Train strikes once more scuppered the first day of a BRAPA holiday. Due for a leisurely trip down on the morning of Saturday 1st October, I suddenly had to rush out of work at 4pm on Friday 30th September, leg it to York station, and hop aboard a Manchester bound train, changing for Abergavenny.
By Shropshire, it was time to crack open my train beer, a powerful little number I'd picked up in Hesket Newmarket a few weeks back, perfect with a couple of Bourbons . 20p a pack from Sainsbury's, but for how much longer? Okay, so a few crumbs got into the margin somewhere near Church Stretton, but my '22 GBG was beyond repair by now anyway.
So why Gwent? Well, each year I like to tackle a 'county' where I've previously had zero ticks. I'd left it late this year, but after Mummy and Daddy BRAPA had enjoyed a fabulous week in Blaenavon in the summer, I took it as a sign and booked myself a week of intense ticking, knowing the 2023 GBG was only 2-3 weeks away.
My walking woes actually began as soon as I stepped off the train. The Premier Inn wasn't in Abergavenny itself, but actually Llanfoist, just south of town. 'But you must've know that before you set out Si?' I hear you say, and I did, but I somehow thought I'd be able to take a short cut around the bypass.
But it was unwalkable, so it needed a 30 minute trek, in the pitch black, across Castle Meadows, alongside the River Usk, was terrifying. I was a stressed, sweaty mess when I arrived at nearly 10pm, but the receptionist and two ladies checking in behind me were very sympathetic.
After a shower and a late tea, I felt human again and fell asleep the second my head hit the pillow!
Saturday 1st October
With not one single train running out of Abergavenny, today needed to be a bus day. So why not do the 'hard trio to the north' whilst I was still relatively fresh? That way, I was setting down a marker - and that marker said 'Gwent ya bugger, I'm coming for ya!'
After a quick instant coffee from the pathetic kettle and an damp flapjack, I hopped on the early bus north in a Herefordly direction, hopping off at Llanvihangel Crucorney, but I asked for the 'Skirrid Inn' because (a) I could pronounce it and (b) I remembered it from 'Most Haunted' back in the Derek Acorah golden age. I'd hope to pop in later today, but for now, I had 3 GBG ticks to tackle.
Llanthony was the furthest tick, a six mile walk, so I set off and was a little bit annoyed to see a few more cars on these narrow lanes than I'd anticipated. Never dangerous, but with six miles in front of me, I didn't want to be stopping and waving every two seconds. I guess they were all off to read books in Hay on Wye or sit on the top of Lord Hereford's knob.
The scenery became increasingly breathtaking, my phone signal disappeared, the air seemed fresher and silence descended as I stretch away from the main road. It was glorious weather, for that I was grateful.
About three miles in, I swung a right and extended by walk further by descending into the village of Cwmyoy and seeking out the Church of St Martin, which I'd read was the most crooked church in the UK due to a landslide, like that pub near Dudley I've never been to.
Besides, it was time for a breakfast stop so after a quick explore, I sat on a churchyard bench and took in the scenery and listened to mooing cows whilst nibbling on a few snacks.
I wanted to be knocking on the pub door for noon opening, so thought I'd best not dally, so when two ladies appeared at the church door, I thought "ugh, not actual human beings!" and took that as my cue to leave.
There were times when it felt like Llanthony wasn't getting closer, perhaps it didn't exist and is a GBG ploy set to see how gullible pub tickers are. So it was with much relief when a sign for the village finally came into view. A trio of hippie ladies who smelt of burning incense sticks appeared from the road to the Priory, said 'hello', again I thought 'ugh, more humans, shoo!' and I scurried off like the hermit I was rapidly becoming.
And then, I see the pub on the horizon, hurrah!
'Please open on time!' I'm secretly willing, as those familiar feelings of paranoia resurface like they always do pre-difficult pub tick. So I take the black cat crossing the road outside the pub as a lucky omen.
And what an affectionate cutie, with a weird zip collar thing - which must be her rucksack containing a dead mouse, a pawful of dreamies and a bit of catnip. It is 11:50am, so we sit together on a bench in the sun.
11:55am, I'm relieved to see the landlady unlock the door and bring a couple of blackboards out to the front of the pub. One makes it sound as though a visit to this pub is akin to a prostate exam.
She isn't exactly the sunniest character, considering what a beautiful peaceful pub she runs, but I do manage to ascertain that our feline friend is called Senna, though whether it is a reference to Ayrton or some other spelling, I'm not sure. She hates her collar, but it is to stop her biting the fur off her back.
I wait reverentially for the clock to tick around to exactly 12 noon before wandering in, I do not want to upset the applecart at this stage! Half Moon, Llanthony (2416 / 3980) is as you might expect, a bare-boarded farmhouse style boozer, with a few modern concessions for the tourist crowd - leaflets, choccy bars, a bit of simple scran, I liked it. I opt for Butty Bach by Wye Valley, too sweet tasting for me, a bit like Doom Bar in that respect, but that is probably sacrilege to say in these parts. As I'd discover as my week went on, it is often THE beer that the locals go for. It is also the first of MANY sightings of the same Wye Valley glass I see in nearly every pub. I've barely settled and done the triumphant green highlighting, when a waft of incense breezes through, the door bell tinkles. It is the three hippie ladies! "We meet again" one calls over to me. I grunt in what I hope is a semi-polite way. Their order tests the patience of our grumpy landlady to the limit. Beer, crisps, toasties, cider, a Wifi code .... these three want it all! One hastily tags a coffee on the end of the order. "Oh, and a Crunchie!" she adds even later. "We don't do Crunchies!" snarls our hostess with satisfaction. "Oh, I saw the glimmer of yellow and thought you did, it is a Cadbury's Flake isn't it? I'll have one of them". One nearly steps on Senna's more elusive brother, Whisky. And just when you think they are done, one nips out to their car and returns with a Lemsip sachet. "Could you boil a kettle for this?" she asks. "No, I can do you hot water but not boiling!" says the landlady. Awkward silence. I both want to laugh and disappear. The landlord finally appears and chats to me, he is more jovial. Southern too. Turns out they are from Kent. I'd later be told he isn't allowed behind the bar because he likes beer a little too much. He reveals how the local CAMRA bloke came in to decide the 2023 GBG pubs, grumbling he was driving so couldn't drink much. "You're in next year!" he tells the landlord. "Don't you need to try our beer first?" asks landlord. "Nahhh, we know you keep your beer well!" is the reply. Scientific. Well, if this was a sign of the Gwent to come, I was going to have quite an eventful holiday.
