off and on Offa - narrative

Start of Offa's Dyke (day 1)
We had the official trail book already in our bookshelves, and Jeremy suggested we go; the bottom third of the Path, from Chepstow to Hay-on-Wye looked like a good segment. With the persistent rain of the summer, friends suggested we take an umbrella! Despite loads of flood alerts on the News, in fact, we hardly got rained on; but we met the slipperiest and gloopiest mud we'd ever seen. Welsh walking had previously been enjoyable; this route raised various questions - would this border walk be as good? What kind of a boundary was this? And would the geology be different from other areas we'd walked in?

Tintern from Offa's Dyke (day 1) DAY 1. Sedbury Cliff to Tintern
The sun was shining when we arrived at Chepstow, so we decided to go down to the start of the Path, at Sedbury Cliffs. After wending our way through some fairly undistinguished suburbs, we came to the Cliffs (the official start of The Path) and a fine view of the Severn Bridge; the suspension bridge spanned the estuary of mud-brown water splendidly. Back through the little roads of Chepstow to Tutshill, we wove our way out of town via some nice old, West-country-style stone walls. Up on the hill we passed Tutshill Tower, the ruins of a 16th century beacon.

Then the weather deteriorated; it drizzled on and off through the afternoon. It was hood up, head down, on green-tunnel paths, with dripping foliage all round, sometimes on narrow alleys between fences and trees; all this meant confined views. A highlight was finding a duck with a brood of sweet furry ducklings. We got brief glimpses of the Wye River's fast flowing, muddy waters, curving round great loops in the cliffs; it's a very meandering river. Sometimes (but not always) we were on the great earthworks that are the Dyke. The trees were very green and lushiously leafy from all the rain, which increased through the afternoon, and made the Path very muddy. At times we clutched rickety posts and limp barbed-wire to avoid sinking into the puddles. Jeremy went over on his backside once; I only stayed upright by concentrating hard on my feet.

Viewpoints were welcome and we finally reached one above the village of Tintern and the Abbey. We found a path down the hillside, and debated whether it was foot-path or stream-path. At the bottom, a bridge across the river gave us an atmospheric view of the Abbey, swirling waters below, impressionistic mists above. The village was basically ribbon development along a bend in the Wye; it enjoyed the tourism the Abbey brought. Our B&B, The Old Rectory, was built for shorter people than Jeremy; so he hit his head a couple of times on the door frame! However, we had a nice meal at the Wye Valley Restaurant.

Bigsweir Bridge (Offa's Dyke path day 2) DAY 2. Tintern to Monmouth
It was not raining in the morning, so we took the opportunity for a glimpse of the Abbey's atmospheric remains and its beautiful setting; it seemed like seeing the skeletal frame of an ancient, former glory. The austerities of the Cistercian monks kept them away from towns, and they'd certainly chosen a peaceful place among the trees, by the water. We bought sandwiches from one of the many cafés and struck off, across the hill towards Brockweir. The path was again taken over by a stream; however the farmer said we could walk in her fields, to avoid the mud. We mistook our direction on the way down, ending up on the road north of the bridge; we doubled back, crossed the bridge, and chose the lower path, by the (still fast-flowing, muddy-brown) river. This level ground was probably the former river-bottom, before an uplift/sea-level-change event. The more open view by the water was a welcome change, after being enclosed by trees; there were feathery grasses, bright yellow buttercups and mauve foxgloves and clover flowers. The river continued its gentle meandering curves, surrounded by wooded cliffs.

After the attractive iron bridge at Bigsweir, we walked up the hill and found a wheat-field corner to have our picnic, overlooking the bridge and woods opposite. Then on, through more woods: lots of splendid oaks and beeches, later there were holly trees, and and some tall, gnarly firs, with gracefully curving branches.

