The Wye Valley Walk - Day Six

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day Six

Route:Bishopstone to Priory Wood
Date: Tuesday August 30th 2016
Distance: 12.24m (19.7km)
Elevation: 187ft (57m) to 991ft (302m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 1,604ft (489m) and 1,368ft (417m)

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A lovely start to the day …. eventually ...

Bright sun, a warm breeze, azure sky; we woke to the fact that the promised fine day was in fact a reality and maybe – just maybe – we would have out first rain-free day on the Wye Valley Walk. We started out a little later than planned, Colin pulling on walking clothes still damp from the previous evenings soaking which must have been an unpleasant experience, rather like pulling on old underpants after a nice cleansing shower. Our tardiness was not improved by my satnav which decided we wanted to drive to a Bishopstone 200 miles away rather than the one a mere 14 miles distant. It took us a while to spot this technical hitch and we had to double back through Hereford with all its early morning traffic and its road works. By the time we shouldered our rucksacks at Bishopstone and set off it was almost lunchtime. This in itself didn’t present much of a problem as sundown wasn’t going to happen until around 8:30 p.m. but all the same we couldn’t afford too many wrong turns or pit stops along the way or we would be arriving at the tiny hamlet of Priory Woods after dark. Our minds went back to the very first day of the route, and our wanderings around high pastures near Whitebrook, and how evening had well and truly fallen before we completed that section. We didn’t plan on a repetition. Even with this in mind we couldn’t help but stop just outside of the village and admire the low rolling hills that surrounded us; it really is lovely countryside on the Welsh borders.

The Orchard Maze ...

Leaving Bishopstone behind us we strode along a quiet road that the guidebook told us was an old Roman route and sampled early season blackberries that grew in abundance in the tall hedgerows. It was at this point that I noticed my walking shorts had a small tear in the right hand, they were an old and trusty pair of shorts but the fabric was worn tissue-thin and had begun to fray apart.
WyeValley Day6 Pic 1

310 acres of cider orchard.

I didn’t think it would present a problem so long as it got no worse. The fetching views on our left continued as we walked along the road, crossed a busy A road onto a secluded bridleway and very quickly got bogged down. The heavy rain from the previous evening had filled up every rut and pothole with tan coloured water and many of these puddles were deep and stretched across the width of the track. It was slow going for a while, edging around these obstacles, because we really didn’t want to get our boots wet; we’d had quite enough of that yesterday. A little old lady was walking towards us, hopping nimbly between the deep puddles. We met across a particularly large stretch of flooding and as Colin and I hesitated, wondering how to negotiate it, she leapt to one side, up against the hedgerow and scampered past the puddle with surprising agility and speed.
‘I walk this track every single day,’ she said as she passed us, ‘I know every short cut!’
Eventually the bridle way widened and became a grassy path following the boundary of yet another cider apple orchard. A very large orchard indeed, according to the information sign set up by its owners Bulmers, of several hundred acres. We walked past endless rows of squat cider apple trees, many different varieties growing in carefully tended groups - as well planned and laid out as any new town development. It’s always a temptation to partake of a few apples in an orchard but we knew from (literally) bitter experience that cider apples are inedible so we teased ourselves instead with talk of frosted pint glasses full of sharp bubbly cider. Neither of us are cider drinkers really but when you spend time walking through a cider orchard you can’t help but thinking about the end product. There are thousands of acres of such orchards in Herefordshire but we wondered just how much acreage is required, across the UK, to make enough cider to supply the nation’s needs. It was all about economy of scale we supposed, and other such commercial dynamics we knew nothing about, but when you see such large orchards you certainly get an idea of the size of the industry. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn about halfway through and spent quite a while getting back on track since an orchard looks pretty much the same whichever direction you look: Some of our limited amount of contingency time eaten up already.

Tearing through Monnington ...

The route left the orchard finally and diverted left, taking us along a small track between a stream and a pond before emerging into the secluded grounds of St. Mary’s church, Monnington. It was a peaceful, secret little place, guarded by a wall of mature trees, ancient gravestones arranged in uneven rows about the building. It was a typical gothic style church, several centuries old, and like so many village churches had its own understated grandeur. Both Colin and I like parish churches and as we passed the vestibule I tried the solid oak doors on the off chance it might be open. Happily it was and so we spent a few minutes exploring inside. It was a plain and largely unadorned little church, unlike Ross-on-wye’s imposing place of worship, but I liked its simplicity and its cool whitewashed interior. There was the usual smell of an ancient church – part dust, part wood polish, part old stonework. A small church organ of Victorian vintage stood next to the stone font, and neat rows of plain simple pews pointed towards the raised alter. Above all there was that sense of peace which you only experience in churches of this age. I’m not religious and rarely attend churches except when they are full of friends and relatives for the usual hatches matches and dispatches, so I always take the chance to enjoy churches when they are empty and enjoy the atmosphere. Passing through the wooden lych gate at the rear of the grounds we found ourselves standing before the rather grand Monnington House, which was once a farm complex but is now an upmarket bed and breakfast hostelry. We stood at the start of a wide straight avenue, known as the Monnington Walk,
WyeValley Day6 Pic 2

The mile-long Monnington Walk.

a mile long stroll planted on either side with ancient yew and pine. As we set off along this avenue I noticed that the tear in my shorts had grown considerably and my upper thigh was being nicely ventilated with every step. We were the only walkers taking this lovely track and we enjoyed flat easy walking under the sunshine, admiring the old trees either side and trying to identify the oldest specimens of Yew that were part of the original plantation. Two centuries ago, a politician would celebrate his success by planting an avenue of beautiful trees, today they destroy trees to make the paper required to print their advertising blurb: Times change but not always for the better.
The hard surface of the path gave way to turf and we crossed a long grassy field to reach the end of the walk at a gate and then began a climb up into woodland. It was a steady ascent with the woodland closing about us until we reached a ridge where the river Wye could be seen 90 meters below us through breaks in the trees. One such break afforded us a good view of the river and the terrain beyond so we decided to break for lunch. My poor trousers were now ripped from belt to hem and something had to be done about it. Colin brought out a box of assorted safety pins and so I spent some time pinning the rip, Frankenstein style, until I closed the gap. I looked like the world’s first Punk Hiker and I doubted the repair would hold until the end of the day but it would have to do. We sat in the dappled sunshine, enjoying our lunch and gazing at the river far below us as it slithered like a silvery green snake across the floor of the valley. On its opposite bank a tractor was ploughing a large field. It was made toy-like by distance and the sound of its chugging engine floated up to us as it circled round and around the field, leaving a pattern of concentric circles in its wake; ploughed earth as art. Colin pointed at a wooded hill across the valley and told me that it was called Murbach Hill and that we would be climbing it later in the day. It didn’t look too bad from a distance but the guidebook did indicate quite a steep initial ascent - which was something to look forward to.

A quick pint and a slow climb ...

As pleasant as it was beneath the dappled boughs of the woods we didn’t stay too long, ever mindful of that late start, so we continued along the ridge which eventually fell away in a series of descents until we reached a main road, turning left to reach the fine stone bridge at Bredwardine. The bridge had little alcoves set into it to prevent pedestrians being squashed by passing traffic and we occupied one for a while, leaning on the parapet and watching people bathing in the Wye which, at this point was shallow and running fast over a stony bed. It made a change to see people paddling and splashing in the water rather than gliding along in flotillas of canoes and it made a happy scene for such a sunny day. We made our way down to the river bank, following it for a short way, before climbing into the grounds of Bredwardine church, emerging onto a road and the inviting sight of the Red Lion hotel. This was a passport station and it seemed a fine excuse to have a beer. Inside the rather cramped bar we collected our stamps, chatted briefly with the regulars, and then made our way to the beer garden at the back of the pub. It was a secluded garden, boundaried by outbuildings of black beams and whitewashed walls. We were the only two drinkers who had decided to sit in the sun so we chose a table and downed a pint of Butty Bach, a local beer from the Wye Valley Brewery. Colin read a little more about the route ahead, including Murbach Hill, and I swept the camcorder around the gardens, commenting on how great it was to be walking in such a lovely area in such good company. Early retirement is never far from my thoughts these days, and such moments only re-enforce my conviction that there are better ways of living a life than the 9-5 of an office.
We left our empty glasses in the bar and thanked a local who suggested a better way up to the top of the hill, preferring instead to try and stick to the official route. It occurred to me as we left the hotel that not one of the residents or staff had made any comment about my safety-pinned trousers, either through politeness or indifference. The ascent began immediately,
WyeValley Day6 Pic 3

A view from Murbach Hill.

following a metalled road that swept up before us in a 1-4 gradient. It wasn’t a long section, 800 yards or so, but long enough. Halfway up I found a grit bin left conveniently by the verge and used it as a seat, taking a breather and leaving Colin to continue plodding upwards. Breath restored I completed the climb, finding Colin leaning on a metal gate and admiring the scenery. It was yet another fine view and we lingered a while partly to recover from the climb and partly because it was a viewpoint that deserved some attention. Leaving the road we continued upwards, swapping metalled lanes for tussocky meadows, levelling out for a while in a high pasture full of noisy sheep. We meandered a little at this point as the guide book pointed us to a track that wasn’t where it said it should be, and had us looking for a sign that didn’t exist at all. We found our own way through the bleating sheep and emerged on a rough farm track with rising woodland on one side and a sharp drop-off on the other. We thought we had finished all the climbing but we were wrong, as the route took off us the track and up a gnarled forest trail and then onto another rough and rocky path that began to angle upwards on much the same gradient as the metalled lane. Once again I reached a point where a bit of a rest seemed to be sensible and I found a large flat rock to sit on, using the opportunity to pan the camera around the countryside below me, back to where the wooded hill where we had taken lunch poked up in the middle distance. Colin had plodded on out of sight before I set off again, labouring up the uneven track until it levelled out in a sort of clearing where old agricultural machinery quietly rusted and a supine Colin was staring peacefully up at the clouds floating high above him.
“That was a bastard,” he said, without moving.
He meant the track we had just climbed and I had to agree with him.

