On Black Hill

When asked to feature just this one hill, Black Hill or Crib y Garth (Welsh) in my art, I discovered oh so many ways to respond creatively…

I’m taking part in an upcoming group exhibition called “The Perfect Hill”. It will be hosted at the Ludlow Assembly Rooms in July. Do come to the private view on Saturday 16 July 2022, 4 to 6pm.

What a privilege to be asked to rise to this visual challenge. I’ve had to create 4 or 5 artworks showing a mountain local to me, here on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. So I thought I’d share my Black Hill paintings, alongside the research and musings that evolved with the art…

Always changing

You never see Black Hill look the same on any two days. We usually view the hill from a distance: either as a brooding compact animal form – the ridge is also known locally as the “Cat’s Back” – when driving north to south. Or as a striking peak, when driving west along the Olchon Valley towards Hay on Wye. 

The hill is often lit up in a variety of colours, reflecting any combination of factors: the season, shifting clouds and light, mist, rain, snow or shrouded in cloud cover. 

I doubt I’m alone in feeling there’s a daily visual transformation in any hill. But nonetheless, you have an intensely intimate experience when trying to capture that change and mutability in paint.

When I painted a series of four aerial views of Black Hill, I noted how the exposed northerly flank of the ridge lights up in the first half of the day. One crisp winter morning, it appeared to be pulsating with a fiery orange-pink light from the bracken, while the frosty valley below lay in cold blue shadow.

And on late summer evenings, Black Hill really does seem to turn a rich violet-blue-black. Or is that just my imagination?

The distinctive shape of this old red sandstone hill mirrors other easterly beacons in the National Park, like Ysgyrd Fawr (Skirrid). The southern part of the ridge leading to the summit is a rocky knife-edge, mirrored by the Skirrid ridge to the south. In fact the two beacons share a very close geology and neatly bookend Offa’s Dyke path if you’re located here in the Olchon Valley, Herefordshire.

Because it’s on contested land and was previously part of Wales, Black Hill also has the Welsh name Crib y Garth (crib meaning ‘ridge’ and Garth meaning ‘gentle’ or ‘watchful’). At 640m it dominates the English border with Wales and is part of a series of ridges known as the Black Mountains in Herefordshire. To the north, the views extend to the Malverns on a good day. Nearby villages on the English side of the hill, include Craswall, Llanveynoe and Longtown, where I have my art studio. 

I like to walk up Black Hill then onto Hatterrall Ridge and Offa’s Dyke Path. Here, I can straddle the border between England and Wales.

With one foot in either nation, I’m aptly represented: my Welsh heritage comes from my mother’s side and my English (well, Anglo-Irish) genes come from my father. 

And other creatures…

Our family walks around Black Hill led to exciting encounters; we found a common lizard sunbathing among winberry (bilberry) bushes on the southerly slope. And we regularly see the wild pony herd, and particularly enjoy watching their foals in early summer.

To the south of the ridge, the Olchon Valley ends. The brook (giving the valley its name) has a series of tumbling, small waterfalls. It eventually runs down to Longtown where the Olchon meets the Monnow. Then this flows over the border into Monmouthshire, South Wales. 

Literary location

Black Hill gained literary status as the backdrop to Bruce Chatwin’s novel, ‘On the Black Hill’ (1982). This features the Radnor inhabitants of a farm called The Vision (which you will find on the map). Chatwin describes the border between the two nations running right through middle of the staircase.

Owen Sheers’s novel ‘Resistance’, which reimagines Nazi victory in the 1940s, is set in this area. He describes a remote community dominated by a landscape of dark brooding ridges.

This is the backdrop to an exploration of how distinctions – of nationality and ethnicity – easily blur in these strange and dramatic borderlands.

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