One of Hereford Cathedral’s great treasures is the Mappa Mundi, a map of the world drawn in the 1300s by a monk clearly on mind-altering drugs. With a great deal of imagination and some inventive geographical dysmorphia, you can eventually spot the British Isles lurking at the fringe of the map and Hereford itself as one of the few places illustrated on these lands at the edge of the world.
It often seems that Herefordshire and the southern Marches are still a place beyond the pale, a sleepy netherworld where time itself goes on holiday. A few years ago the Campaign to Protect Rural England declared the county one of the quietest places in England.
Ever an ambiguous area, neither Welsh nor English, the word Marches probably comes from the Anglo Saxon ‘mearc’, meaning boundary. This is a journey through the debatable lands of the lower Wales-England border, a place of endless fascination and peerless beauty where the effort to find rewards the searcher. So gird yourself with a yearning for the countryside of yesteryear; beg or borrow a Morris Traveller and explore a land where poet John Betjeman or pioneering travel writer HV Morton would still feel at home.
Rustic charm is one of the area’s great attractions, but it disguises a sinister past. For centuries, this land of cider orchards, terracotta cattle, fertile vales, wild hills and sweeping commons reverberated with battles and sieges, conflicts between cultures, kings and princes and petty tyrants. Echoes of the ancient kingdoms of Archenfield, Gwent and Mercia tantalise around every corner; the very essence of the March is that of semi-legend wrote large, while the Marcher Lords themselves were rulers of their personal empires.
Vale of secrecy
Ancient and modern history collide at a most unlikely location. White Castle, near Llanvetherine, was founded by the powerful Earl William FitzOsbern around 1072. Traces of the whitewash that made the structure gleam and threaten across these verdant acres give the place its name, a presence that crumbled along with the enmity between the Welsh and English long before the Civil War. Yet strangely, in 1942 these solid ruins east of Abergavenny were paced by Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy, while held prisoner in nearby Maindiff Court. His guards allowed him to ruminate in this remote spot away from prying eyes, spending his time sketching beside the moat.
This sturdy sentinel, secluded in the Vale of Gwent, shared the task of controlling the strategically important lands of the Monnow Valley and its tributaries with two other mouldering fortresses at Skenfrith and Grosmont (together the Trilateral castles, now linked by a recreational path). All are enthralling, evocative, jackdaw-haunted piles ripe for exploration in an area that has more castles than any other in Britain.
The long history of tribal and cultural tensions ensures the countryside generously seeps with vestiges of conflict, oppression and control; none more so than the eighth-century Offa’s Dyke. This nominally strikes along the crest of the Black Mountains’ Hatterall Ridge, a stunning escarpment of old red sandstone rising steeply from the rolling Herefordshire plain. King Offa hoped both to contain the unruly Celts beyond the boundary of Mercia and to collect dues and taxes at controlled crossings. Such management remained the cornerstone of regional policy for the next 700 years; trade and terror, control and coercion became inseparable bedfellows in a frontier land as challenging as any in medieval Europe. In truth the remains are ghostly here; the best dyke sections are just north of Knighton, skirting the wilderness of Radnor Forest where Herefordshire, Shropshire and Powys collide.
Stand on Black Hill near Longtown, made famous in Bruce Chatwin’s evocative, eponymous novel, and just a sling-shot from Offa’s Dyke, and the land stretching to the horizons is peppered by petty domains; an incredible hierarchy owing as much to inter-Norman squabbling as logical planning. Motte and bailey castles erupt willy-nilly, with virtually every hamlet having a mysterious mound with a tale to tell. Some, such as pretty Almeley, have two; remote Evenjobb (near Kington) has three. The first Norman castle was built at Ewyas Harold, commanding the Dore Valley south-west of Hereford and built by a Norman nobleman well before the 1066 Conquest. He was granted lands by King Edward the Confessor to help control the troublesome Welsh. Enigmatic knolls and bumps mark the site.
From such beginnings grew the unrivalled heritage evident today. Grassy fortified humps are easily missed; less-so the raft of stone castles. From the terrific tumps of Kilpeck and Trelech, Bredwardine and Kingsland through the haunting ruins of Monmouth and Longtown, Wigmore and Wilton to the majestic Marcher fortresses at Chepstow and Goodrich; point your trusty Traveller down virtually any lane hereabouts and a fortification will soon hove into view.
Some make the Norman castles seem almost modern. Hillforts are a more ancient echo of long-forgotten fiefdoms and disputes that shaped the countryside and troubled those earlier invaders, the Romans. Stirring Croft Ambrey, 3,000 years old, is reached by a loop walk from the Mortimer Trail near Croft Castle west of Leominster. Little Doward’s shapely ramparts have recently been cleared by the Woodland Trust, resulting in an extraordinary place to visit on the short walk from Ganarew, with spectacular views into the Wye’s gorge just north of Monmouth.
Let battle commence
The tide of war and conflict runs in the veins of the Marches. The castles are the hard face of such quarrels and the Civil War saw the last redoubt of forts crumble at sieges of such places as Hereford, Raglan and Goodrich. Much more poignant are the sites of battlefields and skirmishes that helped build nations, broker influence and cement today’s familiar landscape.
The litany of such in the March is impressive, none more so than at Painscastle, near Hay-on-Wye, where in 1198 perhaps 5,000 Welsh under Prince Gwenwynwyn died while the Normans lost a handful. Witness too the slaughter and blood-letting at Pilleth, outside the border town of Presteigne. Here in 1402 Owain Glyndwr’s (right) Welsh army utterly defeated the troops of Edmund Mortimer, Marcher Lord and power-broker of great standing. Up to 1,500 corpses littered the hillsides above the River Lugg here, the result of the fury of the last Prince of Wales whose campaign faltered seven years later. Further clashes outside Monmouth at Craig y Dorth (1404) and Grosmont (1405, when 1,000 combatants died) saw Glyndwr cross swords with Prince Harry, on-the-job training for the future Henry V. Craig y Dorth is a particularly evocative spot; in spring thousands of tiny wild daffodils glow in the sloping fields of skirmish against a backdrop of the distant Black Mountains.
Bloodier still was Mortimer’s Cross where, in 1461, as many as 4,500 died when Edward, Earl of March’s (later Edward IV) Yorkist force defeated the strongly Welsh Lancastrian army of Owen Tudor (great-grandfather of Henry VIII) on the banks of the River Arrow, north-west of Leominster in one of the greatest clashes of the Wars of the Roses. Today a memorial, tranquil watermill and friendly pub mark the site of this slaughter. Painscastle retains extensive, atmospheric castle mounds near the splendid Roast Ox inn. Meanwhile, pilgrims to Pilleth will find a secluded, ancient little church around which the battle raged, surveying today’s scene of peace and beauty.
Corners of paradise
It is the spiritual architecture of the Marches that is the area’s other great gift to the heritage and countryside lover. A memorable array of churches dapple the borders; a great number are remote, lonely foundations marking either failed villages planned by transient, overly ambitious Norman settlers or the heart of a disparate parish to which the faithful could follow age-old paths to worship. A real gem is found along a dead-end lane at Yatton (near Ross), where a tiny early Norman chapel stands in a farmyard. With its rough earth floor, scraps of furniture and fittings and fine stone carvings, it’s an enchanting spot. Other delectable farmyard chapels are at nearby Pixley and Aylton, Stretford (near Leominster) and solitary St John’s at Llanrothal, lost in the fields beside the River Monnow outside of Monmouth.
Scurry west to the lee of the Black Mountains and extraordinary ecclesiastical treats await in the filigree of tracks and lanes threading the valleys Golden, Escley and Monnow. Garway’s fascinating Templar Church or Grosmont’s stirring old St Nicholas’ are but a foretaste of chapels and churches with no obvious raison d’etre: lovely Bacton, Llanveynoe and St Margarets (with its rare medieval rood screen) serve largely ghostly congregations. All pale in comparison to the enthralling church at Abbey Dore; partly ruined and oozing character derived from its foundation in 1147 as a Cistercian monastery.
Haunting Llanthony Priory
Even this is scant preparation for the glory of Llanthony Priory, hidden in the Black Mountains’ Honddu Valley deep in the March, a symphony of arches, cloisters and tumbled walls. The Victorian diarist Francis Kilvert (see box, left) knew it well, recalling “…the dim, grey pile of building in the vale below standing by the little river side amongst its brilliant green meadow…” and to the nearby little chapel at Capel y Ffin, memorably describing it as “….short, stout and boxy with its little bell turret reminding one of an owl”. And above the valley squats Cwmyoy’s twisted medieval marvel, its solid tower slumping at an alarming angle.
Let the Traveller follow its bulbous nose into the adjoining Monnow Valley and rejoice in finding little Clodock church, with a memorial dating back 1,200 years, wall paintings, great woodwork and an adjoining, unchanging farmers’ beer house, the Cornewall Arms. Higher up, the sturdy castle at Longtown is supposedly above one end of a tunnel beneath the mountains from Llanthony, while at the head of the valley is the tiny old church of St Mary’s at Craswall, crouching below the hills with a cock-fight pit in the churchyard and a wonderful drovers’ pub, the Bulls Head, just across the river. Those Normans knew a thing or two about paradise!
Days slip easily by exploring these and countless others: Kilpeck Church’s masterful corbel frieze carvings of mythical and foul beasts and brazen human forms – simply the best there is; Pembridge’s ancient pagoda-like detached tower with its Viking skin door-knocker, and little St Michael’s at Castle Frome with undoubtedly England’s finest Norman font.
Nowhere in the country has such a memorable combination of sites resulting from those medieval staples: war and worship. Stand on the tump of Kilpeck Castle and the church is a bow-shot away; at Skenfrith the polygonal castle remains stand next to a superb little wooden-belfried church, while the ancient Borough of Weobley has mottes at the top of the main street and a marvellous medieval place of worship at the foot.
The Normans and their successors certainly meant business, and unwittingly bequeathed an extraordinary heritage to their distant ancestors, ourselves.
EXPLORE THE HIGHER WYE GORGE
A microcosm of the Marches, and the mercurial heritage of the area, the River Wye’s spectacular final fling before merging with the with Severn begins above Symond’s Yat, where Kerne Bridge leaps across the river below Goodrich Castle. The Wye Valley Walk meanders downstream beneath Rosemary Topping and other memorable bluffs of dolomitic limestone and crosses the neck of land at the famous Yat Rock before plunging into the gorge proper.
This thicky forested chasm momentarily draws back at Biblins footbridge. From here, paths and forestry rise to Little Doward’s Palaeolithic caves and imposing hillfort, identified by some as Caer Guorthigirn, where the Dark Ages King Vortigern may have died mysteriously in AD458. The riverside path continues through to Monmouth, replete with castle (birthplace of Henry V), priory and grand Georgian architecture.
Peterstow, Ross on Wye HR9 6QG
A working cider farm, with trails through the orchards, cream teas and an engaging herd of alpacas. B&B from £25.
Llanthony Priory Hotel
Llanthony, Abergavenny NP7 7NN
Deep in the stunning Honddu Valley just over the border in Wales, a few cosy but basic rooms in the ruins of a 12th-century priory.
The Bell at Skenfrith
Skenfrith, Monmouthshire NP7 8UH
A peaceful, luxurious retreat in a timewarp village; superb cuisine and great local beers and ciders. B&B from £110 per room.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 44 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!