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?

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