A watch in the Middle Marches



“O, the wild hills of Wales, the land of old renown, and of wonder”

George Borrow, Wild Wales

I step silent across the flagged floor below weathered slates and beams, sleep-held family breathing behind, the only other sounds the scratching of terriers’ claws as they push past into rain-remembering grass – and somewhere among the waiting trees a blackbird hailing a new day of toil and danger. Then I am tramping through silver, shocking grass, soaking instantly even through army boots, my prints a dark line leading to the dingle that dashes a stream down the valley’s slope in an understorey of moss-stockinged trunks, fragrant ferns and Ordovician erratics.

Aided by an ashplant, I compel my not-yet limbered legs upwards in the pre-dawn, cold hamstrings stretching and breath catching, as I see the way the sun is fingering through the canopy and picking out sub-shades in ‘grey’ lichen, dew-spangles on sphagnum, ichor-hued rowan berries, and a gnat-squadron sparked into electric activity by warmth after the dampness of the darkness. A gate clicks open and closes, then another – old and oxidised, but nowhere near as old as the stone wall that writhes like one of the apocryphal black adders of this area around the head of the tiny valley, differentiating this particular part of Radnorshire from another particular part.

The trees fail after tortured hawthorns, and I find myself on a moor from a dream. My shadow streams uphill, pointing straight at the wind and rain-worn prominence that is one of the highest and steepest of these Carneddau Hills. It looks like a knuckle on a fist, and carries old colours – Cambrian greys, stretched browns, greens of growing thinness. But as I ascend on my second wind, the sun dismisses the last lingering wyverns of the night and lends texture to everything. I notice new-lit lanterns of gorse-blossom, and see that the sheep-gnawed fairway is not just grass, but a mat of mosses, fungi, heathers and tiny Alpines whose names I long to know, among them maybe the Radnor Lily, found (or noticed) nowhere else on earth – spikes, seedheads and florets in star-white, yolk-yellow, and peacock-purple weaving in and out of each other in defiance of exposure, the acid earth, and the acute angles up which I am toiling, masochistically crosswise to the sheep-tracks. Slopes slide away steeply and satisfactorily behind as I make the final ascent, and can stand straight again.

Cwmberwyn Camp is marked Fort on the Ordnance Survey map, the Gothic lettering signifying this is an historic site – although this is perhaps unnecessary to note in a country as careworn as Wales. In any case, there is little specific history that can be attached to this spot, because no-one now can ever know which particular Iron Age patriarch’s people heaped up stones to give some semblance of shelter and security, let alone who or what precisely they were afraid of, out there in the humped and howling wilderness beyond their rampart and fires.

That wilderness seems less menacing on an early morning in August, when all of south-central Wales looks like it has been made for me, a stupendous papier-mâché diorama marching to all horizons, with painterly effects in thousands of shades – peaks above cloud-collars, streamlets like snail-trails, trailing rain-curtains, stray sunbeams searchlighting solitary farms and scattered Hill Radnor sheep. Visible from here on a day like today are the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains, the Cambrian Mountains, Plynlimon where the Wye and Severn rise, Rhos Fawr on the high and treeless plateau of Radnor Forest, and beyond that a hint of England. I envy the wild things that know this vantage-point so much better than I ever shall – the mistle thrush, the ring ouzel, the red kites, the buzzards, and the ravens that kronk and coast overhead in vast transparency, or the pair of mountain hares that lollop past, luckily unseen by the dogs, who are watching the feral ponies as they graze up to their fetlocks in gorse.

Radnorshire is one of the thirteen pre-1974 counties of Wales (some exclude Monmouthshire), and the second-smallest in Britain (after Rutland). It abuts Herefordshire and Shropshire in England, and the Welsh counties of Montgomeryshire, Brecknockshire and Cardiganshire. Its location implies geopolitical contention, and this indeed it has experienced – although its remoteness meant that it did not experience as much hardship as more strategic parts of the Marches. Yet occasionally events here have had implications as far away as London – or even Rome, for this was the centre of resistance to Roman occupation, where Caratacus (called Caradoc in Wales) presided over an alliance of Ordovici and Silures that defied the legions even after Caradoc had been captured and taken to Rome.

The Welsh, wrote Gerald of Wales affectionately in his 1191 Journey through Wales, are

…light and active, hardy rather than strong and entirely bred up to the use of arms; for not only the nobles but all the people are trained to war, and when the trumpet sounds the alarm the husbandman rushes as eagerly from his plough as the courtier from his court…they anxiously study the defence of their country and their liberty…for these willingly sacrifice their lives.

The Welsh were renowned for their archery long before the bow became important to the English. Longbow arrows were capable of piercing four inches into solid oak, or pinning riders to their steeds through their leg armour. Its disconcerting effects were described by Philip Warner in his 1997 book Famous Welsh Battles

[I]ts rapid rate of discharge, averaging twelve arrows a minute, could blanket a target on which they descended like a dark vengeful cloud. The recipients would suddenly notice that the sky had gone dark and there was a curious sound like the hissing of geese. In the next moment, all would be  groans, screams and confusion.

Such incoming would often be followed up by seething waves of “dagger-men”, hated and feared even by their allies for their rapacity and reckless cruelty. With such tactics, and in such guerilla-friendly terrain, it is scarcely surprising that Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world. The area that would become Radnorshire was as restive as anywhere along this 160-mile frontline, as can be attested by Offa’s Dyke, built to guard against the depredations of generations of Kings of Powys, and the remains of several Norman castles. The Gwynedd prince Lywelyn ap Iorwerth (nicknamed “The Great”) certainly found it a receptive recruiting ground when in the second decade of the thirteenth century he sought to unite the Welsh and rid the Middle Marches of their cruel Anglo-Norman overlords, the Mortimers and de Braoses (the latter family better known in Scotland, as the Bruces). This revolt induced Henry III to decamp from London to Painscastle in Radnorshire, then a thriving town, from where he ruled England for seven hectic weeks in the summer of 1231.

The touching badly-painted mural of Llewelyn the Last in Builth Wells

The touching badly-painted mural of Llewelyn the Last in Builth Wells

His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, has gone down in the plangent tale of Wales as “Llywelyn the Last” – that is, the last leader of a united Wales. All realistic hopes of independence expired with him when he was slain on 11 December 1282 in obscure, inglorious circumstances near Builth Wells just across the Wye – an event commemorated in a touchingly badly-painted mural in that town. The town may even now have a bad conscience in this matter, because its garrison supposedly refused him shelter the night before he was killed, local chiefs may have led him into a trap, and a local resident showed the English army a ford over the Irfon so they could attack the Welsh in the flank. Angry nationalists long traduced townspeople as the “Traitors of Buallt”. The contemporary bard Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Goch wrote in anger as well as anguish,

For the killing of our prop, our golden-handed king,

For Lywelyn’s death, I remember no-one.

Lywelyn’s head was dispatched to London, while the rest of his body was interred before the high altar at Radnorshire’s huge Cistercian Abbey of Cwmhir. Over the following three years, said a laconic observer,  “all Wales was cast to the ground”.

Yet Wales would rise again – with revolts by Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287, Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 and Llywelyn Bren in 1316, and various miscarrying schemes for invasion and subversion dreamed up by the many exiled Welsh fighting on the continent, but still thinking of home. Radnorshire played little or no role in these events, but in June 1402 it was the setting for the greattest ever defeat of the English by the Welsh, when Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to bear the title Prince of Wales, met the English at the Battle of Pilleth (also called Bryn Glas), near Presteigne.

Accounts are garbled, but it seems the English leader, naturally a Mortimer, leading an array of Marcher gentlemen and levied tenants from his estates, ordered his forces uphill just above the church at Pilleth (the tower still stands, despite having been fired by Glyndŵr’s troops). Suddenly, Mortimer’s levied Welsh archers turned round, perhaps suddenly inflamed by seeing Glyndŵr’s legendary war standard, the Golden Dragon of Cadwaladr, and started to fire on their overlords. An estimated 1,000 English died, their pillaged and women-mutilated bodies being left contemptuously unburied for months. (The site would be left untilled until the 1870s.) Mortimer was captured, and threw in his lot with Glyndŵr to the extent of marrying his daughter and going along with Glyndŵr’s grandiose scheme to topple Henry IV and divide Britain into three – Wales to Glyndŵr, the south of England to the Mortimers, and the North to the Percys. He must have reprehended this decision seven years later, when he died of starvation at the siege of Harlech.

