A song of harmony and rhyme
In haunts of ancient peace.
– Van Morrison, ‘Haunts of Ancient Peace’
Last week we spent an all-too-short four nights based in the Black Mountains region at the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons. It’s an area that has inspired poets and painters, diarists and novelists: Bruce Chatwin called this area one of the emotional centres of his life.
For me, the trip had been partly impelled by reading Tom Bullough’s novel Addlands which is set in the Edw valley, north of Painscastle and Hay on Wye. But the literary and artistic connections in a landscape that still seems lost in time are numerous: Bruce Chatwin, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Francis Kilvert, Allen Ginsberg and Owen Sheers, David Jones and Eric Ravilious are among those who lived here, passed through and were inspired by this area.
Inspired by Tom Bullough’s evocation of the Radnorshire landscape in his novel Addlands we left the beaten track for part of our journey south to wend a slow way along single-track lanes through the Edw valley. Bullough’s vision of the valley in Addlands is steeped in history – the farm worked by Idris Hamer, the deeply religious and superstitious sheep farmer, the novel’s protagonist is named after an ancient holy spring – and journeying through these borderlands I felt as if I had slipped back in time, into illustrations in books I read as a child that depicted an unchanged Britain of rolling hills, narrow lanes, green meadows and scattered homesteads nested comfortably in the folds of the hills.
But change has come to these hills and valleys, as Bullough narrates in a story that spans the decades from the 1940s to the present. Electricity, television and phone lines come to the valley, and cottages are bought by second-homers. On the Hamer’s farm, tractors take the place of horses, combine harvesters and wrapped silage bales replace haymaking. Yet when we stopped for a while by the side of the river, but for birdsong and the trill of water on rocks, the silence was profound.
Then it was on, through Francis Kilvert’s Clyro, to Hay on Wye, and the steep and narrow road out of the town over the Gospel Pass to Capel-y-Ffin, a truly spectacular stretch of stunning beauty which opens up a broad vista of moorland bracken and heather, steep hillsides falling to sheltered valleys.
It’s a quiet road, but as Ben Mallalieu observed in ‘A Spiritual Journey’, an article from the Guardian in 2006, it is populated by ghosts:
The angry couple you soak as you drive through a puddle are William and Dorothy Wordsworth; this was one of their favourite walks. The large, bearded man pointedly complaining about “loathsome British tourists” is the 19th-century curate Francis Kilvert, but you can’t get angry with him – you know where he lives (there’s now a plaque on the house) and you know all his secrets having read his diary. The boy you accidentally knock off his bicycle is the 15-year-old Bruce Chatwin on his first visit to what he later called one of the emotional centres of his life.
Apparently, William and Dorothy Wordsworth loved this stretch of the Gospel Pass, describing it as one of their favourite walks. I haven’t been able to find any such references in a search of their letters and journals, but it is a fact that twice in the summer of 1798 sister and brother covered tremendous distances in rambles through this part of Wales. The first, from 10 to 13 July, found them walking the Wye valley: it was this hike which brought them to Tintern Abbey, where William –
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear
– began his meditation on memory and the lasting impressions of communion with the quietness and beauty of nature, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’.
The pair returned in early August, leaving Bristol for a short tour that lasted from 4 to 10 August and took them along the banks of the Usk and Wye, visiting their friend John Thelwall at Liswyn Farm near Brecon where they met up with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion, and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration
Eight very slow miles south of Hay on Wye lies Capel-y-Ffin – the Chapel at the Border. You approach the hamlet along a winding single track road that descends from the moorland into a beautiful hidden valley carved by the river Honddu, the sense of remoteness and timelessness enhanced by the way in which the trees and hedges on either side of the road grow deeper and denser so that it feels as if you are in a tunnel.
Apart from the red phone box and the music blaring from the open windows of the car belonging to the painter at work inside the white house by the bridge, the tiny hamlet of Capel-y-Ffin has changed little from Francis Kilvert’s description, recorded in his diary on Tuesday 5 April, 1870:
I had not seen Capel y Ffin for 4 years but I remembered the place perfectly, the old chapel short, stout and boxy with its little bell turret (the whole building reminded one of an owl), the quiet, peaceful chapel yard shaded by the seven great solemn yews, the chapel house, a farm house over the way, and the Great Honddu brook crossing the road and crossed in turn by the stone foot bridge.
