Back to the Bannau Brycheiniog

The view down the valley last Tuesday morning. Sometimes the whole valley fills with clouds below us.

Fascinating though it may be to revisit the Camino journal after 13 years – (in fact I’m finding it pretty painful going) – life goes on at the Potwell Inn with the last of the tomatoes to be processed into two sorts of passata; one roasted and the other simply simmered with onion and indecent amounts of butter. It’s been an odd year, but we’ve now pretty well replenished our stores with a big crop of tomatoes from the polytunnel and our biggest ever crop of aubergines. Our only real failure was the broad beans early on and we’ve resolved to sow next year’s crop in November rather than wait until the spring reveals its hand. The asparagus bed failed yet again to rise to the occasion and so I’m afraid it’s going to come out in the autumn. It’s in the coldest part of the allotment and that may have something to do with it; but for the last three years we’ve spent out more on saving the crop than the value of the harvest and we can’t afford the indulgence. The surprise crop of the year was the Tayberry vine which gave a lovely crop of berries; and the apple trees which all fruited for the first time since they were planted.

The trip to our friends’ smallholding on the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) was partly to celebrate Madame’s birthday and partly because it’s a joy to spend a few days there with our friends. There’s always work to do on a smallholding – fencing, feeding animals and suchlike – but this time we helped to butcher a couple of two year old sheep (AKA mutton) which had just come back from the slaughterhouse. Vegetarians may prefer to look away now but as a meat eater on a modest scale, I have no moral difficulty with eating organic, free range sheep whose lives are entirely natural and whose lifetime travel takes them just ten miles to a local slaughterhouse.

Butchers – I mean real butchers – are highly skilled at what they do. As for me, confronted by a quartered carcass, it was a matter of trying to remember where all the joints come from and what they are supposed to look like. Three of us worked as a team in the kitchen and reduced the carcasses to joints, cuts and mince and enjoyed playing silly games whilst avoiding chopping our fingers off. Then we made a vast pot of stock and boiled all the bones down while Nick and me made trays of faggots – that may need translating for some readers – basically meat patties made from all sorts of offal; we only used the liver and hearts. By the time we’d finished we had four leg joints, four shoulder joints, 15Kg mince, 4Kg diced, 4 hocks, fillets for stir fries, leg steaks, racks, whole loins, 32 faggots in gravy, a gallon of stock and 36 blocks of dog food using every left-over scrap of meat from the bones.

I always feel, when I’m writing like this, that I should explain or defend hill farming and the killing and eating of animals. There’s no denying that intensive farming is the source of terrible cruelty and much avoidable pollution; but to equate what goes on in a 20 acre hill farm with what happens when two million chickens are crammed into sheds is a bit of a debater’s cheap shot. I go back to Michael Pollan’s wise motto – eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables. The consumption of ultra processed foods has been shown to be the cause all manner of illnesses and, if we all took to eating ultra processed vegetarian and vegan food we’d soon be totally enslaved by the gathering disaster of the food industry’s war on healthy eating, quite apart from swelling the profits of the industrial grain giants and the growers of palm oil and soya beans. Of course the killing and eating of animals raises all manner of ethical issues but we’re far too prone to exporting the hard questions as far away as possible. Buying your meat shrink wrapped and trimmed doesn’t detract from the big moral question of killing it in the first place. The taking of life is a big deal and so we should try never to eat more than we need, and endeavour not to waste any part of it.

We came home to the Potwell Inn with meat for the winter; we had dined on the freshest eggs you’ll ever see and we also brought a fleece back. Kate has used them for weed control, composting and also for lining hanging baskets. Nothing ever goes to waste on the smallholding. We’ve known them for over thirty years and from day one we treasured our fellow inner peasants. It takes a certain kind of personality to get so much pleasure from shaking plums out of a tree. I also fell in love with their Welsh terrier Dilys and proposed to her secretly but she rejected me, saying she was already suited.

Anyway, that was a long day and the following day we gathered plums, identified moths from the overnight trap and baked bara brith. Moths are attracted to a strong light and then they drop down into the depths of the box where they find egg boxes to spend the night before being identified and released in a manner that minimises the risk of them being eaten by birds. The wall outside the kitchen is used for feeding birds throughout the year and it’s fascinating to see the variety – most of the tits, nuthatches, robins, yellowhammers (increasingly rare) and finches too. At night we listen to the tawny owls and in the early spring there are cuckoos – it’s the last place I heard one, four or five years ago; pure joy. A family of field mice live in the crevices of the wall and pop out nervously from time to time to grab some grains.

Then finally, before driving home, we had a dip in the pool; filled with rainwater and warm from the combination of sun and solar panels. Paradise indeed!

