A narrow winding lane snakes up into the mountains south of Hay on Wye. It’s called the Gospel Pass, and it rises and descends, through dark woodland, heather clad hills and mossy moorland, into a secret world.
Despite its proximity to Hereford and Abergavenny, the deep and long Llanthony Valley, hugged by the peaks of the Black Mountains, remains one of the least known and remote corners of Britain.
A tranquil retreat, a peaceful refuge, a land of painters and authors, a pilgrimage route – it has no mobile phone signal for miles. Good. You really don’t want to be disturbed when admiring a little piece of heaven.
St David, the patron saint of Wales, is said to have taken this path in the sixth century, seeking hardship, solitude and somewhere suitable to set up a hermitage.
Millennium and a half later, I, along with my boyfriend Dan and our good friend Tracey, am following practically in the saint’s footsteps. Only we arrive to this last leg of our journey after the sunset, and have no idea of our surroundings as we navigate the car up and down a narrow path in the dark.
Gospel Pass takes full advantage of being the highest road in Wales. It enjoys breathtaking views over the landscape of the borderland between England and Wales, running along an 11-mile stretch of Offa’s Dyke.
But we won’t know this until tomorrow. For now, we carefully make our way through a dramatic, tunnel-like path formed underneath an archway of trees.
Our destination is the fully organic and sustainable Llwyn-on Farm near Llanthony in the heart of the valley, a 50-acre traditional Welsh farm-holding of ancient pasture-land and hedgerows, woodland and river meadows, a haven for wildlife and mushroom foraging.
Namely, The Hafod, a beautifully designed, authentically restored and stylishly furnished barn conversion in its grounds. And, although we arrive at dark, we love it straight away. The stars are out, millions of them. And they seem brighter than ever.
The fire in the wood burner has been lit already, and it feels like walking on to the set of a fairytale, with heat glowing and filling the barn up to its high roof. The warmth spreading from under the oak floor, slightly more pragmatic touch of luxury, feels cosy on my bare feet.
We’re pretty smitten by the place and start exploring our new home. The huge living area has paintings on the walls, Turkish rugs and comfy sofas, tasteful wooden furniture, and deer antler adorned beams high above. The dining area is right next to the fitted kitchen with travertine stone floor and a Welsh dresser, and has everything you’ll need during your stay.
Tracey gets the bedroom with galleried landing which could easily sleep three. And our bedroom, tucked away behind a secret door at the back, is right next to the steep, castle-like stone staircase. Formerly a stable, it is now an atmospherically lit den, painted in warm earthly tones, with an antique brass four-poster bed and an en suite shower room.
Rachel and Toby Buckler, the owners, live in the farmhouse at the back, a traditional 15th century longhouse, but they might as well be a hundred miles away, as our privacy is untouched.
We rustle up a meal and chill out by the fire, kidnapping Sherpa and Trouble, the owners’ two dogs, along with Marmaduke the cat, who all seem rather pleased at our welcoming generosity. We’re staying in tonight and no-one can reach us. It is exciting!
The guest book tells a tale or two about honeymooners, wedding proposals or being snowed in during the winter. People come from as far as Belgium, Amsterdam, the US and New Zealand.
They love the barn’s countryside location, elemental setting, being able to take their dogs along, hill walking, mountain biking, horse riding and pony trekking, and foraging. One recommends it for some great fell running on the doorstep!
In the morning, the sunrise paints the hilltops pink and brings sunshine and clear blue skies. A bird of prey calls, flying overhead and it is now I fully realise how blessed we are.
This remote, quiet sheep farming country is home to kites, kingfishers, otters, foxes, polecats, Gypsy ponies and peregrines breeding on the rocky slopes. It is an undisturbed, idyllic retreat, and it is no surprise Toby’s ancestors moved here a long, long time ago, simply to paint.
Llwyn-on was also the location for filming of the Resistance, based on the novel Resistance by Welsh poet and novelist Owen Sheers.
The farm’s water supply comes from a mountain spring. Washing my hair in it turns into a celebratory ritual, before I take my morning coffee along for a stroll outside, gorging on the views and the clean, fresh air.
Llanthony Priory and St David’s Church are just down the road. The contrast of the monastery’s romantic ruins with the green fields everywhere around is spectacular. History seeps from the ancient stone walls, pillars and archways, drawing you back into the past.
In the 11th century a bloodthirsty knight William de Lacy visited on a hunting trip and was so charmed by the ruins of St David’s hermitage that he decided to spend his life here as a hermit himself.
Many a tale surround this magical place, including that of a Virgin Mary apparition to four young boys in the grounds of the Abbey in the 19th century.
Today, the Abbey Hotel, which forms part of the ruins, is a welcome stop for tourists, offering good pub food and ales.
We turn back north and stop off at Capel y Ffin, connected to artists Eric Gill and David Jones, for a visit of the tiny St Mary’s Church and its graveyard.
Ancient yew trees, which form a semi-circle around it, are on the Great Yews of Wales Tree Trail. Linked to magic, immortality, pagans and the Celts, yew is the oldest tree species in Europe, and has a great cultural significance. You can easily find yourself standing next to a specimen dating to the Bronze Age, and some are as old as the Egyptian pyramids.
The Romans believed the yew gave the soul of the dead a safe passage to the afterlife. The Saxons planted thousands of them around Britain to mark burials.
Ancient yews are often found in churchyards but it is believed the trees were there a long time before the churches were even built – a legacy of the Druids’ sacred groves, planted to mark and protect these powerful spots.
Hay-on-Wye, the little town known around the world as the ‘Town of Books’, is the jewel in the crown of the English and Welsh borderland, situated by the banks of the River Wye and the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
It is a Mecca for secondhand book lovers. Every year it attracts famous writers, politicians, poets, musicians and comedians, as they gather for what has been hailed by the New York Times the most prestigious festival in the English-speaking world (Hay Festival of Literature and Arts runs for 10 days in May/June). Bill Clinton simply called it the ‘Woodstock of the mind’.
Richard Booth, the King of Hay, opened his first book shop here in 1961 with the dream of creating the largest secondhand and antiquarian book selling centre in the world. Today, there are more than 30 secondhand bookshops.
With just as many antique shops, galleries and gift shops, tourists can be seen at any time, walking up and down Hay’s narrow streets, searching for a treasure or a bargain. Ours was an old violin and a pair of deer antlers, celebrated by a pint of local ale at the Three Tuns Pub.
The last adventure of our weekend was a visit to Wales’s oldest inn, the Skirrid Inn at Llanfihangel Crucorney.
Since 1100, more than 180 people were hung from the oak beam over the well of the staircase, which can still be seen here.
It is claimed the inn is haunted and is a place of many supernatural and paranormal activities. It has been featured on TV’s Most Haunted and Extreme Ghost Stories.
The visitors’ accounts of the nights spent here are available for examination in the guest books… and, if you ask nicely, the staff will let you walk around the rooms and see for yourself.