The Wye Valley Walk - Day One

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day One

Route:Chepstow to Whitebrook
Date: Sunday August 30th 2015
Distance: 12m (19.3km)
Elevation: 23ft (7m) to 384ft (117m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2,415ft (736m) and 2,411ft (735m)

See Route on ......

A late start from Chepstow ...

Rain had been forecast for our first day of tackling the Wye Valley Walk and the skies were grey and heavy with precipitation when we arrived at Chepstow Castle, the official starting point. The really heavy rain was not going to arrive until later in the morning so we gave it every chance to catch us up, ensuring we got wet right from the very start, by setting off much later than intended. It was to be a day of errors and omissions, both major and minor, and our first gaff was to feed four English pounds into the parking meter only to be told immediately afterwards by a local that, being a Sunday, parking was free all day. This little irritation aside we were pleased to be leaving the car in a safe and easily accessible place for the day. I noticed a burger stand had opened for business and I wondered idly if he would still be open when we returned after our days walking – not for the burgers of course, but perhaps for ice-cold water.
Our final task before setting off in search of the starting point was to pick up a couple of Wye Valley Walk passports from the Tourist Information centre. These had places for stamps that could be collected along the route at nominated stations. A few of these stations were, like here in Chepstow, TIC's but the majority of them were public houses, which gave us a very good reason for stopping off for the odd pint along the way.
Under the crumbling walls of the old
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Both of us fresh and ready for the start

castle we found the large rock that signified the official starting point of this 136 mile adventure, and began taking the usual photographs that such an occasion demands. Colin was framing me leaning against the stone when a local lady with a couple of small dogs in tow approached us.
“SHALL I TAKE A PICTURE OF THE TWO OF YOU TOGETHER?” she boomed at us. We concluded pretty quickly that she was hard of hearing and, like many people with such a disadvantage, she shouted her every word. She was a very kind and obliging lady and Colin offered her his camera to take the shot. With loud observations along the lines of “I’M NOT VERY GOOD AT THIS – I USUALLY CUT PEOPLES HEADS OFF” and “OH THAT’S THE THING I NEED TO PRESS IS IT?” she succeeded in taking a really nice picture of the pair of us. We thanked her kindly. “NOT AT ALL,” she bellowed smilingly, “YOU TWO HAVE A LOVELY DAY!”
We lingered for a while, admiring the frowning battlements of the castle that loomed above us, and shot some video, and shuffled our feet, and stared with some trepidation at the gloomy rain-clouds overhead. There was nothing for it: it was time to be off.

Guide notes: Chepstow and its castle.
Begun in 1067 by William Fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford, a compatriot of William the Conqueror, Chepstow Castle occupies a strong strategic position and was the first stone-built Norman castle in Britain. After being under siege during the English Civil War in 1645 and 1648 the castle acted as a state prison before gradually falling into decay. The large tower you pass under is Marten’s Tower, prison of Henry Marten, one of the Regicides who signed the Death Warrant of King Charles I. On the Restoration in 1660 Charles II took revenge on his father’s killers and Marten was lucky to avoid execution (by being hanged drawn and quartered), but remained a prisoner here from 1668 until his death in 1680. Before the Industrial Revolution Chepstow was an important port, hence the town walls seen on your left as you continue uphill. New industries, founded on iron and coal, resulted in the expansion of Newport and Cardiff at Chepstow’s expense, but this helped to preserve the historic nature of the town. The river remained an important outlet and small flat-bottomed boats, known as ‘trows’, sailed around the dangerous waters of the Bristol Channel and up and down the Wye (and Severn) transporting iron and wire from Tintern and Redbrook, timber and oak bark, and paper from Whitebrook, whilst importing wine and other goods from Bristol and further afield.

