Lost in the Golden Valley

Lost in the Golden Valley – The People’s Friend

“Off to Hay-on-Wye?” enquires the cyclist waiting alongside me at the traffic light.

“Golden Valley,” I reply, through my open car window. 

She beams. “It’s beautiful. But that’ll be the gold running right through it.”

Gold? Is that why it’s called the Golden Valley? Before I can ask, the light changes and she’s off across the bridge.

I edge closer to the tollbooth, slip in a shiny gold-edged one-pound coin, and wait for the barrier to lift.

There’s been a toll bridge across the River Wye at Whitney since 1774. It’s one of eight private toll bridges still in existence in the UK. The speed limit is 5mph and I’m not sure if that’s so I can enjoy the view over the River Wye, or because the wooden bridge feels a little rickety!

The 1780 Act of Parliament says anyone using the bridge must pay a toll, but they only have to pay once per day. My ticket has a bar code that I can scan to cross back at no extra charge.

Many road users avoid the toll bridge and zip past along the A438 and cross the River Wye at Hay-on-Wye. 

However, the Whitney Toll Bridge is the perfect place to begin my exploration of Herefordshire’s Golden Valley. It lies in the southwest corner of the county, along the Welsh Border, overlooked by the Black Mountains, part of the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) national park.

I begin my tour, cutting through some tiny lanes to Merbach Hill. It’s a steep climb, but at over a thousand feet above sea level, the views across the Wye Valley are worth it. 

Merbach Hill is also the source of the River Dore. The spring is on the south side of the hill, so it flows right through the Golden Valley, joining the River Monnow at Pontrilas. After a journey of nearly forty miles, it reaches the River Wye at Monmouth. 

Had the spring been on the north side of Merbach Hill, its journey to the Wye may have been less than a mile!

A two-mile stroll brings me to the majestic Arthur’s Stone. There’s a golden glow to this stone Neolithic burial chamber today. Its huge flat capstone has cracked in half. Legend has it that King Arthur killed a giant here, whose elbow cracked the top stone as he fell.

But as I stand and admire the huge burial chamber, one of the most famous scenes from the golden era of children’s writing flashes through my memory.

Like many, I read C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child, and it’s believed Arthur’s Stone inspired the scene where Aslan rises again after the stone table breaks in two.

Lewis loved the Golden Valley. As a child, he bought a painting of the valley, believing it looked like heaven. The film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, sees Lewis sharing his love of the area with his new wife.

A steep drop brings me into the idyllic village of Dorstone, where its quaint cottages huddle around the village green.

From here, I navigate a narrow country lane for a mile, hoping I might find something gold-related at the interestingly named Snodhill Castle. Apparently, Snodhill means cleared hill, and its elevated position gives it good views up and down the valley.

This was one of a chain of castles built along the Golden Valley to defend England from the Welsh. Some of the visible ruins today include some rare sections of 11th-century walls and portions of its unique 12th-century, thirteen-sided keep.

But there’s no clue here as to how the Golden Valley got its name. Through a window in the castle’s ruins, I spy the spire of St Peters, in Peterchurch, a few miles down the valley. Perhaps I’ll find my answer there.

Talking of spires, St Peter’s spire is slightly unusual. The original stone spire was built in 1320, but when it fell into disrepair in the 1950s, it was replaced in 1972 with one made from fibreglass!

As well as a church, St Peter’s is also a community hub, with a fantastic cafe (I can vouch for the jacket potatoes). There’s even a public library in the tower. But what catches my eye is a painting on the south wall of a fish with a gold ring on a necklace around its neck.

It’s reputedly a portrait of a fish caught in the River Dore, which was found to have a gold ring caught between its gills. That seems a bit fishy to me! I can’t believe they named a whole valley after this one ring-bearing fish.

A few miles along the main B-road, I stumble across St Bartholomew’s Church in the village of Vowchurch. Inside is a fascinating display of letters sent between its vicar, Skeffington Hume Dodgson, and his older brother Charles.

