‘The love of mountains,’ says André Gide, ‘is a Protestant Conception.’
I am in the Black Mountains and, approaching Hay across their deserted ridges, feel an exhilaration and a kind of fear. The face of the Black Mountains is the face of nature itself. Wild, uncompromising, and sometimes cruel, they’re a far cry from the meadowlands of England.
My journey to Hay is by way of the Gospel Pass, so named after the visit of Giraldus Cambrensis, a medieval missionary, who came here with Bishop Baldwin in 1178. It crosses the mountains two thousand feet up; ‘The rains are frequent,’ says Giraldus, ‘winds constant, and clouds almost perpetual.’
The artist Eric Gill lived here in the partly ruined Victorian monastery of Capel-y-Ffynn and once prophesied that traffic would never cross the pass. ‘Let the industrial capitalist disease do its worst,’ he said, ‘the Black Mountains of Brecon will remain untouched and their green valleys lead nowhere.’
Llanthony Abbey, now a ruin beside the road, was already falling into disrepair when Giraldus visited it. Today the white arches and pillars rise like a beautiful skeleton from the pastures of the valley. The nave lies open to the sky, and the great East window, unglazed, looks onto mist-laden hills. Where once cloisters stood is the Travellers Rest Hotel, built from fragments of the Abbey masonry. It's an eerie place, hung all over with ivy; and as I approached, a flock of jackdaws flew noisily from a hollow tower.
It’s easy to see why certain romantic poets found it so attractive. Wordsworth and his sister often walked over from Llyswen (X) and Walter Savage Landor as a young man decided to live here.
In 1809 he came to live in this lovely ruined Abbey of Llanthony. He went to a ball in Bath, and asked a friend which he considered the most beautiful girl in the room. ‘That one,’ said the friend. ‘So do I,’ said Landor. ‘What’s more, I intend to marry her.’ He had never seen her before, but in a very short time he succeeded in his intention. He left many descriptions of their romantic life in the hills;
‘Where hardly dared the goat look down
Beneath her parent mountain’s frown’.
And he tells how he
‘Saw others fame and wealth increase
Ate my own mutton chop in peace.’
He invited guests to visit him in his wild home;
‘O friends who have accompanied thus far
My quickening steps, sometimes where sorrow sat,
Look out no longer for extensive woods
For clusters of unlopt and lofty trees
Or grottos with deep wells of water pure ...
Come, with our shady pasture be content,
Our narrow garden and our homestead croft,
And tillage not neglected; love breathes round,
Love the bright atmosphere, the vital air
Of youth, without which life and death are one.’
He dreamed of building a feudal manor, surrounded by wild hills and faithful tenantry. But the tenantry did not share his dream. They destroyed his foundations and took pot shots at him from behind walls. The poet left in rage. As he drove through a distant county, so the story goes, he caught sight of the manor he’d sold, without ever having seen it, to buy Llanthony. Not realising it had once been his he turned to his servant and said with a sigh; ‘Ah, there I might have been happy.’
The Rev Francis Kilvert, whose diaries, kept a hundred years ago, were to become a classic, also came here. A few miles from Llanthony is the village of Capel-y-Fin, which he described with love. He admired the chapel yard, the stream bubbling across the road, and the stone footbridge, and was also taken with what he called a ‘buxom comely wholesome girl’ whom he saw washing clothes beside the stream, ‘up to the elbows of her round white lusty arms in soapsuds.’ (X)
A little further up the valley there’s another chapel containing the grave of Father Ignatius, a Victorian ‘Billy Graham’, who founded an Anglican monastery here. Unfortunately the chapel, (like the order itself), was not given sufficient foundations, and collapsed, a few years ago, on top of his body. But Ignatius can have suffered little harm. For, in spite of his instructions for a simple funeral, followers had buried him in successive layers of glass, oak, lead and concrete.
A headstrong man, Father Ignatius’ enthusiasm sometimes got him into trouble. Even as a curate, he would stride onto crowded dance floors exclaiming; ‘We must all appear before the judgement of Christ.’ He must have suffered quite a lot of hardship at a time when monks were still despised and mistrusted in England. While his monastery was being built he lived in a windowless barn; ‘After vespers,’ he writes, ‘we would kindle a fire on the muddy ground of the unfinished and desolate cloister, fastening on a blanket for a shelter against the cutting wind.’ Later he was able to make life easier and once entertained Kilvert to lunch. But Ignatius wasn’t an easy companion. In spite of Kilvert’s corrections he persisted in calling him ‘Mr Venables’.
His monastery is of dark stone, four wings round a central courtyard, with the black hills rising behind. Some years ago I stayed the night there. I was given a candle and some matches and went upstairs to my cell. It contained a tiny lacet window, a bed, and a niche with a crucifix. I changed my socks and came down again, groping my way along dark corridors till I got to the refectory, a long stone room, faintly heated at one end by a flickering fire. A lamp sputtered on the mantelpiece but the other end was invisible in the gloom. Only once the glimmer of a distant torch announced the approach of a visitor who, anxious that I should not lack music, was staggering beneath the weight of a vast and ancient clockwork gramophone which he cranked up and then caused to play ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’. Raucously the music echoed round the walls while the wind hooted among the gables outside.