We hadn’t gone very far, following the tarmac path which wound about the castles moat, now a great green grassy ditch, when we bumped into our friend the lady with the dogs again. She once more appeared eager to be helpful and when we said that we needed to find the high street she began giving us detailed instructions which echoed off the castle walls and startled passers-by. We left her for the final time with smiles and waves.
Colin had forgotten to pack a weatherproof coat and so we made our way into the town’s high street in search of an outlet where he could pick up a cheap one for the day. Luckily we found such a place almost immediately but, unluckily, Colin’s choice of coat had no price on it and there followed a twenty minute interlude where two confused shop assistants frowned at a monitor and jabbed randomly at a keyboard whilst a queue slowly built up behind us. I soon lost interest in the proceedings and wandered back outside to grab a packed lunch from a nearby Greggs. In the end they never did find a price for the coat and so they closed on a mutually acceptable price via the time honoured method of haggling.
We regained the path at the castle once more and this time we set off in earnest, noting with scarcely any surprise that it was now raining persistently.

Pretty viewpoints, pretty damp ...

We had mapped a profile of the route as part of our planning and we knew that today had a fair amount of climbing in store, over two thousand feet in total, and this began immediately as the tarmac path rose to meet a road which in turn rose again to take us through the suburbs of Chepstow. There were to be a lot of gradients on this first section of the walk, and although the profile indicated that there was as much descent as ascent it never felt like that to me. It was always on the up, and some of those ups were steep and often long. That’s something I should mention about the Wye Valley Walk at this point – it isn’t a march alongside the river bank, which would be flat and (let’s admit it) rather monotonous. For many reasons, some geographical and some due to private ownership of land, this long distance path is often forced away from the Wye and as a result celebrates the Wye Valley in all its diversity and not just the beautiful river that carved it out millennia ago. There are some more strenuous sections, but you are rewarded amply by the variation of the scenery you walk through, from densely forested hillsides, through pastures and cider orchards, across meadows and over mountains. If you ever decide to tackle this walk then be prepared for some genuine hiking along the way.
We left the road, and Chepstow, behind us via the grounds of a school where a path took us into a forest for some pretty woodland walking. The dense eaves of the trees kept the rain of us and although the air was damp we could at least remove our hoods and look about us. This track eventually led us into Piercefield Park which is private property, and the hill we walked upon was one of many such hills in the area, each one clad in woodland that tumbled down to the banks of the river. As we progressed, the forest path climbed steadily and a series of viewpoints,
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Chepstow Castle

laid out in the late eighteenth century for the benefit of the burgeoning tourist industry, provided splendid vistas. We met a retired couple on this trail, and a younger couple with a dog that were attempting the Wye Valley Walk, or at least this section of it, and for some time we overtook each other in turns as we stopped along the way, admiring the scenery as it unfolded before us. We stopped at one viewpoint, called the Alcove seat, which offered us a view back to Chepstow Castle, the town itself, and beyond it the white spires of the Second Severn Crossing. The river Wye glided silently below us, dun brown with slick and muddy banks. It was still tidal here of course and would be so until we reached Brockweir, and it was strange to think that as we proceeded along the walk the river would become ever younger and swifter-flowing, leaping and carving its way past towns and cities, with ourselves tracing its origins with every step until it became no more than a babbling spring of clean water bursting out from the side of a welsh hillside. Of course that place was many miles distant yet, and a few years away from realisation.
We observed how, in such a lovely landscape, civil engineers had erected an ugly bypass of grey concrete that bisected the view, with no thought at all on how it might look and no effort made to design it to be more sympathetic with its surroundings. I know it’s hard to make a concrete flyover look picturesque but there’s always something you can do to soften the impact, with a bit of forethought and financing, neither of which were probably at a premium when the bridge was built several decades ago. I’d like to think that we’ve all moved on a little since and perhaps if the bridge were to be designed today it might blend in a little better.

Guide notes: The Piercefield Viewpoints.
The Alcove is but one of 10 viewpoints laid out in Piercefield Woods in the 1750s by the owner Valentine Morris. He owned estates in the West Indies and used his wealth to lay out the dramatic walks and picturesque viewpoints for the enjoyment of his guests. This became a highlight of the emerging Wye Tour, with people coming by boat and carriage to view the spectacular Wye Gorge, heralding the birth of popular tourism in Britain. The original paths were to be walked from north to south, but rearranged by a new owner in 1790 and the path alignment changed from south to north, starting in Chepstow. Nathaniel Wells, owner of Piercefield in the early 1800s, probably added the ‘365 Steps’ and the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ viewpoints. He was the son of a plantation owner and a slave woman but inherited his father’s estates and became the first black High Sheriff in Britain. Several of the viewpoints were reconstructed in 2009 under the ‘Overlooking the Wye’ Heritage Lottery funded project.