A common mistake ...

From here the ground was at least level and we crossed a few meadows before passing through a gate and into the scrubby grassland and gorse of Murbach Common. A large information board showed us all the resident wildlife we probably wouldn’t see, including the Great Crested Newt which, to me, sounds like something you should hurl at someone as an insult. The board was very useful and full of information but unfortunately the Wye Valley Walk guidebook wasn’t because at this point it was very unclear as to which way we should proceed. To make matters worse the useful signpost indicating which-track-went-where had been uprooted and was lying uselessly in the grass. The guidebook talked about three possible tracks ahead of us and that we should take the right hand one. Well, true enough, there were three tracks offered us – two were large grassy trails that struck off across the common to the left and straight ahead, the third was a much smaller track that struck right and disappeared into the woodland. We decided that this was the track we needed to take and we confidently strode off into the gloom of the woodland. At first all seemed well as the trail twisted and turned down between the trees, little wooden steps cut into the hill told us that at least this track was frequented by walkers. We plunged down sharply, the common lost to us, which was a bit worrying as the book told us we should be ambling along its gorse covered length, looking for newts. Then the trail gave up pretending to be a trail of any definition and became a muddy badger-track instead, forcing us through brambles and spiky shrubbery. We both knew this wasn’t right but we soldiered on as neither of us was prepared to contemplate the difficult climb back up again. Finally we reached a barbed wire fence bordering a field and therefore a dead end. It was dark and bleak under the tree canopy and we decided to follow the fence and find our way to a road, reasoning that at least a road would lead us somewhere to hopefully regain the walk. It was a bit of an obstacle course, under fallen trees, over fallen trees, crashing through thick undergrowth like a pair of Mountain Gorillas, until finally we reached a wide and well-trodden track that led
WyeValley Day6 Pic 4

Colin near Priory Woods.

to a metalled drive and finally after a long descent, a road. My trousers hadn’t fared well and the safety pins had opened up a whole new set of rents and tears. As Colin did a little recce ahead I attempted to re-pin all the rips, which was a futile activity but one which I made a good attempt at. I looked more like a bondage enthusiast rather than a Punk now, but they would hold again for a while.
Colin met me at the roadside; he had checked in both directions but there were no road signs to tell us exactly where we were or in which direction we should head. My Smartphone GPS app didn’t have the correct map tiles, Colin’s phone had died of exhaustion, and the guide book was temporarily useless. We applied common sense, reasoning that if we had followed the route along the crest of Murbach Hill we therefore needed to follow the road in the same direction, which we did for a mile or so until fields opened up on each side of us and it all started to feel a bit wrong. I suggested to Colin that we might be seriously lost now and we would still be marching up and down this road until night fell.
“Nah,” he said cheerily, “I’ve been lost loads of times and within the hour I’ve always sorted myself out and then wondered what all the fuss was about. You’ll see.”
I trusted this wisdom, as he has indeed been fantastically lost on many occasions – just read any of his postcode walks and you’ll see for yourself – and so we set off back the way we had come until a few cottages hove into view. A retired couple were sitting in their pretty roadside garden, enjoying the last few hours of sunshine, and Colin spied them. He leant over their stone wall and asked them if they knew how to find the Wye Valley walk and glory-be they did! We had been walking in the right direction along the road after all, just not far enough along. We set off, passing a pub, dipping down to cross a low stone bridge, and regaining the route at the wrought iron gates of some sort of estate.

Gathering shadows ...

This unplanned diversion had used up any remaining spare time we had, and now we realised we might be walking the last few miles in gathering dusk – we could afford no more mistakes. We left Murbach Hill behind us, feeling slightly regretful that we never got to enjoy the delights of its common, and crossed more fields until a metalled lane provided us with another long climb. Strangely enough, our screw-up on Murbach Hill seemed to energise us both and we took the ascent in our stride. Now we plunged down again, meeting the Wye once more, walking for a while beside its silently flowing waters, until we were swallowed up by more woodland. It was very gloomy indeed now under tree-cover, and we walked along in twilight, disconcerted by the continuous buzzing of millions of flies that seemed to sheltering under the canopy of the trees, or at least we assumed they were flies and not (far more problematical) swarms of bees. We were glad to break out into the open gain, but not enthused when the trail (which seemed to have developed a vindictive steak) took us away from the riverbank and sharp left up two hilly meadows. Not only was the track steep it was canted at an awkward angle that threatened to twist tired ankles. I was feeling a bit of fatigue and grumpiness by now and even the short but pleasant stretch of a disused railway, its verdant banks softened by the dying rays of the sun, did much to put a smile on my face. However, we knew that our end-point at Priory Woods was very close, and we might yet make it back to the car before the owls started to hoot.
As we marched up yet another metalled road on an incline we passed a farm which must have set Colin thinking. He turned to me.
“So do you think brexit will help our dairy farmers?” he enquired.
Flattered as I was that he saw me as any sort of expert on agricultural geopolitics I had to confess to not having a clue, which seemed answer enough for him.
We reached the hamlet of Priory Woods via a paddock, finding ourselves on a road which we guessed would lead us directly to the car since Priory Wood was so compact and was a one-road sort of place. There was one last twist to the day however as we misread the guidebook (which in hindsight could have been worded much more clearly anyway) and set off happily along the road in search of a building that ‘used to be a chapel’. If it was no longer a chapel then logic told us that it must now be something else and wouldn’t necessarily stand out from any other house in the village. We kept on along the road, looking at each building we passed, none of which seemed chapel-esque by design. Finally we ran out of buildings and started to experience the route-radar warnings that we were, once again, off route. It was perplexing and a bit irritating to be so close to the end of the days walking and yet unable to conclude it and wearily we trudged back into the village, noticing that there were in fact two roads that diverged at the long village green. The other road was our only option so we took it, passing more houses that had no hint of ever being a chapel until suddenly a wide grassy verge appeared on our left and we saw our car waiting patiently for us. We completed the walk almost by accident.
As we started to throw our gear into the boot I looked down at my shorts. It looked as if I had been mauled by a wildcat and no amount of safety pinning would ever stitch the ragged mess back together. I started unpinning myself, worried that sitting in a car with several sharp objects about to unpop might be risking puncture wounds. A young girl on a pushbike had appeared from somewhere and sat regarding us with frank curiosity – maybe they don’t see too many strangers in Priory Wood, especially ones with tattered shorts and rags tied to their heads. Colin noticed her too.
“Hello,” he offered.
“Hello,” she replied and then pedalled off furiously, possibly to warn her parents that ‘strange men’ were lurking about.
So that was day six concluded. At some point in the walk we had crossed from England into Wales and would now be heading ever further northwards. Next year’s walking would be a done via a series of B&B’s as we were now too far distant from Colin’s cottage to make it a viable base to start out from. If things went to plan, we would finish the route before the end of the year. And I would have a brand new pair of walking shorts.

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The Wye Valley Way - Day Five

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day Five

Route:Mordiford to Bishopstone
Date: Monday August 29th 2016
Distance: 13m (20.8km)
Elevation: 144ft (44m) to 360ft (110m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 705ft (215m) and 555ft (169m)

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Missing apparel and rakish accessories ...

