|Offa's Dyke - South|
Soft skills, estuary-wandering, a big lump of stone ....
The alarm woke us all early but we found ourselves in a curiously disorganised mood and wasted valuable minutes faffing about to no great effect. So it was that when Bod called, fully packed and ready for the day, he found us barely beyond breakfast with all our walking gear piled in a heap in the hallway. He watched us busying about and bumping into each other like the Keystone Cops before reaching for his map and burying his nose in it. I think it's one of the ways he maintains his patience.
Eventually we set off at the not so early time of eleven a.m. Bod explained to us that he had been forced to undergo training in 'soft skills' at work and we should therefore expect to see demonstrations of his newly acquired talents. He drove us to our end point for the day,
Shortly after we set off he threw abusive language at a car recklessly trying to overtake him but he did so with the minimum of hand gestures so maybe all that training left an impression ...
After parking Bod's car at Redbrook we all crammed into mine and I headed further south to pick up the start of Offa's Dyke at The place proved easy enough to find - it was the last town you reached before driving into the Severn Estuary - but locating the start of the route was not. I parked my car in a pleasant looking suburban lane and we all set off manfully in the wrong direction. We retraced our steps to find a discreet sign leading us behind fenced gardens and onto a wide expanse of marshy grass that bordered the flat brown water of the estuary. Almost immediately Jo had to find a tree for a comfort break - something of a record even by his standards. There is a tradition that one should pick up a pebble from the bank of the estuary and carry it all the way north to throw it into the Irish Sea at at the other end of the trail. It's a nice idea and one which I have adhered to in previous long walks. However, without stilts or an amphibious vehicle at my disposal, it was impossible to get anywhere near the water's edge. Pebbles seemed to be as scarce as diamonds on the flat pungent mud of the estuary so I gave up on the notion. I later noticed that Colin had procured a flat stone from somewhere near this place but I have no idea where he filched it from.
The Severn Estuary near Chepstow
Sedbury Cliffs formed a craggy wall ahead of us, rising gently above the flat marsh land, and I followed their line back to where they barely rose above the grassy tussocks. There was a gap in the hedge and a sign post. "There it is," I declared and pointed with my walking pole, before striding off. I passed through the gap in the hedge and sure enough a little further up the cliff top there was a large lump of pebble-encrusted concrete that I thought had been fly-tipped by a passing dumpster but on closer inspection revealed a plaque. It was the official starting point of the walk. Not really what I anticipated but apart from the majestic monument erected at the start of the West Highland Way I have been distinctly underwhelmed by markers at the start\end of national trails. This one merely confirmed my conviction that most of them are going to be a disappointment.
Here we dallied briefly, took photographs, videos, consulted guide books and maps, and then set off on the only obvious path available to us - straight inland and away from the estuary. We wouldn't visit a coast of any sort on this walk again until we reached Prestatyn, 180 miles and a year distant.
Escaping Chepstow, elderberry sampling, a devil of a pulpit ....
On the nearby slope of a grassy meadow, people were being rolled down its flanks in giant plastic spheres - a sort of outsized version of a hamster ball that I later learnt were called Zorbs. I pointed these out to Bod who was just behind me.
"Would you give that a go?" I asked.
Bod nodded. "Yes, until it made me sick."
"How long would that take?" I asked.
"Four, maybe five seconds".
It looked great fun though.
Very soon the edge of Chepstow hove into view and we found ourselves walking along tidy suburban streets. I always feel inappropriately dressed when I wander into some town in hiking gear, a feeling usually reinforced by sniggering children, but these little back streets were deserted.
At the start point on Sedbury Cliffs
The white acorn marker of Offa's Dyke beckoned us on, sometimes a label stuck to a lamp post, sometimes a wooden sign post, and only the occasional moggie or mutt bothered us. As we filed along a narrow path behind fenced-off back gardens I spied a damson bush laden with fruit and picked a few handfuls for us all. They all looked a bit suspicious when I offered them around as I am not renowned for my plant lore, but I know my damsons from my sloes and they proved to be very sweet and juicy. We were all bouncing along quite happily, spitting out damson stones discreetly, when the signs petered out abruptly and we found ourselves in a cul-de-sac where a large and shaggy dog howled at us mournfully from behind a picket fence. We pottered about looking for any sign of the path when suddenly the first Chepstonian we had seen all day popped up from behind the hedge he had been trimming.
"Looking for the Offa's path?" he asked us.
We nodded in unison.
