A bor­der­walk on Brei­d­den Hill

On the bor­der with Eng­land and Wales there is a land­mark hill. As it turns out, as well as sign­post­ing some­thing mag­nif­i­cent, it’s quite spe­cial in it­self…

Trail (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS SARAH RYAN

On the An­glo-Welsh bor­der lies a hill with an in­trigu­ing story.

Some bor­ders in the world are very scary. They have guns on them. Or oc­cur at un­sur­viv­able al­ti­tudes. Or the coun­try on the other side is gov­erned by a so­ciopath. There are some bor­ders you def­i­nitely don’t want to cross. This one though is just a mossy wooden gate in a hedgerow. There are no guns and I have checked the hedge for so­ciopaths. It’s clear – only bun­nies (and, to be fair, I don’t know how you feel about bun­nies). But still, when I walk through it things will change. Wars have been fought over this bor­der. Fugi­tives have es­caped over it, hope­ful peo­ple sought bet­ter lives on the other side. That bit of land one inch away prob­a­bly has the same species of grass, the same kinds of rocks, is prob­a­bly munched by the same rebel rab­bits. Ex­cept a lot changes over there – his­tory, iden­tity, cul­ture, lan­guage. It’s one inch and a coun­try away. And this one I do want to cross.

When­ever I flash past those ‘Welcome to…’ signs on my way to the hills, I do a quiet lit­tle ‘whoop!’. Many of us have im­por­tant ties – houses, fam­i­lies, jobs – that keep us away from the moun­tains. And so cross­ing these ‘bor­ders’ be­comes a big deal. On one side is the place you started, the site of or­di­nary life and obli­ga­tions, and on the other is some­where dif­fer­ent. They might be in­vis­i­ble and ap­pear ar­bi­trary, but in end­less ways bor­ders mean some­thing.

The A458 leads to south­ern Snow­do­nia: Dol­gel­lau, Cadair Idris, the Rhinogs and any num­ber of rugged other hills. Photographer Tom and I had been on the mo­tor­way for a cou­ple of hours, watch­ing brake lights and switch­ing ra­dio sta­tions. The min­utes passed by like white lines un­der the tyres. We dropped from two lanes to one, and mo­tor­way verges were swiftly re­placed by green fields. The road got hilly and twisty, and then there it was. Just a bat­tered old sign – ‘Welcome to Wales’.

It stood at the edge of Mid­dle­town, a string of houses backed by a small group of forested hills. The hills aren’t very high, but they’re steep. The kind of land­mark hills you might crane your neck up to­wards as you zoom past, won­der­ing what’s up there.

Tom and I de­cided to find out. Brei­d­den Hill, and neigh­bours Mid­dle­town Hill and Moel y Golfa, spring up from a wide val­ley carved by the River Sev­ern which flows less than a kilo­me­tre away to the west. To­gether these hills are the dot on the ‘i’ of the Long Moun­tain, an easy-sloped, stretched-out hill that runs for a short while al­most per­fectly along the bor­der. A lit­tle clus­ter of peaks that we could ex­plore in a cou­ple of hours be­fore get­ting back on the road.

A wide dirt track led up through oak trees and ev­er­greens, birds twit­ter­ing and flut­ing in the branches, a warm pine tang lin­ger­ing on the sum­mer air. The gra­di­ent started gently, then pulled up­wards. It’s not a long climb to the 365m sum­mit, but it’s a steep one, with its sheer­ness dis­guised by the trees. The wide track swung around the back of the hill to be­come a foot­path fol­low­ing a nar­row val­ley up­wards. The shade of the trees tem­pered the sun’s heat, which hit us as soon as we stepped out from un­der them. This forested hill has a bald patch and we emerged onto a high meadow, un­der a wide blue sky. A stretch of closely cropped turf, lead­ing straight to the top.

It’s marked by a trig point, a view finder and Rod­ney’s Pil­lar, an enor­mous stone mon­u­ment. From the grassy sum­mit you can look east to nearby un­kempt hill­tops and west to the wide ex­panse of the Marches and far, far into Wales.

It’s not a 360° view, but in this di­rec­tion it might be a 360-mile one. The fields around the River Sev­ern be­low are swim­ming pool flat, there isn’t a rip­ple in the crops that merge even­tu­ally into a hazy blue hori­zon. Walk­ers with the same idea sat around the base of Rod­ney’s Pil­lar, shar­ing crisps, munch­ing sand­wiches, lean­ing against the cool stone and gaz­ing across al­most the en­tire coun­try.

