Saturday, 28 January 2017

Four Journeys in the Black Mountains: Part 1

Autumn by Tim Cooke

The farmhouse is long and yellow, perched near the brow of a steep hillside on the outer limits of the Vale of Ewyas, otherwise known as the Llanthony Valley. The stone structure is flanked by three large wooden barns with asbestos roofs; a runnel of grey smoke seeps from the chimney into a swirl of dense Welsh rain. We pop our heads round the door and wish the old couple inside a good day – they are leaving the area, after twenty-five happy years – before re-joining the tarmac lane to the summit of Twyn y Gaer.

Historically part of a border territory disputed by the Welsh and English, the slice of common land that stretches along the ridge is laden with spectres. Immediately to our left, as we splash through deep puddles and trade the veil of trees for open plateau, is an Iron Age hill-fort chosen, you’d imagine, for its elevated views over three valleys below. The bracken here is brown and shallow, the rowans flared and ready to thwart witchcraft. Gorse is aplenty.

We stride into a brisk wind, ascending a sharp incline to the crest of the fort, where a small cairn marks the spot to stop and take in the cinematic panorama. The rain has thinned to mist and casts a glassy sheen over the landscape, adding an ethereal aspect. Of his visit to the area, the poet Allen Ginsberg wrote: “valley upon valley under Heaven’s ocean/ tonned with cloud-hang –/ Heaven balanced on a grassblade.” The skeleton of a tree we can’t name protrudes into the westerly scene, jagged and dreadful, like a monument to violence.

Snaking sporadically around the peak is a series of entrenchments cut into the ground – bow-and-arrow pits, perhaps. It has been proposed that the name “Ewyas” derives from the large quantity of yew planted here to arm the bowmen of turbulent years past, when all able-bodies were expected to practise archery after church on Sundays. We descend a gentler slope on the far side and merge onto a wide track that runs directly above the Llanthony Valley.

The cloud cover suddenly breaks and light begins to leak from the ether. To our right, the cliffs of Darren are sun-dappled like leopard print; the perfect spot for peregrines, we say, before spying a possible hen harrier. We’ve also seen buzzards, a kite and ravens galore, tumbling and croaking like bronchitic toads. In all its lopsided glory, the crooked church of Cwmyoy rears its ancient head.

Without deviation, we soon arrive at the Stone of Revenge, a modest reminder of the story of a Norman Marcher lord, Richard de Clare, who in 1135 was ambushed and slaughtered by Morgan ap Owen, of Caerleon, and his men. The stone leans back at about twenty-five degrees, towards the fort, and is crawling with lichen and moss. A buzzard cries overhead.

By the time we’ve reached the final stretch up to the cairn of Garn Wen, the rain has completely subsided and there is sun on our backs. We’ve passed ruined plots and countless sheep; the ghosts are quiet. The terra firma at this end of the walk seems barren, the summer’s dazzling purple heather dormant for now. We sit amongst stacked rock crunching apples, juice dripping down our chins, and tear into silver wraps of expensive dark chocolate. A lifetime of connection awaits us.

Part 1: Autumn
Part 2: Winter
Part 3: Spring
Part 4: Summer

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