The Wye Valley Walk - Day Two

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day Two

Route:Whitebrook to Symonds Yat East
Date: Monday August 31st 2015
Distance: 12.6m (20.4km)
Elevation: 39ft (12m) to 157ft (48m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 876ft (267m) and 928ft (283m)

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Whitebrook revisited ...

I didn’t feel too bad when I awoke, despite the physical exertions of the previous day. There were none of the anticipated stiff legs or sore muscles, which both surprised and delighted me as we were about to embark on another 12 miles. We were expecting a very different type of walk today – none of the gradients and tough terrain we enjoyed on Day One but rather a flattish march along the banks of the River Wye which, although I can’t speak for Colin, I’m pretty sure suited us both just fine. In fact, looking at the Wye Valley Walk as a whole, I have noticed a pattern where a day of gradients and harder terrain is usually followed by an easier flat stretch, so today was to be our Yin compared to yesterday’s Yang.
We set out mid-morning from Whitebrook on a day which, although dull and damp, didn’t forecast much in the way of rain. There’s not really a lot to Whitebrook these days, just a cluster of attractive cottages and a smart looking restaurant although in previous centuries it was quite an industrious place, famed for the quality of the paper it produced. That industry, along with its accompanying pollution, is now long gone but there are still echoes of the past, like the ruins of a paper mill we passed by on our way out of the village.

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Relics of an industrial past at Whitebrook.

Guide Notes: The Whitebrook Valley.
Like almost every other tributary of the Wye between Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye, the Whitebrook Valley was once the scene of intense industrialisation. Early wireworks were turned into paper mills, making high quality paper from imported rags for bank notes and wallpaper. Whitebrook Farm on your left still demonstrates the size and importance of that industry with the remains of old walls, waterwheel pits and leats.

We reached the entrance to Tump Farm and looked up beyond the farm buildings to its high pastures where, the previous evening, we had wandered around hopelessly lost. The angry bull we had heard in the gathering twilight was silent this morning but the heady aroma of cow manure still hung in the air. The guide took us sharp left just past the farm, leaving the road we had erroneously trudged so far along yesterday which, we now realised, meant that we were never meant to walk in that direction at all. We had taken two wrong turns in the space of five minutes.

Redbrook – rain stopped play ...

Today (at least in theory) we shouldn’t have so many opportunities to lose the route - the river was to be our compass, and as long as we followed it in the right direction we would arrive at Symonds Yat on time and with no extra mileage added.
We joined the river to follow a broad green track that used to be the Wye Valley Railway line and as such was a flat, straight piece of walking, offering us views of the opposite bank where sheep grazed in meadows and forested hillsides rose up into the leaden skies. Apart from a couple of locals walking their dogs we ambled along in solitude, casting regular glances at the silently gliding Wye and stopping at one point to admire a carved wooden sculpture of a brace of Salmon that had been sited (or discarded - it was hard to tell) beneath the straggly cover of a hedgerow.

Guide Notes: The Wye Valley Railway.
The Wye Valley Railway closed in 1959 after 83 years of carrying passengers between Monmouth and Chepstow. The opening of the railway in 1876 quickly brought an end to the former mainstay of transport up and down the valley – riverboats and trows.

We reached our first bridge of the day, Redbrook Bridge (yet another ex-railway structure) and an old building that seemed to be suffering an identity crisis as it tried to function as a post office, a pub, a café, and a B&B. The river here formed a natural border between England and Wales and we crossed the bridge from the Welsh side into England and the riverside village of Redbrook.
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On the banks of the Wye.

The rain started falling gently as soon as we set foot on English soil.
We knew Redbrook from our Offa’s Dyke walk and in fact the place where we were to get our passports stamped happened to be the place where we had enjoyed a couple of evening meals. The Bell Inn was open for business so we presented our passports to be stamped and then enjoyed a swift ale, hoping for the rain to pass. There was free wi-fi to be had, so we both sent a flurry of Tweets and Emails before shouldering our rucksacks and setting off again. The rain hadn’t stopped but had at least reduced to a fine drizzle and we made our way across the large village green that hugged the riverbank. A number of marquees and stalls had been set up on it, along with a bouncy castle. It was a bank holiday and it looked as if the villagers had organised a fete. It was rather a shame that the rain seemed to have put a dampener on the event as there were few people present and it had the air of failure about it. We sat at a bench to eat our lunch, surrounded by sagging stalls and a scattering of folk swathed in raincoats who wandered from tent to tent exchanging greetings with the stallholders. A few children ran about, jumping into puddles or squelching around on the bouncy castle. It was all a bit dejected really.

Guide Notes: Redbrook.
The name ‘Red Brook’ originated from the colour of the tributary which passes through natural iron ore deposits. Redbrook is now a quiet little village, but at one time this was also a heavily industrialised area, with a copperworks dating from the late 17th century, later converted to an ironworks and then a tinplate works. The Redbrook Tinplate Company was world famous for its high quality product and did not close until 1962.

Upstream to Monmouth ...

We left Redbrook behind, hugging the English side of the river to cross a long series of meadows. They were for the most part featureless except for one sizeable meadow that played host to a number of large marquees. This was ground that belonged to the Monmouthshire Show Society where agricultural events took place on a regular basis. It was deserted today and as we passed by I dodged into one of the large marquees to answer an urgent call of nature (apologies to the MSS). After the meadows the path became enclosed in scrubby woodland and began to undulant with our old friends the slippery tree-roots making a comeback. I christened these uneven little sections 'Gnarly Bits' and began making up a little song about how 'The walker trips on Gnarly Bits along the River Wye-oh-why' (well, we were walking along in companionable silence and my mind had begun to wander).
We had walked these tracks before, albeit in the opposite direction, on a walk to the Kymin several years before and we passed by the remains of the two railway bridges that had impressed us at that time, Firstly the sandstone buttresses and archways of the
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Approaching Redbrook via the old iron railway bridge.

Wye Valley Railway Monmouth Viaduct (1861-1964) the section that spanned the river long since removed, and then the rusting iron framework of the Duke of Beaufort Bridge (1874-1964), intact and still used as a footpath and cycleway. We knew from these markers that Monmouth was now close and very soon we had reached the Wye Bridge on the edge of the town, a substantial old bridge that carried traffic on the A4136 into the town centre. The river Wye widens at this point, its waters gliding swiftly on a strong undercurrent. Canoeists emerged from under the bridge at regular intervals having set off from the Monmouth Canoeing Centre just a few hundred yards upstream. Standing on the bridge we could crane our necks and make out the tiny white shape of the naval temple and the Kymin viewpoint, set atop a high and densely wooded hill where extensive views across into Wales could be had on a fine day. We had enjoyed such a view on our Offa’s Dyke adventure before climbing down to wander through Monmouth, however today our route took us back along the riverbank without ever entering the pretty old town.

Guide Notes: Monmouth.
Monmouth’s history stretches back to pre-Roman times; ongoing archaeological excavations have revealed multiple layers of occupation. The Romans called it Bestium and established a fort; the Normans built a castle where the future King Henry V was born, which later featured in the English Civil War. There is a unique medieval gated bridge over the River Monnow, and the trial of the Chartist leaders captured after the abortive Chartists’ Rising in South Wales in 1839 was held in the Shire Hall the following year. Three were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death by hanging and quartering, the last time this sentence was given in Britain. Fortunately, it was changed to deportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The Nelson Museum in Priory Street houses a large collection of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s love letters and gifts to his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton as well as much information on the history of Monmouth and the surrounding area. Nelson’s only other connection with Monmouth was a visit in 1802 to the Naval Temple and the Roundhouse, the whitewashed building on the summit of the 250m-high Kymin overlooking the town. It is also the home of Charles Stuart Rolls, an early pioneer of aviation and the co-founder of the Rolls Royce Company, who has the rather dubious ‘honour’ of being the first Briton to die in an air crash. The town is well supplied with visitor information in the Shire Hall, accommodation of all types, restaurants and cafés, shops, a bus station, banks and ATMs, doctors, dentists and religious centres of most denominations all within a compact area.

Just past Monmouth the hub of all the canoeing activity was reached, the Monmouth Canoe Hire and Activity Centre which is a bit of a mouthful even if you reduce it to an acronym. The MCHAC was certainly doing a brisk trade, with a large party of life-jacketed canoeists about to launch and
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The remains of the Wye Valley Railway Monmouth Viaduct

another big group arriving via mini-bus. Only Symonds Yat, our terminus for the day, would offer more facilities for this sport. We passed what remains of the old Monmouth Quay and continued along the riverside path and into the grounds of the pretty whitewashed church of St. Peters at Dixton. It is built perilously close to the Wye, which is a river that often bursts its banks in spectacular style, so it must have survived regular flooding over the centuries. Beyond the church were more pastures and we crossed a wooden bridge over an unseen Mally Brook, which joined the Wye at this point. There was, according to the guidebook, a nature reserve of some sort away to our left but the route never took us through it. Instead we walked along the embankment as the steady roar of the A40, running parallel to our course, became a muted swish that gradually faded to silence as the road and the river finally parted ways, with the road continuing Northwards and the river, and therefore ourselves, swinging to the East.

