Eddie Procter – The Rhiws of the Black Mountains: Liminal Ways, Old Beyond Memory
“The twins looked on the path to the Eagle Stone as their own private property. ‘It’s Our Path!’ they’d shout if they happened to meet a party of hikers.”
– On the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin
At the end of a long stretch on the ridge-top Offa’s Dyke Path weary-legged walkers dropping down to the ruins of Llanthony Priory descend via a section of Rhiw Arw, an ancient way traceable along tracks and lanes from the Priory over the high-rise Anglo-Welsh border to Longtown Castle in Herefordshire, medieval seat of the de Lacy Marcher Lords. Arw is probably derived from Cwrw, Old Welsh for ‘ale or beer’, the track said to be the route over which the Priory’s Black Canons transported ale to sell in Longtown and beyond. Pleasingly, Rhiw Arw is also the setting for a local ghostly legend, as retold by Roy Palmer in The Folklore of Monmouthshire: of a man returning to Longtown “when a fog came on suddenly, and he lost his way. He was standing, quite at a loss, when a man came towards him, wearing a large, broad-brimmed hat and a cloak. He did not speak but beckoned, and the man followed him, until he found himself on the right path. Turning round he thanked his unknown friend, but received no reply: he vanished quickly in the fog”. It later transpired that the man had died two years earlier.
This well-trod ground of monks, phantoms and Offa disciples also features in Alfred Watkins seminal The Old Straight Track. The book’s central theory of ley lines was always fanciful and has become wholly discredited; however, it remains an intriguing read and it was in this Welsh Marches countryside that Watkins found the evidence to support his ideas: “There is a favoured spot –Llanthony – in the heart of the Black Mountains where primitive tracks and notches can well be studied”. One such ‘notch’ was the indentation, seen from the valley below, at which Rhiw Arw crosses the ridge. Watkins also references a number of rhiw tracks that climb Cwm Siarpal uphill from Llanthony, said to be caused by sliding slabs of stone downhill from hillside quarries for use in the construction of the Priory.
Rhiw Arw is an example of a very specific genus of pathway, a sub-group which has a particular form, character and locality but remained unburdened by formal categorisation: lonely tracks that stoically climb and crest the hillsides of these uplands; shadow paths, many now no longer or rarely used other than by a small number of local shepherds and farmers, often not appearing on any map. When driving or walking through the Vale of Ewyas, incising the old red sandstone massif of the Black Mountains for twelve sinuous miles with Llanthony its primary locus, these ways – known locally as rhiws – are all around but remain unseen in plain sight; liminal lines in the landscape of the steep valley sides with no meaning or discernible pattern to the casual eye.
Words to define finely grained topographical features are abundant in the Welsh language and rhiw falls into this category. The most commonly used meaning is ‘steep gradient or slope, incline, hillside’, which forms a familiar place-name element throughout Wales for both stretches of upland of this type and farms or settlements associated with such features (the renowned Welsh poet R. S. Thomas lived for a time in the Llyn peninsula village of Rhiw, in the shadow of the slopes of Mynydd Rhiw, at a primitive stone cottage called Sarn Rhiw; Sarn meaning ‘causeway’ in Welsh). There is, however, a more nuanced etymological root (‘an ascent or the rising of a hill’), which seems to have been in common currency in south-eastern Wales and has also been used here to denote trackways in this setting (‘road or footpath on a slope or hillside’). This steep path vernacular is our focus here.
Of course, there are thousands of paths, tracks, roads and rakes from valley to hilltop in highland areas across the British Isles. But thinking of patterns on the map and in rememberings of walking hills and mountains throughout the country, I have begun to wonder whether there might be something notably different about these inclined pathways of the Black Mountains; whether they form part of the areas distinctive genius loci: for the topography, landscape character and spirit of any particular upland region tends to be highly individual. And what’s more, I have also come to realise their notable regularity in the long settled eastern valleys of these hills: the Vale of Ewyas and its neighbour, the Olchon Valley.
In the Black Mountains, a rhiw is a route uphill, originally navigable by foot, horseback or sledge, often from a farmstead or a gathering point for stock: carved into the landscape over long years of toil as local farmers moved from their valley fields to win peat and rock from the high ground or transport their livestock to and from summer grazing in the wide open spaces of the upland ridges. Such tracks are commonly named after the place they start, local appellations developed by and often known only by the generations of farmers and shepherds for whom they were part of their daily workplace. Some may well have even more ancient antecedents, part of long-established, regional communications networks; certainly medieval, maybe prehistoric, of time out of mind. Such rhiws form part of a wider picture, more closely studied: the drove roads, packhorse trails and other high-level routeways criss-crossing the upland regions, as detailed in, for instance, the writings of Arthur Raistrick on the green roads of the Pennines and Andrew Fleming’s study of the upland monastic highway known as The Monks Trod in Mid Wales. Also stretching back into prehistory is transhumance, the practice of moving herds and flocks from the lowlands to graze on the rich grasslands of the high ground during the summer months. Herdsmen, shepherds and their families, oversummered with the animals, living in temporary encampments known in Wales as hafod. Widespread across the Welsh uplands during the Middle Ages, this system died out only in the nineteenth century in more remote areas and may well account for the development of some of the rhiws in the area.
