|Offa's Dyke - South|
The Symphony of Stonemasons, the Hatterrall Ridge plan ....
I slept fitfully; strange and confusing dreams kept me company all night, but eventually I fell in to a deep slumber. I had set the alarm for 7:30 but needn't have bothered. At around 6:30 a group of workmen turned up underneath my open window and began to tap and hammer lumps of stone with great zeal. Months before I had stayed at the cottage and this work had been in full swing - something to do with Colin's landlord refurbishing a new home for himself, but I had assumed it was all done with. Obviously not - but I ask you, how many builders are on site and working by six thirty?
I dozed on and off but eventually beat my alarm by half an hour. I showered, and then performed the Ritual of Foot Therapy. Despite my ministrations, the blisters on my heels were not getting any prettier. The left one caused me most concern as it had broken and the familiar patch of tender red flesh was now winking at me in the early morning light. I depleted my supply of Compeed and tape and found afterwards that I could move around freely enough, but of course I had yet to pull on my walking boots.
We were fresh out of several important things; sugar, tea, milk, and sticking plasters, so I offered to take a trip into to get supplies. I also knew we were getting close to the end of the only video tape I had brought along with me and I hoped to pick up a new one at the same time. Naturally I donned my walking boots to make the trip. Now I am, at times, a slow learner, and not always quick to grasp the significance of things, so it only briefly crossed my mind, as I wandered up and down Morrison's aisles, how sore my heels had already become, and indeed why. I stocked up on groceries as required but sadly there was no chance with the video tape - Morrison's had never heard of such a thing.
I got back to Brock Cottage to find Bod had arrived and was poring over maps with Colin. We were trying to follow Colin's guidebook as much as possible but today presented us with a bit of a quandary. We either had a very short seven mile walk to complete today or a very long one of nineteen miles. The chief problem was that was now prominent on the map and it seemed we either stopped short of it or took it in one fell swoop.
I remembered something. A walk we had completed earlier in the year. I was sure Colin had already mentioned this but ...
"How about we do half the ridge and then climb down to ?" I suggested. "It means we have to climb the ridge twice but at least it evens the mileage out. Plus there's free car parking at the priory ruins." I was condemning myself to two long steep climbs as I spoke but rather that than an extra long day of walking. Everyone agreed to this and so we set off at last, wending our way towards the outskirts of Abergavenny to pick up the road into Llanthony. Bod had shared a pint or two with the locals at the Man Of Ross pub the previous evening and they had indicated that the weather today was going to be much cloudier with a chance of rain. I had dressed accordingly, swapping my shorts for a pair of walking trousers. Of course the day turned out to be a stunner.
Dogfight in the skies, the lonely ticket-collector, White (once) Castle ....
If anything, the long tortuous route to Llanthony Priory was the most perplexing of the journeys we made during the week. It was a fairly long haul to Abergavenny, albeit along the pleasant and then a small B road which threaded its way down the Llanthony Valley.
Climbing up to White Castle
He opened his car door and stuck his head out as I climbed stiffly out of my car.
"Where the f*ck have you brought us?" he boomed.
Colin had been travelling with Bod.
"Soft skills mate," he muttered. "Soft skills".
Now all that was left to do was drive back to the church at which on this Monday morning was bereft of distracted vicars (Jo guessed that he probably had responsibility for more than one local parish church), and we were ready for day three. Miraculously, despite the excessive driving involved, we set off a little after eleven in the morning; scarcely later than on the previous days.
There was a nice easy introduction to today's walking as it continued more or less where it left of the day before. A series of open fields and meadows took us in a roughly north westerly direction and through the village of Treadam. The sun shone brightly and we made very good progress. Of course the Menu Of Ailments was produced within an hour - I had been expecting it. Today I decided on a little more Freshly Rubbed Heel served with Locally Caught Chafe. It was true. My heels were rubbing again and yes I had detected chafing where my pack rubbed against my lower back. Vaseline is usually the best cure for this and I had applied it liberally before setting off.