Guide Notes: St Peter's Church.
At one time a ferry crossed the river at this point, and the metal gates and steps leading down to the river’s edge are the only reminders that the vicar used to regularly cross the river from the vicarage on the opposite bank. St Peter’s Church serves the parish north of Monmouth, and although in Wales is in the Church of England diocese of Hereford. The site was probably early Christian; the present church dates from the 12th century, but inside there is masonry which indicates it may have been Saxon. This little church is in active use despite regular inundations from the River Wye, indicated by brass height markers.

Hornets and hounds ...

Very soon we were back into woodland and Gnarly Bits which began to tire our feet, however compared to yesterday the day was very easy-going, with no directionally-challenged detours and very little to do but follow the river as it wound its way along, crossing the border of England and Wales capriciously and providing a series of lovely views. It was all rather splendid. We reached a point several meters above the river where the lush embankment opened up and a little concrete platform with an iron railing served as a sort of viewpoint. Below us a man was fly-fishing, probably for the famous Salmon we saw on every way-marker. Its a skill we’ve always admired so we stopped for a moment to watch him. He was standing waist-deep in the water and flicked his rod back and forth with studied ease, landing his fly skilfully so that it seemed to dance on the water. I glanced at Colin and was about to offer a word or two on the fisherman’s performance but noticed instead, with some alarm, that a cloud of hornets were eddying about his head. He noticed them at about the same time and with a squawk of alarm set off along the path. I followed him, ducking my head as I passed through the swarm,
WyeValley Day2 Pic 5

St. Peter's Church, Dixton.

fearing that more might be on the way. Where they came from we'll never know. Ten paces further on a dog with a horrible rusty bark bellowed at us from behind an unseen boundary. Already on edge from the hornets scare this sudden noise nearly pitched us into the river and I'm pretty sure the fisherman heard us both shout the same expletive in loud unison.
This little drama aside, we continued along some very pretty woodland in peaceful solitude. Here and there we came across evidence of times past, when this land was under private ownership (I believe that there used to be a deer park in the vicinity). An old stone wall, broken away at the path, with an ancient wooden door opening onto nothing but a wild glade, and the remains of an iron fence, complete with a gate permanently locked, which the forest trail swerved around almost contemptuously. After the woodland we broke out into a wide meadow once more. This actually was still private land and a notice pointed this out politely, telling us to stick to the riverside path. The property to which this land belonged, Wyastone Leys, was perched slightly on a rise to our left. It was a fine old country house and it watched us pass by from its many windows.

Guide Notes: Wyastone Leys.
Wyastone Leys was originally built in 1795 and rebuilt in the 1830s by industrialist Richard Blakemore. He extended the estate to include the Little Doward hillfort behind enhancing it with landscaped viewpoints, an iron tower folly, carriage drives and a walled deer park. A later owner extended the house further in 1860–61 by the Scottish architect, William Burns. A small herd of fallow deer are still kept in a reserve on the edge of the Little Doward. Since the early 1970s the Wyastone Estate has been the home of Nimbus Records, one of the pioneers of Compact Disc manufacturing and recording. They built a concert hall for recordings, and concerts open to the public are held occasionally featuring top classical and jazz musicians.

Beyond the estate it was woodland walking again, a place of dark hollows where colonies of Hearts Tongue Fern grew in abundance and fallen tree trunks were softened by thick blankets of moss. We were in fact walking along in a part of the Forest Of Dean which sprawls across this area of England and where Colin and I had enjoyed directionally challenged moments on several occasions in the past. We came to a large cliff face in a clearing to our right, perhaps twenty meters high, and we guessed (rightly as it happens) that this was no natural phenomena but was the result of quarrying. I learned later from the guidebook that above these cliffs are King Arthurs Caves which I visited once, many years ago, with my two young daughters.

Guide Notes: The quarry.
This rock face is known as the ‘Seven Sisters Rocks’. Limestone from this rock face was shipped down stream by riverboats, for building purposes and for making lime. Above are King Arthur’s Caves; although links to the mythical king are unlikely, evidence has been found of man’s presence from 12,000 years ago, before the last ice age, along with the remains of mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and sabre tooth tiger. Today these caves are home to some of our most endangered bats, the lesser and greater horseshoe.

A bouncy bridge and a long last mile ...

The woodland came to an abrupt end not long after this at the Biblins Youth Campsite, and we stopped for a few minutes to sample some blackberries that were just ripening as the summer waned. It was hit and miss. Some of the fruit were sweet and juicy, others a bit like biting into a wedge of lemon. Biblins is a popular hangout and we walked to the Biblins Suspension Bridge in the company of families with inquisitive dogs and tantrum-prone children. The bridge itself has a warning that no more than twelve people at a time should cross it and so we waited patiently as a party of sixteen stamped their way across before setting off ourselves. I had crossed the bridge before (on the same day that we visited King Arthurs Caves) and I thought it had changed little in the intervening years, however this is apparently a newer version, with access ramps replacing the old wooden steps that I must have used back then. Its quite a small footbridge, suspended by thick steel hawsers across the river, and its narrow footway springs up and down noticeably as you walk along - in fact the whole structure squeaks and boings like a bedframe in a honeymoon suite. I know of people who have refused to cross it, not liking the swinging about, but the alternative (if you want to get to Symonds Yat) is a long walk upstream and a ferry crossing. As we bounced along I heard Colin savour the word 'Plummet' behind me as he mused on the several meters of air beneath us and the cold waters of the Wye lying in wait.
I would have guessed that crossing the bridge would bring us into England but in fact we crossed back into Wales to turn left upon a wide level pathway that led to Symonds Yat East. This was yet another ex-railway track, being the former Monmouth to Ross-on-Wye line,
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Mark crossing Biblins Bridge.

and it was busy with day-trippers since the weather had improved steadily throughout the day. We came across the second wooden sculpture of the day, the Roger Withers memorial seat, placed in memory of the former Wye Valley AONB Cycle Routes Officer, and continued along the path with the Wye a few meters below us on our right. This was a very easy end to a rather gentle days walking but the previous days efforts had taken its toll and we were sore of leg by now. It was a long final mile before we finally reached the hubbub of Symonds Yat East and parked ourselves gratefully at a table overlooking the river at the Saracens Head pub. This was the third passport station of our journey and we collected our stamps as well as a couple of pints and put our feet up, watching the business of Symonds Yat East pass by. The business seemed to be either bicycle or canoe related, both of which were well catered for in this small riverside village. The ferry plied its trade, a wooden pontoon-like affair that was dragged across the river by hand using a cable stretched from bank to bank. It looked like hard work but apparently in the height of summer it can be lucrative and is a much coveted occupation.

Guide Notes: Symonds Yat East.
The river here is very popular with canoeists, the rapids being ideal for training novices. In the 17th century a weir was built here to divert water to an ironworks on the opposite bank. The New Weir ironworks were in use from at least the 1590s up until the 1800s. It had various forges, mills and hammers powered by water wheels for refining iron from nearby furnaces. The rapids are formed from the collapsed weir and slag heaps from the ironworks. The rapids have been purchased by the British Canoe Union and were remodelled in 2009. The site was surveyed in 2009 and consolidated in 2010 as part of the AONB ‘Overlooking the Wye’ scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Goodbye to the Wye … for now ...

And that was the end of the day. In fact as far as the Wye Valley Walk is concerned this is the end for the year. It will be Spring 2016 before we can get together again and set off on days three and four, when we will walk along the familiar meadows of Welsh Bicknor, pass by a mere stones-throw from Colin's cottage via Ross-on-Wye, visit the city of Hereford and then walk off into the uncharted territory of the welsh borders in search of Hay-on-Wye.
Until then – Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here

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The Wye Valley Walk - Day One

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day One

Route:Chepstow to Whitebrook
Date: Sunday August 30th 2015
Distance: 12m (19.3km)
Elevation: 23ft (7m) to 384ft (117m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2,415ft (736m) and 2,411ft (735m)

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A late start from Chepstow ...

