Travels through Farynshire: Mountain wine

There was no trace of a hangover the next day – probably thanks to the sausages.

Bea Proke makes the best cooked breakfast: yet more sausages, bacon, fried and scrambled eggs, black pudding, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms (I had an entire plate of these), beans, toast, homemade marmalade and two pots of tea.

“Most of my guests are here to go walking and you need a big breakfast to prepare you for the Peaks,” said Bea Proke, as she brought two more racks of toast to our table.

This was our only full day in the mountains: we were catching the train out to the Lake of Doom early the next morning. This limited our trekking options. The Myttens were out – we would need to hire an off-road vehicle to get to them. We could make it to either Tlws or Gwyrddlas’, but not both. The vineyards Felix wanted to visit were on Gwyrddlas’ verdant slopes, which proved the deciding factor, because although I would have loved to see Tlws’ lakes and waterfalls, especially on a hot summer’s day, there was not much else to do on that mountain, unless you were into water sports – which I’m not. Felix had also used Walking and Wine in the Bloon Peaks to show me that wolvern sightings were uncommon but possible in Gwyrddlas’ forests.

The narrow, hedge-bound country lanes meandered through fields in the valley, and they were full of summer flowers and new life: everything that was alive was enjoying the bright summer day. I’ve never really been one for nature, but even I felt that we had stepped into some sort of Garden of Eden where everything was colourful and bountiful and happy and living in harmony with every other living thing. There were probably fieldmice in the wheatfields. We saw hares chasing each other through wildflower meadows, and by the clear streams a stork and a flash of bright blue – that I initially declared to be a hummingbird, but on reflection was probably more likely to be a kingfisher. We saw the occasional farmhouse in the distance, but there were no other signs of human life.

Of course, the whole area is managed by the farmers and the Natural Park authorities. Farynshire has seven Natural Parks: designated protected wild areas. Three are in the mountains, including the whole of the Bloon Peaks region, two on the coast, and the last two are the forests of Oes and Gnivil.

From the valley floor you really get a sense of the size and character of the individual Peaks. Skinny Peak towered behind us as a crude spire, whilst ahead Gwyrddlas’ slopes were dark green, leading to its rounded summit.

As the lanes started to gently curve upwards, wooden signposts informed us that there were a few vineyards in the area. Felix had chosen Huan Gwenynen, as one of his ap Hullin relatives knew the owner, and he had found it in the fold-out map in Walking and Wine.

Like the meadows below, the slopes of Gwyrddlas are well managed. The oaks, beeches and birches give way to pine forests further up, and interspersed with the trees are the vineyards – mostly on the Peak’s eastern flanks that get the most sun. The western side has fewer roads and darker forests.

Huan Gwenynen was at the end of a rough path made into a tunnel by the overarching branches of tangled hawthorn, which beams of sunlight broke through to criss cross our path. The path led up to a ridge, and below the ridge lay the vineyard.

A white-walled cottage sits at the entrance to the vineyard. It is built in the same squat, rubblesque style we had seen in the streets of Hen Ffydd; a reminder that although today everything was peaceful and serene, we were in the mountains and it was a harsh environment in winter.

From the courtyard outside the cottage we could see a stable block, some long, low barns, and a modern conservatory at the rear of the cottage that looked out over the valley. A grubby grey sheep waddled out to greet us. As it got closer it looked more like a dog, but I was never entirely convinced. It snuffled around Felix who ruffled the dreadlocks on its head.

“Barney!”

The sheepdog turned its head in the direction of the cottage. A bald man with a walking stick limped out to greet us. The sleeves of his checked shirt were rolled up to his elbows, his faded jeans were stained with dried mud, heavy workboots thumped in the gravel.

“Lost, are you?”

“Mr Cled? I’m Felix ap Hullin. This is my friend, Mabel. You were expecting us?”

“Of course I was, of course I was. This time of year we get all sorts lost on the mountains.” He shook each of our hands. “I’m Arawn Cled. This is Barney. So – one of the Tor Calon ap Hullins, eh? You’re a long way from home!”

Felix shrugged. “Mabel’s from over the mountains.”

Arawn did not try very hard to look interested in this information. “Did you come up from Tor Calon?”

“We came from Rookpot. We’re at university there.”

“Ah, doing the Grand Tour, are you? Well, you’ve picked a lovely summer for it. Will you be heading to Tor Calon along the way?”

“Maybe. We are planning on going to the coast.”

“If you see Henry, tell him we’ve got some new varieties he’s interested in. He sent a gentleman called Reuben up here a couple of years ago. Relative of yours?”

“My cousin.”

“He took back quite a few crates. I’ve laid out some samples so you can take back your personal recommendations.”

Arawn and Barney led us passed the cottage to the veranda overlooking the vineyards. The vines covered the slopes in regimented lines of stunted trunks and long, delicate trailing tendrils. The veranda was where Arawn brought his guests to show off his lush green empire. A long wooden table with a sturdy white table cloth took up the middle of the veranda, and was surrounded by chairs and a battered sofa, which Barney immediately curled up on and went to sleep.

“I’ll get Ruth to bring out some wine for when we get back. Follow me down.”

A wrought iron staircase – not unlike the one in the centre of The Lilac Beech – wound down one side of the veranda to the dusty track that ran above the vineyards. We crossed the track to walk amongst the sweet-smelling vines. The path between the vines is bare earth, but Arawn pointed out wildflowers like poppies, cow’s parsley, clover, and the occasional primrose (I wrote them down so I wouldn’t forget) that added drops of colour in the shaded roots of the vines. The vines themselves were carefully tied in ways to keep them secure and ensure productivity (Arawn did explain a lot of the technicalities, but I failed to retain most of it). Flowers bloomed on some of the vines, and bees worked furiously whilst butterflies floated on the warm air.

