Sunday, 23 July 2017

Ben Myers - The Gallows Pole: Once upon a time in the West Riding

The arresting cover of Ben Myers' sixth novel is a statement of intent for the work inside: historical fiction with danger and harshness and radicalism foregrounded; a bit punk rock, a bit psychedelic, not too knowingly retro. Frankly, I'd have bought it for the cover artwork alone. Thankfully, this is an author with form and the story itself does not disappoint; it cracks along at pace, based on a little-known episode in history tailor-made for the strain of gritty rural-noir which Myers, Paul Kingsnorth, Cynan Jones, Ross Raisin and others have rendered in recent years. The unearthed source material merits such a telling. It's the 1760s and the wild West Riding of Yorkshire is on the cusp of transformation, careless of the coming pandemonium to be wrought by industrialised manufacturing. Amidst the self-reliant weaving communities of the Calder Valley - for William Atkins (The Moor) 'a ditch made dim by its narrowness', a place of fugitives - emerge the Cragg Vale Coiners. Led by the brutally charismatic 'King' David Hartley, their outlaw business is the clipping of coins to produce counterfeit money; local currency for local people, recycled coin outwith the control of not only the crown, government and taxation but also the new capitalists ready to harness and exploit the power of land and labour. Thus, a dangerous business and (literally) a capital offence.    

The book's stylistic and narrative similarities with Kingsnorth's The Wake are striking. Both have central characters - David Hartley and Buccmaster - who are deluded, self-mythologising and ruthless yet also cast with a certain 'Man With no Name' dark allure. Like mythical cowboys of the northern past, these doomed men raging against the dying of the light are also possessed of pagan visions of stagmen and the old gods. Both authors utilise blunt vernacular speech to give voice to their protagonists, albeit in Kingsnorth's case a 'shadow tongue' version of Old English is utilised for the whole narration.

In the opening chapters, we see how up and over from the surrounding valleys men come to King David's call, 'like crows to the first pickings of carrion after the snow melt'; a repetitive roll-call of locally entrenched surnames: Dewhurst, Clayton, Sutcliffe, Bolton, Hepworth, Eastwood, Bentley, Hoyle, Pickles, Sykes, Greenwood, Feather and Proctor. These everyday monikers later counter-pointed by the tally of Yorkshire nobility called from across the ridings to address the threat to their wealth and power presented by the coiners activity. We dig repetition, as Mark E Smith would have it, and so does Ben Myers. It's a technique used deliberately and effectively throughout, toughening the narrative: 'the moors are ours and the woods are ours he said. And the marshes are ours and the sky is ours and the fire is ours and the forge is ours. The might is ours and the means are ours and the moulds are ours and the metal is ours and the coins are ours and the crags are ours and this grand life in the dark wet world is ours.'

Hartley's lair is high amongst 'the hill's hanging silence', to use Ted Hughes' description of this haunted terrain of his youth, where bosky slope gives way to moorland waste. A hint of Cormac McCarthy pervades the depicted harsh beauty of this landscape. When Hartley's nemesis, excise-man William Deighton - a walker of the moors and valleys in pursuit of those who would evade the (real) king's tax - returns to Halifax in the gloaming, the town's lights flicker 'as if the sky had fallen in defeat, and draped itself across the rise and fall of the bloodless, smothering land.' To my mind what elevates Myers prose above much similar place-bound company is the clear rootedness of the writing in the Calderdale-based author's embodied knowledge - based on walking and observing - of the landscape in which the actors operate, buttressed by an authentic portrayal of the life-rhythms of those working the land. This is an author unafraid to leaven the drama of the story with the small detail of rural life: for instance, a couple of pages describing a scything team working their field at pace 'as they raced against the season and the coming of the harvest moon.'

A certain poetic mysticism is also scattered amidst the thrifty speech of Hartley and the Coiners, somewhat at odds with their rough ways: 'rope or rain or a day threshing grain ... I take each as it comes'; 'the moor is the moor and the wind always blows.' Thugs ain't what they used to be, perhaps. Silver-tongued maybe, but there are frequent brutish scenes of rising and implied violence, recalling prime-Scorsese or, closer to home, Shane Meadow's Derbyshire-set Dead Man's Shoes in their cinematic menace and liberal deployment of the harshest word in the English language, not quaint. The shocking end of loud-mouth drunk Abraham Ingham thrust head-first into an open fire, 'left smoldering, a spent match in human form' as his killers return to their tap-room pints, is particularly wince-inducing. As is the defilement of the traitor James Broadbent in York gaol. A gruesome end seems to be a possibility for just about everyone involved.

