|Offa's Dyke - North|
By Colin Walford
Route: Knighton to Montgomery
Date: Saturday July 17th 2010
Distance: 15m (24km)
Elevation: 463ft (141m) to 1,398ft (426m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 3,301ft (1,006m) and 3,468ft (1,057m)
Travel sickness, reluctant walkies ....
Our Assault on the toughest part of the whole Offa's Dyke trail had an inauspicious start, with start being the inoperative word. We couldn't set out from my place near Ross-on-Wye until Bod and Graham (Graham hadn't completed the first half with us last year due to personal circumstances) had gorged themselves on a fatty breakfast of dead farm animals and then called in on Jo and I.
We had a hell of a distance to drive before we could even lace on boots for the business end of the day, so we packed up and set off in a sharp manner. It took about an hour to drive to the Brompton Crossroads and I chose to travel with Graham in his car, since we hadn't seen each other for several years and would have the chance to catch up on life stuff. This passed the time pleasantly, but I became increasingly aware that I wasn't quite feeling all the ticket. This began in direct consequence to the amount of twisty country roads we were encountering and speeding around. Alas - travel sickness was upon me. It is a horrible thing and, as the nausea increased within me, I was reduced to nodding my head and grunting agreement with whatever Graham was saying. Open conversation became secondary to the need of keeping my recently gobbled breakfast inside my stomach, where it belonged. I had a brief respite when we stopped at the Crossroads but, all too soon, we were back in Bod's car (leaving Graham's vehicle behind to bring us back to Knighton at the end of the day's walking) and whirling merrily around right-angled bends towards Knighton. I began to feel very ill indeed.
"Bod - stop the car!" I said tightly and lurched outside to perform a series of dry, barking retches. This produced nothing but eyes full of tears and grins from my fellow travellers. We tried again and were nearly in Knighton when a second wave of biliousness engulfed me. My body developed a strange numbness and I seriously thought I was going to conk out.
"Bod - stop the car!"
This time, I produced the goods. Half digested porridge of an orange hue. Yum-yum.
Sheepishly, grinning weakly I returned to the car.
"At least you're still smiling," said Jo.
We arrived at in Knighton at just past noon. A fine time to be starting a challenging 15 mile walk. General preparation took place which involved changing into walking gear, me doing a little filming and, of course, Jo striding off to the local toilet. We also watched with stifled amusement as a lady attempted to get her unwilling dog out of her car to go for 'walkies'. I have never seen a more recalcitrant beast and its owner was reduced to dragging it
along on its leash, paws skidding audibly on the pavement and eyes rolling with reproach. She seemed to become aware of our watchfulness and gave up, returning to the car with a rather bashful and rueful look on her face.
At last, we were ready. It was half-past twelve. "How's your night vision?" Bod inquired of everyone.
We started off on a path which took us away from the Offa's Dyke centre and through a recreation ground. We were no more than two minutes into the walk when Bod stopped and began rooting through his rucksack.
"What are you looking for?" asked Graham.
Bod emerged from the depths with an irritated look, "I've left my map in the car."
Graham shrugged. "I've got a GPS and Colin has his book. We're not going to get lost."
Panpunton Hill, Noble & Waters, over-engineered sandwiches ....
With this undeniable logic, we walked onwards and soon approached the
Graham and I strolled together and passed by a group of kids idling by the riverbank. Conditioning borne of growing up in Chelmsley Wood had me believing that we would soon be the object of derision and stone-throwing, but nothing happened and we passed on. It was quite sunny at this point of the day, the river dancing with light as we walked along it's bank. We were in England here. I wasn't sure when we would pass into Wales but this was nothing new - I'd spent almost the whole of last year during the first half of the walk not quite knowing which country I was limping through.
We crossed a footbridge and were suddenly faced with our first climb. wasn't one to gently introduce us to proceedings. It was immediately steep and took us up quickly to a height of 400 feet, revealing a good view over the town we had just left. We were on a track between lush banks of fern. A brief rest was required as the climb levelled out briefly, the air being close and humid, but then we took off again and marched on to the summit of the ridge. Graham looked unhappy.