An excellent description of the rhiws around Llanthony is provided in That Inward Eye, the fascinating memoir of David ‘Dai’ Griffiths who lived all his life in and around the valley as the old agricultural ways of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were dwindling out of the present and into history (though some of his laments for features lost and obliterated forever are somewhat overstated – they are often still there):
“Old parish roads travelling up and down the valley have been obliterated and bulldozed away so they are lost forever – as are the marks of tracks leading from the old parish roads diagonally across the valley sides to the mountain ‘rhiws’ that led in turn up over the mountain and down into the other valley. All the drovers’ tracks, tracks that were used to carry salt and possibly even further back to carry flints, and to drive animals to market, to visit relatives and go to church – all these old tracks went up on the diagonal slope out of the valley, virtually one to every farm, over the top of the hill and down into the other valleys and up on to the next ridge, till they covered the whole of the mountain area. So if one wanted to go some distance, say from the Llanthony Valley to Crickhowell or Brecon across the mountain, it was possible to follow these old tracks, these old drovers roads, and the ‘rhiws’ as they were called, over the mountains.”
So what is it about the architecture and character of the rhiws in this part of the Black Mountains that seem to set them apart? The modern Ordnance Survey map is a good place to start. A cluster of them can be observed around Llanthony, particularly climbing up both sides of the narrow Hatterrall ridge, as if the border itself, snaking along the crest, were under siege. Similar examples can be seen on the map throughout the length of the two valleys of Llanthony and Olchon. They are, in fact, so ubiquitous that in places, particularly where they cross each other and the erratic lines of multiple sheep and pony tracks, it is easy to become disorientated. In Iain Sinclair’s novel Landor’s Tower, the protagonists find themselves taking the wrong track when trying to reach the Offa’s Dyke Path from Llanthony: “He disappeared over the rim. And I followed. Contradictory tracks offered themselves… seductive, but over-egged. Not quite believable”.
The first edition Ordnance Survey map is even more illuminating, surveyed at a time when the division between motor roads and footpaths was still well in the future and a much wider network of tracks were in regular use by the local population. Here can be seen a much larger number of rhiws, an intrinsic element of the mapscape rather than the peripheral byways they have now become. I have followed a large number of these ghost paths and a systematic investigation into how many are still traceable on the ground would be a rewarding endeavour. Although maps, in Mike Parker’s words, “…breathe rules and order in an inherently disorderly world”, they do not always provide the whole picture; the real landscape is a messier affair. Study the slopes of these valleys on the ground or via satellite imagery and, even today, the eye can follow the seemingly haphazard lines of many rhiws that have never appeared on any map.
Most rhiws in the area start at the boundary of the uppermost cultivated land, often as an off-shoot of the tracks traversing the valley along the line of the boundary wall (David Griffith’s ‘parish tracks’), or sometimes morphing upwards from a holloway running upslope between fields from the valley below. As such they enliven the largely unenclosed steep common grazing land of the valley side before the gradient begins to level out on the peat and heather dominated moorland ridges (at which point the paths often become more indistinct). Here they link up with the ridgeways that run along the watershed, excepting those terminating abruptly at a quarry or peat cut. In Wales this distinctive transition zone between moorland and cultivated farmland is known as the ffridd, pronounced ‘freeth’: a little-studied but rich habitat of gnarled hawthorn, isolated holly trees, moss covered rock outcrops, bracken and gorse; home to wild flowers such as dog-violet and upright vetch, many moths and butterflies and a wide range of birds including meadow pipit, redstart, whinchat and the cuckoo. Bracken tends to be the dominant covering of the ffridd across the Black Mountains, a sea of green during summer and russet brown over the winter months. Grazing by sheep and mountain ponies and periodic burning by the commoners maintain the ecology in its current form, without which and over time woodland of ash, rowan and sessile oak would come to dominate.
On examining the form of the tracks on the ground there are a number of clear common characteristics. Rather than following a natural line of least resistance – the course of a gully, ridge or bluff – as is more normal for upland paths, they attack the mass of the valley side head-on: generally ascending by following a, broadly straight, continuous diagonal line upwards, sometimes crossing a similar rhiw ascending from the opposite direction, sometimes following a zig-zag course where the gradient is particularly steep. On walking up a rhiw it often feels similar to a shallow holloway, a clearly defined indentation in the surface (perhaps engineered, certainly now eroded) but in this case cutting the slope side on rather than vertically. Thus the track is cut into the earth and rock immediately above with an embankment created from the deposited soil below and a terraced path in between. The surface of the rhiws is now often boggy ground colonised by sedge and cotton grass where it has become hollowed out and the passage of humans and animals has become rarer. Sometimes a constructed rock surface and bank can still be discerned, though now much disturbed, dispersed and eroded; a reminder of their workaday origins.
