River Honddu – Wye Sub Tributary
18 miles total Sat 13th Sep – Mon 15th
Source Grid reference: SO 245/363. 4 interactive map click right. 4 OS Explorer 13
We are up and over the far side of Hay Bluff in a fairly hidden part of the Black Mountains range, a place accessed only by walking to the South central of Hay Bluff its farthest side negotiating, in the process, hundreds of acres of bog and heather that lie there. When super wet you’ll need gaiters but we just about get away with it on this occasion and of course in making the effort for that wild experience no -one, apart from us, knows where the heck we are. It’s a joy and after a couple of hours walking from Hay-On-Wye we’ve found camp for the night stood on a flat grassy ledge at around 1600 feet, which peers down from aloft into a steep gorge like dingle.
Observing the area, we can see three of these large channels that conjoin like pronged forks to form the River Honddu and all of it hemmed in for extra privacy by a forest plantation, which creates an epic feel of unspoiled natural energy. Indeed, so beautiful and hidden away even the Cob Ponies, as they are known, come here to enjoy this energy and of course, like the sheep, they have been grazing these slopes since the Roman times. More recently though the ponies were used in the coal mines of South Wales but for now we get to appreciate them idling amongst the mountain heather. The scene is ancient and timeless and certainly worth the effort getting here.
At our camp site there’s a horse’s skull covered in moss with tussock grass growing through and around it, which makes for a beautiful object suggesting it’s an isolated spot so you know you’ve come to the right place. This is the Honddu River trail and as indicated its journey starts in relative obscurity with Hay Bluff producing three magnificent dingles splaying out like jagged deltas upon the bluff’s bulbous interior. Eventually this grand feature converges, further downhill, to produce one channel; the River Honddu. This then flows into the aforementioned forest plantation that surrounds us in a dark, silent, mossy green cloak. On the southern edge of the plantation the river re-emerges cascading over a wide fifteen-foot-high waterfall that you could easily imagine being in a temperate rain forest as the river bed itself is a carpet of psychedelic algae covered rock and besides the waterfall is immensely beautiful. After a good few hours the camp is habitable, and what with the tarp erected, firewood prepared, and cooking gear ready it’s only now the effort put into it can be enjoyed. So far the Honddu trail is amazing!
For cooking I (Paul) personally use an old mess tin passed down from my father who was in A Squadron SAS and, of course it’s old now, but it does carry memories and experiences I know he had and, yes, I’ve been told to let it go and get lighter, more modern equipment, but for now I stand by this old method. My brother on the other hand, has lighter cooking gear and more up to date, which is good for him. For meals we eat couscous that comes light in packets and expands on cooking making a substantial meal even for the outdoors. Beverages are tea with dried milk, which is just as good as the proper stuff yet doesn’t spoil, and of course, along with other food stuffs like energy bars and bits of dried fruit these types of rations (no tins) won’t weigh you down. Barring my old mess tin the heaviest thing to carry on the trail is liquid carried in a bladder, but even then, you can pretty much stock up on H20 out of any small mountain stream, something we’ve done all our life with no ill effects. Just be wise.
Come morning it’s simply awe inspiring as we awake into the mist filled interior of Hay Bluff nestled here in the Black Mountains range. You almost can’t believe where you are but we have to break camp in order to move on and this we did after a warm brew and a new appreciation of this infamous landmark. It’s then we followed the River Honddu on and through the Vale of Ewyas past Llanthony where the trail running the entire length of the valley hugs the mountainside on the left bank of the river.
Every now and then the landscapes bares its soul and we’re shown just why the Vale of Ewyas is so revered in the UK with Hay Bluff and Twmpa standing like two mighty buttresses either side of Gospel Pass and, at the other end of the valley, Crug Mawr and Hatterall Hill positioned in such a unique way as to invite further exploration. It’s beauty incarnate!