Further along the trail we noticed two things, firstly the path was taking a more determined upward direction and secondly the wet ground was proving to be challenging at times as it was strewn with rocks and snaggled tree roots which were becoming greasy underfoot. We worried slightly about the older couple who were now some distance behind us, and how they might cope with this, but as Colin pointed out with grim humour we weren’t exactly spring chickens ourselves.
Presently, halfway up a steeper section, Colin diverted left and stood inside a feature known as The Grotto, which had been set into the side of the hill and resembled, as much as anything, a sort of Neanderthal bus-shelter. It had been built as part of the Georgian improvements for those wishing to stroll along this lovely part of the world and would originally have been bedecked with sea shells. Colin told me that he now recognised this area as a place he had worked on when doing volunteer conservation work several years before. He pointed out the sections of the track which he and his fellow volunteers had cleared of undergrowth and then levelled out as much as possible. It looked like hard work to me.
Not much further on we reached a second viewpoint at the Giants Cave where indeed a cave (actually more of a tunnel) had been chiselled through the living rock. The view down to the river Wye, now far below us, was worth a five minute breather and then we followed the path through the cave. Like all such places it was dark, chilly, and smelled strongly of urine.

Guide notes: The Giants Cave.
Recent reconstruction work here, including removal of tree cover and repairs to the walls, has made it possible to appreciate the fine vistas which would have been also enjoyed by walkers in the 18th century. The cave was once guarded by a stone giant above the entrance, but he has long since disappeared and it is said that Valentine Morris, to amuse his guests, had guns fired from here to experience the echoes bouncing up to seven times from cliff face to cliff face.

After the Giants Cave the path moved up a gear and became at times both steep and narrow, with plunging drops to our right to an unseen river Wye. We were having to be careful as a trip in that direction would have had us bouncing off tree trunks like a pinball before disappearing into the waiting river with a distant splash. I would say, from our experience, that caution would have to be applied here if you were walking with children or dogs.
We broke out from the forest at the Lower Wyndcliff car park where the rain, unhindered by tree cover soon forced us grumbling back into our wet weather gear. Beyond the car park was an old quarry and a choice of a slow climb up a track or an
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Into the Giants Cave

attempt of the 365 Steps installed for the benefit of those energetic Georgians. We debated this for a while but in all honesty, any views gained by tackling the steps would have been lost in the grey void that this day had become, so we opted for the track, which was hardly less strenuous as it turned out. At the top we emerged on to the Upper Wyndcliff car park and the final viewpoint of Piercefield Park known as the Eagles Nest. We were assured by the guidebook that this offered a particularly fine vista, said to be a favourite view of the Duke of Beaufort no less, but today the only scene it presented was a big white nothingness, a blank canvas with just the merest hint of a ghostly tree in the foreground. However, via the magic of the internet, here is a link to what the view can offer on a fine day.
We carried on, passing through Minepit Wood and along Black Cliff and then down a very tricky path which really would have been a game-changer if either of us had slipped. We picked our way carefully over the slippery rocks and treacherous tree roots to reach firmer ground that led us out from the woodland and down the side of a hill via a series of soggy pastures.

Guide notes: Minepit Wood.
Ironstone was mined here using the ‘scowles’ system as used in the Forest of Dean. The iron-ore seams close to the surface are followed, creating deep fissures or trenches in the ground. No one is sure when this was dug or where the iron ore was eventually smelted, but it is possible the monks of Tintern Abbey may have exploited this nearby source. The tree species are diverse, and include spindle, privet, small-leaved lime, yew, field maple, wych elm, hazel, ash and beech.

Abbeys, shindigs, cricket, and beer off piste ...

