The First Stile4 minute read

One man chased after me waving his stick because my train ticket fell out of my pocket. Another beckoned me down a shortcut into town.

The pasty saleswoman seemed to be competing with me for variety and number of ways to say thank you.

The cafe owner took me outside to show me the Three Peaks (they were hidden by the houses and a dense bank of cloud), describing the distinctive challenge of each and the wonderful views to be had (on a fine day).

I set off down the pedestrianised centre of Abergavenny, clutching my map and compass, in a thoroughly good mood, and in thoroughly the wrong direction.

Correcting my course back to what turned out to be the wrong church, I realigned my map and strode up the lane to The First Stile.

The First Stile is always a significant moment in any hike and merits a pause for a snack, despite the fact that you haven’t really gone anywhere yet, and a photograph, despite the fact that you are well aware the view from here will not fall into any memorable category when you get back home.

But this is The First Stile and protocol must be followed.

Suitably refreshed, the tussocked slopes start tilting and the sheep munch steadily at my side. Another stile or two and I’m out among the scattered farmsteads.

I cross an old footbridge over a tarn, the wooden boards growing into and out of the roots of an ancient apple tree. Then a stiff climb up to a car park and into a field of black sheep. A metaphor drifts hazily into mind, without ever really settling – much like the spots of rain that never really build up the momentum to hit the ground.

I’m into open access land, which I’ve just learned about, brushing my way through nipple high ferns to another view across Abergavenny and the valleys south, the views that came so highly recommended in town.

I overtake a pair of walkers. ‘Don’t get lost!’ they cackle when I reveal that this is my first time in the Black Mountains. I wave my map merrily in response. They scoff: ‘Not much use, that, when the mists come down!’

Luckily I just dropped £4.99 on a bright orange emergency whistle.

Orienteering, to my disappointment, is rather easy. Ahead is the cone of the Sugar Loaf (ASIDE: What is a sugar loaf? A sweetmeat cross between a bread and a jelly bean?) and the path is scored unmistakeably on the hillside. I practise taking bearings anyway, happily agreeing with myself that the mountain top is Thataway.

I come to a cave-like nook which is most suitable for stopping and looking down over the valleys, sheltered from the wind. But I’m so close to the summit that this is not the time. So I tramp onward, taking big steps up the rock staircase to the gentle slope that leaps to the solid familiarity of the trig point: The Destination.

Along with The First Stile, The Destination is a significant moment. But unlike The First Stile, The Destination is overrated.

We’re here, so now what? Well, now you must take more photos and send them to friends. You must cling on in the wind and try to enjoy the views without completely losing your map. You must eat that half-cooled pasty and an apple.

You must share the summit with the other walkers who have triangulated on this pyramid of mountain rescue sponsored stone.

Conversations pop up from nowhere: ‘We’re bang on timetable’, ‘I don’t see why I have to be the bad guy’, ‘I’ll take you, and then you take me’, ‘You agree with me, don’t you?’, ‘Jump up on the stone, then!’

It’s all rather exhausting, especially when you’re trying to watch the unlabelled bird of prey who makes a noise like a firework before folding in its wings and diving for the sheer hell of it.

The other side of the mountain is another pretty postcard and, now The Destination has been attained, the hiker is free to enjoy the wilderness.

I angle for an unfavoured path that leads down into an overgrown gorge. The path marked on my map appears to be at one with the stream bed, but I whack my way through the thick ferny undergrowth and find myself in a wooded mushroom wonderland, kicking up autumn leaves and scuffing fungi from the forest floor.

Tracks made by mammalian scurriers lead me through the valley, above where the stream burbles and pops, ducking under the old tree branches, stepping over and between mossy boughs.

After the spare humid Sugar Loaf slopes and the busy wind-scorched summit, the wood is a soothing respite, ripe with diversion for the senses. This is where the real walking is to be found. The beetles who roll around on the leaves beneath my feet, showing their blue bellies as they tumble.

But somehow I find myself drawn onto a forestry track that leads inexorably away from the cool stream and into the hamlets that overlook the town. One final field of horses and their attendant deposits and I’m down among the children being led from school to ‘Is it football or rugby you’ve got this evening?’

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