It’s only 10.30 a.m. but we’ve already counted 12 men wearing red trousers, some with billowing scarves redundant on this warm May morning, sure signs, according to one friend, that we’re deep in ‘arty’ territory. It’s Hay Festival time again. For the last two days we’ve enjoyed an exhilarating mental workout with some of the keenest and most creative minds around; we’ve been entertained, challenged, inspired; we’ve debated, reflected, absorbed; we’ve queued for Portaloos, Pimms and paninis with unfailingly friendly and polite fellow bibliophiles. Minds and bodies fed, it’s time now to nourish the soul.
We’re headed a mere eight miles from Hay along the remote Ewyas valley to the Twelfth Century Llanthony Priory, one of only a handful of Augustinian churches left in Wales. It was founded by Walter de Lacy, a Norman nobleman who is reputed to have stumbled upon the site whilst out hunting. The partial ruins exude an air of timeless serenity, the elegant, filigree tracery of the windows framing perfectly the vivid green contours of the surrounding mountains. It’s easy to imagine the monks walking in contemplative silence in the grounds.
More surprising is the discovery of an inn built in to the Priory walls. We promise ourselves a pint of local beer in the vaulted cellar bar, but first there’s a walk through the beautiful river Honddu valley to nearby Capel y Ffin.
A tiny hamlet, it has more than its fair share of religious buildings: the diminutive church of St Mary, holding a maximum of twenty in the congregation, is the oldest of them, and was described by diarist Francis Kilvert as ‘squatting like a stout grey owl among its seven yews’. Across the river is another whitewashed chapel, this one Baptist, while to complete the trinity are the ruins of an Anglican monastery, built and lived in until his death in 1908 by the eccentric Reverend Lyne, in his efforts to restore monastic life to the Church of England. He had failed in 1896 to persuade the then owner of Llanthony Priory, the poet Walter Savage Landor, to part with it. The self-styled ‘Father Ignatius’ was a mystic whose reported sightings of the Virgin Mary were apparently confirmed by local farm boys. The Vision Farm, which still stands nearby, was so renamed as a result of these sightings and there is an annual pilgrimage every August between Capel y Ffin and Llanthony. Author Bruce Chatwin, who declared the area to be one of the emotional centres of his life, refers to Vision Farm in his novel ‘On The Black Hills’. Today, however, we are the sole visitors, the brooding silence broken only by the occasional plaintive call from an unseen bird.
Back to that promised drink: Llanthony seems positively crowded after the lonely sanctuary we have left; children play hide and seek amongst the arches; hikers picnic on the velvety grass. The bar is open for business and there’s not a pair of red trousers in sight.