"They moved the path but not the sign - it's that way." And he gestured with his shears towards a main road.
We marched up the busy road for a while; Chepstow seemed to be belying its small town image by presenting suburbs that sprawled out forever, rivalling Greater Manchester. I began to think that the whole day would be spent trying to escape it. This impression was reinforced when the white acorn sign diverted us off the main road and onto a smart gravel path presenting rather posh houses to the left. We approached a boundary wall of a gated property, unseen beyond its fortifications, where the acorn sign suggested a leftward route downhill rather than the more obvious footpath to the right. Obediently we followed it, our boots crunching the gravel until a viewpoint over the river presented itself. I was happy enough to take snapshots of this pretty little scene but Bod's route-radar had obviously begun to tingle and he produced his map to examine it in a perplexed fashion. Colin acted as his aide-de-camp and offered comments along the lines of 'so we're lost then?' Bod concluded that we were probably off route but it would do no harm to continue along the path which almost immediately took us uphill and bearing left to where we approached a boundary wall of a gated property, unseen beyond it's fortifications, where the acorn sign suggested a leftward route downhill rather than the more obvious footpath to the right. Eh? Hang on - we'd been here before!
Bod inspected the signpost. 'It's either been accidentally broken or someone's deliberately pushed the sign around.'
We took the more obvious right hand footpath which corralled us between high stone walls, marched us up a flight of stone steps, and suddenly and almost unexpectedly, across a road and out of Chepstow. A grassy slope, the first of many to come, pointed the way to higher ground above the town and so we walked upwards and away from the place. There was a wooded copse to our right, slightly below us, and for a while the exciting and busy sound of a salsa rhythm emanated from it. We never found its source, or even the reason why it was being broadcast but focused our interest instead on a property towards the top of the hill which had the rotting remains of a castle tower planted in the middle of its lawn. "Useful for building your rockeries," observed Bod with a shocking disregard for historical preservation.
By now Jo had become a little quiet at times and not until much later did we learn of his discomfort and the reason behind it.
For the next hour we followed bridleways and tiny byways that led generally upwards often followed by a stretch of road walking before a dive back into a hedgerow to continue our steady progress. We walked through a field of ripening corn, at the end of which we passed by a hedgerow where a tree laden with small, black berries attracted Colin's attention. He asked Jo if they were and naturally Jo replied that he hadn't a clue. "If you're not sure Col than maybe it would be best not to eat them", he cautioned. Seized by an irrational impulse Colin grabbed a handful, swung around to face Jo and shoved them in his mouth. Jo gave him a sad, patient look. "You almost did that defiantly" he said.
This set a theme for the rest of the walk where on discovering another tree of the species, Colin made it a practice to grab a handful of berries, turning to face Jo as he chewed them with relish. This never failed to amuse Colin, though Jo mostly just smiled wanly and averted his eyes. In hindsight it's lucky that they were elderberries and not some other more poisonous species of berry. Colin may well have ended up in spasmodic pain in a local hospital.
We began to negotiate stiles in earnest. We had read that Offa's Dyke is plagued by more than the usual amount of wooden stiles - over ninety of them - and now they began to appear at regular intervals. We came across an old boundary fence, partially removed, allowing walkers free access to the path. A wooden stile stood to one side, redundant and forgotten in a shady corner. Jo made a purposeful diversion towards it as I watched in some puzzlement.
"I want to do them all!" he exclaimed as he clambered over it. Silly sod.
In fact a lot of great work had been put in by Monmouth County Council and many of the old 'up and over' stiles were being replaced by metal kissing gates which meant better access for all and a thumbs up from hikers with dodgy knees.
Almost without noticing it the trees became more abundant and crowded closer together until we found ourselves climbing up through mature woodland. Eventually I recognised the rooty, uneven track that wound upwards to the rocky outcrop knows as the Devil's Pulpit. We were now in Caswell Wood and several hundred feet above the village of and its impressive and ruinous abbey.
Climbing up to the Devil's Pulpit
We sat and ate our lunch as the crowd above us sat and ate theirs and we stared at each other in the way that strangers who are sharing a common interest are apt to do. Presently they all rose, pushed empty plastic bags back into their packs, and moved off. I took a small swig of whisky from my hip flask. "Whisk-eeeeee," chimed Jo who was next to me. He seemed to find this very funny for reasons beyond my ken but he made me laugh all the same.
