River Monnow - Wye Tributary
34.8 miles total. Frid 26th Sep,
Mon 29th 2014
Source Grid reference: SO 271- 378 OS Explorer 13 Click
Day 1 - 11.8 miles
A jump on the early Hay-On-Wye bus from Hereford took us the 15 miles to Dorstone where we began a five-and-a-half-mile walk negotiating the back lanes and undulations that characterize this part of Herefordshire, leading eventually to our first objective of the day, Cefn Hill, elevation 470 meters. After a steady climb we reach Vaga Hill, where you are struck by the rugged plateau unfrequented by tourists, yet no doubt known to local walkers. It’s quite rangy here with the early stages of New House Wood touching its outer edge which, in the end, provides a recognisable land mark for navigation to Cefn Hill traversing in the process, an expanse of moorland looked after by the Nature Trust. Of course, Vaga Hill offers great vistas bringing many landmarks into view including, amongst others, the Malvern Hills and Clee Hill in Shropshire far away in the distance (Grid Ref SO 285-397) ‘Landranger Map’ OL 161.
The landscape unfolds and almost immediately on approach to Cefn Hill our route intersects that of a couple from Ludlow. With respect a brief rapport is established with talk on nature and the state of the world before parting company as we fix bearings on our goal and the other two walkers on Vaga Hill where we had just come from. It’s a good start and pretty soon, by following the edge of New House Wood defining Cefn Hill’s northern flank, a small outcrop of rock is reached on its far side, where panoramas of the Black Mountains and central Brecon Beacons come into view. Indeed, in the foreground is Hay Bluff and beyond that away in the distance is the mighty Pen Y Fan providing a unique vision of the region never before seen.
Dotted with sheep and horses the plateau is alive so we document the atmosphere before heading off for the River Monnow’s source on the Black Mountain side of Cefn Hill, which is sheltered by trees in a moss-covered dingle half a kilometre away. The source situated at (Grid Ref - SO 268-379) springs up from underground about 600 meters from both the ruined medieval priory at Craswall and the aptly named Abbey Farm. In truth exactly where the river rises is a matter of interpretation with there being three rivulets feeding in equal measure the main body of water, meaning one channel is chosen and treated as the source.
Oozing out of the ground over stone and small rocks it becomes a stream within a hundred yards or so before joining the two remaining streams nearby and then numerous other rivulets in succession after that. Here the waters widen progressively as a result and you can see clearly what is, a micro climate developing into a young river. The whole environment is a place of promise and from here on we make our way down the valley through old trees and over fences following the water’s current to Abbey Farm. At this point the Monnow is deviated from to a road 200 meters away which runs adjacent to the river and, of course, Black Mountains as it leads to Longtown and the A464 Abergavenny road near Pandy. The narrow road hugs the river’s course and when viewed from a high enough vantage it offers an incredible window into patchwork fields clinging to the mountainsides, extending down the valley and fading seamlessly to gorse and bracken the higher you go. It’s a healthy green interspersed with trees and jigsaw like patterns emanating an almost fantasy like presence.
So, the body feels light and with it there’s good walking in the legs and a will to discover more as the road progresses along the line of the Black Mountains massif. Of course, the Monnow still flows adjacent to the road, hidden there in a V like dip of the valley, where remote dwellings are made unique by unusual place names adorning entrances. The road is a sheer delight but, this said, a couple of miles out we decide to cut across country at Pentwyn Farm, nodding to the rugged hill farmer standing roadside using his mobile phone as we do.
On through his yard then, and grateful the dogs are secure in kennels, we sit for a while and we’re able to admire the mountains whilst we spot the road further down the valley, where it intersects with one of the Monnow’s small mountain tributaries. To get there we cover ground, probing fields and copses, linking with road and trail (Grid ref: SO 277-361). On arrival after twenty minutes or so, and to our surprise, we find the water course alive with energy and some perfectly formed waterfalls that appear in step like phases, with, in addition, a high red sandstone bank buttressing the whole space.
It’s a bit of a time capsule, with the red sandstone providing glimpses into the mountain’s geology spanning 300 million years to the Devonian period and there’s glacial evidence from the last ice age, which also helped shape the mountains. Of course, sheltered by the overhanging trees, it’s a great place to have a brew and capture the natural environment on film whilst in turn practicing some rock balance instillations close to the waterfalls themselves. So infused by chi-mountain energy the entire zone sees water flowing over rock and moss towards places that will benefit from its freshness and purity.
On the move again, we pass through Craswall and attention is paid to the effect weather has had on the landscape, including the way in which it’s influenced the lives of people, for the trees are windblown and the buildings themselves reflect stories in relation to the surrounds too. There’s a definite sense of a world interacting with the environment and wildlife in a way that’s resilient, tough and more in tune with the elements than life lived in a large town or city.
We are tuning in too and as if to echo this subtle transformation we come across two jovial farmers resting in a truck near an old Victorian school, now used as a community centre, remote though it is. Of course, they’re very much local and have no problem with us being there, so an exchange begins, recounting the area’s details and slotting in as much info as time would allow. They’re great guys. We say goodbye reminded of a good road. So, the trail affirms life’s wonder echoed further along by a couple restoring an old farm house, which eventually, and after much work, will become their-own home. Whilst in conversation we learn more about the building’s history as they describe how farm hands would have slept with their livestock years ago in order to keep themselves warm.
Beyond the farm our own visceral connection with the environment continues in a field of sheep that surround us serenely with no hesitation. They come extraordinarily close and are only but a half kilometre away from the first campsite of the journey in another quiet field that’s got a convenient little nook next to the river. The field is empty of livestock but there are still wild animals about. At dusk a fox is glimpsed stalking the land, which interestingly mirrors the passing of another fox on the River Arrow in Radnorshire some months previously. It seems they’re most active this time of day! So everything falls into place and, like the fox, there’s really no hanging about because uppermost on your mind is the organising of good shelter followed by food and sleep.
It takes about half an hour to get things set up including, should the weather take a turn for the worse, the building of extra cover in the form of tarpaulin attached to a fence running alongside the river’s boundary. The shelter, constructed using para cord, bungees and whittled uprights, is a pleasure to look at and as night falls offers peace of mind so taking advantage of this, prior to sleep, we spend time at the top of the field absorbing the night’s silence. The Brecon Beacons National Park does have (Dark Sky) reserve status so the quality of sound, night sky and stars were good here being as we are on the borders of the park itself. For sure it’s a unique experience. (Grid Ref: SO 319-308).
Day 2 – 10 miles
On the second day we get going early; cadence is established and from camp one through to Longtown a sustainable ‘rhythm’ gathers pace interspersed by a few poignant breaks to admire the many features in the landscape as they appear. It’s good stuff and after an uncanny early morning meeting with one of the farmers encountered the previous day you could say the locals have taken us to their hearts, as we have them. This being the case and upon arrival it’s a convenient resupply at Longtowns busy store followed by a climb up Mynydd Feridon a real obvious challenge seen from outside in the car park.
We set about tackling the climb and instead of going straight up we make a decision to explore a channel of water that had cleaved its way from top to bottom, creating a magical space hidden from normal sight. It turned out to be a good choice when, rounding a bend in the stream, we come across a waterfall approximately twelve-foot-high, which was made all the more impressive by the unassuming green and lush space found within. Sometimes it’s worth transgressing.
At 300 meters plus Mynydd Feridon is a nice sized climb and, after the discovery of the waterfall, only a small part of the gully was actually explored leaving the rest of the climb to be ascended via the trail. Once summited the panorama extending across the Black Mountains looking North West was incredible (Grid Ref SO 335-276). It was another totally unexpected sight and a marvel because lying out before us were grand visions of big country offering rare glimpses of ridge lines, poking summits, undulating contours and patchwork fields. There was Black Hill, Olchon Valley, the bulbous shapes of Waun Fach with its neighbour Pen Y Gadair Fawr, then the landmarks of Sugar Loaf and Hay Bluff accompanied by Cefn Hill where the walk began, and, completing the vision, the River Monnow stretched out before us whilst opposite the Golden Valley in Herefordshire lay serene. Spectacular!