Rain had been forecast for our first day of tackling the Wye Valley Walk and the skies were grey and heavy with precipitation when we arrived at Chepstow Castle, the official starting point. The really heavy rain was not going to arrive until later in the morning so we gave it every chance to catch us up, ensuring we got wet right from the very start, by setting off much later than intended. It was to be a day of errors and omissions, both major and minor, and our first gaff was to feed four English pounds into the parking meter only to be told immediately afterwards by a local that, being a Sunday, parking was free all day. This little irritation aside we were pleased to be leaving the car in a safe and easily accessible place for the day. I noticed a burger stand had opened for business and I wondered idly if he would still be open when we returned after our days walking – not for the burgers of course, but perhaps for ice-cold water.
Our final task before setting off in search of the starting point was to pick up a couple of Wye Valley Walk passports from the Tourist Information centre. These had places for stamps that could be collected along the route at nominated stations. A few of these stations were, like here in Chepstow, TIC's but the majority of them were public houses, which gave us a very good reason for stopping off for the odd pint along the way.
Under the crumbling walls of the old
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Both of us fresh and ready for the start

castle we found the large rock that signified the official starting point of this 136 mile adventure, and began taking the usual photographs that such an occasion demands. Colin was framing me leaning against the stone when a local lady with a couple of small dogs in tow approached us.
“SHALL I TAKE A PICTURE OF THE TWO OF YOU TOGETHER?” she boomed at us. We concluded pretty quickly that she was hard of hearing and, like many people with such a disadvantage, she shouted her every word. She was a very kind and obliging lady and Colin offered her his camera to take the shot. With loud observations along the lines of “I’M NOT VERY GOOD AT THIS – I USUALLY CUT PEOPLES HEADS OFF” and “OH THAT’S THE THING I NEED TO PRESS IS IT?” she succeeded in taking a really nice picture of the pair of us. We thanked her kindly. “NOT AT ALL,” she bellowed smilingly, “YOU TWO HAVE A LOVELY DAY!”
We lingered for a while, admiring the frowning battlements of the castle that loomed above us, and shot some video, and shuffled our feet, and stared with some trepidation at the gloomy rain-clouds overhead. There was nothing for it: it was time to be off.

Guide notes: Chepstow and its castle.
Begun in 1067 by William Fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford, a compatriot of William the Conqueror, Chepstow Castle occupies a strong strategic position and was the first stone-built Norman castle in Britain. After being under siege during the English Civil War in 1645 and 1648 the castle acted as a state prison before gradually falling into decay. The large tower you pass under is Marten’s Tower, prison of Henry Marten, one of the Regicides who signed the Death Warrant of King Charles I. On the Restoration in 1660 Charles II took revenge on his father’s killers and Marten was lucky to avoid execution (by being hanged drawn and quartered), but remained a prisoner here from 1668 until his death in 1680. Before the Industrial Revolution Chepstow was an important port, hence the town walls seen on your left as you continue uphill. New industries, founded on iron and coal, resulted in the expansion of Newport and Cardiff at Chepstow’s expense, but this helped to preserve the historic nature of the town. The river remained an important outlet and small flat-bottomed boats, known as ‘trows’, sailed around the dangerous waters of the Bristol Channel and up and down the Wye (and Severn) transporting iron and wire from Tintern and Redbrook, timber and oak bark, and paper from Whitebrook, whilst importing wine and other goods from Bristol and further afield.

We hadn’t gone very far, following the tarmac path which wound about the castles moat, now a great green grassy ditch, when we bumped into our friend the lady with the dogs again. She once more appeared eager to be helpful and when we said that we needed to find the high street she began giving us detailed instructions which echoed off the castle walls and startled passers-by. We left her for the final time with smiles and waves.
Colin had forgotten to pack a weatherproof coat and so we made our way into the town’s high street in search of an outlet where he could pick up a cheap one for the day. Luckily we found such a place almost immediately but, unluckily, Colin’s choice of coat had no price on it and there followed a twenty minute interlude where two confused shop assistants frowned at a monitor and jabbed randomly at a keyboard whilst a queue slowly built up behind us. I soon lost interest in the proceedings and wandered back outside to grab a packed lunch from a nearby Greggs. In the end they never did find a price for the coat and so they closed on a mutually acceptable price via the time honoured method of haggling.
We regained the path at the castle once more and this time we set off in earnest, noting with scarcely any surprise that it was now raining persistently.

Pretty viewpoints, pretty damp ...

We had mapped a profile of the route as part of our planning and we knew that today had a fair amount of climbing in store, over two thousand feet in total, and this began immediately as the tarmac path rose to meet a road which in turn rose again to take us through the suburbs of Chepstow. There were to be a lot of gradients on this first section of the walk, and although the profile indicated that there was as much descent as ascent it never felt like that to me. It was always on the up, and some of those ups were steep and often long. That’s something I should mention about the Wye Valley Walk at this point – it isn’t a march alongside the river bank, which would be flat and (let’s admit it) rather monotonous. For many reasons, some geographical and some due to private ownership of land, this long distance path is often forced away from the Wye and as a result celebrates the Wye Valley in all its diversity and not just the beautiful river that carved it out millennia ago. There are some more strenuous sections, but you are rewarded amply by the variation of the scenery you walk through, from densely forested hillsides, through pastures and cider orchards, across meadows and over mountains. If you ever decide to tackle this walk then be prepared for some genuine hiking along the way.
We left the road, and Chepstow, behind us via the grounds of a school where a path took us into a forest for some pretty woodland walking. The dense eaves of the trees kept the rain of us and although the air was damp we could at least remove our hoods and look about us. This track eventually led us into Piercefield Park which is private property, and the hill we walked upon was one of many such hills in the area, each one clad in woodland that tumbled down to the banks of the river. As we progressed, the forest path climbed steadily and a series of viewpoints,
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Chepstow Castle

laid out in the late eighteenth century for the benefit of the burgeoning tourist industry, provided splendid vistas. We met a retired couple on this trail, and a younger couple with a dog that were attempting the Wye Valley Walk, or at least this section of it, and for some time we overtook each other in turns as we stopped along the way, admiring the scenery as it unfolded before us. We stopped at one viewpoint, called the Alcove seat, which offered us a view back to Chepstow Castle, the town itself, and beyond it the white spires of the Second Severn Crossing. The river Wye glided silently below us, dun brown with slick and muddy banks. It was still tidal here of course and would be so until we reached Brockweir, and it was strange to think that as we proceeded along the walk the river would become ever younger and swifter-flowing, leaping and carving its way past towns and cities, with ourselves tracing its origins with every step until it became no more than a babbling spring of clean water bursting out from the side of a welsh hillside. Of course that place was many miles distant yet, and a few years away from realisation.
We observed how, in such a lovely landscape, civil engineers had erected an ugly bypass of grey concrete that bisected the view, with no thought at all on how it might look and no effort made to design it to be more sympathetic with its surroundings. I know it’s hard to make a concrete flyover look picturesque but there’s always something you can do to soften the impact, with a bit of forethought and financing, neither of which were probably at a premium when the bridge was built several decades ago. I’d like to think that we’ve all moved on a little since and perhaps if the bridge were to be designed today it might blend in a little better.

Guide notes: The Piercefield Viewpoints.
The Alcove is but one of 10 viewpoints laid out in Piercefield Woods in the 1750s by the owner Valentine Morris. He owned estates in the West Indies and used his wealth to lay out the dramatic walks and picturesque viewpoints for the enjoyment of his guests. This became a highlight of the emerging Wye Tour, with people coming by boat and carriage to view the spectacular Wye Gorge, heralding the birth of popular tourism in Britain. The original paths were to be walked from north to south, but rearranged by a new owner in 1790 and the path alignment changed from south to north, starting in Chepstow. Nathaniel Wells, owner of Piercefield in the early 1800s, probably added the ‘365 Steps’ and the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ viewpoints. He was the son of a plantation owner and a slave woman but inherited his father’s estates and became the first black High Sheriff in Britain. Several of the viewpoints were reconstructed in 2009 under the ‘Overlooking the Wye’ Heritage Lottery funded project.

Further along the trail we noticed two things, firstly the path was taking a more determined upward direction and secondly the wet ground was proving to be challenging at times as it was strewn with rocks and snaggled tree roots which were becoming greasy underfoot. We worried slightly about the older couple who were now some distance behind us, and how they might cope with this, but as Colin pointed out with grim humour we weren’t exactly spring chickens ourselves.
Presently, halfway up a steeper section, Colin diverted left and stood inside a feature known as The Grotto, which had been set into the side of the hill and resembled, as much as anything, a sort of Neanderthal bus-shelter. It had been built as part of the Georgian improvements for those wishing to stroll along this lovely part of the world and would originally have been bedecked with sea shells. Colin told me that he now recognised this area as a place he had worked on when doing volunteer conservation work several years before. He pointed out the sections of the track which he and his fellow volunteers had cleared of undergrowth and then levelled out as much as possible. It looked like hard work to me.
Not much further on we reached a second viewpoint at the Giants Cave where indeed a cave (actually more of a tunnel) had been chiselled through the living rock. The view down to the river Wye, now far below us, was worth a five minute breather and then we followed the path through the cave. Like all such places it was dark, chilly, and smelled strongly of urine.