"My Achilles is hurting."
Setting out from Knighton
Nobody knew what to say to this so soon into the walk, so we simply continued on our way when he had massaged his leg and completed some vague stretching. We came across a weather-chewed wooden bench. My book told me that it had been dedicated to a Frank Noble of the It had collapsed in on itself over time and looked to be the main feasting point for colonies of Woodlice. You couldn't help but ponder the definition of the word 'dedicated' in this instance. There was also a Cairn lying here, in memory of Roy Waters of the Tref y Clawdd (Knighton) Society, a man who had worked hard to open the Offa's Dyke path. The cairn still looked strong and secure, unchewed as it was by invertebrates.
The view at the top of the ridge showed the River Teme snaking its way to the west. It meandered to a far-off, deeply arched viaduct at a place called Knucklas. The viaduct managed to look impressive, even at a distance.
We walked along Panpunton ridge for over a mile, the unspectacular hump of the Offa's Dyke crest a companion just to our right. The view to our left was of the Teme Valley and the opposing ridge of Beacon Hill. This was easy walking after our first climb and I felt good. Before long, we were taken down and around a deep Cwm. The drop now to our left was severe and Jo commented to me about not being able to stop if you fell down that slope. Jo was behind me and, moments later, I heard the unmistakeable sound of a stubbed boot, a trip and a scatter of pebbles. There was a moment of silence.
"I've just nearly demonstrated what I was saying." Jo murmured. He had come close to pitching himself over the edge of the slope.
We negotiated a track under the shadow of light woodland and then were climbing again - another steep one, enough to start my leg muscles burning as we ascended. I was quickly reduced by this track to a gasping, open-mouthed entity wearing a sweat-sodden t-shirt. Finally, we gained the summit of what is known as which rears proudly to a height of 1,343 feet. There was a trig. point up here, always a good place to grab a rest. As I gazed about me, I noticed that it was becoming both cloudier and cooler. The view ahead of us was of Llanfair Hill, which looked to be our next destination. Further beyond were Kerry Hill Ridge and Corndon Hill.
We began to descend, gently at first and then with more purpose, going steeply down on a track through stubby Gorse. Bod, Jo and I watched a couple of as we ambled along. One of them was issuing a strange kind of call, quite unusual. Jo knows them for carrion birds.
"We're still alive!" he called up to the sky.
Bod answered that they were following us, patiently waiting their opportunity for when the ascent of the hills killed us. At times, they flew quite close to us and don't seem to be timid birds, despite past persecution.
Our descent levelled out and we crossed a couple of shallow rivulets. Jo opened a metal gate and we passed through the sparse grounds of Garbett Hall and up another short incline. The path divided in a bow ahead of us around a thick hedge of Gorse and I gestured at it and looked at Jo.
"It probably meets up again at the top," he said and was right.
Jo and I walked in the lead together, talking about this and that. This became the usual pattern for the day, Bod following us and Graham behind, often walking along with white ear plugs in place. I never found out what he was listening to, so I decided that it was a recording of Mickey - Rocky's trainer in the films of that name. Graham would play it to himself when he was struggling up the inclines.
"Get up that hill, kid! You're gonna eat lightnin' an' you're gonna crap thunder!"
"Keep away from women! Women weaken legs!"
"Them hills are gonna keep hittin' ya! Hittin' ya in the ribs, ya see?"
Just after Garbett Hall, we faltered. The O.D. Signpost became unusually speculative. We took off again just as a very young face shot by in a Land rover. This was a little startling, as the owner of the young face was the driver. He looked to be about twelve. As the vehicle disappeared in a spew of dust, Bod pointed to an empty hulk of an abandoned vehicle, "He arrived in that one."
We walked across a field and reached a gate. There was no O.D. acorn insignia.
"This feels wrong," said Bod.
We had come off the route and soon realised that we had to be walking up the field, not across it. Bod pointed out the unmistakeable hump of the Dyke. Of course. This was Offa's Dyke - nothing went across, it always went up. We traversed the field and the young driver reappeared in the Land rover, leaped out and immediately climbed into the cabin of some farm machinery. He began to mow down swathes of vegetation on a neighbouring field. We had to assume he was the local farmer's son, entrusted at an early age to do a 'man's job'. This seemed to suit the lad, who had a nearly constant happy grin on his face.