My stomach had started to rumble by the time we reached the outlying cottages of Tintern, so we threaded our way through its narrow back lanes and walked down to the riverside, passing the gaunt ruins of the abbey in the process. We had both been to Tintern several times before and we rate it as one of our favourite places to visit in the area. It has the impressive gothic ruins of the abbey of course, which if you approach from the road loom suddenly into view capturing your attention with their haggard beauty. But it also has the River Wye running through the town, no longer silty brown but a wide green fast moving body of water, rising and falling with the tides of the distant Severn estuary. There’s a nice riverside restaurant, a collection of shops to browse, and a pub that sells the most enormous mixed grill. I could go on, but instead why don’t you just go and visit the place yourself – you wont be disappointed. Colin and I sat on a low stone wall between the abbey ruins and the river and ate our packed lunch as tourists walked by speaking many different languages.
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A tricky path

A French guy strode across the car park wearing the silliest pair of trousers we had ever seen. Bright red, extremely baggy, either long shorts or short longs. We thought they looked ridiculous but he was French, and probably far more fashion conscious then we Englishmen in our shapeless walking apparel. It took nano-seconds for the local wasp population to start zooming us, desperate for life-prolonging sugar. I always feel a little sorry for the poor wasp at this time of the year. With its natural source of energy depleted (the secretion given off by their larvae) they have to continually hunt for sugar or die. Its quite a stark choice when you think about it and maybe you can understand their aggressive persistence in trying to land on your ice-lolly. After a bit of arm waving and cursing I compromised by filling a little hollow in the wall's brickwork with Lucozade sport which at least partially drew their attention away from us.
Lunch over, we hoisted our rucksacks and set off once more, following a wide level track alongside the Wye before turning to follow the main street of Tintern, passing the aforementioned pub that sells the mega mixed grill. It was nice to be doing a spot of easy, flat walking for a while, and we enjoyed our stroll through Tintern despite the rain that still fell gently on our already sodden gear.

Guide notes: Tintern and its Abbey.
The complex of buildings now housing shops, craft workshops and a café was once the site of the Abbey Mill. The grassed area was a tidal dock, into which small craft could be berthed and loaded between tides. Look across the road behind you towards the whitewashed cottages and note the line of a tramway which came down the Angidy Valley and across the bridge to eventually join the main Wye Valley Railway. The Angidy Valley, along with other side valleys of the Wye, were heavily industrialised from the late 16th century, making the area arguably the crucible of the Industrial Revolution. It was in Tintern in 1566 that brass was first produced in Britain by alloying copper and zinc. The Angidy iron furnaces, fuelled by locally made charcoal and driven by water power, produced cast iron and the Tintern Wireworks, located about 300m up the valley, was the source of most of the drawn wire manufactured in the British Isles until its closure in the 19th century. Wireworks Bridge carried the industrial railway into Tintern to serve the small wireworks. It closed in 1935. Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131 on land granted by Walter de Clare of Chepstow to the Cistercian Order which grew in influence and wealth to such an extent that by the 13th century it could construct the magnificent structure of which we see the remains today. More information on the story of the Cistercian Monks in Wales may be found at the Information Centre attached to the abbey.

