The River Wye's Route, Herefordshire Life

PUBLISHED: 14:38 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 16:36 20 February 2013

River Wye in winter

River Wye in winter

The River Wye and its fascinating places

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
Oh sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

The poetic tribute to the River Wye is by William Wordsworth and entitled Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798.

Rising in the Cambrian Mountains the inspirational and influential Wye has humble origins. In contrast to some of its illustrious colleagues, the waters that are to form the Wye bubble and seep gently up through open moorland. Not for this river the drama and enthusiasm displayed by some as their waters cascade in torrents from the mountains. From its very beginnings the Wye has given the tranquillity recognised by Wordsworth and countless others.
Leaving its mountain origins behind it has some little distance to go before its first major port of call Rhayader in Powys. Here the river is flowing at a pace, tumbling over rocks spanned by the single arch of the towns bridge. As with so many other places along the rivers route, the development of Rhayader has been dominated by the river. The bridge itself, built in 1780, enhanced the towns importance as a crossing place and a crossroads.

Unperturbed by the rocky disturbances at Rhayader the Wye flows on through Newbridge to Builth Wells. By now it is wide and usually slow-moving requiring a substantial stone bridge with six arches to span it. Builth added Wells to its name in the 19th century in recognition of its role as a spa town with beneficial waters to be enjoyed.

Leaving Builth, the river is now heading for its temporary departure from Wales. Needing to skirt the massive obstacle of the Black Mountains, it chooses to leave Wales and enter England at what has become Hay-on-Wye. Having no discernible literary needs the river flows on past the picturesque town of books and out over the Old Red Sandstone that underlies much of Herefordshire. The Wye and its generous flood plain meander across the countys gentle landscape towards Hereford itself the place that, for better or for worse, has dictated the rivers fortunes for centuries.

Commerce has driven us to modify and adapt the river between Hereford and the sea. The earliest recorded trade on the river was probably much nearer to its mouth with iron being shipped from the Forest of Dean. Medieval times saw the construction of weirs to catch salmon but which hindered free passage for boats. By the 17th and 18th centuries the obstacles had been removed and flat-bottomed barges, known as Wye trows, were transporting coal to Herefords busy wharves and the citys produce (notably wool, corn and cider) back down the river to Chepstow and beyond. There was even a little piracy on the river. Not of the swashbuckling kind but, as befits the gentle Wye, merely the capture and abduction of a barge of corn.

But once railways had taken over, the need to keep the river navigable fell away with sport and leisure steadily taking command. By the end of the 19th century navigation above Tintern was barely possible and the river, left largely to its own devices, wound its way south through Herefordshires open farmland, flooding regularly but otherwise barely affecting mans activities. It has been, in its time, divisive. The vicar at Sellack, a little upstream from Ross, was also responsible for the church across the river at Kings Caple. Before a footbridge was put up his ability to serve both congregations was at the whim of a boatman who was not, so legend has it, always co-operative.

Then, at Ross, as sandstone gives way to limestone, the Wye comes into its own once again. Having, by now, surrounded itself with the wooded landscapes that so impressed Wordsworth, the Wye is ready to reveal its true splendour to us. Ross is often described as the birthplace of tourism in Britain. In truth, it is the river that deserves the credit. From here boating parties set out to enjoy the rivers most stunning aspects, south towards Symonds Yat (with its rope ferry), Monmouth (with, for a while, shipbuilding facilities) and Tintern (where making brass, the first in Britain, was flourishing). Once again, however, man has intervened with careless development or negligence along the river so that passage by boat is no longer possible. Fishing, canoeing and rowing flourish today.

The river now adopts an important administrative purpose, forming the boundary between England and Wales. As it passes through the Forest of Dean the reminders of its value to early industries remain and we have, at last, recognised the need to protect and preserve the river from further predation. Fifty-eight miles of the Wye Valley, stretching from Mordiford near Hereford to Chepstow was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1971.

Nikki Moore, Information Officer for the Wye Valley AONB explains: Our purpose is to conserve and enhance the area for present and future generations to enjoy, working with a range of partners. Among these is a programme called Overlooking the Wye a 2.8 million scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to improve and promote enjoyment and understanding of the Wye Valleys historic environment. This remarkable scheme includes the Monmouth Quay, the Piercefield Walks, Brockweir and many other riverside heritage and conservation projects.

The Wye, normally calm and serene, is not always benign. It can be transformed when heavy rain in the Black Mountains quickly creates torrents that hurtle through Herefordshire, destructive and sometimes fatal. And care is needed in the heavily tidal lower reaches. Near Chepstow there is a church dedicated to St Arvan. Legend has it that Arvan lived as a hermit but drowned in the Wye when floodwaters overturned his coracle.

As the Wye disgorges its waters into the Severn estuary below Chepstow there is one more tale to tell. Back in the Cambrian Mountains, 158 miles upstream, another river starts to make its way in the world. Close to the source of the Wye, the Severn itself emerges and begins its own journey, by a different route, to the sea.

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