Arriving back at the tiny village of Mordiford mid-morning we pulled into the empty car park at the Moon Inn and considered our misfortunes. I had travelled all the way from Birmingham with my waterproof coat stashed in my gear only to neglect to pack it into my rucksack. Colin, possibly via a distraction at a crucial moment, had managed a liner sock and walking sock on one foot but only a liner sock on the other. I doubted that Colin’s omission would cause him any problems other than a possible blister, but the lack of my waterproof was already giving me cause for concern as I studied the leaden skies overhead. The weather forecast had been talking about a benign day of sun and light cloud until the very eve of today’s walk, and then it suddenly changed its mind and spoke instead of sunny intervals and heavy belts of rain.
There was nothing to be done about it, and even as we completed our warm-up stretches and shouldered our backpacks the day’s first rain began to pitter-patter down on us. A builder pulled up alongside us and shrugged himself into a nice weather-proof walking jacket. Jokingly I offered to buy it from him - he declined (and he wasn’t joking).
Mordiford is not a large village and once we crossed the low stone bridge that spans the Wye at this point we had left it behind, framed fetchingly against its backdrop of steep and wooded hills. The first section of the walk would be repeated a few times during the morning; a raised green embankment, and shaggy horses cropping the grass contentedly. We followed this first green track, more or less parallel to the river, passing horses that ignored us completely or wandered off at our approach in a leisurely manner. We stopped briefly to re-tie Colin’s bandana, an item of head-wear
WyeValley Day5 Pic 1

The Wye at Mordiford.

I had taken to wearing during the summer and one which seemed perfect for walking. Colin, dubious at first, had come to see the advantages and I had gifted him one of my spares. There’s an art to tying a bandana correctly, a little convoluted but easily learned, so within minutes we were striding off again, heads swathed in cloth of black and deep blue. We looked either rakish, a bit ‘New Age’, or like a pair of washerwomen, depending on whose comments you align with from those who have offered me an opinion.
The rain stopped pestering us and blew away eastwards being replaced by plenty of blue sky and large floaty clouds. It was a very pleasant stretch of walking, particularly so since it was the start of the day and we were on fresh legs and rested bodies. One set of embankments and horses was replaced by another, and yet another, as we wound our way slowly in the direction of the city of Hereford. Colin pointed out a great swathe of Himalayan Balsam that had colonised a large area and had obliterated all other species. Non-native and aggressive it poses a threat to areas of the UK, killing off competitive native species and leaving behind a mono-culture that, although beloved by bees, has a negative effect on other wildlife. It’s a smiling assassin really, with pretty mauve flowers in abundance, and growing in great billowing clouds. I was educating my camcorder about all this when Colin laughed and pointed. ‘Somebody has actually taken the time to plait that horse’s tail’
He was right: A white horse stood in a field and swished a long tail that had been plaited as neatly as any schoolgirls. Perhaps plaiting horses tails is a recognised thing to do in equine circles, but it looked very odd to us.

Soaked and stampless in Hereford ...

Eventually the embankments and fields gave way to more the traditional field-and-hedgerow type of walking we were used to, affording us at one point a nice view of the river Wye sliding along gently to our left, sunshine glinting on its calm waters. I decided to capture a picture of this scene and had to persevere quite a bit in order to do so, fighting off an aggressive wasp and a malfunctioning camera in the process.
‘Hey bro this is great, us being out here together’ declared Colin as he gazed approvingly at a view ahead whilst I moodily tried to reset my camera with a safety pin.
The second bout of rain began as we entered the city of Hereford. The city is the parish capital of Herefordshire and has city status owing to the impressive 12th century cathedral whose tower dominates the city centre’s skyline. With a population of just 60,000 it’s not a large conurbation but is still the most populated place in the county, and possibly the largest of the whole Wye Valley Walk. Its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "here", an army or formation of soldiers, and the "ford", a place for crossing a river. If this is the origin it suggests that Hereford was a place where a body of armed men forded or crossed the Wye. It relies chiefly on agriculture for its commerce although it also produces cider, beer, leather goods, nickel alloys, poultry, chemicals, and cattle, including the famous Hereford breed. Like many such places along the English-Welsh border it has been the subject of much strife in ages past, being owned by one country or the other since its founding in the 7th century but is now within the jurisdiction of England and is situated just 16 miles from the Welsh border.
We walked first along a suburban road passing expensive looking houses and nursing homes. One business premises bore our surname – The Charlotte Walford Centre – and once
WyeValley Day5 Pic 2

Embankments near Mordiford.

again we were reminded that the origins of our name were to be found here on the Welsh borders; Walford translating as ‘dweller by a Welsh ford’. There were villages, businesses, and roads that bore our family name from Shropshire to the mouth of the Severn – small wonder that Colin had felt so at home when he relocated here.
We threaded our way through Hereford’s suburbs under a light drizzle which only became more insistent once we regained the river and followed it upstream to cross at a delicate suspension bridge of Victorian vintage; all wrought iron embellishments and white paintwork. The bridge led us into the King George V Memorial Park, where a wide avenue of mature beeches offered some shelter under their canopies as the rain got into its stride. We waited patiently as the weather front made slow and steady progress over the city, bemoaning the fact that out of five days we had spent walking this route we had yet to enjoy a rain-free day.
Clothes suitably dampened we continued down the avenue and into the centre of the city, leaving the park at a busy trunk road road junction where the ancient Wye Bridge crossed the river. The curiosity of this bridge, according to the guide book, was the fact that one of its arches was mismatched. The bridge had been blown up during the English Civil War to prevent Parliamentarian forces entering the city. Once hostilities had concluded with the rolling of the royal head the damaged section had been repaired, but with the replacement arch being distinctly different from the other, older versions. The guide book didn’t go on to explain this design discrepancy – perhaps it was a make-do-and-mend approach that has made-done-and-mended ever since, but it is certainly noticeable.
We broke from the route at this point in order to collect another stamp on our passports. We were to find the Tourist Information Centre, located by the cathedral, where they would provide the stamp. The cathedral square at Hereford is a pleasant open space surrounded by a cluster of streets that have probably existed since the Middle Ages. It was Sunday and therefore quiet with just a few tourists wandering about. We assumed the TIC would be quite prominent and this would be merely a couple of minute’s diversion, but we searched in vain for the place in an ever-widening circuit. At one point I found myself separated from Colin, walking around the grounds of the great cathedral itself and admiring its soaring Gothic architecture. Benches were arranged around a neat square of grass and people were seated here and there, enjoying the vista and celebrating the sudden sunny dry spell of weather. Two youngish lads were seated together opposite the cathedral entrance and next to them a couple of rough looking older blokes. As I stood before the great wooden doors of the building, wondering if the TIC was located inside, one of the older guys boomed out at the lads, his accent heavy with the Herefordshire burr.
“Allright lads?” He said, leaning over to look at them, “Are you spying on us?”
The lads shook their heads, looking a little taken aback.
“That’s good that is”, continued the hairy geezer, ‘Cuz I don’t like being spied on, see?”
There was a bit of menace in his words, and the lads tried to look elsewhere, unwilling to engage. After that the two rough blokes continued to talk, close together as if they were sharing a dark secret. Probably nothing more than a pair of boozehounds suffering a White Lightning hangover, but in Hereford you can never be too careful. It’s well known that the SAS have a presence in the city as they have a training ground somewhere in the area. There are a few SAS-connected individuals inhabiting the city and they are not the sort of characters you would want to cross.
Drama over I made my way back to the street and found Colin, whose search had been equally as fruitless. Conclusion: The Hereford TIC no longer existed and we had yet another blank space in our passports. Slightly irritated at the time this diversion had cost us, we regained the banks of the Wye and followed its course out beyond the city suburbs; industrial estates and clusters of houses suddenly disappearing to be replaced by open meadows on our right and tall wooded hills on the other side of the river. Hereford, although a city by status, is not large and its suburbs do not sprawl for miles like a Birmingham or a Manchester.

Taking the pee ...

The track became narrow and uneven with a continual run of barbed wire fencing us off from the wide meadows beyond. The river slid by silently below us with just an occasional canoe party breaking the peace with their bright colours and shouted conversations. We passed a group of walkers with an energetic dog who then fell in behind us, the voice of one of the men in the company was loud and sonorous and carried clearly to us, soon becoming as annoying as the buzzing of a bluebottle against a window pane. Thankfully they stopped again, or turned back, and we were left to wander along in companionable silence. Ten minutes later I rounded a slight bend and was surprised to see a young lady squatting against a tree having a pee. My surprise, I suppose, was as nothing compared to hers and since she was in mid-flow she couldn’t do much about her situation except apologise (why apologise?) profusely. I just held my hand up to hide the scene and laughed, telling her not to worry. Colin, who was behind me had an eyeful as she stood up after I had passed to adjust her clothing. To her credit she didn’t seem very mortified with the encounter and could be heard laughing with her friends who were waiting for her in canoes below.
A sudden gust of cool air blew into our faces.
‘Hello,’ said Colin, ‘here comes another rainstorm then.’
And he was right.
The third belt of rain caught us, falling suddenly and swiftly from a leaden bank of clouds that had rolled in from the West. We took some shelter under a tree growing on the river bank and waited for the shower to pass, hoping it would be brief. It looked promising for a few minutes and we watched a herd of brown cows in a field grazing the grass unconcerned by the squall. But then the rain became heavier and the cows decided that enough was enough and galloped off clumsily to a distant stand of trees.
WyeValley Day5 Pic 3

Hereford Cathedral above the Wye.

Our shelter wasn’t up too much and we soon began to feel the rain soaking through our layers of clothing, making our skin cold and clammy. Once that level of saturation is reached you might as well continue walking, so we did, sloshing along the track that had suddenly developed pools of brown rainwater. It was a track formed of a beaten clay-like soil and it became very slippery underfoot. I went sideways into the barbed wire fence, thinking as I landed in it, that there might be a few stitches in the offing, but by some luck I escaped without a scratch, or even torn clothing. It was a bit of a miserable section of walking if I’m being honest, which is a pity because on paper (and on Google Maps) it had looked like a pleasant part of the route, following the river alongside meadowland. Perhaps on a sunnier day it would have been enjoyable, but not today. Finally the clouds rolled away and allowed blue skies and sunshine to return once more. We found a natural clearing on the riverbank and decided to sit for a while, dry out a little, and have some lunch. During this rather pleasant break the sun sparkled on the Wye and there was a sudden softness to everything, an afternoon mellowness that perfectly illustrated the changeable nature of this bi-polar day. A trio of canoeists drifted by, three young guys talking London property prices across their bows, the rearmost of the group travelling backwards and dipping oars lazily into the water. We were on a raised bank some 10ft above the river and something caught Colin’s eye, something that must have broken surface close to the bankside, something that had him throwing small lumps of pastry into the river to try and entice it to make an appearance. Nothing took the bait however and I imagined a large carp just below the surface, ignoring the Greggs steak bake and waiting instead for some mature cheddar to be thrown in.

On the borderline ...

We dried out slowly and then rose stiffly to continue the walk, leaving the riverside almost immediately to strike out across gently undulating meadows. The land rose here, not steeply but persistently, until we broke out across a field that gave us some far-reaching views in all directions. Behind us, and roughly eastwards, the profile of the distant Malvern Hills could be made out and in the other direction a smudge of purple summits gave away the location of the Black Mountains. If we were not actually in Wales now we would, at some point soon, cross the border, leaving England behind for the second half of the journey towards the source of the Wye.
Somewhere along this stretch of higher ground we entered a small paddock where a single horse cropped the grass. It had been a horse-themed day in terms of livestock, with few sheep
WyeValley Day5 Pic 4

Near Breinton.

and no cows at all (much to my satisfaction). Most of the horses we met had been indifferent to us and we had been ignored, but this one seemed to be very pleased to meet us as he can clumping up to say hello. I think Colin is as wary of horses as I am of cows and he would rather the horse had kept its distance. He seemed friendly enough however so we walked past him – a fine shaggy beast he was – and made our way across the meadow. At the mid-point I heard a thudding of hooves and turned just in time to see the horse bearing down on us. Colin was behind me and he started loudly at the sight, which in turn startled the horse who shied away clumsily. It was pure comedy really. The horse, perhaps a little put out by our behaviour trotted off to a corner of the meadow. “He’s taking a run-up at us,” I offered jokingly, but we both kept one wary eye on him until we had cleared the meadow. In truth I think the horse just wanted a couple of playmates and maybe a mooch in our rucksacks for treats.
We both started to feel the miles in our legs and discussed this at some length, reminding ourselves of the days when 16 or more miles was an easy distance. I declared my intention to really have a go at my fitness the following year, alcohol abstinence, dietary considerations, gym visits – the lot: A six month programme to improve my fitness and trim the flab. Colin was immediately on-board with the idea, and we made a pact there and then to support each other. I was pleased about this, as knowing you have someone supporting you is always a good motivator.

Cloudburst at Bishopstone ...

The last few miles of the day’s walking were undemanding and the route was easy to follow. There may have been a point where Colin, who had the guide book, was distracted by hops growing in a hedgerow causing us to amble down a long road before my route-radar warned me that somewhere behind us we had missed a stile, but it was pleasant walking on the whole. Our problem wasn’t the terrain or navigational problems – it was the weather. This day of rainstorms and sunshine had saved the biggest storm until last. We saw it approaching slowly across the hills to the west, a uniform dark blue bank of clouds that stretched across the entire sky and was already throwing down pockets of rain, silvery and wraithlike as they spidered over the flanks of the hills. We had now reached a small B road that would take us into the village of Bishopstone, and our car, but we knew the road was a long one and that our car lay on the far side of the village. We calculated the time we had left and how fast the rainstorm was approaching and we knew we wouldn’t be finished in time to escape the rain.
I didn’t help matters when, having reached the first houses of Bishopstone, I declared that our car lay along a side road to our right. Ten minutes later this proved to be a wrong assumption on my part and we wasted minutes getting back on track. It didn’t make any difference in the end. The familiar cool gust of wind blew into our faces- air forced along by the low pressure of the approaching rain storm - and sure enough, seconds later the rain came down. There wasn’t much in the way of an introduction to the rain; one minute it was dry and the next it was hammering down, really heavy rain that meant business - I think we were soaked to the skin within 30 seconds. The road we were walking along swiftly became a stream of fast running water, unable to channel the deluge into the gutters. It was strangely exhilarating but also fairly uncomfortable, and we walked along, heads down, past the houses and bungalows of Bishopstone, both of us laughing and swearing by turns. By the time we reached the car we looked as if we had swam the river Wye all day rather than walked alongside it.
The journey home was interesting, as the rainstorm lasted for a couple of hours and there were flooded roads everywhere - it was a pretty grim drive for Colin. We finally got back to Brock Cottage, feeling a lot better for a hot shower and dry clothes. By the time darkness fell the storm-front had moved on and a clear night sky full of stars promised a finer day of weather to come. Colin would need a warm day – he had just one set of serviceable walking clothes and they were never going to dry out overnight. For myself, I glowered at my waterproof coat hanging on my bedroom door, where it had hung all day, snug and dry. Of course common sense told me that I would have to pack it into my rucksack tomorrow, and of course Sod’s Law would dictate that I wouldn’t need to use it once.

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The Wye Valley Way - Day Four

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day Four

Route:Ross-on-Wye to Mordiford
Date: Monday May 2nd 2016
Distance: 13m (20.8km)
Elevation: 95ft (29m) to 590ft (180m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 1,332ft (406m) and 1,345ft (410m)

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Ross-on-Wye (twice) ...

Take I
Once again we started a day’s walking in early morning sunshine and once again we knew it was not going to last. We had arrived in the centre of Ross-on-Wye via the village of Mordiford, where we had left our return car, and had enjoyed an hour’s worth of eccentric Satnav guidance which if nothing else provided a scenic tour of the local countryside. We parked in a small car park in the centre of Ross and I spoke a few words into the camcorder while Colin went through his hamstring stretching exercises, which made him resemble one of those mime artists you see on street corners who imitate statues for hours on end. We set off towards the church and our starting point and within just a few minutes Colin cheerfully informed me that he had left the guide book back at the cottage. I called him a rude name and then we went back to the car, and back to Colin’s cottage to retrieve the book.
Take II
Standing before the large oak doors of the Church’s North entrance we fiddled with rucksack straps, shuffled about busily, and tried to determine how to gain the route proper. As we did so the amiable Church Warden opened the doors, wished us a good morning, and after hearing of our planned day of walking suggested that a brief tour of the church interior might be a nice start. I’ve driven past Ross-on-Wye many times since my brother re-located to the area and from the vantage of the A40 bypass the town presents a pleasing view, built as it is on a low hill above the river's winding course. Buildings rise up, one atop the other, and the church of St. Mary’s provides a focal point with its 205 ft spire pointing skywards.
WyeValley Day4 Pic 1

St Mary's Church, Ross-on-Wye.