Inspired, we document the scene whilst pouring a drink from our flasks then turn our attentions to the next section. Before moving on we take one last admiring look then step on the trail once more. Upon cresting Mynydd Feridon you enter a secluded enclave experiencing again another plateau and more dynamic views of the Sugar Loaf previously unknown. It’s a real breather and the magic continues with a warren of peaceful lanes to wander on our way to Rowlestone, where, as luck would have it, a traditional farmyard ice cream parlour awaits. The delights just keep coming and so we buy two cones with a dollop of the homemade stuff, which contributes to some recovery. Still, choosing this route meant losing sight of the river for a while as it snaked round Mynydd Feridon’s bulbous mass to finally intersect with the relatively unknown River Honddu near Pandy. Of course, after a time the lanes eventually reach the valley floor where we re-join the Monnow on an oxbow bend, crossing an iron bridge there. Military in style and marked on the map the bridge can be seen from your car as an anomaly on the Kentchurch estate adjacent to the A464 Hereford to Abergavenny Road. Over the bridge you cross the road and enter different country that still has impressive hills to catch the eye such as Craig Syfyrddin and Garway Hill near Kentchurch Court, but beyond these the topography changes to a more pastel hue with scenery more reminiscent of rolling countryside than mountain vistas.
Soon we’re in Grosmont on the Herefordshire border accompanied by the familiar sounds and sights of village life. It’s a pleasant interlude echoing with the sounds of dogs, relaxed locals outside the “Angel Inn” pub, cottage gardeners, weekend tourists and a group of spirited public-school girls who, we suspect, are on a weekend away from Monmouth Girls’ School. It’s a slow-paced environment, yet with the twelfth century castle re-constructed by Hubert De Brugh nearby the village itself is busier than you might think. Indeed, even after 800 years the castle still stands strong, holding sway over the landscape as does the next climb across the way, Graig Syfyrddin at 330m.
At this stage of the day the climb was a small endurance lesson, but none the less, sheltered by trees and with panoramas of Garway and Kentchurch across the way in Herefordshire the ascent pays dividends offering some worthwhile glimpses of the landscape. To give you a point of reference we’re now on part of the ‘Three Castles’ designated Trail: see Leitch Ricthies poem at the end. The landscape is in constant flux and again as the top of Craig Syfyrddin is crested the scene shifts dramatically, when, literally, a plateau kilometres in diameter comes into view high above a, none too aware world. It’s an enclave or micro climate and only the few who dwell here are privy to its existence being as it is, akin to a private estate, with one or two farms, grazing flocks, wood plantations, arable crops and mild contoured features to admire. It’s certainly dreamlike, reminiscent of Bilbo’s shire, and getting there took effort so, what with limited time left in the day and the environments’ seclusion, we knew somewhere close by was camp for the night (Grid Ref: SO 424-220 OS Landranger Map 161)
Day 3 - 11.9 miles
The following morning, and briefly leaving our gear behind, a climb midway uphill revealed an astounding sight of the river’s valley covered in a thick blanket of mist, accentuated by clusters of spires, hillocks and trees poking through. Of course, Tolkien couldn’t have written it better. Certainly, the fog lay languid and heavy over the entire vale as if growing feelers in all directions, spreading out for miles and there’s no telling what was round the next valley so to speak. So back down the hill we break camp, gather the gear and move steadily forward into a mystical land, breathing into our bodies a rich earthen atmosphere as we go.
Everything is at play here; the landscape, the mist, the smells and the sound of pheasants squawking in what could be described as a mediaeval morning’s silence. indeed, making our way towards Trevonny Farm we find perched on a stile one of the pheasants we’ve been hearing. It’s a female, standing prehistoric like, turning her head in one direction and then the other as if reading every possible danger and, of course with it being a wild encounter, our own instinct is to reach for the camera, the Cannon SX700 30. We get the perfect shot but there’s plenty going on here as the whole environment speaks of nature, highlighted by the many thousands of cobwebs on hedgerow, tree and gatepost caught in sunlight by dew.
We’re transfixed by a mass of vivid, bejewelled structures created by a spider’s world that, had the air contained no moisture at all, would have remained hidden from view. Heartened we look forward to the walk along the banks of the Monnow to Skenfrith but first Trevonny where, upon arrival, the farmer is returning from a morning walk with his dogs. A friendly chap it turned out we had something in common; his mum was born and raised at the village of Hope under Dinmore in North Herefordshire as was ours. What a lovely coincidence and, by the looks, he’s been blessed in life surrounded by healthy green fields flanked either side by arboreal hills that, due to the geology, create a natural passage for the Monnow to flow. It’s a glorious part of Monmouthshire and it’s not long before the river leads to a fascinating old weir more reminiscent of an archaeological site than a serviceable barrage, which fittingly calls out for more rock balances (Grid Ref: SO 452-214 Landranger Map OL 161). On to Skenfrith!