This violence, combined with the radical social commentary of the story and pervasive sense of movement through the landscape, bestow filmic qualities which the author acknowledges as he describes an eclectic playlist put together whilst writing the book. It's not hard to hear this music soundtracking a film adaptation of the book, which might look a little like a mash-up between Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, Ken Loach's Black Jack and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lydon.

As the place-names in the narrative came thick and fast - reminiscent of a seventeenth-century survey of manorial bounds - I pulled out my battered Ordnance Survey map of the South Pennines, weathered by time, held together by yellowing sellotape. Family connections bond me to the country immediately north of Calderdale, Keighley and the Worth Valley over Cock Hill and Nab Hill, and I have previously posted about this landscape, my younger self's introduction to hill walking, now embedded in memory. The names on the map speak of place as, above all, morphology and topography. Northern - mostly Anglo-Saxon or Norse - descriptors of the lie of the land. Clough, slack, holme, delf, edge, nook, wham, carr, hey, hole, head, nab, bank, dyke, shaw, royd, shelf, stones. A lexicon used by Myers to rivet the narrative to its locale; to particularise the valleys and streams and rocky places and moors and woods in which the story unfolds. Many of these toponyms have been appropriated as local surnames, fixing a symbiosis between people and place; the bearers literally a product of their landscape. And there, above the river Ryburn feeding into the main Calder Valley, a crow's fly over Crow Hill from the Hartley homestead in Cragg Vale, spreads Gallows Pole Hill. Presumably, part-inspiration for the book's title (alongside the traditional song, The Maid Freed From the Gallis Pole)?

One minor place-naming misstep is the use of Calderdale and West Yorkshire, modern-day administrative units which would not be used as descriptors of the local area by eighteenth-century folk. Not sure either about the use of the archaic 'Yorvikshire' in Hartley's vernacular, but artistic license at play here so fair enough. Of course, it is the storyteller's prerogative to extrapolate the partial facts that are fed down through history but this reader also wonders whether King David really was as locally revered and acclaimed as suggested. How many really were thankful to Hartley for clothing and feeding them, and giving them hope? Did thousands really line the old streets of York to view his procession to the gallows?

Not in dispute are the economic changes which circle around and loom over the actions of the Coiners (the 'progress' of proto-capitalism, industrial development, a hardening of the rule of law and land ownership), prefiguring the enormous rupture in the way of life of the independent dwellers of these previously left-alone valleys that the Industrial Revolution would bring. Earlier in the eighteenth-century Daniel Defoe had commented approvingly on the lack of dependence on and subservience to the gentry amongst the self-sufficient and egalitarian populations of the farmsteads and hamlets of these hilly districts of the West Riding. As the century draws to a close the characters here are lamenting not only that 'the machines and mills are coming' but also 'they do not give a fuck about us hill-dwellers'; 'the land is being sold off. They say there are mills the size of cathedrals in Lancashire.' The self-made prosperity of the cottage industry of small-holdings and hand-looms is coming to an end. A few decades later Halifax and the Calder Valley would be central to a more famous popular uprising, the revolt of the Luddites; a conflict which Robert Reid in Land of Lost Content described as threatening 'the stability of the nation from within as it had never been threatened since.'

In the end, and in the face of this maelstrom, we leave Hartley dreaming of his moor and woods, and the Stagman: 'still he waches now and so too will be there when im drug up to that gallis pole that awaytes us Heel be thur I no it Waytin a me.' In reality, as the epilogue hammers home, 'the stone cathedrals of mass production' were to win out and King David would be forgotten. Mills and new rows of terraced houses, and turnpike roads, canals and railways, would remorselessly fill the valleys, transforming not only the population's economic and social lives but also the very landscape. The Coiners and their descendents would ultimately bend to the will of the new puritans of capital, commerce and mass-production.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Take the long road and walk it

Mapped above is the route of a week long walk I will be undertaking in June, linking up the estate landscapes and medieval route-ways of the three case studies of my PhD research: Llanthony Priory, Llantarnam Abbey and Tintern Abbey in the southern Welsh Marches.

