By Colin Walford
Route: Bridstow to Grosmont
Date: Monday May 12th 2014
Distance: 16.1m (26km)
Elevation: 161ft (49m) to 1168ft (356m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2005ft (612m) and 1870ft (570m)
An inauspicious start ...
As usual with me, it was a last minute rush. My rucksack was half-packed and leaning against the sofa, waterproof coat trailing out of the open top like curious, blue intestines. I was furiously vacuuming the hallway and still cursing my camcorder, which had decided to play silly buggers. In an unusual burst of foresight, I had charged it’s batteries a week ago and done a bit of test-filming. All was well and functioning. I had repeated this on the eve of the walk and the camcorder still worked perfectly. This morning I had discovered that, despite a whole night charging, the battery became depleted after being switched on for only two minutes. I tried the other battery (also fully-charged after a night of drinking my electricity) with the same result. Damn the thing.
I was still dwelling on this inconvenience when there was a knock at my door. I tutted impatiently – I didn’t have time for polite conversation with a neighbour. Still running the hoover with one hand, I opened my door to be presented with two women clutching what my sinking heart told me was a bible. In six years of living here, I’d never been visited by people promoting their religious beliefs. They had chosen a priceless moment. “Somebody’s busy!” trilled the older and apparently senior member of the pair.
“Yes, I am,” I said emphatically, hoping that they’d take the hint and go next door to my neighbour, a man who (I was tempted to lie) was in far more need than I was of salvation, what with his alcohol-fuelled rants in the small hours.
“Can we leave you some literature?” she replied.
I was already shutting the door as I declined, not meaning to be rude but wanting to be off on my walk to the west coast. In any case, I’ve never been a fan of hawked religion.
As it turned out, I was fifty minutes later than I’d planned as I walked out of Brock Cottage and hoisted my rucksack onto my back. It felt rather heavy but was, I hoped, manageable. It was 10:50am and trying to be sunny through a thick belt of scattered clouds. I walked up my garden path and out of Wye Lea. The pair of bible ladies were still working the properties and for some inexplicable reason, the senior lady had invited herself into the back garden of the cottage near the main gate and was peering in a predatory fashion through a lounge window, which I thought was a bit much. Seeing me stride by, rucksack on and a riding crop in my hand, she offered me a neutral smile which I returned. About that riding crop; according to a previous lady friend, the hissing sound of a thrashing riding crop was the best way to keep over-inquisitive cows and dogs at bay. I was willing to give it a try.
I walked to the corner of our lane where it was joined by another, turning left then stopping as I was keen to do a bit of ‘right I’m off’ filming with what little juice my batteries had. I wanted to wave my camcorder in the general direction of west, as this was the direction I’d be heading for the next twelve days, so got my compass out to confirm which way to point it. Now, I’d had this compass for eight years or so and it had never given me any trouble. It just quietly went about its job of telling me which way was north, with no fuss at all. Today, in line with the camcorder, it refused to cooperate. The red, magnetic finger swung back and forth over an axis of about a hundred degrees, vaguely hinting that the direction north was somewhere in between. I could see that several air bubbles had appeared within the fluid in the housing and they seemed to be mucking about with its orientation. This is great, I thought. Tomorrow, I was due to enter the Black Mountains and I had no reliable source of guidance. I was stumped for a moment and then remembered my iPhone had a compass feature. Even better, it seemed to work well and confirmed what I thought was north and west. It’d do for now, but I made a mental note to buy a proper compass as soon as I could. With another hurdle bypassed, I turned on my camcorder just as an overweight and sweaty-faced guy appeared with a lawnmower and began to mow the grass verge. He obliterated any commentary I was making, so I had to turn off and walk a few hundred metres down the lane to film. The lane descended steeply and offered no view west whatsoever. It was just another barrier in what had been a frustrating morning and I was glad to leave Wye Lea behind.
The problem with permissive footpaths ...
