April 9, 1987: Llanthony to Hay-on-Wye
Again there was lovely sunshine as we arose for the morning of Thursday, April 9. I met the Lees at 8:30 and we descended to a dining room – where we had breakfast. One of the proprietors had forgotten to turn on the toaster and Tosh was uncertain about the bacon. I had two knives and no fork. At another table a chap from the BBC was having breakfast with his wife. He tried to patronize us with asides on the history of the valley (and on Elgar) but we retaliated by dropping in bits of conversation that showed we were up on all this. The cat sat in every lap but the real attraction was outside, a litter of half a dozen identical Welsh sheepdog puppies. They were accompanied by the third member of the managing group – who seemed to take no interest in the guests at all. We bought some screw-top soft drinks from our host (he was out of everything else) and paid our bill. At 9:40 we were ready to begin the third and last day of our walk.
Our boots were somewhat damp but this hardly seemed to matter; it was beginning to drizzle and the track we chose as a way of escaping the main valley road soon proved to be hellishly greasy. Of course we could have climbed back to the ridge top but I wanted to stay down in the beautiful Vale of Ewyas – historical home of the well-intentioned crank – for a number of reasons. But one problem with our track was that it was encased in hedgerows and, even though leafless, these obscured views. So after we had struggled for over a mile in the muck we took the first opportunity to cross a bridge back over the river and get firmly back on tarmac.
The sun soon come out and it was lovely again. I stripped off my raincape and Tosh paused to add some tape. Then we continued north toward the village of Capel-y-ffin – only occasionally bothered by the approach of vehicles. We had wonderful views of farms and the ridge high above us and the river far below us. After an hour we reached the village and had a look at its marvelous parish church, unchanged within its circle of tall yews and its leaning cupola since Kilvert had described it 120 years earlier. On the village bridge we munched candy bars in the sun. The air was marvelously pure.
We continued on the road toward Gospel Pass and behind us Harold caught sight of the ruined monastery of Father Ignatius, whom Kilvert visited while building was in progress in the early 1870′s. Kilvert’s diaries, which I had been reading recently, proved to be a wonderful introduction to this part of the world. I doubt if the country parson would have been much amused by the alterations made to the road signs near the youth hostel, our next destination. “Passing Place” had been changed to “Assing Place” by some wag and I noted a number of variations as we continued our ascent. “Ass Place” was one of these but someone with a paint pot had also contributed a number of “Pissing Place” signs. At one I obeyed.
Gospel Pass proved to be a delightful place; the gradients were not too steep and the wild moorland on either side of the road was enchanting. Walking is a form of heaven on such days. Eventually we reached the highest point and were rewarded with beautiful vistas of the Wye Valley far below. We were eager for some place to rest but there were no likely spots for lunch. It was very exposed here and there was no shelter so we had to plod doggedly along our road for another mile and a half. There were a few hardy tourists looking at the views from the front seats of their cars. I suggested we ask if we could rent a back seat.
Eventually we walked back onto Wright’s map, for we were nearing the junction of our road and the official line of the path, descending at last from its ridge on our right. I had a little trouble figuring out where we were but at last I was satisfied. We endured a little rain but a weary Tosh threw herself down behind the first real stone fence we encountered and here we had lunch. This was not a pleasant affair. There were complaints about the Half Moon’s sandwiches (this is all they could think of by way of a packed lunch) and the bottled drinks proved to be carbonized orange pulp. Sheep dashed over our site pursued by dogs and the wind continued to howl. I ate some prawn cocktail-flavored crisps.
Once again there was no reason for us to dawdle. So we packed up and continued north, following a new version of the route that had not been present in Wright’s original plan. We were directed by an acorn and an arrow painted onto a boulder to proceed directly over a grassy brow that resembled a golf course with the usual water hazards. Not long after we had started I noted that I had now reached mile 1100 in my UK walking career. This was the occasion for us to finish the last of the gin. Our field came to an end and we followed a path-cum-stream to the farm at Cadwagn. I expected this farm track to continue downhill and around the corner to Upper Dan-y-fforest farm but we were directed off the road and into a steep and wet field that we descended suspiciously. The virtue of this new version of the descent to Hay was that it seemed to straighten out all the bends and this approach to Upper Dan-y-fforest appeared to have had the same intention. We reached the rim of a forest but there seemed to be a variety of unpromising muddy slashes offered for further descent. We did some scouting for I didn’t want to come down the hill and find myself on the wrong side of barbed wire. Finally we chose a ribbon of mud toffee and slipped down it. The quite wonderful waymarking had failed us here but I could see a white acorn on a post near a stile now. Tosh crept through a morass of farmyard treacle and climbed the stile and Harold and I followed reluctantly.
