I had enjoyed my Offa’s Dyke route across the Black Mountains in 1990, and six years later hit upon the idea of coming back. The plan, essentially, was to spend a few days on a circuit of the range, with a chance to get to know Hay-on-Wye thrown in.
From Offa to Olchon
I travelled up to Abergavenny by train and then took a local bus to Pandy, where Offa’s Dyke Path intersects the main road. I’d been here before a few years previously of course but I didn’t at all mind the climb up, passing the Iron Age Pentwyn fort on the way to Hatterall Hill and the start of a lengthy hill stretch on exactly the English/Welsh border. This takes you over Red Daren, only just a Hewitt at 2003ft; take care in mist here, for on such a broad and level ridge, it’s easy to mistake one top for another. A mile later, I dropped off the ridge onto the steep track down to the (then) B&B of Olchon Court.
On the Black Hill
Day two saw an initial dip down into the Olchon valley before the climb up the lovely little narrow Cat’s Back ridge leads to the top of Black Hill (2102ft). This is the only Black Mountains top to be wholly in England, and it’s celebrated in literature for giving its name to Bruce Chatwin’s magnificent tale of the local area, On the Black Hill.
From here, cross high moorland to Hay Bluff (2219ft), intersecting the main route of Offa’s Dyke Path as you go, then drop steeply down to rejoin it all the way into the book town of Hay-on-Wye. I had enough time in hand both for lunch and a browse round many of the second-hand book shops that have made this tiny little town famous internationally. In the afternoon, the morning’s threatening clouds had lifted, and I remember a golden stroll through fields to my accomodation at Llwynbrain farm – another nicely-situated property that alas appears no longer to offer accommodation.
Striding out on the tops
The big day came next, with ten continuous miles over 2000 ft and six Hewitts to be bagged. It was a steep climb up through fields to the bottom of the scarp slope, and with cloud on the tops I felt pretty good to arrive with a bull’s eye at the trig point on Pen Rhos Dirion (2338ft). From here, there’s barely a steep slope for miles along the tops, and if like me you like the sensation of striding out high in the sky with not a soul around, this is great countryside. Keep an eye on the map though, because you don’t want to end up on the wrong ridge. Waun Fach (2660ft) is the high point of the range, and from there three more Hewitts followed quickly: Mynydd Llysiau (2173ft), Pentwynglas (2115ft) and Pen Allt-Mawr (2360ft).
The nicest hill – because a limestone outcrop, totally unexpected after many a long mile with no hint of the white stuff – of them all is Pen Cerrig-calch (2300ft). (When I got home, I eagerly looked up what this meant. It means ‘Limestone top’.) Downhill, I crashed through steep, high bracken – it was August, and at that time I didn’t know what ticks were or where they lived – and past the distinctive table-top of Crug Hywel after which my target the village of Crickhowell is named. I stayed at the Bear Hotel; I must have been splashing out. I remember a poor night though as the lorries rumbled past on the A40, for this was in the years before I discovered ear plugs.
There was just enough time on the final morning for a simple little stroll over the Sugar Loaf, which while a bit of a tiddler (1955ft) has a very distinctive nipple-shaped top that marks out the hill from miles around. A long lane gives a pleasant approach to Abergavenny, a sizeable place with a good market hall and plenty of reasons to stop if you have the time.