Ricardo Blanco's Blog

The Olchon Valley and Walter Lollard

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?

Flight of the Isard

I filmed this isard, or chamois, a couple of summers ago while hiking above Coma de Vaca, in the Pyrenees. I came across the clip on my computer this morning and thought I would post it. It felt as though we were the only living beings on the mountain that afternoon. There was a strange silence all about us. The way he dances down that slope fills me with joy, every time. For years I thought these guys were wild goats, but they are in fact members of the antelope family, cousins to the gazelle.

Bruno’s last picnic (part 2)

When we had finished our meal, I covered the embers of the fire with tranches of muddy turf, trod them down. We returned to the car. The lane winds down the narrow valley for six miles, between wooded hillsides. It is a remote place, and never more so than on a night in February. I wasn’t expecting any traffic.

As we set out, two things were on my mind. The first thing, which I didn’t mention in the last piece, was that when I was very ill, and Bruno was a pup, I had made a deal with the universe, providence, God, whatever you call it, that if only I could be granted as many years’ life as Bruno, I would be happy. It seems now, fifteen years later, to have been a little rash to make a bargain of this kind, however good a deal it might have seemed at the time. Did it mean that my days would shortly be numbered? I hoped not. Rose didn’t think so, but then, as she tells me, I am predisposed towards bouts of magical thinking.

The second thing was that I suspected, was practically certain, that we would come across a wild animal of some kind this evening. I just couldn’t think which. I remembered a night like this, a couple of years ago, driving back to the village where Rose and I were living in the Pyrenees, we had passed a wild boar sow and her two piglets, crossing the road just ahead of us. They were caught in the lights and trotted for a good stretch before sliding away into the scrub. I had regarded them as a good omen. 

Driving at night down such a wooded lane again tonight, I remember Jean-Christophe Bailly’s essay, The Animal Side, where he writes of ‘the soft but deep growl of something unknown . . .as if one were skidding over the surface of a world transformed, a world filled with terror, frightened movements, silences. But now, from this world, someone emerges — a phantom, a beast, for only a beast can burst forth this way . . .’ 

We were about two miles from the bottom of the valley, when the beast burst forth, swerved into sight, just ahead of my right headlamp. It had a sideways lilt, hobbling along awkwardly, as though limping, but nonetheless keeping up a good pace. I thought it might swerve off the road, but to the right there was a steep embankment, and he — I thought of it as a he — didn’t seem willing to cross the road ahead of our car, this huge rolling monstrous mass of metal and rubber and blazing light that roared behind him. I slowed to his speed and followed on. Frightened, he ran ahead, trapped in the narrow estuary of the lane. The uneven swagger of the creature was disarming. Because of the lilting run, he looked like a low-slung three-legged dog. And then I spot the stripes and distinctive snout: and that uneven hurried waddle now makes sense. A badger! Though I prefer to think of him as Mochyn ddaear which means Earth Pig, his name in Welsh.

So Mochyn Ddaear runs ahead for a good two or three hundred metres, and a strange, receptive joy comes over us, we become ‘childlike, or perhaps archaic.’ (Bailly). We slow our pace to match the badger’s. Just when it seems as though he would continue trotting ahead in the beam of our headlamps all the way, he takes a sharp turn, and scrambles up the bank to the right. We catch his full profile as he turns one last time before plunging into the undergrowth. 

I do not want to attribute any special meaning to this encounter on the night we built a fire and cooked a meal for our aged dog, knowing that he had only days to live. I know that I cannot inhabit Bruno’s suffering any more than I can inhabit the world of the badger, whose trajectory briefly met with ours that night. I cannot know his world, or speak with the voice of a Badger, even though, for the duration of a few seconds, our paths overlapped. I shall forever be excluded from the shadowy paths by which creatures make their way; theirs is a different modality, a different way of being. But I can watch and listen and report back, share for a moment the joy of having met, in passing, other distinct and impermanent inhabitants of the valley’s night.

Bruno, a party animal, always enjoyed a picnic!

Bruno’s last picnic (part 1)

This week we said goodbye to Bruno, dearest and most joyful of dogs. He was old, at fifteen, but he was cheerful and brave to the end. He just couldn’t do much for himself by then, other than eat, shit, and wag his tail. He had a large tumour and his liver and kidneys were shot. A few days before he died, Rose and I took him for an evening excursion to one of our favourite picnic spots, half way up the Grwyne Fawr valley, in the Black Mountains.

We parked by the stream at Blaen y cwm. A hundred years ago this was a different place entirely. Hundreds of workers poured into the valley to build the Grwyne Fawr reservoir. A village was erected at Blaen y Cwm and known locally as Tin Town. It had a hospital, lodging house, chapel, school and jail.  The reservoir was completed in 1928 and the village dismantled. 

I walked to the top of the forest, just below Bal Bach, with Bal Mawr looming to the left, and stood for a while by a ruined stone house. The roof had caved in and two large trees grew within. Sheep had gathered around their feeder just below, and there was a dense, yellowing light, with a backdrop of burnt sienna provided by the swathes of dead fern that cover the mountainside. When I returned to the car, an hour later, it was dark and Rose and Bruno were dozing peacefully. I carried the food bag and blanket, and Rose helped Bruno along the muddy track to the picnic spot. The place for making fire is more or less the same as it was twenty odd years ago, when we would bring our daughters here after school. I collected a few more rocks from the shore of the stream that flows near by, the Grwyne Fawr after which the valley takes its name, as the fireplace needed building up: there was a brisk westerly wind. The wood nearby was sodden after days of rain, but I had counted on that, so I started the fire with dry kindling that I had brought with me. We soon had a blaze, and I laid a grill over the fire and cooked the food we had brought. 

I sat by the fire, and when the food was cooked, we ate, and Rose and I took turns in feeding Bruno bits of sausage, his favourite food.

I was sad that we would be losing Bruno, but also glad that he had been with us for all these years, and had shared in our lives. When I brought him home as a pup, I was ill with Hepatitis C and going through severe liver decompensation, which included bouts of hepatic encephalopathy, in which I suffered hallucinations and blackouts. I had been given one year to live, unless a liver transplant could be found for me. I believe I drew energy and hope with that young dog, and as he grew I recovered. I had a transplant and then volunteered on a trial for a new drug treatment and within weeks the Hep C was gone. So a lot was invested in our relationship, from my point of view.

In the last few weeks of his life, whenever Rose or I were near him, Bruno, who was mostly immobile by then, would follow our every move with his eyes, always and without fail. It was as if he were asking a question that we were incapable of answering. The connection ran deep and we miss him very much.

A confusing day

Choose a day of red weather; no, leave the weather out of it, let the day choose you. 

You decide to walk to Bal Mawr, setting out from the five ways junction, by the grey telephone box, and up to the ancient hill fort of Twyn y Gaer. You try to imagine the people who once lived here, on this windy outcrop . . . their huts and stone circles and rites of fire . . . and what of their songs? And their dogs, howling across the valley at the moon.

Twyn y Gaer lies at the centre of a trio of hill forts: Crug Hywel (known locally as Table Mountain) to the west and Tre-wyn, at the southern end of Hatterall Hill, to the east. Were the three settlements linked in some way? Their human inhabitants shared these hills with wolf, bear and wild boar.  Did they have common enemies before the Romans came, with their regimented infantry and swift Caspian cavalry?

It will be a day of all weathers: sunshine, biting wind, rain and even hail. You stride into the wind and remember the days when you and the dog walked out together, which seems so long ago already. The dog is old now, he cannot join you. He sits on a rug back home in Grangetown.

As you walk from Garn Wen towards the rough-hewn steps that climb to Bal Mawr you begin to wonder — and this is not such a non-sequitur as it might appear — about the writer’s life and how it has become almost impossible to write a line without somehow becoming embroiled in identity politics.

A passage, only half tongue in cheek, from the novel you have just been reading* comes to mind, voiced by a disenchanted pale male: ‘It’s a kind of double bind, isn’t it. The privileged shouldn’t write about themselves, because that furthers the agenda of the imperialist white patriarchy. But they also shouldn’t write about other groups, because that would be cultural appropriation.’ I don’t want to be typecast any more than I wish to stereotype others. Identity politics sucks. You’re better off up a mountain, keeping schtum.