As we walked along, Arawn used his walking stick to flick a stone or move a tendril carefully to one side so he could peer underneath. Occasionally he whipped out what looked like a nail clipper to cut a shoot or a twig he did not like the look of.

“People are often surprised to find vineyards on a mountain in northern England, but it just so happens that Gwyrddlas provides us with an almost perfect location with regards to the right growing conditions. Just look at all of the natural woodland and other flora on her slopes. She seems to absorb the sun into her – it can feel almost Mediterranean up here at times. What can be tricky is the harvesting.”

“When do you do that?” asked Felix.

“We try to leave it as late as possible, so usually late September. But, as you can imagine, weather affects everything we do here, and the harvest more than anything else. We’ve had the snows come in August, and we’ve had summers stretch into October. The weather determines the character of the wine, and some years are better than others. The worst years are when we get wet summers – small grapes and a low yield.”

“How do you harvest?” asked Felix. “I didn’t see any machines.”

Arawn swung his stick around to take in their surroundings. “How would we get machines up the mountain and over the ridge? The closest we can get is the track below the restaurant, and the biggest vehicle that can get up that is our old truck. So we couldn’t use machine pickers even if we wanted to. But I wouldn’t use ‘em anyway. We use people from the local villages, and they have a discerning eye. They make sure we only get the best grapes.”

“How long has the vineyard been here?” I asked.

“Over sixty years. My great uncle planted the first vines here. He was born and bred in the valleys and saw the potential on the mountain slopes. Your grandad, Henry, came to see him when they was both young men.” Arawn bent awkwardly to scoop up a handful of dry soil. “It’s all in here, see? This mountain is ancient, with roots stretching to the centre of the earth, and all that age and wisdom in its soil feeds our vines, and gives our wine a timeless richness. You can taste the mountain in the wine. Would you like to try some?”

Ruth was Arawn’s wife: middle-aged, very fit, with a long silver plait hanging over her shoulder. She had laid out a few bottles of wine on the long table on the veranda, as well as bowls of salad, loaves of local bread, cheeses, pickles, a massive pork pie, and assorted fruit tartlets. Barney lifted his head curiously from his place on the old sofa, sniffing in the direction of the pork pie.

Living and studying in Rookpot, I thought I was used to stunning views, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more magnificent vista than I did that afternoon drinking wine in Huan Gewnynen.

Ruth had brought five bottles for us to try, and she assured us that a ’88 had gone into the summer fruits trifle waiting in the fridge.

Arawn’s version of wine tasting was to … just drink a glass of the chosen wine. There was not much swishing, gurgling, or commenting on what kinds of fruit and wood we could taste. What he did insist on, though, was a particular wine for a particular kind of food. The clear sparkling white went with the cheese, followed by a more mellow pinkish variety with the pork pie. He gave us a list of everything we had sampled that Felix could take back to his granddad and cousin.

As the sun moved around behind us, it occurred to me (through something of a wine-induced fog, admittedly) that we had no plans as to how we were going to get back down the mountain. Despite the seven glasses of wine (and not counting the fruit salad ’88), I had enough awareness to know I did not want to try and get back to Hen Ffydd in the dark. A chill was creeping into the warm evening, accompanied by wisps of mist.

Arawn offered to take us back in his track, but Ruth insisted, as the most sober one out of all of us, that she would do that.

The truck had once been blue, but was now mostly rust with one green door and a red roof. It had an open flatbed to carry supplies and wine. I’m not sure I could have made that trip back with my nerves intact without a good amount of wine inside me. Ruth clearly knew the mountain like the back of her hand – but that was of little reassurance to me when she suddenly swerved down sudden drops, twisted away from trees in the middle of the road, and skidded over mudflats. It felt like we were going to die with every turn of the steering wheel.

I spent most of the journey with my eyes squeezed shut, clutching Felix. But there was one point when the truck slowed right down and Felix nudged my attention to something outside. The mist was thick now and obscured the track completely (so Ruth was essentially careening down the mountainside blind). I did not understand what I was supposed to be looking at until I saw a shape move in the mist. It was a shadow, tall and dark, taller than Felix, with arms, a large head, and a loping gait. And then it was gone.

“Don’t often see them this low down,” said Ruth, pressing down on the accelerator again. “Not at this time of year.”

“What?” I asked, needing conformation.

“Wolvern, I reckon. Must have wondered what we were.”

I craned my neck around, trying to see through the mist and darkness. How may were out there? Would we hear howling? But there was nothing more. Just that one fleeting glimpse. But I have seen a wolvern.

Ruth dropped us right outside The Last Rest. She gave us each a bottle of Pink Huan and said she hoped to see us soon. There was no mist in Hen Ffydd – thousands of stars lit a clear sky.

I think it was quite early when my head hit the pillow, but the wine had made me sleepy, and gave me strange dreams about giant shadows swimming in fog.

We left Hen Ffydd the next day, after one of Brea Proke’s magnificent cooked breakfasts. Felix bought some blood sausages from the butcher’s on the way to the station.

As the train chugged southwards the only thing missing from the postcard-perfect scene of the five Peaks was a plume of smoke trailing behind us.

By Mabel Govitt (with special permission from Ammaceadda)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s