I had often wondered what the interior of the church might be like, and now we were going to be given the opportunity. The warden proved to be knowledgeable and friendly chap, if somewhat camera shy, and he told us a little of the churches history as we swept our camera around inside its cool interior of carved stone and polished wood. It’s a pity really that I failed to take more meaningful video footage of this bonus visit – I somehow got the on\off button on the camcorder confused so when I thought I was filming I wasn’t, and when I thought the camera was switched off I captured minutes of my feet walking around the tiled floor of the church with a vague monologue from the church warden to add interest. To make amends; here is a potted history of the church :-
St. Mary’s has been the centre of Christian worship in the town for over 700 years and is central to a large group of parishes in the area. It was originally founded by Robert de Betun, Bishop of Hereford, in the 13th century. The church, in its current form, was dedicated in 1316. There is evidence that suggests that there was a Saxon and Norman church there before the current one was built.
We left the church after perhaps twenty minutes and waved the Church Warden goodbye. A little more dawdling took place as we wondered about the church grounds, visiting the Plague Cross, erected to mark the final resting place of 315 victims of the 17th century Black Death, who had been buried at night and without coffins. There was also the ancient row of Alms Houses, unchanged for five centuries, to admire. The town of Ross-on-Wye has been inhabited for many centuries – since at least Norman times and most likely long before that – and was simply called Ross until 1931 when, to avoid confusion with towns of the same name, the ‘on-Wye’ was added. It became a market town in the 12th century and prospered owing to its location on the banks of the Wye which was a busy commercial trade route. In the 19th century the town enjoyed a major facelift as part of a government scheme to improve sanitation and living conditions in towns and cities. Streets were widened, slums cleared, and a mock-gothic architectural style was applied to new buildings erected. Ross is also, arguably, one of the founding sites of the tourist industry, offering scenic boat trips down the river from as early as the 18th century. Many of the towns hotels and inns were built to cater for this new found leisure activity. Today the town has a population of around 10,000 and notable people who have lived in or around the area include a couple of members of Mott The Hoople, dramatist Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), Richard Hammond of Top gear fame, and actress Noel Gordon (star of the now defunct soap opera Crossroads) who is buried in the church cemetery. Perhaps more surprising is that the Australian cricketer Shane Warne also has a property nearby. Ross-on-Wye has much to hold the attention and so it was a later start then we had planned by the time we finally set off on the walk proper.

Good deeds and wrong turns ...

We set off on a downward course through the streets of Ross, passing the The Man of Ross pub where Colin and I had once enjoyed a legendary lock-in, and paused once again to admire the fish sculpture set before it and also to read the inscription set above the pub entrance, which explains how the pub received its name –

John Kyrle (1637-1724)
Gained fame for his community involvement, his modest lifestyle, and charitable works. He helped settle disputes, aided the poor & sick, supported schools, and left the beautiful ‘Prospect Walk’ with a fountain and garden to the citizens of Ross.’

This remarkable man, born to a wealthy family and highly educated, chose not to live a lavish lifestyle nor pursue a legal career after qualifying as a barrister. Instead he lived quietly in his home overlooking the market square of Ross, spending his considerable fortune for the betterment of the town and it’s folk. He enjoyed manual labour and would often literally get his hands dirty when working on the many projects he founded. One of life’s true philanthropists he continued to work tirelessly to help those less fortunate and died peacefully at the ripe old age of 87. I can’t help but feel that spending a week or two in this man’s company would have been an enlightening experience.
We wandered onwards and downwards, reaching the banks of the River Wye, and searched for the passport station to collect another stamp for our passports. The establishment named in the passport book no longer existed, it was derelict and had been for some years by the look of it, so we tried a couple of Cafes and shops further along the embankment. They all told the same story; they had applied for a stamp from the Wye Valley Way organisation and had been waiting for a few years for one to be supplied. So that was that – no stamp from Ross-on-Wye and a blank space in our guidebooks. It was a minor irritation and nothing more – nothing like as irritating as setting off in the wrong direction along the river and only discovering this after quite a long bit of walking and certainly not as irritating as having to walk all the way back to Ross after discovering the error. In mitigation of this screw-up we will just point out that the guide book told us to follow the river upstream once we reached its banks and at this point the river has no discernible flow – so we guessed and guessed wrong.
Pointed in the right direction we walked away from Ross-on-Wye once more, along meadows of wild grasses and bracken, passing through a makeshift camp-site where people were setting up marquees and stalls in preparation for some sort of canoe event. It was a Bank Holiday of course and the weather was miserable, which evoked memories of Redbrook Fete on
WyeValley Day4 Pic 2

The River Wye after Ross.

the first day of the Wye Valley Way, where the weather was equally as dismal and the people setting up the fete equally as resigned to a day spoilt by it. We mused, as we passed folk swathed in waterproof layers of nylon, that we were on our fourth day of walking the Wye Valley Way and we had yet to enjoy a day of fine weather. We hoped this wouldn’t become a recurring theme. The tumbled rooftops of Ross-on-Wye fell steadily behind us, its church spire visible for some time but dwindling to a mere scratch against the sky before being lost to view. Happy canoeists and bright yellow fields of Rapeseed tried hard to create a sense of Spring-like warmth, but the clouds continued to lower overhead so that the world seemed to have its brightness and contrast levels set too low. We reached a point where could look westwards across fields and lines of trees to where Colin’s cottage lay, the estate of Wye Lea indicated by the large old house that stood in its grounds. This is the closest we would approach to my brother’s cottage – up until now we had been approaching it steadily from the south but now we would continue northwards and westwards, leaving first Herefordshire behind and then England once we crossed the border into Wales. We had walked nearly fifty miles of the Wye Valley Way already but this was less than half the distance we needed to cover before we completed the route. It’s best not to contemplate such things overmuch when walking long distance paths and so we just continued, one step at a time, and ate up a few more miles of fields and footpaths, passing clamorous sheep and lambs and the odd cottage or farm. Colin had already walked these byways just a week before, when he hiked from his cottage to our parent’s house in Birmingham so he at least was on familiar ground for much of today’s journey. My sense of familiarity was on a much more personal level as I began to feel a certain tenderness in sensitive areas that warned me of imminent chafing. For those who have never experienced chafing I can tell you from experience that when damp underclothes saw back and forth across exposed flesh the results can be very uncomfortable – a sort of red rawness that burns for hours after the walking is done. Having experienced this a few times in the past I always carry a pot of Vaseline and so (not for the last time on today’s ramble) I had to duck behind a hedge and liberally apply the jelly to the affected areas. It was a diversion – something to take my mind of the dreary weather.

Hole-in-the-wall and a whole lot of gradients ...

Soon we neared the strangely named hamlet of Hole-in-the-Wall, approaching it along a quiet little road between high hedges and verges of Cow Parsley. Hole-in-the-Wall was little more than a couple of cottages and a phone box but it did have a tiny little green and a wooden seat so we stopped there for a soggy lunch. We noted that the bench was dedicated to the owner of Classical Ventures the headquarters of which we passed by when entering Ross-on-Wye - maybe he was a former resident of this tiny little place. Apart from the occasional passing car we saw nobody during our brief stay and we didn’t tarry for long; the rain was becoming heavier and sitting still was making us feel chilly. We chose what we hoped was the correct direction and set off along a metalled lane, passing a derelict old mill that was for sale with an optimistic offer of planning permission for development into a home. It was certainly in an idyllic spot, seated high above the winding river valley with commanding views, but I think any prospective developer would need deep pockets to make the place habitable as it was little more than a shell. Passing the old mill the road swept down into an open valley, running parallel to the Wye. The rain let up for a spell and the day brightened just enough to do the scenery justice. We passed a small field where a couple of caravans were parked up, a chap was enjoying a cup of tea seated at the window of one of them and he smiled and waved at us as we trudged by, his wife was in the kitchen area, a shadowy presence who was probably making bacon sandwiches and would soon be sharing them with her husband, snuggled in the warm shelter of the caravan with an easy day of watching TV ahead of them. For just the briefest of moments I envied them, but despite the chafing and the drizzle I still preferred the open trail and the prospect of the miles ahead.
It was here that Colin had left the road on his journey to Birmingham, he had struck uphill through the forests and turned eastwards on his way to Malvern. The Wye Valley Way took us westwards instead, leading us down to a grassy path along the banks of the river which we followed for some time. A large group of walkers met us from the other direction. They had started out from Mordiford, our destination, and were heading for Ross. We told them that their route was a nice easy flat few miles of walking and they told us that our route was to become hilly and that harder work lay ahead of us. This didn’t seem like a very fair exchange of information as we had reckoned on a day without any hill climbing, but it appeared we were mistaken. The friendly crowd of walkers waved goodbye and with a pack of excited dogs leaping about them they headed off towards Hole-in-the-Wall, leaving us to continue along the riverbank. The Wye veered off to our left and we picked up the course of a small brook that led us across a few fields before reaching a crossroads where (as we had been informed) we began to climb steadily. There was a variety of terrain underfoot for the next half an hour; muddy tracks, bridle paths,
WyeValley Day4 Pic 3

A view from Capel Camp.