After Glyndŵr’s defeat and disappearance, Radnorshire settled down into pastorality, a place for graziers and especially drovers who passed through endlessly on their way to the markets of England, in a tremendous two-mile-an-hour noise and dust of iron-shod, lowing, black cattle and yapping Corgis, along ancient undulating routes marked out by prominent pines. However, it was also a place for outlawry, and bandits long plagued the hills around Knighton and Presteigne. It took Tudor rough justice to deal with this problem, with the Presteigne assizes (presided over by the bishop who married Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) executing some five thousand malefactors in just eight years in the 1530s. It is hard to visualize such scenes in today’s handsome, hipsterish town, with its dignified church of St Andrews (which incidentally contains a rare and magnificent sixteenth century Flemish tapestry), and the little Lugg which trickles along the eastern edge of the conurbation, dividing Wales from England. Yet a curfew bell is still sounded each evening at eight o’clock, a sonic connection to ancient alarums.

The Tudors were of Welsh origin but this did not stop them treating their ancestral homeland with their usual unsentimentality. Abbey Cwmhir was dissolved, and emparked. The Welsh legal system was swept aside, and the language excluded from official business. In 1536 Radnorshire was fashioned out of two old cantrefi – Maelienydd and Elfael – and two smaller commotes – Gwrtheyrnion and Deuddwr. The redolent antiquity even then of these superseded land divisions may be surmised from the facts that cantrefi often followed the frontiers of Dark Ages sub-kingdoms and even dialects, while Gwrtheyrnion translates evocatively as “the land of Vortigern”.

With such reason to resent the Crown, it is arguably ironic that most of Wales favoured the Royalist cause during the Civil War, and Radnorshire was no exception, at least partly because Charles I had spent much of his boyhood on an estate between Evenjobb and Presteigne. There were only skirmishes in the county, but the embattled monarch passed twice through Radnorshire in the straitened period between Naseby in June 1645 and final defeat at Chester that September, on one especially deflated occasion reportedly complaining that Bush Farm near Old Radnor where the famished royal party once overnighted should be renamed Beggar’s Bush. The glory days of 1642, when Radnorshirers paid generous tribute to Prince Rupert at Radnor Castle, must have seemed impossibly distant –

Some brought him pieces of plate of great antiquity, as might appear from the fashion thereof. The common people brought in provisions for the maintenance of his court such as young kids, sheep, calves, fish and fowl of all sorts and some sent in fat oxen. Everyone was striving for the credit and glory of his country to exceed in several expressions of generous liberality.

Radnorshire was fated never to become fashionable – too infertile, too Welsh, too far from London – and there is an indicative 17th century doggerel –

Alas, alas, poor Radnorsheer,

Never a park and never a deer,

Never a man of five hundred a year,

Save Richard Fowler of Abbey Cwmhir.

But in the eighteenth century, a farmer near Llandrindod cashed in on the Georgian craze for ‘taking the waters’, and sought to attract health tourists with chalybeate cures. This was so successful that the following century the municipality changed its name to Llandrindod Wells. The town today accordingly resembles a transplanted segment of Surrey, with an attractive if faintly dispiriting blend of Victorian/Edwardian red-brick villas, hotels and golf courses. Its Home Counties appearance would probably have dismayed the landscape artist Thomas Jones, born at Cefnllys in 1742, and early inspired by that borough’s rough cow-spattered pastures slanting down to the frothing Ithon, and the Iron Age earthworks on the hill overlooking the ancient circular churchyard with its brooding yews, and the earthed-over town. However, Llandrindod also hosts the interesting Radnorshire Museum with a notable collection of trilobite fossils – which are oddly echoed in the displayed crest of the World War Two Royal Naval ship H.M.S. Scorpion, the building of which was partly funded by subscriptions from Radnorshirers.

As well as sufferers from gout and dyspepsia, the nineteenth century also ushered in walkers, cyclists, fishermen and artists who saw the district as a kind of Brythonic Bavaria. There was also a great engineering scheme of the kind at which the Victorians excelled in the Elan and Claerwen valleys, large tracts of which were submerged between 1893 and 1904 to guarantee a water supply to Birmingham.

