"We live our lives as we dream-alone." Joseph Conrad

Friday, 14 May 2010

The wonder of Wales

Unlike Hugh Grant or AA Gill-both of whom have offered some pretty ripe observations on The Principality- I am a great admirer of Wales. For seven years I rented a cottage on the Welsh Borders near Bishop's Castle, without electricity.

There were not infrequent forays deeper into Wales, to Aberdovey to swim or Builth Wells for the unsurpassed Royal Welsh Hound Show (at which today the singing has rather stopped and should be brought back as soon as possible). But even I did not go the 'whole hog' and live there permanently.

In next week's COUNTRY LIFE I have reviewed Antony Woodward's latest book 'The Garden in the Clouds: From Derelict Smallholding to Mountain Paradise' which concerns his family move from London to the Skirrid mountains of Monmouthshire.

I do not wish to give anything away that I have written in the review, but both his garden and this part of Wales are well worth a visit.

Tair-Ffynnon, Antony Woodward’s mountain home and garden, lies near Abergavenny outside the small village of Llanfihangel Crucornau overlooking the Skirrid Mountain. The 12th century Skirrid Mountain Inn claims to be the oldest in the Principality and to be haunted. A former Court House, a noose hangs in the stair well used it is said by Judge Jeffries and responsible for 182 deaths. I passed a night of unbroken sleep here two years ago and dined before the roaring fire in the welcoming bar.

Just beyond Tair-Ffynnon are the ruins of Llantony Abbey (where you can also stay in some luxury). There is a trekking centre run by the owner’s son, Tom Passmore, from which you can ride past Tair-Ffynnon or over the Skirrid mountain for many miles without opening a gate.

It was here that I came to have a day's hunting with the Monmouthshire foxhounds on foot as there was snow about. I spent a very happy day and found myself in the company of a man from whom I bought a wood burning stove. When I got it home, my wife was appalled, pointing out that we had two perfectly good working open fires in our Devon farmhouse.

Since then I have been trying to master ebay to offload the pristine woodburner. If only I had known at the time that Woodward was looking for one, having tried in vain to make his chimneys work.

Two miles beyond Llantony is Capel-y-ffin, the monastery bought by sculptor Eric Gill in 1924. His time here is recorded in Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 excellent biography ‘Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art.’ Visiting aged 15, Bruce Chatwin later said it helped to shape ‘On the Black Hill.’

If Antony Woodward's book inspires more people to visit this magical valley as well as his garden (which will be open to the public later in the year) they will not be disappointed. Ghosts, Gill and mountain grandeur. Who could ask for more?

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