Country diary: a valley awash with sound

Tal-y-bont, Ceredigion: Along the banks of the boulder-strewn river, a subtle aural landscape emerges

Beyond the battered “No Through Road” sign was a lane I had often passed by, but never explored until now. It is like many similar tracks on the western side of the Cambrian Mountains: deserted minor roads that serve a few houses and farms, then fade and lose themselves in a tangled web of valleys.

As I followed the road, it narrowed and twisted. Beside it, an array of tall grasses matured at the margin of a steep hay meadow. The only sound was the rising wind surging around the seedheads and trees. I’d just reached the first gate across the lane when I noticed a path dropping down towards the river. Unfrequented and rich with fresh growth of bramble, the route was defined by substantial stone flags still slippery from the overnight rain. Close to the river, these gave way to massive water-rounded boulders and a narrow footbridge over the Afon Leri.

Grasses flower at the margin of the hay field
Grasses flower at the margin of the hay field. Photograph: John Gilbey

The water level in the river was low, with sunlight filtering through the newly darkened leaves and falling across the pools and riffles. Several rocks in midstream were flecked with guano where birds had perched; in the hope of seeing a dipper, I settled on a large boulder and let the sounds of the day close around me. In the shaded wood above, blackbirds called and chased in the undergrowth – crashing loudly through the crisp debris of last autumn.

As I waited, my focus closed in on the small group of wet rocks, noting how their positions in the stream forced the flow into ridges of standing water. The uneven profile of the river bed added further orders of complexity to the convoluted surface. As I sat perfectly still, the subtle movements in the space immediately around me became exaggerated – beyond these few yards of river bank, nothing seemed to have substance.

Time passed, and the afternoon grew heavy with the threat of thunder, but no dipper appeared. With no human activity to mask them, the almost random sounds of falling water and moving summer foliage filled the narrow valley. Eventually, reluctantly, I hauled myself up and followed the footpath onward along the edge of the wood.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


John Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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