metalled roads, but they all had one thing in common in that they inclined upwards. Finally we levelled out after a long pull up a lane and took an enclosed path between hedgerows on high ground, the river lost somewhere below us. If the weather had been better we might have enjoyed some lovely views, but a heavier than usual downpour reduced visibility and we only saw dim hints of the rolling hills all about us. The rain let up by the time we reached the hamlet of How Caple and I even pointed out a rare patch of blue sky which I fully expected to be quickly sealed by the rolling grey clouds. Instead it grew wider and we climbed up, first through Hales Wood and then Capler Wood to emerge atop a long hill where Iron Age earthworks at Capler Camp threw up a rampart on our left, overgrown with elder and blackberry. As the sun made a bright and cheerful appearance we were at last offered a nice view to admire, looking out across a shallow valley of hedged fields, ringed with low tree-clad hills. The sunshine was most welcome but it signalled the rising of clouds of black flies that swarmed about our heads in their thousands. They didn’t bite at all but still annoyed us by attempting to crawl into our ears or up our nostrils. Flapping our arms about like men demented we escaped the swarms by descending once more, quite sharply at first, down through meadows of lush grass and through tiny copses of Rowan and Billberry. We emerged into a sort of farmyard-come-business-park where clusters of assorted porta-cabins rubbed shoulders with agricultural machinery. The place was of course deserted as it was a Bank Holiday but had it been open for business we could have bought anything from fresh fruit to a holiday in Budapest from the signs we read. After crossing a road near the village of Fownhope we found ourselves in a sort of bowl shaped valley amidst domes of grassy hills, in the sunshine the place looked cheerful and charming and to add to this bucolic scene a lady and two young children were combing the rough ground within an enclosed pasture belonging to a nearby farm. The appeared to be on some sort of bug hunt and the lady – the children’s grandmother we guessed – showed as much enthusiasm for the event as her young charges. They waved at us as we passed and I was quite taken by the scene; happy people in a pretty place doing nice things in the sunshine. Surely this is the way the world was meant to be?

Feisty canines and frolicking cows ...

We escaped the little valley by climbing once more, meandering up the grassy slopes of Common Hill, and finding ourselves walking into woodland once more. A series of sneaky gradients followed, in and out amongst the trees, passing by ancient lime kilns dug deep into the living rock of the hillsides, abandoned so long ago that mature trees twined their roots about the old stonework so it was hard to determine man-made masonry from nature’s work. We continued along ridgeway paths with the tangled woodland falling away on either side of us; it was pleasant enough walking but it was nearing the end of the day and tiredness was beginning to announce itself in knee twinges and back aches, I found myself hoping that Mordiford (and the pint of beer waiting for me in the village pub) was going to appear sooner rather than later.
It was around this point that a dog bit my leg. We were ambling along a nice wide section of forest track when a woman approached us with a Springer Spaniel capering happily about her feet. It was all doggy grins and wagging tail as it approached us.
"Don't worry" assured the woman. "He's fine!"
I made encouraging clucking noises as the dog approached me but he just let out a volley of barking that I took to be excitement and so I continued past him, whereupon the little swine dived in behind me and nipped my calf. Luckily it was a mistimed nip and no damage was done - I was certainly less bothered by it then the dog's owner who apologised as she went by, her face an excellent advertisement for the word 'mortified'.
There was a nice finale the day waiting for us however, in the shape of Lee and Paget’s Wood, and area of ancient woodland and therefore at least 400 years old. The sun cast a mellow late afternoon light all about us, picking out the vibrant green of newly opened leaves and the jewelled carpets of Bluebells and Wood Anemones which covered ground. We pondered the purpose of the box-like structures that were fixed high up on the trunks of some trees. They resembled Tannoy speakers but were probably part of a conservation
WyeValley Day4 Pic 4

Mordiford village.

project to provide roosting for bats (at least that was our best guess). We passed a man deep in the midst of the woodland, he was all alone in the dappled shade of the canopy and was simply standing still and gazing, as if he had taken root. Perhaps he was also pondering the nature of the boxes on the trees, or perhaps he simply liked standing alone in ancient woodland. He smiled briefly at us as we went by and continued to stand there, gazing up into the canopy. After leaving the woods we crossed the floor of another grassy valley near a place called Hope Springs (and hope was now springing very much that we were nearing the end). To our left there rose a small hillock with the rather twee name of Bagpiper’s Tump which gained its name during the English Civil War when Scottish infantry loyal to the king camped here and played their pipes to bemused locals. At the far end of this valley we passed a meadow of extremely noisy sheep who were complaining loudly to each other for no reason that we could identify. We could see the rooftops of the village of Mordiford ahead of us and the end was very much now in sight. It was of course the perfect moment for sod’s law to introduce some over-zealous cows to us and sod didn’t disappoint. The very last pasture we had to cross was a small enclosed affair of uneven tussocky grass and as we stood at its gate a trio of young heifers lumbered towards us, faces as frank and as curious as 1,000 lb puppies. They were, I am sure, just friendly and excited at our arrival but they capered about clumsily and waited eagerly for us to jump over the gate and frolic about with them. We did a quick recce but it was plain that the only route to the village was across this paddock so Colin went in first, shooing the cows away with loud claps and arm waving. This encouraged the cows into yet more happy cavorting but they did shy away, allowing Colin to head off towards the exit. The beasts followed him at a cautious distance and then I went over and followed them, keeping a sensible gap between us. This arrangement worked well until Colin escaped the paddock over the exit stile at which point the cows seemed to remember that there was a playmate missing and turned back to me gleefully. I hoped over a side fence, waited for them to blunder past me, and then nipped back into the paddock and over the exit stile. Leaving the three silly heifers standing forlorn and disappointed in their field we walked down a short farmyard driveway and emerged on a small road where, opposite a rather quaint stone bridge fording a brook, we saw the Moon Inn, a welcome sight since it promised both an end to the day’s walking and a pint of well-deserved ale.
We had our passports stamped by a friendly young barmaid and then sat outside, folding our stiffening legs awkwardly under a trestle table, and enjoyed our beers. We both admitted we could have easily enjoyed several more such beers sitting here in this pleasant little spot but we had another car to pick up back in Ross-on-Wye and another night to enjoy swapping tales and sipping wine back at Brock Cottage.
Later in the year we would return to the Wye Valley Walk, visiting the county capital of Hereford before heading ever closer to the Welsh border and the Plynlymon Hills.

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The Wye Valley Walk - Day Three

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day Three

Route:Symonds Yat East to Ross-on-Wye
Date: Sunday May 1st 2016
Distance: 12m (19.4km)
Elevation: 66ft (20m) to 614ft (187m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2,063ft (629m) and 2,001ft (610m)

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Back at the Yat ...

We were back at Symonds Yat preparing for another dozen or so miles of the Wye Valley walk. When we had reached this place, on a sunny August day last year, Symonds Yat had been a hive of activity, full of cyclists, boaters, and sight-seers. We had enjoyed a pint of ale in a crowded bar, sitting on its terrace overlooking the river, we had added yet another stamp to our passports, and then we had made a precarious exit from the place up its single, narrow lane, where two cars could squeeze past each other with scarcely a coat of paint to spare between them. This morning it was somewhat different and the village had yet to wake up fully and face the day. The riverside car-park was all but empty so it was a little puzzling as to why the attendant first tried to make me fit into a tight space where my large car obviously wouldn’t fit, and then made me back up into a riverside slot on the very edge of the bank. I triple checked that my handbrake was engaged but still had a sneaky fear that when we came back here later all that would be seen of my motor was its nose poking up out of the river.
Symonds Yat, as a village, is divided by the River Wye into Yat East and Yat West and we were leaving from the western side, although we could have parked on the eastern bank and made use of the hand-pulled ferry that operates from the Saracen’s Head. There used to be a few dozen such ferries between Symonds Yat and Chepstow but now there are just two and if you don’t fancy using either of them you will have to travel five miles further upstream to make use of Huntshams Bridge. The odd sounding name of the place is a marriage of the surname of Robert Symonds, a 17th century sheriff of these parts, and the much older word ‘Yat’ meaning a gate or pass. Even older than the word Yat are the prehistoric remains that have been discovered in the surrounding hills bearing evidence to the fact that humans have been living in this area for 12,000 years at least - important forts were established during the Iron Age and the Roman occupation. Recently Symonds Yat has provided a backdrop for the TV series Merlin and the movies Shadowlands and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1.

Yat Rock - Ransom and ruins ...

We shouldered our rucksacks in mild sunshine which we knew was not going to last very long, and then meandered through a campsite, following the river upstream, and passing the tantalising wafts of frying bacon and freshly brewed coffee. Ever the optimists, we had worked out that today there would only be two climbs of any significance, and the very first one was about to reveal itself to us as we made our way to the tiny road from Symonds Yat and then ducked sharp right onto a woodland track that inclined upwards, gently but for a considerable distance. We paused briefly to admire the opposite side of the river, steeply wooded slopes rising into the sky, with the scattered white houses and cottages of Symonds Yat East built seemingly at random upon their slopes. Feeling as fit and as fresh as I was likely to feel all day I set the pace, measuring my steps carefully and keeping my breathing regular, just like the walking websites recommended, which for this climb at least worked well for me. After the climb we reached a broader, flatter logging trail and set off along it, boots crunching on the gravelly surface. I had bought a new gadget – an extendable selfie-stick for my camcorder, and now seemed like a good opportunity to test it out. I spent a fair few minutes fiddling about with it, mounting the camera, and filming us walking along from strange angles as well as poking the camera high above a hedge-line to capture the river valley below us.
WyeValley Day3 Pic 1

Ruined farmstead beneath Yat Rock.

