Wales / Herefordshire with Sue & Mike 3rd to 6th August 2019

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Our usual summer visit to The Firs cottage in the Olchon Valley near Longtown, Herefordshire.  We are so fortunate to be invited by great friends Sue and Mike to spend time with them in this delightfully isolated location – perfect for a quiet get away from the hectic pace of modern life!  Our daily excursions included several local walks, playing games and enjoying each other’s company – what could be better?

Although it’s described as a cottage it is in fact rather large and sleeps seven!  It’s a 17th century listed cottage surrounded by mountains with rather patchy phone reception so you really can escape from modern life.

Mike and Mila fill the bird feeders with nuts kindly provided by the owners of the cottage.  It won’t be long till the birds soon empty them!  It’s wonderful to watch an interesting variety of birds visiting from . . . 

. . . The more regular blue tits and sparrows to . . . 

. . . the Greater spotted woodpecker (sorry the photographs are a bit blurry) – the Lesser spotted woodpecker is very similar though much smaller being roughly the same size as a House sparrow and the Lesser spotted woodpeckers have a black and white ladder which runs down the back of the bird.  The photograph above is of a male Greater spotted woodpecker – distinctive with its crimson-red crown (whereas females are almost entirely black and white and feature no colour at all).

. . . The Nuthatch is also a regular visitor to the bird feeders and is also easily recognisable with its very distinctive blue-grey top half and chestnut colouring on its sides and under its tail.  It also has a black stripe on its head and a long black pointed bill.  Close by there’s a male chaffinch with its brightly coloured blue-grey cap and rust-red underparts – sorry it’s blurry too but my camera was’t quick enough to capture the birds very clearly but at least it gives you an idea of how many little visitors we enjoyed coming and going . . . it didn’t take long till the bird feeders needed refilling!

The cottage is down this track – in perfect isolation.  Mila’s not too old to enjoy a quick swing on the gate . . . thanks Mike.

There are plenty of walks to enjoy straight from the cottage.  Here we’re heading for the nearby stream and ford with Mila and Mike in front . . . 

How big a splash can you make . . . ?

. . . Not bad Mila!

The water level is quite low this year as it’s been quite a dry summer – although it used to be used as a ford today the few cars that pass cross by the bridge.  In other years the water has been quite deep and fast running – one year we had to hold on to Mila to ensure she wouldn’t be swept downstream as there’s quite a drop under the bridge – hard to believe when you look at the water today.  Looking upstream in the second photograph the gate can actually swing out so that when the water is in spate it can swing out and allow debris to flow down river.

Sue looks like she’s contemplating which route to take . . . not really . . . only Mila is mad enough to climb down the slippery rocks under the bridge.

Sure enough, Mila couldn’t resist climbing down and walking under the bridge and up the other side . . . the rest of us decided to take the easy route along the road to continue our walk!

Back at the cottage . . . and time for dinner.  We were luck enough to enjoy most of our meals outside.  It’s so peaceful and the birds soon got used to us being there so it wasn’t long before they happily continued to feed on the bird feeders ignoring our presence.

On another walk we walked up the bridle path where the owner of the surrounding area has put up new fencing and new gates.  Pal, Mike and Sue decided to wait at the gate while Mila and I walked a bit further on . . . 

. . . Mila was soon distracted with the pull of a fallen tree just perfectly placed to climb whereas I was  being pulled by the hillside . . . the Black Hill or Cat’s Back!  The Cat’s Back is the easternmost ridge of the Black Mountains and is the mountain you can see from the cottage.  Despite wearing my wellies and not my walking boots I decided to head up and up and up . . . 

The ascent isn’t too steep to begin with but it got much much steeper as I neared the top and wellies weren’t the wisest of footwear choices!

Even this photograph doesn’t really do justice to the steepness, but you get the idea!  The Cat’s Back (I think this is a much more interesting name than it’s alternative name of Black Hill) lies just over the country border of Wales and is in fact in Herefordshire together with the adjacent secluded  valley where the cottage is situated (the Olchon Valley).  The Cat’s Back is formed by a narrow ridge extending southwards and is only two mile long unlike other ridges within the Brecon Beacons which are up to ten miles long so my research tells me!

The path you can just make out in the photograph above is what I’ll aim for when I descend . . . but first I’ve got to keep heading up . . . not far to the summit now.

