Offa's Dyke (N) Day 4

Offa's Dyke - North
By Colin Walford
Day Four

Route: Llanymynech to Chirk Mill
Date: Tuesday September 7th 2010
Distance: 22.5m (14km)
Elevation: 253ft (77m) to 1,230ft (375m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2,543ft (437m) and 2,434ft (467m)

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See Route on ......

The Golden Lion; a terse leave-taking, Darwin and Dickens, Llanymynech hill ....

We were up by seven and had soon packed our gear. Breakfast beckoned us downstairs and we ate a lovely meal whilst chatting to a guy from Leeds, who was sat at another table. We then settled our bill with our host. I must admit, I baulked a bit at the price and was puzzled. It seemed a little steep.
Bod found out why when he came back downstairs and the manager asked us for our luggage, so that he could take it forward. Months ago, I had phoned The Golden Lion and asked if they provided a luggage transfer service. I was told that they did and the owner had just gone ahead and arranged it, putting the cost onto our bill. It was left to Bod to tell him that we had arranged transfer with the local taxi firm instead. I was upstairs in our room and didn’t hear the eruption. The guy had to reimburse us £20 and apparently made his feelings evident in a very strident and face-twitching manner.
“This booking has been a shambles from start to finish!” was one of his observations.
Bod employed superb distraction and de-escalation skills. He quietly told the man that we had enjoyed a lovely stay (which was true) and complimented him on his superb collection of guitars. Such sentiments were as a soothing balm on the manager’s disposition. His neck stopped going in and out, his colour faded from brick red and he began to talk about his guitars and playing in general.
His wife was wonderful about the whole business and told us not to worry about it. To be fair to them, the original booking error did turn out to be my fault. I had sent a deposit by cheque last March with an accompanying note, explaining that we wanted to stay on the night of Sunday 5th. This was wrong and a day early, of course. My only excuse is that I sorted the week’s bookings out after coming home from a 12 hour night shift. However, the wife was very nice about it. She also hands-down wins the award for Providing the Best Packed Lunch of the Walking Week for us. It was excellent, varied and generous in amount. God bless her.
We finally said our farewells when our taxi arrived and whisked us back to Llanymynech. We hoisted our packs on the canal bank in morning sunshine, talking with some amusement about Bods post-breakfast encounter. Then we set out along the canal, once more in single file with Bod leading. My legs felt better today and I happily trooped along for a mile or so before we began to feel that all was not right. We hadn’t seen any acorn marker posts for a while and this was never a good sign on such a well-marked route.
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Bod – the man who stares at Sheep

Bod and I stopped, consulted map and book and came to the conclusion that we were lost. We had to back-track and go back to the starting point. Once there, we had a careful scout around and were also able to identify from our map that we should have immediately left the canal bank. In our defence (and unusually for the Offa’s Dyke path) there were no signs telling us where we should have gone along the route.
The road we had to take was the A483 and we walked up a fairly steep bit of it to leave the canal and Llanymynech behind us. Before long, we were taken left onto a minor road and past an information board, telling us that Charles Darwin had done some of his early field work here.
“I never liked his books,” Jo quipped, “Particularly ‘Oliver Twist’.”
“The Pope certainly didn’t like his books,” answered Bod. The concept of evolution hadn’t sat easily with The Vatican 150 years ago.
The minor road we were on soon became a very steep climb up Llanymynech hill. Today’s walking was to have us cover a lot of the former mining areas around this town, as well as paying a visit to the old Oswestry racecourse of a couple of centuries ago. In warm sunshine, we passed through light woodland as we gained altitude during a steady, vigorous climb. So far, we had dodged the rain once more. We reached a brief plateau at Asterley Rocks and I stopped to film them and also the view. The rocks were multi-faceted and broken, anciently carboniferous. The climb continued on a track between vegetation and stands of trees and then we reached the golf course on top of Llanymynech Hill. We popped out on the 14th tee, but were quickly ushered away again to begin half a mile of meandering around the crown of Llanymynech Hill. The woodland we walked through was not dense, allowing the sun to penetrate and create dancing shadows on the track itself. We were taken upwards and were given a pretty decent morning workout. This was enhanced by the fact that our path would take a sudden, quirky plunge of half a dozen meters or so and then regain the lost height with interest on the next uphill stretch. Jo found a dead Mole on the path, just before we began a descent into a steep gulley.
At this point, we came upon The Four Walkers from yesterday and exchanged a few pleasantries with them, mostly questions about each other’s accommodations from the night before. I came into a fair amount of ribbing from them when my booking error and its effect on the nerves of the manager of The Golden Lion was retold.

