"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Black Mountains Fell Run - Olchon Valley - June 5th 2020
I always like to run, ride or hike on my birthday and this year I was keen to head for the mountains and resume my fell-running renaissance that began tentatively at New Year. In the weeks leading up to June 5th I was keeping a close eye on developments in Wales to see if they would loosen lockdown in the same way as England, but for no doubt sound reasons, they didn't. That meant looking for some english hills to run in - I thought about the Mendips but having had my heart set on the higher and more remote Black Mountains I remembered reading about "Herefordshire Ridges" in that range and decided to explore some of those. Having googled the Olchon Valley and seen how beautiful it was, I decided to head up there, taking the long way round through England by car as driving through Wales would have been a breach of their lockdown. I knew there were only half a dozen spaces for vehicles at Black Hill and I was wondering on the way up if others would be thinking along the same lines as me and flooding into this corner of Herefordshire because their usual climbs in Wales were off limits. When I arrived though there was a solitary camper van and plenty of space. I soaked in the mountain scenery, pulled on my cambelbak and headed down into the lush depths of the valley on some narrow paths choked with fallen trees, past an empty farmhous, then the climb up to a familiar ridge began.
Signs on the hillside urged walkers to stick to the footpath but the path soon disappeared and as much of it was impassable because of fallen trees and and overgrowth of scrub, I couldn't follow it all the way despite my eagerness to do just that. I ended up having to climb over the fence into the open country and make my own way to the ridge following a stream. It was so dry that the tiny ribbon of water was barely visible, hiding in a gully no wider than my foot, but that meant I had a narrow strip of clear ground amid the heather and bracken that was easier to jog and walk up. The slopes in the Black mountains are often like this - too steep to effectively run - so it was a case of hands on knees and haul up to the lip of the ridge where I joined a path from further north that wound up to a cairn on the ridge. The views here were glorious, the wind was cold and bit into me, my heart rate was hitting 169 and I was totally breathless - I was back in the mountains! I recognised the tops on the horizon (Pen Y Gadair, Twmpa, sugarloaf and Skirrid) and it was like seeing old friends.
I ran north on the line of stone slabs that marks the Offa's Dyke Path, passing the shaggy mountain horses and feeling my strength return after the steep climb. I was wondering how long I'd last without a windproof - the north wind was really penetrating. I paused to get gloves on and a buff to keep my ears warm and hold my running cap on - that proved enough. I was right on the border here - one foot in England and the other in Wales. The northward run went on and on - my plans to extend the loop around the Olchon Valley with a side-trip to the ruins of Caswall Priory were soon dropped. The horseshoe over Black Mountain and Black hill would definitely fill 2 hours and I had people to see and places to be later in the day so that would be all I could squeeze in.
I saw no-one else on the Hatterall Ridge - I had one eye always on the east side to see if I could pick up a path to the head of the Olchon and across to Black Hill but in the end nothing obvious showed up and I found myself running to a high eminence on the ridge with a steep drop down to the north leading to a big junction of pathways. Now there were 2 lines of stone slabs, one leading on to Hay Bluff over the border in Wales and the other snaking off to the right, signed with a grave-like stone as Offa's Dyke. I ran a few yards down it thinking I could make a longer loop, but after losing my footing and falling flat on my face I remembered that lockdown is not a good time to push yourself too hard and get exhausted in deserted mountains. I rolled as I landed, instinctively, bouncing back up without a scratch luckily, then headed back onto the quick route to Black Hill. This was a welcome change of surface as the path was a sandy rut cutting through the heather rather than a hard line of stones. It took me slowly but surely down on to the lower ridge that diverges from the border into England and ends on something I hadn't been expecting from the map - a proper "edge". Not quite a knife-edge, but surely the nearest thing to a Striding Edge that we've got in southern England. It was exquisite scenery and great to run - I paused for a few pics and to climb on to the trig point, but apart from that it was great, swift ridge running and even swifter descending. I passed a few walkers on this limb of the hills, proving that we're collectively complying with the rules as they differ in England and Wales.
The final descent had amazing views and a perfect running trail along the ridge. It doesn't get any better than this.
So, thanks to lockdown I've discovered a new corner of England I might otherwise never have taken the trouble to explore. The expansive views were enough to expand the heart and mind, as you always hope they will, and although the run was short (exactly two hours) it left a deep impression. I'll be back here for sure.
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