Country diary: Prime walking country with literary connections

<span>Photograph: Guy Edwardes Photography/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Guy Edwardes Photography/Alamy

My favourite group of Welsh hills are the Black Mountains, rimming the south-eastern horizon where Afon Gwy (the River Wye) bends easterly and heads off for the softer shires of England. Black by name, these whaleback ridges of the English-Welsh border in prevailing tone are red. In gullies where vegetation has leached away, a ruddy underlying sandstone is revealed.

It’s grand walking and trekking country, and echoes with literary associations. Climb from Hay-on-Wye by a twisting lane scored across russet bracken slopes, and you’ll emerge at the Gospel Pass between Lord Hereford’s Knob and Hay Bluff. The lane slips down into the Vale of Ewyas to arrive at Capel-y-Ffin – “chapel of the boundary” – the boundary being of the ancient kingdom of Ewyas.

For once, more recent history outweighs the longer established, hereabouts. In 1869, an Anglican Benedictine monk, Father Ignatius Lyne (1837-1908), bought land here and had a monastery built. Its situation is idyllic, nestling into the vertiginous morning-sun hillside of Tarren yr Esgob, looking up the valley of Nant Bwch where ring ouzels arrive in spring across blackthorn-studded slopes and nest by waterfalls in the mountain stream, drawing attention to their presence by scudding flight and plaintive calls finely attuned to the wild slopes they inhabit.

Artists and writers congregated notably in the Vale of Ewyas between the wars. The sculptor Eric Gill, of ill repute, was among them. The poet and painter David Jones (1895-1974) joined him there while recovering from experiences on the western front so finely depicted in his 1937 masterpiece In Parenthesis. Other writers had preceded them here. The diarist Francis Kilvert strode over from Clyro, and recorded an impression of Capel-y-Ffin as “squatting like a stout grey owl among its seven great black yews” before striding home before dark. In 1807, the writer Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) bought Llanthony Priory, lured by its glow-worms and nightingales. It’s still a good place to lean against ancient walls and recite his poem Rose Aylmer. Ewyas is associatively rich as any place I know. At the valley-foot, Raymond Williams was born at Pandy in Dyffryn Mynwy, and the historian Jan Morris had her dacha near Partrishow.

The priory’s Norman and gothic ruins, majestic among beautiful and wild surroundings, are as fine as any monastic remains in Wales, encircled by glaciated ridges, rising from lush pastureland, sheltered by the Hatterall ridge. Where else is more beautiful?

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