The results were so poor that I couldn’t use a single moment of it. The camera pointed at the very top of our heads, or the empty trail behind us, or vague leafy greenery, anywhere in fact but where I had intended it to point. The obvious conclusion was that I needed more practice, but for the rest of the day the selfie stick stayed lodged in my rucksack: Excess baggage.
The forest trail took us around the northern slopes of Yat Rock Hill rather than up and over its summit, which was good for two reasons, the first being that we were spared an even more strenuous climb, and the second being that we were afforded some impressive views of the frowning cliff-like aspect of Yat Rock’s profile. We had both visited the viewpoint at the summit in previous years; it delivers unrivalled and glorious views far along the Wye Valley with the river winding lazily along its floor. If you have never seen this view I urge you to make a quick visit to the viewpoint before setting off on this section of the walk – it’s worth the effort and there’s also a good tea shop that sells snack foods in case you forgot to bring any with you.
The reddish brown rock from which the hill is formed sometimes jutted out from the forest about us, forming little crags and miniature cliffs that must be havens for the local wildlife. At one such outcrop we left the wide logging trail and descended down to the river’s edge once more, first via a series of ledges carved into the forest floor, and then a vague twisty trail amidst ferns and mossy boulders. For me at least I was on territory that was vaguely familiar as I had walked the river here before, albeit in the opposite direction towards Huntshams Bridge, and I knew that for a while we would enjoy some easy walking along the undulating contours of the riverbank. I was explaining this to the camcorder when Colin, who had been a few yards behind me, suddenly disappeared. He had either spontaneously teleported or had gone down the embankment, though hopefully not beyond it and into the river itself. He popped up again moments later claiming he had gone to investigate ‘a noise’ the nature of which he never really explained but, knowing my brother as I do, it was most likely avian in its origin. Colin is an enthusiastic hobbyist regarding our native bird species and quite often as we walk along he will stop and listen to sounds that (to me at least) are just vague twitterings from the bushes. Then he will announce that we have just heard the song of a Lesser Spotted Nutcracker, or a Wedge Warbler or some other species I have never heard of. It has had its effect on me – I can identify some of the more common birds now – but I will never reach his level of ability. I am however reasonably good at identifying wild flowers and so we paused for a while when we reached a sort of dell where a lush carpet of Ramsons, or Wild Garlic, spread in all directions. The pungent aroma of it hung in the air and I picked a few leaves for us to sample – a sort of sweet tang with a strong undertone of garlic. It’s good in salads but needs to be eaten in moderation otherwise it can run through the system like a dose of salts.
After this we were taken away from the river again, back up through the forest, encountering a series of minor gradients over rough ground that persistently tested our respective knee ailments. The clouds had drawn in during the morning and now the rain began, it pittered gently about us, making the trees hiss gently - never enough to force us into waterproof gear but always enough to keep us slightly damp and bedraggled. I had mentioned the ruins of an old croft to Colin which I remembered from my last visit to this area and sure enough we came across it, sited yards from the river’s edge, and bullied by the encroaching forest. It had been a simple structure in its heyday, built from rough stone, a large hearth still discernible, a ragged space where the front door once stood. It was most likely a single story croft for a subsistence farmer at a time when, we assumed, the forest did not crowd it and open ground could still be worked. It was a mere shell now, the roof and one side completely missing, but it still evoked a certain sad charm, and it made you speculate as to who lived here, and how long ago, and what made them finally abandon their home, leaving it to be reclaimed by the forest.

Clover and closures ...

Finally, after one last impressive view of the craggy profile of Yat Rock, with its line of old trees growing precariously right on its very edge, we left the forest behind us and broke out onto wide meadows of grass and clover, following the riverbank as it led us past flocks of sheep – ewes chaperoning their young offspring with a constant chorus of bleatings. The lambs, some just hours old, showed less caution than their mothers, only walking away from us on wobbly legs when we were almost upon them. There is something quintessentially spring-like about such a scene and once again I felt a deep pang of guilt that these delicate, cute, little creatures would be giving up their lives all too soon in order to provide me with the food I enjoy so much. Meat is indeed murder, but I am a confirmed carnivore and so I have to accept this as a fact of life (or death) – however watching lambs capering in grassy meadows does at times test that conviction.
We ambled along the River Wye, following its wide glassy waters upstream, and enjoying the flotillas of canoeists that occasionally swept by, heading towards Symonds Yat. There were all kinds of people out on the water today, from groups of yelling excited kids on youth hostelling adventures to the more dedicated canoeists that sculled along at a pace and skilfully avoided the amateurs’ more erratic courses. We were relaxed at this point because we knew the route ahead of us well. For miles we would walk along the river, crossing the old factory bridge at Lower Lydbrook, lunching in the lovely church across the river at Welsh Bicknor and following pastures and woodland all the way to Kerne Bridge. We would not have to worry about being lost or consult the guidebook for hours: Nothing could go wrong.
Sure enough the stark angular profile of the abandoned factory at Lower Lydbrook began to appear above the tree tops, its chimney stacks and hangar-like buildings, its acres of shattered glass window panes, seemed totally at odds with its rural setting. In front of its brick and concrete fa├žade sheep grazed contentedly, seeing only an opportunity for shade beneath the factories’ looming structures.
WyeValley Day3 Pic 2

The Wye after Yat Rock.

There has always been a certain fascination for me about this sprawling and ruinous complex, given its somewhat atypical location, and its history is the classic case of boom and bust so familiar to much of Britain’s industrial period. The factory known as the Edison Swan Cable works was built, in its original form, in 1912 by one Harold J Smith. Either through great foresight or sheer good luck the First World War provided a number of contracts and the business grew from just 40 employees to over 600. However after the war the momentum couldn’t be maintained and there came a slump in business, with receivers being called in by 1920. The Edison Swan Electric Company then took charge and once again global conflict provided it with good business, with the factory possessing one of only four machines for making lead alloy tube needed for P.L.U.T.O. – (Petroleum Lines Under The Ocean), which allowed fuel to be supplied to the Allied invasion force on the Continent from Britain. After WW2 things changed again and Edison Swan was swallowed up by the Associated Electrical Company and cable manufacturing of all types provided a boom period that saw the factory employing over 1,000 people. The Cable Works came to an end in 1966 when the Factory was bought by Reed Paper Group, which in its turn was taken over by a Swedish Company, SCA. The factory finally ceased to be used around 1994 and is shortly due for complete demolition.
We knew from previous visits that the old rail bridge which used to feed the factory was a crossing point where we would swap riverbanks to visit first the dark mysterious tunnel that cut through the hills towards Goodrich and then the quaint Victorian church at Welsh Bicknor for our crisps and sandwich snack break. We were taken aback, therefore, when we reached the bridge to discover that it was closed. The access was boarded up with a simple and terse ‘Bridge Closed’ sign telling us that we would have to rethink our route completely. There was little choice in what we must do next – we had to continue, as best we could, on this side of the river, following unfamiliar paths, until we could re-join the official route at Kerne Bridge some miles ahead. It was a shame as we had looked forward to a piece of riverside walking that we both knew and loved but there was nothing to be done unless we fancied a swim across the Wye, so we left the bridge behind and headed off once more.

Slow progress and Slow Worms ...

We walked around the perimeter of the factory for a short while, finding a break in the chain link fence that enabled us to enter the site and poke around a little. We were in front of one of the larger workshops, a building big enough to park a Jumbo jet inside, but all the doors were padlocked. If we had been more determined, or not on a schedule, we might have eventually found a way inside, though we were aware that security patrols were in operation 24x7 here and we were trespassing. Instead we found a broken window that afforded us a glimpse into the cavernous interior, all gloom and grey hues, steel roof girders fading into the shadows overhead. In this one building alone there must have been thousands of pounds worth of salvage – the overhead factory lights alone were worth a pretty penny in today’s antique market. One day very soon the scrap merchants will have their pickings, the bull-dozers will move in, and eventually a nice modern estate of homes will no-doubt stand there. It will probably be an improvement aesthetically but another piece of Britain’s industrial past will be lost forever. Perhaps the bridge closure is part of the preliminary stages of the demolition project, in which case, will a new bridge take its place? If not it’s going to change the Wye Valley route considerably on this section.
Leaving the dereliction behind us we crossed a football field, meandered about searching for a footpath along the river for a while, and then gave up and made for the B4234 road, turning left for a march to Kerne Bridge. We each made our own video commentaries at this point and neither of us enthused much about the prospect of walking along a busy road with no footpath. The rain grew heavier for a spell and we trudged on in relative silence until we reached a picnic area called
WyeValley Day3 Pic 3

Chase Hill with Ross behind it.

