along Offa - narrative

Typical view from Offa's Dyke
When we walked the bottom third of the Path in 2012, we had thought we would continue on, so here is the next section. I remembered the ups and downs, incredible mud, and atmospheric abbey and priory ruins, by the River Wye. At the back of our minds were questions like would there be similar mud and evocative places? Would we understand anything more about Offa and this great frontier? The month was August, in a year when statistics told us it was 5 degrees cooler than average. I hoped not to get stuck in the mud again. Anyway, a Path in and out of Wales, plus a few small, regional towns, sounded agreeable.

B&B in Hay (day 1) DAY 1. Hay-on-Wye to Gladestry
Hay-on-Wye is a lovely town to start the middle section of the walk. The book scene has made it an outgoing place, with friendly people, attractive old buildings, and characterful little streets. Our B&B/bookshop was a lovely, thick-beamed building of 1620. We set off from the Clock Tower, down to the river, with a gaggle of swans upstream and attractive views in both directions. The Path set off northwards by the river bank, accompanied by tinkling, swirling, rushing water. Then we climbed away from the river, across the fields, with lots of wild tall and wavey pink flowers, something like a cross between monkeyflower and the clarkia family.

After a short stretch of busy main road, then came the welcome quiet of a small side lane. Here lots of farms were producing sheep and cattle, and some had fields of beige-ripe wheat. As we climbed the small hills, we got views of the undulating countryside of middle England to the East. The trees and small copses made for a pleasant view, without being particularly distinctive. We paused for a picnic in a field, with a brief rain shower at the end. Our Dutch friends, who had joined us for the morning, turned back to Hay.

Continuing on, we got a bit lost, thanks to someone who had turned the signpost to point the wrong way. Searching together with another lost couple (Italian-Portuguese) we eventually found the route and realigned the sign. Going over a small, bare moorland we got different views of sheep, bracken and yellow gorse, and then the pretty scene above the hamlet of Newchurch, where we paused for a rest in the churchyard. The generally well-kept farms gave an air of successful production, and the views ahead for tomorrow's walk showed the broad back of Hergest Ridge moor. We descended into Gladestry village in the beautiful, slanting evening sun.

Horse on Hergest Ridge (Offa's Dyke path day 2) DAY 2. Gladestry to Pilleth
Crossing Hergest Ridge made a lovely start to the day: spacious moorland, much of it covered in bracken, grass and sheep. For once, the forecast of sunshine and showers was right. But the rain never stayed long, so it wasn't serious. Stretches of bracken had been flattened: man-management of the over-successful growth. Halfway to Kington there's a small stand of monkey puzzle trees. The story goes that they are botanist Joseph Banks' reply to a bet that these trees wouldn't grow in Britain. We ambled on down to Kington, had a cup of coffee and bought our picnic. Then it was back uphill, to the Golf Course, with striking views of the surrounding hills. The way alternated between wooded sections and fields of sheep. There were lots of lovely trees - fine specimens of oak and beech, often crunching their nuts underfoot. A few trees showed signs of disease, but mostly they spread their branches in grand and elegant fashion.

Sometimes we were walking on the Dyke itself, which I couldn't imagine was big enough to repel attackers. As there's so little knowledge about what it was built for, that may not even be a relevant thought. We met a group of grey and brown ponies. Apparently they are semi-wild, which means that probably someone owns them. Between Rushock Hill and Herrock Hill there was a break in the rain, so we stopped for our picnic, surrounded by some mildly inquisitive sheep. The westerly panorama towards Radnorshire showed an attractive patchwork of fields, in a mixture of ploughed-earth browns, yellow hay, and occasionally the Silurian shale made an oatmeal-stone coloured field. One farmer was out with his baler, collecting hay and bundling it up in those big, round bales. I don't think I've even seen so many sheep before - what a reminder of the popularity of Welsh lamb.

Sunshine and showers alternated through the afternoon. We turned onto the B4356 to get to our B&B near Whitton, pausing occasionally to pick the plentiful blackberries beside the road. Pilleth Oaks was set on the side of a very pretty valley, glowing gloriously in the evening sun. I think that end-of-day slanting light is my favourite time of day.

On Llanfair Hill (Offa's Dyke path day 3) DAY 3. Pilleth to Newcastle on Clun
With a pleasant sunny morning, we found an alternative route back up to the Path, climbing the hill, with St Mary's Church lit by the sun. We met the Path at Rhos-y-meirch and turned North to continue our journey with the now-familiar scene of patched brown and green fields, dotted with white sheep. Some of them looked at us quizically, as if surprised to see us. Then there was quite a steep descent into Knighton. Neither of us took to the town, including the less-than-inspiring Path Centre (oh what critical Londoners we are!)

In tune with the switchbacking day, leaving town meant a steep up, which rewarded us with a fine view westward up to the viaduct at Knucklas, along the Teme Valley. We found shelter from the wind by a hedge for our picnic, at first hot in the sun, and then chased onwards by threatening clouds. The surrounding vistas of lumps and bumps, in green waves reminded me of the (gently) heaving seas. With most of it being farmed, it seemed generally benign, if somewhat amorphous.

