|Offa's Dyke - South|
Wings on my feet, lowering skies, a case of a leaky bladder ....
The Stonemasons Symphony woke me at 6:30 and I lay staring at the ceiling for 30 minutes before rolling out of bed and into the shower. The Ritual of Foot Therapy was going to require extra diligence this morning and I laid out the paraphernalia with care. First a swab with antiseptic, then two ordinary plasters, then a Compeed and then a crepe bandage wound about my foot and secured with reams of Micropore tape. I had a foot which was secured, the sore heel well padded, and something that looked like a minor attack of gout at the end of my leg, but it was the best I could do. I got up and trotted downstairs - not so much as a wince. A good start. We were getting slicker with our morning preparation so by the time Bod arrived we were practically ready. I took my new footwear and slipped them on. I'd called them trainers earlier but on reflection I'd say they were actually 'proper' walking shoes, robustly made with a decent grip on the soles. I'd bought them in a sale at a local garden centre and had intended them just for casual use but, when I took my first few steps in them, I knew all was going to be well. They felt so comfortable and light - it was like wearing slippers - and there was scarcely a twinge in either heel as I bounced outside and towards the car. They might not last more than a hundred miles before they fell to pieces but they would see me through to Knighton without a doubt. I felt like throwing my arms in the air and shouting "I can walk! It's a miracle!" but contented myself with a smile and a merry whistle.
According to the Met. Office today was supposed to be bright and fine, so of course the skies were leaden right from the start. A shame really as we were walking along the highest point of Offa's Dyke. We left one car at and then took the winding and highly scenic road out of Hay towards The road threaded through sheep pastures, climbing into the Vale of Ewyas, chaperoned to the north by the long wall of Hatterrall Ridge. To the south the land fell away to reveal a misty landscape, indistinct and washed with drizzle. As we neared the priory, hedges crowded in on each side and the way forward became narrow.
We had been watching the tops of the hills as we drove along, particularly that of Hatterrall, and could see that the low cloud was rolling across them, sometimes obscuring the summits in ghostly grey vapour. It would be a little foggy up on top and visibility would probably be poor at times. Of course we had the option of using the road and some debate took place about which route to choose. Colin was eager to tackle the ridge and for myself I also wanted to walk the ridge but it was the prospect of climbing all that way up again that was daunting me somewhat. However I said little and decided to go along with whatever decision might be made.
We parked back near the ruined priory and I opened the tailgate of the car to pull out my rucksack. It was soaking wet so I did a quick investigation. The tube on my camel pack had been left in the unlocked position and the bag had leaked under pressure. I barely had a cupful left. I had packed a couple of extra bottles of water but I didn't fancy relying on them to get me through the day so I wandered off, camel pack in hand, to the Priory public house; open this morning and serving as a café. There were a few people inside sitting having coffee when I walked in. The lady behind the counter smiled and then looked at the thing I was carrying and her brow creased a little.
"Hi," I smiled. "Do you have water please?"
"Yes love," she replied and jerked her head to where a sink lurked behind a coffee maker. "There's a tap full of it there."
"Ok, so ... could you fill this for me?" I offered her the camel pack which she took from me as if she had been handed a used bed pan. She filled it and handed it back to me.
"Thanks," I said as I sealed its seam. "Bye."
"Bye then," she answered. As I was leaving the place I heard her say to one of her customers, "it looked just like his colostomy bag!"
I smiled. I suppose she had a point.
The second ascent of Hatterrall Ridge, Loves Young Dream, Colin's porn movie ....
We milled about in the tiny car park, adjusting straps, shooting video, and re-stashing water packs containing the strangely cloudy water drawn from The Priory. A man and wife with dogs meandered about, apparently unable to discover the exit from the car park, and a young couple radiated health and vitality as they lounged against their 4x4 vehicle and revelled in each other's gorgeousness. We had to face the start sooner or later so we all set off, trudging past the priory ruins and into the field at the start of the Offa's Dyke (north) path. Behind us the Couple With Dogs managed to escape the priory car park and were heading uncertainly across the field behind us and, bringing up the rear at an almost insolent stroll, came Loves Young Dream, arm in arm and at one with the world.