We were now standing next to the farm. Chickens roamed the hillside. A beautiful multicolored cock bird was among them. “It’s Chanticleer,” Tosh enthused. To continue to the north required descent from a second stile into another sea of mud. Tosh went first and was not amused when I suggested that Harold and I had not been watching closely enough and wanted her to repeat the process. Somehow we all got through, but I fell several times. The raincape, among its many other disadvantages, prevents me from using my arms to keep my balance. I was still able to swing my legs over the stiles, much to the admiration of the Lees, but this was mostly because I was too tired to climb to the top of the ladder. We crossed a bridge into a field. A lamb with a blue paint mark was lying dead nearby.
There was now a little road walking and more field paths leading to the side of a stream. Hay-on-Wye was getting close now and we were ready for the end. The castle was prominent against the skyline and we could also see a circus tent. The last field was crossed and an alleyway used to get us onto the Oxford Road. Here I found the bus stop that we would need the next day and wrote down some times. Then we continued on the same road to Lion Street where The Olde Black Lion was located instantly. It was 4:00; we had come eleven and a half miles.
We entered a side entrance to the shrieks of two Poodles. Mrs. Andrews, our hostess, greeted us as best she could over the sound of the dogs, “Hobo, be quiet!” Once again there seemed to be no problem with our boots and we were shown upstairs to our very comfortable rooms, each with private shower and toilet, color TV, the works. I asked about the bar and was given the answer I should have gotten last night – “Just ring the bell and you can be served anytime.” We agreed to get our boots off and meet in the bar in five minutes. Harold had a double Bells and Tosh and I each downed a pint.
Everybody took a leisurely soak in a nearby bathroom and Tosh and I, separately, had a look around the town before dinner. Hay is famous as the second-hand book capital of the world and Tosh bought several books. I spent some time in Richard Booth’s shop. (He is the eccentric who declared Hay an independent principality with himself as prince.) I waited in vain for a telephone kiosk to become free but when I gave up and returned to the Black Lion I discovered a phone in my room and called home with my arrival time for the next day. We met in the resident’s lounge at 7:30 and a waitress came in to take our dinner order while we had more drinks. “You know how on every bar counter there is a bottle in which you deposit coins for some charity?” I asked. “Yesterday there was one for mountain rescue but today I propose a new charity. Lets start collecting coins to send the staff of The Half Moon over to the Black Lion so they can see how it’s done.”
We had a sumptuous meal in the dining room of this establishment – which traces part of its structure back to the 11th century. Our hostess, with all her war paint on, hovered nervously at our tableside. The Lees had soup and I had a prawn cocktail; then we each had a wonderful steak and veg. The dining room was quite busy. By 9:30 it was time for us to turn in. I watched the second half of “L.A. Law” and the news on my color telly.
The Lees went out to see the town in the morning but they were just returning when I came down at 8:45 for breakfast. You could tell the walk was over; Tosh was disdaining the full breakfast in favor of one poached egg. Shortly before ten we settled our bill and walked back up the Oxford Road. A local yobbo was waiting at the bus stop, on his way to Hereford for his unemployment gyro. Much to our surprise we were greeted by some familiar faces – the two walkers from the Hostry. The sharp-faced braggart had done such damage to his feet that his blisters now had to be dressed by the doc in the clinic across the street. They had done no walking at all yesterday and any today was unlikely. We left them in this somewhat chastened state as we climbed aboard our bus at 10:00.
The ride to Hereford was quite interesting, with many local people climbing aboard for a bit of shopping. The vicar got on and so did a wonderful old lady with a Corgi – who sat in her lap the entire distance. We passed Hereford Cathedral shortly before our bus reached its station at 11:00. It was not far to the train station and here I left the Lees in the buffet while I marched around getting more bus and train times against the resumption of our quest sometime in the future. At 11:43 we left on a train for Newport, even crossing our footsteps at Pandy. We had only about a ten-minute wait in Newport before boarding a fast intercity for Paddington. I listed to Mahler’s 7th on my walkman and drank a can of beer. We reached town at 2:30 after a most successful expedition. I said goodbye to the Lees, who were off to retrieve Tosh’s score. I could tell how weary my limbs were as I dragged myself through the station – sore back, sore heel, sore ankle, sore hip, but all the aches and pains not outweighing the pleasures of the expedition.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: