The hills are alive
A frosty ascent of the highest of the Brecon Beacons
A frosty January ascent of the Brecon Beacons brings Wordsworth to mind for Dame Fiona Reynolds
ILOVE hills. Perhaps it’s because I was born among them (in Alston, Cumbria, the highest market town in England) or because, as a child, our holidays were always in Snowdonia and the Lake District. Or it may be because there’s something truly inspiring about the majesty of hills that touches emotions other places can’t reach.
‘We were joined by a huge red kite hunting below us’
I’m not alone. John Ruskin experienced his epiphany as a young man, watching a storm break over Chamonix in France: ‘Spire of ice—dome of snow—wedge of rock… a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold—filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And then I learned… the real meaning of the word “Beautiful”.’
In the summer of 1793, William Wordsworth and his friend, Robert Jones of Ruthin, made a night ascent of Snowdon and the poet’s view from the top, with adjacent summits emerging through pools of mist, captures a moment all Snowdon aficionados recognise: ‘A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved/all over this still ocean; and beyond,/far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched,/in headlands, tongues and promontory shapes,/into the sea, the real sea, that seemed/to dwindle, and give up its majesty, /Usurped upon as far as sight could reach.’
During Christmas, I watched again the film On the Black Hill, adapted from Bruce Chatwin’s wonderful novel. It’s set in the Golden Valley on the edge of the Brecon Beacons and beautifully captures the spirit of the Welsh borderlands and their people, the market towns of Hay-on-wye and Brecon and the sweeping, high mountains. Irresistible.
On a freezing morning in January, frost thick on the ground and the landscape shrouded in a heavy mist, I set off with friends to climb Pen y Fan, the highest of the Brecon Beacons range. It was a spooky, eerie day and we had no idea whether the fog would clear, but, after leaving our car just south of Brecon, in the National Trust car park, we caught our first glimpses of blue sky and whipped clouds moving fast above us.
Still in heavy mist, our boots slipping on the frozen ground, we climbed—west of the mini summit of Allt Ddu rather than up the main track because we were keen to gain height quickly. We were soon rewarded. Surmounting our first little hill, Twy Cil-rhew, and traversing around to rejoin the main path, we broke through the mist into brilliant sunshine and the most stupendous view. Above us, still a mile or so distant, the summit, atop a precipitous edge; below us, cauldrons of mist, moving and breaking as if caught by eddies of wind and, to our right, pouring over the ridge into the valley below.
The walk to the summit was one of the most glorious experiences imaginable: crystal-clear light, swirling clouds, deep valleys and sweeping ridges, broken here and there by the bright colours of a distant walker’s jacket or the sparkle of sunlight on a frosted stream— Wordsworth’s experience relived.
At the top, we met dozens of others, most of whom had climbed from Storey Arms (a shorter and, it must be said, less exciting route). The vast plateau was freezing and windswept so, after a quick, ceremonial visit to the summit cairn, we didn’t dally. Our route down was equally splendid: from Corn Du, we took the western path, past the obelisk, descending to the waters of tiny Llyn Cwm Llwych. Stopping there for lunch, now alone, we were joined by a huge red kite hunting silently below us, its russet-and-black back upturned.
I’m now well into the Cambridge term— no hills, no mountains. However, swirling mist, frost, spectacular blue skies and architectural beauty have not been in short supply this year so far. My mountain fix has been satisfied— for now. Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ (Oneworld). She will be writing about her favourite walks every month
Green remembered hills: Brecon Beacons from Penlan (1984) by Roy Powell