We walked through the grounds of St. Michael’s Church to reach the riverbank once more and then, for a rare space of time, we followed its course, close enough to jump in if we were so inclined. The appearance of canoeists reminded us of just how popular this past-time is on the lower reaches of the Wye. Symonds Yat East in particular seems to be a Mecca for canoe clubs. We watched a family of four glide by, paddles flailing in an un-coordinated manner, and speculated on the perils of such an outdoor pursuit. Colin knows better than I how risky an adventure it can be, as he and his son had capsized on a canoeing trip a few years before which had cost him a phone, a camera, and a significant loss of dignity. We wondered how far up along the course of the river this activity would be evident or whether it was concentrated down here in Herefordshire, where the river is wide and relatively smooth.
A few hundred meters further on we started to hear amplified music, the sort of upbeat country and western tune you might hear at line dancing sessions. It was incongruous given its setting. As we crossed a grassy meadow we looked to our left and found the source of the sound which was some sort of wooden community building with a wide veranda looking down on the riverbank. A number of heads were bobbing up and down in unison and keeping time with the music so perhaps our line dancing guess wasn’t too far from the mark; in any event, it seemed that some sort of shindig was taking place. Of course I had to film it and of course Colin decided to join in the fun with his own version of an Irish jig which is forever committed to video. Like a gift that just keeps giving, the river Wye presented us with another spectacle in the very next meadow. Here, on the opposite bank, a village cricket match was in progress. A ragged crowd of villagers were cheering on the teams as batsmen seemed to be walking to and from the crease in an almost continuous line. Even as we watched there was a yell and a cheer and another batsman tucked his bat under his arm and made off for the beer tent. I decided to film the next bit of the action and there was a brief pause in the excitement as the umpires (both of whom were inexplicably wearing kilts) waited for the new batsman to take crease and the field to be adjusted. The bowler began his run-up, he pitched a full delivery and sure enough the new batsman was bowled for a duck. It looked like everyone was having fun and the cricket was a low priority compared to the refreshments available. It seemed as if most of the batting side were already into their ale, watching the proceedings good-naturedly and not caring a jot about the outcome of the game. Very soon after this we reached Brockweir bridge, a large iron construction that we crossed to enter the village of Brockweir. It was a quiet place, made all the more so by the fact that a lot of the villagers were attending the cricket match we had just observed, but it had a pub that was open and although it wasn’t listed as a place to collect a stamp for our passports we decided that a pint of ale was deserved for all our efforts. It had stopped raining for a while so we sat outside with our beer and enjoyed taking the weight off our feet for twenty minutes or so.

Guide Notes: Brockweir.
Across the bridge is the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail and the now quiet riverside settlement of Brockweir. This was once the busiest port on the Wye, where cargoes were transferred to and from the seagoing ships to the trows. Just north of where the bridge now stands you can see part of the old quay, recently restored.

We set off again, taking what seemed to be a logical route out of the village up a hilly road. At the top of this long rise we realised that our logic was flawed and we were not on route any more. We walked back down to the pub and then spent a few moments head scratching as the guidebook seemed to be pointing out directions that made no sense. Eventually we realised that we had made an error in crossing the bridge and we should never have been in Brockweir at all. Never mind, the ale was good.

Wrong turns and things we never saw ...

We crossed the bridge once more and regained the Wye Valley walk, recognising its way mark of a leaping Salmon (The Leaping Salmon – what a great name for a riverside pub here, why hasn’t that one been used?). Two things disappointed me at this moment, firstly it had started raining quite heavily and secondly we were going to start climbing again, leaving the riverbank and its nice flat meadows to strike up through the forested hillsides once more.
It was a short but energetic climb that eventually levelled out, taking us first along an avenue of venerable old pines and then along a series of forest tracks which terminated at a clearing called the Whitestone Forestry Commission Picnic Site
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Tintern Abbey

