April 8, 1987: Llangatock-Lingoed to Llanthony
The sun was shining on the morning of Wednesday, April 8, and a wind was tossing about the branches of the yews and the pines outside the old rectory. With a relatively short day ahead of us (only eight and a half miles) we had agreed not to worry about packs until after breakfast, which was served at 8:30. We made this a very leisurely affair – enjoying all the aspects of the great British breakfast (down to the fried bread) that our early departure from Newport had denied us the previous day. Tosh ordered more coffee, her great passion. Out came the toothpicks and the Lees had a good pick. We were all a bit weary and footsore, having had no chance to get in a single day’s walking since October, but I was quite well satisfied with our progress. I kept coughing up phlegm, the only after-effect of my cold, but this only required a little spitting. A bit more tape on sensitive parts of my feet, some cramming in my pack, and I was ready to go.
We jammed on our mostly dry boots and Mrs. Jones brought us our waterproofs, which we donned immediately. Naturally now that we were about to begin walking it had started to drizzle. I left behind in the Lee’s wastebasket yesterday’s pair of sodden, threadbare socks. (They had been among the set originally purchased for my first Pennine trip in 1974.) At 10:00 we climbed up through somebody’s backyard and contoured a hillside above Full Brook. The sun came out; for the first time we would see our shadows. Then it rained some more. The sky was blue and gray; this changeable weather continued throughout the day – which must be described therefore as typically springlike. I kept my rain cape on most of the time, for it provided an additional layer of warmth.
We began a descent to Full Brook, well-named today, helped in our search for a footbridge by the farmer – who was crossing our field at an acute angle in order to go over the stream himself. He waited to talk to me after he had crossed, speaking in a delightful musical Welsh accent. He wanted to know where we were from and how we were enjoying the walk. Tosh insisted cynically that all this welcoming chatter was inspired by the Tourist Board – but I put it down to loneliness and curiosity. The farmer showed us how the waters of the brook had torn rocks from the foundation of the bridge; then he directed us up a ridge – where we paralleled a dingle (not starry) until we reached Old Park Barn. Harold stopped here to take off a layer. At a road we turned left for a bit, then right uphill to Llanerch. The views behind us were magnificent.
We followed an access road back to tarmac, with the telegraph poles sporting Countryside Commission acorns. A serious shower stung us as we began a steep descent to Pandy, lying on the main Abergavenny road at the southern foot of the famous Black Mountains. The bare bluffs of this escarpment were quite exciting, even to those of us who would have to scramble up them somehow later in the day. The rain came to an end and the sun returned. We descended from field to field until it was time for a muddy scramble down to a farm road. Puddle dodging brought us out to the A465 at Pandy. It was 11:30.
Tosh hailed a passerby – “What time do the pubs open in this town?” Startled, the young man asked, “Which one do you want?” “That one,” I said – for the Lancaster Arms was just across the street. “Eleven,” came the reassuring answer at last. We had only covered a little more than two miles but we agreed we needed a lager break. The pub was empty as usual but the publican emerged from the back. He too seemed to be unfussed by our muddy boots and he too seemed to be in need of a chat. He started by talking about last night’s fight between Hagler and Leonard. Then he told us about his worries on behalf of solitary winter walkers (“I always insist they call me when they arrive safely at the other end”), the great love the Dutch seem to have for this part of the world (“They come here to escape the flat”) and the grotty condition of the Lancaster Arms before the recent refurbishment – “We used to tell the customers to wipe their feet on the way out.” We had the decency to keep our hands off our lunches and after half an hour or so we were ready to move on. It had been quite sunny but as soon as we were ready to go again it started to drizzle. This proved to be the last moisture for at least an hour, however. Visibility was improving all the time.
We crossed a field and a bridge over the Afon Honddu, the river that would dominate much of the route in later sections. Then there was a blind railway crossing to negotiate (a bad spot for walkmans) before emerging at a road junction. Here Tosh met a walker from Poland; he proved to be the last of the ODP walkers we were to encounter on this trip and he told her he had seen us at St. Michael’s church yesterday. He then preceded us up the steep farm road to Tre-fedw, turned right into a field and got lost immediately, heading across open country to encounter who knows what obstacles in the way of ditches and fences. To add to his indignity a large population, bovine and equine, decided to dog his footsteps over hill and dale. We never saw him again. I knew we had to climb to a barn on the farm road in order to escape this field. We had the company of tarmac as far as Trawsllwyd and more road to descend in the direction of Bwlch farm. I told the Lees that I bitterly resented this descent, having to lose 200 feet of the arduously won 400 just gained.