Two of the most prominent approaches to the Black Mountains upland massif along the steep, wind and rain lashed northern scarp slope are the diagonal paths of Rhiw Wen and Rhiw Constab. The latter providing, in P Thorseby Jones’ words, “perhaps the most impressive ‘close-up’ of the escarpment face, and when the zigzags begin you also get spacious prospects northwards over Radnorshire”. Now well used as a walking and mountain-biking route into the hills, this path may be named for the local Marcher Lords, the de Bohuns, Earls of Hereford and Essex and at one time holders of the title of Constable of England. Or perhaps the track was so called as the route the police constables of Talgarth would take to deal with disorder and commotion in the temporary settlement housing the navvies constructing the reservoir in the Grwyne Fawr valley across the high moorland to the south.
In the upper part of the Olchon Valley lies an area of oval shaped enclosures called The Old Abbey within which lies a long ruined farmstead; intriguingly, the possible site of a grange of Llanthony Priory. From here, a rhiw that is no longer recorded on the map, but traceable on the ground and clearly visible as two parallel and deeply incised hollows in aerial photographs, follows a dog-leg course over the hill to join the main ridgeway giving access to the Priory in the adjacent valley. Owen Sheers’ novel of an imagined German occupation of Britain in 1944, Resistance, is set in the Olchon. It is along such “immediate and abrupt” inclines that the protagonists venture in their clandestine and martial movement around the area, allowing both occupiers and resisters to come under the spell of the landscape around them: “nature in all its massive certainty, from the crowds of trees running along the valley floor to the barren challenge of its hilltops”.
These pedestrian arteries of the Black Mountains are not unique in every way. However, there is a morphological cluster in this locality that I have not seen elsewhere. So why have these paths developed in this way in this area? Environmental determinism is often a simplistic explanation, but it would seem that local morphology, landforms and land-use are at least contributory factors in how the rhiws came about. Here are two classic glaciated U-shaped valleys, with very steep sides above the upper limit of their field systems where the land lies unenclosed. In order to reach the upland plateau of the ridges (for grazing, quarrying, movement out of the valley and so on) the rhiw would seem like a sensible solution to enable the movement of people and animals over this ground, the transitionary ffrid.
There is always a danger of seeing planned design in the landscape where none really exist. Evidence that the drovers, landowners, farmers, shepherds, quarrymen, monastic canons and tribal leaders who would have instigated and built the rhiws had any co-ordinated plan or template is likely to remain elusive. As Kim Taplin points out, talking more generally about rural routeways: “The paths were too slight, too humble and too local to attract the historian: they did not require to be planned, laboured upon, paid for and legislated about nationally…; nor have the people who chiefly used them been considered suitable subjects for history – until recently”. These two valleys are thickly spread with farmsteads (more so than the rest of the Black Mountains) and, in an insular and isolated border area, we can perhaps assume that the self-reliant and independent-minded locals simply wore this mosaic into the hillsides through their incremental endeavours, underpinned by neighbourly support and shared expertise based on common-sense knowledge of the lie of their land ingrained over many centuries.
A work of fiction, albeit one based on the author’s deep local knowledge, provides a simple yet deeply felt articulation of the origins of the rhiw. Follow the eastern slope of the Hatterrall ridge southwards down the Olchon Valley and numerous rhiws can be seen climbing to the ridge, indeed the green lane that traverses the boundary between the cultivated land and the open moorland for seven miles known as The Mountain Road has the alternative name of Rhiw. It is here that Raymond Williams locates an early fifteenth century conversation between an English knight, Sir John Oldcastle, and a local nobleman, Caradoc, in his sweeping two-part historical novel based on the history of the area, People of the Black Mountains:
‘I have been looking at the tracks you make to the ridges,’ Oldcastle said. ‘They surprised me by turning so often at such narrow angles.’
‘The pitch is too steep for any other way,’ Caradoc replied.
‘I am sure you are right, but it is strange. In these mountains there are hardly any direct ways.’
‘They are old beyond memory,’ Caradoc said. ‘Always we follow the steps of our fathers’.
Here there are echoes of the words of R.S. Thomas in his poem Welsh Landscape: “There is no present in Wales, and no future: there is only the past”. All rather mystical, but that surely is the joy of roaming the landscape: investigating the conflation of myth and fact, the relic remains of the archaic and the prosaically workaday. Six hundred years later and this fictional conversation prompts a final thought, and takes me back to the etymology of rhiw. In amongst the unconscious incremental tweaking of centuries of common usage, an 1803 dictionary of English and Welsh adds an additional sub-definition: ‘A drift, a fall’. The drift or derive, an unplanned psychogeographical wandering, is generally seen as an urban occupation; but there is no reason why the flâneur cannot tramp and wander in a rural setting. And what better unmapped and near forgotten byways to seek out for such an adventure than the rhiws of the Black Mountains; liminal ways, ‘old beyond memory.’
My thanks to Julie Jones and Simon Powell for providing local information on rhiws in the Black Mountains and elsewhere in South Wales.
Eddie Procter is a freelance landscapist, combining fatherhood with working at a University, maintaining footpaths in the Black Mountains and all-round landscapism. He regularly blogs on landscape-related subjects at http://landscapism.blogspot.co.uk and contributes to other sites and publications.