Once more, we stopped climbing and seemed to be walking along a broad ridge. I let Jo and Bod pull away as I stopped to do some filming. This enabled Graham to draw level with me.
"Are we going to think about stopping to eat?"
I nodded, "Bod was just saying the same thing."
Despite this, Bod and Jo walked on for a way yet. Ferns surrounded us and occasional clusters of Larch trees stood on the edge of the ridge. We finally stopped for lunch at about three-fifteen, overlooking a valley to our left and rounded hills beyond. The sky was sombre and it began to spit rain, fitfully. No sooner had I got my coat on and Graham his waterproof trousers, then it stopped again. The main body of the shower swept by on the opposite ridge across the valley. All the same, it was cooler on our hill and I kept my coat on as I ate my packed lunch.
"No wonder my backpack is heavy. There's about 20 kilograms of aluminium tin foil around these Scotch Eggs," Bod spoke up as he unwrapped his food. I scowled at him. I had packed the lunches.
Fly flapping, Graig Hill, evidence of werewolves, unexpected Belgians ....
We ate mostly in silence, although Graham and I had a brief discussion about where we thought we were on the map using his GPS and my book and ignorance. Be that as it may, we correctly worked out that we were past the peak of Llanfair Hill and soon to descend it's northern flank. The uncouth sounds of our eating began to fade away and Jo and Graham lay back on the ground and had soon nodded off. Graham began to snore in uneven bursts, making Bod and I grin. Bod had only eaten half of his lunch and later told us that he had begun to feel dehydrated at this point, despite sinking 4 litres of liquid throughout the day. After forty minutes or so, I was bored and wanted to be off again.
"We're only putting off the inevitable," said Bod, and we both started to get our gear together. After a pause, Graham and Jo followed suit. The ridge slowly began to turn downhill and after no more than a few minutes I began to feel stifled in my coat. I looked up and noticed the sun was making occasional appearances through breaks in the clouds. Some of my discomfort must have showed because as Bod walked alongside of me, he gave me a dry look.
"Are you warm enough?"
That decided it and I stopped to put my coat back into my rucksack, also doing some filming. As I began to walk again I turned a corner on what had become a lane and found Graham sitting on a grass verge and trying to remove his waterproofs, which had become stubbornly entangled around his boots. The minor road we were on rose ahead of me and I watched Jo and Bod go over the top and disappear into what must have been a dip on the other side. I followed them up but there was still no sign of them. This was explained when I approached a crossroads. But which way to go? I examined road-signs beaten by the elements into something approaching indecipherable, but thought that I needed to turn right. This was confirmed after a few metres when I saw Jo ahead, peering back at me to make sure I had taken the correct route. Busy flies began to make a nuisance of themselves. They were fast and insistent, repeatedly settling on my head, neck, nose or eyebrows as the fancy took them. I suppose they were interested in the sweat that lightly glazed me, but they were a bloody pain and my hands were constantly flapping about my head as I attempted to disperse them. This was largely pointless as they returned again after a couple of seconds. Swearing at them was equally futile, but it made me feel better.
I reached a place called Springhill Farm and here was directed left and over a wooden stile, on top of which was a sprinkle of Sheep droppings. They weren't on the wooden steps, but on top of a post which was used to steady yourself as you heaved over the fence. This was either one very large or incredibly athletic Sheep. Jo and Bod were side by side, examining a board at waist height, on which was a map of this section of the route, held safe from the weather under a sheet of perspex.
"Don't look at it," advised Bod. "It'll not make you feel any better".