At first, the walking was on entirely familiar ground; lanes that I had travelled along a number of times. Indeed, I initially followed in the footsteps of At Poolmill Bridge, that walk from eighteen months previously carried on south but I turned right and followed the new lane up past Buckcastle Hill and a cider farm, reaching Peterstow and the A49. I crossed this; stopping briefly to glance at the Peterstow village store where I did most of my local shopping. It was a last chance to look at something familiar around these parts; because I then strode on up a lane I’d never ventured before and through a tiny place called Old High Town. It amounted to nothing more than a row of houses and flowery gardens. A chap was in one of them and he watched me march by. We nodded a brief, wordless greeting to each other and I left the hamlet in my wake and joined a smaller track, which then took me out onto fields. This was where I was introduced to one of the problems any regular walker will face. On the Ordnance Survey map, the dark green dashed lines are called footpaths and the light green are permissive footpaths. Whilst the latter can be withdrawn by the landowner, there is a formal process to be gone through before this is acknowledged. To save all the inconvenience of this, some landowners and farmers choose to simply erect fencing of some kind, usually stranded with barbed-wire, across the permissive path. Sometimes, they will plant hedging and often the increasingly frustrated walker will be faced with both. It is extremely annoying and I’m occasionally tempted to take wire cutters with me on my trips. A cheap shot, but in this situation any degree of strike-back would feel bloody good. I was less than an hour into my hike west and already I was facing this scourge of the walker.
I’ve become quite indifferent to the potential outrage of any farmer who may appear on the scene in this situation, so I just hooked it over the first fenced obstacle near Little Peterstow Farm and strode off through a field of lush, young crops. I passed through a couple more fields and alongside an orchard, before bearing right and encountering another string of barbed-wire fencing. The land dipped in front of me and I got my first glimpse of Hattersill Ridge way ahead. I’d be tackling that tomorrow. Clambering over this latest obstacle was easy and I then moved along a fold in the land and approached some buildings that my map told me belonged to Aberhall Farm. I hadn’t noticed as I walked that clouds had begun to gather, until a brief shower of rain began to dampen my head and shoulders, causing me to look up and gauge how much I was in for. By the look of it, not much and I was happy to continue without undergoing the irritating
Lunch at the churchyard
“Can I help you?”
I sighed inwardly and began to play the game.
“No, no – I’ve just wandered off-route and I’m trying to find it again.” This was said with a reassuring smile, which told him I wasn’t a cattle rustler.
“Well, this is private property….”
Here we go, I thought. “Actually, I’m walking along a permissive route. It may not be used often, but it IS legal.”
I waved my map at him, mainly because he was beginning to look disbelieving. He asked to see the map, so I handed it over. He scrutinised it and then took a photo of the route on his Android to show his gaffer, whose land it was. He also asked me once or twice how I’d got onto the property in the first place. I patiently pointed out the route again, but he couldn’t seem to take it on board that I wasn’t trespassing. He was a nice enough lad and attempted to describe the way I could go, doubling back on myself and walking for a mile or so along a lane in the wrong direction, heading east. I shook my head and told him again that I wasn’t trespassing and was on a legitimate walking route. Unfortunately, my argument wasn’t exactly boosted by the fact that I couldn’t find the route I was referring to. In the end, I agreed to be led to a path that went alongside the farmhouse and then joined a lane going to the hamlet of Tretire, which is where I needed to be anyway. Possible conflict resolved, we ambled uphill and fell into discussion about the relative merits of Android and IPhone and which is best. I have the latter but, I must confess, his Galaxy S5 looked pretty neat. He also phoned his gaffer, to tell him we’d be walking by his house. Inwardly I tensed, hoping that this wouldn’t prompt an angry appearance from the man as he demanded to know how many of his daughters I had propositioned.
Of paths lost and found ...
