Wednesday, 20 May 2015

All spaced out in the Black Mountains

The hardest part of course is getting out of London. I knocked off work at lunchtime and headed round to my friend Bryan's flat. We were on the road by 2pm but that's when Friday rush hour starts around here. Two hours later we were finally motoring along the M4 in Berkshire headed for the village of Llanthony in the Welsh Black Mountains. Pints and pub grub awaited us, as well as stars and peace and quiet. A young guy called Russ joined us in the pub; he was over from Reading by himself after his mate bailed out. We found plenty to chat about, not surprising as we were all there for the same reason, although at different life stages - Russ young and without children and making the most of it with his outdoors pursuits and travelling, us early middle-aged types with relatively little time for ourselves but a quickening sense of how much - or little - is left to us.

Next morning began with bacon and egg sandwiches and tea at a little hole-in-the-wall-type cafe in the village. Hundreds of hikers and fell runners were setting off for the Big Black Mountain Challenge, an annual fundraiser for Longtown Mountain Rescue Team.

We headed the opposite way from the crowds, up to the long ridge that carries Offa's Dyke Path and separates England and Wales. Views opened over the Vale of Eywas, green and lush, surprisingly wooded. Old growth oaks spread up the steep hillsides. The sun was strong but the wind was cold, a confusing combination.

Russ caught us up and we were three again. The ridge was fast and easy walking, a dry and gravelly path.

We met the first Black Mountain Challenger approaching the end of their route. Not a wiry fell runner in vest and full-length socks, but an ex-paratrooper in heavy-duty boots, combat trousers and a cotton t-shirt, carrying a flask of tea, tailed by an elderly Jack Russell. Two minutes chat, a slug of black tea, a demand to see my 'Jockinese' passport, and he was off.

It's as natural and stark a border as I've seen. On the right the green fields and rolling hills of England, unbroken all the way to the North Sea; on the left the dark mountains and moors of Wales. The name 'Wales' is an Anglo-Saxon imposition denoting foreigners or outsiders. It contrasts with Cymru, meaning 'compatriots', and Lloegr, the lost lands, the Welsh word for England. That there was so little cross-fertilisation between the Anglo-Saxon and old British languages is perhaps a clue as to how these peoples viewed each other - as the 'other', foreign, different. There's little evidence of cultural crossover.

The precursor to modern Welsh was spoken widely throughout Britain before the Angles and Saxons arrived and began to pick off the old British kingdoms, pushing the Celts ever westwards. The invaders lorded it over the fertile lands whilst the Celts were marginalised, confined to the mountains and forced to scratch a living from poorer land. That's what the border seemed to say to me anyway; you can sense a similar dynamic in parts of the far north of Scotland where old Norse place names cluster around the fertile coastal strips and Gaelic names hold sway in the poor and rugged interior.

At Hay Bluff, where Offa's Dyke path drops off the hills towards Hay-on-Wye, and the busy trig point is painted with Welsh dragons and St George's crosses, we part company with Russ and turn left along the crest of the north-facing escarpment. We're feeling good, the weather is miraculous, and it's only early afternoon. We decide to get the miles in and set our sights on distant Waun Fach, highest point of the Black Mountains. The wind is barrelling across the lowlands; as it hits the escarpment it picks up speed and blasts over the rim. No wonder the gliders are out in force, towed up from a nearby airfield. A rich man's sport as Bryan observes.

The challengers are thinning out as we reach our turn-off along the ridge to Waun Fach. The light starts to soften towards evening. The solitude and space of the mountains begins to speak to us, like a whisper no longer drowned out. There are one or two stragglers, one lad in casual boots made for town, his face betraying blistered feet as he nods at us. Soon afterwards a member of the mountain rescue team appears from up the ridge, sweeping up the stragglers.

Beyond Waun Fach more members of the mountain rescue team are packing up a checkpoint and we turn our sights downhill towards camp and food.

We find a fairly sheltered spot amongst a sheep-wrecked and dying patch of woodland overlooking the Grwynne Fawr dam. It's an astonishing piece of engineering; the dam is almost as high as it is wide, cutting across a steep ravine of a valley. It's old, leaky, black and greasy-looking. Tempting for some adrenaline junkies no doubt - signs warn against abseiling down the dam.

It's going to be a cold night.

We're far from the first to camp here but it's not a bad spot. After eating we break out the malt. The wind sighs through the trees. I lean back and look up through a moving latticework of branches to the cold points of the stars. We're glad of warm jackets; I almost left my down jacket at home. You can't trust the weather in May.

We're off  around 9.30 the next morning. After yesterday's big miles we only have a short way to walk back to Llanthony, maybe five miles or so. We cross the dam and climb up the ridge opposite. More of the same weather, our faces starting to burn from hot sun and cold wind.

From the outlying Bal Mawr we get a fine perspective on the extent of the Black Mountains, its long easy ridges and wide moors. We've travelled so far and so effortlessly, it's a place for dreamers, for those for whom walking and thinking go together.

And those skies, clouds smeared and brushed across the blue.

We stumble off the moors for more bacon and egg sandwiches in Llanthony, and the long drive home.

I was glad I'd finally made it to Wales because in other news I'm moving to Edinburgh in July. The reasons are probably fairly predictable - a cheaper and better quality of life, closer to extended family, a better environment for the children with more access to the outdoors for all of us. I'm also embarking on a career change to something more focused on nature and the outdoors, which I'll write more about in due course.

Although Scotland is where I grew up, London has been where I've lived for 14 years, and where my children were born. There is real community here, surviving against the odds alongside the greed and the gentrification, and we're going to miss it and all our friends. As for Scotland - well, it's not as simple as going home because it's not the same place I left. Scotland has changed a lot in 14 years, become more confident, more bolshy perhaps. The country is on a journey that's unsettling some and energising others. I'm hoping it will be an exciting place to live, and a place of possibilities. And of course I can't wait to get to know the mountains I grew up with again.