But you can’t stay up here forever. The badger faced sheep would laugh at you.

When you descend to the valley the sky will clear once more, which you will perceive as a kind of blessing. Not that you expect a blessing of any kind, only something to avert the waiting, and the dog, back home will look up when you return, slowly wag his tail in greeting, but he will know that you have been up the mountain without him and he will be sad.


At the bottom of the hill, beside the stream, sits the Tabernacl, built in 1837, a Baptist Chapel serving the community of Gwryne Fawr and Fforest Coalpit.  No one lives in the small attached manse, and nor is it for sale. The past is all around you and the future is nothing more than a hypothesis.

*The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Old red sandstone, its beating heart

There is a spot just below Pen y Gadair Fawr, on the narrow track that leads to Waun Fach, that I think of as the epicentre of the Black Mountains, its beating heart.  The thought struck me with perverse joy yesterday as I leaned into the gale force wind, striding north. 

I had climbed from Castell Dinas, up to Y Grib, on a day that began with blue skies, then past Pen y Manllwyn to the high point, where the weather turned.

On the summit of the Big Chair I had leaned against the pile of stones (too scattered to constitute a cairn) and gulped hot chai. Moments of reward after a hard climb. Sometimes the only purpose of a long and solitary hike is to give the mind a thorough rinsing, clear out all the crap, cast away the debris. Start out with a clean slate. 

I am struck once again by the futility of my self-set task, to document these hills in prose, discover stories hidden away in their most secret valleys, find words to accurately reflect the riddles of place; unearth memories, my own and those of others. Dispense with these thoughts now, step down the rocky path that winds beneath the crest, the cwm falling away to the west in a cascade of little rock pools, great for a summer dip, frozen now, in January. 

No birds up here, except for that red kite, which dives with talons stretched and scoops from the withered grass beside the peat bog something small and with a beating heart. 

Later, on my descent, at Pen Trumau, the wind drops to an almost stillness, and I hear it, a distant music carried on the lightest breeze, an orchestra of all the dead that ever roamed these hills, the mountain’s threnody.

Preaching the crusade at Partrishow

Partrishow, tucked away in the folds of the Black Mountains, was named for a sixth century holy man called Issui, who settled beside a well in a remote hillside gully. The story goes that Issui was robbed and murdered by a passing traveller whom he had offered shelter for the night. The site became a place of pilgrimage, and the water from the well acquired healing properties. Early in the eleventh century a pilgrim who had been cured of sickness donated a bag of gold to build a church just up the hill from the well. 

An eleventh century megalithic font remains intact from those times, inscribed with the words ‘Menhir made me in the time of Genillin’. (Genyllin Foel was son of Rhys Coch, Prince of Powys and Lord of Ystradyw.) Later, in the fifteenth century, the church was rebuilt and a beautiful rood screen, carved of Irish oak, installed. A figure of Doom, armed with spade, scythe and hourglass, was added in the seventeenth century.

In 1188, the church was visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde. Baldwin was accompanied by a retinue of soldiers and servants, and an irascible clerk named Gerald of Wales (known alternatively as Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerallt Gymro). Gerald was of Norman and Welsh lineage, and was a complex character, who had allegiances toward the Welsh, but whose Norman ancestry, and the fact that the Normans held the reins of power, meant that, by and large, he remained a spokesman for the occupiers. This was his summary of the people of the Black Mountains:

‘The natives of these parts are much given to implacable quarrels and never-ending disputes. They spend their time fighting each other and shed their blood freely in internecine feuds. I leave it to others to tell you about the inhuman crimes which have been committed there in our lifetime: marriages most cruelly brought about, inflicted rather than contracted, only to be cut short by separation and bloodshed, and many other savage acts of violence.’

The purpose of Bishop Baldwin’s journey through Wales was to recruit for the Third Crusade (1189-92). I try to imagine the scene, the priest, decked out in his finery, shouting out his sermon beneath the stone cross that still stands by the entrance to the little church. 