The summit of Panpunton Hill
I checked it against my book of the route, which told me that we were nearer halfway through today's hiking. That sounded more like it. Bod and Jo had walked on and Graham appeared, climbing over the stile. We now had a steep downhill stretch, a track in a valley of green Ferns and high banks. There was a lush abundance of Ferns about at this time of the year, all very pleasant. This track descended for a while until it reached and passed through the farmyard of Lower Spoad farm. I caught up with Jo and Bod and tried to run ahead of them, so that I could take a photo of them both walking past a large shed crammed full of rolled bales of hay. They were quietly unkeen and just kept walking. The resulting photograph will not win any prizes. The place seemed deserted, but then a tail-wagging appeared and moved towards us across the yard. I clucked my tongue at it and the rate of tail-wagging increased in enthusiasm, so I stopped and waited for it. Jo warned me off, stating with deep paranoia that Border Collies are clever enough to pretend to be friendly in order to get close enough to begin removing parts of you.
"That's how they get you," he finished.
To me it was a ridiculous notion but, all the same, I stopped communicating with the dog - who either looked crestfallen or thwarted, depending on your point of view. We continued and crossed the B4368 and then over another stile. As we started across a field, I looked back as Graham was coming out of the farmyard. He was unmolested by the dog.
We travelled down fields in a northerly direction and reached the bottom of Clun Valley. I had lost myself in a happy reverie, which was broken when Bod spoke.
"I think that's where we go next - you can see the line of the Dyke."
I gazed with some awe at a vicious assent up a broad flank of Graig Hill. I could see the Dyke and also the forms of two insect-like people, who looked contorted with misery even at this distance as they inched painfully upwards. We walked on, downwards until we crossed the River Clun via a wooden footbridge and through a belt of light trees. I passed two enormously bloated sheep lying recumbent in the grass. They didn't stir as I walked right past them, which in itself was unusual. On any walk I've ever done, Sheep - despite thousands of years of domestication - appear scared witless by the sight of human beings and scatter like rolled dice as I approach them, often sprinkling pellets of dung as they go (perhaps scared shitless would be more literal, then). Not these two, though. They looked too fat to even consider legging it across the grass and merely gazed at me, jaws working in rhythm. Bod walked past them next and spotted one with a single horn growing out of the middle of its head. A Unicorn Sheep. I did a little filming and, despite the recent glimpse of what was just ahead, I made noises about how manageable I thought the walk had been so far. Yes, there had been climbs, but it was all okay.
I walked over the bridge, a little stream gurgling beneath, then strode to the very base of the climb. A water tap has been put in place here, which I read as a faintly ominous warning of the torture ahead. I didn't bother with it, as I reckoned I still had plenty of water and couldn't be arsed to remove my backpack to refill my camel. Bod and Graham began to fill up, Jo and I started the ascent.
It pretty soon revealed itself to be a steep, grinding affair. I was quickly breathless and even had to resort to using my hands on my thighs to push myself onwards, such was the angle of climb. Thank God I had got my act together and spent the past month jogging regularly, taking in steep roads as I ran. I honestly think this made a lot of difference for me. My leg muscles had strengthened noticeably over the weeks and I had recognised the improvement in my aerobic capacity with surprise and relief, considering that it was over such a short span of time. Given the chance, the human body will really try to look after you. This climb burned my legs and had me heaving for breath, but I did the lot in one go and reached the top without any cardiac event.
I filmed as I got my breath back, my commentary acknowledging the difficulty of this particular switchback. Jo drew near as he also finished the climb. He threw me a dubious expression and I grinned as he said something unintelligible through the faint roaring in my ears. The blood was still fairly racing around my body. It was a magnificent view from up here and I filmed it all, sweeping the camera around just as Bod made it to the top. Jo and I laughed at his appearance. He lurched towards us, crimson-faced and head on one side.
"How d'you like Graig Hill?" I called out.
Bod ignored me and then told us that he was feeling unwell. He had a headache and feelings of nausea - classic signs of dehydration. Too many pints the night before? The salty English breakfast? Bod wasn't having any of that. He told us that the water from the tap below us tasted horrible, too. As Bod began to recover his vigour, I mentioned that there was an even steeper climb just ahead, according to my book.
Jo looked disbelieving,"How can it be steeper? It must mean longer."
I stated about having second thoughts not filling my water bottle when I had the chance down at the tap, foul-tasting water or no. I jokingly considered walking back down, filling my camel and walking back up. Bod came alive at this.
