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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