A Picturesque Wye Tour, Part One: Symonds Yat and the Kymin

The Wye Valley holds as a particular status in the historical story of British tourism. 18th century priest and author William Gilpin kick-started the notion of Picturesque, feeding into the broader Romantic movement, with his 1772 treatise Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770.

As the Napoleonic Wars raged across the continent, the Wye Tour become popular as a domestic replacement for the Grand Tour.

I am lucky enough to live in an age where Schengen has replaced Napoleon, but this borderland between Wales and England remains worth a visit. Camping with my parents, we undertook our own mini version of the Wye Tour.

Looking North from Symonds Yat Rock

A walk to Symonds Yat Rock

Our campsite was only a few miles from Symonds Yat Rock, possibly the Wye's ultimate Ground Zero of (natural) Picturesque.

Located high above the river at it sweeps around a series of curves and loops, and with a car park nearby, the viewpoint is a family favourite. I link to the Ordance Survey-using Streetmap there, because to me no holiday in the British Isles is complete without a 1:25000 or 1:50000 OS map. What better target to stroll towards than one of those 360-degree rings of blue cones. It's sad their online/mobile presence hasn't competed with the likes of Google.

That said, I discovered the other week that Bing offers an OS maps option - and much better than Streetmap, since it has, you know, actually free scrolling and stuff, like it's not 1999. However, I don't think it's available internationally, which dissuades me from using it as standard here...

Anyway, I am going off a cartographical tangent here, so back to the stroll.

Walking through the light woodland of the peninsula we stopped to observe butterflies and spot newts in the stream running alongside the footpath.

Newts Butterfly
Panorama of the River Wye from Symonds Yat Rock

Symonds Yat Rock

On this first weekend of September, the viewpoint was still fairly busy with a few families and groups of visitors. The breeding peregrine falcons, however, were nowhere to be seen, so I amused myself taking long-lens shots of walkers and canoeists by and on the river below.

I'd been here before, or somewhere very near here at least, to go climbing on a Scout camp - it may well have been the rock faces on the far right of the panorama above. I was 12, and I remember the view being spectacular. (I was from Cambridgeshire, and it doesn't take much gradient in the landscape to out-spectacular Cambridgeshire.)

Now, though, being bigger and better-travelled, it didn't seem that spectacular. Don't get me wrong, it's still a beautiful view. The curves of the Wye, with lush forested banks, create a picture-perfect scene and no mistake. But it seemed to me "picture perfect" in a relatively tame, pastoral sense, and I was forced to reflect on the flipside of "picturesque": picturesque as perjorative.

As an ESL speaker looking it up in a dictionary, it would be easy to miss this. The OED offers "visually attractive, especially in a quaint or charming way" which seems complementary enough, but this misses the British talent for backhanded compliments, veiled insults and damning with faint praise.

It's that "quaint", which comes with potential implications of being old-fashioned, even obsolete; perhaps small, humble, even flimsy... The bottom line is this: the view from Symonds Yat, a view of the Himalayas, or of Manhattan, are all "visually attracive", they may all be "of, suggesting, or suitable for a picture" - but you couldn't call Everest or NYC quaint, so you wouldn't call them picturesque.

So it is to my mind that labelling somewhere "picturesque" is to imply it is pretty, but in a small and cutesy way, not in a jaw-dropping, WOW! way.

Did this connotation exist back when Gilpin kick-started Picturesque? Or is a product of my cynical 21st-century, post-747 mind - owing more than a little to the fact that, as it happened, I was overlooking this far grander valley in BC barely three months prior? Gilpin and his contemporaries lacked the ability to pop over to Canada - nor did they have limitless access to endless earthporn from their bedroom, growing up with hi-res photography and HD video of the most impressive, unusual and dramatic landscapes from around the globe.

River Wye from Symonds Yat Rock River Wye from Symonds Yat Rock River Wye from Symonds Yat Rock

Symond's Yat village

We slipped away from the crowds at the viewpoint and found a bench on the other, western side of the peninsula for lunch. Climbing the fence onto a thankfully flat rock outcropping a hundred feet or two above the river afforded this view of the village below. Definitely picturesque.

Symonds Yat Symonds Yat

Gilpin and Picturesque

So what was Gilpin's vison of Picturesque?

Here's the thing. I knew of this book, although hadn't actually read it, before I went on the trip. When it came to write up time, I thought I was onto a sure winner. Skim through the book, structure my blog around his work... A sort of contemporary update, "retracing the footsteps", people love that shit, deftly cutting and forth between 1772 and 2012, it couldn't fail... I had a proper Narrative Structure, I had a Hook, like an actual Writer.

Problem: when I dug up the book on Google Books, I found it... really, really boring. I honestly couldn't see anything in there I felt like weaving throughout my piece, deftly or otherwise.

After various introductions, contents, translations of Latin phrases, &c;, and a diary of his journey from Kingston ("in Surry") to the Wye, Gilpin reaches his core topic: the ideal of Picturesque, and the Wye as an example or archetype of it:

The most perfect river-views, thus circumstances, are composed of four grand parts: the area, which is the river itself; the two side-screens, which are the opposite banks, and lead the perspective; and the front-screen, which points out the winding of the river. [...]