The lad and I parted amicably, just as a furnace-blast of sunshine began to beat down. I was soon sweating freely as I continued on toward Tretire, stopping at a row of houses (that seemed to be all Tretire was as far as I could see) to drink deeply and then move on. It was a climb up a lane in the heat of the afternoon and it wasn’t long before I’d lost the route again. I was meant to take a track off to the right and steeply down through a field, but the right-hand side of the lane was dominated by a huge embankment of earth and fencing that towered over me. This wasn’t right and I saw that I shouldn’t have climbed all the way up the lane; the stile I had to take was now below me and only a quarter of the way up. I had wasted energy for nothing – something that was to become exasperatingly familiar to me in the coming days. The route down was a narrow channel through high, lush crops of what looked like corn. I was swallowed up and then it suddenly ended and I was in open grassland, with the deep side of a hill I had just descended now behind me. Ahead, lay long grass and a belt of trees and absolutely no sign of the track my map was insisting was there. Once more, there was a period of vague progression and map-reading. I walked by the end of the trees and found the company of a little brook with the delightful name of The Gambler. The ground I had to cover was now a swathe of long, wet grass covering a hard and uneven surface. It was the perfect environment on which to break an ankle and this cheery thought had me treading with wariness along a path I wasn’t even sure was correct. In any case, it was a poor choice as The Gambler ruthlessly abandoned me and swept away northwards and I was left facing an impenetrable hedge, combined with fencing.
Looking west towards Wales and the Black Mountains from the top of Garway Hill
St. Weonards (correctly pronounced 'wonnards') is a village and civil parish in Herefordshire, situated about ten miles south of Hereford and adjoining the border with Wales. I explored the inside of the church before I sat down outside to eat my packed lunch, also signing one of those large books that churches always leave out for visitors. I remember looking at my writing and wondering if I’d be able to revisit this church again at some point in the future, leafing back through the pages to find my entry and knowing that I’d signed this book at the beginning of my successful walk to the Welsh coast. To my mind at that point, such success was in no way guaranteed and I hoped that I’d be able to look at my scribbling with satisfaction and not regret. I tried to do some filming with my camcorder, as I had done a couple of times during the day. One of the batteries died completely, so I fitted the spare whilst letting loose with language certainly not befitting my current surroundings. Outside, I sat on a bench in the churchyard, facing back the way I had come. Rows of crooked headstones ended at a low wall and a broken hedge-line. Then the fields, that had given me quite a tough morning’s walking, fell away towards a backdrop of low hills. The sky was still encumbered with heavy-bottomed clouds. As soon as the sun went in, a cold wind blew across the lawn on which my bench was placed, prompting me to put on a fleece jacket as I ate. I munched silently, watching Swallows swoop and House Sparrows squabbling with their neighbours, as they nested under broken tiles on the church roof. Soon enough, I decided it was time to walk on.
The Way begins to show its true intent ...
I must have looked more than usually confused as I exited the church yard and joined a junction of lanes. I was having a quick scan of my map to make sure that I took the correct one, when a gentleman approached me and asked if I was lost. Very kind of him, but I wasn’t and I took a route out of St. Weonards that plunged down into a small valley. There was only going to be one result of this of course and that was the beginning of a long, long climb back up. This was steady and hard and for the first time, I became conscious of the weight of my pack. It was starting to be a noticeable burden and my shoulders were suddenly feeling sore. I was sweaty and breathing deeply when I stopped at a farm called Northgate as the lane kinked to the left. I had climbed perhaps 300ft over a distance of about a mile and this gave me a view back to May Hill in the distance and just before it Ross-on-Wye, which was not far from where I had started out. Home was melting away behind me.
I continued, having to cut across and steeply up a field until I was able to join another road. The landscape to my left had opened up wonderfully, giving me gratifying views of a long range of hills to the south that lay in varying Cimmerian shades, lit up now and then by bursts of sunlight. A heavy, bruised-looking cloud was dropping a misty swirl of rain onto some of these. Ahead of me, I could now clearly see my next destination of Garway Hill. From where I was, it looked benign and unchallenging. Behind it by some distance, there stood the more threatening range of The Black Mountains. In actual fact, the route was not at all benign or unchallenging. It was difficult all the way to the top of Garway Hill from where I had rested; a continual, nagging climb on lanes and over fields that leached away my energy and left me thirsty all the time. With a faint twinge of concern, I abruptly realised that I was making gurgling, sucking noises as I attempted to drink from my water camel. I had polished off the lot and still had some miles to walk. I reached Mount Pleasant, at the base of Garway Hill and with a name that was totally at odds with how I was feeling at that moment, as I heaved to get my breath back. Whilst doing this, I was measuring the challenge of Garway and coming to the conclusion that the real effort was about to begin. In this, I wasn’t wrong and I leant forward into a hard course up Garway Hill Common,
Hattersill Ridge from Garway Hill
When is an inn not an inn ...
