Retracing walks of my youth

Lunch stop on Black Hill with a panoramic view across Herefordshire and beyond.

During my youth, the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons was my stomping ground and there were countless weekends, when, along with my walking group we would venture out from Bristol on a Friday evening to spend a couple of nights in one of the youth hostels in the area whether it be Brecon, Crickhowell or the former Capel-y-ffin. The latter was one of my favourites and was tucked a long way up the valley of the Vale of Ewyas, a deep valley which dissected the Black Mountains and leads up to the Gospel Pass. In those days the easy part of the journeywas getting to Abergavenny before a drive along narrow winding lanes in the dark of night which seemed to go on forever. With a car load of passengers and full of rucksacks and provisions for the weekend I just hoped that we didn’t meet anything.

I was now back in Abergavenny for a few days with the plan of tracing some of the paths we took so many years ago and re living old memories.

Getting above the clouds. A cold air inversion over Herefordshire. I had started off from the bottom of the hill in thick fog but knew that as I gained height I would break through the cloud ceiling.

The Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains. To my left, the countryside below was still under a blanket of cloud.

It’s a fine sunny spring morning as I set off from the new Premier Inn in Abergavenny but I soon run into fog on my short journey north to the village of Longtown which lies under the eastern shadow of the Black Mountains. Parking by the village hall, I set out in the fog conditions but I know that there is the likelihood of fine sunny weather as I gain height. With paths well signed, I opt to take the field path west from the village hall and drop down to cross the Olchon Brook. On the far side I have a long gradual ascent and pass through Cayo Farm en route. I am some distance and height above the farm when the cloud above me starts to brighten. Gaining the steep open hillside the sun is soon visible through the cloud and it doesn’t seem long before I break out into bright sunshine under a deep blue sky. I hurry upwards as I need to gain height to get some photographs and reaching the ridge above Rhiw Arw I pause to take some stunning photographs. I’m in luck and what a morning it is with a sheet of cloud stretching to the horizon to the southeast. The Vale of Ewyas over to the west on the other hand was clear of cloud altogether.

My walk north is now along the Offa’s Dyke Path has several miles of high level walking on a good path on what is like walking along the ridge of a roof and passing two trig points on the way. I am soon passing the first trig point at 552 metres and continue north making good progress. What a day to be out I think. The cold air inversion is now dispersing as higher land to the east starts to pierce the cloud ceiling and after an hour the cold air inversion has gone.

Miles of ridge walking behind and ahead of me. This is the second trig point that lies on the English/Welsh border on the Black Mountains.

I continue north passing the second trig point at 610 metres to reach the highest land along the ridge at 703 metres. This is the county high point of Herefordshire and since joining the ridge I have been following the boundary between England and Wales. A bit beyond this high point, I leave the good path and head over rough ground to find the path leading to Black Hill. My plan is to have lunch on the summit, and having not passed anyone during the morning I now observe many people on the summit of Black Hill. Reaching the top, the place is awash with a large school party numbering around fifty. It certainly isn’t the place to have lunch or to photograph the trig point with so many children milling around the place. Instead I retreat to a quieter spot on the edge of the ridge to have my lunch. What a great spot this is with the countryside at my feet stretching away across Herefordshire towards the Midlands.

With the school party gone, I re-visited the trig point before heading southeast along the narrow roof shape ridge. This ridge is also known as the Cat’s Back, as viewed from the Herefordshire side it looks like a crouching cat about to pounce. It is an excellent walk which gradually descends before dropping down to a rough car park which today is full.

The ridge running southeast from Black Hill is also known as the Cat’s Back. It provides a mile of excellent ridge walking.

From here, I opt to take the path over Little Black Hill and down to Upper Blackhill Farm however, the path is ill defined and somewhere I lose it altogether. Eventually I am confronted by a field boundary with a stout fence and a steep almost vertical drop into a sunken lane. Searching around I find the correct exit to the lane.
The return to Longtown is now along narrow and often sunken lanes but at least there is virtually no traffic in this secluded corner of Herefordshire.
Reaching Llanveynoe on what was now a very warm spring afternoon I made a detour and find a seat in the shade of a yew tree beside the little church for a leisurely break in this idyllic spot. The church is dedicated to St Beuno and it is thought that St Beuno came to Llanveynoe in 600 AD and founded a small monastery on what was a pagan site. This was either situated where the church now stands, or on the site of Olchon Court, close by. Indeed, recent archaeological excavations in the grounds of the court have found what could be the foundations of a monastic building. Beuno was born in 560 AD at Berriew in mid-Wales, but his education was at Caerwent in South Wales under St Tangus (Tatheus). He was the nephew of that great Welsh saint, Cadoc, and his grandfather was King Brychan of Brecknock (Brecon). After a few years stay at Llanveynoe, Beuno headed north back to Berriew where he attended and ministered at his father’s funeral. From there he travelled north to the district of Tegengle and what is now Holywell, Flintshire, where his niece St Winifred was living. His most famous monastery was at Clynnog Fawr on the Lleyn Peninsula, but he established another 10 churches in North Wales. St Beuno died at Clynnog Fawr in 640 or 642 AD. (Note that our group visited St Beuno’s Church at Pistyll on our weekend walk from Trefor to Nefyn).

The little isolated church of St Beuno at Llanveynoe, which lies in the shadow of the Black Mountains. An idyllic spot to pass awhile for my afternoon break. The first real warm day of 2018.

A visit to explore the ruins of Longtown Castle to complete my walk.

Afterwards, I press on towards Longtown on a very gradual descending lane and finally in the village make a detour to visit Longtown Castle. The castle was built around 1175AD by Hugh de Lacy and was of an unusual construction with three baileys. In its heyday, a small town sprung up around the castle called Ewias Lacey. By the 14th century, the castle was in decline but was again pressed back into use during the Owain Glyndwr uprising in 1403. Having explored the ruins which are dominated by the circular keep it was then just a short walk back to the car to complete a perfect days walk.