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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