First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Around the church tower at Yarpole the fading snowdrops and swelling daffodils made contrasting notes in the tentative chorus of spring just commencing along the lanes of north Herefordshire. It was hard to picture the raw mayhem of border warfare here, the bitter atmosphere of bloodshed and anger between Welsh and English neighbours that caused the medieval builders to raise the tower of St Leonard’s as a separate structure from the body of the church, a refuge for besieged villagers as much as a belfry to call the faithful to worship.
Under the oaks at the bottom of Fishpool Valley lay a string of medieval fishponds, their water sluggish and petrol-blue from the chemicals exuded by the rotting leaves that lined them. Jane and I strolled slowly through the valley and on up a side dingle, sniffing damp air richly scented with leaf-mould and moss. Out at the top a sentinel avenue of ancient, weather-blasted sweet chestnuts fell away with the lie of the land towards 14th-century Croft Castle, tucked away on its saddle of ground below. Crofts have lived here since the Norman Conquest in a succession broken only once. King Edward IV sent Thomas Croft off across the western ocean on a secret mission in the early 1480s, to confirm the existence of rich fishing grounds at the edge of the world. Did the Herefordshire man beat Christopher Columbus to the discovery of the New World? The family believe he did, at all events.
We left Croft Castle to its mysteries, and turned north through Croft Wood where a flock of redpolls with chestnut wings and scarlet caps was flirting and swinging in the bare birch branches. From the high ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort of Croft Ambrey, exhilarated by the cold wind and the climb, we gazed over thirty miles of tumbled border hills from sharp-prowed Titterstone Clee in the north-east to the Powys mountains out west. The bones of this wonderful panorama can hardly have changed in the two thousand years since the last native British inhabitants quit Croft Ambrey after 600 years of occupation. Perhaps they were forced out by the invading Romans, or maybe they simply thought it safe at last, under Pax Romanus, to colonise the lower and easier lands.
Through Oaker Coppice and across Bircher Common we tramped, revelling in the freedom of picking our own path across this large swathe of Access Land. Since the revolutionary CROW (Countryside and Rights Of Way) Act passed into law in 2000, nearly 2 million acres of upland, moor and mountain in England and Wales have been opened to walkers to wander where they will – a right and privilege to be treasured. Then it was on down the field slopes towards Yarpole, looking south over lowlands washed with muted blues and greys under the heavy cold afternoon light of a late winter’s day.
Start & finish: Bell Inn, Yarpole, Herefordshire HR6 0BD (OS ref SO 467649)
Getting there: A49 to Leominster, B4361 to Luston, minor road to Yarpole.
Walk (5 miles, easy/moderate grade, OS Explorer 203):
Bell Inn – footpath crossing B4362 (459653) – pond (458656) – up Fishpool Valley for 2/3 mile. Left (450662 – post marked ‘8’) – Keeper’s Lodge (446661) – Croft Wood – forward along Mortimer Trail (443666). Croft Ambrey hillfort (444668) – Whiteway Head (457675) – through Oaker Coppice (459672-462667). Across Bircher Common past cottages (462663) – left to Beechall Cottage (464661) – right up bank – recross B4362 (466655). Left for 50 yards (take care!); right through garden gate (‘shut gate’ sign); left along stream – stiles and waymark arrows to Yarpole.
Lunch: Bell Inn (01569-780359; www.thebellinnyarpole.co.uk) – stylish, wonderful food
Croft Castle (NT): www.nationaltrust.org
More info: Leominster TIC (01568-616460; www.visitherefordshire.co.uk)
Detailed map and walk directions: www.christophersomerville.co.uk