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.