Despite these rapid changes, there were still many distinctive aspects to Radnorshire rurality, many recorded by Francis Kilvert, an Anglican vicar who lived in the district between 1863 and 1879, whose diaries are minor classics. On the third of July 1872, for instance, he visited Painscastle, still pawkily conscious of having once been a considerable town, with its royal memories and its own Mayor. Kilvert found the present incumbent of that once important position with “the rest of the village statesmen lounged in the inn porch”. Kilvert found the Mayor marvellously lugubrious –

The Mayor took us to the quarry and discoursed without enthusiasm and even with despondency on the badness of the roads, the difficulty of hauling the stone, and the labour of ‘ridding’ the ground before the stone could be raised…After some talk at the quarry about ways and means, we parted, the Mayor returning to his mayoralty which had no emolument, no dignity and no powers, he ‘didna think’.

His Church was then in occasionally angry competition with Wales’s chapel-going sects, the latter a legacy of post-Civil War Puritanization. The struggle for souls was entered into enthusiastically by another author of minor classics – George Borrow, uncompromising Anglican, scattergun philologist and erstwhile gypsy. His delightful Wild Wales (1862) details dozens of small adventures in long-distance walking, doctrinal disputation, discussions of lake monsters and second-sight, extempore chanting of odes, eulogia of ales and umbrellas, denunciations of sherry and railways, and unbridled showing-off. It was Borrow who (on a later journey) recorded an exchange with a hotel maid in Presteigne who when asked whether he was in Wales or England, replied pragmatically, “Neither Wales nor England, sir, just Radnorshire”.

This has become a kind of local cliché, an idea aided by the hopscotching and hybridisation of English and Welsh people and place-names all along the boundary. But as in most borderlands one culture dominates, perhaps all the more self-consciously for feeling exposed – and in Radnorshire it is the Celtic rather than the Saxon. This impression is aided by the largeness and loneliness of the landscape, the majority of place-names especially as you move westwards, the ring-forts and standing stones, and (is this too fanciful?) even the smell of the drizzle that so often descends, which seems to carry the breath of bracken and the tang of sheep.

Radnorshire may be geographically marginal to Wales, but it is not imaginatively marginal. The locally-made Red Book of Hergest (written circa 1382) was one of the two sources for The Mabinogion, the national epic of battles, blood feuds, castles, dreams, enchantments, giant kings, magic cauldrons, princesses, prophecies and psychopomps instrumental in the revival of Cymric consciousness from the nineteenth century onwards. Radnorshire may be a pragmatic place, but even leaving aside memories of real men like Caradoc, the Llywelyns, or Glyndŵr it also echoes with archetypes. It still somehow seems to look west rather than east, towards the evening rather than the morning. It is impossible to explore these uplands and not fall into vague romantic reveries  – Arthur, Merlin, Gwyn ap Nudd and his underworld, the Black Dog of Hergest (which some say was the model for The Hound of the Baskervilles), or the dragon under Radnor Forest, legendarily pinned in place by a cordon of churches dedicated to St. Michael.

Looking over the boundless panorama from the knuckle of this hill, one thinks too of the early Christians, founders of cells and mission churches out in that desolate remoteness, some of whom actually used the elephantine eighth century font at Old Radnor, the oldest in Britain. Imagine oneself back in that dawn rather than this, and one can easily understand both euhemerism and angelology. It seems cheap to chortle at that world, their innocence – more respectful and appropriate to drift into dream, like the Jacobean virginalist John Bull, almost certainly born in Old Radnor and long a resident of this area, assembling precise pavans and glorious anthems against that wild geography. Did this vigorous man who, according to a priggish Archbishop of Canterbury, “hath more music than honesty” ever think about Radnor from his Low Countries exile? The Church he and so many others served (and all the chapels) are now more often than not empty, and the work of pinning down monsters is carried on by a new kind of priest, whose tedious tirades are diffused by the media mast that surmounts the Black Mixen, transmitting trivia high above the heather, explaining everything away, trying to make everywhere the same, binding Wales to anti-Wales more effectually than the most ambitious Earl of March could have imagined. But despite all they have done and are trying to do, this is still a debatable as well as delectable country, a frontier not just between two noble and now equally compromised nationalities, but also between legend and reality, past and future, sleep and alertness.

Now, back to the hill, and with the sun remorselessly rising, my early escapade is over. There is just time to take one last look over the stirring shire, before starting the long scramble-slide back to earth, down into the valley where mists persist, but everyone will at last have come awake.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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