Guide notes: The Giants Cave.
Recent reconstruction work here, including removal of tree cover and repairs to the walls, has made it possible to appreciate the fine vistas which would have been also enjoyed by walkers in the 18th century. The cave was once guarded by a stone giant above the entrance, but he has long since disappeared and it is said that Valentine Morris, to amuse his guests, had guns fired from here to experience the echoes bouncing up to seven times from cliff face to cliff face.

After the Giants Cave the path moved up a gear and became at times both steep and narrow, with plunging drops to our right to an unseen river Wye. We were having to be careful as a trip in that direction would have had us bouncing off tree trunks like a pinball before disappearing into the waiting river with a distant splash. I would say, from our experience, that caution would have to be applied here if you were walking with children or dogs.
We broke out from the forest at the Lower Wyndcliff car park where the rain, unhindered by tree cover soon forced us grumbling back into our wet weather gear. Beyond the car park was an old quarry and a choice of a slow climb up a track or an
WyeValley Day1 Pic 3

Into the Giants Cave

attempt of the 365 Steps installed for the benefit of those energetic Georgians. We debated this for a while but in all honesty, any views gained by tackling the steps would have been lost in the grey void that this day had become, so we opted for the track, which was hardly less strenuous as it turned out. At the top we emerged on to the Upper Wyndcliff car park and the final viewpoint of Piercefield Park known as the Eagles Nest. We were assured by the guidebook that this offered a particularly fine vista, said to be a favourite view of the Duke of Beaufort no less, but today the only scene it presented was a big white nothingness, a blank canvas with just the merest hint of a ghostly tree in the foreground. However, via the magic of the internet, here is a link to what the view can offer on a fine day.
We carried on, passing through Minepit Wood and along Black Cliff and then down a very tricky path which really would have been a game-changer if either of us had slipped. We picked our way carefully over the slippery rocks and treacherous tree roots to reach firmer ground that led us out from the woodland and down the side of a hill via a series of soggy pastures.

Guide notes: Minepit Wood.
Ironstone was mined here using the ‘scowles’ system as used in the Forest of Dean. The iron-ore seams close to the surface are followed, creating deep fissures or trenches in the ground. No one is sure when this was dug or where the iron ore was eventually smelted, but it is possible the monks of Tintern Abbey may have exploited this nearby source. The tree species are diverse, and include spindle, privet, small-leaved lime, yew, field maple, wych elm, hazel, ash and beech.

Abbeys, shindigs, cricket, and beer off piste ...

My stomach had started to rumble by the time we reached the outlying cottages of Tintern, so we threaded our way through its narrow back lanes and walked down to the riverside, passing the gaunt ruins of the abbey in the process. We had both been to Tintern several times before and we rate it as one of our favourite places to visit in the area. It has the impressive gothic ruins of the abbey of course, which if you approach from the road loom suddenly into view capturing your attention with their haggard beauty. But it also has the River Wye running through the town, no longer silty brown but a wide green fast moving body of water, rising and falling with the tides of the distant Severn estuary. There’s a nice riverside restaurant, a collection of shops to browse, and a pub that sells the most enormous mixed grill. I could go on, but instead why don’t you just go and visit the place yourself – you wont be disappointed. Colin and I sat on a low stone wall between the abbey ruins and the river and ate our packed lunch as tourists walked by speaking many different languages.
WyeValley Day1 Pic 4

A tricky path

A French guy strode across the car park wearing the silliest pair of trousers we had ever seen. Bright red, extremely baggy, either long shorts or short longs. We thought they looked ridiculous but he was French, and probably far more fashion conscious then we Englishmen in our shapeless walking apparel. It took nano-seconds for the local wasp population to start zooming us, desperate for life-prolonging sugar. I always feel a little sorry for the poor wasp at this time of the year. With its natural source of energy depleted (the secretion given off by their larvae) they have to continually hunt for sugar or die. Its quite a stark choice when you think about it and maybe you can understand their aggressive persistence in trying to land on your ice-lolly. After a bit of arm waving and cursing I compromised by filling a little hollow in the wall's brickwork with Lucozade sport which at least partially drew their attention away from us.
Lunch over, we hoisted our rucksacks and set off once more, following a wide level track alongside the Wye before turning to follow the main street of Tintern, passing the aforementioned pub that sells the mega mixed grill. It was nice to be doing a spot of easy, flat walking for a while, and we enjoyed our stroll through Tintern despite the rain that still fell gently on our already sodden gear.

Guide notes: Tintern and its Abbey.
The complex of buildings now housing shops, craft workshops and a café was once the site of the Abbey Mill. The grassed area was a tidal dock, into which small craft could be berthed and loaded between tides. Look across the road behind you towards the whitewashed cottages and note the line of a tramway which came down the Angidy Valley and across the bridge to eventually join the main Wye Valley Railway. The Angidy Valley, along with other side valleys of the Wye, were heavily industrialised from the late 16th century, making the area arguably the crucible of the Industrial Revolution. It was in Tintern in 1566 that brass was first produced in Britain by alloying copper and zinc. The Angidy iron furnaces, fuelled by locally made charcoal and driven by water power, produced cast iron and the Tintern Wireworks, located about 300m up the valley, was the source of most of the drawn wire manufactured in the British Isles until its closure in the 19th century. Wireworks Bridge carried the industrial railway into Tintern to serve the small wireworks. It closed in 1935. Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131 on land granted by Walter de Clare of Chepstow to the Cistercian Order which grew in influence and wealth to such an extent that by the 13th century it could construct the magnificent structure of which we see the remains today. More information on the story of the Cistercian Monks in Wales may be found at the Information Centre attached to the abbey.

We walked through the grounds of St. Michael’s Church to reach the riverbank once more and then, for a rare space of time, we followed its course, close enough to jump in if we were so inclined. The appearance of canoeists reminded us of just how popular this past-time is on the lower reaches of the Wye. Symonds Yat East in particular seems to be a Mecca for canoe clubs. We watched a family of four glide by, paddles flailing in an un-coordinated manner, and speculated on the perils of such an outdoor pursuit. Colin knows better than I how risky an adventure it can be, as he and his son had capsized on a canoeing trip a few years before which had cost him a phone, a camera, and a significant loss of dignity. We wondered how far up along the course of the river this activity would be evident or whether it was concentrated down here in Herefordshire, where the river is wide and relatively smooth.
A few hundred meters further on we started to hear amplified music, the sort of upbeat country and western tune you might hear at line dancing sessions. It was incongruous given its setting. As we crossed a grassy meadow we looked to our left and found the source of the sound which was some sort of wooden community building with a wide veranda looking down on the riverbank. A number of heads were bobbing up and down in unison and keeping time with the music so perhaps our line dancing guess wasn’t too far from the mark; in any event, it seemed that some sort of shindig was taking place. Of course I had to film it and of course Colin decided to join in the fun with his own version of an Irish jig which is forever committed to video. Like a gift that just keeps giving, the river Wye presented us with another spectacle in the very next meadow. Here, on the opposite bank, a village cricket match was in progress. A ragged crowd of villagers were cheering on the teams as batsmen seemed to be walking to and from the crease in an almost continuous line. Even as we watched there was a yell and a cheer and another batsman tucked his bat under his arm and made off for the beer tent. I decided to film the next bit of the action and there was a brief pause in the excitement as the umpires (both of whom were inexplicably wearing kilts) waited for the new batsman to take crease and the field to be adjusted. The bowler began his run-up, he pitched a full delivery and sure enough the new batsman was bowled for a duck. It looked like everyone was having fun and the cricket was a low priority compared to the refreshments available. It seemed as if most of the batting side were already into their ale, watching the proceedings good-naturedly and not caring a jot about the outcome of the game. Very soon after this we reached Brockweir bridge, a large iron construction that we crossed to enter the village of Brockweir. It was a quiet place, made all the more so by the fact that a lot of the villagers were attending the cricket match we had just observed, but it had a pub that was open and although it wasn’t listed as a place to collect a stamp for our passports we decided that a pint of ale was deserved for all our efforts. It had stopped raining for a while so we sat outside with our beer and enjoyed taking the weight off our feet for twenty minutes or so.

Guide Notes: Brockweir.
Across the bridge is the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail and the now quiet riverside settlement of Brockweir. This was once the busiest port on the Wye, where cargoes were transferred to and from the seagoing ships to the trows. Just north of where the bridge now stands you can see part of the old quay, recently restored.

We set off again, taking what seemed to be a logical route out of the village up a hilly road. At the top of this long rise we realised that our logic was flawed and we were not on route any more. We walked back down to the pub and then spent a few moments head scratching as the guidebook seemed to be pointing out directions that made no sense. Eventually we realised that we had made an error in crossing the bridge and we should never have been in Brockweir at all. Never mind, the ale was good.

