A trip across to Hay-on-Wye, ‘town of books’ on the England/Wales border for the annual literary festival is a Whitsun Bank Holiday excursion I’ve become used to over recent years. This year, however, I didn’t buy any tickets for literary talks, instead I immersed myself in the rolling hills and nature-rich countryside that surrounds the town. And I started with Hay Bluff.
The main road through Hay is often flanked with put-up stalls selling everything from recycled paper notebooks to used army boots, wood-carved creatures to sheep-skin rugs. There are usually plenty of crowds making their way between the diminutive market town and the festival site, so cars drive rather slowly through the town. This is in your favour because you won’t miss the small sign to ‘Capel-y-Ffin’, should you be suitably inspired follow on my journey.
The road out of Hay immediately narrows into a single track and before you’ve even registered the steep incline, your ears will pop to let you know you’re going up, up, up. The road twists and turns as it climbs. ‘Fresh eggs’ declares a sign at the gates of a farmhouse on one particularly curvy bend. And beware of the hens freely ranging at the next cluster of stone farm buildings.
By the time you judder over a cattle grid in a woody dell, you’re well on your way to sheep country. And they’ll probably welcome you in with some inopportune middle-of-the-road wandering just to ensure you’re paying attention to their landscape.
The terrain flattens out and you’ll emerge from the trees into the fabled rolling green hills of England (except that it’s officially Wales by this point). You can park up on the soft verges at various spots from here on in and admire the view. A little further on, however, the mighty bluff comes into view.
I’d been racing over the motorways, A-roads and B-roads from the Essex/Herts borders on which I live so it was early evening when I arrived. The sun was still high in the sky and there was practically no one around. I didn’t expect to stop for long – just a quick post-drive leg stretch and a little wander sans camera. So I was a little surprised to find myself on the top of the bluff about 30mins later.
I blame the skylarks. I’d never seen them at such close proximity before. I could hear them and see them singing. They’d occasionally swoop into the air and with a few characteristic darts and, temptingly, rest just that little bit further away from me. At the base of the bluff there’s grassy heathland, with plenty of gorse and nascent ferns awaiting their grand unfurling.
There was evidence of streams wending their way down the hillside in wetter times, cutting through the heath and making it boggy in places. In one such spot I saw an unrecognisable bird. A stonechat, perhaps? It was making a curious sounds that, if you really tried hard, you could imagine it being construed as the sound of two stones being hit together.
Having not taken the camera out of the car, I was slightly beside myself with frustration and not least because I didn’t even have the wildlife lens in the boot of the car. Still, I was free to jump over the streams and boggy patches unimpeded by the weight of the bloody thing so I rejoiced in that and attempted to commit more of it to memory than I otherwise would.
I took a barely-there, almost-trodden path through the grass up on a slightly more sheer route up. There were horses in the distance that I was keen to avoid, not least because from where I was stood it looked like a gigantic mare was straddling a foal and doing unmentionable things with it. Ah, nature.