Lower Lydbrook Park and made it to the river once more. There was a large green space here where groups of hikers and canoeists mingled good-naturedly and dog walkers dragged their unwilling mutts along in the drizzle. We were hoping to find a footpath along the river bank from this point but after just a few hundred yards we were back on the road once more. We kept an eye out to our right hoping to find a track back down to the river, and twice we thought we had succeeded. However the first track took us down along the embankment and past a bungalow before rising to deposit us into the traffic once more and the second track turned back downstream at the river. It was a little frustrating but there was nothing we could do but march on. At last, near the mobile home village of Whiteside Park, we found a rough grassy track that took us down to the edge of a ploughed field and the possibility of re-joining the river. As we prepared to cross the deep furrows of clay Colin stooped suddenly and captured a Slow-worm that had slithered in front of him. This was the second time we had seen such a creature on our walks, but ten years have separated the events. The first Slow-worm we found was discovered high above the shores of Loch Lomond, on the West highland Way, and had been a sleek glossy black. This second one was a gorgeous green-gold in colour with shimmering scales and it performed nicely for the camcorder until we released it back into the hedgerow.
Happy to be alongside the Wye once more and away from hurtling traffic we marched on alongside the ploughed field, which in the end proved to be one of the largest fields I have ever seen. For well over half an hour we followed the rough little track between the river and the plough-lines, with only the ubiquitous canoeists gliding by to break the relative monotony. The track was the worst sort to walk along, uneven and rank with weeds and grass, so that a walking rhythm was hard to establish and a twisted ankle was always a possibility. Across the river we glimpsed the pleasant sheep pastures and wooded slopes that we should have been making our way along and we tried to estimate how far we had yet to go before we re-joined the trail proper at the bridge. At last the enormous ploughed field ended and we walked into an open area on the riverbank where yet more canoeists were preparing to launch into the river, we discovered a secluded bench on a sort of wooden platform and decided that this was as good a lunch break as anywhere else we might find. The canoeists all slid into the river with splashes and clacking of oars and then we had the place to ourselves. We munched our crisps and discussed our various aches and pains but agreed that despite having at least three dodgy knees between us we were still in good shape. A Robin watched us from a nearby bush, his bright eyes detecting the crumbs we threw him until he became so bold that he hopped about right under our feet to snap them up.

Walking over hills to Ross-on-Wye ...

Lunch concluded, we continued along the river, passing a low community hall with large full-height windows affording those inside a view of the river gliding past. On this occasion it also afforded a view of a pair of middle-aged hikers stomping by. The hall was having a sort of tea dance, with men and women of a certain age waltzing together and others sitting it out on chairs arranged around the back wall. We drew some curious stares as we passed in front of them, and I gave a couple of ladies a cheery wave as we passed by – they seemed to appreciate it. Within a minute we discovered that we had walked too far along the embankment and we would have to walk past the dancers again. Neither of us really wanted to do this as we may have been misconstrued as a pair of back-packing Peeping Toms, but luckily there was a way around the back of the hall which we took without being seen.
With the merest of nods towards the village of Kerne Bridge the Wye Valley Trail took us off back into the woods again, and uphill: Again. With a fair number of miles behind us we both started to feel knee-grumblings and, in my case, the sort of nagging ache between the shoulders that tells you that you’ve have been carrying a rucksack all day. However the walking was pleasant enough, taking us up through tracks where tree roots criss-crossed like petrified snakes and where early Bluebells lent some cheer to the gloomy day. We were of course back on the official route and therefore could rely on the guidebook once more which, as far as guide-books go, was a good enough reference source without being totally accurate. We came to a break in the trees where below us the red rooftops of Walford village appeared. This tiny village may have given rise to our surname in generations gone by, certainly the definition of Walford – a dweller by a Welsh ford – gives credence to this theory as we were very close to the Welsh border and this whole area may have belonged to the Welsh on and off over the centuries. I claimed symbolic ownership of the village and Colin claimed ownership of its pub and then, realising that there was in fact very little to stare at down in the sleepy hamlet, we moved on.
With the river lost to us once more we threaded our way through the early spring woodland, passing craggy outcrops of rocks and the long-abandoned lime kilns dug deep into their sides, we passed secretive dells where children had tied Tarzan Swings to ancient boughs, and Colin no doubt heard the call of many a native bird that the average layman would never have identified. The afternoon wore on and our energy levels wore down – it was the balancing point between feeling fresh and eager to continue walking and the need to reach the end of the journey on tired legs, but we knew we had one last hefty climb to complete and so we ignored throbbing feet and refused to speculate on how much further there was to walk.
Another wide sweep of a view answered the question for us however, as we left the trees for a short spell and could look northwards. We were now on the summit of Howle Hill and we could see, separated from us by a narrow valley, Chase Hill in the middle distance; a tree covered dome of a hill some 660 feet from base to crown. Beyond the hill, peeping coyly from beyond its left flank, we could make out the sharp church spire of St Mary the Virgin at Ross-on-Wye where lay the end of the day’s walk. I’m not sure if I was glad to see
WyeValley Day3 Pic 4

Heading towards Chase Hill and our last climb

that the end was in sight or disheartened by how far away it seemed but at least the final stages were there before us and Colin swept his camcorder across the scene saying very much what I was thinking.
We descended sharply from Howle Hill, crossing a few grassy meadows, before reaching a lane that led us to the wide drive of a farm. Two young girls approached the drive just behind us and as we stopped to rest our legs and take a drink they passed us by. They had been chattering gaily as they approached but they fell silent as they passed us, maybe it was a natural distrust of the two strange men that were standing on their home turf but I always feel it’s a little sad that such moments of awkwardness occur – I suppose it doesn’t speak too highly of the sort of world we live in. However we passed them a short while later as they prepared to call their horses in from a field and one of them did throw me a brief and friendly smile – maybe it was pity – I did look a little weary and dishevelled by this point.
We approached the climb to Chase hill along a meadow that rose gently and narrowed, pointing like an arrow to the steeper climb through the woodland ahead. Chase Hill has a natural cleft bisecting it, and at least we were going to climb by passing through this defile rather than the two higher summits, but nonetheless it was quite a steep ascent. I let Colin go ahead and took my time, resting often, and admiring the ragged beauty of this old woodland. My breath had also become ragged but there was little beauty about me as I finally reached the top to find Colin muttering that his camcorder battery had died. There was a surprise at the summit of Chase Hill in that a stand of Sequoia or Redwoods reared into the sky. Nowhere near as gigantic as their American cousins they were still an impressive sight and we spent a while walking around their gnarled trunks and staring up through dense canopies of needles. I reached out and laid a hand on the bark of one specimen and was surprised to find that it gave slightly and had a slightly spongy quality to the touch.
We set off for the final mile or so, descending Chase Hill equally as abruptly as we had scaled it, passing a farm where groups of noisy youths joined us, possibly land-workers, who talked loudly in an eastern European language before taking a side track and leaving us in peace. The woods gave out and we started to descend a vast area of grassland called, locally, the Tank Meadow, owing to the large reservoir tank that had been installed here to service the town of ross-on-Wye. We saw nothing of the tank as we edged down the meadows flanks which had us doubting ourselves about being on route, but at the lower slopes we found a way-marker which led us past an impressive Tudor-esque building belonging to a company called Classical Ventures and then, abruptly, onto the suburbs of Ross.
We had a bit of a quandary now as we had neglected to positively identify where we had parked our car and worse still we had no idea where it lay in relationship to the strange streets through which we now walked. I remembered that the car was very near to a small hospital but even that location was a mystery to us. We meandered a while, through quiet little streets of pleasant bungalows and town houses, and then picked up a larger road that Colin believed led to the centre of Ross. Neither of us was entirely sure that we needed the town centre but, in lieu of a better plan, we marched far along the road until we hit upon the idea of asking a couple of local dog-walkers if they knew where the hospital was. They did, and of course it was at the extreme opposite of the main road we had been walking along. Fatalistically we turned about and re-traced our steps for a fair distance until we reached the hospital grounds. Using educated guesswork we began to recognise our surroundings and eventually, perhaps more by luck than judgement, we located our car parked in a side street and concluded that the day’s walking was done. We probably were not on route at this point but neither of us cared to worry about minor details. We decided that the next day we would start our walk at the church of St. Mary The Virgin and if that meant snipping off a tiny section of the official route then we could live with it. What we really needed right there and then was a beer, a hot meal, and an evening spent with our feet up enjoying a glass or two of Merlot, followed by a sensibly early night. We achieved all of these things – except for the early night. We never learn.

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