The path allowed us a warm-up of sorts by gradually introducing ever steeper fields. Bod walked alongside me for a while and muttered that his legs weren't working properly before finding another gear and striding off ahead in his slow motion, mileage eating, gait.
The familiar uphill pattern for the four of us soon took shape; Bod ahead, Jo just behind him and matching Bods pace, Colin either abreast of Jo or hanging back to take pictures, and myself at the rear, just 'taking my time' as people with no lung capacity like to say. At some point however Jo obviously decided that he wanted the climb over with as soon as possible and he shifted into overdrive, making the summit a good few minutes before Bod.
Couple With Dogs had miraculously maintained the path across all the fields and were now gesticulating towards the options ahead whilst their dogs capered about happily in a non-directional manner. Loves Young Dream had effortlessly overtaken them and were now rising up the hillside towards me as if on rails. I had to stop and take my first breather. They walked past me.
"I'm getting too old for this," I panted at them. They bestowed sympathetic smiles upon me and floated heavenwards, arms linked, and not a bead of sweat in sight.
The path became steeper and rockier and twisted about a fair bit. This afforded wonderful views back down into Llanthony Priory nestled in the green floor of its secluded valley. From up here it was easy to imagine how remote and isolated the medieval must have felt, trying to minister the priory in the midst of the bad lands of the Welsh\English border; a dark and dangerous place. You could imagine the ease with which the local brigands would sneak up on the unsuspecting friars, hidden under the cloak of trees or in the impenetrable darkness of the night. With no architectural defences and no trained military staff to defend them the poor monks would have found themselves set upon without warning, subject to assault, robbery, and worse.
A view down into Llanthony Valley
I continued upwards, pausing every so often to re-oxygenate. The Menu of Ailments had a limited choice this morning - Rubbed Heel with a spicy helping of Knee Grumble. I accepted both with poor grace. I looked up as I rounded another hairpin corner and, not too far ahead, I spied Bod and Colin paused at what I sincerely hoped was the summit. On a far crest and becoming dim with distance, Loves Young Dream wandered serenely onwards, arms locked, plighting their troth with every steady footfall. I glanced down to see that Couple With Dogs had, against all odds, picked the correct path and would soon be catching me up, which wouldn't do at all. Its one thing to be overhauled by a pair of fit twenty-something's but quite another to allow oneself to be passed by a couple with all the directional sense of a mole in a coal cellar. I plodded on up to the others. Jo was hunkered down in a rocky crevasse, orange weather-proof jacket buttoned up so that only his eyes gleamed at me. He looked frozen, though I thought it was rather pleasantly cooling being up so high.
Bod was watching Loves Young Dream disappear southwards - the direction we had come from the day before. "Not even out of breath," he acknowledged grudgingly and then added, "I wanted to shove them off the edge when they walked past us."
Colin and Jo shared an amused glance and then they told us what had happened when Loves Young Dream had approached the summit. Once Colin had struggled and heaved his way to the top, he found himself just ahead of the young couple. He had fished the video camera out to film the accomplishment of the climb. Jo, sitting on a nearby grass bank had said "I admire your enthusiasm. I wouldn't be bothered." It was just as the fit young girl walked into earshot that Colin swung his camera in her direction (merely to film the view of the valley) and said, "Well, it's something for me to look at when I'm older." He could tell by the frozen expression of disapproval on her face that she suspected he meant her and was filming her perfect body for some 'personal time' later. "The view!" Colin emphasized, "To film the view!" but that seemed to make it worse. Jo and Colin cringed at the same time, then looked at each other once Loves Young Dream had passed and burst out laughing.
Moonwalking, sandwiches on high, small thoughts of a brother ....