Near the top the grass gives way to swathes of beautiful springy purple heather and at this point the Olchon Valley is now out of sight below me.  The more regular path is quite a way over to the right of the photograph and is where I’m now heading.

There are a number of small pools of dark tannin-stained water along the fairly flat summit area.  In fact the actual summit is barely distinguishable from its surroundings – luckily it’s marked otherwise it would be hard to know when you had reached it.

Unfortunately I only had my mobile phone with me and the weather was quite hazy so the photographs aren’t great but the photograph ahead gives you an idea of the narrowness of the ridge in places.  This view is looking south.

Looking down the other side across a patchwork of fields.

There’s the concrete pillar marking the summit.  The path continues along from here northwest along the nearly flat ridge that connects to the next segment of the Black Mountains . . . you can see that on the photograph further up this post where I pointed out the path I’ll aim for when I descend back down to the Olchon Valley.

A close up of the Ordnance Survey pillar marking the summit . . . rather wet and muddy – finally my wellies come in handy – though my walking boots would still have been a better choice!

Looking north there should have been some views! However as you can see the low clouds obscured what I should have been able to see looking north!   I should be seeing the Wye Valley and the hills of mid Wales and the Malverns to the northeast and supposedly on a clear day you can even see the high peaks of Snowdonia . . .I’ll just have to use my imagination on a day like today.

Looking back at the summit pillar . . . 

. . . I’m started to head down now following the path which runs close to the rim before heading down southwards back to the valley.  As you can see the path descends gently at first through the heather to the head of the ravine before dropping down quite steeply, staying just to the east of the small stream that runs below The Firs cottage where we’re staying.

A last look down at the valley before I descend to the valley on the other side of the Cat’s back.

A steep descent to the valley . . . maybe I should have stuck more to the path . . . but as it’s been a long time since breakfast I’m in rather a hurry not to miss a very late lunch!

It’s not long till I finally meet up with the path that I should have been on . . . 

A lovely route alongside the various waterfalls and pools along the way.

‘. . . So which way do you want to go to my right or to my left?’ The sheep seems to be saying!  I did see some wild ponies near the summit but they disappeared out of sight by the time I got my phone out.

Looking back up . . . it doesn’t look so steep from this angle does it?  It’s not far from here back to the cottage and a well needed cup of tea.  Sue had got a wonderful lunch ready and waiting . . . thanks for everyone’s patience.

Other days and other walks . . . It’s impossible to pass the stream without spending some time messing about.

 . . . It’s a time to chat . . . this time Mila and Pal are up ahead.

The photographs above really remind me of the children’s book ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen . . . (Isn’t is funny how some children’s books really stay in the memory – or is that just me?)

“We’re going on a bear hunt . . . Uh-uh! Grass [well, in our case bracken]!  We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  Oh no! We’ve got to go through it! Swishy Swashy!  Swishy Swashy!  Swishy Swashy!”

More gates . . .

On another excursion down to the stream Mila and Pal decide to take the ‘high road’ across the stream . . . here are our intrepid explorers below . . .

Mila and Pal must be crazy . . . there’s quite a drop to the stream from here . . . and in wellies!  I stood safely on the bank holding my breath.

Pal has to come back in the other direction . . . I would have just gone down to the stream and up the other side! Definitely not for scaredy cats like me!

This is the safer, easier route that I took . . . as opposed to the route that Mila and Pal took across the stream which can just be seen beyond the second tree on the left. 

The cottage is surrounded by greenery . . . clean country air . . . what could be better for the heart and soul?

On some walks we walked back through the fields to the cottage rather than by the single track road.

The cottage is equipped with plenty of games . . . here we’re all enjoying a game of monopoly which was great fun . . . well done to the winner – Sue who managed to amass an impressive assortment of houses and hotels and basically ended up thrashing us all!

By the end of our few days stay we had actually worn away the grass playing Swing Ball.  The cottage owners seem to have thought of everything – indoor and outdoor games, books and jigsaws – you name it so, whatever the weather there’s always plenty to do.

Our final day and Mila couldn’t resist doing the 1000 piece jigsaw . . . determined to complete it before we left as it too belongs to the cottage!

A few days with Sue and Mike . . . brilliant . . . thank you!  A much needed rest and recuperation with special friends.