Country diary: for most of my walk I have the valley to myself

Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire: The thick undergrowth beyond the river path is an ideal spot for otters to lie inconspicuously

It was still early morning when I reached Cilgerran, with the sun too low in the sky to bring much warmth to the deep, wooded valley of the Afon Teifi. Set in a narrow gorge cut by meltwater during the excesses of glacial times, the river once served as an important resource for the slate quarries that crowded the banks. Shallow barges, on a varied schedule to suit the tides, would load here before travelling the few miles downstream to Aberteifi/Cardigan, where the stone was trans-shipped into coastal vessels. Today, the quayside and riverside paths are quiet, and for most of my walk I had the valley to myself.

A robin sings in woodland
A robin sings in the deciduous woodland alongside the Afon Teifi. Photograph: John Gilbey

My arrival was clearly not appreciated by a robin, which, singing directly at me from a lichen-covered branch perhaps a dozen feet away, made it obvious that my intrusion was deeply unwelcome. As I walked eastward, the urgent songs of blackbirds and other robins from perches high in the woodland contrasted with the languid sound of slowly churning water and the soft movement of the bare upper branches in the breeze.

Water, running from the steep moss-covered rock faces, made the path slippery and thick with mud. Beyond the fringe of wood anemones and celandines, the edge of the river was tangled with driftwood and other organic debris, and I found myself looking for signs that otters had passed this way. I didn’t find any definitive prints, but at one spot the vegetation was framed around a gap in the bank that looked well used. The thick, tangled undergrowth and fallen wood immediately beyond the path would make a quiet spot to lie inconspicuously.

Eddies in the water
‘The surface of the water was raised a fraction in a flattened dome, which spun off a line of eddies that slowly filled.’ Photograph: John Gilbey

Just below where I stood, slightly upstream of a bend in the river, some quirk of fluid dynamics caused an audible upwelling of the flow. The surface of the water was raised a fraction in a flattened dome, which spun off a line of eddies that slowly filled, like the disturbance caused by the movement of an oar blade. This looked similar to the passage of a submerged animal, but sadly wasn’t. Nonetheless, I’m convinced otters were close by, and on a future visit I hope to catch a glimpse of one.


John Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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