This is what I came for. An early start after an english cooked breakfast fit for a king (Worcester traditional pork sausages, cured bacon, proper scrambled eggs, enough toast to sink a battleship, proper fresh orange juice, passable green tea and perfect silence) and then a scramble on a 25 degree incline up a bank of brambles and newly planted trees – a short cut my host impressed on me to get me back on the trail – ensured that any thought I might have had to work my aching legs gently back into their rhythm for the day was swiftly discarded, and by the time i reached the track leading me on to the Trail I was well lathered up and feeling astoundingly spritely. I admit to having slept badly, unsure of what the weather might bring and fully aware that it would take gale and storm warnings to put me off my once-avowed intent to cross the top of the most easterly mountain of the Black Hills on my way to Hay. Those of you who have fell walked or been out in rough weather on the exposed tops of hills and fells will know that between “fair” and “storm” there is a gamut of conditions many of which, after about halfway up the scale between the two extremes, would not induce a normal person to decide in favour of a walk, especially in January, when, as any fule kno, “Nobody goes walking”. So I was a mite worried that a) the weather really was going to be seriously inclement (“character-building” we call it at home in Lancashire) and b) that I was going to do it anyway. The last thing Jurgen – my taxi driver from the Pandy Arms – asked me before setting me down at my B&B was ‘Did I have the number of Mountain Rescue in Llanthony?’. No wonder I didn’t sleep so well.
I am fully aware of the fact that I have been highly speculative in taking this Trail at this time of year and am consequently deeply indebted to St. Christopher for holding his protective hand over me for these first three days, but especially today. I scrambled up the long bank as a perfect dawn was breaking with the sun making its presence felt behind the hills I had left behind me in the previous days and although the sun disappeared after a few hours it signalled to me that the weather was prepared to hold back at least until I had broken the back of the walk early afternoon. There was always some patches of blue sky even as the wind picked up and I could see the menacing mass of black clouds off to the West over the Brecon Beacons. The message I read was along the lines of ‘Just put your head down and press on – don’t worry about us, we still have some work to do before we move East and drench everybody later’. So in that spirit I pressed on and enjoyed a day’s walking of the quality I had only dreamed of in the last week. Perfect silence apart from the whistling of a cold winter wind staright off the Atlantic, not a soul in sight and a seemingly endless snake of a path stretched out in front of me. England to right, Wales to left and me walking along the border at the highest point of the Trail with nothing between the ancient grass and heaven. And what a path – the first half of the day was spent walking on a green carpet cut between the browned bracken and heather and the second on a pathway of stone slabs accurately laid across the peaty bog. Only at the highest point, reached after about nine miles of walking the ridge, did the ground turn to skree and stone, but even that was easy walking.
My way was marked by three Cairns, not at all equi-distant at which I promised myself tea-breaks and portions of my packed lunch. It turned very cold at around 1230 and when looked behind me I could see that the weather was changing, the clouds were packing there stuff together in the West and letting me know that I should put some warmer kit on, especially my gloves and keep cracking on. The wind was the meteorological equivalent of a ‘Save the Date” card, with a definitive promise of fun to come. I had been told by Alan, my publican last night, that it would be advisable to take the old route around the mountain and not drop down over the front, as the drop was steep and the grass probably very slippy. You have to imagine the end of the hill as a Sphinx with a high head and a long body stretching miles away behind. And at the face end it just stops and falls abruptly away. Very dramatic and under the circumstance exteremely good advice which I did not hestitate to take. As I set off on the downpath, the rain set in, the cloud boys had kept their promise and seen me safely off the mountain before starting work on the next valley – I am truly grateful. I saw a little car park about half a mile ahead of me about 20 minutes later as the rain set in properly and could just make out a couple in holding an umbrella and performing strange movements almost as if they were doing knee bending exercises in the rain. I told myself that if I reached them before they left I would seriously consider asking them for a lift down to Hay, about three miles below. Well, I did reach them and they were still doing their incomprehensible dance in front of their car when I bowled up and discovered that they were in fact attempting to brew a pot of tea water over a tiny little gas stove that was proving absolutely no match for my cloud boys from Brecon Beacons. Mark and Emily were determined to have their tea and not mine and I left them to it, slightly disappointed that they weren’t going to save me bother of tramping down three miles of wet tarmac to Hay. However, St. Christopher was not finished with me yet and as I turned to take one last look at the Sphinx, it had all but disappeared in cloud and rain and the place I had just descended from was wrapped in mist and downpour. Mark and Emily had also given up and stopped next to me on the road and I didn’t need to much persuading to accept their offer of a lift down into the town. Such a glorious day and a greater treat than I could – in my speculative irresponsibility – have possibly hoped for.