The views on the Wye, though composed of these simple parts, are yet exceedingly varied.

They are varied, first, by the contrast of the screens sometimes one of the side-screens is elevanted, sometimes the other, and sometimes the front; or the side-screens may be lofty, and the front either high or low.

Again, they are varied by the folding of the side-screens over each other; and hiding more or less of the front. When none of the front is discovered, the folding-side either winds around...

And so he continues, for page after page. It's pretty if the river curves left. It's pretty if it curves right. It's pretty if there's a hill behind it. It's pretty if there's a hill to the side of it. It's pretty if there are woods around it. It's pretty if there are rocks beside it...

Perhaps I am just a giant philistine, but my main feeling at this point was being highly impressed at Gilpin's ability to discuss beautiful places and the nature of beauty in general and make it so stultifyingly un-beautiful. It's hard for me to see how this text would kick-start a major tourist boom. Perhaps the pictures sold it... I'm sure more people skim their eyes down the right of these pages than actually plough through my gubbins, after all.

The Kymin

The return walk to the campsite yielded no further views, and my appetites for vistas was not yet sated. My appetite for walking, however, was definitely sated. So, spying another blue viewpoint icon on the trusty OS map just a few miles up the road, I suggested popping up there in the car.

This National Trust property consists of nine acres of land and two curious Georgian buildings. The Round House, despite its crenellated design, was built for the decidedly non-miltary purpose of a dining and banqueting, by the Monmouth Picnic Club in 1794.

The Naval Temple followed in 1800, celebrating sixteen 18th century British Navy admirals and their respective victories.

For those interested in exploring the naval history thoroughly, Wikipedia lists all sixteen. For those content with a tl;dr, the photo to the right suffices - the Union Jack flying triumphantly above the flags of navies vanquished — Dutch, Spanish and French — with Britannia perched on top.

Building a quaint fake castle with a nice view for having picnics; building a vaguely pompous pseudo-classical temple to military triumphalism. Both seem very British. The former the kind of thing which lures me into a gentle kitschy patriotism, the latter the kind of things that reminds me, as someone who studied the rise and development of nationalism and its seemingly inexorable links with ethnic conflict, why I generally attempt to remain decidedly non-nationalistic.

A moment please to give credit to a probably unsung architectural feature here - the fence. Call me weird, but that fence is magnificent. Curving backwards along its wavy course as if bowed the wind, this small detail makes it fit the scene, right, a hundred times better than a standard vertical fence.

Wikipedia's photo of this spot from 2009 contains no fence, so it is presumably recent work. A hat tip to whoever was responsible for this!

The Kymin Naval Temple at The Kymin View from The Kymin

The view

And so, the view. In 1901, it was said that "the view from the summit of this remarkable hill extends to a circumference of nearly three hundred miles, including parts of ten counties, namely, Salop, Montgomery, Radnor, Brecon, Hereford, Worcester, Gloucester, Somerset, Glamorgan, and Monmouth".

Today, we had no hope of ticking off so many counties. For starters, four of these counties now long exist — Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Breconshire now mostly falling into Powys, and Glamorgan fragmented.

More to the point, visibility was far from clear. In the haze we could see nowhere near 300 miles. Still, the view over the immediate Wye valley, the town of Monmouth nestling in the centre, was lovely in its own right.

Looking over Monmouth from The Kymin Panorama of Wye valley from The Kymin

Indeed, looking into the low but bright sun through a very hazy evening sky, made for very challenging photography.

It suited the scene though, adding a soft-focus nostalgic sheen to this quintessential vision of the old-fashioned rural, agricultural England, a patchword of fields separated by hedges, punctuated by cottages and church spires...

Did I say England?

There's one problem with that. This is Wales.

I'm east of the Wye, which marks the England-Wales border for much of it's distance, but here the border diverges from the river, ensuring the Welsh town of Monmouth, straddling the river, is Welsh. I stand looking west from the eastern edge of Monmouthshire. The English border lies almost exactly 1km behind me, to the east. Maybe 5km to the north eart is Wales' easternmost extreme.

With my one previous visit to Wales being to Snowdonia, I must admit I tend to think Wales = mountains, and with the haze artfully softening the looming Brecon Beacons into the distant background, there is no rugged mountainous vibe here. Nonetheless, the peaceful, pastoral scene was once a contested borderland, resulting in a proliferation of castles, as we shall see in part three.

First though, there is the question of what a Naval memorial is doing here of all places, with no Naval base — indeed, no sea — anywhere nearby. In fact, the locality has stronger historical links to the navy than you might expect: as far as back 1617, Royal Navy ships were being constructed from local oak. We turned back toward England to explore the ancient Forest of Dean, a valuable provider of timber, iron, coal and stone for several millennia.

Monmouth from The Kymin Looking over Monmouth from The Kymin