|The Wye Valley Way|
A lovely start to the day …. eventually ...
Bright sun, a warm breeze, azure sky; we woke to the fact that the promised fine day was in fact a reality and maybe – just maybe – we would have out first rain-free day on the Wye Valley Walk. We started out a little later than planned, Colin pulling on walking clothes still damp from the previous evenings soaking which must have been an unpleasant experience, rather like pulling on old underpants after a nice cleansing shower. Our tardiness was not improved by my satnav which decided we wanted to drive to a Bishopstone 200 miles away rather than the one a mere 14 miles distant. It took us a while to spot this technical hitch and we had to double back through Hereford with all its early morning traffic and its road works. By the time we shouldered our rucksacks at Bishopstone and set off it was almost lunchtime. This in itself didn’t present much of a problem as sundown wasn’t going to happen until around 8:30 p.m. but all the same we couldn’t afford too many wrong turns or pit stops along the way or we would be arriving at the tiny hamlet of Priory Woods after dark. Our minds went back to the very first day of the route, and our wanderings around high pastures near Whitebrook, and how evening had well and truly fallen before we completed that section. We didn’t plan on a repetition. Even with this in mind we couldn’t help but stop just outside of the village and admire the low rolling hills that surrounded us; it really is lovely countryside on the Welsh borders.
The Orchard Maze ...
Leaving Bishopstone behind us we strode along a quiet road that the guidebook told us was an old Roman route and sampled early season blackberries that grew in abundance in the tall hedgerows. It was at this point that I noticed my walking shorts had a small tear in the right hand, they were an old and trusty pair of shorts but the fabric was worn tissue-thin and had begun to fray apart.
310 acres of cider orchard.
‘I walk this track every single day,’ she said as she passed us, ‘I know every short cut!’
Eventually the bridle way widened and became a grassy path following the boundary of yet another cider apple orchard. A very large orchard indeed, according to the information sign set up by its owners of several hundred acres. We walked past endless rows of squat cider apple trees, many different varieties growing in carefully tended groups - as well planned and laid out as any new town development. It’s always a temptation to partake of a few apples in an orchard but we knew from (literally) bitter experience that cider apples are inedible so we teased ourselves instead with talk of frosted pint glasses full of sharp bubbly Neither of us are cider drinkers really but when you spend time walking through a cider orchard you can’t help but thinking about the end product. There are thousands of acres of such orchards in Herefordshire but we wondered just how much acreage is required, across the UK, to make enough cider to supply the nation’s needs. It was all about economy of scale we supposed, and other such commercial dynamics we knew nothing about, but when you see such large orchards you certainly get an idea of the size of the industry. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn about halfway through and spent quite a while getting back on track since an orchard looks pretty much the same whichever direction you look: Some of our limited amount of contingency time eaten up already.
Tearing through Monnington ...
The route left the orchard finally and diverted left, taking us along a small track between a stream and a pond before emerging into the secluded grounds of St. Mary’s church, Monnington. It was a peaceful, secret little place, guarded by a wall of mature trees, ancient gravestones arranged in uneven rows about the building. It was a typical gothic style church, several centuries old, and like so many village churches had its own understated grandeur. Both Colin and I like parish churches and as we passed the vestibule I tried the solid oak doors on the off chance it might be open. Happily it was and so we spent a few minutes exploring inside. It was a plain and largely unadorned little church, unlike Ross-on-wye’s imposing place of worship, but I liked its simplicity and its cool whitewashed interior. There was the usual smell of an ancient church – part dust, part wood polish, part old stonework. A small church organ of Victorian vintage stood next to the stone font, and neat rows of plain simple pews pointed towards the raised alter. Above all there was that sense of peace which you only experience in churches of this age. I’m not religious and rarely attend churches except when they are full of friends and relatives for the usual hatches matches and dispatches, so I always take the chance to enjoy churches when they are empty and enjoy the atmosphere. Passing through the wooden lych gate at the rear of the grounds we found ourselves standing before the rather grand which was once a farm complex but is now an upmarket bed and breakfast hostelry. We stood at the start of a wide straight avenue, known as the Monnington Walk,
The mile-long Monnington Walk.
