In which The Author goes on tour
For the last couple of years, Mother has been talking about the Skirrid Inn. She heard about it from a friend, and has always said that when she was confident that the car would get there, we’d take a trip there. Finally, with her new car up and running and the sun beating down on our part of the world, we decided to visit the place for ourselves.
There’s a huge road improvement scheme going on between Brynmawr and Abergavenny at the moment, so we drove up and around Brecon before taking the A40 towards Abergavenny. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we passed through picturesque villages just as the trees and flowers were coming into bloom. It wasn’t too warm for driving, and the roads were fairly quiet. If we’d done it in two weeks’ time, with the schools on holiday, it would have been a very different story. We passed through Crickhowell, and I suggested skirting Abergavenny entirely, meeting the A465 north of the town.
It’s funny that Mother’s been driving for well over thirty years, but seems to have lost her confidence as she’s got older. Whereas years ago she’d think nothing of driving to Bradford or London, now even small market towns are a daunting prospect for her. From my vantage point in the passenger seat, the road systems are unnecessarily complicated, there’s far too much redundant signage, and – of course – you’re in contention with idiots for road space. It’s not entirely Mother’s fault.
Anyway, by some mischance we missed the turning which would have taken us around Abergavenny, and ended up going through town. It wasn’t as bad as Mother feared, but she admitted she would have got lost on her own. We set off in the direction of Hereford and left the town behind us. A few miles out of Abergavenny, we simply had to stop the car and take some pictures.
I’ve never been close up to a field of oilseed rape in full flower. It’s incredible. It stretched on over the hillside and almost to the foot of Skirrid Hill. Vincent Van Gogh would have painted this scene a hundred times in a hundred different aspects, simply to rejoice in the exuberance of the colour. Mother said the scent of the flowers took her back to her childhood, but she couldn’t pin down the memory. There was another chap taking photos as we arrived, and when we reluctantly walked back to the car another guy was making his way towards us with a bag of camera gear. It was one of those totally unexpected scenes that you can’t resist capturing forever.
Llanfihangel Crucorney was less than a mile further on. We parked up and had a look at the church. It was locked, of course, but we were able to look around the grounds and take some photos of the exterior.
Then we decided it was time to explore the pub itself. What an incredible place! It was first recorded in the twelfth century, and the building is centuries old. It’s built of sandstone and has a fascinating interior. I’ve just put a couple of photos here to give you a feel of the place.
We had lunch there, and chatted to the owners and a couple of regulars. They were a really friendly crowd, far less snobby than the people we normally meet in Brecon. It’s a lot more down to earth, and the pub doesn’t have any pretensions to be anything other than a decent village local. While we were chatting, one guy suggested driving from Llanfihangel to Llanthony, about six miles away. I’d heard of this place – my friends Rob and Kath H. go walking up there quite often – but I’d never been there before. It’s not exactly accessible by public transport. We finished up our lunch and set off for Llanthony.
The road is narrow, twisted and quite steep in places. It’s not even marked on the map as a B road, and we realised why after a couple of miles. Still, it took us through some breathtaking countryside and finally to the tiny village of Llanthony. It’s nothing more than a ruined priory, a church, and a few farms and cottages, high up on the slopes of the Black Mountains. But it’s a fantastic place to just sit and listen to the birdsong.
The ruins themselves are quite spectacular, if only in terms of their sheer size. It’s almost impossible to imagine what the priory must have been like when it was in its medieval heyday, with a thriving community of monks. Now, it’s a ghostly and mysterious place. We ate our picnic in the grounds, listening to spring birdsong and contemplating the fantastic scenery all around us. It’s no wonder that hermits and pilgrims must have been drawn to this spot in times past – it’s a magical place.
Then I had a stupid idea. I suggested following the road through to Hay-on-Wye, and then returning via Brecon. We hadn’t realised that the road was even narrower and more winding than it had been on the earlier stretch, and climbed high into the Black Mountains. It’s known as Gospel Pass, and at one point the car was struggling in second gear to cope with the ascent. We frequently came head to head with oncoming traffic, and had to wait while one of us backed up and made room for the other. A gang of bikers passed us at one stage, and we felt that they had the right idea – it would be the ideal way to enjoy the journey.
Near the top of the pass, we stopped and found a herd of horses roaming free on the hillsides.
From here, it was downhill to Hay-on-Wye. The last time I was in the town, I was about fifteen, and I couldn’t remember much about the place. It’s bigger than I’d imagined, an organic little town which has grown up over the centuries with no overall plan. It’s the sort of town which used to be commonplace in England and Wales, full of interesting shops and cafes, pubs and alleyways full of surprises. It’s a pleasant change to go to a town and not to be confronted with the same old shops that make so many modern high streets look pretty interchangeable. In any other town, this lovely building would have been converted into a Wetherspoon by now:
In Hay-on-Wye, it’s a bookshop-cum-B&B. A unique combination for a unique town.
After wandering around for a couple of hours, we decided to head for home. In half an hour or so we were on the Brecon bypass and heading for Aberdare. It’s hard to believe there are so many fascinating places on our doorstep – and even harder to believe that we haven’t visited them before.