The land began to undulate after a while - a defining feature of Offa's Dyke I feel. You either seemed to be making height for no apparent reason or losing height for even less cause. The answer lay in the geography we walked over. The land is gently crumpled in this part of the world, forming a landscape of low rolling hills. Walking the dyke takes you laterally, against the natural fall of the land rather than longitudinally with it so you are in effect constantly climbing and descending a series of hills and valleys, some bigger than others. If you really detest hilly walking this route might test your patience.
We joined a minor road closely hemmed in by high hedgerows which climbed upwards towards a summit where a ruined castle stood. About a third of the way up we stopped to take a breather and admire the views. Cows grazed in a field and regarded us with vague curiosity. Colin and Jo leaned over the gate and tried to feed them with handfuls of grass but they remained mistrustful, although they seemed quite keen to get into frame on any photographs we took.
Colin, Jo and a photo-bombing cow
"Well," observed Bod as silence fell again, "those chickens won't be laying for a while."
Presently we made it to the top of the road and a sharp left turn saw us standing at the entrance to the ruins of We were thinking of taking a wander around when an unexpected and cheerful "Hello!" made us start. There was a tiny ticket office in which sat a lady with possibly the loneliest ticket collecting job in the country. She beamed at us.
"Oh, we have to pay," muttered Jo.
We hesitated momentarily but decided to walk on. I felt a little sorry for the lady in the ticket office. How many people would she see on an average day? White Castle was hardly on the tourist map. If I hadn't so many miles to travel and my feet weren't already so sore I might have bought a ticket just to make her happy - even if I didn't actually go into the castle itself. Strangely you had almost as much of a view of the castle from the road, for free, as you might have had from within its walls after paying your entrance fee. It was a typical Norman style edifice. Walls several feet thick, frowning battlements, evidence of a moat. It was called White Castle because it would have been covered in white rendering when occupied. With pennants fluttering in the breeze it must have looked quite a sight, seated on its commanding vantage point atop the hill. A Marcher Castle for a Marcher Lord - built to intimidate and watch over the troublesome Welsh.
I learn to hate hills, one man and his dog, people-less Pandy ....
a valley and, to the north, the ever looming presence of Hatterrall Ridge, the contours and colours of its flanks becoming more distinct as we drew so much closer. I remarked to Colin that suddenly there was so much to film and photograph that I would have to stop and capture it all despite the fact that I would be trailing behind the others - he elected to wait with me as I snapped away.
We began to lunge downwards again and I looked ahead to see another hill, roughly at the same level as the one we were descending and began to resent the inevitable climb that would have to be made just to end up at the same height again.
The ruins of White Castle
"We climb down ... just ... to climb back up again ... I mean what's the bloody point?" I gibbered breathlessly when I joined them. And then I turned to the hill and swore vehemently at it. A very bad word indeed. There was a faintly stunned silence from my companions.
"Well that's the nature of hills for you," offered Colin.
He was right of course but I still felt like stabbing him with my walking pole. We decided to stop for lunch at the apex of this almost vertical field. I considered taking my boots off but the hideous thought of having to push my poor feet back into them afterwards put me off the idea. Large birds wheeled in the sky. Colin and Jo watched them intently.
"Kites?" I asked hopefully. We knew we were now in Red Kite territory and none of us had ever seen one in the wild before.
Colin shook his head. " again."
As if to confirm this the high mewling of the Buzzard reached us as it wheeled above our heads, no doubt deciding if cheese and onion crisps could be added to its diet. As we sat and ate, a figure with a dog appeared at the bottom of the field. It began to slowly climb up towards us.
"It's the farmer," said Bod. "We're trespassing and he's going to shoot us. And we can't run away."
For long minutes we observed the man toil upwards, his collie dog capering happily at his side blessed with four feet and without the need for walking boots. I envied it. He made it at last and stood before us, slightly portly and out of puff. His dog immediately began prospecting for scraps of food.
"Offa's Dyke?" he enquired. We nodded.
