Walking: On the trail of the priest and the girl: Michael Leapman follows the footsteps of the diarist Francis Kilvert in east Wales

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LITERARY walks can be more appealing in theory than in practice. Quite a lot of writers lived in what are now the less salubrious parts of cities: a slog around what is left of Dickens's London, for instance, is intriguing but scarcely scenic.

The Rev Francis Kilvert, however, had the good sense (or fortune) to be curate of Clyro in east Wales from 1865 to 1872. Clyro is just across the river from Hay-on-Wye, in fine walking country. Kilvert's frank and lively diaries of his last two years in the post, first published in 1938, enjoyed a revival with a new Penguin edition in 1977 and have remained popular ever since.

In his 1985 book Twelve Literary Walks (W H Allen), Christopher Somerville worked out a 10-mile circular route from Clyro that takes in many of the houses Kilvert described visiting. Four of us set out to follow it on a dull October day, with haze obscuring what would have been fine views of the Black Mountains.

It starts in the middle of the small village at Ashbrook House, where Kilvert lived - now a pleasant art gallery. Just across the road is the Baskerville Arms, in Kilvert's day the Swan Inn, where he complained of the saturnalian behaviour of the clientele. Today it is less raucous and greatly welcome at the end of a day's walking.

Nobody who objects to hills should walk in Wales, and the route begins with a stiff climb up a high-hedged lane called Cutter's Pitch, so named because the local castrator of lambs used to live there. Somerville's book proved an interesting guide, blending a description of the route with extracts from the diaries that referred to the houses and lanes we passed.

At Bird's Nest Lane, a turning off Cutter's Pitch, we were introduced to one of the contentious aspects of the diaries - Kilvert's fondness for little girls, which he celebrated more frankly than would be thought prudent today. He called the lane 'holy ground' because it was the route taken by Gipsy Lizzie, 'my darling Gipsy', as she made her way to school.

No schoolgirls skipped saucily down the lane as we walked along it; all we heard was the drone of a ploughing match taking place in an adjacent field. At the end of the lane is Little Wern-y-Pentre, a house Kilvert visited after a man there had been murdered by his daughter's fiance; the first of many lurid incidents we were introduced to along the way.

We continued to climb to Pen-y-Cae, where the marvellous Gipsy lived. She does not seem actually to have been a gypsy - Kilvert called her that because of her dark hair and deep, flashing eyes - but here, and on several roadside verges, we passed the caravans of modern-day travellers.

After Pen-y-Cae we turned right into a lane to pass the ruins of Whitehall, once a prosperous farm but abandoned in Kilvert's time, although he writes of lively dances there in its heyday. Our route crossed Offa's Dyke Path, a long-distance walk along the ancient boundary between England and Wales, and we soon reached Bettws Chapel.

Kilvert used to walk the four miles here from Clyro to take services: he describes doing it both on the hottest and the most bitterly cold of days. The little chapel, parts of it dating from the 14th century, is a plain rectangle with a pitched roof. The guide book told us how to get the key from a bungalow near by.

The route then took us briefly off metalled lanes for the first time, across two fields to join the lane again by a farm. We crossed the border into England but returned after a few hundred yards. Here, for once, Somerville's directions proved hard to follow and we asked at a bungalow by Crowther's Pool, causing unwitting disarray as the lady of the house coped simultaneously with phone call, dogs, daughter and us.

Still climbing, we looked down over the Rhos Goch, a dark peat bog that in legend was the site of a battle involving the Giant of Painscastle. Kilvert tells of a suitably sinister happening in his time at a farmhouse overlooking the bog: a pedlar murdered for his pack, his body flung into a moat.

We reached the village of Rhosgoch and its ivy-covered mill house, still much as Kilvert described it. Then we turned into a lane to the Hom, another farm he used to visit, where we had to ask permission to cut across fields from the farmer, who is still restoring an impassable section of the footpath the curate used, running down to the valley formed by the Clyro brook.

More dreadful tales from the houses overlooking the valley - a woman who killed herself after hearing her grand-daughter had done likewise; a servant and a distraught single mother drowning themselves in the Wye; a mad woman dancing naked and threatening murder. Maybe country life was never as idyllic as we imagine.

At the foot of the valley we encountered the only tricky surface of the walk, deep mud after weeks of intermittent rain. Most of the walk is along lanes but there is little traffic and we were relieved to rejoin the firm road for the last mile back to Clyro, where there was time to look at Kilvert's Church of St Michael and All Angels.

Originally 12th century, it was renovated and enlarged twice in the 19th century. Today it contains interesting material about its famous curate, including a memorial tablet, the only known photograph of him and photocopies of a few diary entries. There are also charming box pews and monuments to sundry Venables and Baskervilles, two prominent local families; the latter giving its name to the pub.

I have described this absorbing walk as a single route and it is easy to complete it in a day, despite the steep hills. There is no food or drink except at Clyro, so take a picnic or start from the northern end - perhaps Crowther's Pool - to be at Clyro for lunch. Because of other commitments, though, we split the walk into two half-day sections, by cutting west at Pen-y-Cae and completing the southern loop on the first day. Next day we parked the car at Pen-y-Cae and walked the northern part.

It was our first walk from the Somerville book and we shall certainly do more: we have our eyes on the Parson Woodforde trail in Norfolk. Ordnance Survey maps for all the walks are reproduced in the book and we did not need any other map - although if we had taken one we might have averted that small disruption to the Sunday routine of the kind householder of Crowther's Pool.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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