough, and we had a clear weekend with perfect weather: long days, blue skies, warm but not too warm after weeks of relentless rain. It was camping weather, and it was weather to be out on the river, and the kayaks, sat up in the boathouse roof, looked like dogs eyeing the chance of an outing.

The water levels meant that we had more options than usual. We knew the Wye like the back of our hands, and the Lugg, a tributary of the Wye that runs along the Marches from Presteigne down to Mordiford, a few miles east of Hereford, looked possible. It had the distinction of being legally navigable, at least, which meant no hiding from irate farmers. We had heard that stretches of it were wild and beautiful; Herefordshire in summer is the most magical place, thick with life, and we hoped to find a secret spot somewhere on a wooded bank to pitch a hammock for the night.

The beauty of kayaking is getting lost into the perpetual motion of paddling, sitting in the flow of the river and the movement until you stop thinking and are just subsumed into it all instead. Our aim was to do half the Lugg, sleep, and finish the next morning. In the hold we had a hammock, sleeping bags, a warm jumper each and food. We had checked the Ordnance Survey map and marked out strips of woodland at the river’s edge as possible places to sleep in pencilled question marks and arrows.

The kayaks and economical packing proved handy: the Lugg was not going to offer an easy ride. The British Waterways Association listed the Lugg as ‘derelict’, which should perhaps have offered us some insight into the trip ahead. We had planned on the assumption that we had cover a good four miles an hour. We were mistaken.

It was hard not to anthropomorphise the Lugg. It was a beautiful and capricious little river that behaved with the unpredictability of a minor deity. We launched in a steep valley of tall pine forests on either side, unsure whether we were in Herefordshire, Shropshire or Wales, leaving only a slim corridor of meadow by the river. We paddled behind low-flying herons beating an elegant path to the next fishing pool. We skirted families of swans: soft grey cygnets and side-eyeing mothers, and fathers hissing a warning that another foot closer and they’d be right in our faces. The banks hummed with dragonflies and damselflies, looping their way across the surface of the water.

We met a fallen tree on a sharp bend and slid the kayaks through a thicket of sickly balsam to the other side. Another stretch of calm, a cry of a red kite the only sound beyond the rhythmic splash and swoosh of paddle in water, met a couple of seconds later by another. There were ancient stone bridges and fish weirs, brambles and barbed wire slung across at neck height, sheets of flat stone polished by water and time and inlets with hazard signs.

Along the way we passed Pokehouse Wood, a steep bank of ancient oak forest once thought to be haunted with pwca, the pooks or pucks of British faerie myth. At dusk, the shape of the wood and the narrow river valley meant that cloud would quickly coalesce, lending the place an unpredictability that translated well into magic. At Aymestrey, on the other side of the river from the wood, the church had an additional bell rope attached through an external hole in the tower so that travellers could be rung safely across as night fell. Niklas went missing down a narrow inlet a quarter-mile upstream from Aymestrey and I lost him for a while, waiting with no phone signal by a weir in the hope he would reappear which, eventually, he did, having nearly been decapitated by barbed wire. It felt like the Lugg was trying to remind us of what it is like to take a river, and its folklore, seriously. Further along was Marden, where the Lugg pooled into the home of a malevolent fairy who once stole an ancient bell from the adjacent church and still rings it from the deep by night. At Mordiford, a dragon came down from the wooded hill above the village to drink every evening until the village could no longer bear its growing demands.

Somewhere amid this, we found three sturdy willows by a sandy bend far from anywhere, and landed for the night. Bread and cheese and warm dry clothes had never felt so good. A swan had left a feather, impossibly long and fat and white, up on the grass, which I took as a trophy for my hat. The sun cast the riverbank gold and pink, and dipped away. Swallows chased flies aerobatically.

I collapsed into the hammock and a deep animal sleep. Niklas sat beneath his tree with a book and a bottle of wine until the last light had faded. We underestimate how far north we are sometimes; long after sunset, light washes the edge of the sky. At some point in the long dusk, he said, an otter swam up onto the beach and stood there for a while, checking him out, and, upon deciding that they were up to much the same thing, stayed and appraised the river.

Words by Nina Lyon

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