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On The Black Hill

The enigmatic and award winning author Bruce Chatwin, whose novel On The Black Hill celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012, was famous, not least, for the fact that he wrote his books in other peoples' houses.

"A house is only useful to me if it is somewhere I can write in," observed Chatwin in one of his notebooks.  And as his fame grew, so too did the number of people willing to offer him a desk.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that several people were quick to take the credit for giving Chatwin the space to write arguably his most famous novel of all, On The Black Hill.

It's said, for example, that when publisher Tom Maschler told George Melly that Chatwin has written the book at his cottage near Hay-on-Wye, Melly argued, "What do you mean?  He wrote it in my house!"

Whatever the truth, and wherever he wrote it (some say it was in as many as seven different houses), the fact remains that most of it drew its inspiration from Chatwin's time in the border country between England and Wales, in Shropshire, Herefordshire and The Brecon Beacons.

Hosts included George and Diana Melly in their tower at Scethrog (in Brecon), and the Wilkinson family near to the village of Clunton in Shropshire.

Chatwin turned up at Cwm Hall in Clunton at the end the 1970s, and was given the stable flat, where he sketched out the first pages of his poignant, deepest and darkest, story about two Welsh farming brothers.

And he actually completed it in another favourite hideaway: a medieval signalling tower near to Florence, in Italy.  The story goes that a maid, Giuliana, one day asked her employers how many people were staying in the tower, and was told "Just Signor Chatwin", with owner Greggori von Rezzori later explaining: "She had overhead an entire assortment of voices: men, women, children.  It was Bruce writing, reading aloud, in the many-voiced chaos at a county fair in Wales."

Chatwin drew most of his inspiration from his time in Herefordshire, The Brecon Beacons and Shropshire.  It was a sweeping landscape and a sparse population which Chatwin saw more than 30 years ago.  And one which still exists to some degree to this today.

He wrote the first chapters between March and May 1979, having arrived at Cwm Hall with an empty notebook.  But he left it with the makings of a masterpiece, which would later also be made into a movie, filmed almost entirely in The Brecon Beacons at Spennybridge, Hay-on-Wye, Crickhowell and in the Black Mountains themselves.

It was during his time here he mapped-out the tale of farming twin brothers haunted by childlessness, and set on a vast charcoal tract of forestry land, in the Brecon Beacons.  The Black Hill also means "beautiful" in Celtic, and Chatwin announced to his host at Cwm Hall one evening, "I've got it.  I will call my book On The Black Hill."

It is one of the clearest descriptions of the Herefordshire-Breconshire borders; and is set around the Llanthony Valley, which he had known since childhood.

But the atmosphere, the stories and basis of his book come from Clun (a place which had also inspired much of A.E.Housman's melancholic poem, A Shropshire Lad).

Here, there are still farms like The Vision from Chatwin's book, where "old machinery stands like remembered relatives too sorrowful to part with".  And, eager to create a history of the 20th century in a rural setting, Chatwin chronicled a society where the farmers themselves were often called after their homes (Jones, the Vron, and Morris, the Temple).

The bicycle strapped to the top of Chatwin's Citroen was put to full use in the borderlands.  After lunch on most days, he would set-off through the small lanes to hear local gossip in auction houses, pubs, antique shops and small village libraries.  He was said to have an ear for stories, and was a "lover of language beyond belief".

In On The Black Hill, Chatwin captures the innocence and sense of place, of these isolated borderlands.

And, thirty years later, the book is still required reading for all visitors to these parts today.


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