We set off again, finally hitting the well laid path that would lead us northwards along for the next few miles. Ironically this, the highest point of Offa's Dyke path, proved to be the flattest section of walking we encountered all week. The path was easy to follow and was well maintained and I for one was thankful for a bit of level ground. As we expected, the clouds kept rolling in on a stiff easterly wind, racing past us in ragged wreaths of white vapour. Visibility was cut down considerably but this didn't really matter as the ridge continued to widen out as we walked, large banks of heather and bog spreading out on either side of us.
Walking in the clouds
We stopped briefly at yet another I needed to strap on my knee support and Colin, suffering from earache because of the persistent side-wind, pulled out a black hat with large floppy ears, cramming it snugly over his head. He looked like the world's worst Ninja but considering my choice of headgear for the week I felt it prudent not to scoff too much.
There is no marker to proclaim the highest point of the ridge and, by association, the walk itself. Bod kept craning his neck, and squinting at the GPS tied to his lapel until he announced that we were 'more or less' at the high point. There followed a very surreal landscape of broken rock and small piles of stones raised at regular intervals like the dwellings of some sort of Ridge Troll community. Except for the tussocks of reed sprouting here and there it could have been the surface of the moon. The ghostly vapour added to the atmosphere and my three companions blurred, vanished, and then re-appeared in the uncertain conditions.
Somehow I found myself ahead of the others after a time and I walked alone in this grey windy place, appreciating its atmosphere and wandering whether the path down from Hay Bluff would be as challenging as the mornings earlier climb. Almost imperceptibly the path descended, the air grew clearer, with curtained wraiths of cloud vapour zooming sporadically across our path. A series of natural stone steps dropped us down to a crossroads where the faithful old white acorn of the Offa's Dyke path pointed towards a new path to the right. Within a few hundred yards we were back out of the clouds and into clear air. It wasn't the brightest of days but after a few hours walking in fog it still came as a surprise. We passed a couple of volunteers maintaining the path, shovelling up the turf in readiness for a new layer of gravel. It looked like hard, back breaking, work that had to be performed after a long climb up and would be followed by an equally long climb back down again. It's amazing what people will happily volunteer for, and thank God they do otherwise walking long distant paths like Offa's Dyke would be a much more arduous undertaking.
We stopped for lunch overlooking the Olcham Valley where a tiny tractor chugged purposefully back and forth across a field, a brown trail of turned earth emerging in its wake. In the next field a series of dilapidated caravans, an old ambulance, and what appeared to be a military tank, gave away the position of a community of itinerant farm workers. The sun and clouds were playing a game of tag across the hills, bright patches of lemon yellow light being hunted by the racing shadows of cumuli. Far away on a distant hilltop a large white structure faded in and out with the fleeting light conditions. It was a tall tower of some kind but we couldn't determine its purpose. We ate in silence, apart from when I made a disgusted 'Pfahh!' noise as I chewed unsuspectingly on a segment of mouldy orange.
Colin was taking video as we prepared to move on and I remember thinking of my legs and how they had woefully seized up in the short lunch break. I had tried to walk off with some composure but Colin had spotted my discomfort and chuckled into the VT about how hobbled I seemed to be.
Too right mate.
The path clove to the north-westerly flank of Hatterrall Ridge and threaded its way down to where gorse-clad sheep pastures indicated that the ridge was conquered. Having loomed ever larger for the previous two days it seemed almost unbelievable that we had tramped all over it for so many miles and yet we were now about to leave it behind us. We edged our way downwards until the metalled road to was finally met. A last look back at the ridge showed us a rather oblique hummock of a hill, turf covered and swathed in silver-grey cloud at its heights. The grandeur of the southerly approaches, where it had reared impressively against the horizon, was lost as we departed. We were looking back at the ridge almost edge on, at Hay Bluff - a blunt and modest knoll looking no worse than Kings Hill or The Kymin we had previously climbed. Bod watched Colin attempting to film this rather featureless and anti-climactic end of Hatterrall with a degree of amused derision. In an odd way I would miss Hatterrall Ridge, as I had enjoyed my time upon its heights and, for the next few days, as it receded into a blue-grey smudge on the horizon, I would often stand and regard it with a sense of nostalgia.