"Go down now," he advised. "Just give me the camera and let me film you struggling back up, you bastard."
Graham joined us after a few minutes, swearing at his Achilles. We rested briefly and then we turned to move on. We could see that the valley ahead fell down sharply to the west (our right) and ahead was the irregular shape of Corndon Hill, standing high at 513 metres, broad, with a flat top and knobbly protrusions. It is known as the 'Neolithic Axe Factory' due to the archaeological finds there.
It seemed that we had to descend into a minor valley, before shooting back up Graig Hill for a second time. Such is the way of Offa's Dyke. Bod was not impressed.
"Why?" he asked. "Why can't we do that flat bit over there?" He pointed a shaking finger. "I like that flat bit!"
Nevertheless, we pressed on, walking down until we had bottomed out and then facing our next hurdle. Bod saw it before me and stopped dead. Jo saw it and laughed, which I've learned he sometimes does when faced with a ridiculous climb that is going to hurt. The ground reared sharply up to the ridge of Graig Hill.
"So where are we supposed to go?" Bod pointed out a sensible, pleasant track which deftly skirted the monster ahead, "I'll bet it isn't there!" He was right, it wasn't. We had to go straight on.
Cows were dotted about impossibly on the acute slope ahead of us. As we started off again, I dug my book out of my trouser thigh pocket and began to look for the way we had to go. Bod and Jo had decided that we had to tackle the ridge by going right and upwards before sweeping around to the top, but I read aloud a bit of text and called them back. Graham had heard me.
"We have to go up that track by the Larch Trees," he pointed.
This was a difficult path. The soil was broken and dusty. It was very steep and the footing was mutinous, as loose stones littered the way and made your footing slip and slide from beneath you. This only added to the exertion of the climb itself. My breath began to come in gasps again and I felt that my t-shirt was drenched with sweat at the back. I kept on, getting myself into a rhythm and made the top with Jo. We waited, glad for the opportunity to stand and get ourselves in order. My next bit of filming had me stating that the day's walk had turned out to be a hard one, after all. I had spoken too soon earlier. When Bod and Graham had joined us we all needed a rest again.
Bod was waving his hat irritably at a small cloud of flies that seemed to form a constant gathering about him, "They think I'm a corpse already."
I was grateful for the descent afterwards, even though this inevitably meant another climb further on. Jo and I walked together, occasionally exchanging a few words. Abruptly, we came across the wet, open carcass of a dead Sheep lying right next to the track. The smell of it hit us as we reached it. Most of it's abdominal cavity was exposed and crawling with flies and it's head was thrown back towards us, two bottom teeth jutting forward from a gaping mouth.
"What do you think killed it?" I asked. It looked as if it had been savaged by something large and hungry. It actually confirmed the presence of a Werewolf in these parts to Bod, who had warned us "Don't wander off the track, lads," several times during the afternoon and had been humming 'Bad Moon Rising' to himself now and then.
We continued to walk downhill through fields, hedges and rows of trees. Jo seemed determined to seek out the steepest bits to walk on, often detouring to scale a small ridge or hummock. I asked him what he was doing and he pointed out, quite reasonably as I glanced around, that he was merely avoiding banks of Nettles on the low ground. Graham was very low profile through much of the walk, following us silently like a ghoul with an i-pod.
Bod, Jo and I walked together along a thickly-hedged lane. We gradually crept around the shoulder of Hergan. There was a further descent, immediately followed by a steep ascent - this one slightly tamed by the addition of a flight of wooden and beaten-track steps. It still looked nasty.
"Uh-oh," was Jo's only comment as we started up. The steps petered out to a more humane climb, which levelled out and then meandered upwards again towards a place named Middle Knuck (a former farm turned children's home, my book says). We neared a footbridge and both Jo and I, who had drawn ahead again, twitched our noses at the same time.
It was another rank carcass of a dead Sheep, this one older and slightly desiccated but still ponging. Alien spacecraft must be autopsying like bastards around here, I reflected to myself.
We climbed again, up a narrow track in the vegetation. Jo pulled ahead and as I reached the crest he was stood by two young lads, who were sitting on a bank of grass.
"Can you show them your map, Col?"
"I can do my best," I walked up and sat by them on the grass bank, "Now then, lads, what do you want to know?"
They were Belgian and spoke excellent English. One of them showed me on their basic map where they thought they were (between Middle Knuck and Lower Knuck) and he had been more or less spot-on. They had started last Monday at the Sedbury Cliffs near Chepstow and were doing the whole walk in one go, hoping to finish by next Friday, which is when they were booked to return home. More immediately, they wanted to get to Montgomery today in time to find a pub with a T.V. So they could watch the World Cup third place play-off between Uruguay and Germany. I looked at my watch and shook my head at them. It was half-past six.
"Not a chance, lads."
The map-holder nodded agreement. "Perhaps the second half," he smiled.
He asked me how far ahead I thought Montgomery was and I replied about four miles. In retrospect, I later thought that I had been out by a couple of miles and they had further than that. We wished each other luck and they took off before us. As we started off again, Bod mused on whether they were supporting Uruguay or Germany.
It's funny," he added, "They come all the way over from Belgium to walk Offa's Dyke and most of the people who actually live in Britain never do it."
"Most people don't like walking. It means those of us who do are more likely to meet each other, wherever we are," I said, remembering my own notion of walking some of the pilgrim trails in Spain. "What gets me is how excellently everybody else speaks English."
Jo nodded. "Makes us seem very lazy, doesn't it?"
Reluctant movie stars, Corndon Hill, the Bovine Fan Club, Badgers ....
We walked on, up through a field of giant and straggly Thistles, which I photographed and Bod likened to
"You watch their heads turn to follow us," he warned.
One by one, we climbed over a stile and set out across another field which began to turn downhill once more. Graham caught his foot on the top of the stile, distracted by me photographing him I think and he took a sprawling dive from it. With surprising aptitude, he managed to remain on his feet as he stumbled forward with his arms flapping like an ungainly bird. I laughed, but did remember to ask if he was alright.
We caught up with the Belgian guys, briefly, as the path turned left and went sharply downhill for a while, but they were soon on their way again. We walked on and reached Knuck Bank where we rested on a minor road, mainly because we knew that the biggest climb of the day was just ahead of us in Churchtown and partly to let Graham catch up. After a few minutes of mental preparation, we started a big and sharp descent into Churchtown Wood.
The track went beneath both conifer and broad-leaved trees. I turned back to photograph Bod as he walked towards me.
"You're like one of those photographers at the Jewish death-camps, capturing people's suffering," he said, which I thought was a bit strong.
I stopped to do some filming, so was the last to emerge from the wood and behold the tiny hamlet of Churchtown. Besides the church and graveyard itself, there didn't seem to be a lot more to it. The other three were gathered by a stile which seemed to begin the Big Climb. I was still filming and Bod muttered something to the others. I was suspicious that the camera wasn't proving to be very popular.
"Got something to say, Bod?" I inquired as I reached them.
"Have you got any German or Japanese blood in you?" Graham replied. Bod had obviously shared his Second World War atrocity theory with them.
"You're like Hitler's propaganda minister - what was his name?" he turned to Graham.
"I'm not evil, just factual," I gazed at the ascent ahead of us as we gathered our resolve. The graveyard was right at the foot of the climb.
"They've already got my plot dug over there," said Bod.
"Yeah - if we die on route, there's a conveyor belt that ships our bodies back down to the church."
I asked if the Belgians were already on their way up. Jo nodded.
"They saw me approach and immediately got up and took off. You could see their enthusiasm at greeting me get less every time I met them."
