Posted by: Yawn the Post | May 13, 2011

War Hill

I spent my childhood in Newport, south Wales.  Every Good Friday, along with hundreds of others, I’d make a pilgrimage to the top of Twm Barlwm, the mountain dominating those reclaimed marshlands.

You can see Twm Barlwm from the Severn Bridge, even from the other side of the channel.  It’s probably an iron age fort, and the summit has a ‘pimple’, as my mother used to call it, a mound on which iron age people may have built a stockade, their protection against the bandits who roamed the valley’s boggy wilderness.

Iron Age Wales, it wasn’t a place I’d want to visit.  Twm Barlwm was probably one of the citadels of that era.  I don’t know what the name means, but I wonder if it comes from tump and bellum:  War Hill.

I didn’t know this when I was thirteen, however, and the pilgrimage was just something I did, my rucksack full of squash and marmite sandwiches.

One year there was a war up there, between rival gangs from Newport and Risca.  They took axes and chains.  I hid in the heather.

After I’d passed my driving test, but before I moved away from home, I began to explore other hills and ancient places.  I discovered the mountains of Abergavenny: the Skirrid, the Sugar Loaf and the Blorenge.  I wasn’t a particularly romantic teenager, but these places filled me with an inexplicable awe, a sense of something lost.

I moved to London, and the Welsh mountains seemed so distant they may have well never existed.  But when I came across the books of Arthur Machen, I found a writer whose stories captured the sense I had of those mountains.  Furthermore, one of his most fascinating books ‘The Hill of Dreams’ is set near, and on, Twm Barlwm.

More recently I’ve taken up hiking.  I have friends who do this with great passion, who enjoy finding the most challenging climbs into the hills.  I now know four or five routes to the summit of Pen y Fan, and every one of them is spectacular.  The most popular route has been paved, and although this takes something away from the achievement, at one point, just in the last, steep approach to the peak, the mountain falls away, and the views are stomach tumbling.

Earlier this year I began exploring the Black Mountains.  The landscape here, in the soft folds between England and Wales, is less dramatic than the Beacons, but look to the east, and behold Shropshire, Hereford, The Malvern Hills, Gloucestershire, and further south, there’s the Bristol Channel, and look, that tiny dark smudge, my first mountain, Twm Barlwm.

Just a few weeks ago on a walk in the Black Mountains, I came upon ‘The Vision’, the farm described in Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On the Black Hill’.   I know Alan Garner and more recently Frank Cottrell Boyce have written books set in the Welsh mountains, but both of these are in the landscape of north Wales.  I don’t know of any children’s novels set in these mountains in the south.  Do you?

These places have become burnt into my soul, and I know that despite an urge to see the rest of the world, I could never be too far away from the Welsh mountains, nor from the books that have been inspired by them.



  1. Lovely, Andrew. Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden was set in a Welsh mining town. Was it south Wales?

  2. Twm Barlwm has played quite an important part in my life too. I’ve lived in Newport most of my life. From the age of eight until I was about thirty I lived in the same house in Malpas (my wife and I bought our first house from my mum and dad) . As a teenager I had the back bedroom which had a pretty impressive view of Twm Barlwm. I had a desk which faced out of the window so, while I was revising for my O and A levels, I’d spend a lot of time gazing at it.
    In teacher training college (Caerleon) I had to write a short story for children – probably my first attempt at writing fiction as an adult – and I wrote about a dwarf called JPR who lived in the pimple of Twm Barlwm. My tutor said I was “not without talent”. That comment may well have inspired me to try writing a few decades later.
    On one Good Friday when I was about twelve, myself and some friends decided to do the marmite sandwich and rucksack walk. We had a great time but, unfortunately, on the way back we were basically beaten up by a gang of thugs. Fortunately, some police were in the area and they gave us a lift back home. That same day, someone was attacked by an axe on or near the “mountain”.
    I’m not sure but wasn’t Tolkien inspired by some of the Welsh landscape for Lord of the Rings? Where was The Snow Spider set (Jenny Nimmo)? I can’t remember.
    Anyway, looks like you might have the seeds of an idea for a new book Andrew. Really enjoyed the post.

  3. Lovely blog, Andrew. Does anyone remember Emma Smith’s ‘No Way of Telling’ – a beautiful story set in mid-Wales – should be reprinted

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