The aim is to contribute to the 'walking as deep topography and PhD fieldwork practice' that I outlined in a recent blog post, adding a linking and overarching narrative to the more localised walks I am undertaking within the three case study areas individually.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Chuck Berry - Promised Land: rock and roll topography

Chuck Berry at his topographical best, using tight wit and pathos to describe an epic journey by bus, train and aeroplane from Virginia to California in 'Promised Land':

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia
California on my mind
I Straddled that Greyhound,
and rolled in into Raleigh and all across Carolina

Stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill
And we never was a minute late
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown
Rollin' out of Georgia state

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way 'cross Alabam'
And that 'hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham

Right away, I bought me a through train ticket
Ridin' cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flier out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town
There are people there who care a little 'bout me
And they won't let the poor boy down

Sure as you're born, they bought me a silk suit
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the promised land

Workin' on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying over to the Golden State
Oh when The pilot told me in thirteen minutes
We'd be headin' in the terminal gate

Swing low chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia
Tidewater four ten O nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin'
And the poor boy's on the line

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Tintern Abbey - landscape perception survey

As part of my PhD research I am carrying out a survey into present day perceptions of the impact of Tintern Abbey on the surrounding historic landscape of the Wye Valley. 

If you know the area and would be willing to participate in the survey then you can complete it here.

Further information on my PhD research can be found here.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Hatterall - Hill towards the sun

The Hatterall ridge looking north from its southern-most point at Trewyn 'hill fort'.

The Hatterall, or versions of it, is a long-standing name used in times past for the eastern uplands of the Black Mountains, now used more particularly for the heights between the Vale of Ewyas and the valleys of the Monnow and Olchon; a ridge that carries both the England-Wales border and the Offa's Dyke National Trail. The Welsh names of hills and mountains typically have fairly prosaic meanings (though rendered more exotic to English ears) - 'big hill', 'top of the hill', 'great mountain' and such-like. In contrast, Hatterall has an interesting and varied etymology as it has evolved from its (probable) lyrical origins to its puzzling Anglo-Welsh hybrid present. As the examples below demonstrate, there have been many variations in documents, books and maps as use by non-literate cultures, misunderstandings, mishearings and Anglicisation have morphed and moulded the words through the centuries.

A borderland: Offa's Dyke path above Llanthony, looking south.

At y Heu (probable original name, though undocumented - 'hill towards the sun' in Welsh)

 Hatiram (1137)

  Hatyre (12th century)

    Hateroll (1325)

      Haterhill (1566)

        Hatherall (1574)

           Hattrell (1612)

             Hatyrel, Hatterras (1905)

               Hateral, Hatterrall (20th century)

                  Hatterall Hill or The Hatterall (modern name - 'hill towards the sun hill'!)

The Black Darren land-slip in the Olchon Valley.

Above the Cwm-iau valley.

The steep eastern slopes of Hatterall above Oldcastle.

Stone wall alongside the Beer Path from Llanthony up to the Hatterall ridge.

A distant Llanthony Priory from the high boundary of Walter Savage Landor's park on the slopes of Hatterall.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Deep topography practice – landscape walks as PhD fieldwork

Composite map of the landscape walk routes in the Llanthony Priory case study (Source: map drawn in ArcGIS using ArcGIS World Imagery basemap).

A note here on the experiential landscape walks that I am undertaking across the three case study areas on which my PhD research is focussed, a core element in an interdisciplinary approach: blending the solid of landscape history with the drift of landscape perception. 

One key purpose is to bridge the traditional fieldwork focus on macro-level reconnaissance across relatively large areas on the one hand and smaller-scale targeting of specific sites and features through survey, field walking, test pitting and so on on the other. The walks aim to fulfil a complementary and linking middle ground that also provides additional evidence and value. More fundamentally, actually walking and moving through the landscape on foot, experiencing and investigating on the ground, helps to provide a more nuanced, fleshed-out and three-dimensional feeling to supplement important but formulaic desk-based study focused on academic reading and ‘birds eye’ views from aerial photographs, satellite imagery and maps and so forth. This is deep topography in practice: a deepening understanding of landscape history allied to a deeper perceptual viewpoint. Getting to know a landscape, its biography through walking.