We began. This climb was a challenge of endurance, nothing more. Very steep, very tiring and I suppose we were becoming weary by now, so it seemed even worse. I was back to pushing down on my thighs as I climbed. Jo seemed just as strong as ever and fairly powered his way up. I followed more slowly behind and we lost sight of Bod and Graham. The ascent went on for quite a while and there was one of those dispiriting false summits that tantalised you and then, when you reached it, drew back to reveal a further ascending track through ferns. I inwardly cursed. I had to - I didn't have the breath to speak it out loud. At last, I walked to the top of Edenhope Hill. The view was wonderful, but I couldn't appreciate it until my red blood cells had refuelled my brain and given back some colour to everything. Jo and I waited for the others by another stile, which looked out over the fantastic view to the north. This is the way we will continue to travel when we come back in September and ahead was now dominated by Corndon Hill. To the east, I could see a line of purple ridges which were the Shropshire Hills. In a nearby field, a lone haystack stood sentinel in a flush of sunshine. Bod and Graham appeared and we all rested and nibbled on lunch leftovers.
It was breezy up on the ridge, despite a shelter of trees and, as the sweat cooled on my body, I actually began to feel chilly. The sky was still cloudy but with windows of blue, through which the sun pierced and spotlit distant fields. We reflected that we had one more serious climb to do today, up into Nut Wood.
"At this rate, we won't finish the walk until eight o'clock," I told Bod.
He nodded thoughtfully, "Try nine," he said and I had to agree.
With this in mind, we descended to the upper valley of the The descent was steep and quickly bled away all the height we had painfully gained. The final climb managed to fool us. We first saw a track which kindly nudged its way up. Just as hope began to rise, this track skipped away to the left and stopped climbing and the real track manifested before us, bounding vertically with familiar zeal. The ruse was all the more hurtful because the roots of the track began in such a pretty and flowery dell. Once again, we laboured. Up the slope of Nut Wood we trudged, another steep path which was finally conquered and brought us onto the Kerry Ridgeway. I stopped to film and, for the first time, realised that my feet were becoming sore. This ridge-way, running east to west, forms part of the England-Wales border. We strode on and dropped 600 feet in just over a mile, onto the Montgomery Plain. Another steep drop brought us eventually to a road, by which we were taken to the grounds of Mellington Hall.
View from the Kerry Ridgeway
"Come on, then."
This seemed to confuse it and it backed away a pace or two. In this manner, I made my way over a stile and joined Jo and Bod in safety. I then filmed Graham getting the Bovine Fan Club treatment.
As we marched on, we passed a large camp-site. The woods were getting gloomy beneath the canopy of trees as the evening drew on. I suddenly noticed that all three of my companions had stopped walking and were standing very still. Puzzled, I approached Graham, who leaned toward me and whispered that Jo had spotted just up ahead. Graham pointed them out to me. Two Badgers were sociably grooming each other just outside the entrance of their sett. In the dusk light their white stripes stood out with an almost glowing fluorescence. I was delighted with them and carefully crept closer, turning the video camera on and starting to film them.
They nibbled at each others fur and then one of them would stand and scratch heartily at itself with a hind paw. They must have been as lousy as Rooks. They were only fifteen to twenty metres ahead of us, but they have notoriously poor eyesight and, luckily for us, the light breeze must have been wafting towards our position. One whiff of our sweaty human bodies and they would have vanished in a flash. As it happened, they snuffled and scratched for a good few minutes and then wandered back underground in unhurried fashion. As one, we moved forward again. I filmed the entrance into the sett and one of the Badgers must have heard me whispering commentary for the benefit of the camera. It chittered briefly, so I decided to give them some peace and I walked on.
We continued on a track through the wood. It was now nine o'clock and the woods were becoming darker by the minute. A heavy perfume began to pervade the air and we approached a medium-sized tree which was adorned with large, tulip-like flowers. They were a showy white beneath the canopy of the wood and looked quite impressive. I attempted to photograph Graham walking beneath them.
"What - you want me to wear them in my hair?" he remarked, which was odd as he doesn't have any hair. He is a fellow baldy.
