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
WyeValley Day2 Pic 3

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,
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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,
WyeValley Day2 Pic 6

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!

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