Still in GBG '23? Yes, and with some relief as I would be told Llanthony has a better GBG candidate!
It was an arduous walk to pub two, which I'd passed much earlier on. Despite being listed under Cwmyoy, where our crooked church was, it was actually closer to the main road and the Skirrid Inn, so a good 5 miles approx from Llanthony.
I pass a funeral procession on the main road, and all I could think was 'don't you dare book the pub out for a wake!' Altarnun still haunts me to this day. Thankfully, I didn't have to worry.
An early contender for pub of the week, Queen's Head, Cwmyoy (2417 / 3981) was a bona fide gem, so old fashioned and basic that it made our last pub look positively gastro. I'm greeted warmly by the landlady and the one customer, some local bloke. Both seem surprised to see me, whereas in Llanthony, tourists just make them yawn. Pretty much everything our hostess says / predicts turns out to be true. She is shocked the Llanthony's Priory bar doesn't get in the GBG ahead of the Half Moon and says I missed a trick not going, pulls out a newspaper feature on said bar, which hosted the UK's first ever beer festival in the late 50's/early 60's apparently. Both exchange glances which say 'he must be mad' when I tell them of my intention to walk to Llangattock Lingoed next. 'That'll be worse than your Llanthony walk!' she tells me. I doubted it, but she wasn't wrong. Also accurate was her claims of no evening bus service from the Skirrid Inn, despite Google Maps and Bustimes.org both saying there was one. And she also KNEW they'd not make the '23 GBG. The long serving landlord died earlier this year after 40 years service, I think, and despite her telling me she's run the cellar/beer side of things for ages, CAMRA are funny when it comes to official changes in ownership. Only one ale was on, Kingstone Classic. She tells me back in the day, it was Ruddles. They'd drive over to Rutland to pick it up and bring it back. And before that, it was Bass. "Oooh I love a Bass" I tell her. "Problem is, all our Bass drinking regulars are now dead" she replies with brutal and slightly comical matter-of-factness. The loos are outside, back onto the main road, hairpin bend, then back in through what looks like a stable door, one of the hardest to find pub toilets I've witnessed all year! A great pub.
Still in the GBG? No, but merely a technicality.
If I was knackered from the 12 miles plus out to Llanthony and back, it was about to reach crazy strenuous levels.
I walk the mile back to the main road, walk north from the Skirrid Inn / bus stop , cross the A465 and before long, turn right. I stop on a grass verge for a sandwich and a drink, and I'm startled by a local tractor driver turning down the same lane, so I slide down into a pile of thistles at the bottom, onto my bottom. Prickly. Tractor driver stops, asks if I am okay and drives off before I get chance to ask if he's heading towards my next pub.
This first bit of the walk is uphill too, I didn't realise how uphill until I was coming back down it later, my mind had sort of switched off to pain by now as roads are replaced by a section of the Offa's Dyke path, crossing fields, hurdling stiles, avoiding bulls, crossing streams on slippy stones. It was undulating, and doing nothing for my knees and hips! Adidas Gazelles weren't exactly appropriate footwear.
At the end of a small patch of woodland, I drop down into the village, an ancient crone appraises me from the doorway of a cute ivy-clad cottage, and the pub soon comes into view.
I enter the Hunter's Moon Inn, Llangattock Lingoed (2418 / 3982), a sweaty mess, puffing and blowing, so it is a bit of a shame the landlord doesn't make at least some sort of comment! I'm absolutely ruined. Same beer choice as in Llanthony, so this time I opt for an HPA, and I find it preferable to the Butty Bach although generally, I favour traditional bitters. I'd only heard good things about this pub from those I'd spoke to today, but it fails to impress. It feels very much like a walkers/bikers destination pub. The raised area, which must take up over 50% of the pub, appears to be a restaurant. It has the same ancient, basic feel as my previous two pubs, but this one is more knowing. 'Banter' is present between the woollen guv'nor and his youthful chargers, but it doesn't extend across the other side of the bar to faces they don't recognise. All the more frustrating when I've made such an effort to get here, but they don't know that. In my Tim Taylor's sweatshirt sat by the front door to get some much needed air, I'm the unwitting first point of contact for the two couples arriving to check in for the night. I feel like a meeter and greeter brewer rep. "Hello!" I say to the older couple, summoning up the 1% of positivity left in me. "We're just off to move the car, but we'll be back in for a drink" the wife tells me, obviously confused. 'Didn't ask hun' I want to say. But at least it makes me smile, in a wincing kind of way, for I know the walk that lies ahead of me!
Still in the GBG? It is, and will have to be until 2040 for this walk to be worth it.
And I will tell you about that walk back, and my attempts to get back to the 'Gavenny in part two, hopefully tomorrow.
Luckily, the ever reliable Twitter was on hand for a timely morale booster .....
Have a good night all,