For centuries this beautiful, isolated place at the meeting of two streams has offered a spiritual retreat for those seeking sanctuary from the turmoil of the outside world. The tiny church of St Mary the Virgin was built in 1762 on the site of a medieval place of worship and pilgrimage. The interior, about the size of a large living room, could seat barely two dozen in its pews and small upper gallery. A beautiful east-facing window is inscribed with words from Psalm 121: ‘I shall lift up mine eyes to the hills whence cometh my salvation.’
In the tiny graveyard beneath the seven yews, two of the headstones have inscriptions carved by the artist Eric Gill, who these days is remembered mainly for having designed the Gill Sans font (used by many organisations for letters and logos) – and for his sexual proclivities (which basically boiled down to seizing whoever was within reach). In 1924 he moved with his wife and three daughters to the disused monastery that we found up the track that follows the stream of the Nant Bwch uphill from the bridge. There, Gill founded a short-lived artistic community.
On the stairway by the chapel door is a reproduction of a painting by David Jones, ‘Sanctus Christus de Capel-y-Ffin’. For Jones, the London-born artist and poet of Welsh ancestry who joined the Gills at the monastery in 1925, the period he spent at Capel y Ffin was significant in shaping his artistic vision. While resident at the monastery he worked prolifically, recording his time there in a number of transcendent paintings; he later reflected that his immersion in the landscape had engendered a deeper understanding of his Welsh identity.
The monastery had been built in 1870 by the Reverend Joseph Leycester Lyne, known as Father Ignatius, who hoped to revive the Benedictine movement in Wales and restore the idea of monastic life in the Church of England. Francis Kilvert, in his diary, writes of watching two of the monks at work in 1870 on their smallholding:
Before the chapel house door by the brookside a buxom comely wholesome girl with fair hair, rosy face, blue eyes, and fair clear skin stood washing at a tub in the sunshine, up to the elbows of her round white lusty arms in soapsuds. We asked her how far it was to the place where the monks were building their monastery. ‘Oh’, she said, smiling kindly and stopping her washing for a moment to direct us. ‘Oh, none just. Please to go over the brook and up the lane.’ Two tramps were lounging against the bridge lighting their pipes and said to each other when we had passed, ‘They are only going up to see the monks.’
A few minutes walk up the lane now dry but which is probably a watercourse in winter, and looking through the hedge, we exclaimed, ‘There they are’. Two black figures were working in a sloping patch of ground laid out as a garden, one digging and the other wheeling earth to him in a barrow. They were dressed in long black habits girt around the waist with scourge cords knotted at the ends and dangling almost to the ground. The black hoods or cowls were drawn over their heads leaving their faces bare, and their naked feet were thrust into sandals which they went slip slop along as with slippers down at heel. […]
We spoke to the masons of whom there were two working on the foundations. They spoke with great respect and some awe of the monks and did not seem at all inclined to laugh at them. … We saw the foundation stone which Father Ignatius came down to lay three weeks ago.
Kilvert adds how very odd it seems to him ‘at this age of the world in the latter part of the 19th century’ to see monks working in their medieval habits. How much more sensible ‘and really religious’, the reverend muses, was the dress and occupation of the healthy, hearty girl washing at the Chapel House, ‘living naturally in the world’ and taking her share of its work, cares and pleasures, than the ‘morbid unnatural life of these monks going back into the errors of the dark ages and shutting themselves up from the world.’ He notes that ‘very few people came to the ceremony of laying the foundation stone.’
Some months later, Kilvert records that Father Ignatius, being ‘perfectly unworldly, innocent and unsuspicious’ has been ‘cheated and robbed right and left’ by the builders he has employed to construct the monastery. Mortar of an inferior quality was used with the result that by the time Father Ignatius died in 1908 the building was already falling into ruin. I walked up the drive to take a closer look and found, beyond the house, that very little of the monastery now remains standing. What still remains was guarded by a hen that froze at seeing me, and remained in that position, standing on one leg, even as I walked around. Further down the valley stand the much more extensive remains of Llantony Priory completed in 1217. Clearly, superior mortar was used in Norman times.
Gallery: Llanthony Priory
For David Jones the artist and poet, his creative life was largely determined by two experiences. During World War I he served for three years on the Western Front, and the experience of the brutality of trench warfare would eventually be distilled into his epic poem imbued with religious, moral and mythic overtones, In Parenthesis. Now regarded as one of the greatest works of literature to emerge from the Great War, it was not until 1927 that Jones began to write the poem that was published ten years later.
The second experience was Jones’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1921. This led him to join the arts and crafts community established on the lines of a medieval guild by Eric Gill at Ditchling in Sussex. There, Jones was taught carpentry and wood-engraving, and became engaged for a short time to Gill’s teenage daughter, Petra. (Their awkward relationship was captured in his 1924 painting, The Garden Enclosed.)
In 1924 Jones followed Gill to Capel-y-Ffin after he had re-established the community at Father Ignatius’s monastery. Jones lived at Capel-y-Ffin until 1927, leaving a year before Eric Gill abandoned the monastery.
The paintings and drawings that David Jones made whilst at Capel-y-Ffin reflect the powerful impressions made on him by the surrounding landscape. Visiting Capel-y-Ffin now feels like entering one of those paintings. Opposite the monastery loom Y Twmpa hill and the mountain spur known as Lord Hereford’s Knob that he painted again and again (see the gallery below). Y Twmpa became for Jones a kind of lodestar, to be documented in varying seasons and light, its form mutating but always recognisable – the equivalent of Cezanne’s Mont St Victoire.
The sensation of making my way up the lane to the monastery was as if I had walked into the painting he made here in 1927, simply entitled Capel-y-Ffin which we saw at the David Jones exhibition in Chichester last year. I imagined the diminutive figure of Jones, perhaps shouldering a rucksack, strolling up this lane on first his arrival at the monastery, perhaps having walked up the valley from the train at Abergavenny.
In the catalogue for that exhibition, Ariane Bankes wrote that:
The appeal of the land might have been strengthened by its polar contrast to the torn and shattered vistas of northern France, wide horizons filled with carnage and despair. Here, all seemed stable and enduring, the only sounds being those of nature: the gurgle and rush of water down the valley streams, the cry of curlew or buzzard, and the wind soughing through the trees. Yet within this cradling there was ceaseless movement, too, as folds of hill and pasture were picked out by bright sunlight or obscured by cloud, and distant peaks pulsed in and out of focus. It was this mutability with which Jones grappled, painting the hills and valleys again and again, in different weathers and from different viewpoints, instilling the restless rhythm of the seasons, the often unseen but always audible tumult of water, into landscapes full of subtle animation.
In her essay, Ariane Bankes refers to a poem written later by Jones, The Sleeping Lord, suggesting that the ‘slumbering shapes’ of the Capel-y-Ffin landscape paintings are echoed in the poem in which the sleeping lord might be the land itself:
Are the slumbering valleys
him in slumber
are the still undulations
the still limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
the furrowed body of the lord
are the scarred ridges
his dented greaves
do the trickling gullies
yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
or is the wasted land
that very lord who sleeps?
With his friend René Hague, David would sometimes walk over to the Bull at Craswall in the next valley, three hard miles on foot over the shoulder of Twmpa, but as we discovered a day or so later, at least fifteen by car. I wanted to see the pub which reputedly has hardly changed since their time, but it is currently closed for some reason. The pair would also walk over to the Olchon Valley, a truly hidden valley where it seems sometimes that the road might peter out into a track of nothing more than gravel and grass.
Gallery: David Jones at Capel-y-ffin
In 1938 another artist came this way: Eric Ravilious stayed for a few weeks at the Capel-y-Ffin farmhouse, where he painted both the chapel and the Twmpa. James Russell, who has published several books on Ravilious, summarises the results of the painter’s sojourn on his blog.