Charles Dodson was better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. He was most famous for writing pieces of literary gold, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, along with his quirky poems like Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark.

Huge oak pillars dominate the church’s interior, supporting the roof, and a fascinating chancel screen separates the nave from the altar. It has some interesting carvings for a church. They’re enough to make a man blush!

Skeffington Dodgson was vicar here between 1895 and 1910, and he passed away in 1919. But as I stand beside his grave, with the babbling River Dore running close by, I’m still clueless as to how the Golden Valley got its name.

Barely four hundred metres along the road is St Mary Magdalene Church in the village of Turnastone. How come two churches were built so close together?

If folklore is to be believed, it happened when two sisters were each determined to build a church in this area, and one said to the other that they vowed to get a church built before the other could turn a stone to build theirs. Is this how the hamlets of Vowchurch and Turnastone got their names? I’m not sure.

Between the two churches is a field carpeted with golden buttercups. Perhaps this is why the valley has a golden name.

The River Dore meanders through the valley to the village of Abbey Dore, dominated by the remains of a Cistercian Abbey. Although only a fraction of the original abbey remains, the building still functions as the local parish church.

It was founded in 1147 by monks from the Morimond Abbey in France’s Champagne region, and they farmed the land in the valley.

During the 13th century, when the price of wool rose, the monks frequently exported their high-quality fleeces to France, Italy, and areas of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Aha! So, is this where the Golden Valley got its name? Did the monk’s farming and agricultural skills bring in hordes of gold from all over Europe?

Sadly, no. In 1535, the abbey’s annual income was barely one hundred pounds, so Henry VIII dissolved it in 1537. It was later sold to Viscount Scudamore, who turned it into the local parish church.

The valley has been bathed in golden sunshine all day, so stepping inside the abbey’s cool interior offers some relief.

In the presbytery, I’m surrounded by 12th and 13th-century stone arches illuminated by the golden sun rays flooding in through the stained glass windows.

Seemingly hidden behind today’s altar is a collection of stone bosses, cornices, and carvings. They look like the bits left over from a large jigsaw puzzle!

A door takes me outside to where the sacristy and chapter house once were, but it is now a pleasant lawned area with picnic tables. Some walkers using the Herefordshire Trail have stopped here for their lunch. 

I follow the trail through the grounds and across a neighbouring field and find myself on the banks of the River Dore again. It sparkles in the sunlight, like a golden thread running through the valley.

A fisherman sits on the bank, with one eye on his line. I remember the painting on the wall in St Peter’s at Peterchurch.

“Looking to catch a fish with a gold ring?” I enquire.

“Of course,” he replies. “It is a golden river, after all.”

I frown. “The river is golden?”

“The clue is in the name,” he says. “Dore. It comes from the Welsh word dŵr, which means water.”

Then he points towards the abbey behind me.

“The trouble is,” he continues, “when the French monks heard the word dŵr, they thought we meant D’or, which is the French word for golden.”

And now it all makes sense! The French monks thought this was the River D’or, or golden river, which makes the valley it runs through the Golden Valley.

Typical. I’ve been searching for gold ever since I left Merbach Hill, and it turns out it’s been right under my nose all the time!


  • The toll charge at Whitney Toll Bridge can only be changed by an Act of Parliament.
  • The capstone on Arthur’s Stone is estimated to weigh 25 tonnes.
  • Members of the same family served as rector of St Faith’s at Dorstone between 1663 and 1953 – that’s 290 years!
  • The walls of St Peter’s church tower, in Peterchurch, are seven feet thick.
  • Dore Abbey was consecrated by the English St Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, despite the Welsh Bishop of St Davids claiming it was in his jurisdiction. At the consecration, armed guards were posted at the door, just in case there was any trouble!

Getting There

The Golden Valley runs for 19 miles between Hay-on-Wye and Pontrilas, along the B4348 and B4347. Pontrilas is 12 miles southwest of Hereford on the A465. Hay-on-Wye is 15 miles northeast of Brecon on the A438.

Want To Know More?

For more information, explore the Visit Herefordshire website: