CALL me a romantic, but occasionally I have been known to throw a load of camping gear in the back of the car and head off – on the spur of the moment – towards unknown mountains, with neither care nor map, and wander as a free spirit along unfamiliar ridges towards new horizons. That’s the sort of stuff great authors used to do – they’d follow the sun into the west and lay their dusty heads under a wayside hedge. The downside is, from the point of view of the modern explorer, you get snagged up in roadworks on strange motorways, caught in rush-hour traffic circumventing cities you last heard of in geography lessons 40 years ago, and you are totally disorientated once you reach your destination . . .
And that’s how I end up entangled in a mysterious event called the Abergavenny Food Festival. I thought only Marty Wilde had heard of Abergevenny. I nip into the town to buy a map of the Brecon Beacons and the entire population of south Wales and the West Country are thronging the streets. You can’t see a red dog running free because of the sheer mass of people.
But I purchase a couple of maps in a quaint bookshop that’s having a closing-down sale, and now I’m sitting in the car park of a ruined priory, working out a route from the hamlet of Llanthony – in the Vale of Ewyas – along a section of the Offa’s Dyke Path and wondering why on earth mediaeval monks needed a car park. (Click pictures for high-res)
The Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains are just names to me. I don’t know anything about them except what I’ve been told by my wife’s old friend Smith Three-Five (I’ll tell you what his name refers to later). But Smith Three-Five was born and bred in Great Barr, Birmingham, which is right on the doorstep, and so he should be expected to know.
Speaking of strange names. I was wandering around the Abergavenny Food Festival and there’s this music stage, and tuning up his guitar is this guy with a big white beard and baseball cap. And I think: Jesus, it’s Seasick Steve, the American blues artiste who was catapulted to fame by a single and fortuitous appearance on Later With Jools Holland.
And sure enough, this guy launches into I Started Out With Nothin and I Still Got Most of It, which I heard him sing on the Chris Evans show a few weeks ago when I was driving to Norwich along the A17. And I think: Wow, I didn’t expect this in rural Wales. Lush.
A couple of dubious intros later, during which a distinct Welsh accent slides through the American drawl, I discover he’s a tribute act called Sicknote Steve. He’s very good, mind. Had me fooled. But so did Tony Blair. And Lance Armstrong. Saw Thatcher coming though. But that wasn’t hard.
So I’m in the Black Mountains – or Y Mynyddoedd Duon, as we Welsh speakers prefer to say – and glancing at my new maps I see there are lots of long, parallel ridges interspersed by deep, parallel valleys. So I decide to take a footpath up the very steep fellside from the priory at Llanthony to the crest of its northern ridge, and walk to its terminus above Hay-on-Wye, return half way then drop down to the valley at Capel-y-ffin and saunter back along a riverside path.
And that is exactly what I do. It just so happens that the track along the ridge is a section of the Offa’s Dyke Path, Offa being a “vigorous” Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia (reign 757 to 796) who built a dyke to keep the thieving, murdering, horse-stealing Britons (the Welsh) out of his country.
Students of British history don’t need reminding that the thieving, murdering, horse-stealing Anglo-Saxons took the land from the Britons in the first place. And now there’s an official long-distance footpath to commemorate those happy times. In a few years someone will publish a guidebook called the Gibraltar Border Path. “Leave your car in the queue at the border post; proceed from sea to sea, east to west or west to east; return to your car in time for it to be waved through customs.” I might write to Cicerone with the idea.
The initial climb from the very beautiful Llanthony Priory is arduous and sweaty – very. But rewards come to those who toil. And the Offa’s Dyke Path stretches for about four high, inspiring and relatively level miles (6.5km) through refreshing scenery.
To the left and south-west I see a parallel ridge of rounded tops covered in dark heather; to the right the land falls steeply to the green farmlands of south Wales. But after a couple of miles I become enveloped in mist – and that’s the end of the views.
It’s been a successful day, considering I don’t really know where I am. I shall glance at my new maps now and find a campsite for the night. Crickhowell has a pleasant sound to it and there’s a campsite near the river, I see. So there I go. And a jolly neat and welcoming little town it turns out to be.
Hey-up. Here we go. A name explained. Smith Three-Five acquired his nickname after he was called up for National Service and was sent off to fight the Mau Mau, in Kenya, and then some angry people in Aden. In his battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry he was one of two soldiers named Smith – so the sergeant-major added the last two digits of their service numbers to their names to differentiate between them.
As in: “Smith Three-Five, you ’orrible man. ’Ave you polished your boots? Nah, not you Smith Two-Seven. Ah said Smith Three-Five, Smith Two-Seven. Wash your ears ah’t.”
Smith Three-Five has just turned 75, runs quite a few miles a week, still climbs Welsh mountains and can stand on his head to entertain children. He works part-time and puts his fitness and agility down to a healthy lifestyle, jazz, reiki and Banks’s Bitter.
I’m with him on several of those.
AND FINALLY . . .
. . . Sicknote Steve. Go on, you know you’ve got to click it