Wrong turns and things we never saw ...

We crossed the bridge once more and regained the Wye Valley walk, recognising its way mark of a leaping Salmon (The Leaping Salmon – what a great name for a riverside pub here, why hasn’t that one been used?). Two things disappointed me at this moment, firstly it had started raining quite heavily and secondly we were going to start climbing again, leaving the riverbank and its nice flat meadows to strike up through the forested hillsides once more.
It was a short but energetic climb that eventually levelled out, taking us first along an avenue of venerable old pines and then along a series of forest tracks which terminated at a clearing called the Whitestone Forestry Commission Picnic Site
WyeValley Day1 Pic 5

Tintern Abbey

and where the rain, for a short while at least, stopped. The picnic area proved to be a bit of a puzzle to us, as the previously reliable Wye Valley way-marks began to take us in circles. We tried and failed to match the guidebook instructions to what we were actually seeing and in the end resorted to Plan B: ask someone. Two ladies with dogs on leads were on their way back to their cars so we targeted them. We knew that we needed to reach a place called Whitebrook, where our car was parked, and they knew where it lay by road but not necessarily by footpath. As we discussed this, one of the dogs began to wind itself around my leg so that the lead entwined me like a ribbon on a maypole. “We could give you a lift to Whitebrook?” They offered kindly. We politely declined, as this would have been cheating, but with hindsight we should have taken them up on their offer - but of course we had no idea of what was to come. Instead the ladies pointed to a steep upward (what else?) defile between the trees which they were half-sure led to Whitebrook. We thanked them for their help and set off (after the dog had been unwound from my leg) to climb the steep little track. At its top we hit a wider trail, which looked well used and gave us a little more confidence, especially when we saw that a man on a large horse clopping by.
“Is this the way to Whitebrook?” we enquired.
“Whitebrook?”, he grunted. “Yes.” And with that informative statement he carried on, his mount's tail swishing from side to side. We had little option but to follow it. Soon we came to a t-junction at a metalled lane with no road-signs: Whitebrook – was it left or right, or even straight ahead on the tiny footpath we could make out? There was no way to know, and the man on the horse had magically vanished. I cursed him slightly. I mean, seriously, would it have hurt him to add ‘and when you get to the road junction here's what you do next ...’?
Using nothing more than instinct we turned right and set off along the lane, which undulated in a series of gentle hummocks and which offered very little hint as to where we were headed. I know you may be wondering why I haven't mentioned maps and GPS and other such clever devices to avoid getting lost, but we had put our faith in the fact that we had a good set of guides, it was Herefordshire not outer Mongolia, and we were walking a on a well-marked long-distance path. We had taken a chance that it would be impossible to become lost, which is folly and should never be made as an assumption on any walk. The irritating thing is that we are experienced long distance walkers and we knew all this but still we ignored common sense. It was to cost us today.
After a quite a long time we came to a little lane that darted off to our right, with a sign that told us it led to Cleddon. We recognised that name - it was back on-route. Irritated at the time and distance this diversion had cost us we turned down the lane and walked past several very pleasant properties and into the tiny hamlet of Cleddon where it began to lash down with rain again. The guide book enthused greatly about the section of the walk we had just missed, talking about three fine viewpoints (an irony since we had seen almost nothing but trees all day) and a small but picturesque waterfall. Sadly we will never enjoy these treats now so, if you do this walk and manage to stay on route please let us know how pretty this lost section is.

Guide Notes: Cleddon Falls.
This has been a local beauty spot for many years and public paths connect it to the village of Llandogo below, perched on the western slope of the Wye Valley. It was near here in 1798 that Wordsworth wrote his Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. The land is privately owned, but permissive access is allowed to the picturesque Victorian paths which zigzag their way down the slope so visitors can admire the torrents falling over rocky ledges, particularly in winter and after heavy rain. The top of the falls can be viewed from a rather precarious path leading off the main track. Take care!

From here at least the Wye Valley walk was easy to pick up once more and we set off along an old railway track, its wide expanse bedecked with ferns and wild flowers. As the day waned the weather did its best to improve and after the soaking in Cleddon the rain ceased altogether, with a wan sunlight pouring through ragged breaks in the clouds. At the end of this broad track we were, finally, offered the chance of a fine view as a clearing opened to our right and we saw that a bench was perched on a high vantage point looking down along the Wye Valley. The day had become still and the wine-yellow sunlight filtered down onto the steeply wooded hillside of the valley below us. Colours were diffuse and dreamlike, painted in soft watercolours, and the gentle hills of the valley rolled away to the south, each one becoming more hazy and indistinct - seen through the fog of moisture which still hung in the air. Somewhere down in the floor of this green gorge the river Wye glided along, but it was lost to us from this height. Only the gorge itself, carved by the river over its age-long existence, provided any hint of its location. It was simply stunning and we spent a while taking it all in, regretting slightly the other viewpoints we had missed.
It was time to get moving again and we left the green track behind us, descending down steep metalled lanes through the village of Pen-y-Fan, assured by a passing farmer that Whitebrook was now very close indeed. That was something I was glad to hear. It had been a long day of many gradients and my knee was beginning to seize up, a hazard I have had to live with for several years. I didn’t think it had much more mileage in it and I was weary and a little footsore, looking forward to sitting in a warm car a with a cold beer waiting for me at Brock cottage.

Guide Notes: The village of Pen-y-Fan.
The community of Pen-y-fan, where each cottage has its couple of acres of land, is typical of many of the settlements along the Lower Wye Valley. Today many of the cottages show signs of considerable extension and improvement, but previously the small ‘crofts’ had just enough land to enable a family to be reasonably self-sufficient, with a house milk cow and a couple of fattening pigs, poultry and possibly some sheep. Most of the menfolk would have worked in the adjoining forest as woodcutters or as ‘wood colliers’ or charcoal burners, as agricultural labourers and even as ‘packmen’, carrying large loads from the riverbank up the narrow paths to the settlements on the rim of the valley.

We reached the gated entrance to a large whitewashed property where a sign-post directed us to the right and down a sharp and twisted little cutting between tall undergrowth. The rocks on this track were still slippery and wet and every so often a flight of crude wooden steps had been cut into the track. I have never liked these kinds of step and I have complained about them before in other journals. None of them seemed designed for a normal human leg-length and with a gammy knee I was proceeding down the track at a snail’s pace, right leg stiff and inflexible, like Herr Flick. At last we reached the bottom which dumped us out onto a small metalled lane and the beginning of our final folly which I have dubbed ...

... The Triple D or the Duo of Dumb Decisions ...

There was a finger post at the bottom of the twisty track that indicated the direction of the Wye Valley Walk. I set off in that direction, convinced that this was also where Whitebrook, and our car, waited. Colin said nothing but followed along and so we rounded a corner to pass in front of Tump Farm, with its strong smell of cow manure and the threatening rumblings of a bull which sounded both very close and very large. There was a regular wooden thumping noise which sounded as if the beast was trying to kick itself free of whatever container it had been placed in. We were glad to put the place behind us. Just beyond the farm was a field that sloped viciously away to our right, up to lofty, unseen pastures. It was a monster of a slope, covered in rugged grass.
“Bloody hell,” exclaimed Colin craning his neck, “I wouldn't want to climb that the way I'm feeling”
Prophetic words.
For quite a long time (and distance) we marched along and only when it became obvious that we were heading back out into unpopulated greenbelt did we stop and consider our position. It was obvious that Whitebrook did not lie in this direction. Colin managed to get a signal for his mobile phone and opened up a map utility. He nodded as if confirming his suspicions and gave me the bad news. We should have turned left at the finger post at the bottom of the
WyeValley Day1 Pic 6

