Nature Notes

Golden Valleys & Black Hills.

Two days in to a week’s stay at a farmhouse in Herefordshire and the low, white, obscuring cloud finally lifted, like a blindfold coming off. I began to orient myself.

Sunnybank Farm didn’t disappoint. Its big, comfortably shabby rooms and sash windows opened out onto a rushing stream and birdsong and absorbed and occupied all eight of us, as it must have done so many families in the past. We began to count and welcome the migrant birds back in: a couple of swallows, a whitethroat, the laughing, lifting lilt of a willow warbler; and chiff chaffs, mis-chiming like frustrated conductors trying to count in and regulate the blackcap’s wild, lovely, all-over-the-place notes. A hopeless task. The song, babbly and freeform as the stream.

On a soft, chilly spring day, we climbed the high, long whale back mountain of Hatterrall Ridge that, from a blue distance, reminded us of our big, half-height hill at home, if only in shape and not geology.

The ten-mile-long ridge of Offa’s Dyke divides England and Wales in this Marches country. We started from the small, linear settlement of Longtown below, with its Marcher Lord castle ruin, primary school and Mountain Rescue Centre, peppered along the ‘winter road’ to Hay-On-Wye’s book town.

We walked under the red sandstone landslip and vertical bedrock of Black Darren, stepping over tadpoles squiggling in a mountain rill. I wondered if they washed and wriggled down, or hatched here?

The view and climb are breathtaking. The knife edge skew path up was vertiginous and slippery with red clay. Nuthatches called from the small, cherry-frilled woods we left behind and a raven flew leisurely past, making the sound of a wooden spoon hitting a half-filled bottle. For added measure, he hugged his own body into a barrel-roll smooch as he went past.

And then we were on top of the world. To the north-east, The Black Hill curved around like the Cat’s Back it is also named for, as the ridge extended on to Hay Bluff. Opposite were the huge, mown circles of the grouse moor; misplaced Olympic Rings, or the home scars of giant limpets on some blackened, barnacled rock the sea had long left behind.

Below, the Vale of Ewyas; the deep valley falling away on the Welsh side, with its remote priory at Llanthony and farm, ‘The Vision’, that inspired Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 book On The Black Hill. The Olchon Valley fell away on our eastern, English side. Acres of dry, rufous bracken descending to small, deep-hedged, apple-green fields.

We walked along the flat spine of Offa’s Dyke, balancing between England and Wales, past peat-dark moor pools of drowned sundew, riffled with a light breeze. Skylarks sang above wheatear and wild ponies with long, wind-plaited manes.  

The pinched cone of Monmouthshire’s Sugar Loaf mountain rose ahead of us. But we had gone too far; far longer than agreed, looking for a different way down. The mountain side was unyielding and we were forced to retrace our steps.

The steep, narrow path required our full attention. The dog dropped the tennis ball she’d found and we watched it fall and bounce and fall away to the farms and their collies below, our hearts in our mouth. I sat back, hanging on to her lead, digging my heels in, just in case temptation overwhelmed her.

That evening, the Golden Valley came into its own. The name is a possible, delightful confusion of Welsh and French-Norman etymology. The River Dore (from the Welsh dwr for water) is remarkably similar to the French d’or, for gold.

But in the still-novel extra hour of syrupy light, the streamside celandines and banks of golden saxifrage opened to the sun; the great green-gold mistletoe balls weighted the perry pear and cider apple trees – all was golden, all was possible. I thought I heard an otter’s whistle from the stream. And when we approached tiny St Margaret’s church, with its intricately carved rood screen, wooden tower and gravestones marked with the farms that had grown the people there, I saw the barns and farm I’ve dreamt of since I was small. I could have driven my Britain’s Farm Land Rover through it. And when I leant on the five-bar gate next to its pleached and laid blackthorn hedge, and the horses raised their heads, I held out an apple for Black Beauty and Merrylegs.  We walked home, glowing.

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