Offa's Dyke (S) Day 5

Offa's Dyke - South
By Mark Walford
Day Five

Route: Hay-On-Wye to Kington
Date: Wednesday September 9th 2009
Distance: 14.5m (23.5km)
Elevation: 240ft (73m) to 1,371ft (418m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2,231ft (680m) and 1,946ft (593m)

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See Route on ......

The second hand book capital of the UK ....

We had further to drive today so we made a determined effort to set off earlier. The Stonemasons Symphony woke me at 6:30 and The Ritual Of Foot Therapy was concluded pretty quickly as I was running out of things to stick, wrap or smear on them.
Colin had laughed at the pile of dressings and unctions I had stashed on top of my bathroom cabinet but now they were nearly all gone. I still wound the crepe bandage around my left foot - it had become almost obligatory.
It was a glorious morning, hardly a cloud in the sky, and all the trees and hedgerows wore their late summer colours with pride, the first yellows of autumn beginning to show through. We left a car at the small market town of Kington and then made the short hop back to Hay to begin day number five. We were still unsure about how far we had to travel today, or indeed where we would be taken. Hergest Ridge featured somewhere along the route but other than that it was going to be a bit of a mystery tour. Estimated distances ranged from eleven to sixteen miles: An enigma of a day. I'd been to Hay-On-Wye before, a day's waking in April with Colin. 
ODS Day5 Pic 1

Window shopping in Hay-On-Wye

It is best known for being the second hand book capital of the UK with over thirty bookshops, and since 1988 a book festival
that draws literary luminaries from the world over, and crowds of over eighty thousand during its ten day duration. It isn't a large town so finding a B&B in June, when the festival launches, must be a nightmare for walkers of Offa's Dyke. It has a long history, the Normans in particular seemed to like this place as they built two castles and hung around for a couple of hundred years. It had a relatively anonymous existence afterwards until Richard George William Pitt Booth decided to proclaim Hay as an independent kingdom - not a real attempt at a royal coup but rather an ambitious publicity stunt that gave birth to the bibliographic reputation it enjoys today.
We walked out of Hay-On-Wye, past the Fudge Factory located rather ominously next to the public toilets. We passed by the rather impressive clock tower in Hay's market square, past its myriad bookshops, and finally left the pleasant town via a road bridge spanning the Wye. Here, just as in Monmouth a few days before, a crowd of people clustered on the bridge, engaged in outdoor pursuits. Not raft racing this time, but abseiling from the bridge's edge down to the river far below. It seemed to be a party of college students on some sort of adventure day and only a few of them looked very happy about what they were doing.

Border crossings, a long walk on Little Mountain ....

Hay-On-Wye behind us, we walked through fields of crops, the sun beaming down on us, and followed the river's course for a while before striking off to the north. There were pleasant open views all around and for a good while the walking was easy and uneventful. Bod and Jo had forged ahead leaving Colin and I to amble along, talking of this and that. We edged around one prairie sized field and observed a couple of walkers coming in from the opposite direction. They stopped, gesticulated at each other, struck off in one direction, stopped, had another conversation, and went back the way they came. This continued for some time and there was something aimless and ant-like in their wandering about that highly amused us. Bod and Jo were some way ahead of us by now but in a rare lapse of navigational skills Bod had missed the white acorn sign and we had to whistle and call them back. The sign led us into woodland and we began to climb again.
We walked for a few miles along pleasant rural byways that wound their way around hedgerows and meadows and soft rolling hills - the very picture of the English countryside. Except this of course was Wales. Or was it? The names of places we passed by served to confuse the issue because whilst there were many English name places - Redborough, Newchurch, Growther's Pool - there were other unmistakeably Welsh sounding places - Gilfoch-yr-hyeol, Dysgwylfa hill, Llwyyngwilliam - that always had you a little bit unsure as to which country you were walking through.
The map made mention of a hill known as Little Mountain and we were hoping, in vain as it turned out, to avoid having to go up and over it. It was the name that we found ominous - Little Mountain. If it had been called 'Slight Hillock' or 'Average Knoll' then we might have felt better about tackling it but 'Little Mountain' suggested rocky outcrops, scrambling, and lonely windswept heights. In fact Little Mountain was nothing like that at all; it introduced itself via some very pretty and secretive woodland walking - uphill yes, but nothing particularly taxing. Despite this however, the Menu Of Ailments arrived as I wandered beneath the dappled shade of trees. A special offer of Bubble Toes featured as I could feel a couple of new blisters under some of my digits, and Knee Grumble had overtaken Fresh Rubbed Heel as the dish of the day. I had to stop and rummage through my pack for the knee support I always carried with me for just such occasions. I wrapped it tightly around the joint and almost immediately felt the benefit. I was now wearing half my own body weight in various surgical dressings but at least I was walking in relative comfort. After a while the wooded path became steeper until we broke out from the trees on higher ground with rolling hills framing the horizon, but - which one was Hergest Ridge?
We paused for a water break and Bod began to peruse his map again. There was a long low ridge to the north; it was a bloody long way off.
"If that's Hergest Ridge we are in deep shit," he remarked. And then he turned to Colin. "There -see? There's your missing miles, all laid out before you!"
However we didn't head out towards that distant ridge but took a course more or less parallel to it. The trail continued to climb up the side of Little Mountain, a snaggled narrow little path that ran up alongside a series of fields. A path that sloped right to left which meant that after a while your ankles ached because of the unfamiliar angles. Once at the top of the hill however we were rewarded by yet another lovely 360 degree panorama of hills, valleys, and distant mountains. We were on wide grassland again and Bod summed up the look and feel of the place by suggesting that Julie Andrews was about to appear over the brow of the hill accompanied by a gaggle of singing Von Trapp children.