The old roadway to Llanthony Priory from Longtown and its Herefordshire estates, now disused; investigated on the Llanthony to Longtown landscape walk.

I have appropriated 'deep topography' here from Nick Papadimitriou's description of his 'conscious walking' through the fringes and suburbs of North London, most expansively articulated in his book Scarp: In Search of London's Outer Limits (2013). This terminology could also be used to describe the work of outlier geographers, largely operating outside of the academic arena, such as Patrick Keiller (The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, 2013), Tim Robinson (Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, 1990) and Will Self (Psychogeography, 2007). All exponents of a more nuanced counterpart to the now perhaps over-cooked concept of 'psycho-geography', less shackled to its conceptual and urban prescriptions. Self has described deep topography as ‘minutely detailed, multi-level examinations of select locales that impact upon the writer’s own microscopic inner-eye’, combining ecology, history, poetry and sociology; or in Nick Papadimitrou’s own terms ‘an acknowledgement of the magnitude of response to landscape.’ A mention here of another related concept, phenomenology, which this research also aims to integrate. A phenomenological approach views the environment as more than just a passive backdrop or external object of the spectator’s gaze; providing a challenge to more traditional ideas of landscape as simply a way of seeing the world or a repository of empirical material data. Ideas taken forward most notably in relation to landscape by archaeologist Christopher Tilley (A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments, 1994) and anthropologist and cultural geographer Tim Ingold (Imagining Landscapes, Past, Present and Future, with Monica Janowski, 2012).

Although psycho-geographical texts and practice have attracted academic interest in recent years, this has tended to be within the confines of cultural geography and literary studies and focused on the urban experience, whilst the extensive archaeological practice of phenomenology has largely been limited to the study of prehistoric landscapes. As Papadimitriou’s ventures into deep topography throughout the Middlesex-Hertfordshire boundary lands and W.G. Sebald’s long existential walk along the East Anglian coast (The Rings of Saturn, 1995) demonstrate, any landscape can in principle be opened up to what Iain Sinclair has described as: ‘psycho-geography lite. It was a long way from the Situationists but it suited the English sentiment about walking, deep-topography, historical scavenging.’ This is the context for my tramps through the countryside of the southern Welsh Marches, looking for the liminal topographical ghosts of monasticism.

An old wall in the woods above the Angidy Brook, possibly a boundary of the 'lost' Tintern abbey grange of Secular Firmary; investigated on the Porthcasseg landscape walk.

A series of walks is being undertaken in each case study area focussed on particular themes, features and objectives identified through initial desk-based analysis, but with scope to venture ‘off-piste’ when in the field (composite maps of the walks taken so far in the Llanthony and Tintern case studies are provided here). Through a mix of observation, photography and note-taking places that can be easily overlooked, neglected or invisible to the casual eye are investigated and recorded. The footpaths, lanes and off-the-beaten-track routes followed form a sort of outdoor laboratory for the crystallizing of thoughts, ideas and connections, found evidence of the medieval and historic landscape and a wider appreciation of the geography of, and feeling for, the landscape as it is passed through. A mental map taken back to enrich work at lap-top and desk. 

Composite map of the landscape walk routes in the Tintern Abbey case study (Source: map drawn in ArcGIS using ArcGIS World Imagery basemap).

The output from the walks is a set of commentaries and photographs of the landscapes encountered both from a physical and perceptual perspective, with an accompanying map of the route. As well as informing the main narrative these notes, which will be presented in a standard format as an online resource alongside the main Thesis (see example screenshot extract below), are intended as a more in-depth supplement to the main text. The discussion section of the Thesis will also critically evaluate what worked well and less well in integrating this approach with more conventional landscape archaeology and history research tools. 

