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Travel and retreats: Source for the wander: tracing a complete river

28 January 2022

It wasn’t quite the Amazon, but Dixe Wills tracked the River Tay, then branched out


The Thomas Telford bridge over the River Tay at Dunkeld, in Perthshire, Scotland: one of 11 bridges Dixe Wills crossed as he walked the length of the river

The Thomas Telford bridge over the River Tay at Dunkeld, in Perthshire, Scotland: one of 11 bridges Dixe Wills crossed as he walked the length of the ...

IT TOOK him two years and four months, and more than 4000 miles, but the former army captain Ed Stafford did, eventually, become the first person to walk the length of the River Amazon.

As admirable as his undertaking is, however, I like to think that the main thing that stops the rest of us from emulating his struggle through the South American jungle is the dearth of an 860-day window in our busy calendars.

It was for precisely that reason that, in 2016, I channelled my awe at Mr Stafford’s achievement into a slightly more modest proposal: I would become the first person to walk the length of the longest river in Scotland, the mighty Tay.

At least, I suspect that I was the first. The true source had been located just a few years beforehand, thanks to a scientific study, and I could find no evidence that anyone had walked the length of the river since. To give the trip an Amazonian feel, I slept in the same make and model of hammock that the inspiring adventurer had used.

My journey began amid the majesty of the western Grampians on a windy saddle between the mountains of Ben Lui and Ben Oss. Taking advantage of Scotland’s progressive open-access laws, I was able to follow the banks relatively easily, as the Allt Coire Laoigh stream plunged into the River Cononish, which fed the River Fillan and passed through a handful of lochs, before — at last — the waterway saw fit to call itself the River Tay.

En route, towering mountains morphed into rocky hills; rocky hills gave way to lush pasture; and lush pasture became arable land. These fertile fields were interrupted first by small villages, then towns, and, lastly, by the cities of Perth and Dundee. Finally, the broad and confident Tay drove its way into the North Sea.

There’s something deeply satisfying about walking the entire length of a river: it’s like being given an intimate view of a whole life. You begin at its birth, delight in the child’s early fumbling efforts, watch it become more self-assured with age, then look on with pride as it reaches its prime. All too soon, alas, its course is run, and it flows unflinchingly into the sea (or perhaps a larger river).

In my case, it didn’t really matter that I had walked just 135 miles rather than 4000-plus, or that it took five days rather than 860, because, when I arrived at the mouth of the Tay, I was still overwhelmed with delight and a sense of privilege at having shared the journey made by this wonder of nature.

SINCE then, I’ve trekked two rather shorter rivers from source to sea. The beautiful Glaslyn starts a little below the peak of Snowdon (more lyrically Yr Wyddfa, in Welsh). Along its 16-mile course, it offers a proper Snowdonian taster menu: mountain views, lakes and waterfalls, disused mines, ample birdlife, feral goats, a heritage railway, and a huge sandy beach. Throw in the scenic village of Beddgelert, the historic harbour town of Porthmadog, and the Aberglaslyn Pass — a secretive gorge where I watched dippers floating downstream as they searched for food — and you have a real feast for the soul.

Dixe Wills The mouth of the Ouse at Newhaven, East Sussex

And, one balmy long weekend, I walked the 35-mile (Sussex) Ouse, principally as a way of getting to know my new patch, the South Downs. A gentle river, rising in a wood not far from Horsham, it slides unhurriedly through lush green pastures towards the ancient county town of Lewes, with its fine Norman castle, to slip into the English Channel at Newhaven.

My grandparents are buried near the river’s source at Slaugham; so, after a visit to their shared grave, my walk took on a meditative feel. The sure but steady flow of the water proved both a balm and an ever-present reminder to slow my racing thoughts.

Search for the source

IF WALKING the whole length of a river seems like too much to take on, how about getting out your deerstalker and meerschaum pipe and tracking down the river’s source? It’s a way of exploring the country that I’ve experimented with in recent years, and have enjoyed how much it has pushed me off the beaten track. It has also taken me to places I would never have thought to visit otherwise.

It all began with the Thames. On deciding to have a little holiday walking from the source to Oxford, I was surprised to discover that the river springs from a field in faraway Gloucestershire (a knowledge that has served me well in pub quizzes ever since).

istock Beddgelert, in the heart of Snowdonia National Park, the only village along the Glaslyn River

Coming across the simple stone plinth marking the spot in an otherwise unassuming field was like finding a piece of treasure. Since then, with some help from friend internet, I’ve ferreted out a hatful of river sources, with OS map clutched gleefully in hand. I usually walk and/or cycle the last ten to 20 miles upstream, which not only adds to the excitement of the final reveal but also offers the chance of seeing something of the local wildlife.

On my adventures I have gambolled with a trio of hares in Lincolnshire’s wheat fields (the Witham); climbed up the Pennine’s glorious Cross Fell, straight into the teeth of the shrieking Helm Wind (the Tees); and discovered England’s highest lake, where I was met by a storm-tossed green woodpecker, blown far from the nearest tree (the Aire).

Dixe Wills’s latest book,
The Ultimate Bucket List, is published by Icon at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78578-680-8.

Travel details

THE source of the Tay is within walking distance of the remote stations of Upper and Lower Tyndrum, the former served by the Caledonian Sleeper (sleeper.scot). Near the mouth, the 42 bus (stagecoachbus.com) runs from Tayport to Dundee.

For the Glaslyn, take the Snowdon Mountain Railway (snowdonrailway.co.uk) to the summit before dropping down to Llyn Glaslyn via the Pyg and Miners’ Tracks. The river mouth is not far from Porthmadog railway station.

There are infrequent buses (handcrosscommunitybus.co.uk) to Ashfold Crossways and the source of the Ouse, but a regular rail service from Newhaven Harbour at the end of the walk.

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