Kites on high, a man outstanding in his field ....

It seemed an ideal place to break for lunch. We stopped just alongside a farm track by a gated field and sprawled out on the warm turf. Large birds wheeled above our heads. Colin and Jo observed them.
"Kites?" asked Jo hopefully.
"Yes," Colin replied with a smile after watching them closely.
So there they were, the first Red Kites we had seen all week. Large and graceful with their distinctive forked tails, they sailed in lazy circles above us, serene and majestic.
The rumble of a tractor toiling up the hill drew our attention. As we watched it chugged into view, heading to the gated field in front of us. I got up to open the gate for the farmer but he obviously thought that city-bred types couldn't be trusted to do the job properly so he got out and finished the task for me. He was a friendly chap, getting on in years but probably fitter than any of us. He enthused about the weather; mentioned cutting the grass for winter feed, and said lots of other things interspersed with a lot of 'Aye's'.
He parked up the tractor and disappeared back down the hill only to re-emerge, minutes later, with the business end of a combine harvester. We watched with interest as he threaded this large vehicle through the narrow gateway and then hitched the front end of the Harvester, brought up on the tractor, to the rest of the machine. It was a manoeuvre that required a lot of precision driving and patience. Bod and I disagreed as to what he was going to do next. I thought the farmer had mentioned cutting the grass but Bod suggested that a combine harvester, albeit a small version of one, was only ever used to harvest crops. Well whoever had it right, it definitely involved chopping things down in a field.

If you feel a little glum; to Hergest Ridge you should come, The Octagenerian Aussie ....

After lunch we followed the farm track down into a valley where the farmers simple but imposing farmhouse stood, surrounded by mature trees, with a chattering brook running past the front door. For a person merely passing through it was idyllic in the extreme, but I tried to picture what it might be like on a dark day in January, when the cattle still need to be tended and the rugged fields would all the more difficult to climb. I suspected that the old farmer had a hard life at times despite the beauty he lived amidst.
ODS Day5 Pic 2

Cloud shadows on the hills and, er, Bod

We headed downwards into the very bottom of the narrow valley and of course I knew what came next. Offa's Dyke didn't disappoint me as almost immediately we were hiking uphill again, up towards the crown of the aforementioned Dysgwylfa hill. I muttered about the folly of it all but knew that once the walk was over and I was back in the office again, striving to meet impossible deadlines and stressing myself into an early grave, I would pine for these hills and the discomforts they brought and would dream of walking along with the sun on my face. We walked across bracken covered hillsides where the ubiquitous sheep first stared at us in alarm and then scurried away convinced that we were stalking them with murder in mind. To be a sheep must be to live a life in a constant state of terror. Hergest Ridge presented itself as we rounded the corner of Dysgwylfa hill. I knew of Hergest Ridge mainly through the 1970's album of the same name, written by Mike Oldfield who once lived in its shadow. For some reason I had always pictured Hergest Ridge as being 'down south' in the Home Counties (I'm probably getting confused with 'Solsbury Hill' by Peter Gabriel) so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only was it on our map, but we would actually be climbing over it. I must admit that as first impressions go, Hergest Ridge did it for me. It was a great crescent of a hill, a smooth sweeping whale back rising over 400 metres (1,300 ft) from the surrounding countryside. We were looking at its cultivated eastern flank and the hedges and fields rose up almost to its summit, a green counterpane of squares mottled here and there by the fuzzy treetops of woodland. Tiny white dots speckled this rural tapestry, sheep grazing the rich grass. It was a real stop-and-stare moment.
To approach Hergest Ridge we first descended to the tranquil village of Gladestry. A nice place - the sort of place that made you want to buy the first available property you came across and settle down to a life of vegetable growing and quiet contemplation. Soon we located the path up the hill and discovered that it was steady but not taxing, first enclosed by tall trees and then as we climbed higher, more open grassland. It was still the sort of climb that invited me to stop and get my breath back at regular intervals and during one such breather I noticed a man framing me for a picture, so I am now immortalised in some strangers photo collection; a sweaty open mouthed scruff in a floppy hat imposed against the scenic backdrop of the Marches.
We had climbed several hills during the walk to be rewarded with wonderful views once their summits were gained but I think Hergest Ridge offered us the greatest reward of the entire week, even more so than Hatterall Ridge. Quite simply the view from the top was stunning and I doubt any words or photographs I might offer can do it justice.
The weather was soft and mellow, the breeze light, and visibility almost limitless. Hills and mountains rolled away in all directions and to the west the great valley of Radnor opened out, making you wish you could take to the air and fly right across it to Bache Hill on the further side.
ODS Day5 Pic 3