More descents and climbs took us through the progressive waves of Shropshire. Only when looking at our B&B's book with the A. E. Housman poem did we really appreciate the sad nostalgia he had for this countryside. In some places the Dyke was more of a feature. But I still found it hard to see it as a 'defence', as claimed by the ODP Centre. The last down of the afternoon was in gentle, golden light, descending a pretty lane, enjoyable for its charming intimacy, after the wide open tops. At the corner of one field was a delightfully wonky, old, half-timbered house. A footbridge across the Clun brought us to our B&B: Quarry House.

Meeting (Offa's Dyke path day 4) DAY 4. Newcastle to Montgomery
A lot of grey cloud meant a more sober day. In the B&B another guest had described the countryside as 'gentle' and that seemed right for much of this countryside, except for the climbs. We were switchbacking again through the morning, up and down the ridges straddling the country. There was a steep up after Newcastle-on-Clun, a good view from the top (meeting a horse), and then the complementary down. The next up was to Hergan and another descent brought us to Churchtown. Some of today's sheep were strikingly ugly: square faced, or fat, with very furry, thick wool. I realised we'd seen a lot of different breeds. More than face-shape and markings, I didn't know what the differences were.

We'd also had a good day for trees, including a pretty wood around the path into Churchtown and several striking silhouettes on the ridges. Here were some grand beech woods, dripping with beech nuts, a lovely variety of firs, and crossing the Estate in the afternoon, a glorious copper beech. We went up and over Edenhope Hill to Eden Wood. There was a splendid 360 degree panorama from the Drovers Road near Crowsnest and Kerry Wood. We picniced overlooking more lumps and bumps of the English Midlands - mostly fields, some lined by trees, and Corndon Hill surrounded by fields but with moorland on top. There were more wild raspberries and blackberries.

Finally we got down to the Montgomery Plain. The first grand estate was Mellington Hall, now turned to tourism. We enjoyed the relative flat, after the morning's exertions. The next estate had spacious grounds, no mansion, but it included a cricket ground with very fine grass, like a bowls lawn (plus some young lads practicing in the nets). Montgomery was a mixture of Georgian houses with elegant 18th century facade and quite posh/trendy people. After a drink in the cafe, we went to St Nicholas Church, with an interesting wood-worked roof and screen (possibly 16th century). Jeremy got chatting with a bagpiper who'd come to record Happy Birthday for a friend in Canada. What do the locals do? - play the pipes and teach Alexander technique.

The descent down to Welshpool (Offa's Dyke path day 5) DAY 5. Montgomery to Welshpool
Grey skies came and went all day, so we were in and out of the showers. We went back to the Path on a different route through Lymore Park. Then it was northwards, enjoying the easy going of the plain. After a bit of Roman road, we went up the hill to Green Wood (tautology, or what?) Next we stumbled upon a couple of pheasants, then twenty - then a hundred - then a thousand. There were stands for water and feed. So somebody must be breeding them for the shooting season (ugh). The rain stopped just long enought for our picnic in a wood full of tall firs. The regularity made us think it was Forestry Commission. Then it was on and up to Beacon Ring hill fort, pre-dating Offa by several hundred years, but now covered in a thick copse of beech trees.

Despite the changeable weather, we decided to take the long way round to Welshpool, continuing to Buttington, through more fields of wheat and barley and incredibly numerous sheep. We left the Path at Buttington Bridge and walked into town on the towpath of the Montgomery Canal. It was pretty and peaceful, with almost no water traffic. I think we met a single rower. Mostly it was irises and trailing willows. After a drink in the cafe, we walked out to Powis Castle and its grand grounds, adjacent to the town. The Park had a large herd of deer, looking like Thompson's gazelles, grazing on the green sward. They were mostly female, though there were two we saw later, with fine antlers. The Castle is an impressive, red sandstone building with an equally impressive history of powerful families. There were well-tended gardens and an expansive view across the "blue remembered hills".

Typical view from Offa's Dyke) Jeremy commented that he was not awed by the construction of this great Dyke. What impressed me was the way the earthworks strode across the hillsides, often continuing like a Roman Road, that went up and down the hills, regardless of the terrain. We knew we were in England when it said 'Welcome to Shropshire, AONB', and Wales was signed in both English and Welsh. The overall impression was of productivity: this is the food bowl of Britain, a place where meat, cereals, vegetables and fruit are grown, and most of our landladies made their own jams. It's an area for thriving agriculture, kitchen gardens, and cottage industry. Although we had a typically English concern with the weather, we enjoyed the general lack of machine noise, the rural quiet. It was not remote, or lacking in people, but it was a spacious, man-made countryside. After getting home Jeremy discovered an entertaining piece of information about the 'Border' nature of this Path: it may be folklore, but it's said that anyone found on the 'wrong' side of the Dyke would either be killed, or have their ears cut off. Hmm - beware!

© Diana Ambache 2014