Extract from Cwmyoy South landscape walk notes.
Finally, back to Nick Papadimitriou. In an interview on the subject of his deep topography practice at the London Short Film Festival, he outlined six tips for deep topography walking. The approach adopted for my research does not necessarily stick to all of these principles and aims to demonstrate a more expansive fusion of such metaphysical exploration with other approaches, but they provide a useful starting point and stimulus: 
  • Go walking. Stay away from bright lights. 
  • Explore second hand bookshops. Buy books on topography – on areas, regions, counties. Study them. Then walk around and see whether you can make sense of the present landscape in relation to the past. This way you’ll get more tension and depth in your engagement with the landscape. 
  • Go out on your own without any maps and without a digital camera. Digital cameras are the death of the imagination. 
  • Go in any direction that suits you. Go in unfamiliar directions. Go in familiar directions and try and see things in a new way. 
  • Develop a sense of contours. They tell you a lot about the tensions and releases of the landscape and the way the ancillary aspects if the landscape (such as sewage and drainage systems) are organised. It will build up your sense of place. 
  • Develop a poetry out of the commonplace. The two aren’t opposites. The inexplicable and the obvious reside alongside each other. 
Nick expands on his approach in John Roger's documentary The London Perambulator: Afoot in London's Edgelands (2009): 

Sunday, 29 January 2017

This Machine Kills Fascists

All You Fascists Bound To Lose - Woody Guthrie (a real American hero)

I’m gonna tell you fascists
You may be surprised
The people in this world
Are getting organized
You’re bound to lose

You fascists bound to lose

Race hatred cannot stop us
This one thing we know
Your poll tax and Jim Crow
And greed has got to go
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose.

All of you fascists bound to lose:
I said, all of you fascists bound to lose:
Yes sir, all of you fascists bound to lose:
You’re bound to lose! You fascists:
Bound to lose!

People of every color
Marching side to side
Marching ‘cross these fields
Where a million fascists dies
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose!

I’m going into this battle
And take my union gun
We’ll end this world of slavery
Before this battle’s won
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose!

Friday, 13 January 2017

PhD Research Paper #4: A diversity of words and images - topographers and antiquarians, artists and writers at Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas

From time to time I will post 'bite size' chunks of the material I am preparing for my PhD thesis: works in progress, but content which I feel may be of interest to a wider audience. All will be very much draft versions, not necessarily - probably not - reflecting the final wording that will eventually appear in the Thesis. In-text references are included but a full bibliography is not. This paper is based on a section of the case study on Llanthony Priory in the Black Mountains, Monmouthshire. 

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by David Cox, 1838.

Written references to Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas in the post-medieval and early modern period are sparse; even topographical writers of the time did not usually specifically refer to the wider landscape (Lancaster 2008, 11). John Leland made very brief mention in his 1540 Itinerary (in a paragraph on Llanthony Secunda): ‘Nant Honddye (Llanthonddye – Llan nant Hondy) a priori of blake charms … this priori was fair, and stoode betwixt ii great hills’ (Chandler 1993, 176; Roberts 1846, 233). Michael Drayton’s epic topographical poem of 1612, Polyolbion, included a verse on the valley which begins: ‘Mongst Hatterills loftie hills, that with the clouds are crowne’d, the valley Ewias lies, immers’d so deep and round …’ (Drayton 2001).

It was as new tastes for the ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque’ in landscapes and places of history, particularly in wild and remote setting, began to take hold in the later eighteenth century that the priory became a subject of particular interest. Uvedale Price, author of the influential treatise Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared With the Sublime and the Beautiful of 1794 owned Foxley, one of the priory’s Herefordshire estates, where he created a landscaped park in line with his views on the picturesque (Pavard 2016, 80). William Gilpin (2005, 52) visited Llanthony during his influential tour of the Wye and South Wales in 1770 and observed:

‘Dugdale describes it, in his Monasticon, as a scene richly adorned with wood. But Dugdale lived a century ago: which is a term that will produce or destroy the finest scenery. It has had the latter effect here, for the woods about Llanthony Priory are now totally destroyed; and the ruin is wholly naked and desolate.’

A somewhat bleak scene which pre-dated poet-squire Walter Savage Landor’s major tree-planting programme during his brief but colourful period of lordship of Llanthony (discussed in detail in a future post). In the wake of Gilpin and the Romantics that followed, Llanthony, like other medieval monasteries in dramatic locations, received a steady stream of visitors who were inspired to record their reactions to the place. Indeed there is a vast and diverse corpus of images and words centred on the priory ruins and the surrounding landscape. 