We came down above the old railway bridge, to Lower Redbrook; we'd heard about the 19th century history of tin works. Although we weren't far from Monmouth, there was about an hour's climb (at various gradients), again through fine woods, with primeval-looking ferns; today was a very green day. We were rewarded by a grand view over Monmouth and beyond to the Black Mountain and a lovely sunny evening, with good visibility. Just as I was thinking 'what a good end to the day', we found our way down was one of those vile, muddy paths, with nowhere safe to place our feet. Fortunately this didn't last too long; we got down without incident, crossed the bridge, and found our nice pub. Despite usually being rather particular about eating at Indian restaurants; but the highly recommended Misbah Tandoori lived up to its reputation.

Black Mountains (Offa's Dyke path day 3) DAY 3. Monmouth to Llangattock Lingoed
The Coach House was all we wanted from a B&B: simple comfort and a friendly publican. Indeed, many exchanges in Monmouth made us feel it was a town where people were comfortable with themselves and contented in life. One sweet old lady smiled and greeted us with what a 'lovely day' it was. After the ancient bridge (made of the local red sandstone), the aptly named Watery Lane led us out of this charming Georgian town, where we met the first group of teenagers: our day was peppered with encountering small groups of school children doing a 3-day Duke of Edinburgh Award: outdoor survival while walking, orientiering and camping.

The warmth of people's interactions had set me off in a good mood; but that soon evaporated when I was navigating my way through slurpy, sticky, squiggy, yucky mud; I put my head down and tried not to let it in over my walking shoes (not always successfully). Now we were by the River Trothy, with not much to distinguish it and leading to lots of stupid comments like 'by my trothy!' After the first set of buttercup meadows, it was on, up to the woods: more tall beeches, oaks and firs, with thick clumps of ferns below. I noticed more houses and churches in the old red standstone, with interesting layering, and giving a rich, warm look. We also passed through some cider-apple farms, with small fruits on the trees. We came to a lovely old medieval church (with the magnificent name of St Michael's of the Fiery Meteor) in an isolated setting, and then discovered a gang of teenagers partying/picnicking behind it. Continuing through the fields, we finally found a bench by another church in Llantilio Crossenny for our own picnic.

Continuing across further fields, we made our way up the top of the hill crowned by the impressive, medieval White Castle, so named because its stone walls were painted with whitewash. It was a massive fort, with a grand moat, and conjured up images of a community defending itself sturdily against maurauders. There was a terrific panoramic view all round. I think the pleasures of this day made it Jeremy's favourite. It certainly included a glorious mixture of nature, history and people.

More gloopy wheat fields, and the exit of one had the mother-of-all-mud-puddles; so we decided to take the little B-road from Caggle Street for the last 2 miles. Our last incident of the day was meeting a flock of sheep being returned from being dipped for sheep scab, along the road, back to their fields. This took two yelling shepherd-boys and farmers in three beeping range rovers to keep them moving down the lane and not stopping to pee or eat the hedgerows. We'd seen a lovely collection of hedges through the afternoon, with beech, nettles, wild honeysuckle, pale pink wild roses, cow parsley, ferns, wild blackberries - a veritable vertical garden. There were more buttercup meadows covering the gracefully curving hillsides, as well as attractive fields of rape seed. The afternoon had been in sunshine and cloud, passing through farms of milk cows, beef cows, sheep, wheat, some corn and more apple orchards. We ended up at The Hunter's Moon Inn; it was in a lovely situation and there was a friendly publican and good value food.

on Hattervel Hill (Offa's Dyke path day 4) DAY 4. Llangattock Lingoed to Llantony
Our bedroom window had a view of a pretty white-painted church, bright in the morning sun. We breakfasted in the 13th century part of the pub, originally made for the people building the church. Then we went into St Cadoc's to see the 14th century mural, dated from the style of the soldier's armour. Because the view was so enticing, we set off in the wrong direction, down the hill towards a fine line of poplars. Once we realised, we schlepped back up the hill and revised our direction to the NW. The sun was out; the views were gorgeous; and my head was beginning to lose its home and London business and busyness; I kept feeling waves of joy from all the pleasures of being out in this glorious scene.