But what would those shepherds and landless peasants — people who laboured to eke out a living from this ungiving soil — have made of the Archbishop’s summons to travel countless miles across the sea to save the city of God?

At the time of the crusades, the ordinary foot-soldiers, the kind being recruited by Baldwin here in the Black Mountains, believed that the Jerusalem they were being sent to deliver from the occupying Moslems was one and the same city as that described by John in his Book of Revelation: a glittering bejewelled city which promised the attainment of eternal bliss. They would have been sorely disappointed by what they found.

Baldwin never returned from the crusade. Having set off in April 1190 alongside Richard the Lion Heart as commander in chief of the army, he arrived in the Holy Land in September, ahead of his king.  Shortly afterward, plague ravaged the crusaders’ camp and Baldwin died near Acre, before the year was out. 

Gerald of Wales also failed in his ambition, which was to become Bishop of St David’s, in Pembrokeshire. After years of dispute, in which he failed to convince Pope Innocent III to agree his appointment to the bishopric, he resigned from his post as archdeacon of Brecon and wrote a letter of complaint to the pope, which famously includes these words: 

‘Because I am a Welshman am I to be debarred from all preferments in Wales? On the same reasoning so would an Englishman in England, a Frenchman in France, and Italian in Italy. But I am sprung from the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the Marches, and when I see injustice in either race I hate it.’

On Macnamara’s road

Tal-y-maes bridge and the so-called Macnamara’s road.

If you walk the same routes over and over, then on each occasion you not only walk the walk in the present tense, but you carry with you the memory of every time you did the walk before, your hippocampus a repository for the sense impressions and visions and emotional turbulence of whatever preoccupied you on those earlier occasions, all those things you have forgotten, or seem to have forgotten, until flagged into consciousness by the rustle of a fern, or the cluster of red berries on the hawthorn tree and the contingent secrets of all these byways, childhood picnics downstream from the bridge, and the view up the famous Macnamara road. And there’s the thing.

For as long as I can recall this track up from Taly-y-maes bridge has been the source of stories about the eponymous John Macnamara, Lord of Llangoed Hall, a member of the original Hellfire Club, and a famous gambler, drinker and brawler, the very stuff of Byronic legend. Allegedly Macnamara won Llangoed Hall in a card game, settled there with his wife Mary (the full tale is rendered in faux-Regency prose by Horatio Clare on the Brecon Beacons website here). 

The story goes that Macnamara had the legendary road built so as to visit his mistress, whom he had installed at the Hermitage, further down the valley (in Clare’s sanitised version, she is a wronged woman, Charlotte H, whom Macnamara generously offers to house, away from danger, in the middle of nowhere). One night, during a drunken race (with the devil, perhaps) Macnamara was thrown from his coach on the col at Pen Trumau and broke his neck. And that was that. His widow, Mary, inherited the estate, and erected border stones at Pen Twyn Glas and a dozen other locations to establish the limits of her property. 

The last part is true, but almost nothing else.

In an illuminating article, ‘Macnamara Myths’, Miriam Griffiths pretty much lays this fable to rest with one acerbic sentence: ‘John Macnamara was not much interested in his Welsh estate; several of his letters refer to the fact that he is in England while his wife and family are in Wales and it is perhaps improbable that a man would install a mistress on the inaccessible outer fringes of his less-favourite estate.’ Moreover, as we discover, the so-called ‘Macnamara’s road’ is pure invention too. It has never been more than a bridleway or horse track, and certainly would not have sustained a wheeled carriage of the kind used two hundred years ago, let alone one driven at speed by a shit-faced rake. Oh, and there was never such a thing as the ‘Hellfire Club’, and the closest thing to it, Sir Francis Dashwood’s, ceased operations in 1766, when John Macnamara was eleven years old.

There was indeed a road built by a Macnamara, but it ran south from the Hermitage, as does the present road to Llanbedr, and was most likely built, or improved by John’s son Arthur, while carrying out work on the Hermitage during the 1830s and 1840s. 