Down be­low, the Sev­ern flows lan­guidly, in tight, un­likely-look­ing loops. It is not it­self a bor­der, though it does move close to and away from it through the whole of south Wales. But be­side it, fol­low­ing the west side of the hill, runs the Offa’s Dyke Path. Though we couldn’t see the dyke from there, we knew we were look­ing at an earth­work that has rep­re­sented the WelshEnglish bor­der for cen­turies.

Built in the 8th cen­tury, it sep­a­rated the pow­er­ful King­dom of Powys and more southerly Gwent, from the An­glo-Saxon King­dom of Mer­cia,

“IT’S NOT A 360° VIEW, BUT IN THIS DI­REC­TION IT MIGHT BE A 360-MILE ONE”

which en­com­passed cen­tral Eng­land from the Hum­ber to the Thames. Its con­struc­tion is said to have been or­dered by King Offa, ruler of Mer­cia from 757 AD un­til 796 AD. A trench runs along the western side, the ex­ca­vated earth heaped up to form a wall be­side it from which clear views could be had into Wales along the en­tire bound­ary. Noth­ing was per­mit­ted to ob­struct the An­glo-Saxon sight-lines. Where the dyke hit a hill, it went round it to the west. These days, it only ex­ists in sec­tions, but its legacy is vis­i­ble right on the map in its name­sake’s right-of-way, which runs the length of Wales. This an­cient bor­der may have van­ished in many places, but it hasn’t been for­got­ten. Though Offa’s Dyke no longer fol­lows the cur­rent English-Welsh bor­der, it rarely strays far from it. Sev­eral hun­dred years later, on top of Brei­d­den Hill, we are in Wales – just. The cur­rent bor­der passes in a crooked line just un­der 2km to the east.

We packed up our lunches and pat­ted the rough stone of Rod­ney’s Pil­lar good­bye. He was a naval of­fi­cer it turns out, and wood from these hills was shipped down the Sev­ern to Bris­tol where his fleet was built. Ma­te­ri­als are still taken from this hill to­day, and a vast quarry gob­bles up the whole south-west quar­ter from which gab­broic do­lerite rock is taken for road build­ing.

This ig­neous rock re­veals some of the hill’s ori­gin. Neigh­bour­ing Moel y Golfa is said to be the re­mains of a sub­ter­ranean vol­cano, the magma which surged to the sur­face form­ing Brei­d­den Hill and the re­sult­ing dust and ash set­tling as Mid­dle­town Hill. Brei­d­den doesn’t look very vol­canic now and we strolled down­hill through sun­yel­lowed grass, the air still and pollen-scented. It was the peak of sum­mer and the trees were in bright green leaf, the un­der­growth a chaos of bracken, un­ruly bram­ble and plants go­ing to seed.

We dropped down out of the woods and onto a nar­row coun­try lane, on the other side of which lay Mid­dle­town hill and a few hun­dred me­tres away, the bor­der. Un­like the forested Brei­d­den Hill, Mid­dle­town Hill is bare and grassy, its sum­mit ringed by an Iron Age hill fort. With Brei­d­den Hill to the north, Moel y Golfa to the west and far-reach­ing views into the Marches, it must have been a se­cure and strate­gic point. Hill forts and set­tle­ments are marked all over these hills. Although now it is peace­fully bak­ing in the sun­light, it wasn’t al­ways so. Mid­dle­town Hill runs roughly south-west to north­east, drop­ping down in large humps. But this is a hill di­vided, with the sum­mit sep­a­rated from the other high points by a foot­path and a fence with a gate in it. On one side is Wales, on the other is Eng­land. We crossed through it to find a sunny place to lie down, a view to the east and a se­cluded spot that few peo­ple visit.

Of course, the fur­ther into Wales we get, the more dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent it will be­come. Nowhere in Eng­land looks like the Rhinogs or the Gly­derau, and nowhere in Wales looks quite like the Lake Dis­trict. But that dif­fer­ence is why we cross bor­ders. To ex­plore these land­scapes, of­ten so dif­fer­ent to the ones we look out on ev­ery day, and that’s why they’re so ex­cit­ing. Bor­ders are full of prom­ise.

OC­TO­BER 2018 PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TOM BAI­LEY

Mid­dle­town hill, look­ing into Eng­land.

What a thing – a sunny sum­mit climb...

One foot in each coun­try, but which is bet­ter placed?

De­bat­ing a swim at the pond be­low Brei­d­den Hill.

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