Bruce Chatwin was 15 when he first cycled through the Vale of Ewyas, a place he would later refer to as “one of the emotional centers of his life.” Wordsworth and Turner also loved this rugged mountain range that borders the England-Wales border. I was 20 when I first came to visit, and was so struck by the undulating hills that I jumped out of the car and ran barefoot onto Hay Bluff, gripped by a reckless delirium.
Two decades later, I’m on another yoga and hiking weekend here, as Chatwin’s beloved valley unfolds below. The packing list said sunscreen – but this is Wales, in winter, and the weather isn’t a factor. Raindrops on still green leaves. Boots squeak in oily mud. Mist envelops a seam of oak.
‘Bracken is the enemy,’ says this morning’s guide, local author Rob Penn, as we pound a path through the pernicious fern. “Nothing eats it – not even sheep!” We clamber over a fence and enter a gated area where Stump up for Trees, the charity Rob co-founded, has planted 135,000 native broadleaf saplings – the first of a million to be planted in this corner of Wales. Immediately we see signs of rejuvenation: oak trees periscope up through the ferns, young rowan berries ablaze with berries. “Our native tree cover is only 12% – a third of that in Germany,” says Rob. “We have to turn the tide.”
A lesson in ecology isn’t what you’d expect from these retreats, but Ruth Pickvance, a former British running champion and the founder of Element Active, the company that hosts my weekend, wants the break to be about more than just the miles. “It’s about the landscape, the ecology, the history of these hills,” she says. “Connection, no calories.”
Ruth, who lives on site, is on a mission to get women into the wild. “When I fell British champion in 1989, women weren’t really running – that was seen as odd,” she says. While the winning man was awarded a North Face jacket, Ruth’s prize was a set of Argos heated hair curlers.
We’ll cover five miles this morning, 16 over the weekend: across windswept highlands, through fairy forests, along the foothills of old drover trails, past hedges dripping with blackberries and blackthorns. Gerald of Wales, the 12th-century traveler and chronicler, described the Vale of Ewyas (also known as the Llanthony Valley) as a “wilderness far removed from the bustle of mankind”, and even now, centuries later, his words ring true. true. Despite the inclement weather, it is a soul-renewing stuff.
After lunch on the first day – a walkers feast with lentil soup and homemade blackberry crumble – we depart from the ruins of nearby Llanthony Priory. This time, Ruth leads the charge, telling stories of Norman warlords, cross-border squabbles, and the fall of the Reformation. Later, we marvel at the shaky 13th-century church of Cwmyoy, whose tower, Ruth tells us proudly, leans more than Pisa’s. Inside it feels like we are on the deck of a ship.
As we walk back down from the hills that afternoon, the sun breaks through the clouds for a moment and casts an anchor of golden light on the priory: the dark ruins are lit up, the fields glow rice paddy green. We all stand still and look at it in awe. A medieval pilgrim would have sunk to their knees, convinced it was a message from God.
Our base camp is Llwyn Celyn, a 15th century farmhouse in the Black Mountains. The farm, now owned by the Landmark Trust, was in ruins when she bought it in 2014. The last residents were two old men who had simply moved rooms when the walls collapsed around them. It’s a story straight out of Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, the novel he plays in these hills.
The days begin and end with yoga in Llwyn Celyn’s huge stone barn, with underfloor heating and original wooden doors. Kirsten Steffensen, a wiry Dane who is co-founder of The Sports Ashram in Leeds, walks us through a series of slow, core-based asanas, often reminding us to connect with our breath. Her teaching is delivered with humor and warmth, backed by decades of experience. “Always think kind thoughts of yourself,” she says, cursing my trembling abs.
To make the weekend accessible to all budgets, accommodation is not included. I’m staying with friends locally; others stay at the Bridge Inn (doubles from £95 B&B) just over the English border at Michaelchurch Escley. Sleeping three more in the bunkhouse in Llwyn Celyn which is a bargain at £25 a night.
I’m not normally one for women-only events, but us 14, all of whom are about middle age, bond quickly, with lots of talk and cheer. Many in the group — including two GPs, a primary care respiratory consultant, a nurse and a teacher — have witnessed the worst of the pandemic. Some are experienced yogis; others don’t know their cobra from their downward dog.
On Sunday we pack packed lunches and set out for a 13 kilometer walk along the spine of Hatterall Ridge, right at the border. Wild ponies graze, their coats fluttering in the wind. Skylarks explode from the moors. There is butter yellow gorse, reddish brown fern and scarlet hawthorn. To our right are the Marches – a rural idyll of enclosed fields and frothy groves – the distant glitter of the Bristol Channel and the blue blot of the Malvern Hills. To our left brood in sharp relief the dark hills of Wales, their slopes marked with sheep tracks and woolly with ferns. I imagine centuries of English soldiers with trembling legs peering over this parapet.
For an hour, Ruth asks us to walk in silence, an exercise she calls “walking together, walking apart.” The exercise acts like a mild psychedelic, heightening my perception. I notice the textures of the mountain—prickly gorse, sharp quivers of sedge, acid green cushions of sphagnum moss that lie beneath my feet—and enjoy a pair of ravens soaring through the sky, lashed by the wind.
We’re tired and a little damp for the last yoga session, but it’s just what we need. The sunlight pokes through the barn windows and converges on the floor, and somewhere outside a buzzard meows, its call cleaving through the deep silence of the valley. We moan. We laugh. When Kirsten tells us to reach for our toes, mine will feel as far away as the Pleiades, and I promise to do more yoga. “Let go of your expectations,” Kirsten says. “Just come with the body you have that day.”
I leave with sore legs, torn abs and a full heart. In these disjointed times, these kinds of weekends are just what we need.
The trip was provided by Element Active, which will host six autumn walks or autumn runs and yoga weekends in 2022 (check website for dates), from £275 pp including lunches and tuition; accommodation is additional. There is also a special Treberfydd Women’s Walking Weekend in November, which includes en-suite single rooms, all food and drink, plus a massage, for £580