"Me too. I have to try and be in Pandy by 4:30 as it's the last bus back to my B&B."
"Are you walking all of the dyke?" asked Colin.
The man nodded. "Yup - two weeks worth."
"With your dog?"
Colin looked impressed.
We rested for a short while after the man and his dog had moved on but time was pressing and so we dusted crumbs off ourselves, shouldered our packs, and started off again. We hadn't gone very far before we entered the well-kept grounds of a handsome whitewashed church at
I felt like a nuisance to the others but I was forced to stop again and redress my left heel. It was becoming silly now and the pain with each step was getting on my nerves. Jo took the opportunity to pop inside the church whilst I ripped open bandage wrappers and muttered darkly to myself. Why he went inside is anyone's guess; to pray, possibly, or most likely to find a toilet. We all set off again and I tried not to limp.
It was becoming very warm and I was taking regular draws on my water tube not realising just how much I had taken until there was an ominous bubbling noise and then no more water. I had drunk almost two litres and there was still a third of the walk to complete.
Bod and I had been admiring the on the roofs of many of the buildings we walked past. Some of the slate was obviously brand new, purchased from the ever-dwindling number of specialist companies that still produce the tiles; others were reclaimed but probably no less expensive. The slate was of a rich blue-grey colour and set off the whitewashed walls of the cottages handsomely.
Shortly after leaving the church we encountered another steeply pitched hillside which we began to edge down. There was a herd of cows huddled together in a nearby corner and it was with a certain amount of misgiving that we detected the presence of an enormous bull in their midst. He didn't seem particularly interested in our progress
"It's ok," muttered Bod. "He's carrying a red rucksack - the bull will have a go at him first."
The hiker waved at us as he went by and marched confidently straight into the middle of the herd which I thought was extremely foolhardy but at least it took the bull's unwanted attention away from us.
More uphill and down dale meandering and we finally wound our way down from high sheep pastures and into the village of We were now at the very foot of Hatterrall Ridge and the next job was to climb it - over 1,700 feet. I wasn't about to do this without water and so I told the others to go ahead and I set about cadging water from nearby cottages. The first few I tried drew no response when I knocked at the door. I tried a B&B with the same result.
"We'll have to walk a few hundred yards down the road to that camp-site," said Colin, who had elected to stay with me.
We trudged down the hard shoulder of a busy trunk road before crossing it and walking up a little hill to a cluster of cottages. We saw just two people, a woman tending her horses in a field and an old boy pottering in a garden. We tried each cottage in turn. No answer. This was getting weird. Pandy was all but deserted. We then tried the camp site itself, wandering around the back of old farm buildings to find the reception. I opened the door and hell-oed loudly a few times.
"Colin, I think they're all dead," I stage whispered.
He chuckled. "Don't be an arse. Go and have a look in that building."
There was a sort of annexe around the corner and inside I found some toilets, a dilapidated games room and a shabby old kitchenette with, thank God, a sink. I drank gratefully from the tap and then refilled my camel pack. We left the camp-site, walked back along the A road and off towards the trail to the top of Hatterrall Ridge and I don't recall seeing a single living soul in Pandy on the way out. Colin later confided in me that his England cap may have been the reason why nobody answered the door to me, though I'd like to think that I was simply unlucky and nobody was home that afternoon. I noticed that he had removed it before we tried the camp site.
The first ascent of Haterall Ridge, I say bollocks, a footware revelation ....