Walking into Cleddon

track instead of right and now we had a whole lot of backtracking to complete before the walk was done. He had thought as much when we set off along the road but I had seemed so confident that he deferred to my better judgement. If he had punched me in the throat at this moment I wouldn't have blamed him. It was Dumb Decision #1.
It was now very late in the day and it was highly likely that we would reach the car in darkness and of course nether of us had bothered to pack a head torch – another schoolboy error. I was considering Tump Farm and its scary bull and how I wasn't looking forward to walking past him again in the gathering twilight when Colin stopped and pointed to his left.
There was another finger post pointing up along a narrow overgrown path that took us off the road and up into the high pastures. It said 'Whitebrook 1 ¼'. I was dubious about taking an untried track, given that at least the road would lead us back to the car with no further drama, but Colin had already started up the track and so I ignored my misgivings and set off after him which proved, ultimately, to be Dumb Decision #2.
The track climbed steadily, and then we entered a long grassy field which also continued relentlessly uphill. By the time it levelled out my knee was throbbing and my legs were jelly. We were now high above the road and Tump Farm, and had in effect climbed the monster slope that Colin had commented on not so long before, when the world was nice and flat and the end had seemed so near. We filed along the field and then down a scrubby sort of wild meadow. The ground fell sharply away before us, tumbling down to a thick hedgerow and any sign of the track we had been on, or further signposts, were nowhere to be seen. Colin began edging down the slope and I made my way down after him, wincing with the effort and resigned to the awful fact that we would probably have to climb back up this horrible gradient in a short while. Sure enough at the base of the incline our progress was halted by the hedgerow and (worse) a barbed wire fence. It was hugely frustrating because we could just make out the lane that led to Whitebrook beyond the hedge, but there was the sound of a running brook in the gloom of the thicket so with this and the barbed wire our way was blocked. Colin muttered darkly and began hacking his way along the hedge looking for a break, or a gate, or better yet another sign post. With resignation I turned and began to inch back up the steep grassy flank of the hill, asking my knees and legs to do things which they no longer wanted to participate in. It took a long while to gain the top and two thirds of the way up I was forced to take a break, lying prone and for the first time I can ever recall, feeling sick with exertion. Colin passed me wordlessly, his face crumpled and unhappy.
“What larks we're having” he might have thrown me as he laboured by. But he didn't.
Back on high ground once more we both made decisions – I set off to find the track back down to the road, not checking to see if I was being followed, and Colin set off further up the field to find a sign post or another way down. Effectively we became separated which is another thing you shouldn’t do on a walk. It was as if we had set out to break as many rules of hiking as possible in one day and, therefore, was Dumb Decision #3.
I slowly retraced my footsteps remembering, as best I could, how we had got up here, I would cross the rugged ground, head back along the grassy field with its far side dropping down to the open gate and from there to the little track leading down to the road. Unfortunately the open gate wasn't where it should have been and instead I found myself staring at a locked five bar gate and an electric fence. Somehow I must have gone astray so I turned about and eddied around in a wide circle to the very same corner and the same locked gate. I did this pointless manoeuvre three times before I had to accept that I was lost, on top of being lost. I couldn’t understand it; there were only two fields up on this high ground and I was in one of them. The other was a tussocky paddock dotted with cow pats and I knew for sure we had never entered that one. So where the sodding hell had the open gate gone? It was as if the electric fence had magically sprouted whilst we were busy killing ourselves on the horrible grassy slope.
I took stock of the situation. I was alone, it was getting dark, and I was either too tired or too stupid to work out how to get back down to the road. In my head I heard the voice of Ben Grimm, a.ka. The Thing from The Fantastic Four, growling 'Whadda revoltin' predicament THIS has turned out ta be!”
I had to devise a cunning plan. I could see two buildings from where I stood. Tump Farm, down below me in the valley and a white cottage perched atop yet a further sloping pasture away to my left. I discounted visiting Tump Farm with its cow shit and its
WyeValley Day1 Pic 7

A view of the Wye Valley

moody bull which left me with the white cottage. Though I quailed at the prospect I knew I had to climb one last hillside and reach the cottage. I set off on rubbery legs with a knee that sang brightly at every step until at last I reached the stone wall bordering the cottage. I climbed the wall, pulling a pectoral muscle painfully in the process, and crawled onto the gravel of the cottage's front drive. With the way the evening was progressing I half expected to be savaged by a Doberman or given the coup de grace with a baseball bat by the owner of the cottage, but neither scenario developed as the cottage was empty – the owners were out for the evening. I hurried across the drive, boots crunching alarmingly in the still and gloomy air and then turned right down a lane. As far as I was concerned right was good and down was better - they both would lead to Whitebrook. Soon a familiar building hove into view and I reached the gated entrance to a large whitewashed property where a sign-post directed me to the right and down a sharp and twisted little cutting between tall undergrowth. It was my old friend the track with the wooden steps, and as a fitting finale to the days walking I was going to climb down it again. The track was very dark now, shrouded by dense thicket, and if my progress had been slow before it was a crawl the second time around. My phone leapt into life halfway down. It was Colin; his own adventure had concluded well and he had managed to find the hidden track that led down to Whitebrook. I told him where I was and by the time I had limped onto the road towards Whitebrook his car rounded the corner and the long days walking was done.
“Awright?” He said as I opened the door, as if he'd just picked me up at a bus stop.
“Awright mate.” I replied in much the same vein.

A late return to Chepstow ...

We made our way back to Chepstow, and the destination car, which we had parked so many hours before when the day was young. It was full dark now, but the burger van was still open for business and I ordered ice cold water but was given cold lemonade instead, because that’s all they had left in stock. It didn’t matter, it tasted like nectar. I then sat on the tailgate of my car and stripped off my boots and socks to reveal feet that looked vaguely like dead cod and seemed to have their own pale luminosity in the darkness. I noticed how this amused the two young ladies in the adjacent car but, in my state of worn out fatigue, being regarded as the un-sexiest man on the planet was not much of a concern to me and I slipped into my battered but oh-so-comfortable deck shoes with studied dignity.
We later worked out that our diversions and unplanned excursions had added around six miles in total, turning a strenuous 12 mile walk into a challenging 18 mile hike. We had ably demonstrated how ill-equipped we had been for the day and any aches and pains we now felt were entirely of our own doing, which we accepted with good grace: It would be a lesson learned.
We arrived back at Brock Cottage at nine-thirty, some three hours later than scheduled, and I managed a few slices of pizza, a solitary beer, and a shower, before hitting the sack and sinking effortlessly into a deep sleep.

For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here

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The Millennium Way - Day Six

The Millennium Way
By Mark Walford
Day Six

Route:Packwood House to Morton Bagot
Date: Sunday August 16th 2015
Distance: 11.5m (18.5km)
Elevation: 249ft (76m) to 499ft (152m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 902ft (275m) and 1014ft (309m)

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One Christmas, One Easter, and one summer holiday later ….

Almost a year since the last chapter of this walk and I found myself standing before Packwood House under a bright morning sun and wondering just where the time had gone. There was the hiatus for Winter of course, and then in Spring I decided to dig a big hole in the garden and fill it with water, and then there were a few family things to attend and a few commitments to fulfill, oh yes and a holiday in Devon, and a sizeable slice of laziness.
And now here I was in mid August 2015, with early summer just a memory and Autumn shuffling its feet in the wings and I hadn't progressed one single mile along the Millennium Way. I had started to feel genuinely guilty that I hadn't acted on my intention to finish the walk by the end of the year (although technically I hadn't stated which year) and therefore made a determined effort to set aside a Sunday to kick-start the final stages. I finally managed to shoe-horn a day in between holidays and visits and those really-important-household-maintenance-tasks-that-I-still-hadn't-got-around-to and now here I was, over-rested and under-prepared and ready to set off for stage six.

A big house, a small church, and a silent car ...

I had been deposited before the wrought iron gates of Packwood House and the place looked very fine indeed in the morning sun, its ancient brickwork glowing orange and russet and its uneven roofs framed against a cloudless blue. At this early hour there were few people about, just a couple of National trust volunteers who wished me a good morning and then engaged in battle with a gazebo they needed to erect in the car park. I walked up and down in front of the main house, filming it from various angles, and taking in the vibrant green lawns that were laid before it, still sparkly with dew. I had toured the house once, years ago, and in contrast to its sunny façade, the interior is a domain of shadows and quietude. Here's what the National trust have to say about the place …
"The culmination of a lifetime of dreams: salvaged objects and exotic pieces come together in a Jacobean meets Edwardian style. Beautiful, homely, warm and welcoming. We can't put it better than a visitor in the 1920s did: A house to dream of, a garden to dream in. The house was originally built in the 16th century, yet its interiors were extensively restored between the First and Second World Wars by Graham Baron Ash to create a fascinating 20th-century evocation of domestic Tudor architecture. Packwood House contains a fine collection of 16th-century textiles and furniture, and the gardens have renowned herbaceous borders and a famous collection of yews."
… there's much history to the house concerning its rivalry with nearby Baddesley Clinton and the game of one-upmanship the respective families played. A game where the rules were dictated by adherence to faith, and the winners and losers decided by the monarchy. The owners of Packwood House won in the end, being Protestant and in favour, unlike the Catholic owners of Baddesley Clinton.
It was a fascinating story but was doing nothing to get me moving along the Millennium Way and so I shouldered my rucksack, gave Packwood House a final backward glance and set off along the lane.
MillWay Day6 Pic 1

