The weather forecast was for heavy rain with poor visibility but it did not deter the group of five hardy walkers who crossed the border from Wales into Herefordshire to meet William in the small car park at Little Black Hill to partake in a 12-mile walk in the eastern Black Mountains and the weather wasn’t half as bad as predicted.
Black Hill which is also known as the Cat’s Back because it resembles a hunched sitting cat from the Hereford side of the hill, is situated just across the border from the Brecon Beacons National Park and its narrow ridged top stretches for around two miles in length.
They set off along a bridleway below the hilltop, which was strewn with wild spring flowers and views overlooking the Monnow Valley as they headed towards the hamlet of Craswall, which is one of the ten modern day parishes in the south west of Herefordshire that formed the ancient lands known as Ewyas Lacy.
They passed bleating spring lambs that were frolicking about before dropping down into the valley below Town Farm and across the River Monnow on a rickety footbridge to climb through fields to arrive at the lovely little Norman Church dedicated to St Mary at Craswall. This remote, plain and simple style church, which may date back to the 15th century stands within a field, where the ground was too rocky for burials to take place and during the 18th century, the west end of the building was cut off by a wall to provide a schoolroom with the church being restored in 1883.
After their morning break listening to the sound of birdsong filling the air it was time to move on along the remote valley below Court Farm and White Oak Farm, before crossing a ford and heading towards Abbey Farm. There they were greeted by barking farm dogs who were keeping a watchful eye on the intruders to their property as they passed through.
Joining part of the long distance bridleway known as the Three Rivers Ride, the route was researched by Brenda Wickham and ridden by Alison Stokes and was developed by the British Horse Society, starting from Worcestershire and through Herefordshire to end in Wales by crossing the River Usk south of Brecon.
A short descent led them to the atmospheric remains of Craswall Priory which stands at a height of 1,240 feet making it the highest monastic site in England. It was founded in 1220 as a Grandmontine cell by Walter de Lacy who had visited the site some years previously and is overlooked by the gigantic Hay Bluff which stands at 2,200 feet. Despite being given funds by local lords the priory remained poor, probably because it had infertile soil, so was barren, wet, cold and misty and exposed to the wind. Prior Gerard Ither described it as ‘The place which was chosen by God is a solitude for penitence and religion and those who dwell there lead a hard life.’ Not the place to choose for a holiday them!
Seating themselves within its ruined walls a stop was made for lunch whilst soaking in the tranquility and peaceful atmosphere, before continuing across fields and along a bridleway towards the brooding hulk of Hay Bluff, which was half hidden by low cloud. Joining Offa’s Dyke path which is named after Offa who was King of the Mercian tribe from AD 747-796 and who died in battle with the Welsh, a long steady climb brought them to the trig point on Hay Bluff to enjoy misty views, before turning south and following the ridgeway to Black Hill.
On the journey they met up with a group from the Talgarth Walking Festival who were tramping in the opposite direction and stopped for a chat. Then reaching the narrow Cat’s Back ridgeway with the call of the cuckoo vibrating upward from the Olchon Valley, a steep descent lead them back down to their cars for the journey home.
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