And yet it doesn’t matter. History trumps fiction, but so what? Still we carry these stories with us, like the landscape and the memory of falling and the red berries of the Hawthorn tree.

False Bravado and the Stone of Revenge

On New Year’s Eve we climb the Ffwyddog ridge, that separates the valley of Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas. It is warm for the time of year, but not so warm, nor so dry that we do not need extra layers and raincoats. The sun makes an effort to break through layers of cumulus, but to little avail. Once there is the glimmer of a rainbow, but the particles that form it dissolve almost as quickly as they assemble, or more correctly speaking, we are standing in the wrong place to see it. Everything is in motion; everything is a part of the spiral.

The contours of these hills shift with each change of the light, and with every turn of a story. Let’s imagine that the course of the earth’s trajectory shifts by a fraction of a millimetre, almost imperceptibly. You are a Norman baron on a journey across Wales, and you make the decision, at a given moment, to send your men-at-arms home, keeping only a bard and a fiddler and a clown. You are advised by your trusted companion that this might not be best idea when travelling through hostile territory, but the day is bright and it is springtime. What could possibly go wrong?

On the Ffwyddog ridge stands Dial Garreg, the stone of revenge. Here, on 15 April 1136, Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare and his small retinue were cut down in an ambush led by Morgan ap Owain, Lord of Caerleon, his brother Iorwerth, and their men. De Clare was en route to Ceredigion after returning to Wales in the company of his friend Brian Fitz Count de Wallingford, who held the Barony of Abergavenny. The two men had probably spent the night at Brian’s castle there.

Gerald of Wales, in his Journey Through Wales, written fifty years after the event, takes up the story:

‘A short time after the death of Henry I, King of the English, it happened that Richard de Clare, a nobleman of high birth who, in addition to the Clare estates, held Cardiganshire in South Wales, passed this way . . . He was accompanied by a large force of men-at-arms led by Brian de Wallingford, then overlord of this area, who was acting as his guide through the pass. When they reached the entrance to the wood, Richard de Clare sent back Brian and his men, and rode unarmed into the forest, although this was much against Brian’s wishes, and indeed, against his express advice. Richard was foolish enough to imagine the trackway was safe. Ahead of him went a singer to announce his coming and a fiddler who accompanied the singer on his instrument. From then onwards things happened very quickly. The Welsh had prepared an ambush for Richard. All of a sudden Iorwerth, the brother of Morgan of Caerleon, and others of their family, rushed out from where they were hidden in the thickets, cut down Richard de Clare and most of his men, and made off with their baggage which they had seized in this savage way. Just how ill-advised and foolhardy it is to be presumptuous is made only too obvious by disasters of this sort. We learn to be careful about the future and to exercise caution even when all seems to be going well. To rush on regardless is simply false bravado. It is at once rash and inconsiderate to take no heed at all of the advice given by those who are trying to help us.’

Despite this the sanctimonious advice after the event, I do find it strange that Gerald tells us that Richard entered the woods ‘unarmed’ — which would have been unheard of for a man of his position at this time.

The Welsh were mightily peeved by the intrusion of the Norman marcher barons, such as de Clare, onto their territory, what with their tithes and taxes, their habit of lording over the locals, a habit which has been pursued by the English towards the Welsh ever since. This assassination was but a small item in the period of unrest that followed the death of Henry I of England, prelude to a gruelling litany of betrayals and bloodbaths that took place over several centuries on these borderlands between the Norman, and later Anglo-Norman barons, and their Welsh (and sometimes Cymro-Norman) neighbours. 

After the killing of de Clare, Morgan went on to capture Usk castle, and thus ruled over the area now known as Monmouthshire, calling himself King of Gwent. His lordship of Caerleon, at least, was recognised by Henry II, but only until 1158, when Morgan and his bard Gwrgant ap Rhys were, in their turn, murdered by Ifor Bach, the Welsh lord of Senghenydd, famous for scaling Cardiff Castle with a ladder and kidnapping its incumbent, William Fitz Robert, Earl of Gloucester, along with his wife and child. Ifor carried out his abduction in retaliation for Fitz Robert’s theft of land that Ifor claimed as his own, and he succeeded in this mission. 