After my lunch I took out the camcorder and walked up to the Devils Pulpit, focusing the zoom on the toy-like ruins of below. Jo and Colin appeared and with undisguised eagerness clambered up its craggy sides to stand where the devil himself was reputed to have stood, regaling the monks in the abbey below and tempting them with sinfulness. The monks were long gone and neither Jo nor Colin appeared to be in the mood for much regaling. I myself had no intention of climbing up the stubby little outcrop of Devonian Sandstone. Earlier in the year I had done so and had decided that a leap from its summit would be better than an awkward and inelegant scramble down. I had poised myself on its lip, gauging the best place to land, and then had hoisted myself off, realising almost immediately that I had got it all wrong. The right side of my body seemed to be rushing toward the ground much faster than my left and I landed on my right leg, crumpled into an ungainly squat, and then shot straight back up again, canted at an angle that launched me in a bad direction, namely towards the steep slope and Tintern far below. Before I could cry 'mummy!' I had collided with my first tree and clung onto it like a desperate Koala. People had been watching - chiefly my brother - and I had heard their concerned comments.
'Did he go down into the trees?'
'He landed awkwardly'
'Bro are you okay?'
I had popped up from the greenery apologising like a typically embarrassed Englishman.
"Sorry! Sorry. It's ok. Fell a bit awkwardly. Tsk, bloody silly eh? Hah hah!"
For me, the Devils Pulpit was a cursed place. I did not go there.
I filmed Colin and Jo's rather more graceful climb down from the Pulpit and returned to hoist my pack and prepare to move off. Only then did I notice what I had been using as a seat. Another craggy tower of rock layered and fissured by time, out of which seemingly grew an ancient and stunted tree. Somehow the seed of this stubborn specimen had gained purchase in a crevasse and had fought for life, sending roots down into the rock, feeling its way to soil and moisture. It almost looked miraculous; a tree growing out of solid stone. The ancient roots that wound about the rock and down into the soil beneath were so weathered and pitted they could hardly be distinguished from the rock itself.
The 11 mile rule, a love of pigs, ancient boughs, Redbrook the hard way ....
We all set off again and I knew the next few miles would carry us along the high ground amidst thick stands of pine, oak, and beech on a fairly level track. I strode along, thinking random thoughts, and getting into a rhythm with my walking. It was quite a while before I became aware that I was all alone. I looked back. There was no sign of my friends at all. Doubt began to nibble at me; perhaps Offa's Dyke followed a different route and the other three were by now halfway down the hill and wondering where the heck I had disappeared to. I was contemplating the prospect of a long slow retracing of my steps when the familiar tall figure of Bod emerged around a distant corner, Colin and Jo not far behind him. "Oh - there he is," I heard Jo say, probably surprised to see me in the lead for once.
We continued. The mossy mound of ran along on our right, overgrown with trees and shrubbery but still discernible as a man made feature even after its twelve centuries of existence. We would lose the dyke at some point in today's walk and would not see it again until the last day many miles hence.
"How far is today's walk?" I asked innocently.
"Eleven miles," replied Bod immediately. "And then I stop."
It was our fault really. We had been talking about an average of eleven miles a day on this route for months during the planning stage and Bod had taken this rather to heart. It was a bit of a blow to discover that our calculations were a little out and the average would be more like fourteen miles. Bod had declared that on each day, at eleven miles exactly, he was going to stop walking, wherever he was and whatever he was doing, and get a cab back to Ross-On-Wye.
"Almost sixteen," Colin said after a pause.
We came down from Caswell Wood, breaking out of the trees on the side of a steeply sloping grassy knoll. We all descended with the odd robotic gait humans are forced to adopt when negotiating a sharp decline. At this point Offa's Dyke offered us a choice of an easier, but longer route, following the course of the , or of going 'up and over' the shorter but more challenging route towards We chose the more difficult route as I think by now we had become addicted to the effort of climbing steep paths for no sane reason. There was little pause for breath before we found ourselves climbing Madgett Hill, which I have to confess I didn't care for very much. The track was a steady pull upwards but was tiny and enclosed by trees and greenery which made for a dark and humid passage of time, slippery underfoot and everything furred by moss. There was little to look at and I was forced to take the odd breather as we climbed it. I was rather glad when we conquered it and began to head down the other side. We passed a field where a wire enclosure housed half a dozen weaners - I think - who squealed excitedly as we appeared and scurried about in glee. I was walking with Bod at the time.
"They're cute aren't they?" he declared, revealing a hitherto unsuspected soft side.
"Well," I replied in some surprise, "yeah. I mean, I love pigs."