I glanced at my watch, saw that it was approaching a quarter-past five and decided to move on. I walked past the trig point and my not-companion walker, as she sat on her bench and idly swung a leg whilst gazing towards the drawn out hump of Hattersill Ridge. I began to descend the south flank of Garway Hill, using the At this point, let me regretfully say to whoever is responsible for maintaining this particular part of the trail, that you have taken your eye off the ball. It is badly signposted and maintained and yes, I got lost. I also had my first acquaintance of the walk with cows, of the herd variety. The blessed things became more and more interested in me as I struggled back and forth across rugged, hilly ground in a vain attempt to find any kind of a track to take me west. Before I could escape I had four or five of them plodding after me, changing direction when I did and threatening to pin me down on the bank of a fast-flowing brook. I was being outmanoeuvred by a bunch of limpid-eyed herbivores and this was not a manly moment for me, so thanks a lot Hereford Trail. I made a quick dash into the safety of Little Corras Wood, leaving behind me a quintet of thrashing tails and disappointed expressions.
Tramping along muddy tracks and through wet foliage, I began to discover orange discs of what looked like strange crockery scattered about me. Some were broken, a few whole. I bent to pick up an undamaged one and immediately realised that I was holding a clay pigeon. It felt fragile, yet surprisingly heavy. I skimmed one clumsily into the bushes and walked on, discovering other evidence of outdoor activities such as a half-hearted assault course, a BMX track and then a go-kart circuit. This didn’t alter the fact that I was still lost and was now also tired and footsore. I had been thirsty for a while and this was becoming pronounced. I continued along a descending mud path that constantly twisted, knowing that it was taking me virtually south when, at this point, I needed to be heading north-west. It was an annoyance but I was led inevitably onto private land, in this case Little Corras Farm. The owner, a big man, happened to be standing on the doorstep of his home, just taking in the early evening and probably feeling very happy with his lot. He saw me and watched me approach along his path with a dry, dimly amused expression.
“I think you’ve taken a wrong turn, boss.”
He turned his face away as he spoke, gazing out over a wooded hillside as if he was being forced to gladly suffer one fool too many. I allowed that I also thought I had taken a wrong turn and apologised, but he said it was okay and that I could continue along his path to get out onto the lane. This was fine by me; the lane would re-join me with my absent route and take me into Kentchurch, where I was hoping for a drink and somewhere to camp. Actually, I was hoping for a few drinks and somewhere to camp. I set out on this lane as it took me downwards, mechanically moving feet that were now tender, noticing that my regularly mutinous left knee was hurting and my shoulders were sore from the weight of my pack. All of this made the lane feel very long indeed and my thirst was becoming a distraction, so that I almost snarled at a poor elderly woman, who was out walking her dog and had the temerity to smile at me and come out with that old chestnut ‘nice weather for it’. I was tired and it was time for the day’s walking to be over. Finally, I got into Kentchurch and saw a building with the words ‘The Mill Inn’ on it. A spring came into my step at the sight of a pub and I managed to shuffle eagerly up to the front door in quick time. The place was open, so I walked in and was immediately into a dining room. This didn’t feel right, but I could hear a TV jabbering away so called out a few times. These went unanswered, so I went back outside and rang a bell, after which a young guy with skinny, tattooed arms popped out of the house and looked dubiously at me. The penny finally dropped, along with my spirits.
“This isn’t a pub, is it?” I said.
“No, it isn’t.”
“Despite it being called, ‘The Mill Inn’.”
“No. There is a pub back down the lane, though.”
My bliss threatened to reappear again. “Oh, really?”
“Yes. But it’s closed on Mondays.”
He said this with such an air of certainty that I felt the hope inside me snuff out like a tiny flame. I slouched away, so fatigued and physically chafed that I wanted to round on him and ask him why, when it clearly wasn’t so, his house was named for a fucking pub?
