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Cats and Dogs on the Black Hill

Visit the highest point in the two counties, where the harsh life has been portrayed in an absorbing novel.

Distance 8.7 miles (14.1km)

Minimum time 4hrs

Ascent/gradient 1,475ft (450m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Muddy patches, stony descent, lanes, minor roads, 7 stiles

Landscape Mountainous plateau incised by green valleys

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL13 Brecon Beacons (East)

Start/finish SO 288328

Dog friendliness A good yomp, but may be sheep grazing on tops

Parking Black Hill car park (signposted)

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park go straight and steeply up the clear track. Just keep going, enjoying the airy path, or, if the wind is strong, walk in the lee on the eastern side when the terrain permits. The gradient varies over the 1½ miles (2.4km) to the trig point.

2 Continue along what is now an easy, broad ridge for 1¾ miles (2.8km), to a low, concrete slab. Turn left here, joining both Offa's Dyke Path and the border between England and Wales. In a little over ½ mile (800m) is a very indistinct top - at 2,305ft (703m), the highest point of all the walks in this book.

3 Now carry on for 2½ miles (4km) along this gorgeous ridge: the point where you turn off is indicated by a pile of stones and a similar concrete slab indicating Offa's Dyke Path again - this point is approximately perpendicular to the sharp end of Black Hill. You may be able to see your car from here, and the re-ascent necessary to return to it.

4 Turn left. The descent begins with a left-hand traverse. After 650yds (594m) be sure to swing round to the right, heading down the valley. When 140yds (128m) beyond this sharp bend, note, but do not take, a waymarker indicating a left turn option (in late summer the waymarker may be concealed by bracken). After 30yds (27m) come to a very finely forked junction.

5 Be sure to take the lower, left-hand option; do not go 'straight on', that is, the right fork. Descend to a gate and the first stile of the day. Walk along a sunken track to a second stile. Turn left down an old sunken lane. Later ignore a stile on the left and reach a minor road.

6 Descend to a junction. Turn left. Within 60yds (55m) take a footpath on the right, down into trees to cross the Olchon Brook, then re-ascend. Go round buildings at Blackhill Farm and continue up through small fields to the road you came in on. Turn left then right to return to your car.

Tucked away on the western edge of Herefordshire are three valleys: the River Dore in the Golden Valley, the Escley Brook in the Escley Valley and lastly the Olchon Brook in the Olchon Valley. The Black Hill lies, sometimes literally, in the shadow of the Black Mountains that here delineate the Welsh border.

Even at the car park - almost 1,300ft (396m) - you are higher than most tops attained elsewhere in this book. Known locally as 'the Cat's Back', Black Hill distinguishes itself by being the highest peak in Herefordshire (and in Worcestershire) that the Ordnance Survey names on its maps. The Ordnance Survey gives no such attention to the actual highest point in Herefordshire, a knuckle on one of the Black Mountains' splayed-out fingers, lying as it does along the boundary with Wales - so let's call that 'the Dog's Back'. In fine, summertime weather you cannot fail to enjoy this airy walk, but should you do it in cold and wet conditions, you will need a heart of stone not to empathise with those upland farmers who have no choice but to be working outdoors in such conditions.

Bruce Chatwin's 1983 book On the Black Hill was largely biographical, tracing the history of the Jones family through some 70 years of farming on the Black Hill. He had spent much time in the Herefordshire borders and had befriended several people. At first it may seem odd that a book about outdoor, farming people should be claustrophobic, but it is a short distance from solitude to isolation, and even in the 21st century people who work on the land are often in solitude for protracted periods of time. In the case of the novel's Jones brothers, Benjamin and Lewis, they are emotionally intense, largely because they have so few relationships and because of their blood ties. (In the film of the same name, directed by Andrew Grieve and released in 1988, the actors playing the brothers were real brothers too.)

Bruce Chatwin's On the Black Hill was his first novel. He had arrived at writing by a roundabout route, first as an auctioneer and later as head of one of London's famous auction houses, then as an archaeologist. His diverse career was typical of his life; he attributed his adaptability and somewhat 'nomadic' lifestyle to his wartime childhood, during which he was cared for by various aunts in various places. He went on to write several other novels, realising his goal of not being a formula writer but making each book quite different to any that preceded it, although many people find them 'inaccessible'.

Where to eat and drink

In Craswall, the menu at the Bull's Head free house includes pan-fried hake, Craswall pie and Olchon lamb. Dogs welcome. In Michaelchurch Escley the Bridge Inn, adjacent to the Escley Brook and a tiny camping site, offers home-cooked food using local produce such as Herefordshire beef and salmon smoked in Hereford city. It has a brookside beer garden. Dogs and children are welcome.

While you're there

A few miles along the road to Hay-on-Wye, not signposted and tucked out of sight in a valley, are the forlorn remains of Craswall Priory. Even in this corner of Herefordshire, remoteness is a relative concept - this building just doesn't get visited by the numbers associated with Dore Abbey or Longtown Castle. Craswall is the third and final Grandmontine priory in England, the others being in Grosmont, North Yorkshire and Alderbury, Wiltshire. The priory was probably built in the 1220s, and abandoned in 1441. It is a Listed Grade II, Scheduled Ancient Monument.

What to look for

Look out for energetic Offa's Dyke Path walkers. They started in Chepstow and so are only a couple of days into the walk. Those who started in the north are probably tiring, so won't overtake you!

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