A well-known Cardiff night club is named after Ifor Bach. Nothing much is named after Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, but the stone of revenge stands as testament to his recklessness. The story suggests that this area was once densely wooded, as were other swathes of these hills.

Following the lane back down the Grwyne Fawr valley, we pass a corrugated iron shed, on one side of which are the words BEWARE DOG, and on the other, in the photo, THIEVES AGAIN. This message could be read in several ways.

On the Cat’s Back

Sometimes our reading maps onto our walks. Or vice versa. The night before I had been reading in Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains how Glyn goes in search of his Taid one evening, when the older man fails to return from a long walk in the hills. He has left a note for this daughter, Megan, and grandson Glyn, which includes the lines: 

‘It is such a lovely day, so still and bright, that I’m taking a lift back . . . so that I can go once again along the best of all walks through these mountains: what you’ve heard me call its heart line. I shall go up by Twyn y Gaer and along its old pastures to the Stone of Vengeance, then to the old circle at Garn Wen and the Ewyas tower, along the ridge above the reservoir . . . across Gospel Pass and along the ridge to Penybeacon, then as always above Blaen Mynwy and past Llech y Ladron to our spot height above Blaen Olchon and so along the Cat’s Back to the Rhew and the lane to the house.’

A conversation has just taken place between Glyn and his mother, Megan, in which Megan has expressed concern about her father’s late return:

‘Has he been well?’ Megan asked, forcing her voice.

‘Yes, as usual. He’s got so much more energy than the rest of us.’

‘Seems to have more energy.’

‘Yes, because he lives in one piece.’ ‘

‘He’s sixty-eight, Glyn.’

‘In one piece, in one place. It makes all the difference.’

So that is the opening premise, and like Glyn, who sets out to do his Taid’s walk in reverse, we ventured up Crib y Gath (the Cat’s Back) in his footsteps. Given that it was a day of low hanging cloud in late December, our expectations were limited, but I was also deeply conscious of my own investment in these mountains, and of what I have learned about them, and continue to learn, over many years. Williams also had thoughts, which he expressed, via his protagonist Glyn, in another passage:

‘Solid traces of memory! The mountains were too open, too emphatic, to be reduced to personal recollection: the madeleine, the shout in the street. What moved, if at all, in the moonlit expanse was a common memory, over a common forgetting. In what could be seen as its barrenness, under this pale light, there might be the sense of tabula rasa: an empty ground on which new shapes could move. Yet that ideal of a dissident and dislocated mind, that illusion of clearing a space for wholly novel purposes, concealed, as did these mountains, old and deep traces along which lives still moved. An empty and marginal land, in which the buried history was still full and general, was waiting to be touched and to move.’

Over the past month, over several excursions, I have become accustomed to a very particular light in which these hillsides bathe when the cloud is thinning and the sun is about to drop behind the western skyline. The effect of this densely filtered sunlight — beginning about an hour before sunset — is to cast an amber wash over everything, so that the whole spread of the upland; the peat bogs, the wide expanse of tussock grass and sphagnum, all of it, is luminescent with an understated warming glow. Unfortunately, this light does not translate.

The state into which I plunge is paradoxical; both deeply present and yet strangely detached, as though, like Williams’ protagonist, with ‘dissident and dislocated mind’ I too were ‘moving over an empty ground on which new shapes could move’.

For a moment, then, I consider this steep-sided ridge, Crib y Gath, as a mighty ship, plying the deep pasturelands, into a sea of mist. At the far prow, on a rocky outpost, can be seen a single figure — my daughter Rhiannon — unwittingly performing the lead role in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. To the right, the cloud covers the Olchon valley and creeps  up the walls of Hatterrall Hill. In that moment everything lies fully within view, circumscribed by mist and as improbable as the hawthorn that sprouts at right angles to the rock. In fact the entire landscape creates its own rules of harmony, lives by its own innate rhythms. There is a symmetry to it all, which I cannot fathom, but which, as the years pass, seems ever more deeply to resemble a kind of consciousness.