Henry Penruddocke Wyndham, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, toured Wales in the 1770s and produced the first published account of a tour which included Llanthony (Buck 2016, 6). Architects and antiquarians such as Joseph Parker and Richard Colt Hoare were also regular visitors, studying and recording the ruins in a more analytical and scholarly way (Gibbs 2016b). Colt Hoare, who later witnessed the windows of the western frontage collapsing, visited with Archdeacon Coxe whose poor impression of the state of the roads as he journeyed through the valley has already been quoted. To him the priory ruins derived ‘a particular beauty from their situation in the Vale of Ewias, which unites dreariness and fertility, and is well adapted to monastic solitude’, though he bemoaned their ‘hastening to decay’ (Coxe 1801, 212). Other early nineteenth century visitors were wont to provide more dramatic and exaggerated descriptions of the topography they encountered. Commentating on the Honddu John Beaumont (1803, 314-5) exclaims ‘at an immense depth beneath (the road) the torrent is seen raging’, whilst the hamlet of Cwmyoy was ‘fearfully hanging on a cliff, and beneath a menacing hill.’

‘Llanthony Abbey, Cwmyoy, Monmouthshire’ by JMW Turner, 1794 (Source: Tate Museum,

The late eighteenth and nineteenth century saw a proliferation of paintings and engravings of the priory and its environs. Whilst the wider landscape setting is often somewhat impressionistic, with the hillsides particularly exaggerated, such images not only confirm Llanthony as a key subject within the proliferation of landscape art but also provide some interesting topographical detail. One of the most famous images is by JMW Turner, a prolific chronicler of the historic monuments of the day. His view of the priory (which may have helped to proliferate the use of ‘Abbey’ rather than priory as an appellation) shows the surrounding hills higher and more precipitous than in reality, with a similarly romanticised river scene in the foreground and the priory flooded with ‘heavenly light’ (Sinclair 2001, 142). Commenting on the showing of the painting as part of the Tate Museum Ruin Lust exhibition (March 2014), Iain Sinclair described it as ‘fraudulent’ in its interpretation of the hills and the ‘cataracts’ of the river; an image made for the tourist, the equivalent of modern ‘ruin porn’ (Radio 4 Front Row, 03/03/14). Interestingly, also clearly represented is the still now extant curvilinear enclosure on Loxidge Tump above the ruins, which may originate as a medieval sheep corral operated by the priory as discussed in the previous chapter.

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by Virtue, date unknown.

Although it is rare for such images to focus on anything but the priory ruins themselves, it is interesting to study the landscape backdrop. Often quite generic but sometimes able to illustrate something of the landscape of the time. In Virtue’s painting the enclosed pasture, mountain wall and the nant farmstead of Troed-rhiw-mon can clearly be seen on the opposite side of the valley. A more open, neatly hedged fieldscape is observed in Edward Hayes’ picture of 1800, whilst the priory is often very much part of an agricultural scene with sheep and cattle grazing around the ruins.

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by Edward Dayes, 1800 (Source: National Library of Wales,

The very act of touristic visits to historic sites such as Llanthony was already beginning to become a subject of comment and friction as the century progressed.  The Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro just to the north of Hay-on-Wye in Radnorshire in the 1860s chronicled Victorian country life in the south Herefordshire border district through his diaries. He provided a memorable account of a visit to the priory in which, although praising the peaceful situation of the ruins themselves, he also makes clear his distaste for a certain type of Victorian tourist: ‘What was our horror on entering the (priory) enclosure to see two tourists with staves and shoulder belts all complete, postured among the ruins in an attitude of admiration, one of them of course, discoursing learnedly to his gaping companion and pointing out objects of interest with his stick. If there is one thing more hateful than another it is being told what to admire and having objects pointed out to one with a stick. Of all noxious animals too, the most noxious is the tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist’ (Barber 2003, 107). Kilvert also makes reference to William Wordsworth and either his sister Dorothy or daughter Dora visiting Llanthony, in walks from Llyswen in Brecknockshire via the Gospel Pass. Wordsworth was a regular visitor to Herefordshire though no account of a visit to Llanthony has been found (Barber 2003, 101). This sense of exclusivity is also taken up by ‘The Insect Hunter’ (1838): ‘Llanthony is one of those speaking monuments of the olden time … Luckily this beautiful spot has no road approaching it sufficiently macadamised to admit the passage of the luxurious vehicle of the opulent ruin hunter... it is not therefore and never can be the range of the tourist.’

