The Wye Valley Walk - Day Six

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day Six

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

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

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

The Orchard Maze ...

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

310 acres of cider orchard.

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

Tearing through Monnington ...

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

The mile-long Monnington Walk.

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

A quick pint and a slow climb ...

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

A view from Murbach Hill.

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

A common mistake ...

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

Colin near Priory Woods.

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

Gathering shadows ...

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

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The Wye Valley Way - Day Five

The Wye Valley Way
By Mark Walford
Day Five

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

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Missing apparel and rakish accessories ...

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

The Wye at Mordiford.

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

Soaked and stampless in Hereford ...

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

Embankments near Mordiford.

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

Taking the pee ...

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

Hereford Cathedral above the Wye.

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

On the borderline ...

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

Near Breinton.

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

Cloudburst at Bishopstone ...

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

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