The taste of magic in the Bannau Brycheiniog

Pen y Fan hiding in clouds from the Monmouth and Brecon canal on an icy February morning in 2017

Just out of interest, Bannau Brycheiniog translates as Brychan’s Kingdom; Brychan being the fifth century king of this mountainous area. I’ve written frequently about this place because I love it to the core of my being. It’s a National Park but by no means a huge one; near to the Eastern border with England, more or less defined by the River Severn; a contested border which includes the Welsh Marches and Offa’s Dyke. A wayward and wandering line that’s been fought over for centuries as armies marched back and forth from Roman times onwards in search of gold and latterly for slate and coal, but whatever the quarry, the spoils were taken out of Wales and only the spoil heaps were left. The reversion to Welsh place names is one more skirmish between the Welsh and the colonisers; less spectacular than the burning of holiday cottages but no less fiercely fought for.

But we’re not here to pursue old rivalries. We’re here at the foot of the Bannau to rest and recuperate from hard work on the allotment and to adjust to a change in medication that’s left me feeling as if I’m recovering from the Flu. We have close friends who now live about 1000 feet up in the hills above Llangorse lake and we’ve been coming to this area for more than 30 years and watched as they worked a smallholding while working full time, and improving the cottage from an abandoned bothy to a family home.

So yesterday we lazed in the sun and then in the evening we went with our friends over to to the Three Horseshoes in Groesffordd for a meal and a couple of pints of a local light beer. Needless to say we had a brilliant evening because our interests overlap almost completely and predictably we talked about growing food, keeping animals, the relative merits of lamb (3/10) hogget (7/10) and mutton (10/10). We talked about beer and vegetables and favourite recipes and families and we all reassured ourselves that we hadn’t changed a bit in decades and laughed as if we would all live forever. We took one of the outdoor sheds with a spectacular view between the roofs of the village, across the valley to Pen y fan. The food was excellent and almost too unusual for pub food, we left with a couple of good recipe ideas and feeling that the expense of eating out was justified. The Three Horseshoes, predictably next door to a long closed smithy makes a good living in the most inaccessible spot, hidden deep in the middle of the village where it’s almost impossible to park. We chatted to the owner and he said it was because of their good reputation – and he was right. A delightful and affable landlord who thinks enough of his chefs to name them on the website.

We arrived home (at the campervan) as it was getting dark and sat outside watching the stars come out and listening to the evening sounds. To our great joy there was a wheezy snuffling and a couple of hedgehogs appeared, paused to take a look at us and shuffled off into the hedge again. We haven’t seen hedgehogs for something like 10 years. Way across there were tawny owls and all the usual roosting birds. It felt as if the thin thread holding us down to time and place, had broken and we were wandering in a more ancient time which came with all its literary associations.

Firstly, of course, Buckland Hill which is just down the road will be known to any lover of Tolkien who stayed here at Buckland whilst he was writing Lord of the Rings. We’ve walked miles of Offa’s Dyke, and I’ve loved Geoffrey Hill’s “Mercian Hymns “ set in the time of King Offa and which gets less difficult as I get older and feel the music rather than concentrate on the words. Madame has just finished reading A J Cronin’s “The Citadel” which is partly set just across the hills in the mining valleys. And then on an impulse I dug Bruce Chatwin’s book “On the Black Hill” out of the Kindle Library this morning. This has been one of my must-reads for decades, and I’ve actually got two paperback copies at home. Each of the three I’ve bought while we were up here and never got past about chapter three for the oddest reason. There’s a real “Vision Farm” below Offa’s Dyke facing Capel y Ffin and we once had a long and hard walk up Hatterall Hill, along the dyke and down past The Vision (you’ll need to take a map and a GPS to find the track down) and after crossing the Honddu river, back up past the ruins of the church built by Joseph Lyne, Father Ignatius, back along the opposite ridge and then dropping down the steep path turning left at a hawthorn tree, to Llanthony Abbey.

But I mentioned the fact that I’d always abandoned “On the Black Hill” after a couple of chapters, for an odd reason. It’s simply that the writing is so rich I never want to move on with the narrative, and so each page is an object of meditation. I finish the first couple of chapters and it’s if I’ve eaten a huge banquet and don’t want or need to eat for a week. Obviously this is a bit disruptive to the narrative flow. Cheap fiction does the exact opposite, using a narrative torrent to hurry you across the ludicrous improbabilities of the characterisation. Give me Bruce Chatwin any day, but I’d love to have the stamina to finish it.

One of my parishioners had a Welsh farmer as a distant relative, and she told me that this irascible man had married in a local church, started to drive his bride to the new marital home in the pony and trap . Somehow, on the way they’d had a fierce quarrel and she had got down from the trap and walked back to where she came from, leaving the bridegroom for good. A very Chatwin-esque yarn. I wonder if he’d heard that story independently?

Where wild means wild!

How about watching a family of long tailed tits; great tits; several robins; nuthatches; blue tits and a wren in about ten minutes of pure rapture, looking out of the kitchen window – 900 feet up a hill on the Brecon Beacons? Autumn gets to me – that’s no secret – the reasons are so obvious that I’m not even bothering to rehearse them here; but there always comes a time, often a single day, when the black dog slinks away and feel I’ve turned a corner.

