Few places have been left untouched by human hand or design but this need not always be a cause for sadness or regret. The coming together of natural forms and human endeavour can create landscapes of intrigue and fascination. We are, after all, part of nature and our shaping of the landscape can produce a journey of enquiry into our past as well as encompassing natural interest and beauty.
The Blorenge mountain rising above the small market town of Abergavenny in South Wales may well be the most famous mountain you have never heard of. If you are a devotee of the BBC quiz show QI you may know that Blorenge is one of only two words in the English language that is a perfect rhyme for the word “orange”; it does, however, hold a more significant claim to fame.
The mountain, it is more a hill really standing at only 1,450 feet, forms the south-eastern corner of the South Wales coalfield escarpment. Its distinctive bowl shape stands out along this stretch of the valley of the River Usk, a huge green armchair, spotted with sheep, made in this comfortable form by some minor glacial action at the height of the last Ice Age.
The clue to its now-forgotten fame can be found in the faded ghost of a trackway running around its northern and eastern flanks and descending steeply down to the canal wharf at Llanfoist. This is Hills tramroad and it starts at the World Heritage site of Blaenavon on the far side of the mountain. Here, the industrial revolution first emerged, blinking through the soot, smoke, grime and noise of what were once the largest iron furnaces in the world. The coal, limestone and iron ore from the surrounding hills were harnessed together in furnace and forge to make the products that were moved in the wagons along the tramway. Their steep descent to the wharf on the canal ended with their loading onto the barges that would take them southwards to the port of Newport on the Bristol Channel. From here the products of these forges would be transported all over the globe, heralding the transformative process that has produced the modern world. So, as you can see, Blorenge really should be famous, very famous indeed!
To explore all this you should begin at the wharf itself at the foot of the incline. It is a steep, muddy climb up through the narrow, sheltered gully but the route of the trackway can be clearly picked out. Mature beech and ash rise all around on the slopes of this sharp incision through the side of the mountain. A small stream gallops downwards to your left, insignificant in spring or summer but strong enough in winter storm flow to undermine the trees marshalled along its path. Ancient roots protrude from the soil where the stream has done its most recent work and occasionally you will find a broken beech lying across the footpath, a magnificent silent bulk, like a fallen Easter Island Moai.
The rocks here are of the Old Red Sandstone group, formed in the Devonian period, and produce many of the summits of the nearby Black Mountains. They bring to mind the old line about the Holy Roman Empire as they are not particularly old, not always red and often not sandstone with mudstone and shale cropping out in places.
The soil underneath your feet is rich in the browns, reds and, fittingly, orange of these rocks betraying their origin in an arid, desert landscape. They were flushed from rocky canyons by flash flooding many millions of years ago and deposited in lakes and pools, to be compressed and squeezed and to emerge in recent times in a very different environment. For as you stand on a wet Welsh hillside looking down at your muddy boots you are contemplating rocks formed in a landscape similar to the American south-west of today, the dry barren arroyos and playa of Arizona and Baja California.
Once you leave the gully you enter the beech woods for which Blorenge is famous. The path is now guarded by beech trees, mature and wide of girth with their lime-green canopy resplendent in summer sunlight. They are how a child would imagine a tree -a strong sturdy trunk, spreading full-leaved branches and a satisfying symmetry to the shape. Everything must age, however and some are now entering their senile years, often grotesquely large of girth in their lower parts, arthritic in their upper, with skinny bare limbs, fingers missing.
The people who frequent Blorenge grow to love the mountain. One wet autumn day on the middle slopes above the beech woods I passed a man of middle years and a much older man. The old man struggled up the hill, now on its steepest part climbing up the centre of the bowl, each step leading to a heaving panting breath. With the customary hello exchanged the younger man told me he was helping his father up the hill. It was his birthday and every year for the last sixty he had climbed the mountain on this day. The small matter that this was his eighty-third year on Earth was of no concern to the old man. I wished him well and was pleased to see them both safely on the summit later that day.
Once beyond the woods you can go right to follow the trackway around the easten flank all the way to Blaenavon or a left turn to take you to the Punchbowl Nature Reserve. The Punchbowl is worth the detour on a bright clear day. A small lake sits in the bowl itself, carved out by a small subsidiary river of ice many years ago, with beech pollards, some over 200 years old surrounding and ash, oak and rowan on the higher slopes. These trees form some of the highest altitude ancient semi-natural woodland in Britain and the reserve is popular with landscape artists, fishermen and walkers who have strayed from the tramroad.
The climb above the beech woods and the punchbowl now steepens again and takes you over bare slopes of limestone with a coarse sandstone of the Millstone Grit sequence near the summit. The views are magnificent, with the Usk valley crossing in front of you and the summits of The Skirrid and the Sugar Loaf beyond. Further beyond these you can see the long forbidding ridge of the Offa’s Dyke footpath, all capped by their icing of Old Red.
In late spring the slopes are lit up with the bright white flowers of hawthorn bushes and the air above with the incredible aeronautical displays of swallows and house martins. The birds find a comfy home in the roof eves of the houses surrounding the bottom of the hill. In early evening they flick and dart over the hillside, like fireflies flitting through the darkness, only briefly glimpsed by human eye until disappearing to be replaced by another flash of forked tail. Their movements echo the swifts, described by Robert Macfarlane in the Old Ways, turning at such speed that it seems the air was filled with transparent tubes down which the swifts were sliding. Only this could account for the compressed control of their turns.
Unimpressed by this display resident Wheatears flash their famous white rumps on small outcropping rocks picking bugs out of the air with more prosaic movement.
And men can fly too. As I reached the summit one blowsy summer afternoon a small man with a very large backpack and space helmet marched along the ridge. His eyes were fixed at a point in mid-air but it was no cavorting swallow that took his gaze. Looking around I could see the graceful movement of a hang glider turning slow circles in the sky, seeking still higher summits beyond a walkers reach. The summit of Blorenge is now owned by a local Hang gliding group and remains a place loved and enjoyed by many from the surrounding towns and villages. Its fame no longer goes beyond these communities of south-east Wales, but anyone with an interest in the beauty of nature and how we shape and fashion its bounty can find much to enjoy here.
Photo by Matt Caldwell