Uphill hikes and downward dogs in the Black Mountains of Wales

A women’s yoga and fell walking break in the Welsh borders leaves our writer with aching muscles but a heart full of joy

Bruce Chatwin was 15 when he first cycled through the Vale of Ewyas, a place he would later refer to as “one of the emotional centres of his life”. Wordsworth and Turner also loved this rough knuckle of mountains abutting the England-Wales border. I was 20 when I first visited, and was so smitten by the swooping hills that I leapt out of the car and ran barefoot up Hay Bluff, seized by a reckless delirium.

Black Mountains yoga map

Two decades later I’m on a new yoga and fell walking weekend here, with Chatwin’s beloved valley unfurling below. The packing list had included sun cream – but this is Wales, in winter, and the weather isn’t playing ball. Rain pitter-patters on still-green leaves. Boots squelch in oily mud. Mist shrouds a seam of oaks.

“Bracken is the enemy,” says this morning’s guide, local author Rob Penn, as we bushwhack a path through the pernicious fern. “Nothing eats it – not even sheep!” Clambering over a stile, we enter a fenced-off area where Stump up for Trees, the charity Rob co-founded, has planted 135,000 native broadleaf saplings – the first of a million it is planting in this corner of Wales. Immediately we see signs of regeneration: oak saplings periscoping up through the bracken, young rowans ablaze with berries. “Our native tree cover is just 12% – a third of Germany’s,” says Rob. “We have to turn the tide.”

The days begin and end with yoga in Llwyn Celyn’s huge stone barn.
The days begin and end with yoga in Llwyn Celyn’s huge stone barn. Photograph: Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

A lesson in ecology isn’t what you might expect on this sort of retreat, but Ruth Pickvance, a former British fell running champion and the founder of Element Active, the company organising my weekend, wants the break to be about more than just covering the miles. “It’s about the landscape, the ecology, the history of these hills,” she tells us. “Connection, not calories.”

Ruth, who lives locally, is on a mission to get women into the wild. “When I became British fell champion in 1989, women didn’t really run – it was seen as odd,” she tells me. While the winning man was presented with a North Face jacket, Ruth’s prize was a set of heated hair curlers from Argos.

We cover five miles this morning, 16 over the course of the weekend: across wind-bullied uplands, through elvish woods, along the runnels of old drovers’ tracks, past hedges dripping with blackberries and sloes. Gerald of Wales, the 12th-century traveller and chronicler, described the Vale of Ewyas (also known as Llanthony valley) as a “wilderness far removed from the bustle of mankind”, and even now, centuries later, his words ring true. Despite the inclement weather, it’s soul-reviving stuff.

After lunch on the first day – a walkers’ feast of lentil soup and homemade blackberry crumble – we set out from the ruins of nearby Llanthony Priory. Ruth leads the charge this time, recounting tales of Norman warlords, cross-border quarrels and Reformation ruin. Later we marvel at Cwmyoy’s wonky 13th-century church, whose tower, Ruth proudly informs us, leans more than Pisa’s. Inside, it feels like we’re standing on the deck of a listing ship.

A Welsh mountain pony in the Vale of Ewyas.
A Welsh mountain pony in the Vale of Ewyas. Photograph: Nick Turner/Alamy

As we loop back down from the hills that afternoon, the sun briefly pierces the clouds, throwing an anchor of golden light on to the priory: the dark ruins are illuminated, the fields glow rice-paddy green. We all stop and gaze at it, awestruck. A medieval pilgrim might have sunk to their knees, convinced it was a message from God.

Our basecamp is Llwyn Celyn, a 15th-century farm in the Black Mountains. Now owned by the Landmark Trust, the farm was a ruin when it bought it in 2014, the last inhabitants two old men who had simply moved rooms as the walls collapsed around them. It’s a tale straight out of Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, the novel he set in these hills.

The days begin and end with yoga in Llwyn Celyn’s huge stone barn, with underfloor heating and original wooden doors. Kirsten Steffensen, a wiry Dane who is co-founder of The Sports Ashram in Leeds, puts us through a series of slow, core-based asanas, frequently reminding us to connect with our breath. Her teaching is delivered with wit and warmth backed by decades of experience. “Always think kind thoughts about yourself,” she says, just as I’m cursing my trembling abs.

To make the weekend accessible for all budgets, accommodation isn’t included. I stay with friends locally; others stay at the Bridge Inn (doubles from £95 B&B) just over the English border at Michaelchurch Escley. Another three sleep in the bunkhouse at Llwyn Celyn , which is a steal at £25 a night.

I’m not normally one for women-only events, but the 14 of us, all roughly middle-aged, bond quickly, with much chat and cheer. Many in the group – which includes two GPs, a frontline respiratory consultant, a nurse and a teacher – have witnessed the worst of the pandemic. Some are experienced yogis; others don’t know their cobra from their downward dog.

A Black Mountains view of a pastoral valley and brooding hills.
A Black Mountains view of a pastoral valley and brooding hills. Photograph: Robert Penn

On Sunday we make packed lunches and set out for an eight-mile walk along the spine of Hatterall Ridge, right on the border. Wild ponies graze, their coats riffling in the wind. Skylarks explode from the heather. There’s butter-yellow gorse, russet bracken and scarlet haws. To our right are the Marches – a pastoral idyll of hedged fields and frothy copses – the distant glint of the Bristol Channel and the blue smudge of the Malvern Hills. To our left, in sharp relief, brood the dark hills of Wales, their slopes scarred by sheep tracks and woolly with bracken. I imagine centuries of English soldiers peering over this mountain parapet, legs trembling.

For an hour Ruth asks us to walk in silence, a practice she calls “walking together, walking apart”. The exercise acts like a mild psychedelic, heightening my perception. I notice the textures of the mountain – spiny gorse, sharp quivers of sedge, acid-green pillows of sphagnum moss squishy underfoot – and delight in a pair of ravens scything through the air, buffeted by the wind.

We are weary and a little damp for the final yoga session, but it’s just what we need. Sunlight lances through the barn windows, pooling on the floor, and somewhere outside a buzzard mews, its call slicing through the deep silence of the valley. We groan. We laugh. When Kirsten tells us to reach for our toes, mine feel as distant as the Pleiades, and I vow to do more yoga. “Let go of your expectations,” says Kirsten. “Just come with the body you have on the day.”

I leave with aching legs, shredded abs and a full heart. In these disconnected times, weekends like this are exactly what we need.

The trip was provided by Element Active, which will run six fell walking or fell running and yoga weekends in 2022 (check website for dates), from £275pp including lunches and tuition; accommodation is extra. There’s also a Special Treberfydd Women’s Walking Weekend in November, including one-person en suite rooms, all food and drink, plus a massage, for £580

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

The GuardianTramp

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