The hard surface of the path gave way to turf and we crossed a long grassy field to reach the end of the walk at a gate and then began a climb up into woodland. It was a steady ascent with the woodland closing about us until we reached a ridge where the river Wye could be seen 90 meters below us through breaks in the trees. One such break afforded us a good view of the river and the terrain beyond so we decided to break for lunch. My poor trousers were now ripped from belt to hem and something had to be done about it. Colin brought out a box of assorted safety pins and so I spent some time pinning the rip, Frankenstein style, until I closed the gap. I looked like the world’s first Punk Hiker and I doubted the repair would hold until the end of the day but it would have to do. We sat in the dappled sunshine, enjoying our lunch and gazing at the river far below us as it slithered like a silvery green snake across the floor of the valley. On its opposite bank a tractor was ploughing a large field. It was made toy-like by distance and the sound of its chugging engine floated up to us as it circled round and around the field, leaving a pattern of concentric circles in its wake; ploughed earth as art. Colin pointed at a wooded hill across the valley and told me that it was called Murbach Hill and that we would be climbing it later in the day. It didn’t look too bad from a distance but the guidebook did indicate quite a steep initial ascent - which was something to look forward to.
A quick pint and a slow climb ...
As pleasant as it was beneath the dappled boughs of the woods we didn’t stay too long, ever mindful of that late start, so we continued along the ridge which eventually fell away in a series of descents until we reached a main road, turning left to reach the fine stone bridge at The bridge had little alcoves set into it to prevent pedestrians being squashed by passing traffic and we occupied one for a while, leaning on the parapet and watching people bathing in the Wye which, at this point was shallow and running fast over a stony bed. It made a change to see people paddling and splashing in the water rather than gliding along in flotillas of canoes and it made a happy scene for such a sunny day. We made our way down to the river bank, following it for a short way, before climbing into the grounds of Bredwardine church, emerging onto a road and the inviting sight of the This was a passport station and it seemed a fine excuse to have a beer. Inside the rather cramped bar we collected our stamps, chatted briefly with the regulars, and then made our way to the beer garden at the back of the pub. It was a secluded garden, boundaried by outbuildings of black beams and whitewashed walls. We were the only two drinkers who had decided to sit in the sun so we chose a table and downed a pint of Butty Bach, a local beer from the Colin read a little more about the route ahead, including Murbach Hill, and I swept the camcorder around the gardens, commenting on how great it was to be walking in such a lovely area in such good company. Early retirement is never far from my thoughts these days, and such moments only re-enforce my conviction that there are better ways of living a life than the 9-5 of an office.
We left our empty glasses in the bar and thanked a local who suggested a better way up to the top of the hill, preferring instead to try and stick to the official route. It occurred to me as we left the hotel that not one of the residents or staff had made any comment about my safety-pinned trousers, either through politeness or indifference. The ascent began immediately,
A view from Murbach Hill.
“That was a bastard,” he said, without moving.
He meant the track we had just climbed and I had to agree with him.
A common mistake ...
From here the ground was at least level and we crossed a few meadows before passing through a gate and into the scrubby grassland and gorse of Murbach Common. A large information board showed us all the resident wildlife we probably wouldn’t see, including the Great Crested Newt which, to me, sounds like something you should hurl at someone as an insult. The board was very useful and full of information but unfortunately the Wye Valley Walk guidebook wasn’t because at this point it was very unclear as to which way we should proceed. To make matters worse the useful signpost indicating which-track-went-where had been uprooted and was lying uselessly in the grass. The guidebook talked about three possible tracks ahead of us and that we should take the right hand one. Well, true enough, there were three tracks offered us – two were large grassy trails that struck off across the common to the left and straight ahead, the third was a much smaller track that struck right and disappeared into the woodland. We decided that this was the track we needed to take and we confidently strode off into the gloom of the woodland. At first all seemed well as the trail twisted and turned down between the trees, little wooden steps cut into the hill told us that at least this track was frequented by walkers. We plunged down sharply, the common lost to us, which was a bit worrying as the book told us we should be ambling along its gorse covered length, looking for newts. Then the trail gave up pretending to be a trail of any definition and became a muddy badger-track instead, forcing us through brambles and spiky shrubbery. We both knew this wasn’t right but we soldiered on as neither of us was prepared to contemplate the difficult climb back up again. Finally we reached a barbed wire fence bordering a field and therefore a dead end. It was dark and bleak under the tree canopy and we decided to follow the fence and find our way to a road, reasoning that at least a road would lead us somewhere to hopefully regain the walk. It was a bit of an obstacle course, under fallen trees, over fallen trees, crashing through thick undergrowth like a pair of Mountain Gorillas, until finally we reached a wide and well-trodden track that led
Colin near Priory Woods.