Arthur Bradley was a prolific writer on Wales and the Marches and his description of an exploration of the Vale of Ewyas provides a good example of the more sober and rational view of the landscape observable in the Edwardian era. He mocks the over-egged dramatic descriptions of earlier visitors: perhaps they had never been out of the city and suffered from ‘nervous delusions’. For instance, an 1813 account (writer not recorded) that exclaimed ‘infinitely grand, awful, and horrific, are the convulsions in the Vale of Ewyas’ (Bradley 1911, 89). Bradley (1911, 95) also had sharp words for Father Ignatius’ foundation of ‘New Llanthony’ at Capel-y-ffin, which he felt could not hope to approach the majesty of the original priory: ‘nor do recent erections in the inner-most sanctuaries of nature appeal to me, however, faithfully they may attempt to adhere to the models of ancient times.’ Commenting on the confusion that the new foundation had caused in the public mind by appropriating the name of the priory he noted: ‘one of the most beautiful of monastic ruins, having due regard to its unique situation, in the whole island has been quite obscured in the public mind’ (Bradley 1911, 96).

Ignatius was followed as resident of the new monastery at Capel-y-ffin by an equally controversial figure in Eric Gill, who set up an artistic and religious community there in the 1920s: an ‘experiment in communal living’ (Sinclair 2001, 211). Gill, sculptor, typeface designer, printmaker and unorthodox Catholic was taken by ‘the awesome power of the valley that has attracted people on spiritual pilgrimage for almost a millennium.’ A suitably remote place to set up a Christian community of craftsmen on the borders of mainstream society (Mason 1975, 54; Miles 1992, 15, 164). Influenced by the Utopian medieval aesthetic of William Morris and John Ruskin, Gill fostered a ‘half peasant-like, half monk-like atmosphere’ (Miles 1992, 47). Unlike other artistic visitors, Gill’s work whilst in the valley did not really reflect the landscape that surrounded him, though he returned regularly afterwards and members of his family remained until the 1970s. The landscape proved a more profound influence on one of the other members of the community, painter-poet David Jones. The border landscape of the Vale fuelled his ‘imagined construct’ of Wales’ past and his experimental painting style, reflecting the dominant rhythms in the local landscape through the use of subdued textures and colour (Miles 1992, 15, 143).

‘Hill Pastures, Capel-y-ffin’ by David Jones, 1926.

One of the first fictional works to be sparked by Llanthony and its landscape returns to the theme of the supernatural. M.R. James (1994, 5), premier exponent of the English ghost story, used Herefordshire as the ‘imagined scene’ for one of his most famous, A View From a Hill (1925). The key dramatic setting for the story is the fictional ‘Fulnaker Priory’ with Llanthony as its probable real-life inspiration (Pardoe and Pardoe 2004). A local writer much influenced by James’ style was L.T.C. Rolt. He used Llanthony and the valley as a thinly-disguised setting for two of the stories in his supernatural collection, Sleep No More (1948), and in his memoir described how being enveloped by mist as he climbed over the ridge from Longtown to Llanthony became an inspiration for his stories (Rolt 2009, 9). ICwm Garon the main character follows a mountain path from a Norman castle (based on the route from Longtown to Llanthony) to reach an inn at ‘Llangaron Abbey’ (the fictionalised Llanthony) where his supernatural adventure plays out in ‘Cwm Garon’ (the Vale of Ewyas). A wayfarer similarly seeks out shelter at the ‘Priory Hotel at Llanvethney’ (Llanthony again) in The House of Vengeance (Rolt 2013, 31-49, 121-9). In her introduction to a recent collection of his stories, Susan Hill remarks on how the Black Mountains combine ‘tranquillity, beauty and spirituality’ with ‘dread, menace, depression and foreboding’ (Rolt 2013, x). Alfred Watkins was another local man who wandered extensively in the environs of Llanthony. The central ‘ley lines’ theory of his book, The Old Straight Track (1925), was and is eccentric and has been thoroughly discredited as having any scholarly credence, particularly in the context of its later ‘New Age’ trappings. His research does though makes reference to many local sites and it seems that some of his ideas and epiphanies came to him whilst exploring the area: ‘there is a favoured spotLlanthonyin the heart of the Black Mountains where primitive tracks and notches can well be studied’ (Watkins 2005b, 52).