Then, in 1941, John Piper stayed at the Llanthony Priory Hotel (which is built onto the ruins of the Priory), where he made several sketches of the Priory which he later worked up into a series of oil paintings. At the time he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to capture images of historic buildings that might suffer destruction in the war. Perhaps it was this that drew him to document Llanthony Priory, a ruin since its dissolution by Henry VIII, which he depicted in a series of dark and eerie paintings.
There are other literary associations with the valley: Bruce Chatwin came often to Capel-y-Ffin as a boy, later stating that the place had haunted him and had helped shape and lent atmosphere to his novel On The Black Hill. But, perhaps the most improbable figure to walk this valley was Allen Ginsberg. In 1967, after he had visited London to read his poetry at the Dialectics of Liberation Conference at the Roundhouse (alongside figures such as R.D Laing, Herbert Marcuse and Stokely Carmichael), Ginsberg was invited by his publisher Tom Maschler to spend some time at his country cottage at Llanthony.
According to his biographer, Barry Miles, on the way to Llanthony they stopped at Tintern Abbey, so that Ginsberg could appreciate the site that had been Wordsworth’s inspiration. Feeling relaxed in the tranquil setting, Allen tripped out on acid. While on LSD he began to write ‘Wales Visitation’, a poem very much in the Romantic tradition with its responses to Wordsworth and also Blake; its imagery, I feel sure, was refined later in the Vale of Ewyas:
White fog lifting; falling on mountain-brow
Trees moving in rivers of wind
The clouds arise
as on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist
above teeming ferns exquisitely swayed
along a green crag
glimpsed thru mullioned glass in valley raine –
A solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused, ebbs thru the vale,
a wavelet of Immensity, lapping gigantic through Llanthony Valley,
the length of all England, valley upon valley under Heaven’s ocean
tonned with cloud-hang,
—Heaven balanced on a grassblade.
Roar of the mountain wind slow, sigh of the body,
One Being on the mountainside stirring gently
Exquisite scales trembling everywhere in balance,
one motion thru the cloudy sky-floor shifting on the million feet of daisies,
one Majesty the motion that stirred wet grass quivering
to the farthest tendril of white fog poured down
through shivering flowers on the mountain’s head –
No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green
sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes,
horses dance in the warm rain,
tree-lined canals network live farmland,
blueberries fringe stone walls on hawthorn’d hills,
pheasants croak on meadows haired with fern –
The great secret is no secret
Senses fit the winds,
Visible is visible,
rain-mist curtains wave through the bearded vale,
gray atoms wet the wind’s kabbala
Cross legged on a rock in dusk rain,
rubber booted in soft grass, mind moveless,
breath trembles in white daisies by the roadside,
Heaven breath and my own symmetric
Airs wavering thru antlered green fern
drawn in my navel, same breath as breathes thru Capel-Y-Ffn,
Sounds of Aleph and Aum
through forests of gristle,
my skull and Lord Hereford’s Knob equal,
All Albion one.
Beyond Llathony the valley begins to open out and the lane becomes less narrow and winding. Soon, through plush fields and farmland, we approach the wonderfully-named village of Llanvihangel Crucorney that sits at the entrance to the Vale of Ewyas. At the centre of the village stands the Skirrid Inn, the oldest pub in Wales (and quite possibly all of Great Britain), named after Skirrid Fawr, the distinctive peak and local landmark.
The Skirrid is visible (except those days when it is obscured by early morning mist) from the snug converted cowshed where we stay. In ‘Skirrid Fawr’, Owen Sheers, who was brought up in Abergavenny, writes of the mountain’s ‘broken spine’ and ‘cleft palate’, ‘her east-west flanks … her vernacular of borders’ in a poem concerned with the tensions of borderlands and, as a Welsh writer who did not learn Welsh, of the ‘weight … of an unlearned tongue’:
Just like the farmers who once came to scoop
handfuls of soil from her holy scar,
so I am still drawn to her back for the answers
to every question I have never known.
To the sentence of her slopes,
the blunt wind glancing from her withers,
to the split view she reveals
with every step along her broken spine.
This edge of her cleft palate,
part hill, part field,
rising from a low mist, a lonely hulk
adrift through Wales.
Her east-west flanks, one dark, one sunlit,
her vernacular of borders.
