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…
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.
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.