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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