The Hay Festival comes to an end today. This is the first year I have been since 1996, when I heard Sebastian Faulks discussing his latest novel Birdsong. I have been for two days this time, and have greatly enjoyed the atmosphere, the talks and discussions (some of them superb, others decidedly quirky); I like the relaxed feel of the Festival, and the scope for whole families to come and immerse themselves in a place where (of all places in Britain) books count. Yes, it has been good to be back in Hay, good to be surrounded by bookshops, to see the swifts above Hay Castle and the late sun on the Black Mountains.
Taking in this view while waiting for the bus back to Hereford, I remembered that, ten years even before my first visit to the Festival, I had once been for a memorable walk along the Olchon Valley, the other side of Hay Bluff. I wrote about this walk at the time, and only the other day turned up the typescript. I don’t think it ever appeared in print, so here it is now. If I had been blogging in those days, it might have been an early and rather self-conscious post to my blog – but (hard to believe) the World Wide Web had not been invented then.
A Short Walk in the Olchon Valley (1986)
At 10pm the night before the great Olchon Valley parish walk, I was stuck in a traffic jam trying to get out of London. The rain was dreadful – real Wye Valley weather in the West end – and my only consolation as I sat wondering what time I should be home was that the Black Mountains hike next day was bound to be cancelled. I should have known better.
At 2pm the following afternoon I was shouldering my rucksack and setting off from Red Darren car park (in truth little more than an improvised lay-by) in pursuit of some thirty friends, most of whom had already done a full morning’s walk from the tail of the Cat’s Back down to Longtown – aptly named – and up the mountain lane that climbs the NW side of the valley. The weather was ideal, dry and not too windy. I only got my feet wet once, and that was when fording the Olchon Brook, a very respectable stream that flows into the Monnow just north of Pandy. We were to follow the Olchon almost to its source behind Hay Bluff, climbing up an old track (sunken in places) that led to the top of the pass and then over and down into Powys.
It must have been along this same track that Vavasour Powell, the celebrated Puritan preacher, came on his visits to the dissenting congregation who had made the Olchon Valley famous as a centre for the Baptist cause as early as 1650. These Baptists practised immersion in the Olchon Brook, and the names of their first ministers, Thomas Watkins and Thomas Parry (Llanigon) are still honoured in the district. The ‘gentle flock of Olchon’ as they were known, met openly at first in each other’s houses, holding services in Welsh and English; after 1660, however, they were harassed and had to meet secretly before persecution drove them out of the valley altogether and westwards into Wales. Wherever they went (and some finally settled as far west as Rhydwilym in Dyfed) they spread the Baptist cause that had been nurtured in the barns and cottages of the Olchon Valley – the same neat buildings we could see from the ridge of the Black Hill.
Some people hold that walking should be a solitary activity, and jib at the thought of being part of a crowd on a mountain. I have a certain sympathy with this view, but the fact is we weren’t a crowd: we soon spread out, and one of the pleasantest things about such walks is the ebb and flow of conversation as you catch up the person in front, fall back to wait for someone behind, or simply measure your pace alone. Thus, in the course of the afternoon, I spoke with a hospital physician about geriatric care, and negotiated with a small boy who wanted to carry home in his anorak pocket the remains of a sheep’s skeleton; I discussed the changing shape of boiled sweets in Britain and the diversity of Welsh devotional poetry, swapped stories about the perils of automatic doors on tube trains; argued over the correct name of the hill behind Ludlow that we could see – just – in the distance (Clee Hill, The Clees, Brown Clee; which was it? We never agreed) and startled a late lark in the heather.
The varieties of clothing and gear worn by those walking was always a good topic of conversation. The joining instructions had advised, with mandarin understatement, that ‘something rather waterproof is indicated’. In the event, green wellies, dubbined boots and ladies’ tennis shoes all made it to the top and down again, although the owner of the tennis shoes had to be given portage over a ford by two members of the PCC. A man who rather resembled Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine or the whipper-in of a Northumbrian beagling pack was kind enough to compliment me on my turn-out; he did not fail, however, to remark the trouble I’d had preventing my thick walking stockings from falling down – an embarrassment I hadn’t experienced since early days at school. If only I’d remembered my headmaster’s advice: “Never go out without your garters, boy!”
We were off the Cat’s Back, that narrow ridge leading down from the Black Hill’s summit, by 5.30pm, and home an hour later. It had been a perfect walk, the ideal antidote to London traffic jams and all other hazards of the way we live (most of us) now. The youngest member of the party was four; the oldest – well, much older than that, anyway.
And why did we do it? I suppose you could say because the vicar asked us to, because the church windows needed money spent on them again; but we did it also for the company, for the change and for the pleasure of discovering a very beautiful valley few people ever explore. We went for the exercise, we went for the view, we went for the supper afterwards. All in all, you could say we went for the sheer heaven of it.
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I have reprinted this piece in memory of two people who had a great influence on me and who, though they belonged to different generations and different traditions (one Welsh Baptist, the other Church in Wales), liked and admired each other: the Rev. Tomos Richards and Canon James Coutts. Each of them contributed, in different ways, to the writing of ‘A Short Walk in the Olchon Valley’.
[Illustration: The Olchon Valley, looking toward Hay Bluff; © Copyright Jerry Fryman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence