Travel: Lift up your eyes unto the hills...

Weekend walk: from Black Hill to Bright Vale. Catherine Stebbings takes a hike around Llanthony Priory and the Vale of Ewyas
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The Independent Online
This spectacular walk is not for the faint-hearted, but it provides a great day out along the high ridge of Charwel-y-Fan and along the peaceful Vale of Ewyas, with a pub lunch and a wander around the imposing ruins of Llanthony Priory.

Start in the village of Capel-y-Ffin (about seven miles from Hay-on-Wye) at the enchanting whitewashed church of St Mary's. Glance inside to see the engraved glass window by Eric Gill. Here you read the words "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help", and sure enough, through the window the huge, heather-clad mountains rise dramatically heavenwards.

Leaving the churchyard, cross the road diagonally and follow the sign to the Grange Trekking Centre. Turning left to the riding centre, you pass the ruins of Llanthony Monastery. This was established by a Victorian churchman, Joseph Lyne, to restore the monastic tradition to the Church of England. He died before his dream was realised and the community closed in the Twenties. The remains of the monastery became home to the notorious commune founded by Eric Gill.

After the riding centre, follow the bridle path left up a stony track, keeping a small wood on your left. From here turn right towards the daunting ridge and follow the path, a swath of green that winds up the hill amid the rocks and heather. This is the only steep climb on the walk; if you lose the path, just keep scrambling upwards.

Once on the top, the path is easily recognisable; follow that to the summit, which is marked by a large cairn. Enjoy the views of the tiny patchwork of fields that sprawl along the valley to the north east. To the north west a huge reservoir is restrained by a massive dam, and there is a stretch of woodland running to the west.

Turning to the south east, follow the ridge along a well-trodden path. The raw ground cover of heather and whinberry provides a perfect habitat for upland birds, so watch out for raven, merlin and grouse. Follow the ridge for about three miles, until you reach the trig point of Bel Mawr where, weather permitting, you may see the ruins of Llanthony Priory deep in the valley below. Ahead you will see the Sugar Loaf and the Skerrin, two distinctive hills that dominate the horizon. Follow the path as it begins to descend, until you reach another cairn at Bal-bach. Turn left down an obvious path towards Llanthony.

When the path narrows, take the right-hand fork and follow a steep, stony path beside the stream. Once you have passed from the stony hillside into pasture land, the way is well marked with signposts and yellow arrows. A series of stiles, with adjacent dog gates, helps you pick your way across the fields among grazing sheep.

You finally enter the village across a bridge beside a farmyard, welcomed by a chorus of guinea-fowl, howling dogs and inquisitive ponies. Cross the road and turn right towards the priory.

The Priory at Llanthony is said to date from the sixth century. The hermitage and church were consecrated in 1108, though much of the building dates from the 13th century. The priory was abandoned after the dissolution of the monasteries, and today what remains of the lodgings and the one tower have been converted into a small hotel, nestling among the towering ruins of the former structure. Services are still held in the small Norman church of St David opposite the gates.

Just across the field from the priory is the Half Moon Inn, a welcome stop before turning homeward. Try their strongest brew, named Son of a Bitch.

Leaving the pub, turn left and then take the right-hand fork marked "no through road". This access road is quiet, and easy underfoot. The narrow lane winds up the valley alongside the river, offering idyllic glimpses of sheep and ponies grazing, and buzzards scouring the land for easy pickings.

The road comes to an end, but follow the track through a gate and continue through the fields and woods before joining another peaceful road. This gradually peters out into farm tracks beside various farmhouses.

The last farmhouse is The Vision, so called because one of its inhabitants saw a vision of the Virgin Mary above the house. It was made even more famous by Bruce Chatwin, who set his raw account of the lives of Welsh sheep farmers, On the Black Hill, here. Yet the rubbish-strewn streams, discarded oil cans, broken-up cars and occasional dead sheep along the way work against any sentimental appreciation of the landscape.

Follow the track past The Vision until it crosses a little stream and another track.

Contrary to what the arrows indicate, turn left following the track down to the river, across a footbridge, until it joins the main road into Capel- y-Ffin a few hundred yards farther on.

Length: About eight miles, with a very steep ascent and descent. Time taken: three hours to pub, two hours back, at a leisurely pace.

Ordnance Survey map: Landranger 161. Publications showing other walks in the area are `Walks from Llanthony Priory', National Park Office, 50p, and `Pub Walks in the Brecon Beacons National Park', by Derek Phillips, pounds 2.50. Both from Tourist Information Service, Abergavenny (01873 857588).

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