Looking back towards home from Garway Hill
“Oh, you mean She smiled, beautifully. “It’s just around the corner and you’re in luck, as its open.”
This was so unexpected a statement that I stopped dead and almost called her for a cruel liar. Mr-Skinny-Arms had seemed so sure on this point, but Mrs-Gardener-With-Dogs was as equally adamant and I dared to hope again as I turned the corner. Mr-Skinny-Arms and his fake-pub house had obviously had it in for me from the off, as The Bridge Inn front door was wonderfully, invitingly open.
In a trice, I had entered a snug bar area and ordered a pint of refreshing cider. There were four other customers seated at a table and they all silently watched me, as I wrestled my rucksack off my back and heaved it down onto the chair next to me. I sighed with pleasure as I sat down, cold pint in hand. An important thought occurred to me and I asked the barman to refill my camel with water. He did so, chatting to me and asking me where I was walking to. When he discovered that I was walking to St. David’s he inevitably asked me the first question that came to him; why? I think I must have looked a bit of a state by now and I certainly felt tired and sore, because the other four customers became interested in why I would do this to myself. Frankly, one of the gentleman was staring critically at me as if he disbelieved I’d even make it over the border and into Wales, let alone cross it to the west coast. During conversation, I dropped a couple of hints to the barman that I was looking for somewhere to pitch my tent overnight. I was hoping, as had happened on my south-bound walk in 2012, that he would wave a magnanimous arm and say that I could camp in his beer garden and that bacon sandwiches would be on hand tomorrow morning. He didn’t and what’s more, he didn’t hold much hope that I’d find anywhere legitimate to camp anywhere in Kentchurch. The best he could offer to me was that there was camping to be had in the next village along, Grosmont. My feet cringed at being forced to walk another couple of miles, but the landlord had saved the best for last and told me that in my way, would be the steep, very steep (he emphasised, unnecessarily) Cupid’s Hill, where I presumed there was no love to be found for me.
No desire for Cupid ...
I set out again because, really, there was nothing else I could do. I crossed over a bridge (no doubt the one for which the inn I had just exited was named) above the River Monnow and left tiny Kentchurch behind me, as I began the laborious climb up Cupid’s Hill. The barman had been right; it was steep, very steep. I stopped at the top, ostensibly to admire the view my ascent had given me but actually fighting to get my breath back, before walking on along the road to Grosmont. It continued to be a climb all the way there, turning ugly again as I began to pass the first houses and shops. I had reached the apex and began to descend down the other side along the lane when I caught up with a tall, rather thin and unkempt young man, who was walking his dog and now and then throwing a tennis ball for it to fetch. All seemed normal and unremarkable with the scene and I was right behind them when, out of nowhere, the man bent double over his dog as they strode along and shouted an obscenity. He then straightened up and continued. The dog had cringed and looked at his master for an uncertain moment and then continued trotting alongside and I got the feeling that it was used to such outbursts. For myself, I reassessed my impression of the guy and think this was a chap with some sort of mental illness, who was managing to function in the community, albeit with the occasional verbal outburst. I reached the bottom of Cupid’s Hill, just out the other side of Grosmont and very near Lower Tresenny. A salvo of barking suddenly erupted at my arrival and a woman popped out of a house, elbows showing through a tatty cardigan. I asked, through continuing noise from three dogs kennelled within a caged-off area, if there was anywhere I could camp for the night and she told me I could use her field by the river, with the added bonus of the use of a holiday home she owned next to her house, for a shower and shave in the morning. This was just the ticket and only cost me a fiver. Without further ado, I went through a couple of gates, scattered the lady’s sheep before me and pitched tent on the bank of the It was late evening by the time I had marched back to the holiday house, plugged in all my electrical gear to charge overnight (including the ailing camcorder batteries) and settled down in my sleeping bag to eat a meal of dried fruit and nuts. I reflected on a first day’s energetic walking and the aches and pains I had been left with. It wasn’t too bad, except for shoulders that were stiff and sore. I drifted off to the sound of the gabbling river and the opinionated quacking of wildfowl.
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