I map out a circular route that begins and ends at the Tabernacl chapel, a third of the way up the Grwyne Fawr valley. I plan a route because I have become more fastidious, as I get older, about leaving clear directions at home, just in case. This notion of following a predetermined route is something quite alien to me, however, and it goes against every fibre of my being to stick to it, not to veer off on subsidiary trails, onto paths that lead nowhere, or else to places I never imagined going. Especially those places, in fact.
And so it is, quite early one morning in late July, that I park the car opposite the chapel and set off up the hillside. I keep to a rhythm, there is nothing original in that, it’s the only way to go, one step leading to another. But that’s why it feels so good. The rhythm of the breath. I pass the badger-faced sheep, which, on this particular farm, have been known to give me the evil eye. Below the Stone of Revenge, I take the lower path, which, after half a mile or so, follows the eastern flank of the Mynydd Du forest. I turn sharp right onto a rough trail up to Bal Bach, and from there the vista opens up over the Ewyas Valley, with Llanthony Priory directly below.
From here I climb to Bal Mawr, and it is now that the green becomes greener, to my eye, at least; a green, as a poet once said, that is close to pain. In the distance, to the south, the Severn Sea is visible. Only on a clear day, and there aren’t so many of those. I stop to drink water, and am greeted by a solitary hiker, a man of around my age, walking in the opposite direction. He is the only human I have seen since leaving the road, and I will not see another for at least three hours, and then at a distance. Which is odd, even for a Tuesday.
A line comes to mind from a book I recently read, which has been playing on my mind. Augustus John’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, writes that John could never be one person, that he didn’t know who he was, that he kept reformulating himself (as an example he says that John kept changing his handwriting). Solitude on these walks often stirs up lightly dormant threads of thought, and I am at once cast adrift on the shores of an old and bitter dispute, brought on by that ‘could never be one person’; whether, indeed, there is such a thing as core identity, reinforced by the continuous tellings and retellings of a discrete and autonomous self, the narrating ‘I’ of its own life story, or whether, rather, we are episodic beings, as the philosopher Galen Strawson proposes, a sequence or series of fleeting ‘selves’ that dissolve and reassemble in different iterations over the course of a lifetime, but which lacks any central unifying narrative that constitutes what we might reasonably think of as a ‘self’. But does it have to either/or? Can I not be the bearer of (or container for) a more transitory and fleeting self and yet retain an underlying constancy, of the kind once called a soul? These ruminations are brought to a close when I spot what looks like a carved tombstone, a rectangular and large white rock, thirty metres below the ridge. I scramble down to inspect it, only to find it is a natural rock, covered by a strange scabby whiteness, some kind of fungus, nothing more.
As I follow a vague track down from Tarren yr Esgob towards the Grwyne Fawr reservoir, a tiny chick adorned with flecks of fluff, peers up at me from the mat-grass. This baby bird is a meadow pipit, and when I stop to take its portrait, I hear the worried chirruping of a parent bird nearby, and so move on.
At the reservoir, the water level is the lowest I have seen it, and although swimming is not encouraged, it certainly isn’t unheard of — and I have swum here myself. No one, though, would be tempted by the water today.
A hundred years ago, when the reservoir was under construction, some of the workers would commute by foot from Talgarth each morning, and back again at night, a walk of around seven arduous miles each way, following the stream north, and descending down Rhiw Cwnstab. My plan was to head the same way, as far as the stream’s source, and then turn left up toward Pen y Manllwyn and Waun Fach, but at this point, having crossed the bridge at the head of the dam, and noticing tracks straight up the hillside toward Waun Fach, I take a short cut. I want to get home before nightfall. The path is very steep, so I stop off to feast on whimberries (or winberries, or billberries, or whortleberries) — but known locally as whimberries — which grow abundantly here. Unfortunately they do not keep well, and reduce to mush very quickly in warm weather, so I don’t take any home.
The summit and environs of Pen y Gadair Fawr is sacred ground, at least for me. I stop to eat my sandwich and gaze in wonder at the majestic lines that sweep down between Pen Trumau and Mynydd Llysiau, allowing the distant shape of Mynydd Troed to slip perfectly between them, as an elegant foot might slip inside a cosmic slipper.