and where the rain, for a short while at least, stopped. The picnic area proved to be a bit of a puzzle to us, as the previously reliable Wye Valley way-marks began to take us in circles. We tried and failed to match the guidebook instructions to what we were actually seeing and in the end resorted to Plan B: ask someone. Two ladies with dogs on leads were on their way back to their cars so we targeted them. We knew that we needed to reach a place called Whitebrook, where our car was parked, and they knew where it lay by road but not necessarily by footpath. As we discussed this, one of the dogs began to wind itself around my leg so that the lead entwined me like a ribbon on a maypole. “We could give you a lift to Whitebrook?” They offered kindly. We politely declined, as this would have been cheating, but with hindsight we should have taken them up on their offer - but of course we had no idea of what was to come. Instead the ladies pointed to a steep upward (what else?) defile between the trees which they were half-sure led to Whitebrook. We thanked them for their help and set off (after the dog had been unwound from my leg) to climb the steep little track. At its top we hit a wider trail, which looked well used and gave us a little more confidence, especially when we saw that a man on a large horse clopping by.
“Is this the way to Whitebrook?” we enquired.
“Whitebrook?”, he grunted. “Yes.” And with that informative statement he carried on, his mount's tail swishing from side to side. We had little option but to follow it. Soon we came to a t-junction at a metalled lane with no road-signs: Whitebrook – was it left or right, or even straight ahead on the tiny footpath we could make out? There was no way to know, and the man on the horse had magically vanished. I cursed him slightly. I mean, seriously, would it have hurt him to add ‘and when you get to the road junction here's what you do next ...’?
Using nothing more than instinct we turned right and set off along the lane, which undulated in a series of gentle hummocks and which offered very little hint as to where we were headed. I know you may be wondering why I haven't mentioned maps and GPS and other such clever devices to avoid getting lost, but we had put our faith in the fact that we had a good set of guides, it was Herefordshire not outer Mongolia, and we were walking a on a well-marked long-distance path. We had taken a chance that it would be impossible to become lost, which is folly and should never be made as an assumption on any walk. The irritating thing is that we are experienced long distance walkers and we knew all this but still we ignored common sense. It was to cost us today.
After a quite a long time we came to a little lane that darted off to our right, with a sign that told us it led to Cleddon. We recognised that name - it was back on-route. Irritated at the time and distance this diversion had cost us we turned down the lane and walked past several very pleasant properties and into the tiny hamlet of Cleddon where it began to lash down with rain again. The guide book enthused greatly about the section of the walk we had just missed, talking about three fine viewpoints (an irony since we had seen almost nothing but trees all day) and a small but picturesque waterfall. Sadly we will never enjoy these treats now so, if you do this walk and manage to stay on route please let us know how pretty this lost section is.

Guide Notes: Cleddon Falls.
This has been a local beauty spot for many years and public paths connect it to the village of Llandogo below, perched on the western slope of the Wye Valley. It was near here in 1798 that Wordsworth wrote his Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. The land is privately owned, but permissive access is allowed to the picturesque Victorian paths which zigzag their way down the slope so visitors can admire the torrents falling over rocky ledges, particularly in winter and after heavy rain. The top of the falls can be viewed from a rather precarious path leading off the main track. Take care!

From here at least the Wye Valley walk was easy to pick up once more and we set off along an old railway track, its wide expanse bedecked with ferns and wild flowers. As the day waned the weather did its best to improve and after the soaking in Cleddon the rain ceased altogether, with a wan sunlight pouring through ragged breaks in the clouds. At the end of this broad track we were, finally, offered the chance of a fine view as a clearing opened to our right and we saw that a bench was perched on a high vantage point looking down along the Wye Valley. The day had become still and the wine-yellow sunlight filtered down onto the steeply wooded hillside of the valley below us. Colours were diffuse and dreamlike, painted in soft watercolours, and the gentle hills of the valley rolled away to the south, each one becoming more hazy and indistinct - seen through the fog of moisture which still hung in the air. Somewhere down in the floor of this green gorge the river Wye glided along, but it was lost to us from this height. Only the gorge itself, carved by the river over its age-long existence, provided any hint of its location. It was simply stunning and we spent a while taking it all in, regretting slightly the other viewpoints we had missed.
It was time to get moving again and we left the green track behind us, descending down steep metalled lanes through the village of Pen-y-Fan, assured by a passing farmer that Whitebrook was now very close indeed. That was something I was glad to hear. It had been a long day of many gradients and my knee was beginning to seize up, a hazard I have had to live with for several years. I didn’t think it had much more mileage in it and I was weary and a little footsore, looking forward to sitting in a warm car a with a cold beer waiting for me at Brock cottage.

Guide Notes: The village of Pen-y-Fan.
The community of Pen-y-fan, where each cottage has its couple of acres of land, is typical of many of the settlements along the Lower Wye Valley. Today many of the cottages show signs of considerable extension and improvement, but previously the small ‘crofts’ had just enough land to enable a family to be reasonably self-sufficient, with a house milk cow and a couple of fattening pigs, poultry and possibly some sheep. Most of the menfolk would have worked in the adjoining forest as woodcutters or as ‘wood colliers’ or charcoal burners, as agricultural labourers and even as ‘packmen’, carrying large loads from the riverbank up the narrow paths to the settlements on the rim of the valley.