St. Giles church, Packwood

I had barely made ten yards before I broke my walking pole. I extended it too far, noticing belatedly that there was a STOP line engraved on its shaft, and the entire bottom section detached itself. It didn't look like it wanted to fit back in very easily so I forced the two sections together with a certain amount of swearing, which seemed to work until I put some weight on it and heard a sharp snap. It sounded terminal and on inspection the pole proved to be a goner. This was the second pole I had lost on this route – an annoyance, though not as emotionally painful as losing the first one, which had been with me for many miles - and I was forced to hide its remains in a roadside ditch. I'm now responsible for three walking poles that are quietly degrading in the English countryside. The first lies under brambles somewhere in Meriden Shaft woods, the second is propped against a wall in a field in Northamptonshire, and now this third one, buried alongside a lane in Packwood.
Its becoming an unwelcome theme.
Leaving Packwood House I crossed a couple of small fields and entered the grounds of St. Giles church. I took particular notice of the name as I was married in another St. Giles church in my parish back in Birmingham. At 800 years of age, both churches are of roughly the same vintage. St. Giles (c. 650 – c. 710) was a Greek Christian hermit saint from Athens, based in Provence and Septimania. His tomb in the abbey Giles in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, became a place of pilgrimage and a stop on the road that led from Arles to Santiago de Compostela. He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and must have been a very busy chap in that respect as he is now patron to beggars; blacksmiths; breast cancer; breast feeding; cancer patients; disabled people; Edinburgh (Scotland); epilepsy; noctiphobics; forests; hermits; horses; lepers; mental illness; outcasts; poor people; rams; spur makers; and sterility.
Something for everyone there.
I was taking pictures of the church and its grounds as a small congregation left the church after morning worship. They were a friendly crowd, with many a 'good-morning' offered me as they passed me by. One of them asked me if I'd walked far.
"Not yet" I replied feelingly, thinking of all the miles ahead of me and mentally contrasting my current freshness and vitality with how I would feel by journeys end. I left the church grounds by walking along its secluded little driveway and was lost in thought when a polite 'excuse me' made me turn about. A couple in an electric car had ghosted up behind me and I hadn't even heard the crunching of its wheels on the gravel. I stepped aside as the car glided past, just the faintest whisper of its motor now audible. I had noticed, for the very first time, electric re-charging posts at a motorway services on my way home from Devon, and wondered how common a site they might become over the next decade or two. I'm pretty sure that they will have to give electric vehicles some sort of artificial engine noise (or tone, or something) otherwise mowing somebody down will become as stealthy and effective as a ninja assassination.

In the Lapworth of luxury ...

After leaving the church grounds Packwood merged seamlessly into the village of Hockley Heath, and I followed a straggly line of cottages into the village centre and then along its high street. There, a business advertised itself as a 'cleaner of fine clothes' and I amused myself by imagining the proprietor throwing out potential customers on the basis that their coat/dress/suit wasn't fine enough.
“Go to the next village – they have a Sketchleys”.
Reaching the Wharf Inn I escaped the village via its beer garden and found myself on the tow-path of the Stratford-upon-Avon canal, an understated little waterway that was completed too late in the day and failed commercially as the railways quickly usurped its customers. Thanks to dedicated volunteers the canal escaped being filled in and now thrives as a haven for narrowboat enthusiasts, cyclists, and on this occasion a long distance walker. I paused on its embankment, consulting my notes, and I was addressed by a tweedy woman of a certain age with a small dog in tow who wanted to know if I needed help. It was very kind of her but I was fairly confident of the way ahead and I said as much. However she seemed determined to assist me whether I needed it our not and she demanded to know my ultimate destination. When I declared it was Henley-in-Arden she pointed in the direction I was already headed and assured me that this was the right way to proceed. Actually, from this location, I could have reached Henley from practically every point on the compass but I thanked her nonetheless and she nodded curtly before bustling away. Bless her, she was extremely helpful in her no-nonsense Enid Blyton sort of way and I was all the better for meeting her. I love canals – they have a timelessness and a sense of peace that I find very therapeutic – and I walked along happily enough, seeing the odd duck or rolling fish break the surface of the still brown water. Eventually I came to moorings where a variety of craft were tethered to the embankment with the usual assortment of whimsical names: Classy Lassie, Montana, Sea Jay. Their occupants moved around audibly and were occasional shadows flitting past portholes.
All too soon I had to leave the green sanctuary of the canal, crossing a bouncy drawbridge and engaging a number of grassy meadows until the sharp spire of St. Mary the Virgin's church poked up above the rise of a green hill and my first testing climb left me at it's Lychgate, breathless and unimpressed with my fitness. This was the village of Lapworth which I saw very little of as the Millennium Way merely grazed its edge. I walked down a lane alongside the church cemetery, bordered by an old brick wall topped with ancient headstones. The old wall was about six feet tall which, I realised, meant that the owners of the gravestones rested at road level with traffic rumbling by, doing its best to wake the dead.
My brief visit to Lapworth ended as I turned down the driveway of a large estate. The driveway was broad and level and was made from block paving. It ran for a considerable distance and must have cost a fortune to lay. On either side there were neatly mown pastures and large greenhouses. Through a gap to my right I noticed a brightly painted gypsy caravan and further on a restored windmill which was now somebody’s des-res. This area is either Lapworth Grange or Green Acres and has properties with an average value approaching a million pounds. I probably couldn't even afford a raised vegetable bed here, but it was most pleasant to walk through.
The sound of shotgun's cracked and echoed as I progressed, along with the unmistakable surf-like roar of a motorway. Luckily for me I met the motorway first, the M40 to be exact, and I crossed over the rushing traffic and ascended a steep flight of wooden steps to find myself amidst sheep grazing the grass of a large pasture, exhibiting no concern whatsoever for the gunfire, the motorway noise, or my sudden appearance.

Bothered by Bullocks ...

After the sheep came a scrubby little field of knee high thistles and the horrible clumpy grass that threatens to turn an ankle every other step. I escaped the field with lower legs smarting from the thistle bites and reached a tiny ribbon of a lane with a shallow brook running alongside. A group of ducks waddled indignantly away from me as I emerged from the shrubbery to consult my guide sheet. I had slavishly copied these from the excellent Millennium Way website, tailoring the sections to suit my target of around 12 miles per day. The sheet now warned me of changes to the original route and that I should follow the new instructions detailed in italics. The problem was, I hadn't italicised the changes so was now unsure if I was about to run into a newly created barrier or an irate land owner. For a short period at least this wasn’t an issue as I crossed a few wild fields and then a narrow ribbon of lane. I probably crossed one field to many and completely overshot a particular hedge that the guidebook informed had 'the most delicious blackberries in August' which was a huge disappointment. I was deposited onto the metalled lane in a quiet dell, which gave me the
MillWay Day6 Pic 2

The Stratford-upon-Avon Canal

opportunity to film a walk-to-camera piece of filming but took me no closer to the fabled blackberries. Soon though the way ahead became more uncertain and I emerged through a hedge into a steep field which I couldn't be absolutely certain was on-route. I edged past a large white cottage in the corner of a field, noticing that all of its boundary fences were new which had probably necessitated changes to public access. However I wasn't challenged and I climbed the field to emerge at a crossroads which took me onto Irelands Lane and a nice mile or so of road walking, sheltered from the warm sun by the dappled shade of trees either side. The lane performed a series of long switchbacks which were by no means challenging but still enough to gently test my stamina. I arrived, panting slightly, at the drive to Irelands Farm which I was instructed to follow before cutting across a few of the farmers fields. All went well at first as the fields were full of ripened wheat and the views were lovely. However I then met a posse of juvenile cows occupying a field I was required to cross. They were either heifers or bullocks (I didn't look too closely) and being youngsters they were full of beans. They spied me at the gate and then jostled each other excitedly as they rushed towards this strange new object that had appeared on their doorstep. Soon the whole herd of them were clustered at the stile, peering at me intently and skittering about when I made a slight move.
“Go away!” I demanded, which met with twenty blank looks that reminded me of my Greyhound at his most gormless. It was hopeless.
I have a policy to avoid unnecessary confrontation with the bovine species and clambering over the stile into that crowd seemed a bit foolhardy. Young they might have been, and harmless I'm sure, but they were still big enough and clumsy enough to do accidental damage. I checked my GPS map and found that Ireland Farm boasted two driveways, the second of which was just a short backtrack away, and which led to a lane, then a bridleway, and thence back to my route.
“Sorry but bye-bye” I said to my disappointed playmates as I turned away.

Falling apart at the seam ...