Some riders were coming up the road just at the point that we had a chance to leave it – in order to begin climbing again. Our track was also serving as a stream hereabouts so we could hardly have chosen a worse surface on which to make a very steep climb. With several pauses for breath and water we scrambled up to the site of a hill fort near a clump of pines. I had trouble finding a path and matters weren’t helped by another lashing of rain but I kept us moving in a northwesterly direction and in this way we reached the farm road I was looking for. The rain stopped and in the lea of the roadbank we stopped for lunch. We had reached the thousand -foot level. I had some of Mrs. Jones delicious egg and tomato sandwiches but a piece of raisin wood from the fruitcake got jammed between two molars and I was glad to have my toothpick bearers present.
It was breezy and there was no desire to dawdle. The way forward, which required us to leave the farm road for a fell path, was clear. As we climbed past the ruins of “The Castle” we could start to see views into the Olchon Valley on our right. The sun was out again and we were getting some magnificent vistas. The rise continued but at more humane gradients. I told Tosh to stop at the white trig point column (elevation 1523) for here some congratulations were in order: she had just completed 500 miles of walking on British footpaths! To celebrate we climbed into a kind of shakehole below the column and had a slug of gin. Then we proceded north along the Hatterall Hill ridge track – with good footing and only the occasional pool to be dodged. On our left we could see into the Honddu valley as well. This was an altogether exhilarating stretch.
After a mile or so we turned to the northwest, following the Herefordshire-Gwent boundary around Hatterall Hill. The wind blowing from the west was very strong and very cold. It contained some moisture that peppered our raingear but the worst feature of the gale was the temperature. I could feel my left cheek growing numb, as though it had just taken a shot of novocaine. For relief I had to walk with my head turned to the right and my baseball cap gave way to my Mt. Sinai wool cap. Fortunately we could see our escape route, the rhiw down to Llanthony. Indeed I could see the ruined monastery and even a white building behind it – which proved to be our hotel; all these places were over a mile and a half distant.
As soon as we began our descent into the Honddu valley, leaving behind the main ODP route, the wind began to decline in ferocity. The rhiw, a shepherd’s track, was well-graded though often extremely slippery and wet. Our boots became encrusted with slime once again, though I think the goo never got over the top of the boots, as yesterday. We left the track for the descent of a field and a forest path. From this another field lead us right down to the nave of the ruined Abbey, a most wonderful prospect. We circumnavigated the ruin, passing the entrance to the Abbey Hotel, and used the latter’s access track to gain the main valley road. In three minutes we were in the snug of the Half Moon Hotel; it was 4:00 and our host was greeting us with the welcoming message, “We’re closed.”
This proved to be a prophetic utterance – for the Half Moon’s attitude toward customer service left something to be desired throughout our stay. Our host summoned another member of the triumvirate in charge of this establishment and she showed us to the boot room, where we left our footwear and wet gear. Then we climbed to the first floor. Tosh and Harold wanted to change rooms with me because my room had twin beds; unfortunately only one had been made up and this required our hostess to find some more clean linen. Reluctantly she agreed and after a few minutes we were unpacking. I went to take the first shower (no bath – always a bad sign) but I had to steal some soap from the only toilet provided with same (the other toilet at least had some paper). None of our rooms had soap. The shower was uncomfortable and the floor icy. As residents we should have been offered a drink from the bar but this was not forthcoming and we had to wait until 6:30. I made myself a cup of coffee and finished the last of the egg and tomato sandwiches. It proved impossible to reach the bar from the hotel without going outside because the staff had forgotten to unlock some doors. Naturally, now that we were settled in for the evening, it was gorgeously sunny outside.
We drank a few pints and watched the locals file in. There were some tough looking women with fags hanging from their mouths. One had a horse that occupied all the attention of our hostess. This left our host, his wrist already encased in a bandage, to attend to everything by himself: the pub, our meal preparations, and all the dogs in the kennels outside. There seemed to be at least a dozen dogs and two got into a fight and one had to be brought into the kitchen. This is a significant point because the health inspector, on sanitary grounds, had barred dogs from the pub! Dog pictures adorned every wall; the Half Moon crowd liked animals much more than people.
Our host coped imperturbably with the crowd, though he had to go see if any of the items on the menu might still be available – he seemed to be running out of everything he had for sale. We had potato and leek soup; Tosh and I followed this with scampi and chips, Harold had plaice. We drank more beer as the place filled up. The cat patrolled the pub counter. There was no lounge for residents, no TV, and once again we couldn’t get upstairs without going outside. We decided on an early night. I listened to the the Gurrelieder on my walkman and fell asleep. Though my room was overlooking the road I heard not a single car throughout the night.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: