|Offa's Dyke - South|
There's no such thing as free parking ....
The final day of our walking dawned bright and clean, in direct contrast to the Stone Trolls who turned up for work under my window at 6:30 - oh how I would miss their random hammering and merry cursing. The Ritual Of Foot Therapy was rather slapdash today and didn't amount to much more than a couple of plasters and the good old crepe bandage. My left big toe nail had mutated into something so ugly that I really can't go into details here. Let's just say pork scratchings and leave it at that. I covered the unsightly object with a plaster. Colin, Jo and I moved with practised ease about the small kitchen of Brock Cottage performing our chores with precision and, I like to think, a certain grace. Never a fan of porridge I inexplicably accepted Jo's offer of a bowlful and then had to eat it with forced enthusiasm. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Jo's preparation, he's apparently rather good at his oats, but I just don't like the stuff and couldn't do it justice.
Bod arrived, punctual as ever, and we set off for the drive to Knighton. As with all the other mornings, Jo elected to be my passenger whilst Colin rode with Bod. I rarely see my cousin (only, in fact, when we do these long walks) so it was great to have the time to sit and talk with him. He's an interesting guy with a perceptive view on most things and our topics ranged far and wide during the week; which meant that the journeys always flew by as a result. We pulled into the town of Knighton and found the Offa's Dyke visitor centre with little fuss. The centre, a pleasant modern building of local Welsh slate, was open so Colin and I took a quick look around. I checked out the various tee shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies and satisfied myself that after the end of next year's walking I would have a decent selection to choose from.
Colin meanwhile had decided to buy the guide book covering next year's northerly section of the Offa's Dyke. He swallowed audibly when he was obliged to stump up over twelve English pounds for it. I asked if we could park there for the day and the lady behind the counter told us we could and it was free but there was a donation box near the door on the way out. Colin looked grimly amused. "This was our donation," he muttered, pocketing his new purchase. Outside he discovered he had an autographed copy of the guide, signed by its authors, so maybe the inflationary price was explained.
In Kington town, falling in love with a Bridgitt, Offa's Dyke reunited ....
We zipped off to Kington and we were soon shouldering our packs and getting ready to set off. is one of those pleasant old market towns that you can find all over the U.K. I like these places, I like their haphazard town planning and varied architecture, I like the civic pride displayed in the tidy streets, smart shop fronts, and market squares. Kington seems to have managed to retain its old family businesses and it was refreshing to walk along a high street not stamped with a Tesco Express, a Boots Chemist, and a Starbucks.
Colin was cameraman for the day and I could hear him presenting a running (well, walking really) commentary on the journey out of Kington. He was musing on the prospect of a good climb in store and suddenly exclaimed "Oh - and there it is then." I was admiring a row of quaint red brick cottages and wasn't really looking ahead. I followed Colin's camera and there was a bloody great hill staring back at me, literally across the road from Kington, as if it had been deliberately parked as close as possible to the town boundary. This, we were to learn, was Bradnor Green, a climb of a determined nature that would eventually lead us up and over the top of Bradnor Hill. We started the trek upwards, knees and legs throbbing in indignation at this rude awakening. Bradnor Hill tops out at 1,239 feet which makes it a Bridgett. A little research has
told me that to qualify as a Bridgett a hill must:
1. Fail to meet the criteria of any other reasonable and sensible Hill & Mountain Classification
2. Be somewhere worth walking to.
In other words a bit of an also-ran as far as hills go, which in my experience is a little harsh on Bradnor Hill. I mean, it has the highest golf course in England. You'd think that would qualify it for something more than Bridgett status; an honorary Hewitt at the very least. I had somehow translated the word 'Bridgett' into 'Bastard' by the time I laboured up the last slope and found myself on a wide green plateau of lush grass and sheep. It was hardly like being on a hill at all
and on such a perfect day, with the sun shining, I changed my mind immediately and fell very much in love with Bridgett, er ...I mean ... Bradnor.
We made our way over this large expanse of meadowland with lovely views being offered back into Hereford, and a last retrospective glimpse of becoming vague and insignificant by all the miles we had placed between. We still climbed higher, but on more gentle gradients, and it was a refreshing, enjoyable section of the route. I was bringing up the rear again and I had time to study the different walking styles of my friends. There was The Strider, a slow almost rolling action that Bod employed, a constant mile eating posture that varied little whether he was walking on flat ground or climbing the steepest of hills. Then there was Jo, The Ambler, a slighter figure than the rest of us, baseball cap placed backwards on his head, hands often in his pockets, for all the world looking as if he was strolling down his back garden to admire the prize Begonias.
Bradnor Hill and the dyke regained
By now we had passed from Bradnor Hill and onto its conjoined twin Rushock Hill. As a final reward we were re-united with our friend last seen somewhere near Tintern on day one. Being on open ground it was a far more obvious structure, an impressive 1200 year old spoil heap running over the spine of the hill. We rested here a while under the watchful eyes of a large flock of sheep, absurdly pleased to be standing next to this turf covered ridge of Dark Ages earth.
Paradise found, oxygen lost ....
The route invited us to walk along the top of it which sadly was a little anti-climactic as it was riddled and potholed with the busy workings of rabbits and proved to be an ankle-twisting, uneven experience. However we soon left the dyke again for a while, turning eastwards onto the brow of Herrock Hill, rounding a bend and being presented with, in my opinion, the best view of the entire week. We were looking down into surrounded by gentle green hills, the counterpane of rural Wales flowing away into the dreamy distance. It was perfect weather for this most perfect view and I stood and stared for quite a while, reluctant to leave this spot, realising that the opportunity to enjoy such eye catching scenery would soon be over. Colin was equally enamoured of the place and so it was that we lost Jo and Bod for a time as they had walked on not realising we were communing with nature.
We walked down a wide grassy path and soon found ourselves a little lost. Bod and Jo were long gone and we reached a gate before dense woodland that was firmly locked with a 'Private' sign further making the point. The only other possible way forward was to take a tiny little sheep track off to our left that dropped down twenty feet or more at an extremely steep angle. I went first and took three steps before my feet went out from under me and I rode the slope all the way down on my ass. There was no damage done but I had a questionable
East Radnor Valley
A lunchtime bite, welsh cowboys, ploughing up Furrow Hill ....
Thankfully lunch was called after we had climbed the field up from the gate, discovering along the way that the boundary fence was electrified. We took out last lunch break in brilliant sunshine; the lovely countryside laid out before us for miles, and ate in companionable silence. I lay back and covered my face with my hat, dozing pleasantly as Colin and Bod discussed the remainder of the route. I heard mention of another hill but I was already expecting this, indeed it wouldn't have been the same without a good old tramp up a jolly old hillside. Something bit me as I lay drowsing. Something with a vicious set of jaws, as it raised a sizeable lump in the small of my back which itched for days afterwards.
Colin got to his feet, muttered something about going ahead to do some filming, and left. We took another five minutes before setting off ourselves, cresting a small hill to find ourselves on the sort of uneven tussocky ground that we all agreed was our pet hate in terms of terrain. The Menu Of Ailments had been surprisingly absent thus far as I had pre-empted its publication by strapping on my knee support before we left Kington. However, as a sort of hors d'oeuvres, it did manage to tempt me with a platter of Ankle Twisters. Colin popped up from a hedgerow like a flasher but the only thing he pointed at us was the camera. He filmed us patiently walking the entire length of the field and out onto the road beyond.
Ah good, more road walking then.
Bod and I set off up the lane and had walked a respectable distance before the other two called us back to where the glaringly obvious white acorn sign (which we had missed) pointed the way across more fields. Another rather impressive Bridgett posed before us and I guessed, rightly so, that this was the next one we would have to bag. However first we had to lose all of our height since Offa's Dyke never started you from anywhere but the valley floor when climbing was required. We began to pick our way down the side of Hawthorn Hill which, inexplicably we never actually seemed to climb up in the first place. Jo suddenly had his own moment of madness.
"I can't walk down this one, my knees are starting to go," he suddenly piped up. "I'm going to jog."
And with that he set of, first in an untidy flapping of arms and legs but then, as he got some speed up, a respectable jogging gait. Colin was filming this and then he seemed to be afflicted with the same recklessness as well and began legging it down the hill after Jo's rapidly dwindling figure.
"Look at me - I'm jogging too!" he sang out to me as he careered past.
"Mind my bloody camera you silly sod," I replied fondly.
We made it down to sea level, into the very crook of the narrow valley, and then began our assault on the last hill of the week, an impressive mound called Furrow Hill. The path started off as a fairly modest gravel track passing a small group of cottages at Rhos-y-meirch and drew us up into the familiar high ground of open sheep pastures. As we climbed we heard a commotion from a meadow to our right. A man, a farmer presumably, was pretending to be a cowboy.
"Heeeaaahhh, geddon there, haa haa!"
It was very odd.
"Yaaarrrhh yarrrhhh, hey - HEYYY!"
We wondered what on earth he was doing.
"He's a-roundin' up those ornery steers fur brandin' hyuk," I drawled.
Bod laughed suddenly. "We're taking the piss but the poor bloke's probably got his leg trapped in a baler and is crying for help."
Finally we left this unseen cowboy behind and climbed onwards. The path was another strength sapper, not particularly steep, but long and snaking. I stopped a few times and I noticed that even Bod, who had suffered a painful foot all week, was taking rest breaks. For all the effort involved Furrow Hill was indeed a fine place. Similar to Bradnor Hill, its summit was a wide plateau of rolling grassland dotted here and there with clumps of lonely trees. The views were as good as any we had enjoyed all day, and it was a fitting finale to all the hills we had crossed during the week. Like Hergest Ridge before it I was captured by its wild open spaces, the winds whispering through the grass and the sweeping vistas it offered.
I made the last few yards up towards where the others waited.
"Have you seen my guidebook?" Colin called down to me.
I shook my head.
"It must have worked its way up and fell out on the path," he said dejectedly.
"Yeah," I gasped, "just like my lungs."
Fortunately he had lost his dog-eared copy of the current weeks walking and not the autographed guide purchased from Knighton earlier.
A wind down into Knighton, the missing miles explained, a Plan B ....
The long crest of Furrow Hill treated us benevolently once we made it to the top. We seemed to have discovered an even larger version of Bradnor Hill with acres of rolling grass, gorse bushes scratching a meagre living out of the thin soil, sheep in their hordes grazing, and the cool clean air. A small stand of evergreens clustered together at the apex of one minor rise, looking out of place and alien in this prairie. During the winter the cold eastern wind would bite them hard, and gales from the south west also had unrestricted access to them, but somehow they thrived.
We picked up the trail as it ran along the boundary of a sheep enclosure, pointlessly erected as far as I could tell since the sheep seemed to be pretty much free range,
On top of Furrow Hill
We began the slow wind down from Furrow Hill eventually picking up Offa's Dyke once more to enjoy another bout of lumpy, uncertain terrain until we left it to head off across pastures. There was just one more steep meadow to negotiate and as we passed through this gate Colin and I noticed that the section of dyke that bordered it was the most impressive example we had yet seen. This part of the dyke, fenced off from trespassing feet, rose easily twenty feet from ditch to crown and apart from the odd tree sprouting out of it, looked as solid and impregnable as the day it was first raised.
We entered woodland and knew that we drew near to Knighton as we began to see young families enjoying the still evening, and folk taking their dogs for a final constitutional. A park of some sort began to emerge through the trees to our right, complete with a tiny pitch and putt golf course. We walked along for what seemed like quite a long time and just as we were wondering where Knighton had gone the path tipped us off the hill in a series of steeply pitched wooded paths, tree roots and loose stones playing a final farewell tune on our tired feet. We spilled out onto a road and followed it along and then down into Knighton itself, walking along its high street past a pub bedecked with Welsh flags, and finally to the Offa's Dyke visitor centre.
Knighton has an English sounding name but the town has been proudly confirmed as Welsh for almost five hundred years, ever since the Act of Union. Colin acknowledged this by subtly hiding the St. Georges cross motif on his baseball cap, not that any of us felt in the least threatened by Knighton. It seemed to be half asleep.
There was a signpost outside the centre which pointed north and south along Offa's Dyke path. Northwards (our walk for next year) it read 97 miles. Southwards, the way we had come, it read 80 miles.
Knighton and journey's end
Bod shrugged. "We've probably walked more than 90 miles anyway, taking all the gradients into account."
We stripped off all of our sweaty dusty gear, congratulated ourselves on a weeks walking completed, and headed back to Ross-On-Wye, via Kington, to indulge in a little celebratory imbibing.
We talked about the route we would be following next year and about the killer first day from Knighton to Brompton, which was allegedly the most arduous part of the entire route. We decided to return in May and do this section as a one-off walk. It made sense; we would knock of 15 miles from the weeks walking in September, we would not wear ourselves out on the first day of a long walk, and if by some unlucky chance we injured ourselves we would have a good 4 months to recover in time to enjoy the rest of the walk from Brompton to Prestatyn.
Celebration: The Man O' Ross Pub, Ross-On-Wye ....
We settled down at the Man Of Ross pub for an excellent meal and several rounds of the inns finest ale. Jo, not much of a late night person, took a taxi back to Brock Cottage after a couple of pints, but Bod Colin and I relaxed over another few beers, joined by the landlord who didn't kick us out until quite late. Colin and I arrived back at Brock Cottage and before we called it a night we took a last beer out into his garden, watched the stars, and chatted about the last six days. We always felt the same after completing a long distant hike. A sense of achievement tinged with sadness that it was all over for another year. Soon it would be a return to the routine of work and the daily drone of normal life. Soon the winter would arrive and the sunny mellow days of September would seem a long, long time ago. By the time I fell into bed, untroubled by the thought of an early rising, it was after 3 a.m.
See Route on ......