We got down to Pandy; no shop; the pub was closed; so we set off on the long ascent of the Black Mountain - wider and better views opened up as we gained height. About an hour and a half up, we paused to eat all we had: biscuits and licorice, surrounded by a vast panorama: England's green and pleasant land, rolling hills, myriad greens and browns of farmed fields with boundaries dating from the 18th century Enclosure Acts (said Jeremy), and all the surrounding mountains shaped by the last Ice Age of about 12,500 years ago. My contentment continued.

There was a lovely grassy path along the spine of the huge, snaking monster that is the Black Mountain. On Hatterall Hill there were heather and blueberry plants all around, and skylark song in the air above. The back dipped a little and we came to a lovely old stone mile-stone signing Llanthony off to our left, and we could see the ruins of the Priory in the valley below - another lovely setting, in the broad U-shaped valley gouged out by ice. The diagonal track down was only occasionally beset by streams and mud, but before long we were at the ruins. They were quite substantial, indicating a successful community and big religious expression. The buildings were made from the now-familiar old red sandstone - a beautiful deep red, with a grainy texture, and stretching puzzlingly skyward from a time of no hydraulic help. Again I found myself musing on the connection between these monks' natural surroundings and their spiritual beliefs. The Half Moon Hotel was conveniently near - another simple pub, doing B&B.

The Tumpa from Hay Bluff (Offa's Dyke path day 5) DAY 5. Llantony to Hay-on-Wye
Wow - another glorious sunny morning, and another bedroom window with a splendid view - of the Black Mountain, all lit up. the helpful publican provided a 'full Welsh' breakfast and sandwiches. He told us the pub was 16th century, and made for the people working in the Abbey. We set off early, through bullock fields, past some dramatic dead trees, and started our climb. Loxidge Tump was quite a challenging ascent, took about an hour, and the Abbey receded as the countryside unfolded. Back on top, we could see waves and waves of Welsh mountains - the heaving seas. We continued along the whale-back, occasionally meeting groups of wild horses, in 5s or 8s, usually with a foal. Jeremy got bored on this stretch, he said there weren't enough changes of view. The peat bogs on the top were completely drowned and waterlogged, and we were grateful for the amazingly-constructed stepping stone path which kept us dry. (What a labour to build this path!) It was a bit barren, though there were heathers, bilberries and cotton grasses all round.

We spurned the side exit off the mountain and came to Hay Bluff; this final spur gave us a terrific view of nine counties - another wonderful panorama of farmer's fields and sheep galore. We enjoyed our picnic with the view and then sensed that the weather was beginning to change; so we zigzagged our way down among the sheep. More flocks were grazing on the common land at the bottom, on the lovely soft, green sward. Back in the world of man, we sauntered through the trees, beside the delightful little stream; then we came across a couple of fields with beautiful pale mauve spires of spotted orchids. The benign atmosphere was enhanced by numerous, elegant foxglove flowers. As we neared Hay, it just started to spit with rain. Hay turned out to be a sweet little town, choc-a-bloc with bookshops. We visited a couple, and celebrated our arrival with latte, milkshake and ice cream at the local Shepherd's Ice Cream Parlour.

Llantony Priory (Offa's Dyke path day 5) Although we had an unpromising start, the walk improved day by day. There were plenty of expansive Welsh views around. Enjoying these means we're highly likely to continue on, and walk the next section from Hay to Welshpool. Usually I don't like walking on roads; however the extent of the mud meant that I welcomed tarmac when we reached it! Despite having visited Abergavenny as a teenager, this was a real education for me in Welsh culture. I was most impressed by all the rich evidence of the strength of Christianity, and particularly, the two important Abbeys, Tintern and Llanthony. However, nobody seems to understand what Offa's Dyke was built for, so I haven't got much appreciation of it as a boundary. There's more pride in being Welsh in the people than in the earthworks. The long history of the buildings set in such beautiful places suggested they were built from a special conviction. They showed me the connection between nature and spirituality for the first time. The strangeness of the Welsh place names (and the lovely lilting pronunciation) occasionally gave me a rather pleasurable sense of being in a foreign country. My slow geological education has extended to coming away with a bit more of an idea of the layered, sedimentary old red sandstone; though I have yet to grasp what 400 million years ago means....

© Diana Ambache 2012