White clouds in the Black Mountains
We drove through thick fog for an hour before turning onto the mountain road. As I steered the car through the gloom, my eyes were fixed on the narrow lane – but Tom was looking skywards, excited. He’d spotted a patch of blue. To our surprise, by the time we reached the parking place at the start of the walk, we were above the cloud and in the most beautiful of winter days.
The world had turned upside down. Below us, everything was white. Above us, sharp sunlight picked out the rich browns and greens of the bluff. Our plan was to walk a short loop of around 10km, which would take us to both Hay Bluff and its neighbour across Gospel Pass, Twmpa, but ensure we weren’t back too late for family responsibilities. We set off, keen to see if the view got better as we went up.
It did. By the time we’d walked the short, steep route to the trig point on top of Hay Bluff we could see that the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons beyond were the only islands of high ground protruding from a tide of cloud. Having picked the day for this walk at random the week before, we’d chanced upon the most spectacular walking weather of the year.
In these perfect conditions it was tempting to follow Offa's Dyke Path all the way along the top towards Pandy, but there wasn’t time for that. Sticking to our plan, we turned instead for Gospel Pass. As we descended towards the road and the view of the valley to our left opened up, memories of this place flooded in: my first trip here when I was in the Scouts; wandering here lost – in more ways than one – during my twenties; and, more recently, struggling up here on my road bike after an ill-advised chip-shop lunch in Brecon.
We reached the road, crossed it, and began the climb up Twmpa. Also known as Lord Hereford’s Knob, the peak features in a song by post-punk band Half Man Half Biscuit. After encountering a woman driven from her home by spiralling house prices, the narrator advises: “Twmpa, Twmpa, you’re gonna need a jumper. It gets a bit chilly on top of Lord Hereford’s Knob.” Suitably attired in our jumpers and warmed by the climb, we sat near the summit of Twmpa and ate our lunch under the watchful gaze of the wild horses.
An older man exchanged greetings before striding on past us to the summit cairn. He’d walked up from Capel-y-Ffin and, like us, couldn’t believe his luck at finding such beautiful conditions. He stood and looked out, silhouetted by the low sun, before eventually turning to head down to his car. Was he thinking the same as us – that he wanted to stretch this short winter day into an eternity of wandering under the clear sky?
Despite the cold, it was good weather for daydreams – about what lay ahead, and what had passed. Looking back towards Hay Bluff, I thought of Offa, the Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia, who is believed to have ordered the construction of a dyke stretching roughly along what is now the border separating England and Wales. Little is known about Offa, and practically nothing about the people who dug and piled the earth on his orders. Who were they? Did they work up here on days like these – using hand tools to dig an earthwork that was up to 20m wide and 2.4m high?
But Offa’s ghosts would not give up their secrets and it was time for us to go. The path turned back the way we’d come and dropped down the side of the mountain to lower ground. The final couple of kilometres passed quickly and we were soon back at the car.
Ahead of us still the sea of cloud. Behind us now an unforgettable day.