Some years later, when I referred in a talk on the radio to Father Ignatius as a ‘Victorian Billy Graham’ I received the following letter from Nottingham; ‘A Victorian Billy Graham, you said? No! A thousand times better. At the meetings he held here my brother and I used to hand out hymn sheets, so I got to know him quite well. ‘The Father’ was a real Christian gentleman, he always had a veal and ham or a pork pie before a service and my brothers and I devoured the remains. He had a commanding presence, he had. His hair and that of the other Brothers was shaved to form the shape of a halo. Father Ignatius played the piano beautifully and sang divinely. Both women and men cried when he sang to them. One of my brothers spent three months as a Brother at Llanthony Abbey. He lost his stripes. Told to light a fire, he was not able to, because he could find no matches. What did he go and do but get the perpetual light from where it burned near the wafer and began to empty the oil from this onto the sticks to get a fire! Father Ignatius was angry, and sentenced him to solitary confinement.
‘However, Brother Dunstan took care to see that he was not solitary, and brought him wine and food. Please let me know the exact place where he is buried, so that I can go and pay my respects to such a Christian gentleman. The Father's influence on one is good, and I do revere his memory.’
Next morning I continued my journey towards Hay. The lane, deep beneath tall hedges, meandered between a network of small fields. Round a corner I heard a nicker. A pony had thrust his nose over a gate and was snuffing the air appreciatively. Then there was the clatter of hooves and I stepped aside to avoid a farmer, galloping on ponyback in the other direction.
The fields and hedges come to an end and I am out in the open hills. They are silent and the only sound is the wind in the grass and the roar of streams in their watercourses. Wild ponies snort at sight of me and canter off through the mist, and once I stumble over the carcass of a sheep, picked bare except for the white of the wool and the bones.
Two hours’ walking brings me to the Watershed. The wind from the Wye valley comes full in my face, and I gasp at the immensity of the view. At my feet Hay Bluff falls down into its foothills, among which wanders the Wye like a piece of silver string. Dark clouds are driving beneath me, obscuring and revealing the view. To the West the mountains stretch away, range after range like sentinels. The new pass follows an easier incline, but the old one plunges almost headlong to the valley.
The pass has left the mountains, and descended into a narrow gorge. Running beside me is a torrent of white mountain water sometimes drenching me in its spray. The walls of the valley rise vertically and the denseness of the trees make it dark. And then, after I scramble down almost a thousand feet, the path becomes mud beneath my feet and I reach the group of stone houses by the stream.
I went to visit the village of Llanigon because it was Daisy Thomas, daughter of the vicar of Llanigon, whom Francis Kilvert so long wanted to make his wife. It began one afternoon when, in his best black clothes, he called at Daisy’s home, Llanthomas. There was a largish party, and some went to archery, and some to croquet. He and Daisy shared a mallet, and she was very ‘sweet and pretty’. Just back from school for good, she said. At dinner they sat in the big bow window and he told her about his duties in the parish - about poor ill Alice Davies who lay in bed and pined for fruit she couldn’t afford to buy. Daisy beckoned to the footman and asked him to get her some grapes. ‘Here,’ she said, laying them on his plate, ‘take her these.’ Kilvert looked at her. ‘I do like you for that,’ he said, ‘I do indeed.’
Five days later he was back. He declared that he loved her and wanted to marry her. However, the vicar asked what his prospects were and shook his head. He couldn't allow an engagement in the circumstances he said, and long engagements were terrible things. Kilvert saw Daisy twice again that week. Once at Llanthomas, she took him into her own little patch of garden and fastened a flower in her dress which later she gave to him. At the end of the week came a letter from the vicar saying he must forget her for ever.
It was a very Victorian tragedy. Only the father stood between them, yet it seems that neither of them questioned his power. Flaunting it would have meant, I suppose, the end of a promising young curate’s career. Daisy died many years later, unmarried.
As I went through the village I wondered whether I was wise to visit Llanthomas. What if it had changed, and ended its days as a military camp or psychiatric hospital, excellent things in their way, but often lacking in charm. I pushed open the broad gate of the Vicarage and went down the drive and wanted to turn back.
But I needn’t have feared. As I passed the trees and through the shrubbery I prepared myself for the worst. In the middle of the garden where the house should be was an empty space.
It had been decaying since 1900, they told me later in the village. A few years ago they pulled it down.
A woman came up and told me of some of the features of the house; ‘There was the drawing room where they had their dances, and there was the lawn that they had laid out for croquet. Up there was Miss Daisy’s room.’
I looked up and saw, instead of Daisy’s room, the mountains. A cloud blew across their chilly face and obscured them. I felt a sense of loss. And I recalled Byron’s Don Juan, for whom; ‘Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends.’
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