Breathe the trees: Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal

Seek out one of Britain’s most precious wild trees – the lesser whitebeam – which clings to a cliff above the River Usk valley, or amble among the beech woodland of Goytre Hall Wood.

Breathe the Trees


Standing by a tree on a riverbank is different to being with trees in any other place. In most other places, like in the park across from my house, trees assume a regal aura. Beneath the canopy of a mature oak I am humbled – like being with a wise man who’s party to all the secrets.

But as ironic as it may sound, there’s something more grounded about waterside trees. It feels to me as if both tree and I are paying homage to the river, kindred in our reverence for it. The way an alder might lean into the water as if desperately trying to see itself reflected there. Or how a willow will drape itself into a canal. I often think on seeing those long, ethereal branches in a dishevelled, tangled mess on the riverbank that the tree has committed a devoted act of unrequited love.

A solitary tree hanging about the riverbank gives the determined walker a reason to stop, a place to rest and contemplate. I am so often inclined to walk “with” water, keep pace with its flow, especially if I’m over-wrought. Trees, however, are great reminders of the joys of gazing. It is as if they’re saying to me: “Hey, come see this!” And of course I am never disappointed: there’s always something to note.

It could be some colour spectacular for instance. There’s a Japanese maple that hangs over the river near my house. It has broad branches and is incredibly bushy. Thus, every October, it drops acres of golden, purple and crimson leaves into the water – not to mention everywhere else besides. These luminous five pointed leaves collect in vast flotillas and head upstream in union. It can be cathartic to imagine them carrying one’s worries off with them.

Then there’s a sycamore that lives a few miles east on the River Thames. I also make a point of stopping by it on my water pilgrimages. I discovered it some years ago, one hot summer day while cycling the towpath. Its stocky boughs were growing horizontal and very close to the bank. Conveniently these branches also featured comfortable grooves, which invited me to sit and eat my packed lunch. Perched on that tree I felt part of the river’s world, rather than that of the towpath. From my arboreal throne I gazed out into the water and witnessed an empire of beings busy in mid-air missions: drifting dandelion seeds, whirling swirling midges, dragonflies fizzing like electricity.

Alas I don’t always have the luxury of time. But I’ve found that a few minutes with a tree have transformative powers. As much as I try I know I allow the challenges of the day to prevent me from breathing as well as I should. But when I see trees I am reminded of the simple requirements of my physiology: to breath slow and deep.

No matter where they’re situated, trees make me inhale more deeply than I do anywhere else. My body instinctively responds to the oxygen shrouded about them. And this is all the better when it happens by the water, where there is so much scent to inhale: the salty tainted riverside air, the sweet summer fragrance of yellow flag iris. Breathing like this, even for a few minutes, is a pick-me-up that feels as refreshing as a dip in the river itself. No expensive membership is required; no online form needs completing. It’s an indulgent act that’s entirely free of charge. All that is required is to idle on the riverbank and dream for a while.

Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal

Wending its way through the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal offers unrivalled views of some of Britain’s most treasured natural landscapes. And as you stroll through narrow wooded gorges and beneath the heather-clad hills, there’s little need to leave the towpath. But head for the dramatic Llangattock Escarpment nearby and you’ll find one of Britain’s rarest tree species clinging to the rocks. This long cliff-edged plateau, which runs a few hundred metres above the valley of the River Usk, hosts the lesser whitebeam – one of the country’s most precious wild trees. The slender tree grows almost exclusively in this area and is identifiable by its creamy white, sweet-scented flowers (May), and scarlet red berries.

Also close to the canal is Goytre Wharf, where walkers can amble among the beech woodland of Goytre Hall Wood. And if you have more time in the area, you could take a short drive to Waterfall Country, just south of the canal. This otherworldly landscape is well worth a visit for plant enthusiasts – a Welsh rainforest of tree-lined gorges and tumbling waterfalls surrounded by canopies of oak, ash, moss and ferns. The constant presence of water has created a humid and wet environment that’s allowed rare woodland plants to flourish over cliff faces, rocks and trees trunks.

Canal & River Trust