Down at the dell

A luminous void for sky, not quite white and not quite grey. Wind, and a spattering of rain. A shiny gloss on the leaves, long yearned for. And a picture-perfect setting, down here, where the trail bottoms out.

Here is where the stream emerges briefly from a tangle and pauses alongside a great, gnarly, dragon-headed log, before wandering off into further tangles. The water is still, clear and shallow; the mud-bank reddish-brown.

It’s a spiritly place where creatures come for humanly treats: the log is topped and surrounded by multicoloured sprinklings of birdseed for the blue tits and great tits, the squirrels, the water voles. Dogwalkers stop to take in the scene – and there is much work here for a dog’s nose – as does the occasional family with small children on bikes.

Scrubby woods rise behind, while on the far side of the stream – which is inaccessible, with barbed wire strung through the brambles – there’s a flank of sheep-cropped hillside. To your left and right stretches the trail. From one direction it dropped, and dropped, to bring you here; in the other direction, a short distance further on, it will climb again through the trees.

From this spot, every way is up. So the mystery is, little stream – where do you go? We know how you got here. Like us you came down, we sensed your murmuring in the woods tracking the trail as we descended. But from here on…?


I could have left it a mystery, a bit of magic to muse on, but curiosity finally got the better. It’s taken a few years since moving to this area, but by casual exploration I’d come to feel I had the measure of the place. I knew its dips and folds, its tops and sides and how they joined up. The anatomical lay of the land lay in me too. But here was something that didn’t square. A capillary to nowhere.

I could have armoured-up one day, and Bear-Grylls’ed a passage downstream in search of resolution. Finding a humble pond, perhaps, or an unseen bog among the tree trunks. Or, just maybe, a lost civilization squatting in the cracks between the hills.

More prosaically, I turned to the Ordnance Survey. Even on the map the wiggle of blue seemed to peter out. But contour lines solved the puzzle.

The dragon dell, seemingly deep inland and certainly cut off from the Bristol Channel by at least two ridges of higher ground, lay barely five metres above sea level, and somehow, the interval between contours traced by my finger sneaked barely noticed around the corner of a hill before opening into a little irrigated plain where the sewage works lurk, and then, by cunning means skirted further topography to meet the Channel at Barry Docks.

Zero metres above sea level.

Which will in due course be one metre below sea level – as Greenland goes green – then two metres, then three…until salty water laps at the talons of the dragon log. By which time the little stream, its blue tits and voles, its water spirits all – and its dogwalkers, if there are still such things – will, perhaps, have found other places to pause.

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