If you’ve been to Skenfrith you’ll know it has an imposing 12th century castle by the river and a lovely stretch of rapid flowing to its rear, which for us is an ideal spot to down rucksacks and take a break. Interestingly we meet some old friends here known from previous outings but it’s brief, there’s a quick photo opportunity then we pick up the trail once more, arriving at an amazing mansion shortly afterwards, where the river rounds Coedanghred Hill at (Grid Ref: SO 471-204 this time Explorer Map OL 14).
Glorious though it is, the mansion is exclusive and the grounds manicured to the point of perfection, and because of this you are guided along the footpath by a cordon of museum like ropes forcing you one way. Very particular! For a change we don’t take liberties and respectfully obey the signs but surely its nature who’s the real master and you can see this in the ever-changing face of the landscape that’s been experienced by us on foot. So, the hill forms a natural barrier creating a bend in the river and its volume continues to be added to via more fresh water flowing out of an escarpment near the mansions perimeter and it cannot be overemphasised this is quality stuff. For us the crystalline stream presents no health concerns so the water is drank naturally, cupped in hand, before filling the bladders.
From here into Monmouth it’s pretty much simple walking and, once more, this stretch of water is in Herefordshire, countrified as it is with green fields and old oaks but what surprises us, at Llanrothal, is the discovery of a 12th century church dedicated to St John the Baptist by the Welsh saint St Ridol. It’s a fascinating place; thick walled, flag stoned, and musty smelling.
Onward then we meet some guys from London and a cool young chap exuding local friendliness, ushering in our third rock balance of the trip just prior to the famous Monnow and Rockfield studios. Visits to both are paid before entering Monmouth. First it’s the Monnow Studios a Georgian manor house where we bump into a member of ”Frightened Rabbit”, a band from Scotland recording a fourth album, soon a fellow band member appears and another, then the full Monty. After a cup of tea and a chat it’s down the main road again and in the flow of things Rockfield Studios appear, which arouses some interest with it being world famous, confirmed later on by Kingsley, the studio’s owner, who says Freddie Mercury and Queen wrote and recorded Bohemian Rhapsody there.
The place feels quiet these days but, having said this, they still do have big recording sessions and it’s fair to say a visit to the studio was great fun with Kingsley himself, a great host and to prove this he even gave away an old drum skin as a souvenir. After a time, we move on into Monmouth hunkering down for the night in typical style under the rowing club pavilion. Of course, before zipping up the sleeping bags we bought a meal from the only fast food outlet open in town, which was avidly eaten prior to sleep.
Night passes and pretty soon it’s Monday and, with gear packed away, we set about manoeuvring through town in the direction of both the River Wye’s and Monnow’s confluence, capturing short film and photographic images as we go. It’s been 35 miles and there is Monmouth’s ancient bridge, a proud symbol of the town’s medieval past, standing as somewhat of a marvel and so too is a majestic heron, standing sixty meters away on the River Monnow’s far bank. The heron looked supreme and was nothing short of a natural wildlife encounter and so we appreciate the phenomena for the rare spectacle it was before it abruptly fly’s off towards the River Wye a few hundred meters downstream, where we ourselves were about to go. Prompted, we arrive at the confluence following the heron’s lead, and, awe-inspired, we witness one of the most timeless scenes you could ever perhaps want to see. The amalgamating rivers unite; like glutinous streams of lava shrouded in effervescent mist; an unstoppable force of nature.
So, these then are the final moments of the expedition and, although inspired, for me at least there’s a weighty feeling of reluctance regarding our return to everyday life. But even so, if you think you are alone, and that somewhere life does not see you, then think again, because, as if on cue, the majestic heron seen earlier at the bridge suddenly re-appears loping into a wide turn from behind a nearby treeline emitting, as it does, a primal shriek that shudders through your entire body. Coupled with the timelessness of the scene this was both primeval and auspicious because, for sure, it was the heron from upstream. Indeed, what more can be said: it was wild and seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the journey. (Grid Ref: 512-122 Explorer Map OL 14).
Total distance walked - 34.8 miles. Height Ascended - 800 meters
Poem depicting the three castles walk in the Monnow Valley.
From a picturesque ramble by Leitch Ritchie:
The Wye and its associations circa 1841 Chapter 8
“Three castles fayre are in a goodly ground,
Grosmont is one, on hill it builded was;
Skenfrith the next, in valley it is found,
The soyle about for pleasure there doth passe;
White Castle is the third of worthy fame,
The county there doth bear White Castle’s name,
A stately seat, a loftie princely place,
Whose beauties give the simple soyle some grace.”