Above the fog line

There is a world above the fog line, as we discover. Two hundred and fifty metres above sea level, we emerge into a landscape filled with colour. The sky is a cerulean blue. Like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, we are stunned to learn of the existence of this brave new world. If we return to the world of fog the others will not believe us, and may kill us. We can see the fog lands stretching out beneath us, to the river valley, southwest to the capital, and far beyond. Best to stay put.

We hear gunfire from further up the cwm: men are hunting with dogs, which is against the law of the land. There is a woods, and the way is perilous, but we make it onto the upland pastures of Darren fach, the disused quarries of a deeper green than even the grasslands, the sheep dropping currants, the various fungi now at season’s end, among them the liberty cap, psilocybe semilanceata, the collection or possession of which is against the law of the land: but whose land? Three watchful horses graze where once there were two. Who is the third that always walks beside us? We sit by the cairn and eat our sandwiches, drink hot tea from a thermos. I wonder whether the farm that lies at the base of a perfect parallelogram, below Pen Gwyllt Meirch and surrounded by three fields — three adjacent parallelograms — was built there by design or by accident. Or whether the design — if indeed that is what it is — stretches far beyond that corner of the hillside to encompass all of this, and us.

Or whether that particular shade of russet, edging to ochre, or is it saffron — no colour chart could do it justice — can ever be replicated in a photograph or painting, any more than I, seated beneath the cairn, knife in hand, dropping apple peel for the luminous insects at my feet, might discern the vast and intricate pattern of spider webs that lattice the entire hillside and which glitter like a silvery counterpane under the oblique rays of the winter sun as it falls behind the bulk of Pen Allt Mawr.

Coming off the mountain, one of the horses, silhouetted against the mist — which has edged up the valley just a tad — eyes us with suspicion. The air is colder now. Retracing our steps down the forestry track, a pair of deer appear from our left at speed, leap across the path ahead of us, and vanish.

The distant glow of somewhere

Walking along the ridge that separates Cwm Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas, I am attentive to the details, and enter a familiar state of watchful trance. But the details are relatively few when walking in a cloud, which swirls around me, as though I were on the deck of a great liner plying the folds of the sky. Far off to the south, a mysterious light beckons, the distant glow of somewhere. I know exactly where I am headed, but am aware that if I go the way I had planned when I set out I will be walking down much of the mountain in the dark: I decide to take a short cut, despite all the received and accepted wisdom about not taking shortcuts. But there are times when it is necessary, and this route is familiar. You remember the line from Roethke’s poem ‘I learn by going where I have to go’ but not necessarily, not always.

I cross paths with a wandering pony, a grey, but of such a strange hue as though stained with blue dye. I call her Ceridwen, I’m not sure why, and tell her I have an apple, but she isn’t listening. Another ambient mortal taking a shortcut over the marsh, talking to horses, imagining I am someone I am not. It is difficult enough surviving on this moor without having to conform to the fantasies of some passerby. And I too am having difficulty negotiating the exceedingly lumpy and boggy terrain, but the shortcut is effective and I cut a chunk off the circuit, and eventually descend though rock and moss to sit by the stream, y grwyne fawr, though it is hardly big, even in comparison with its sibling, y grwyne fechan (the little grwyne), and I sit and eat my apple and then a cheese sandwich, under the curious gaze of another blue pony. I pour coffee from my flask and watch as nothing much takes place. Here there is no mist; the cloud begins in a sheet around thirty metres above the stream, hugging the sides of the mountain above my head; due to the meteorological conditions it has no choice to be anything other than a cloud, but there is no ‘it’, I tell myself, just billions of tiny water droplets, visible water vapour, crowding around the upper reaches of the mountain. A few late crows harass the gibbous moon. As I descend the path past the reservoir, dusk is falling, and by the time I am past the dam, the darkness has settled, or rather, the accumulation of black air is complete. It is also noticeably cooler. A light shines from the window of a solitary farmhouse, the only dwelling in the upper reaches of the valley. There is always, in that descent towards human habitation at nightfall, a sense of safe return, something as primordial and as reassuring as a fire, a hearth, the company of kin.