We reached the gated entrance to a large whitewashed property where a sign-post directed us to the right and down a sharp and twisted little cutting between tall undergrowth. The rocks on this track were still slippery and wet and every so often a flight of crude wooden steps had been cut into the track. I have never liked these kinds of step and I have complained about them before in other journals. None of them seemed designed for a normal human leg-length and with a gammy knee I was proceeding down the track at a snail’s pace, right leg stiff and inflexible, like Herr Flick. At last we reached the bottom which dumped us out onto a small metalled lane and the beginning of our final folly which I have dubbed ...

... The Triple D or the Duo of Dumb Decisions ...

There was a finger post at the bottom of the twisty track that indicated the direction of the Wye Valley Walk. I set off in that direction, convinced that this was also where Whitebrook, and our car, waited. Colin said nothing but followed along and so we rounded a corner to pass in front of Tump Farm, with its strong smell of cow manure and the threatening rumblings of a bull which sounded both very close and very large. There was a regular wooden thumping noise which sounded as if the beast was trying to kick itself free of whatever container it had been placed in. We were glad to put the place behind us. Just beyond the farm was a field that sloped viciously away to our right, up to lofty, unseen pastures. It was a monster of a slope, covered in rugged grass.
“Bloody hell,” exclaimed Colin craning his neck, “I wouldn't want to climb that the way I'm feeling”
Prophetic words.
For quite a long time (and distance) we marched along and only when it became obvious that we were heading back out into unpopulated greenbelt did we stop and consider our position. It was obvious that Whitebrook did not lie in this direction. Colin managed to get a signal for his mobile phone and opened up a map utility. He nodded as if confirming his suspicions and gave me the bad news. We should have turned left at the finger post at the bottom of the
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Walking into Cleddon

track instead of right and now we had a whole lot of backtracking to complete before the walk was done. He had thought as much when we set off along the road but I had seemed so confident that he deferred to my better judgement. If he had punched me in the throat at this moment I wouldn't have blamed him. It was Dumb Decision #1.
It was now very late in the day and it was highly likely that we would reach the car in darkness and of course nether of us had bothered to pack a head torch – another schoolboy error. I was considering Tump Farm and its scary bull and how I wasn't looking forward to walking past him again in the gathering twilight when Colin stopped and pointed to his left.
There was another finger post pointing up along a narrow overgrown path that took us off the road and up into the high pastures. It said 'Whitebrook 1 ¼'. I was dubious about taking an untried track, given that at least the road would lead us back to the car with no further drama, but Colin had already started up the track and so I ignored my misgivings and set off after him which proved, ultimately, to be Dumb Decision #2.
The track climbed steadily, and then we entered a long grassy field which also continued relentlessly uphill. By the time it levelled out my knee was throbbing and my legs were jelly. We were now high above the road and Tump Farm, and had in effect climbed the monster slope that Colin had commented on not so long before, when the world was nice and flat and the end had seemed so near. We filed along the field and then down a scrubby sort of wild meadow. The ground fell sharply away before us, tumbling down to a thick hedgerow and any sign of the track we had been on, or further signposts, were nowhere to be seen. Colin began edging down the slope and I made my way down after him, wincing with the effort and resigned to the awful fact that we would probably have to climb back up this horrible gradient in a short while. Sure enough at the base of the incline our progress was halted by the hedgerow and (worse) a barbed wire fence. It was hugely frustrating because we could just make out the lane that led to Whitebrook beyond the hedge, but there was the sound of a running brook in the gloom of the thicket so with this and the barbed wire our way was blocked. Colin muttered darkly and began hacking his way along the hedge looking for a break, or a gate, or better yet another sign post. With resignation I turned and began to inch back up the steep grassy flank of the hill, asking my knees and legs to do things which they no longer wanted to participate in. It took a long while to gain the top and two thirds of the way up I was forced to take a break, lying prone and for the first time I can ever recall, feeling sick with exertion. Colin passed me wordlessly, his face crumpled and unhappy.
“What larks we're having” he might have thrown me as he laboured by. But he didn't.
Back on high ground once more we both made decisions – I set off to find the track back down to the road, not checking to see if I was being followed, and Colin set off further up the field to find a sign post or another way down. Effectively we became separated which is another thing you shouldn’t do on a walk. It was as if we had set out to break as many rules of hiking as possible in one day and, therefore, was Dumb Decision #3.
I slowly retraced my footsteps remembering, as best I could, how we had got up here, I would cross the rugged ground, head back along the grassy field with its far side dropping down to the open gate and from there to the little track leading down to the road. Unfortunately the open gate wasn't where it should have been and instead I found myself staring at a locked five bar gate and an electric fence. Somehow I must have gone astray so I turned about and eddied around in a wide circle to the very same corner and the same locked gate. I did this pointless manoeuvre three times before I had to accept that I was lost, on top of being lost. I couldn’t understand it; there were only two fields up on this high ground and I was in one of them. The other was a tussocky paddock dotted with cow pats and I knew for sure we had never entered that one. So where the sodding hell had the open gate gone? It was as if the electric fence had magically sprouted whilst we were busy killing ourselves on the horrible grassy slope.
I took stock of the situation. I was alone, it was getting dark, and I was either too tired or too stupid to work out how to get back down to the road. In my head I heard the voice of Ben Grimm, a.ka. The Thing from The Fantastic Four, growling 'Whadda revoltin' predicament THIS has turned out ta be!”
I had to devise a cunning plan. I could see two buildings from where I stood. Tump Farm, down below me in the valley and a white cottage perched atop yet a further sloping pasture away to my left. I discounted visiting Tump Farm with its cow shit and its
WyeValley Day1 Pic 7