Seeking ‘concentrated solitude’ the artist Eric Ravilious spent several weeks staying at a farmhouse near Capel-y-ffin in the winter of 1938 and was visited by John Piper (Powers 2002, 42). Both produced a number of landscape paintings, with Piper creating naturalistic images of the priory but also moving into the surrounding countryside to focus on the agricultural buildings of the estate. The work of Piper and Ravilious reflects a move towards more impressionistic and less literal interpretations of landscape as the twentieth century progressed, other examples of which can be seen below. Edgar Holloway was another visitor to Capel-y-ffin in the middle years of the twentieth century and his work ‘Mountain Path, Llanthony Valley’ depicts a working figure on the parish road with the mountain wall and nant farms clearly visible.
‘Llanthony’, 1941 (top) and ‘Ty Isaf’, 1939-40 (bottom) by John Piper.

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by John Craxton, 1942.

'Llanthony Abbey’ by Gwilim Pritchard, 2005.

‘Mountain Path, Llanthony Valley’ by Edgar Holloway, 1943.

Raymond Williams, one of the foremost men of letters of post-war Britain was a native of Pandy, across the Honddu from the priory lands of the old Redcastle manor. In his later years he produced a great work of fiction based on a scholarly framework, weaving historical events and landscape into a long-form narrative chronicling 25,000 years of the district’s history: The People of the Black Mountains (1990a, 1990b), a mixing of real events and people with invented narratives. Produced by a local writer steeped in the culture of the area but also a highly-regarded academic, the two books provide a more informed feeling for the landscape than many purely academic or descriptive accounts, and give voice to the unheard people of history: lowly novice canons, tenant farmers, women generally. The work’s value is both as an example of literary descriptions of Llanthony, but also as commentary on the contemporary landscape of the priory estates. The following extract describes the scene after the devastation caused during the Glyndŵr rebellion:

‘The priory of Llanthony stood empty and neglected, its store room broken open. The monks no longer felt safe among their Welsh tenants, and had withdrawn to Hereford. Below a mountain stream, their retting mill had fallen into disrepair. The dried shocks of flax, pulled each day by the abbey’s labourers, stood abandoned … Sheep grazed above the empty abbey, and across the river over the slopes towards the Coed y Dial’ (Williams 1990b, 300).

The later twentieth and early twenty-first century has seen further layers of writing embedded in the landscapes surrounding Llanthony. Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill (1982) fictionalises the landscape of the eastern fringe of the Black Mountains and was partly inspired whilst the writer spent time in the Vale of Ewyas. Chatwin was staying with the painter Ozzy Jones at his house in Nant Bwch above Capel-y-ffin, occupied by another artist and writer Reg Gammon during the 1940s and 1950s.  More recently Resistance, Owen Sheers (2007, 276) World War Two tale of a German invasion of Britain is largely set in the Olchon and Llanthony valleys, ‘a graveyard of failures, littered with the remnants of men foolish enough to think its geography sufficient to extract themselves from the world.’ The psychogeographical writer Iain Sinclair offered a more esoteric fiction on the subject of Llanthony in Landor’s Tower, a novel in which the narrator/ main character has been commissioned to write a book about ‘Walter Savage Landor and his gloriously misconceived utopian experiment in the Ewyas Valley’ (Sinclair 2001, 8). The novel spends dense pages in the footsteps of the ghosts of Landor, Ignatius and Gill around the priory, Siarpal and on the Hatterall ridge. To the narrator, the landscape setting of the priory was: ‘nothing more than a device to slow the pulse of the visitors, preparing them for the move into the surrounding countryside. The priory, this geological freak, had no centre; it was all view, the further you walked away from it, the more it made sense’ (Sinclair 2001, 312). Sinclair, who has also written on the ‘Beat Poets’ of 1950s America is a link in a chain with another enigmatic outsider who spent time around Llanthony. Allan Ginsberg composed his epic stream of consciousness poem, Wales Visitation, here in 1967, a record of an ‘LSD-fuelled hill walk’ (Ginsberg 1979; Sinclair 2001, 86). These are but the latest additions to a canon of artistic responses to the genius loci of Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas that seems to be endlessly flowering.

Allan Ginsberg in the Vale of Ewyas, 1967 (Source: