It’s intriguing that this section of the Wye valley has its own strange name, because it is suitably individual in character. The limestone walls are sheer-sided and canyon-like, particularly on the southern bank. The water current, however, is controlled by two weirs, and the intervening flow is slowed and widened so that the river fills the basin like a linear pool.
Once it escapes again, the Wye narrows and enters a prolonged east-to-west sweep where the dale tops open out to the heavens and the more popular Monsal Trail is sunlit and airy. Upstream, on the other hand, the equally well known Millers Dale might be more enclosed, but its own upper slopes are wooded and the canopy is mirrored in the river surface. Wherever you have a prospect of Millers Dale top to bottom, it presents as a single deep vase of green and the impact is as life-affirming as in Monsal.
Yet Water-cum-Jolly, despite its name, is shadowy and claustrophobic. Even by 6pm, dusk was advanced and two mute swans feeding there presented as flattened white shapes on an entirely black plane of still water. The only additional contrast came from the birds’ watery reflections, which had been arranged by invisible ripples into quaking bars of light.
The birds looked serene, and the tai-chi-like processes of their delving necks had a brontosaurian slowness and elegance. It is perverse that my oldest association with these animals is a 50-year-old anxiety that, should I venture too close, they could break my arm with a single beat of their wings. Who the hell dreamed up that nonsense and poured it into the ears of a 10-year-old?
I’m impressed only by the birds’ pervasive gentleness. Swan couples always seem in accord – in one study they had a divorce rate of just 3% – and even their renowned silence seems to originate in an unconscious anticipation between them, one bird moving in synchrony with its mate.
When I left in a darkness broken only by the sounds of owls, the two swans and the rhyming curves of their roosting necks showed as a single loose-knotted weave of light.
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