Hovel in the Hills

Hovel in the Hills by Elizabeth West (1977)

Introduced by Anne Brichto of Addyman Books, Hay-on-Wye


I spent I spent a night and this morning up in the Black Mountains beyond Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob at a friend’s cottage. It was cooler than Hay and we watched a near full moon rise as we cooked spare ribs over an outside fire.

This morning we woke late and brunched on eggs, bacon and spinach with left over olive, feta, green bean and puy lentil salad. We had already drank two pots of coffee so we had ready made green smoothies – a first for me. They were good.

The cottage has no electricity except for one solar panel that runs a few lights. It now has a flushing toilet but the first time I stayed we had to go to the loo outside.

I loved waking up there – as the world gets more confusing getting back to basics gets more appealing even when we are only 20 minutes from the relative sophistication of Hay.

The book is Elizabeth West’s Hovel in the Hills which was first published in 1977. It is a warm and detailed account of the love and labour that a falling-down cottage in rural Wales required to make a home in the 1960s and early 1970s.

It has recently been reprinted with a new preface by the author. My friend Tam is putting the same effort into this cottage. She has learned how to point and she recently insulated the roof using ladders and scaffolding boards and a staple gun.

I am very proud of what she has achieved in two years. Her hovel is rapidly becoming a home in the hills and though only a few miles from Hay I felt I have had a magical night and a truly relaxing break.

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Extracts from Hovel in the Hills:

‘Between the high, wild moorland of Hiraethog and the lush green lowlands of the Conway Valley, lies a scrubby rock-strewn wilderness clothed in bracken, gorse and ancient hawthorns – this is where the Hafod stands.’

‘Hafod is an odd little cottage. It comprises two square stone ‘boxes’, one slightly smaller than, and adjoining the other. The two boxes are in alignment at the front, so the larger one sticks out three feet beyond the other at the back. The walls are about two and a half feet thick. A stone lean-to built onto the back of the larger side was the original dairy, and stone outhouses adjoin the cottage at either end.’

‘We learned from the deeds that the original holding was of 23 acres, so at this altitude, with its poor starved fields. it must always have been a subsistence farm. It would have been hard, frustrating work to try to gain a living out of this land.’

‘Hafod was probably always occupied by disgruntled tenants who were only waiting for an opportunity to get out into something better. They must have known hardship, poverty and possibly starvation.’

‘I wonder how many generations of despondent women have gazed from the kitchen window over the bleak moorland scene, thinking enviously of their sisters enjoying a softer climate and easier living in the valley?’

The age of Hafod is a mystery. According to local legend, the place was originally a squatter’s holding. In the days before the enclosures, when common land was shared amongst the common people, a man could stake claim on a piece of land by erecting an overnight home. If smoke came out of the chimney by morning, the house and land was his.’

‘A slate floor found in the garden suggests a different layout of a previous house; an old doorway in the gable end has been filled in. Sometimes, the weather conditions here depress us. Often in winter, we endure several continuous weeks of rain, when thick grey clouds hide the mountains and nothing is visible from the windows except swirling mist and wet foliage.’

‘When it’s so dark in the cottage we need the light on all day.’

‘All that is forgotten during the enchanting summer months, when doors and windows are open from dawn to dusk as the scents of blossom fill the air, and the garden is delirious with birdsong.’

‘One January, when there was a lull in the snow that had been falling steadily for two days, I decided that I would like to walk to Llanrwst to do some minor and unimportant shopping.’

‘The sun was shining weakly from a pale blue sky, and the landscape was a dazzle of white, as I crunched happily along our track. But three hours later when I was on my way back from Llanrwst with a laden rucksack, conditions had changed. Snow was falling heavily as I passed through the village and things had worsened considerably as I started up our track.’

‘The first half mile between the walls was slow going. The road was rapidly filling in, and sometimes I had to scramble on to the wall to by-pass a drift several feet deep. When I got to the highest part of the track where the walls had fallen, I realized that I could be in real trouble.’

‘A full blizzard was now blowing and the fine snow was driving straight into my face. I could not see the track.’

‘Odd boulders and odd hawthorn came into view, but as I stumbled on, I had no definite way of telling if I was still on track or not. Nothing lay ahead but a vast white lumpy wilderness and a wall of driving snow. It would be possible to actually pass the gate of Hafod by a few yards and not see it. ‘

‘I was now on the most exposed part of the track and for a few minutes I had to stand still because there was a complete ‘white-out’. Although I was wearing a close fitting hood, the snow was hurtling at my face with such stinging force that I could not look up at all. I peered ahead but could see nothing.’

‘I had climbed too far up the slope and was about to pass Hafod below me to the left, when I could just about make out the collection of little roofs huddling beneath a thick cover of snow. I scrambled, fell and tottered down to the cottage. Against the front door was a 3 foot drift, half of which came into the kitchen as I lurched in.’

‘Outside the storm could do its worst now. We had provisions in the house enough to withstand a twelve weeks’ seige. I was safe.’

‘No one lives upon the high moor now, and a strange, wistful melancholy hangs about the abandoned homesteads. This land of Hiraethog is well named.’


One thought on “Hovel in the Hills

  1. I remember reading this, and the sequel Garden in the Hills (I also have the cookbook Kitchen in the Hills!). Together with an article from Woman’s Own in the 1970s, which talked about another couple living in a remote cottage – she was a spinner and knitter, too – I really wanted to do the same thing when I grew up!
    I did, for a while, up above Llanigon, and found that I wasn’t actually much good at it!

    Liked by 1 person

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