Bod nodded. "So do I." It was a rare and beautiful moment we shared.
Colin also loved pigs and he wandered over to lean on the wire fence to coo at them. We never noticed that the fence was electrified but he soon found out.
We continued down through grassy meadows until we stopped to rest by an avenue of ancient and venerable trees. They were the oldest specimens I had ever seen, incredibly gnarled with great thickened trunks and huge wart-like boles.
Jo rests on an ancient tree
We sat amongst them and rested our sore legs and feet. We were all feeling a bit tired now and various bits of our bodies had started to complain. Jo sat upon the dead tree and discussed his pain levels with Bod. He laughed and drily observed that he was simply picking up where he had left off two years ago, a reference to the last few gruelling days on The Kintyre Way.
Despite Bod's eleven mile yearnings, we still had a way to go and another hill to climb. We walked down a long field of grass past several more geriatric tree specimens, to Bigsweir Bridge and a welcome bit of road walking, albeit uphill again. I found myself walking along with Jo and I asked him how he was feeling.
"I'm in bits," he replied casually.
He explained that he had decided to walk the day in a pair of tough leather army boots that he hadn't pulled on for ten years or more. They had become brittle and inflexible over the years and had been hammering his toes with every step he had taken.
"Walking up hill isn't too bad," he went on. "It takes the pressure off my toe nails. But going downhill is killing me. I may have to take the next few walking backwards."
Presently we left the road and took a steeper path up through some fine old mixed woodland skirting the summit of Wygate Hill. Woods always look and smell wonderful in September and despite our weariness I could see Colin's head turning this way and that approvingly as he took our surroundings in. After what seemed like a long time we broke out above the woods and onto the top of the final crest. We crossed a series of wide meadows; a long series of them which, given the time of day and mileage covered, I found less and less interesting as time wore on. The tedium was broken by another sudden and crafty lunge uphill through yet more trees.
"This is taking the piss," panted Colin as we toiled.
As a finale to the day, we walked along a high ridge which afforded fantastic views down to our left of ... well, trees, really. Now don't get me wrong here, the day's walking was a fine one and I do love my woodlands, but it would have been nice to have seen more of the views about us rather than endless banks of tree tops.
As we progressed further along the ridge we once more came under the cover of the spreading
tree canopy and the light became very gloomy indeed. So dark in fact that when we emerged once again from under the trees I was surprised to find that it was not yet twilight and we could see Redbrook far below us. In fact we could even make out Bod's car!
Down to Redbrook
We emerged on a metalled road just in time to see a young lad rocket past us on a bicycle down the considerable slope. He tried to apply his brakes, discovered belatedly that they weren't really up to scratch, and careered off into a hedge, much to the amusement of his buddies.
We plodded down set of concrete steps (sixty four of them - the guide book had told us in advance) and spilled out untidily onto the car park; we had completed the first day.
Recovery: The Bell Inn Redbrook ....
Before we seized up completely we drove back to Chepstow to retrieve my car. The quaint little road I had parked in was full of youths carrying sticks and scowls and heading back from where my car was parked. I feared the worst but she was untouched. Then we slogged all the way back to Redbook to try and find a place to eat. Our first choice, a village just beyond Tintern, looked promising but we decided to check it out first. I got out and began to walk with stiffened legs across the road to check the place out. Blimey my legs hurt! Was I going to feel like this all week?
I vetoed the pub on the grounds that the car park was full of BMW's and Mercs and the bar awash with middle class clientèle. I didn't think we'd be allowed in unless we wanted to drink in the cellars. In the end we chose to eat at The Bell Inn in Redbrook. A place we all highly recommend as the food and beer was excellent, served by a young waitress who entertained us by performing a little flit a la Riverdance whenever she turned away from our table. It was just the sort of place we needed. It's miraculous how a good beer and a hearty meal can make you feel human again which for Colin and I was particularly important as we had both begun to feel cold and shivery - the first signs of either exhaustion or dehydration, perhaps both. I usually have an episode like this at the start of every long distance walk and it never returns to bother me.
We finally made it back to Colin's cottage just before ten, pretty tired and sore, and wanting nothing more than to grab a shower and fall into bed. However there were chores to perform, sandwiches to make, and an obligatory beer to down. I showered and then eased myself into bed gratefully just in time for my teeth to start throbbing. An affliction I had put up with on and off for weeks but had seemed to be in remission for a while. I was so tired I fell asleep despite the pain. My last conscious thought was all about how I would feel in the morning.
See Route on ......