EVERY Monmouthshire motorist knows and loves the road from Chepstow to Usk. May I suggest a variant which, while missing some of the glories of that romantic way, will yet introduce scenes of challenging interest and superb beauty.

On a misty January afternoon we resisted the magnetic pull of Tintern and drove straight through the quiet village of St Arvans. Our first stop -we always halt there -was on the hill above St Arvans, where an expert topiarist has provided for passers-by a wonderful frieze of animals. birds and ships, trained and carved from a hedge of lonicera. We trust that the craftsman got as much pleasure as his work gives to us.

A climb of 400 feet took us to Chepstow Park Wood, where, at the summit, a new fire-watchers' tower has been raised. It was unusual to travel through this district and see only the brown and green of the foreground, and to imagine the magnificence of the distance, now shrouded in grey. This part of our journey had many of the evocative qualities of fine Japanese prints.

At Devauden we took the air - and the fog in it. Here was the inn where, between the was, we discovered a "calennig" - a rosy apple surmounted by a twig of box on which raisins are impaled, the apple fixed on three silvered twigs - which as a "New Year's gift" has come down to us from pre-Roman pagan times. There, across the green, we used to come for sumptuous teas at "The Dorrits." The teas are, alas, but a memory. Does the "calennig" survive?

The fog was perceptibly thinning as we took the Itton road, and the first right turning for Newchurch. By the time we had reached Kilgwrrwg Common the mist around us had cleared, and a hint of coming splendour could be seen dimly to the north.

With the tower of Newchurch amid its hilltop pines and yews on the skyline ahead of us, we travelled westwards. Soon, on the right, we saw a long white house, with a cheerful countrywoman taking the January air in the garden.

"Is there a Ramping Cat hereabouts?" I inquired.

"There was," she laughed. "The Kilgwrrwg Arms to you. It closed down over fourteen years ago. Come to this stile for the view." (The view was one of the attractions of the inn.)

A veil of mist hung over the deep valley beneath, but I could descry Kilgwrrwg Church and a couple of whitewashed houses, down whose chimneys I felt sure I could have dropped pennies - a drop of 400 feet! From that, my eye roved across the grey landscape to a backcloth of amazing beauty - the Black Mountains, from the Blorenge to the Skirrid, each picked out in white, and the Hatterall ridge one glorious wall of snow.

Suddenly my hostess said, "Follow that sunbeam." Travelling slowly eastwards, the celestial spotlight illuminated field and coppice, cottage and church, and rested, as if for our delectation, on the walls and towers of Raglan Castle - seven miles distant. It was too theatrical to be real, but I shall remember it as real.

The blithe lady of the erstwhile Ramping Cat remarked, "Yes, it's very good, even in mid-winter. Strenuous, you know, when the snow comes." I asked her how they had managed to live through the blizzard of 1947, and when she replied, "Oh, we lived on one another," I crushed down a cold chill of horror.

"What we hadn't got our neighbours were sure to have," she concluded, and I returned to normality.

The Ramping Cat, all its nine lives ended, must nevertheless be added to our list of lyrical Monmouthshire inn names - The Coal Hole, The Goose and Cuckoo, The Gockett, The Tippling Philosopher - although its name is probably an irreverent allusion to a device on a coat-of-arms.

To meet a ramping cat and a dolmen in one afternoon would be unusual in some counties. In Gwent such happenings are to be expected. Our road climbed to Newchurch, and then curved in a semi-circle to the Chepstow-Usk road, where, at the junction of six tracks, stands the dolmen, wrongly called the cromlech, wrongly named Gaerllwyd.

There is no sign of a gaer (a camp) within a mile of the dolmen, and until the middle of the last century the stones (and the neighbourhood) were referred to as Garnllwyd. "Garn" is "cairn" (a heap of stones); "llwyd" implies "grey" - the greyness, here, of death. The capstone has fallen at one end.

In a stone chamber under the mighty 12 foot capstone of Garnllwyd, 4,000 to 7,000 years ago, the folk of this plateau buried their dead, maybe with some implements and pots. When the chamber was closed, the whole monument was covered with a cairn of stones, or earth, or both.

Now why did these ancient people place such emphasis on the dwellings of the dead, while the homes of the living were caves, or holes in the ground? Modern archaeologists hold the view that the neolithic people worshipped above all the "Earth Mother," who is vividly shown carved on the megalithic tombs of France and the Mediterranean. It was to this great goddess that the dead were committed, in the hope of rebirth.

It may seem incredible that symbols of offerings to this same Earth Goddess are made and displayed today. The "calennig" which we saw at Devauden may be such a survival, but it is quite certain that the "corn-dollies" which we found among the harvest decorations last year at Cwmyoy in this county and at Pembridge in north-west Herefordshire - delightful "gifts" plaited most skilfully from the ears and straw of wheat - are folk-memories of offerings to the goddess of fertility. Our harvest festivals are a mere century old; the "corn-dollies " take us back at least forty centuries.

Of our homeward journey, with its marvellous view of the Black Mountains, pale rose suffusing their snow; of that most lovely view of Usk, with the grey smoke rising straight over the grey village; of Llangibby tucking itself cosily to sleep in the golden afterglow; the magic of such a journey is chronicled without words in our book of memory.

l Fred Hando's work is published courtesy of Chris Barber.