I see this as the perfect place to start to explore the 80 square miles that is the The Black Mountains. It`s the only part of the Brecon Beacons park the touches three counties, to the east is the county of Monmouthshire shaped by the might river Wye and is a gentle flowing landscape, to the west is the more rugged but no less beautiful county of Powys shaped by the great northern glacier as it slowly engulfed the land as it crept towards the Black Mountains leaving behind the dramatic Northern escarpment and shaping the profile of Pen Y fan. Blended in between the Glacier and the flood plain is the county of Hereford which runs up to the hills but is defiantly rebuffed by the Hatterall ridge and now named Offa’s Dyke path.
It is here where we start our walk at the foot of the aptly named Cats back locally known as Crib Y Cath. This defiant hill rises out of the longtown valley dividing the rivers Monnow and Olchon and giving the walker a fantastic ridge walk up and onto the Plateau that the Black Mountains are renowned for.
We start the walk before sunrise as the ridge gives a fine vantage point to sit and watch the winter rising sun. The car park ( closet sat nav post code is HR2 0NL ) has limited space for 8 ish cars so an early start helps get a suitable parking spot. The initial climb up the “Cat” can be a bit of a wakeup call especially in low light but I can assure you its well worth the effort. The keen photographer will notice the ridge is home to some truly stunning slabs of rocks which gives us a clue to the shaping of this charming little hill. The Black Mountains are predominantly made up from Old Red Sandstone laid down some 400 million years ago and as you would imagine it is a soft stone, however there are certain places where a thin crust of harder quartz was deposited and its this that can resist the ravages of nature and gives the ridge its distinctive knife back , they also make fantastic foreground subjects for a photo.
Let’s leave the sunset to the birds and head off into the interior of the hills. Its now that the Black Mountains start to plateau out into moorland as you look across the valley to your left you will see the Black Mountain and the river Olchon occupying the valley floor.
History tells of a outlaw John Old Castle seeking sanctuary in this valley and of his eventual capture in November of 1417. The Hill we stand on was to feature in the Bruce Chatwin novel and later film “On the Black Hill” it was also to feature in the timeless novel “People of the Black Mountains” by the late Raymond Williams where the Neolithic hunters dramatically corner and capture a herd of wild horses.
We reach the Trig point for the Black Hill which commands fine views north with the Malvern’s and Clee Hills with its distinctive Radar station. The path now leads west and our next destination the source of the river Olchon and the Sheppard’s hut . The river Olchon which falls some 374m and travels for roughly 6 miles before joining the river Monnow on its journey towards the mighty river Wye. As we accompany the Olchon on its journey gradually picking up pace it pass by the Sheppard’s hut, I think this is possibly the highest building in the Black Mountains and even though it doesn’t resemble much I have spent many a wonderful night camped in the security of its walls
This is a great place to stop and have a quick bite to eat and a slurp of coffee as the next bit is a brisk walk to our next stop Hay Bluff. On joining the footpath it’s not long before you round Llech Y Llandron and its earth mounds as you will be presented with the grand vista that is the Black Mountains with Gader Fawr commanding the sky line (its allegedly the second highest peak but don’t believe them). The Path now joins the Offas Dyke and Beacons Way routes and is a very well constructed and maintained path which leads up to the Hay Bluff trig point at 667m is our second trig point
It’s now once again that our route takes an interesting flavour as we go off the beaten track in search of our next river the Honddu (for those not confident walking across rough moorland continue back along the path to the marker stone and we will join you there shortly). Following the G.P.S route we trace the water course down the moorland and come to the source of the Enigmatic river Honddu. This little trickle of a stream has the most interesting journey down the Vale of Ewyas skirting behind Llanthony Abbey once home to Farther Ignatius who wrote of the Honddu
“Like a rush of molten silver seemed the Honddu in the moon-glow; solem were the dark shades which the Abbey-buildings cast, broad and long, upon the Abbots`s meadow, the ineffable beauty of the mountains brooding over all.”
Farther Ignatius was instrumental in shaping the religious Heritage of this valley but that can wait for another walk, back to our little mountain trickle falling 542 miles and travelling some 14miles the Honddu it thwarted from its original destination of the river Usk and is corralled to join the Monnow by a glacial Moraine at the foot of Twyn Y Gaer Hill fort in the village of Pandy but not before being enriched by the many mountain streams that cascade down both sides of the llanthony valley. This is by far the finest place to stop for lunch on our walk as the views across the Black Mountains are mighty fine as you wonder how you would tackle the hills in the distance.
Following a brief walk across the moorland we rejoin the Offas Dyke/ Beacons way and head east before dropping down the side of the Olchon Valley pausing to enjoy the fine view of the mornings work Crib Y Carth. Then at the base of the valley we cross the river Olchon that by now has certainly picked up and is now a fine Welsh brook.
Crossing of the Olchon now presents us with a slight climb back up the valley through a woodland flanked stream and farm cottage before reaching the carpark.