Bod and Jo had waited for us after all, resting in the shade of an oak tree just before a railway crossing so we would all be starting the assault on Hatterrall Ridge together. This state of affairs didn't last very long of course as I began to fall behind on the very first part of the climb up a metalled road. I couldn't keep up so I advised them to go ahead at their own pace and I would catch up as and when I could. Now, this is the part of my narrative where I could get all self-indulgent and inject large amounts of pathos but I will refrain. Let's just say that I was in a fair amount of pain from blisters, tired, and not in my most favourite of walking situations - climbing up. I left the road and started to beetle up a long grassy knoll of a field, the other three ahead of me and reduced to ant-like size. Then there came another long hike up a metalled road. I'd gained height quickly and already the valley, and the 'ghost village' of Pandy, lay several hundred feet below. As I made it to the top of the road the other three were waiting for me, possibly because they felt they should but just as likely because they were unsure of the way forward. The Offa's Dyke effect, where you make height only to lose it again almost immediately, was about to manifest itself in a particularly fine demonstration of wasted effort. The road turned sharply to the right and fairly plummeted downwards again to disappear into the gloom of overhanging trees. We checked and double checked but it was the way we had to take. Colin's guidebook even pointed out the apparent senselessness of this chunk of the days walk.
We angled down the steep slope and for the first time all week the Menu Of Ailments offered Hill Reared Knee Ache as a special. My right knee, always on the dodgy side of reliability, was starting to kick up a fuss. With that and my blisters I was feeling very un-groovy as we found the inevitable off-road track that shot us straight back upwards again. We entered the realm of Hatterrall Hill via a gate and an information board and now the summit was visible against the skyline. The climb up the ridge from this southern aspect wasn't really all that bad. I made a meal of it because of my physical condition at the time but actually it was just a nice grassy track that led you upwards with no nonsense until you finally stood on the top of Hatterrall Ridge and had all your climbing rewarded by the superb views across Wales and into England. Of course the hill tantalised us by presenting several false summits which had us laughing weakly and calling the hill all the bastards under the sun. When we were presented with a choice of two paths Bod didn't even consult his beloved map. He just pointed to the more vertically inclined track.
"This one's going most steeply upwards, so has to be the one we take.'
And he was right.
Mark and Jo on Hatterrall Ridge
Eventually the hill stopped playing silly buggers and introduced us to the final summit. It really was a high vantage point where you could see a huge chunk of the country just by turning your head from right to left, tracking north eastwards. On the right the hills rolled away south and west and, on the far edge of vision, a silvery white gleam gave away the position of the Severn Estuary. Colin pointed out to where, far away and beyond Western-Super-Mare, the unmistakeable hump of could be made out across this tiny finger of sea, where sheep and goats grazed scrubby pasture-land and the old fort still watched for Napoleon's invading army. Turning my head the other way I looked across the borderlands of Wales, fringed with the foothills of the Black Mountains and rolling away into England where, dim and smoky blue, could be made out. I had spent many happy days walking with my young daughters on the Malverns where, in fair weather, we would sit on the terrace of The Kettle Sings, drinking tea, gazing westward at the Welsh mountains and trying to name them all. Forty miles away and many years later I now stood and gazed back, savouring the memories.
We rested briefly at a trig point and pulled on fleeces as the wind was whipping around on this higher ground. We set off again across the broken track that stitches its way across the summit of Hatterrall Ridge for almost ten miles until it drops down via Hay Bluff. Once again I laboured as the others forged ahead and the gap between me and my friends opened up ever wider. As I clumped along, walking pole tick-ticking in time with my steps, I thought about the Llanthony Path that would take us down to the priory where we had parked Bods car. I had used this path before during an early summer walk with Colin so I knew that it was both long and boulder strewn, with unavoidable boggy areas fed by tiny rivulets that flowed down the side of the ridge. I was going to find it quite a challenge. Meanwhile the ridge track wound on and on with heather-cloaked tundra on either side of me. I was by now completely alone, the others had disappeared over a crest, and I began to feel a little sorry for myself. The watery sun was setting and I considered the possibility that I would be clambering down the Llanthony path in the dark. I checked out a few gorse bushes; it was a fine evening, not likely to get too cold as darkness fell. Maybe I could just curl up into a ball under the gorse and sleep peacefully. The others would have to climb back up again in the morning anyway and they could just give me a kick and I'd be up and walking with them again.
"Bollocks." I muttered, apropos of nothing.
At long last I began to descend the Llanthony path. The priory ruins looked impossibly distant in the failing light and as I hopped and scrambled and winced my way over boulders and water-logged peat pools, they refused to get any closer. It was as if the priory was on rollers and was being pulled backwards in direct relation to my progress forward.