I haven’t written for a while but that’s not because I’ve been sitting in the corner weeping silently (not my style) – but because we’ve got the allotment largely under control, and we’ve spent hours and days fungus hunting. I’ve been interested in them for years but this year we’ve gone into hyperdrive; photographing, identifying and recording these beautiful and fugitive life-forms. Fungi live on decaying matter; they also share resources with plants and trees and – at this time of year especially – are the tangible evidence of the ever renewing web of life beneath the fallen leaves.

My friend Nick who graciously let me play with some serious machinery.

And so we came up to stay for a couple of days with old friends on the Brecon Beacons where they keep a smallholding. Feeding the pigs and the chickens, moving the sheep around and helping out around the place – oh and eating the freshest eggs and the best organic produce; planking and planing seasoned oak from the woods; keeping the stove going; cooking together with food grown and raised less than a couple of hundred yards away and talking, talking, talking. These are truly – and I’m avoiding the therapeutic clich√© – renewing activities. In between showers, the sky cleared and the sun shone through the raindrops, illuminating the landscape with pinpoint jewels of refracted light.

At night the Tawny owls called to one another over the sound of the springwater filling the cistern outside our bedroom in a musical series of spurts and sputters. Even the sound of a dog barking down the valley in the darkness engorges the imagination. The autumn ground was a pointillist painting in ochres offset by dazzling yellows and reds and buzzards and carrion crows called overhead. For three days we escaped the tyranny of linear time and allowed ourselves to be embraced by the greater and lesser cycles of sunrise and moonrise; season and lifespan.

Sheep on the horizon – looking as if they’re about to charge us

Even the farmhouses have their span. In the year I was born, just after the war, this cottage was derelict, and for the past thirty five years we’ve watched it come to life under the care of our friends. It’s been a home, playground and a natural history mentor to three generations of children and their friends. If intuition and imagination aren’t included among the senses how we are ever to understand how neighbourhood, community and mutual aid, along with an understanding of our vulnerability and finitude are the foundation to our flourishing. Yesterday evening we sat in the old parlour and talked by the light of the only remaining gas mantles I know of. The mantles themselves now cost something like ¬£14, but this isn’t a life of self indulgent luxury – their car has done 220,000 miles.

On Saturday we visited a couple of community projects in the village. One of them was an orchard run by the Marcher Apple Network which is a voluntary charitable organisation set up to preserve traditional apple varieties from the Welsh Marches.

They have collected and grafted all sorts of almost unknown apple varieties on to modern rootstocks and have begun to set up a DNA database so they can be identified and propagated through grafting – as a service to the future. I have to confess to scrumping a few, and trust me, they’re not all utterly delicious! One of Madame’s first jobs after leaving Art School was working as a trials assistant in a cider research station and so she was in seventh heaven as we walked around photographing some of the apples for our records. While we were there a couple of young people from the local community run pub were picking up windfalls for the apple bobbing at their Halloween party. This village is rich in community projects. You’ll see below why some apples have rudely descriptive names such as Goose Arse and Pig’s Snout

Possibly one of the ugliest apples I’ve ever seen.

Then we went up the hill to a community run woodland which we scoured for fungi and found quite a few we’ve never seen before. One of the best things about being a relative beginner in any field is the fact that even very common and well known species are exciting first time finds. A fungus like the Panther Cap – deadly poisonous – takes on a whole new reality when you’ve got down and dirty photographing it in a rain soaked woodland. Our friends were generous enough to scout the wood for new fungi for us to see – we had a ball – and then finished up down at Llangorse Lake drinking tea in the cafe as the clouds gathered over Pen y Fan.

So what could be better than eating with friends? Well cooking with them surely comes to the top of the list. I cooked one of my party pieces – Carbonnade Nimoise, and with a free run of the food stores we used some hogget leg steaks. Hogget is lamb in its second year, so it comes between lamb and mutton. Most butchers give you a funny look if you ask for it but it’s worth searching for. It’s more expensive than lamb because it’s been fed for an extra season but the flavour is marvellous. Oh what a weekend!

So here are a few of the fungi we saw – they’re not named because we need to check and double check, but they are so beautiful that they need no justification at all.

And yes, the one at the bottom is almost certainly a Panther Cap – greatly to be avoided when you’re foraging! In fact its neighbour in the centre is almost as bad. The lesson is – never forage unless you’re with someone who really knows what they’re doing (so don’t ask me!). And if you recognise the only innocent one in the ID Parade – good for you. And I hope you’ve had as much joy from finding out as we have.

As for us, we drove home contentedly with a couple of big bags of fragrant sheep daggings in the back of the car. It’s an acquired taste I know, but they’re better than Chanel Number 5 for arousing a compost heap!

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