I imagined that the road would carry us all the way to Hay-On-Wye but, after only a short time, the route took us away from it and led us across open grassland heading towards, but never quite venturing into, the dense canopy of New House Wood. Bod had started to calculate the end of today's walk and it fell short of our expected fourteen miles.
Colin descending from Hay Bluff
"Sorry mate, I was miles away," he said. "I was thinking about Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to Kennedy and whether they really did have an affair which led to her being bumped off."
"How on earth did you end up on that train of thought?" I asked.
"It's walking along like this I suppose," he replied. "Your mind is free to roam. You do as many miles in your head as you do on your feet."
We left the grasslands behind us and entered an old forest of mixed woodland which took us ever downwards, skirting around Cusop Hill and sometimes breaking out into meadowland where the rooftops of Hay-On-Wye nestled in the Wye Valley and where our days walking would end. I mistakenly believed we were still in England - as in so many places along this borderland route it was difficult to tell when you had straddled the divide. I was surprised therefore, when we emerged from under the cover of another small wooded copse, to pass by a small farm close to the village of where a Welsh radio station was entertaining the cows and the Red Dragon of Wales flew proudly in a stiff breeze, fixed to a pole on the farms roof.
Hay-On-Wye, I later found out, is Welsh despite its English sounding name.
Recovery: The Priory Inn Llanthony ....
A few final meadows and we made it to Hay-On-Wye and the car park. It was an early finish for us and we were all thankful for an easier days walking. It also offered us an opportunity. I desperately needed some new video cassettes and Bod suggested that a trip to could be worked into our route back to Llanthony Priory. Colin knew of a PC World where they would be sure to sell the cassettes so we set off from Hay for the twenty mile diversion to Hereford. We not only found Hereford but also located the PC World with little trouble and they sold the cassettes I needed AND they were on offer. We then drove all the way back to Llanthony Priory where our lucky streak ran out as we found that the Half Moon was shut for the evening. We opted to use The Priory instead and although it was slightly more expensive the food was delicious and arrived quickly, along with the excellent ale. We also had a nice little mystery solved for us as there was a plaque on the wall describing the ancient old Sweet Chestnut trees we had discovered on day one near Biggsweir Bridge.
The story goes thus:
In 1588 the was destroyed by the English under Amongst the many treasures seized from the Spanish Galleons were a large number of Chestnut saplings (so apparently the first thing the Spanish were intending to do once they had conquered England was a spot of gardening). These saplings were distributed to noblemen and were planted on their estates as a symbolic tribute to Drakes victory. The ancient specimens we had admired on Monday were amongst the last survivors - and were over 400 years old. Sadly trees do not live forever, and Chestnuts are not a particularly long lived species. They are all dying now and in a few decades they will be just a tangle of bleached wood in a forgotten field. I'm glad I had the chance to see these Elizabethan relics in their final years. I had run my hands over their rough bark without realising the fascinating historical tale they represented.
Colin and Jo reviewed tomorrows walk, partly to try and discover the 'missing' miles. They mentioned a bit more climbing, including which I had told them we would encounter at some point this week, then they folded the map away, a little depressed at the amount of closely bunched contour lines we would be translating into gradients come the morning.
We all assumed that our driving about all over the borders was at an end but I realised, as I climbed into my car, that I had just six miles of fuel left according to the on-board and often half-assed computer. The nearest town where we would find a fuel pump was and so we set off, driving like little old ladies to conserve fuel, to arrive at a petrol station almost running on fumes. It was a close call.
An hour later and we were back at Brock Cottage, having a Beer Before Bedtime. As an unwelcome reminder of life back home there was a news feature about the car industry in Birmingham and the demise of Rover Cars, a company I was associated with for many years. The poor workers who had been employed there at the time it went into liquidation were still waiting anxiously for any sign of their pensions. A grim story really but I had to laugh aloud when the workers representative came on screen. His name?
See Route on ......