A view of the Wye Valley

moody bull which left me with the white cottage. Though I quailed at the prospect I knew I had to climb one last hillside and reach the cottage. I set off on rubbery legs with a knee that sang brightly at every step until at last I reached the stone wall bordering the cottage. I climbed the wall, pulling a pectoral muscle painfully in the process, and crawled onto the gravel of the cottage's front drive. With the way the evening was progressing I half expected to be savaged by a Doberman or given the coup de grace with a baseball bat by the owner of the cottage, but neither scenario developed as the cottage was empty – the owners were out for the evening. I hurried across the drive, boots crunching alarmingly in the still and gloomy air and then turned right down a lane. As far as I was concerned right was good and down was better - they both would lead to Whitebrook. Soon a familiar building hove into view and I reached the gated entrance to a large whitewashed property where a sign-post directed me to the right and down a sharp and twisted little cutting between tall undergrowth. It was my old friend the track with the wooden steps, and as a fitting finale to the days walking I was going to climb down it again. The track was very dark now, shrouded by dense thicket, and if my progress had been slow before it was a crawl the second time around. My phone leapt into life halfway down. It was Colin; his own adventure had concluded well and he had managed to find the hidden track that led down to Whitebrook. I told him where I was and by the time I had limped onto the road towards Whitebrook his car rounded the corner and the long days walking was done.
“Awright?” He said as I opened the door, as if he'd just picked me up at a bus stop.
“Awright mate.” I replied in much the same vein.

A late return to Chepstow ...

We made our way back to Chepstow, and the destination car, which we had parked so many hours before when the day was young. It was full dark now, but the burger van was still open for business and I ordered ice cold water but was given cold lemonade instead, because that’s all they had left in stock. It didn’t matter, it tasted like nectar. I then sat on the tailgate of my car and stripped off my boots and socks to reveal feet that looked vaguely like dead cod and seemed to have their own pale luminosity in the darkness. I noticed how this amused the two young ladies in the adjacent car but, in my state of worn out fatigue, being regarded as the un-sexiest man on the planet was not much of a concern to me and I slipped into my battered but oh-so-comfortable deck shoes with studied dignity.
We later worked out that our diversions and unplanned excursions had added around six miles in total, turning a strenuous 12 mile walk into a challenging 18 mile hike. We had ably demonstrated how ill-equipped we had been for the day and any aches and pains we now felt were entirely of our own doing, which we accepted with good grace: It would be a lesson learned.
We arrived back at Brock Cottage at nine-thirty, some three hours later than scheduled, and I managed a few slices of pizza, a solitary beer, and a shower, before hitting the sack and sinking effortlessly into a deep sleep.

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