A woman is as young as her knees
I somehow think that Ms Quant had something else in mind when she said that – more to do with mini skirts, maybe – but I was reminded of my age in no uncertain terms this week, and it was the knees that did it. I don’t visit the gym, I don’t do Pilates since I fractured both radial heads the year we retired, I don’t cycle (never learned)…the list of things I don’t do is long and tedious. What I do do is walk in the countryside. Occasionally. Not often enough, and not in any serious yomp-across-the-Beacons-in-subzero-temperatures way, though also not in a day-tripper-wearing-silver-flip-flops-through-fields way either. Michael and I are middle of the road; we walk together wearing proper boots but at the first sign of serious rain or a steep incline we’re likely to turn for home (as you’ll already know if you’ve read any of my previous walkalogues).
We’ve had some weather issues this winter so haven’t wandered much further afield than the village but things are picking up and I now have three walks to tell you about. An excellent number – as I occasionally tell my trio of daughters, the best things come in three. And, so to begin, as Dylan Thomas put it, at the beginning.
Mud and Templars
A break between snow systems in March gave us a chance to explore the banks of the River Monnow, part of the border between Wales and England. The well known pub at Skenfrith, The Bell, has leaflets describing several routes that begin and end at their front door; this ramble to Garway advertised a short (4 miles or so) outing through reasonably flat countryside and the promise of a medieval church at the furthest point (which predictably had me completely hooked). The receptionist at The Bell warned us that the track was a bit muddy – a comment I dismissed straightaway. This was Wales in the spring, just recovering from a hefty snowfall and subsequent thaw. Of course it was muddy! And anyhow, we were wearing boots! Did she think we were ill-prepared? The Bell at Skenfrith, Monmouthshire, starting and finishing point of the walk
I handed the leaflet to Michael so that he could read the directions. This is not because I’m a bad navigator (despite what he says, I’m really not) but because I need a different pair of glasses to read and I can’t be bothered to keep swapping them around. And yes, I have tried varifocals and no, I didn’t like them.
We made our way along the main road for 250 metres (which took us over the Monnow and across the border into Ingerland) then did as we were told and turned left – north – to follow the river upstream. After ten minutes or so we had cause to question either The Bell receptionist’s command of the English language or her sense of humour. Or maybe the scouting party that she’d sent out hadn’t reported back properly…anyway, for ‘a bit muddy’ read ‘submerged under a foot of water‘. The lane was flooded for about 100 metres. It was a tad early to turn back, so we threw ourselves into the spirit of the thing and clambered up onto the narrow bank at one side of the lane. There was a handy wire fence up there and we hauled ourselves along it until the hazard had been negotiated.The River Monnow, normally a gentle, clear body of water
Once past the flood we struck out confidently and climbed over the stile indicated in the directions. At this point we became a little more nervous when Michael came across the words ‘the field is sometimes stocked with bullocks’. Maybe we should have read right the way through the leaflet first, the way you should always read through exam instructions or a recipe – but where’s the fun in that?
Our fun took a downturn when we realised that the path now climbed steeply as it moved away from the river but we had no option other than to climb with it, keeping a wary eye open for livestock as we went. You’ll be glad to know that there were no bullocks, though three fields later we came across a couple of frisky horses. Having blithely assured Michael that they wouldn’t bother us, it turned out that they felt like having a bit of a lark by chasing us across the meadow. It’s a little worrying when you hear hooves thundering up behind you, but on the grounds that I preferred to see my doom approaching, I turned around to face the threat. I think that was what they wanted, because as soon as I did that they stopped – within about three feet or so. Then they’d wait until I’d walked on a distance and repeat the whole thing. I suppose if you’re stuck in a cold, muddy field you have to make your own entertainment. Michael, by the way, had just continued to cross the field as fast as he could, something I’m not sure I’ll forgive…
It was a relief when we got to the far side in one piece and into the bog beyond the hedge, the final hurdle before we reached Garway and the relative safety of tarmac. I have some experience with bogs (see The Monks’ muddy trod) but this one was easily crossed and we were glad to see our goal – the Templar Church of St Michael’s – lurking just down the lane. As the sky had darkened to a menacing grey, contrary to all expectations and the local weather forecast, it wasn’t a moment too soon.
The church here was founded in the 12th century by the Knights Templar, on land given to them by Henry II (just a few years after he muttered something about a turbulent priest…) Everyone’s heard of the Templars, usually via the Da Vinci Code, though there are some more serious-minded people who know all about them because they read history textbooks. And some even more serious people who follow the Ingerland rugby team and dress as medieval knights with white surcoats emblazoned with a large red cross…
St Michael’s is not a pretty church, by any stretch of the imagination. But then you wouldn’t expect it to be – the Templars were a military order, after all. In what was essentially frontier territory they erected a small, robust building which was a place of worship but also an easily defended site. Its fortified tower wasn’t actually connected to the main church until about three hundred years ago – well after hostilities in the area had ended. If you’re expecting something as ornate or as intricate as Rosslyn Chapel or the Templar Church in London, you’d be disappointed but it’s still worth a visit if ever you’re in the area. As ever, an excellent description is given at Britain Express, a site I highly recommend for historical buildings in the UK, which does a particularly good line in churches.
