The Olchon Valley, which I only discovered recently, is a place that feels as though it shouldn’t exist. It is almost the definition of somewhere lost to the world; undiscovered, little known even to those who walk its outer edge, Crib y Gath, or the Cat’s Back, the long spine of an enormous dormant beast that threatens to uncoil, thrash loose and send its cargo of walkers flying into the stratosphere, perhaps to be picked up by some errant wind and deposited on the Malverns (from Moel fryn, or bare hill) to the east or Pen y Fan to the west. The looping elliptical lane that follows the contours of the valley is an ouroboros, a serpent eating its tail. Who knows where its tales of sorrow and loss will take us. Walking down the lane, past derelict cottages, we get the impression that this was once quite a populous valley. Whatever happened? There were times when parts of the Black Mountains flourished, and the fourteenth century was certainly among them.
Rumour has it that in 1315 Anabaptist leader and vagabond Walter Reynard of Mainz (known also as Reynard Lollard, and in the Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes as Gaultier Lollard) — an outspoken critic of the Catholic hierarchy — came to Wales, and was offered refuge in Olchon.
As one account has it: ‘Walter the Lollard, a shining light in the midnight of Papal darkness, after passing from country to country, lifting his eloquent voice and scattering over the wintery seed-fields the germs of truth, passed through England to build up the scattered flock of Christ there, and then breathed out his great soul amid the fires of martyrdom.’ Lollard was burned at the stake in Cologne, in 1322.
What did he find here in this obscure valley? Does his ghost haunt these silvered lanes on a night in February, the stars like shingle on some immeasurable shore? Do the religious wars that engulfed Europe over the three hundred years that followed Walter’s visit have their origins in a seed sown in this narrow sleeve of land between the great ridge of Hatterall and the Cat’s Back?