A secret history

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A secret history


ON ITS placid surface, Herefordshire is both England's most secret, and yet most typical county. Tucked between the Malvern Hills and the Welsh mountains, it oozes Englishness: apple and pear orchards and half-timbered cottages; half-asleep market towns in slow river valleys; small fields, fat cows, and miles of hedgerows. If ever there were a land where sheep may safely graze, you'd think, it would be among these rolling green acres.

And yet, and yet ... there's blood on the tracts. In the Middle Ages, this was one of the most fought-over parts of the kingdom, ripped up in tugs of war between the Welsh and the English, a frontier land of warlords and few laws. Even the name, Hereford, derives from an Old English word for battle. Before then, it was the scene of clashes between Romans and Celts, and earlier still, rival iron-age tribes fought for control of the ridge-line trackways, building sprawling hill-forts which still pierce the skyline 3,000 years on.

I started the walk on a lane below one such: Capler Camp, perched on a tree-topped ridge high over the Wye, some 10 miles south of Hereford. Its twin ramparts, curving sheer-sided along the contour lines, still looked steeply impressive. But in the dancing light of late spring sunshine, flickering through the leaves, it wore a wholly peaceful air. Sheep nibbled at its defences, early swallows swooped and soared, a pair of rabbits scampered off through its main gate.

On a day such as this it was hard to believe that this was really a fort, as in fought over, the scene of slaughter. Much easier to subscribe to the New Age-y theories which would have it as a sanctuary, an enclosure for ceremonial ritual, planted lovingly on a ley-line.

The ancient yew tree looming over a solitary cottage at the far end seemed somehow to confirm this. To the south, the land rolled gently away to the plain, then rose to the blue slump of May Hill, a name redolent of spring ritual, its top crowned with a garland of firs. But a few days earlier I'd been standing on a similar site on Bredon Hill, 20 miles east across the Severn, thinking similar whimsy, then read how they'd found the crushed skulls of dozens of defenders, apparently left where they fell in some horrific melee at the main gate ...

Back in the peaceful present, I clambered down Capler's far side and headed north, into the folds and tucks of tiny valleys, and a tangle of orchards, oakwoods and open pasture.

This has never been a land for prairie-style wheat or barley: instead, the steep slopes and moist valleys are the closest we come to natural habitat for cattle and sheep. The latter were once the wealth of the county, producing wool "which Europe in general prefers to all", according to traveller William Camden, writing over 400 years ago.

The path snaked up the side of a hill, already parched by drought, and into open oak woods. The floor was awash with fading bluebells, the branches alive with birdsong. At the edge of the wood, the view opened out across the Wye Valley, fading into a blue haze of folded hills beyond.

I headed down curling lanes to the village of Fownhope, its spire like a finishing pole to a soft slalom through cherry-blossomed slopes and commoners' cottages. These were scattered across the hillside, a rare relic of a time when much of England was still common land - pre-enclosure England, with its own tangle of rights and obligations. One of these, supposedly, allowed any commoner to settle in whatever home he could put up between the sunrise and the sunset of a single day. Many such were razed by the enclosing landlords; but more remain in these Western counties, where enclosure was less thorough.

To a Londoner's ears, even those trained by sporadic rural forays, the sheer silence was astonishing. An occasional sheep bleat or blackbird, but no answering rattle of farm machinery, let alone cry of car alarm to cut through the heat haze.

Inevitably, TS Eliot came to mind: "Dawn points, and another day prepares for heat and silence." Only this was mid-morning, mid-week, mid-1990s. Any moment, I expected the reverie to be broken. But it held, all the way into the village and into the pub, to break on the shoals of the lunchtime drinkers, headed out from Hereford for a rural lager.

I troughed my way through a ploughman's out in the garden, where the sun bounced off the river to hammer down on a file of office workers and a pannier of cyclists. Then it was up the unfeasibly wide high street and into the cool and quiet of the parish church.

Like much about Fownhope, and indeed other villages in Herefordshire, it seemed out of scale. With its fat Norman tower and huge, red sandstone walls, it felt as though it should be at the centre of a bustling market town. This, perhaps, is what Fownhope was poised to become, had industry and money not moved elsewhere, saving it from shopping malls and car-induced sprawl.

I walked over the floodplains to the Wye, the slow sweep of the river cutting its own gently shifting path through the soft sandstone. On either side stretched flat grazing land, empty of everything except the bleached chunks of dead trees - flotsam of distant floods, of wetter springs when the Wye tumbled, brimful of snowmelt, down from the Welsh hills.

I was walking along a lost frontier. For centuries, this was the border between England and Wales, albeit one frequently crossed by clashing armies. For a while, the land between here and the mountains was a semi-independent buffer state, with its own name - Archenfield - and its own laws and customs. Most of the population was Welsh, but owed loyalty to England. They formed the vanguard of English forays into Wales, and brought up the retreat. And they, no doubt, suffered the most when occasional Welsh assaults drove the English out of Herefordshire altogether and back to the River Severn.

Another wave of invaders found that the county was something of a home from home. When the Normans arrived post-1066, they remarked on the striking similarities between this distant corner of their conquest, and their homeland. Anyone who has travelled in western Normandy, in the Pays d'Auge in particular, will see the same: the same red earth, the same deep lanes, the orchards and the old half-timbered farms.

As the Wye curved back towards Capler, the path cut straight through the garden of a single cottage on a tiny headland, which jutted into the river like a toytown cliff. With the lunchtime cider still flowing through me, curdling in the heat, it inspired sadly hopeful fantasies of some witchy woman welcoming a sun-browned stranger: iced chamomile tea, and a mystic tryst in the lazy afternoon.

Needless to say, the place was neat, trim, deserted. Witchy woman my foot, it was probably the love nest of a thrusting yuppie, something big in software ... I went down to the river-bank and splashed my face. The water was surprisingly cool, and I ended up scooping up great dollops of it, and splashing it over my head.

Twenty yards upstream, two swans seemed to have the same idea, tail-up in the shallows, flashing their snowy bums at the sky. I perched awkwardly on a spit of sand, taking close-ups of bright white feathers, and curving necks disappearing below the surface. Then suddenly one came closer, too close, fixing me with a stare that I could swear was pure malevolence, spreading a pair of wide wings. It might have been nosing for crumbs, but it felt as though it was warning me off.

Half-remembered stories of strong men's arms being shattered by swan wings sprang into my mind. And of course I ran out of film at that moment, and was too scared to change it, and so missed the perfect shot of a beak and an eye against iridescent white. I retreated up the bank in as dignified way as possible (well, I didn't quite run), and set off again, slightly faster than before.

By a solitary cottage on the wooded slopes above, an elderly man was unloading lengths of timber from a pick-up, balancing each on its end before sending it cartwheeling down the slope: from a distance, it landed in eerie silence, broken a full second later by the thump and hollow clatter of wood on stone. As I came closer, so the time-lapse shrank, until it was like a drummer fractionally behind the beat.

By now I'd almost come full circle, or rather oval. Somewhere through the trees on the heights above me curled the walls of Capler Camp. I found a steep path up through a poplar plantation, heavy with heat, before emerging suddenly out onto the lane, high above the sloping farms, to be blessed with the first cool breeze of the day. !


All of this walk is covered on the Ordnance Survey's Landranger map No 149. It follows public footpaths throughout. For the most part, these are clearly marked as such, and allow countless variations, so follow your own whimsy. Remember that this is a working countryside, so please respect the interests of those who live there: close gates behind you, and, as the saying goes, 'take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints'.