The impressive Romanesque chancel arch inside the church
The weather gods seemed to have decided that this corner of Herefordshire was wet enough and the skies were starting to clear so we picked up the route again, which now steered clear of fields, woodlands, bullocks, sheep and horses but turned out to be not a circular walk as we’d thought, but ‘P’ shaped. And the one natural hazard that we couldn’t avoid was the flooded lane, along the leg of the P…but as we were now experienced acrobats we managed to get back to the car without any mishaps, where we swapped exceedingly muddy boots for clean(er) shoes before driving home for well-deserved tea and cakes.
The following day the snow came back.
Mary Quant was right…
Last weekend I was in Cric (the Crickhowell Resource and Information Centre, otherwise known as the Tourist Info Centre) when, due to my nosiness, I became involved in a conversation that had nothing to do with me. There was a young woman asking if there were any guided walks going out the following day – which was Easter Sunday. No-one knew of anything and, despite phoning several local walking/mountain-climbing/pot-holing types, there was no luck. The office was about to close so I stuck my oar in and volunteered to take the woman (whose name was Carolina but pronounced Caroleena – more of this in a minute) along to the local outdoorsy shop, Crickhowell Adventure, on the grounds that Jane might know of something suitable.
Sadly she didn’t, although a customer in the shop paused from choosing boots for her teenager to say that she was walking up the Blorenge the next day and would be happy to take Carolina along. Problem 2 – Carolina would have to get to Abergavenny and didn’t have a car. Not such a problem surely? – until you remember that there’s no public transport here on a Sunday (let alone Easter Sunday) and so someone would have to volunteer to drive her to Abergavenny. I was about to do just this when a thought occurred to me.
“What’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?” I asked Jane (who ALWAYS knows).
“Fine,” she said. “Best day of the weekend.”
“Then why don’t I take you up Table Mountain,” said I to Carolina, reassured that I wouldn’t be getting caught in a downpour.Table Mountain on a slightly sunnier day
The weather was ok – dry and slightly windy but we had an enjoyable walk up to the top of our local hill-fort and I bored Carolina with random bits of trivia. She was great company and turned out to be a travel journalist from Buenos Aires (hence the pronunciation of her name) who was in the UK to write an article about destinations other than London. Her one trip into Wales had included two days in Cardiff and one full day in Crickhowell. She was keen to see as much as she could of the area, so I was really glad that I’d interfered.
There was another, less welcome vision of country life for Carolina when we saw a sheep being attacked by a dog whose foolish owner had allowed the animal off the lead. Fortunately he managed to haul the hound away and hopefully no damage was done (though it’s difficult to tell and pregnant ewes are ever in danger of spontaneous abortions after these attacks). Meanwhile the man’s girlfriend suffered the fury of several passers-by. Her ‘Sorry, we don’t know the area, we haven’t been here before,’ was met with the predictable: ‘All the more reason to keep the dog on the lead, then!’Sheep aren’t always found in flocks, in a field…they like an open hillside
Although my sympathies were with the sheep the worst aspect of the downhill walk was about to hit me when I started to get awful and increasingly awful pain in my knees. At the risk of sounding like a hypochondriac: It was agony!!!! I remember this happening years ago in the Austrian Alps. There’s something about walking down a hill as opposed to up it that can play complete havoc, though interestingly this was the first time it had happened to me since the Hochjoch in 2002. The only thing I could do was walk backwards, which made my knees feel slightly better but meant that I couldn’t see where I was going; also I looked like a complete idiot. After twenty minutes of this nonsense I gave in and rang Michael, who obligingly drove across and collected us at Crickhowell. On the way to meet him we passed the local allotments, much to the delight of Carolina. I’d tried to describe allotments to her but the sight of them had a much greater impact – especially as she struck up a conversation with two gardeners who turned out to have visited Argentina the previous year.
We rounded the day off by driving across to Tretower so that our visitor could see Tretower Court and Castle. The remains of the stone tower date from the 12th century, although the castle had been established a hundred years earlier, just after the first incursion into Breconshire by the Normans in the 1080s. At the beginning of the 14th century the Lord of Tretower began to build a manor house and the castle was left to the garrison. It’s a fabulous place and Carolina loved it – especially as there were re-enactors on site in 15th century costume.
The next day we dropped Carolina off at Abergavenny railway station for her train back to London, which was going to be a bit of a contrast…buses, no sheep, no busybodies interfering in your day…
A loop around Llangynidr
Yesterday my knees had recovered enough to tackle another walk. Put another way – I’d stopped complaining. We felt like a change from our section of the canal towpath so we took the car along to Llangynidr, about 4 miles away. We also took an OS map so that we didn’t get lost, though that would have been a feat even for us, given that all we were doing was following the canal east to a lane, walking down the lane to the River Usk and then turning west to follow the Usk back to Llangynidr.
We were almost convinced to turn back from the path alongside the river by a couple coming the other way, who told us that the route was really rocky and difficult, that we would slip, that it was under water and we would get our feet wet…I almost expected them to predict that we would be carried off by giant birds of prey. Really, we don’t need much encouragement to give up but on this occasion we stuck to our guns. It was a little awkward in places but nothing that was too onerous and I’m glad to report that we survived to walk another day!The bridge across the Usk at Llangynidr
I’ve lived in good climate, and it bores the hell out of me. I like weather rather than climate