Colin met me at the roadside; he had checked in both directions but there were no road signs to tell us exactly where we were or in which direction we should head. My Smartphone GPS app didn’t have the correct map tiles, Colin’s phone had died of exhaustion, and the guide book was temporarily useless. We applied common sense, reasoning that if we had followed the route along the crest of Murbach Hill we therefore needed to follow the road in the same direction, which we did for a mile or so until fields opened up on each side of us and it all started to feel a bit wrong. I suggested to Colin that we might be seriously lost now and we would still be marching up and down this road until night fell.
“Nah,” he said cheerily, “I’ve been lost loads of times and within the hour I’ve always sorted myself out and then wondered what all the fuss was about. You’ll see.”
I trusted this wisdom, as he has indeed been fantastically lost on many occasions – just read any of his postcode walks and you’ll see for yourself – and so we set off back the way we had come until a few cottages hove into view. A retired couple were sitting in their pretty roadside garden, enjoying the last few hours of sunshine, and Colin spied them. He leant over their stone wall and asked them if they knew how to find the Wye Valley walk and glory-be they did! We had been walking in the right direction along the road after all, just not far enough along. We set off, passing a pub, dipping down to cross a low stone bridge, and regaining the route at the wrought iron gates of some sort of estate.
Gathering shadows ...
This unplanned diversion had used up any remaining spare time we had, and now we realised we might be walking the last few miles in gathering dusk – we could afford no more mistakes. We left Murbach Hill behind us, feeling slightly regretful that we never got to enjoy the delights of its common, and crossed more fields until a metalled lane provided us with another long climb. Strangely enough, our screw-up on Murbach Hill seemed to energise us both and we took the ascent in our stride. Now we plunged down again, meeting the Wye once more, walking for a while beside its silently flowing waters, until we were swallowed up by more woodland. It was very gloomy indeed now under tree-cover, and we walked along in twilight, disconcerted by the continuous buzzing of millions of flies that seemed to sheltering under the canopy of the trees, or at least we assumed they were flies and not (far more problematical) swarms of bees. We were glad to break out into the open gain, but not enthused when the trail (which seemed to have developed a vindictive steak) took us away from the riverbank and sharp left up two hilly meadows. Not only was the track steep it was canted at an awkward angle that threatened to twist tired ankles. I was feeling a bit of fatigue and grumpiness by now and even the short but pleasant stretch of a disused railway, its verdant banks softened by the dying rays of the sun, did much to put a smile on my face. However, we knew that our end-point at Priory Woods was very close, and we might yet make it back to the car before the owls started to hoot.
As we marched up yet another metalled road on an incline we passed a farm which must have set Colin thinking. He turned to me.
“So do you think brexit will help our dairy farmers?” he enquired.
Flattered as I was that he saw me as any sort of expert on agricultural geopolitics I had to confess to not having a clue, which seemed answer enough for him.
We reached the hamlet of Priory Woods via a paddock, finding ourselves on a road which we guessed would lead us directly to the car since Priory Wood was so compact and was a one-road sort of place. There was one last twist to the day however as we misread the guidebook (which in hindsight could have been worded much more clearly anyway) and set off happily along the road in search of a building that ‘used to be a chapel’. If it was no longer a chapel then logic told us that it must now be something else and wouldn’t necessarily stand out from any other house in the village. We kept on along the road, looking at each building we passed, none of which seemed chapel-esque by design. Finally we ran out of buildings and started to experience the route-radar warnings that we were, once again, off route. It was perplexing and a bit irritating to be so close to the end of the days walking and yet unable to conclude it and wearily we trudged back into the village, noticing that there were in fact two roads that diverged at the long village green. The other road was our only option so we took it, passing more houses that had no hint of ever being a chapel until suddenly a wide grassy verge appeared on our left and we saw our car waiting patiently for us. We completed the walk almost by accident.
As we started to throw our gear into the boot I looked down at my shorts. It looked as if I had been mauled by a wildcat and no amount of safety pinning would ever stitch the ragged mess back together. I started unpinning myself, worried that sitting in a car with several sharp objects about to unpop might be risking puncture wounds. A young girl on a pushbike had appeared from somewhere and sat regarding us with frank curiosity – maybe they don’t see too many strangers in Priory Wood, especially ones with tattered shorts and rags tied to their heads. Colin noticed her too.
“Hello,” he offered.
“Hello,” she replied and then pedalled off furiously, possibly to warn her parents that ‘strange men’ were lurking about.
So that was day six concluded. At some point in the walk we had crossed from England into Wales and would now be heading ever further northwards. Next year’s walking would be a done via a series of B&B’s as we were now too far distant from Colin’s cottage to make it a viable base to start out from. If things went to plan, we would finish the route before the end of the year. And I would have a brand new pair of walking shorts.
For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here
See Route on ......