The Mynydd Du forest lies to the east of the ridge, a vast conifer plantation covering over 1,260 hectares that stretches half the length of the valley. For the past fifty years this forest has been a blot on the local landscape. In its recently published ‘Summary of Objectives’, Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru/Natural Resources Wales claims that it will aim to ‘diversify the species composition of the forest, with consideration to both current and future site conditions, . . . will enhance the structural diversity of the woodland . . . incorporating areas of well thinned productive conifer with a wide age class diversity, riparian and native woodland, natural reserves, long term retentions, and a mosaic of open habitats.’
That is all well and good, and I only hope it comes to pass, because the argument for the planting of native broadleaves has been around for decades now, and in the meantime expanses of the mountain are stripped bare (the term ‘asset strippers’ comes to mind) leaving an ugly void, as the conifers drain the soil of nutrients. I reflect back on a conversation I had with a farmer in the Grwyne Fechan valley last year, who told me how the forestry companies are supposed to plant a percentage of deciduous trees in among the pines, but the approach is tokenistic at best, or else frankly cynical: profit and exploitation of resources is the only serious motive. The landscape I pass to the south of Pen y Gadair Fawr looks and feels like a deserted battlefield. An arboreal graveyard. Nothing much is alive, apart from the few sheep that nibble listlessly at the edge. I feel the usual useless rage, and continue on my way.
Further on, I come across a flattened patch of grass between the ferns, scattered with wrappings from protein and chocolate bars, empty cans of energy drinks, crisp packets, used tissues. I look around. The rubbish covers quite a small area, and there is a breeze, so the litter louts have not long gone. I gather up all the mess and fill the plastic carrier bag that I use as a damp-proofing cushion, and stuff the lot inside my rucksack. Who on earth would leave their trash behind in a place like this? When I round the next hillock I see, in the distance, a group of half a dozen young people crowded around a map that one of them is holding; Duke of Edinburgh participants perhaps? Who else under the age of fifty would use an actual paper map? They look as if they are descending towards the Grwyne Fechan valley road. I think of going and gently explaining things to them, but they are too far away. As I watch, they seem to work out their route, and move on down the hill. I decide not pursue them, and do a stunt as the crazy old man they met up a mountain. It’s wonderful (I want to think) that these kids have an opportunity to walk in these hills, but could they please do so without trashing them? The next day I will ring around a couple of places that provide accommodation for groups of this kind, at Llanthony and Maes y Lade. Neither of them had excursions up in the hills yesterday, they say. I have quite a long chat with the guy from the Maes y Lade Centre, which is run by Essex Youth Service and provides residential holidays for youngsters from that county. He seems genuinely concerned and insists that the kids who come to the centre are taught to respect the local environment. That’s good, I say, and mean it.
Forms of sphagnum have been around for 400 million years, and the soft, absorbent moss has been used widely for poultices, for nappy (or diaper) material by Native Americans such as the Cree, and as insulation by the Inuit. What strikes me most about this little patch of moss or migwyn, however, is the almost luminescent colour, a blend of orange, white and gold that startles in the light of late afternoon, the moss dotted with strange upright stalks, daubs of white fluff attached, resembling candy floss. I think at first it must be sheep’s wool that has adhered to the stems, but it is lighter, fluffier, and more fragile to the touch. I am flummoxed and make a mental note to research my sphagnums.
The last stretch of the hike involves a slight ascent up to Crug Mawr, high above Partrishow and its tiny church. Looking west I catch the full contours of the Table Mountain, the iron age fort of Crug Hywel, which lends its name to my native town, Crickhowell, lying beneath it, out of sight. As I sit there in the silence, a red kite appears, glorious in its poise, suspended in impossible stillness high above the trail that forms the Beacons Way, no doubt scanning for any small rodent unwise enough to twitch beneath the ferns. It hangs there for a brief and delicate eternity, barely ruffling a feather, before suddenly swooping, levelling out and gliding at speed a few feet above the ground, then falls upon its prey, which it holds between its vice-like talons and soars away.
The descent towards the valley lane and the chapel is not kind on the knees after these fourteen miles, and I feel the weight of the years. When I get to my car I am joined by an eager young sheepdog, who throws herself into the stream ahead of me, an invitation of sorts. I take off my boots and sit on a rock, my grateful feet soaking in the cold water as the hound frolics briefly in the shallows, gnawing on a stick, before she is called away by a farmer’s whistle. It is evening now, and a cool breeze blows down the valley. I drink the last cup of hot chai from my thermos, smoke a cigarette, and reflect once more on the notion of the self, and core identity, before dismissing the notion entirely, and throwing away the dregs of my tea. My own core identity, if I ever had one, has dissolved into the flickering remnants of the day.