Walking: Defeating the elements is the height of satisfaction: Michael Leapman begins this regular series by braving the bad weather to join a classic hike into the Black Mountains

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF WALKERS were put off by bad weather forecasts we would spend half the time indoors, pawing the ground with our expensive hiking boots. This year the odds have been against finding a dry spell, so when eight of us gathered on the Welsh borders last month for a longarranged walking break, we knew what to expect.

The centrepiece of our trip was a walk up the Black Mountains from Cwmyoy, eight miles north of Abergavenny, to the ruins of Llanthony Abbey, then down again. This is a classic hike and versions of it, all slightly different, occur in several walking guides. We were using the eight-and-a-half-mile route recommended in the Ordnance Survey's Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Walks, one of its Pathfinder Guide series.

In the book the walk starts at the Abbey, with its large car park, but our tour leader had sensibly decided to start at Cwmyoy instead. There is a pub at Llanthony serving food, so we could have lunch there and avoid carrying a picnic. An extra advantage was that the hard climbing came at the beginning, when we were comparatively fresh. We were a group of mixed experience and stamina, so decided to park one car at the Abbey for the benefit of those who wanted to call it quits at lunchtime. That meant dropping the main party at Cwmyoy, then the two drivers - I was one - taking both cars to Llanthony and coming back in one.

The others thus had a half-hour start on us but they frittered some of it away by visiting St Martin's Church at Cwmyoy, with its extraordinary lop-sided tower (a result of subsidence). It was a gloomy day when we set out, though not actually raining, but we had dressed for rain and sure enough we had been walking for no more than 20 minutes when a drizzle started, soon becoming more persistent.

In less than an hour we caught up with the main group, picking mushrooms from the damp hillside. At this point a cheerful young couple came up from behind and confidently strode past us towards the ridge above.

We were aiming for the top of the range, up Hatteral Hill, where we would join the long-distance Offa's Dyke Path for a stretch before descending to the Abbey. There was no clearly defined path: we were walking steeply upwards through heather populated by sheep, who stared at our bedraggled party in understandable amazement.

The guide book had warned against doing the walk in bad weather because, with few landmarks, it is easy to get lost. Our hearts sank as we climbed into low cloud, with visibility down to a few yards. Luckily one of the party had the foresight to bring a compass - something all walkers know is prudent but few of us actually do - and we found the Offa's Dyke Path after maybe a half-hour's detour. Relieved to be back on course, we accepted philosophically that the spectacular view mentioned in all the guides, west to Wales and east to England, was quite obliterated by cloud.

To get to the Abbey you have to divert from the main path down a well-defined track following a stream. This is a frustrating segment because the views of the Abbey below (the cloud was now above us again) make it seem nearer than it is. Moreover, the rain made the going slippery and several of us were up-ended inelegantly on to our bottoms.

We knew that the pub by the Abbey served food only until 2.45, so the faster walkers were sent on to order hot soup and ploughman's lunches for eight. As we crossed the final fields we were buoyed by seeing the young couple who had overtaken us looming behind again. Without a compass, they had got more comprehensively lost than us on the way up to the ridge.

The rain stopped during lunch and, after a quick look at the Abbey ruins and the nearby 12th-century church, five of us opted to walk back to Cwmyoy. This was the easier bit, through a pitch dark conifer wood, twice crossing the pretty Honddu river and finally over sodden fields below the hills. When we got back to the car we were still soaking wet, but warmed by the glow of satisfaction known only to dedicated walkers who have taken on the elements and survived.

The Holiday Which? Good Walks Guide (Hodder and Stoughton) contains a longer (11-mile) version of this walk.

The Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Map No 13 (Brecon Beacons National Park, Eastern Area) covers the route.

(Photograph omitted)