Her weight, the unspoken words
of an unlearned tongue.
We walk in haunts of ancient peace.
At night we rest and go to sleep
In haunts of ancient peace.
Borderlands. Such places have not always been haunts of ancient peace. Take the Skirrid Inn in the village below our cottage: over 900 years old, in local legend the inn was a rallying point for supporters of the Welsh Revolt against the rule of Henry IV led by Owain Glyndwr (and an inspiration for William Shakespeare).
Moreover, the inn was the place where English manorial rule over the locals was brutally enforced. The first floor of the inn was where local Manorial and Assize courts were held, and capital punishment imposed for offences such as sheep stealing. Up 180 persons were hanged at the Skirrid from a beam at the bottom of the staircase (the burn marks left by the rope are there to be inspected).
We stayed at the Skirrid Inn in May 1983, sleeping in the imposing four-poster bed in the room where the judge allegedly slept the night before a hanging, while the condemned huddled at the foot of the stairs. These days the pub trades a great deal on its reputation for harbouring ghosts, though we were not troubled when we stayed. What did trouble us was the false memory left by that previous visit. Though both of us remembered pretty accurately the inn’s exterior and could conjure a mental image of the room we slept in, we had both remembered it located on a remote roadside in the mountains. Today, Llanvihangel Crucorney is a suburban village: an upmarket residential development is being built right opposite the pub. I hope the inn doesn’t become gentrified, but retains its character as an unpretentious and welcoming destination for walkers, bikers and ghost-hunters. They serve excellent food, too.
Ffin is Welsh for border. It occurs inside diffiniad which means definition, and in Capel y Ffin, ‘the chapel at the border’. Christopher Meredith’s poem ‘ Borderland’ explores how borders can define us:
You’ll find a ffin inside each definition.
We see what is when we see what it’s not:
edges are where meanings happen.
On the black whaleback of this mountain
earth curves away so sky can start
to show a ffin’s a kind of definition
where skylarks climb across earth’s turn
to air and pulsing muscle turns to an art-
ful song the edge that lets a meaning happen.
Live rock can yield to mortared stone,
a city to a castle, then a shepherd’s hut,
where ffin’s contained inside a definition,
where the lithic turns into the human.
Here’s where things fall together, not apart
at edges that let meanings happen.
And self here blurs into annihilation.
Larkfall, earthfall, skyfall, manfall each create
the ffin that is the place of definition
the edges where we see our meanings happen.
Around the countryside and towns
A song of harmony and rhyme
In haunts of ancient peace.
Another indication that there hasn’t always been ancient peace in these parts is the large number of castles dotted on the landscape: there are more castles here than you can shake a stick at. We found one at Grosmont, just up the lane from our converted cowshed.
The ruins we see today are of a castle built on an earlier Norman foundations by Hubert de Burgh, one of the most influential men in England during the reigns of King John and of his infant son and successor King Henry III in the 13th century. Largely built from Old Red Sandstone, the castle was the site of many skirmishes between Welsh rebels and English forces. It was attacked in March 1405 by Welsh forces that included the son of Owain Glyndwr. The siege was eventually relieved by forces led by Prince Henry, the future King Henry V. Between 800 and a thousand Welsh soldiers died in the battle.
These days, castles like this one are tourist attractions; people like us come to such places hoping to conjure the past into our present. David Jones once spoke of the ‘inward continuity of site’. One example he gave was the Welsh cobs that have been running free in the uplands of the Brecon Beacons since Roman times. For Jones, the ponies represented this sense of ‘continuity’: a pony grazing the same patch of grass in Roman Britain would look no different from the pony he saw grazing above Capel-y-Ffin in 1926. So it was that in 1934, when Jones as a tourist in Jerusalem saw British soldiers serving during the Palestine Mandate, his imaginative vision immediately transformed them into Roman soldiers serving in 6th century Roman Judea.
The landscapes we travel through hold the past in the present, while each of us, bringing to each place our personal preconceptions, will create in our imagination a variant of what others see.
The holy grail we seek
Down by haunts of ancient peace.
We see the new Jerusalem
In haunts of ancient peace.