Soon after, we left the wood behind and passed Mellington Hall itself. We got ourselves a little misdirected at this point and, rather than find and walk beneath the arched gateway attached to the hall, we carried on down a small lane which joined another and brought us back onto the route just after the archway. This lane took us over the Caebitra River and to the shabby building of The Bluebell Inn. I have to be frank here (and this is only the opinion of four humble lads) - but the pub was awful. There is a rusting 1950's petrol pump situated by one side of the building next to a hoary old Oak Tree. This isn't too bad, in fact it is kind of historically interesting to see it there and wonder when it last coughed out petrol in anger. We found Graham's car without too much in the way of celebrating the completion of 'The Hard Day'. In fact, I struggled to elicit even a muted cheer for the benefit of the camera. Bod still felt rough and Jo and Graham demonstrated superb apathy in the face of a lens. Probably, they were just tired - the walk had taken us nine hours, after all. We dumped our walking gear and decided that we were all thirsty and needed a drink. My camel had run out a few miles ago and my reserve bottle had been drained just as we reached Graham's car and the end of the walk.
Recovery: A Wigan social club, 1952 ....
We went into a bar bedecked with cheap Formica. It was like a Wigan social club. There were a few locals pressed into the bar area - a room the size of a modest hen-house, which perhaps it had formerly been.
"I'm going to be naughty," said Jo and ordered a beer, despite us all earlier saying that we only longed for cold, soft drinks in a glass beaded with condensation.
"I'll have the same," I said, promptly.
Bod and Graham asked for coke and a fruit juice, with lots of ice and Jo offered to buy the round. He approached the bar to be faced with Old Father Time himself in frayed clothes and a trouser waistband which appeared to stop just below his nipples. Tufts of grey hair squirted out of his nose and ears, so that his head resembled a split sofa.
"Two lagers, a diet coke with ice and a fruit juice with ice, please."
The man shuffled forwards a pace or two and leaned nearer to Jo.
"Heynh?" he said.
"Two lagers.....a diet coke.... with ice.....and a fruit juice with ice......please!"
The man squinted at a couple of his cronies before turning back to Jo.
Oh, for Christ's sake, this was going well.
Jo also leaned forward over his side of the chipped Formica top.
"TWO LAGERS A DIET COKE WITH ICE AND A FRUIT JUICE WITH ICE PLEASE!!" This time, Jo's voice cracked on the last word.
The old boy looked slightly incredulous.
"We haven't got no diet coke." It was as if we had asked for a tray of baked Puffer Fish.
"Just nor - JUST NORMAL COKE, THEN!!" Jo bellowed, making a drinker next to him duck.
I sniggered, "Why are you shouting, Jo?"
The old boy fixed our drinks with the unhurried movements of a sleepwalker. Whilst waiting, I had plenty of time to examine the drinks on offer and was amazed to see a bar tap labelled
' I hadn't seen Double Diamond since I was about thirteen.
Our drinks were handed over to us in a froth of palsy. Mine and Jo's beers were cold and nectar to the throat, but Bod and Graham looked unenthusiastic.
"There's no ice in them," complained Bod. Jo looked crestfallen, but stoutly approached the man at the bar again."HAVE YOU GOT ANY ICE?" Jo learned fast.
The toothless mouth turned downwards.
"We haven't got no ice," he replied, clearly disgusted with us.
We gave up.
"HOW MUCH?" roared Jo. The man seemed to struggle with a few seconds of mathematics, his expression growing both vague and troubled, "Seven pounds."
We all had the same thought, that he had clearly come up with an arbitrary sum. We didn't mind. To our reckoning the round should have come to more than seven pounds, even taking into consideration Bod and Graham's lukewarm offerings.
"They're saving the ice to preserve his body," muttered Bod as we sat outside beneath the Oak Tree.
Yes, this was the worst pub I had ever been in - and I've drunk in The Happy Trooper in Birmingham, before it was pulled down in the name of public safety.
As we sat there, the two Belgian lads walked down the lane and drew level with us. They were looking for accommodation for the night with a quiet, Flemish desperation and didn't stay long, parting with nods of the head and us wishing them good luck.
Finally, we stretched stiffening muscles and headed home.
We got in the cottage (Jo and I) at a quarter to twelve and I now realised how tired I was. We had a quick hot drink before I curled up under a nurturing quilt though, in truth, I was privately delighted at how un-mangled my feet had remained. I drifted off to sleep with the comforting thought that the rest of the walk should be a doddle, compared to the stretch we had now completed.
In memory of Graham ('Dru') Drury 1964-2012. Another friend waiting at the Rio.
See Route on ......