Hatterrall Ridge trig. point
He nodded at me. "How you doing?"
"Ok," I replied. "But I'll be glad to get these boots off."
Jo nodded. "Yeah I thought you were suffering a bit back there. Maybe it's the boots that are the problem. If you've had them for a long time they may have lost their supporting ability and be causing more harm than good."
That struck a chord in me. These were the self-same boots I wore on the Kintyre Way when my heel opened up. And this morning, at the supermarket, my feet had been complaining within 20 minutes of wearing them but I hadn't made the connection.
I came to a decision. "I'm changing footwear tomorrow. I have some lighter shoes. They'll have to do."
Jo looked dubious. "Trainers?"
"Sort of. And they may not be designed for walking long distances but what have I got to lose now?"
We came off the path and shambled awkwardly down another impressively steep grassy field where my knee began to throb in time to my laboured breathing and over inquisitive horses mooched about us. Suddenly the ruins loomed above us. There didn't seem to be an intermediate aspect to Llanthony priory today - it either appeared remote and toy-like, stubbornly refusing to get any nearer, or it was upon you with its ruined arches frowning down from a great height. I didn't care, I was just glad to be back at the car at last. Bod was there, changing his boots for more sensible footwear. He seemed to have a desire to disrupt the peace of the priory today, first by abusive shouting in the morning and now by playing The Raconteurs at a cranked up volume. I asked him to turn it down in the end - it didn't seem right.
Recovery: The Half Moon Inn, Llanthony ....
The small pub attached (literally) to the priory ruins was closed but we had noticed a nice looking country pub just a minute's drive down the road called the and we decided to give it a try. It was a small well-tended sort of place. Ok, when I say 'well-tended' I suppose I mean it must usually be well-tended. Tonight there were few customers and even fewer staff. In fact there was just one member of staff. The portly proprietor seemed to be acting as chef, waiter, and bar tender and the strain was evident as he perspired freely, dashing between the bar and the kitchen. He was obviously a seething mass of stress and tension but he did his best to remain polite and efficient as people asked for more drinks or (in our case) four large meals. We learnt later that he had laid off all his staff because it was usually quiet on Monday evening but hadn't realised that the Priory pub was shut for the night. He was enjoying the extra trade as a result but not the severe multi-tasking experience he had engineered for himself.
Bod climbs down from Hatterrall Ridge
A trio of older guys sat at a table nearby playing dominoes. One of them noticed our attire and general weariness and asked us if we were walking Offa's Dyke. They were Australians, walking the complete footpath in two weeks though they had already decided not to climb Hatterrall Ridge the following day but to stick to the road that wound through the valley all the way into We had a nice meal, considering the duress going on behind the bar, though some of us discovered we had been short-changed by one sausage each. We were, in fact, one sausage short of a mixed grill - a euphemism that pretty much summed us up. Colin had to find the loos and his stiffened painful stagger across the floor elicited much amusement from the Australian guys.
I had taken my boots off under the table but cringed as I had to pull them back on again to walk to the car. It was no good; these boots just had to go. Bod drove us back to Llantilio Crossenny in the dark and I dozed on and off, my head rolling and bumping against the headrest. I didn't really feel like driving back to Bridstow and Brock Cottage but it had to be done. We were all very quiet on the journey home.
It was so late when we finally got back to Colin's place that we dumped everything and went straight to bed. Before showering, and with a certain amount of misgiving, I carefully peeled off the dressings on my feet. My left heel really did look nasty, not as bad as the Kintyre Way damage but certainly heading in that direction. I showered, carefully cleaned the area with antiseptic wipes and decided that tomorrow was going to be a make or break sort of day. I would change walking shoes, wrap a stonking great bandage around my foot, and see what happened next. The worst case would be that once again I would have to finish the walk earlier than the others. I lay in bed awhile, pondering on that before plunging into a deep coma.
See Route on ......