Driving along the windy, tree-funnelled road into Llanthony, I pass six squaddies. They are wearing combat fatigues and worn expressions. It’s early, just after breakfast. They look young and very possibly lost.
The sight of them – trudging along the roadside, rain-splashed rucksacks on their backs – lingers with me as I lace up my walking boots in the car park of Llanthony Priory. In my imagination, I attach a name to each of them: Steiner, Sebald, Klepper, Mann, Ehrhardt, Captain Albrecht Wolfram.
Seventy years ago, this sunken alluvial valley in the heart of the Black Mountains was occupied by the Nazis. Overnight, the menfolk from the neighbouring Olchon valley disappeared. To a man, vanished, gone. Left alone, their wives entered an uneasy, secret coexistence with the invaders …
That’s how the plot of the 2007 novel Resistance tells it anyway. It all feels strangely plausible. You see, there’s something about the Black Mountains that lends itself towards myth and magic, folklore and fiction. What exactly, I’m not sure. But it’s definitely there, bubbling away beneath the hilltops.
In the far east of the Brecon Beacons national park, the Black Mountains form a hilly defence along the western wall of the Wales-England border. The 80 square miles cover sections of south Powys, north Monmouthshire and westernmost Herefordshire. From my home close to Hay-on-Wye, their black-lined bulk provides my daily backdrop.
Since moving here four years ago, I have done my research. I’ve read Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill. I’ve studied Walter Savage Landor’s poetry. I’ve worked through Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains (both volumes). Yet the creative core of this landscape still escapes me. Books will only get me so far, I sense. It’s the mountains’ raw physicality I need. So, pulling out my map, I plot a couple of exploratory walks.
A circular walk from Llanthony
The first of my walks takes me on a seven-mile loop from the priory ruins in Llanthony. After a short but steep ascent up onto Hatterall Ridge, I chart a route north along the Offa’s Dyke path, before dropping back off the hill along an intersecting footpath (marked as a “pile of stones” on the OS map). Once back down in the valley, it’s a couple of miles of easy walking to the start point. Looks a cinch.
Maps say nothing about the weather, mind. Summer storms, especially. Thirty minutes in and oil-black, peaty water is sloshing in my shoes. Fortunately, I have a guide with me. Owen Sheers, poet, playwright and author of Resistance (since adapted for film). I met Owen shortly after moving to the area. He’s a recent arrival too, relocating from London a few years ago. Unlike me, however, he has his roots in the nearby town of Abergavenny. I remain “from off”, as the people of the Black Mountains put it. Owen has offered to talk me through the mountains’ creative terrain – as well as helping to navigate us.
We reach the pile of stones signalled on the map and I’m briefly tempted to carry on. Ahead lies Hay Bluff and below it Hay-on-Wye. In good weather, it’s a superb and relatively easy hike, with wonderful views out over the Wye valley and the far-off Radnorshire hills. Not today, though. Today, it’s a military yomp. Plus the prospect of hot soup and warm bread back in Llanthony Priory’s cellar restaurant is calling me.
So, sticking to the original plan, we bank left off the hilltop. Owen cautions against picking up a sheep’s track by mistake. Men vanishing: I’m struck again by his novel’s plausibility. In the lee of the hill, out of the cloud and rain, it feels as though we’ve suddenly stepped into an alternate universe. Calmness reigns.
Descending through a wood, I ask Owen about the magic of these mountains. He talks about how accessible they are (“You don’t need to hike for four hours to get into the hills”) yet how isolated they often feel. He talks of their history too: of monkish cells and holy wells, of iron-age forts and battles with boars.
“I’m drawn to environments where there’s a sense of wilderness just at the edge of our contemporary lives because I think that’s how we live,” he tells me.
As if on cue, we emerge out of the wood to see a lone farmstead below. A red tractor in the yard momentarily blazes. “That’s The Vision,” Owen says, a reference to the protagonist’s farm in On the Black Hill. Only in Chatwin’s book, the building appears transported into an adjacent valley. And why not? Geography here morphs and bends.
At the bottom of the hill, we hit a tarmacked country lane and follow a signpost left towards Llanthony. The signpost’s other arm points right towards the hamlet of Capel-y-Ffin, the Chapel at the End. It was here, in yet another ruined monastery, that the sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill and his artistic commune set up shop in the 1920s.
Gill, a gifted stonemason, would literally yank his materials from the landscape itself. The idea clearly impresses Owen, whose new house is down a rutted track just below Castell Dinas, an ancient hill fort on the northern edge of the Black Mountains.
It’s not Gill but another commune member, the painter and poet David Jones, who chiefly inspires him. Battered and beaten by the first world war, Jones found in these remote, rolling hills a sanctuary in which to reconnect with history, nature and ultimately with himself.
At a deeper level, Owen’s novel Resistance toys with the idea of alternative ways of living. The German commander came looking for a harmonious coexistence here, between victors and vanquished, and – more ambitiously still – between people and place. Gill’s vision of an artistic colony was similarly utopian. Such wishful imaginings come naturally here, Owen says: “It’s easy to hold expansive views in these hills.”
Imaginings are what they are, however. Go to Capel-y-Ffin today and there’s little trace of Eric Gill and his artistic friends. The Tabernacle in Talgarth has occasional exhibitions and readings but otherwise formal arts spaces are thin on the ground. Art here exists outdoors.