The farm drive ended at a metalled lane which, using my infallible sense of direction, required me to turn left. It wasn't long before I became unsure of my choice as the 'lane' narrowed between tall hedges and started to resemble the private drive to a house. With predictable timing a car rolled up behind me, the gentleman in the car giving me a searching look as he went by. I continued around a bend to be presented with a very fine house surrounded by flowery gardens. The drive I was on swept past this property and disappeared around a corner suggesting that it led to a road and that I was heading in the right direction after all. I continued past the house, with a strong feeling that I was being watched, and around the corner. The drive ended at a compost heap guarded by well-stocked greenhouses. Nearby were some raised beds with carefully netted vegetables growing in neat rows. There was no doubt at all now – I was trespassing, and I had to turn about and slink past the front of the house again. This time I know I was being watched because a man (probably the one who drove past me) stood at a window and I felt his eyes on me. I was grateful to get around the next bend and leave the house behind me out of sight. A quick check on the map told me that I needed to turn right then left before picking up the bridleway.
Simple when you know how.
Back on route at a tiny hamlet called Buckley Green I encountered two women walkers, the first fellow hikers I has seen all day and they cheerfully informed me that there was a good climb just ahead. Sure enough I approached a meadow which sloped upwards for around 100 meters at its further side. There were curious blemishes stretching across this slope, resembling large molehills but arranged in neat rows. Intrigued by these grassy lumps I clambered over the stile into the meadow and heard a sharp rrriip followed by a sudden and cooling gust of a breeze in a region that shouldn’t be receiving it. My trousers had ripped apart just below the zipper. I couldn’t believe it, first my walking pole and now my favourite pair of walking strides;
MillWay Day6 Pic 3

Wheatfields at Irelands Farm

this was becoming an expensive journey. I examined the damage; the rent was quite large and presented a nice view of my boxer shorts and their contents to any one who might notice – and it was worryingly noticeable. I would have to be mindful of this when I walked into Henley-in-Arden as it struck me as an ultra-conservative sort of a place, where they may have only just allowed gentlemen to slacken their ties a little on hot days.
Feeling slightly grumpy (but refreshingly ventilated) I ascended the slope, discovering that the mounds were in fact old tree stumps, evidence of a previous plantation long since cleared. I rested briefly at the top of the rise and then struck off along a snaggly little track between avenues of rowan and birch. It was at times enclosed and claustrophobic and I was glad to break out into more open land. I was surprised to find myself on familiar ground, striding along the top of a ridge that fell away to my right down to where the outlying rooftops of Henley-in-Arden could be seen. I had made more mileage than I thought and lifting my gaze westwards I could see the low mound on which sat Bannams Wood, and the end of my days walking. It was still some distance away, a good hours walking in fact, but I knew exactly where I was now and no longer needed the guide sheet. From where I stood until the far side of Bannams Wood the Millennium Way shared the same pathways as the Heart Of England Way, a long distance path I had completed two years previously with my brother.
A convenient bench appeared before me and I decided that it was time for a lunch break. The bench was set at a peculiar height so that I sat with my feet dangling several inches above the ground, like a toddler in his dads armchair. I have long legs so quite who the bench was designed for is anyone’s guess. It also occurred to me as I sat munching crisps that anyone who approached the bench from the path below would be rewarded with a money shot of my torn trousers and the secrets within. I could hear people ascending towards me and so they found me reclining across the bench as if it were an Ottoman, lolling indolently, hiding any potential peep-show, with a large Cornish pasty on the go.

(nearly) A Field Of Dreams ...

After lunch I set off across the ridge once more, passing by the indistinct grassy hummocks that were all that was left of a once mighty motte and bailey castle. It was an up and down trail and I noticed that on the downward sections my toes were becoming very tender when they were pushed up against the front of my boots. This was to get worse as the day progressed and is puzzling since I have never had this trouble with these boots before. Then again, they are four years old now so I probably need to change them. Calculating the cost of a new walking pole, new walking trousers, and new walking boots, I descended into Henley-in-Arden with a furrowed brow. The route took me along Beaudesert Lane, a short little road that boasted large and ancient churches at both ends. The churches of St. Nicholas and St. John The Baptist belonged, historically, to different parishes despite their close proximity, being amalgamated comparatively recently. It seemed incongruous to have two such elaborate places of worship sitting cheek by jowel – I wondered if a pair of church organs going full blast and the singing of two different hymns at the same time clashed horribly on Sunday mornings.
Henley-in-Arden, as I have mentioned before, is known for two things: Ice cream and private lunatic asylums. Thankfully the latter no longer exists, being a product of Victorian mental health care. I had intended to sample some of the former but I had a large hole in my pants so I didn't dawdle. Passing through this town during the Heart Of England Way we found that the place was full of students spilling out of the local secondary school. Today it was much quieter, being a Sunday and in the midst of the long summer recess. A few sight-seers walked up and down the comely high street with its hotch-potch of old buildings searching in vain for a place to buy an ice-cream (they all seemed to be shut). I waved my cam-corder at the shops for a while and then ducked into a little side alley that led to a path climbing up between houses and old brick walls until I reached Henley railway station. This was as deserted as the high street and in many respects Henley-in-Arden seemed to have been folded up and packed into a box for the weekend. Maybe one day I'll get that ice-cream.
Soon I was descending grassy pastures and narrow tracks between hedges as I left Henley behind, crossing a small brook and heading out into rural fields once more. Quite a few rural fields as I recalled, before the final climb up to Bannams Wood. I reached a point where, on my last walk here with my brother, we had been befriended by a small brown mongrel who had latched onto us with, quite literally, dogged determination and despite our efforts seemed destined to follow us all the way to the finish. To our relief she reached the limits of her territory as we climbed a stile through an arch in a tall hedge and watched us as we dwindled into the distance. The arched hedge was still in place, and I climbed it with creaking knees and protesting calf muscles. I had completed over ten miles by now and because of my long lay-off was reaching the limits of comfortable walking. This was a shame really as I knew that I now had to traipse across several large fields with the Bannam Wood hill growing imperceptibly larger as I trudged. The convenient kissing gates so prevalent at the start of the walk had disappeared and at the end of each field was a rickety old stile to negotiate, and each one I clambered over brought more protests from my legs.
By the time I reached the foot of the long sloping field to Bannams Wood I was, frankly, knackered. This year, ochre corn swayed and hissed in the field, a peaceful sound like a barely audible ocean. How nice it would be, I decided, to take a little lie down before tackling the climb; just a bit of a stretch-out to watch the white clouds floating overhead, listening to the soporific drone of insects.
I woke with a start, feeling the familiar lethargy permeating my limbs. I'd only napped for perhaps a minute but it could easily have become an hour, which I couldn't afford to burn. Nor could I afford the risk of being swept into the innards of some passing farm machine - it was time to move on. Scrambling to my feet
MillWay Day6 Pic 4

Looking back eastwards from the edge of Bannams Wood

I hiked up to the top of the hill and turned to admire the long eastward view back across all the fields I had traversed, where Henly-in-Arden's church towers were just visible in the distance and where, far far beyond them, somewhere in Northamptonshire, lay Middleton Cheney where I had started this walk over a year before.
I turned to the line of ancient oaks that formed the eastern edge of Bannams Wood and entered under their eaves via a creaky iron gate. The first part of my passage through the woods was via a small badger track, hemmed in aggressively by brambles and nettles and much more overgrown then on my previous visit – which had been in early spring at a time when green things are only just waking up. I nearly lost my cap a couple of times as I stooped beneath branches and I felt my trouser cuffs snatched at by thorns. I remembered that somewhere over to my left the woods ended at a nice viewpoint across the countryside and a bench had been set at this lofty vantage point. The bench had a rather poignant little message dedicated to to memory of a woman who obviously loved this place, and I had intended to revisit the spot to make a note of the words. However, due to Mother Nature's enthusiastic efforts the bench was obscured behind thickets and shrubbery. I'm sure it was still there, somewhere, but it was late in the day and I wasn’t enthusiastic about hacking through the vegetation to pay the seat a visit. Instead I continued along the path, which now widened out and pushed the invasive plant life away. The trees here were smaller and sparser, revealing the cool green depths of the woodland for quite a distance. As before, the woods were devoid of people and I walked alone in a pregnant silence broken only by the mad cackling of a Jay. It was both peaceful and on some level a little spooky, being up there on that hill surrounded by ancient forest (officially designated as such, which means that Bannams Wood has stood continuously since at least the sixteenth century). The canopy overhead shut out most of the sky so it was cool and gloomy, and birdsong was muted (Jays notwithstanding). It was the sort of expectant hush that made the snapping of a twig underfoot seem disproportionately loud. Eventually the track met a larger forestry road which took me downhill and out the other side of Bannams wood via a wooden gate. From here it was a small section of road-walking before I reached my car where I gratefully sat down, boots removed, and sank a bottle of Lucozade Sport which a couple of wasps tried to commandeer and which for them turned out to be a fatal move (I learned later that a couple of wasps had stung my Greyhound Frankie on the rear earlier in the day, so my lethal swatting strategy proved to be just revenge).
I contemplated the remaining two sections of the Millennium Way, the next one was going to be another Walk Of Many Fields which I sometimes find a little wearing but nonetheless had to be done. The reward was the final day, a longish fifteen miles which concluded with a stretch of the River Severn, leading me into Pershore and its beautiful abbey.
Only another 28 miles to go.

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