Country diary: this hill lacks folktales, but has a mystical presence

Jim Perrin
·2-min read

The hill has two names. Its Welsh one as given on the Ordnance Survey map is Allt Tair Ffynnon (high place of three fountains). The other – a local one bestowed since the tide of the old language ebbed from this valley – is both biblical and physically descriptive of rock strata thinly clad by hill vegetation: Jacob’s Ribs.

Especially in years of drought, a striking geology is revealed beneath parched grass. You see it to best effect left of the road from Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant to Llanfyllin. There should be stories about it, and perhaps once were, but they’re lost. I’m reminded of Uvayok, a sleeping giant of a hill a quad bike ride out across the tundra from the settlement of Iqaluqtuutiaq in Nunavut – the Inuit High Arctic homeland in Canada. A wealth of tales from the oral tradition attaches to Uvayok. For Allt Tair Ffynnon, to my knowledge there are none.

Yet it has such presence. It’s one of those hills that “give back / The sun’s glare with a fixed intensity”, as Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in Bracken Hills in Autumn. Allt Tair Ffynnon is the perfect autumnal bracken hill. It gathers the western light that floods along this valley. A brace of fine journalists for this newspaper group – Christopher Wordsworth and Geoff Nicholson – lie in the chapelyard at its foot. From my skylight, when I lived in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, it dominated the view. I was captivated by this hill, in the way that a rare and lucky man or woman might find in their domestic companion someone whom a world fixated on appearance and achievement might not celebrate, but whose imperturbable good humour is a quiet delight.

On winter mornings, it rises above valley mist and frost as a shimmering presence, its bracken a sodden, heavy terracotta against the sky’s wan blue. You come at its dragon-crest summit by way of the hillside beyond Llannerch Aur (golden glade). Three springs – small, gravelly, quartz-pebbled pools among fallen bracken-litter, runnels seeping down from them, rowans overhanging gracefully, fieldfares feasting on frost-darkened berries – punctuate an ascent which few make other than the quiet sheep of the hills. I passed by recently, and stopped to contemplate its glow in the last sun, which stilled my heart.