Climbing up to Llangattock cliffs
One man who knows this truth only too well is the visual artist Stefhan Caddick. Stefhan lives in the village of Llangattock, just outside the town of Crickhowell. As with Owen, his work is heavily influenced by the landscape around him.
Crickhowell is a difficult but doable 10-mile hike along the Beacons Way from Llanthony. I had contemplated staying overnight at the Priory (doubles from £90 BB), which has seven basic but comfortable rooms, but the bad weather had truly dug in. Instead, I travelled back home to Hay, where a number of homely BBs such as Dol-y-Gaer (doubles from £90 BB) and The Bridge (doubles from £70 BB) await the weary walker.
The night before I’m due to meet with Stefhan, I book into the Gliffaes (doubles from £114 BB), an enchanting family-run hotel a few miles west of Crickhowell. Set back along a fabulous tree-lined driveway, the Victorian-era country house sits secluded within its own well-kept grounds. Below runs the river Usk.
Before dinner, I drive out to Buckland Hill, a fern-covered outcrop above the nearby village of Bwlch. The summit offers a private viewing of the Black Mountains in panorama. In the far distance rises the conical summit of Sugar Loaf, a pointed bookend separating the Black Mountains from the Brecon Beacons.
It is rumoured that JRR Tolkien had this view in mind when he sat down to write The Hobbit. I can well believe it. The village of Llangynidr looks every bit as rustic and serene as the Shire. Llyn Syfaddon (Llangorse), the largest natural lake in Wales, provides an obvious setting for Esgaroth (Lake-town). As for the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth, just look around.
Tolkien is said to have been a guest at nearby Buckland Hall, now a wedding venue and conference centre. I’d reckoned that the Gliffaes, with its air of faded colonial elegance, would offer a flavour of the same. Sitting down to a superb dinner of Breconshire lamb I half-expect the elven queen Galadriel to appear floating across the lawn.
The next morning, I meet with Stefhan in Lllangattock. He has mapped a six-mile circular walk for us up to Craig-y-Cilau, a sweeping curtain of rock that marks the perimeter of the Black Mountains’ westernmost edge. Beyond lie Blaenavon, Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr, Merthyr Tydfil, place names synonymous with south Wales’s once mighty coal and steel industries.
Setting off from the handsome Bethesda Chapel, soon we’re ascending a steep wooded path towards the foot of the scarp. Out of breath, we emerge above the treeline. A flat grassy footpath hugs the curving mountainside. Turning right, we head along it.
Trees abound on the slopes below: hawthorns, beech, ash, hazel, yews and whitebeam, a rare relative of the rowan. Back across the valley, the Black Mountains reveal themselves. Shooting upwards from the banks of the silver-backed river Usk, they look beautiful and benign.
Stefhan urges me not to be deceived. Not all is as it seems, he says. In the 19th century, this was a working industrial landscape. Quarrymen’s dynamite created these cliffs. Belching coal barges, not day-tripping motorboats, trundled along that dainty canal. Metallic tramlines, not green grass, covered the path below our feet.
“We like to think of landscapes like this as being defined and static,” he says. “But in reality they’re constantly changing. Everything is in flux.”
To give me a taste, he leads me through a gap in the cliff-face and into a pitch-black cave. Water drips from the high ceiling. With a flashlight, he shows me some graffiti scratched on the wet-rock wall: Frederick J Fredericks, 1787.
To coincide with the upcoming Green Man festival, Stefhan and musician Mark Daman Thomas are planning a one-off performance in the cave, known as Eglwys Faen (Church of Stone). The event, supported by Arts Council Wales, forms part of the Peak project, a new initiative established to explore the Black Mountains through the usually ultra-urban lens of contemporary art. As part of its mission to look beyond the mountains’ “surface aesthetics”, Peak will also see artists Rob Smith and Charles Dandy attempt to reignite the old Llangattock lime kiln in early September.
In a similar vein, Crickhowell-based Arts Alive Wales (the charity behind Peak) is organising a series of fringe events at the week-long National Eisteddfod of Wales, which starts in Abergavenny on 29 July. Among other highlights, the On the Edge programme includes a talk on the influence of the Black Mountains on the 20th-century academic, critic and local boy Raymond Williams.
Leaving the cave, we continue along the old tramline until after less than a mile we reach Waun Ddu, a protected raised bog. Crouching down, Stefhan points out a microscopic plant with sticky red tendrils. A round-leaved Sundew, he informs me. “It survives by eating insects.”
That a journey which started with invading Nazis should end with a carnivorous plant feels oddly appropriate. The Black Mountains are more than just an innocent clutch of contours abutting the English border. They are beguiling and disrupting in equal measure.
From Waun Ddu, we follow a dingle down through an ancient woodland, emerging back on the initial path that took us out of Llangattock. We wrap up our walk with a well-earned lunch at the The Dragon Inn on Crickhowell’s quaint high street. Recently revamped, it boasts a popular restaurant and 15 reasonably-priced rooms (doubles from £80 BB).
After a fine Welsh rarebit and a second course of fish cakes, my stomach is full. My hunger may be sated, but my creative juices are just beginning to flow. I must head into the hills more often, I resolve. Never have the Black Mountains felt brighter.
Oliver Balch is author of Under The Tump: Sketches of Real Life in the Welsh Marches (Faber Faber, £14.99). To order a copy for £12.29 including UK pp visit the guardian bookshop or call on 0330 333 6846