Our aim is to reach Hatterall Hill and eventually meet up with the River Monnow just beyond the hamlet of Pandy and or llanvihangel crucorney on the main Hereford to Abergavenny Road. Indeed, entering the Vale of Ewyas by car whilst driving towards Llanthony from the Abergavenny Road near the aforementioned there’s a good view of Hatterall Hill to catch the eye. With its outcrop of rock (Daren Uchaf) it’s an intriguing geological feature and up close it becomes even more interesting. At a few hundred feet the cliffs are in fact quite imposing and are interspersed by obscure ravine like features that shelter, amongst other things, more cob ponies. This is their domain, so to speak, which they roam freely with little or no contact with people. The whole thing is another discovery that, for us, puts the Black Mountains amongst some of the finest landscapes in Britain. In the distance the River Honddu bends around Hatterall Hill, kept on a North Easterly course by a huge terminal moraine at Llanvihangel Crucorney whereupon it flows into the River Monnow further downstream.
Hatterall Hill’s promontory, known as a “Darren” derived from the Welsh word “Tarren” (rock outcrop), really is an amazing environment. Indeed, Darren Uchaf and Darren Isaf (Grid Ref 295-245 and 298-239) respectively are much like a closed eco system where, as mentioned, wild ponies roam. The whole place is exhilarating and as the night draws close we’re still captivated by its rugged charms, which invoke the very freedom we venture out to experience. Further around the hill’s peninsula we continue looking for a potential campsite, pressing on through an old gate, along dry-stone walls, down an ancient bridleway, to discover, as if awaiting our very arrival, an old abandoned cottage. Our luck is in; (Grid Ref SO 302-237, OS Land Ranger Map 161)
There are signs of life gone by; the outline of a front garden long overgrown, a wooden porch reminiscent of an earlier time, moss laden uneven walls, small windows, a water butt and some discarded artefacts set to one side, which create a feeling of sad abandon tinged with mysterious intrigue. If you’ve read the classic book “On the Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin you’ll get an idea of its character and, of course, its location situated just off an ancient bridleway stimulates the imagination further.
Upon approach you can see the cottage is secure and looked after to a degree, so a tarp is quickly pitched long ways along the front of the old garden wall serving as shelter for the night, giving basic protection from the weather. We get a good night’s rest and as the next morning comes around we make a quick brew under the ageing porch then break camp smiling at the cottage as we go our merry way, stepping casually onto the bridleway and back roads that eventually lead to the River Monnow. Now we’re on the hillside overlooking Pandy, a short distance from the Hereford/Abergavenny Rd, which has to be said is honeycombed with lanes of antiquity etched into the landscape that in itself is timeless. It’s a free and easy place to be if not a little hard work to negotiate as we’re racing against time in order to make it to the Honddu confluence before the Hereford bus departs from Pandy. Up, down, around and making good ground we reach a private enclave characterized by old estate farm buildings either side of the narrow road. (Grid Ref SO 328-228.)
It’s safe to say walking the River Honddu has been a special experience, which started in Hay-On-Wye climbing steadily as we did to the top of Hay Bluff followed by a short descent into the deep gullies that characterize its far side where the River Honddu rises and of course where our first camp was established. We then mooched the narrow trails on and through the Vale of Ewyas past Llanthony Abbey whilst hugging the verdant mountainsides and drover's lanes to then discover our second camp at the old cottage.
The landscape all the way was spectacular, and of course a memorable sight has to have been the Gospel Pass with Hay Bluff and Twmpa stood sentinel like all mighty guardians. This is the Black Mountains that make up the borders of Herefordshire, England and Powys, Wales. The end of the journey was no less invigorating observing, as mentioned, the River Honddu being forced left or North at Llanvihangel Crucorney by a huge terminal moraine formed in the last ice age. All the while the River Monnow, which rises on windswept Cefn Hill just inside Herefordshire, is making its way towards the River Wye at Monmouth and, of course, its journey is no less significant to that of the Honddu as it too can claim the Black Mountains as a major influence in its creation. Indeed, the mountains are a huge water catchment and provide all run off for these rivers.
Finally, defined only by their banks and making for a timeless union unbroken for thousands of years, the waters of the River Honddu and Monnow converge as one. Absorbing this thought like a stream in itself and before heading back into daily life we pay homage to this magical little river, for guiding us through some of the UK’s most inspiring landscape. (Grid Ref SO 335-233)