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The three of them were already settled in the drawing room when Peter Williams and I arrived, sitting deep in the old chintz-covered chairs, whiskey glasses in their hands: Bertram Couch, Howard Gabe, John Mercer. The room had a faint, acrid, medicinal scent of old people; none of the furniture could have been bought after 1930.
I knew Mercer, the lawyer, well. We had met on the riverbank a dozen times, and now he got up to make the introductions. Momentarily I held two cold hands, brown-mottled, the veins standing high. "Give Mr. Gammon a drink," Bertram Couch said from the chair from which he hardly ever rose. Mercer poured whiskey from a Water-ford decanter. I took the glass and stood there tongue-tied, as nervous as a girl at her first formal dance.
Gabe told me to take a seat. He was very tall and bent, a surgeon now retired for nearly 20 years. "I hope you won't be bored with our little meeting. Just details to be settled before the season starts. You know the river, of course."
He knew well how unlikely it was that I felt bored, even though Mercer was now standing and reading out details of the tax assessment of the fishery, 1969-70, in the kind of impersonal voice he used in the courtroom prosecuting somebody for a driving offense. And the old man knew, assuredly, what the river meant to me.
The River Towy, as a geography textbook might say, rises high in the mountains of mid- Wales, by Carreg-y-ast, and flows 60 miles through Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire to the sea at Llanstephan. It is not a big river. At the widest part it is possible, if you are a strong caster, to lose an expensive salmon lure by dropping it into the trees that overhang the far bank. Its salmon are neither as big nor as plentiful as those of its neighbor the Wye, though a very big fish was caught on the Towy once, the biggest fish ever to come from a river in Britain. A man was trying for salmon at Felinfach when he came on it stranded on a gravel bank. He threw down his rod and ran to the Greyhound Inn where they laughed at him over their pints until his babbling finally convinced them and they went out to look. What they saw sent them back for a big farm horse, rope and tackle. They hauled it out in the end. It was a sturgeon, 365 pounds. That was in 1935. Being a royal fish, it was sent up to London to King George V, who presumably acknowledged it, but his message is not recorded locally.
Other strange things have happened, too. Up river from where the sturgeon was caught, under the shadow of Banau Sir Gaer, the cliff has been cut and riven by storms into screes and deep gullies; and in a hollow of the mountainside there is a black, glacial lake called Llyn y Fan Fach. A man named Rhiwallon, from Blaensawdde in the parish of Llanddeusant, was herding cattle on the shore one evening when a fairy woman came out of the water. As a man he was entranced by her beauty and, as a Towy Valley farmer, by the black fairy cattle that followed her. He offered her some of his hard-baked oaten bread, which she refused. He courted her next evening with a soft white loaf that melted her heart, so she married him, warning him, though, that if he struck her three times without cause she would return to the lake forever. They settled down in Esgair Laethdy farm and she bore him seven sons, but inevitably the three undeserved blows were struck and she disappeared again into Llyn y Fan Fach taking the cattle with her. She relented to some extent, though, returning to instruct her sons in the art of medicine, before vanishing again.
So they became the Seven Physicians of Myddfai, the most skilled in the whole of Wales at that time, which was the 12th century. But it was only in 1880 that the last Towy Valley doctor claiming direct descent died, and only in the last 20 years has the local custom of climbing up to the Llyn on the first Sunday in August to see if the fairy would reappear died out.
The physicians of Myddfai may just be a folktale, but Twm Sion Catti was real enough, and he lived in a cave high up in the steep valley above Randirmwyn where the Towy, which is here no more than a mountain torrent, cascades through ferns and red-berried mountain ash from one white-capped, swirling, bathroom-sized pool to the next. Twm, though he never gained the same sort of international fame as Robin Hood, did the same class of work, only singlehanded. He robbed the rich sheep farmers to feed the poor, made a hobby of escaping from jails and sheriffs and happily crowned his career by carrying off the heiress of Ystradffin (Ystrad is still there—the walls are five feet thick and you could hold a dance in the kitchen). He ended as a model of respectability, Thomas Jones, Esq., justice of the peace, of Fountain Gate, Breconshire. That was in the 17th century. His cave is still there, though hard to find in summer when the oak trees, among the white rock outcrops, are in full leaf.
The salmon spawn here in midwinter, running in from the sea from May on. Once we used to feel cheated that we had no spring run, but not any longer. It's the spring rivers that have been hardest hit by the Danish high-seas netting. The Towy still goes on producing its modest 1,000 or so rod-caught fish a season. The average size is modest also: about 10 or 11 pounds. The native brown trout aren't much to boast of, either. It's true you can catch dozens in a day but a half-pounder is a good fish and anything over a pound is a big event. It isn't hard to find the reason. The Towy runs out of high moorland, impoverished, thin in nourishment. Very little weed grows in it. Turn one of its polished stones and there is nothing like the rich, crawling life that you get under stones in more fertile rivers. There is little fly life either, just odd, sparse hatches of olive flies that seem to surprise the trout so much that they rise to them only spasmodically. Hardly anybody bothers to fish for trout on the Towy unless he wants a few for the breakfast pan.
Fortunately, these are not the only trout that the Towy offers. Somewhere at the misty beginnings of the river, when the glaciers retreated north, some of them rejected the bare-bones existence that the river offered and migrated downstream to the sea. They fed richly on sand eel, young herring and sprat and when they ran back into the river in the summer floods to spawn they were so utterly changed that until well into this century they were regarded as a different species. In the Towy and the other Welsh rivers, anglers called them sewin. They went by the name of white trout in Ireland, peal in Devon and Cornwall, fin-nock and herling in Scotland, morts in the North of England. When they ran back from the sea they were brilliant silver, pink-fleshed, wild to hit any lure that swung in front of their noses—for the first 24 hours or so, until the color of the flood which had brought them upstream faded from the water, when they became the shyest fish imaginable, moving only at night. Sea-run brown trout, from first-year babies that dropped down to the sea in May and returned in September, a pound in weight, to great heavy-shouldered fish that have spawned eight or nine times and grown to 20 pounds and more. And according to some, because of its long, winding estuary, and according to others, on account of its utter barrenness, the Towy and its tributary Cothi have arguably the finest run of sea trout in Britain.