A dog called Alice, Sheep musings, a Slow Worm on Moelydd Hill ....

The descent from Llanymynech Hill was a treacherous affair. The night’s heavy rain had made everything slick and untrustworthy and the earthen track we were going down comprised of long, saturated grass and wet stones with polished surfaces. I felt sure that one of us was going to perform an unplanned series of gambols down the hill. On a couple of occasions, it was almost me. Bod, particularly, took his time in easing his large frame down from the heights. Jo and I let out audible sighs, as we reached the bottom and walked up to a wooden gate lying parallel to another track at Pen-y-coed. A herd of cows were being shepherded along this track, leaving us no choice but to wait it out and watch. Bod and The Four Walkers joined us as we did so. One of the cows which passed us, we noticed, had a deformed and twisted face. Another one was being chivvied along by a guy on a quad bike and was limping steadily.
“He’s run her over three times, already,” Bod said, by way of explanation.
Once the cows had gone by, we walked along a wide farm road and then over some fields, also crossing the disused Tanat Valley railway line with its overgrown tracks still in place near a site called Jones’s Coppice. Passing through the seemingly deserted hamlet of Porth-y-waen, Jo commented on the amount of lane and road walking we had done this morning. We were winding along one as he stated this, gazing at the residences of Porth-y-waen and wondering where all the people were. The place had an early Sunday morning feel about it and we didn’t see a soul. We suddenly had to duck up a steep path between two houses. There were back gardens on each side of us and I noticed, a little uncomfortably, that there were a couple of slightly hysterical dogs in the garden to our right. They weren’t overly impressed at our progress alongside their territory and made a fair attempt to reach us from their side of a fence that, to my mind, wasn’t nearly high enough. A woman in the garden began to shout commands at the dogs, which seemed to be summarily ignored. Jo was walking behind me and as we cleared the tracked alley, he made a slightly amused sound and admitted to me that one of the dogs had made a grab for his face by lurching out over the fence top. It had only just missed savaging him and he’d had to jerk back out of the way.
“No way!” I exclaimed.
Jo nodded and told me that he’d heard the woman yelling at one of the dogs and calling it Alice. He’d then heard a whiplash sound.
“I thought ‘Alice is getting hers’,” said Jo, in a grimly satisfied manner.
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Bod and Jo on top of Moelydd Hill

The three of us walked along a lane for about three quarters of a mile. Chickens were clucking from a yard behind hedging to our left. They were invisible to us and I became quietly entertained by the deliberate sounds they were making. They issued very slow and studied clucks. I finally couldn’t hold it in any longer and began to laugh at them. Bod and Jo had obviously been giving them the same private attention I had, because soon we were all tittering openly. It was a strange but happy moment.
Turning right, we began to descend through grass fields at Nantmawr. A helicopter began to clatter about noisily overhead, swinging around above houses behind us as we walked steadily downwards, along an enclosed path and then back up through more fields as we left the tiny, mining hamlet of Nantmawr behind. These fields were steep. We crawled over a stile through a gap in a large old hedge and I was grateful when we all silently decided to stop for a drink about halfway up a hill. Sheep were everywhere, doing Sheep things. One of us asked if we thought that Sheep had a language, or even a dialect. Did they recognise individuals by voice? If, say, a Sheep from West Bromwich was deposited on this hill in rural Oswestry, would the local Sheep know her for a stranger with a funny bleat? We also watched a succession of Sheep bounce energetically through a hole in the hedge.
After the brief rest, I started off toward a gentle slope up the hill. Bod called me back and pointed out the true way we had to go. This was an unpleasant surprise, as I’d set my sights on a soft climb and was mentally unprepared for the frowning brow of the rise before me. It was very steep and had me staggering upwards unhappily, although some Saint in the making had thoughtfully provided a bench at an advanced point up the hill. I sat on it whilst searching for my breath. I noticed that Jo seemed unaffected by his exertions and I think this prompted me to call him a nasty name. We spied The Four Walkers coming through the hedge in a straggled line below us. One by one, they also began to ascend.
This first exertion was the start of the climb up Moelydd Hill. We began again and had another steep climb up and into woodland which was on limestone scree; with a sign saying this place was called ‘Jones’s Rough’.
“Yes, he is,” said Bod as he began to perspire and wilt during this fresh climb up the southern slope of Moelydd Hill.
We were once again walking through open, sunlit woodland and following the length of an old, dry-stone wall when Bod found a Slow Worm lying inert on the ground. The warmth of the sun hadn’t touched it yet and it was torpid and docile as I picked it up, just about summoning up the energy to flick out a lazy tongue at me. Its skin was very glossy and beautiful and felt silkily smooth. Jo held it while I put it on video and it at last began to move with a little more purpose, although it was still cool to the touch.
“I tried putting a lighter under it to help,” Bod said.
I released the Slow Worm onto the dry-stone wall and it smoothly glided out of sight.

Views from on high, racecourse relics, a family of mole catchers ....

We continued on our way to the top of the hill, through the woods and on earthy tracks and at last breaking out of the tree-line at the top of Moelydd Hill and onto a plateau of short grass some 934 feet above sea level. It was breezy up here, but I hardly noticed. The view was fabulous. There was one of those Rotary International stone plinths on top of the hill, with place names and distance markers engraved on a steel disc. Bod began to point out various landmarks, including Alderley Edge, a village and civil parish some 12 miles south of Manchester, “Where all the posh Manchurians live,” as Bod put it. It was just visible on the horizon, with the Cheshire Plain lying in a broad sweep before it. We also identified the Snowdon range to our west and I looked back south of us and commented that the Sedbury cliffs and Bristol Channel, where we had started this walk last year, must now be about 120 miles away.
Rested, we began again. We had to backtrack along the ridge of the hill, heading back south briefly in order to descend through more woodland. I assumed that we would be swinging around at the bottom to begin heading north once more. As we marched along, it began to hesitantly rain. We joined a lane, which swung east and then north and took us through the yard of Ty-Canol farm, before bringing us to a road which we crossed to reach fields once more. The rain dampened any conversation; we were content to eat up the miles and we climbed these fields and swung around the outskirts of Trefonen village. Such was its size, that we soon left it behind and encountered fresh fields. After a while, we again entered a sprinkle of woodland, descending a wet track and crossing a brook via a sturdy, wooden footbridge. We filed up a steep climb after the bridge. This was a mercifully short pull and led us to yet another field which, in turn, took us to Candy Woods. We worked our way along a wooded ridge. Jo commented on how steep the slope was on our left; it plunged aggressively down and had forced the trees here to become leggy and thin as their roots grappled for purchase. The whole slope was laden with them. I realised that I was out of breath when I made some light-hearted reply to Jo. I looked up to my right as we walked, receiving the stony glare of rock outcrops. We climbed a while along the wooded ridge until we came out on its summit and the path levelled out again. Somewhere along the way, the wood had changed in name from Candy Wood to Racecourse Wood. A nod, I guess, to the Oswestry racecourse which was somewhere ahead of us on today’s route. Here, a wooden bench had been provided from which to enjoy the view to our east over smooth, unknown hills which humped, bare backed, through a gap in the woodland panorama like a school of Whales.
We decided there and then to stop to eat and discovered our wonderful packed lunches, courtesy of The Golden Lion, during a renewed attempt by the rain to settle in for the day. I became cold as we sat and ate; a chilly wind scythed about us and forced me to don an extra layer. The bench on which we sat contained one of those plaques in memory of a couple, of which was said, ‘They loved these hills.’
Tired out by the recent pull uphill, Bod was not so charitable.
“In memory of Bod. He hated these hills,” he said with a laugh.
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Walking the lanes on the way to Candy Wood

The Four Walkers caught up with us as we were finishing our food. One of them looked a little done in and I didn’t blame him. Today had been hard walking and he wanted to stop, so we gave them the bench and decided to move on. The track led us to a broad path through the woods, the trees soon becoming fewer in number until we left them behind and took this path as it narrowed again and took us over several stiles. We approached the Oswestry racecourse soon after negotiating these stiles.
I did some filming of Jo at the old remains of the grandstand. It was a silent place in the spitting rain, which hadn’t been quite enough to give us a thorough soaking. The pulling breeze was fitful as I gazed about me and tried to imagine the noise of excited crowds and the gaily dressed women of over two centuries before. It was hard to tell where the racetrack had once run; trees have long since begun an invasion of this place. Bod seemed in no mood for reflections on the past and had walked off ahead, coming to a stop and waiting for us some 200 metres away.
Jo drew my attention to a plaque which had been fixed to one of the stone walls of the grandstand built, it said, in 1804.
“This building was later a home for a family of Mole catchers,” Jo read aloud, snorting in amusement.
Presently, we rejoined Bod and all three of us walked onto a minor road, crossing the B4580. Our visit to the old racecourse must have stirred Jo’s blood a little, because he began to tell me about gambling and just how addictive it can be, stating that in days gone by, he had easily found himself laying down £50 bets on the horses. I couldn’t help but express surprise at this and Jo nodded solemnly. We walked on this level tarmac road for quite some time and the helicopter made its presence known above us again for a while. We passed Carreg-y-big farm and here dropped down onto some fields, which led us to a shallow valley bottom as we flanked Selattyn Hill and passed through another tiny hamlet, called Craignant. We then began to meander upwards through fields and alongside hedges once more, passing by Mount Wood to our right. At this point, the rain suddenly began to patter down with more urgency and I made a decision to stop and put my waterproofs on, the other two following suit. This, naturally, meant that within minutes the rain stopped suddenly, leaving us to cook in our protective gear. Heavy sighs all round. We walked on sweatily, crossing another wooden bridge at the Nanteris ravine.
Climbing upwards through wet, grassy fields had become the order of the day and we did more of this now, being obliged to hop over stiles at regular intervals. If there’s one thing that thrives on the Offa’s Dyke path, it’s stiles of one type or another. I think the whole trail contains over two hundred and we were to climb over most of them.

Free range rabbit, the kindness of strangers, squalor in Chirk ....

We entered wild-looking pasture that contained thick patches of Gorse. Jo stated that it was beginning to look a little remote as we ascended. It was still raining, on and off, as we walked and I became aware that my first blisters of the walk had grown. I felt them on both heels and the second toe on my left foot. I was sure that one of them had popped already, as I could feel a familiar, raw sting on my heel. However, for me this was good going; my third day’s walking before my feet began to capitulate. Finally, we reached a plateau which afforded us another chance to see the lie of the land. We had come to rest on the crown of Bronygarth Hill. The Cheshire Plains were now very visible before us and Bod reckoned that we were looking at our side of the Mersey estuary right on the horizon. This was journey’s end; Prestatyn lay somewhere along that coastline although it was, as yet, invisible to our eyes. Bod also reckoned that Runcorn was out there on the edge of sight. White smoke was billowing upwards in rolling clouds in the foreground, presumably coming from some part of Chirk, our destination today.
“That’s probably our guest-house on fire,” Bod offered, as a suggestion.
We could also see Chirk Castle a little way ahead and below us on a lower hill. We began another descent, down the side of Bronygarth and towards the Ceiriog Valley. We were walking down a lengthy, grassed slope with gardens and what looked like farmhouses on our left when we came across something pie-bald and floppy-eared, lolloping in grazing circles amongst the grassy sward. It was quite obviously a domesticated Rabbit and was puzzlingly liberated, contenting itself with feeding in a small area whereas it had a whole pasture to choose from. It appeared unconcerned by our presence, but was canny enough to elude capture as I tried to approach it. Jo went off to locate someone at one of the farmhouses, but returned shortly with a puzzled frown and an ‘I don’t’ know’ shrug of the shoulders. In the event, we were forced to leave it as it was; an incongruous patch of black and white against the green of the slope. A perfect ‘here I am’ flag for a keen-eyed Buzzard, I mused.
At the bottom of the hill, we reached a hamlet containing what I thought were a pretty little clutch of houses and stopped for a drink. This was Pen-y-bryn and it was here that we spent a few moments discussing the days walk. We all agreed that it had been quite a challenging affair on a par, perhaps, with that long ago first day from Sedbury Cliffs to Redbrook but without the mashed toes, in Jo’s case.
Shortly, we were off again; this time down a very steep minor road which brought us to a stop near Castle Mill. There was a man standing near the open boot of his car. It turned out; he was a very fine man indeed. He was a fellow walker and he watched us for a while, stretching and wincing as we worked the kinks out of our bodies. He then offered us a lift into Chirk. I think the three of us became wedged in the open car door; such was the rush to get inside.
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The pretty hamlet of Pen-y-bryn in the Ceirog Valley

Chirk looked pleasant I noticed, as I withdrew money from an ATM to supplement my depleted stock. We nipped into the first likely pub for a drink and got chatting, briefly, to a barmaid. This was when the first, vague stirrings of concern wafted over us concerning our digs for the night. She heard that we were staying at the Stanton Lodge Inn and presented us with a dubious expression.
“There’s room here, lads,” she said, “It’s better than where you’re headed.”
“Ah, but you would say that,” replied Bod, with a grin.
She shrugged and said no more.
The Stanton looked okay from the outside and I passed the barmaids comments off as nothing more than an attempt to hijack some trade. We walked into the bar. Okay, so it was a bit unclean and seedy looking. This just meant that we’d return to the other pub for drinks and a meal, no real problem. Bod and I approached the man behind the bar and announced that we had rooms booked for the night. I think that this was when the internal alarm bells began to clang. The guy regarded us with what I swear was a faint sneer across his features. He hardly grunted any kind of acknowledgement to us.
“Have we got your bags?” he said.
We answered that he had and he said no more, just walked from behind the bar and away from us with not a word but still wearing that distasteful, derisory look. He obviously expected us to follow him and he lead us into the yard and up to a plastic shed. Opening the door, he retrieved our luggage and walked away, once more expecting us to follow him. The guy took us upstairs and along a corridor that smelt of old food and dampness. He showed Bod and Jo their room, took me to mine and walked away. Throughout that brief interaction, he had given me the impression that he was doing this job as part of a parole package. We never saw him again.
For my part, I was still trying to take in the sights. The carpets on the stairs and along the landing were grubby and threadbare. The smell in the place reminded me of when I had been a kid. We’d grown up in quite a rough area and most of my friends had been the poor kids of the estate. The smell that hit me now was the same smell I had encountered at my friend’s houses when I had gone around to play there; a dirty, neglected odour, a pervading staleness. My room was awful. I inspected cheap, 1970’s furniture, a thin, scuffed carpet slick with grease and chipped Formica cupboards. The walls were bare and patchy. The British journalist, John McCarthy, would have related to this place. I looked out of my window and realised with some amusement that the view comprised of the concrete side of a skylight, about eighteen inches in front of the glass panel. Cigarette butts lay in a joyous drift against its base. I couldn’t pass up such a filming opportunity and did a quick lens sweep of the room. I then began to lay out my wet clothing to dry, using a radiator, the crusted sink and cupboard tops as clothes hangers. My waterproof coat, I hung up inside a cupboard containing insulated pipes. I had felt sweaty and in need of a wash anyway, but my new environment left me feeling that I needed to scrub myself vigorously. In a meditative silence, I walked along the corridor again. The patterns on the wallpaper and carpet clashed and clamoured over each other for my attention. My eyes weren’t sure where to settle. My God, I thought, what a fucking dump!
As if to announce itself as the crème de la crème of shittiness and filth, the bathroom seemed to be the crowning glory. I honestly wondered if I would get out of the bath dirtier than when I went in and as the proud new owner of some kind of fungal condition. Black mould swept over the bath edges and up one wall as if it had been applied with a trowel. The broken shower head dangled uselessly. The plastic bath itself may once have been a bright shade of terracotta. It was hard to tell beneath the deep and ominous stains. I actually gritted my teeth as I lowered myself into it, like a man choosing to rest in a pit of snakes. Thank God the water was actually good and hot. This should, I reasoned, kill off any lurking pathogens.
I do not exaggerate in the above text. This accommodation was disgraceful and in my opinion any walkers reading this once it goes online, should avoid The Stanton House Inn, Chirk, like the plague. I’m not suggesting that you’ll catch the plague here, of course. Even rats have standards.
Once I’d bathed, the three of us got together again and swapped horror stories about our rooms. Fortunately, there was a lot of laughter and joking over it all. We agreed that we would, as Bod put it, ‘take the hit on this one’ and get the hell out in the morning. It suddenly came to me that I was responsible for my brother’s video camera, as well as my own camera and that I would be leaving them in my room when we went out. I had no proof that skulduggery would occur in our absence, but my faith in humanity around here had been, shall we say, dimmed. I found a loose floorboard in the cupboard where my coat was hanging and stashed the equipment in the hole beneath it.
By 7pm we were back in the first pub we’d had a drink in on arrival in Chirk. The bar maid gave us a knowing, told you so look that had us grinning ruefully. In any event, we enjoyed a good evening of drinks and I ate a lovely sausage and mash meal whilst we all watched the England match (a 3-1 win against Switzerland). Bod and I also played pool. I had a few muscular aches and pains after today’s tough walking, but otherwise felt fine. If the arrival back at our doss-house dampened my mood, it wasn’t for long. I said goodnight to my companions and took myself back to my own room. It was typical, I reflected, that when it had come to be my turn to have the luxury of a room to myself, I had ended up with the Calcutta flea pit. I got undressed and into bed, reading briefly before settling down to sleep.

Daily Tweets

Twitter from @BabbleRouser (Jo)
Think we broke the land-speed record yesterday; 10 miles in about 3 hours. Today called for a more strenuous effort
Sep 7th via mobile web

Twitter from @BabbleRouser (Jo)
If we all make it out of this 'hotel' alive, it will be more than a minor miracle!
Sep 7th via mobile web

Twitter from @BabbleRouser (Jo)
Many lovely people in the world; fellow walker ferried us from end of today's walk to our accommodation. Top man!
Sep 7th via mobile web

See Route on ......

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