Travel: The secret home of the hermit

The Black Mountains, between Wales and England, are home to wild legends and spectacular scenery.
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The Independent Culture
It is a strange experience returning as a visitor to the place where you grew up. Suddenly you get a new perspective on it what it has to offer, and on its secrets. Home is border country: a tiny section of the Black Mountains, the border between Gwent and Powys (our river) and, further east, between Wales and England (Offa's Dyke), but rather than resembling one or other, this is an area that is just as distinctively itself.

Our river, the Grwyne Fawr (big), to distinguish it from the Grwyne Fechan (little) - woe betide anyone who dares call it a stream - provides the constant sound of rushing water. When we were children we would spend hours playing Pooh Sticks on the bridge, constructing stone dams and building twig rafts, all combined with an enormous amount of falling in, but it's not just nostalgia that still makes me want to stay. When I'm here my periphery is willingly limited to a tiny sphere where I know every tree, every rickety gate and every boulder.

There are two conventional tourist sights that merit inclusion in any guidebook: in the next valley, the ruins of Llanthony Abbey, complete with convenient pub in the old cellars (Kilvert complained when he walked here one day and ran into two tourists; now you may well find a coachload), and, closer to home and more private, Patricio church. We're proud to have our own private saint, too: none of your famous biblical numbers, but the obscure local martyr Merthyr Issui, by whose name the church has come out as Patrishow, or Patricio. Issui was a hermit who was murdered by an ungrateful traveller to whom he had given shelter. A subsequent pilgrim was healed by the waters in the little stream and left a crock of gold to build the church.

The story surely changes each time in the telling, but the church, perched on a mountainside, is a gem. It's sometimes lost in the clouds, although a stone bench along one outside wall and a outdoor pulpit testify to optimistic days when the service was occasionally held outside. Inside are an ancient font, two stone altars and a finely carved rood screen, complete with oak leaves and dragons at each end, all of which should have disappeared with the Reformation, only this church was too remote for anyone to bother. There are memorial tablets with jolly, trumpet-playing angels and frescoes on the wall. As well as the royal coat of arms (compulsory after the Restoration) and the 10 Commandments, my favourite is the doom figure - a far from frightening, barrel-ribbed skeleton representing Time, holding an hourglass and a spade in one hand, a dagger in the other.

Above the church, the lane goes through a funnel of dry-stone wall to become open mountain and a favourite walk. Bracken, heather, gorse, mountain ash and wily mountain sheep - only the scale has changed. When I was a child, this would seem like a marathon, starting with a picnic and with perilous stepping-stones across the stream to the sheep dip, the final challenge; now it is a short evening stroll.

It is a landscape that has been worn with time, but this is not so much an area steeped in history, as one where history, legend and the imagination are totally muddled up. The Archbishop of Canterbury crossed our bridge preaching the First Crusade, while the romantically named Coed Dias (field of blood) and the Stone of Vengeance (another favourite picnic spot) testify to the site where rival tribes wrought terrible vengeance after a dinner party turned into a massacre. Who can remember whether that battle really took place, whether the Cwmyoy landslide happened at the moment of the crucifixion, or where the Devil put his footstep? All are equally believable.

Not that the area has remained unchanged. The cows are now bar-coded, free-range chickens have disappeared under a pile of regulations, and the farmers are getting older. Tourism seems to have become more organised, too, although whether it's protection of the environment or mollycoddling of the visitor is hard to tell. The last few metres of the Sugar Loaf, once a rocky scramble, are now crowned by steps. The walk through the marshy alder wood in the cwm - a mysterious valley full of rare, dank plants which was previously so wet and boggy that only my brother and I would go there - is now neatly duckboarded and waymarked; the species are indicated, and you could walk there in sandals.

Happily no one has yet found the hermit's shack half-way up the hill. A mysterious ramshackle ruin with bits of pointed arch, the remnants of a spiral staircase in odd bits of wood and concrete and a wobbling plank bridge across the stream designed to keep all but the determined out, it was the home, so we were told, of a tailor from Gloucester who went there to escape the nuclear bomb. The threat may be gone, but I can understand why this was the one place in the world where he chose to seek refuge.