On Hergest Ridge

Kites wheeled overhead, they now seemed to be everywhere having being so elusive for the first few days. We stopped by a signpost near the summit of the hill and surveyed the land laid out below us. Bod pointed out the general direction of the following days walking and to my tired legs it seemed to be yet another series of hills to be climbed. The wind was stronger on the exposed hilltop and it hissed through the long grass and tried to snatch your hat from your head. I panned the video camera almost 180 degrees, starting and ending at the setting sun. We picked up the path that would lead us to Kington and set off once more.
Hergest Ridge is a place of bracken and turf and sheep once you reach the top, a still and timeless sort of place. I walked along with Colin and we enthused about it all and how lucky we were to be there to experience it first-hand. All too soon we were descending again, following the long track that would lead into Kington. We noticed a small group of ponies enjoying the shade of a stand of trees and soon after a couple of women walked past us to stand counting them anxiously as if they feared some had been stolen. I half expected them to ask us to turn out our packs, just in case.
Bod and Jo had made some distance again but I could see them standing by a gate and talking to some other walkers. This was unusual for Bod as he isn't renowned for his gregariousness but as we got closer we recognised the three other walkers as our friends the Australians, whom we first met at the Half Moon in Llanthony. Colin and I fell in with one of them as the others walked slightly ahead. We talked about this and that as a long metalled track took us down from Hergest Ridge and down towards Kington. I was surprised to learn that he was well into his sixties - I had assumed they were all fifty-somethings - and absolutely astounded when he gestured to one of his friends and told us he was eighty-two.
There was some concern about him because he had been mentioning chest pains as they climbed the last few hills - he had a slight heart condition and they had a defibrillator stashed in one of the packs should he take a funny turn. I suggested that maybe it was an unfair burden on everyone to have such a worry to consider but the Aussie just shrugged.
"Well y'know how stubborn people can get. He'd prefer to peg out in a nice place like this rather than in some hospital bed and I guess we support him in that. If it happens, it happens, but yeah I do think he's pushing his luck a bit. He keeps claiming its just indigestion but that's what they all say isn't it?"
They were completing the entire route in one go, walking for a little over two weeks, and Colin mentioned that the most taxing day of all was coming along very shortly - right after Knighton in fact. He nodded and smiled quietly. "Yeah I know," was all he said.

Recovery: Fish and chips at Brock Cottage ....

We parted company when we reached Kington and we knew it was unlikely that we would meet them again so we wished them luck and waved them goodbye. I hope they completed the walk without any drama; they were really nice guys.
We walked back through the deserted streets of Kington and found our car. As we stripped off walking gear and prepared to head off a middle aged man approached us.
"Y'all from round here?" he enquired in an American drawl.
He was looking for somewhere to eat and as we had passed a few nice looking inns and restaurants we pointed him in their general direction. He was joined by his wife and they walked off down Kington's high street. They didn't look like the outdoors type so quite what they were doing in such an out of the way place as Kington baffled us and of course it's a mystery never to be solved as it would have been rude to ask them.
We decided to grab some fish and chips to eat at Colin's cottage that evening and we all walked, rather stiff legged, into Ross-On-Wye, Colin leading the way to his favourite chippy. As a nice coda to the day it was all uphill back to the car.
And my knees hurt.
Never mind, England beat Croatia 5-1 so I went to bed happy.

See Route on ......

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