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.
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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
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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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