Jim Baker, WA
Some time around about 750AD, Offa, King of Mercia and overlord of the greater part of England, decided to dig a ditch, or dyke, some 180 miles long marking the border of his kingdom with Wales. Exactly why Offa wanted to construct such a huge earthwork, which in places measured six meters from the bottom of the dyke to the top of the earthen bank, is unclear. The general assumption is that he was trying to hinder incursions by the Welsh into his territory, but some believe that he simply wanted to leave a monument to himself (not unheard of amongst modern day rulers) while at the same time providing work for the local people.
Whatever the reason, his labours have resulted in the creation of the Offa’s Dyke Path, a long distance National (i.e. Government funded) Trail of 177 miles traversing the border country between England and Wales. The Path follows the original line of the Dyke in many places, where even after twelve hundred years the earthwork is still clearly visible. In others it takes diversions to traverse more scenic routes, which results in a trail that passes through very varied terrain, sometimes remote and wild, at other times pastoral and serene, but almost always very beautiful.
The route of the Path has been designed to cater for walkers of all kinds. There are plenty of very steep gradients for those looking for a physical challenge, and the track passes through, or close to, a large number of historic towns and villages, which means that the distance to be walked each day can be adapted to a walker’s level of fitness. For those seeking a gentler passage a number of circular trails lead off the main path, allowing comfortable day-walks to be undertaken.
To me this trek crystallised everything that can make the UK one of the greatest places in the world for a walking holiday—the countryside in glorious shades of green with wild flowers splashing colour, birds and animals everywhere and the sense of history, from Iron Age forts, the Roman occupation, the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution.
Our journey begins on the cliff top at Sedbury, high on the northern bank of the Severn River, where Offa began his epic task. The Dyke is clearly visible here, running down steeply between the trees from the top of the cliff.
There are two rivers of significance en route, the Severn and the Wye. Both rise in the Welsh Cambrian Mountains and flow independently until the Wye enters the Severn Estuary at Chepstow. I elected to do the walk in eleven days, which required an average of about 16 miles a day. The first stage meant following the Wye to the historic town of Monmouth, but this was no stroll along a flat river valley. A long sharp climb through beautiful bluebell woodlands was followed by a series of switchbacks high above the river, leading to a superb view of the ruins of Tintern Abbey, which dates from 1131.
The Wye was in spate, following the huge amounts of rain that had fallen over the previous weeks, and the brown water was surging along, carrying large chunks of timber and leaping in high, dirty, frothy waves against the piers of the bridges as I neared Monmouth. The weather was cold and windy but thankfully dry, and so it remained for the next eight days.
Here I should make mention of the all important aspects of a walk of this nature—accommodation, food and drink. I walked with just a day-pack, having my luggage moved ahead, and stayed in B&Bs, pubs and farmhouses, all of which were excellent. The great Full English Breakfast provided fuel for the walking day and the thought of a pint or two of the cool amber liquid of the region kept the feet moving for the final miles of the day.
Monmouth to the little village of Pandy was the introduction to the two s-words of the walk; stiles and sheep. There are more sheep than stiles, but you don’t have to climb over the sheep! I am told that there is an intention to replace the stiles along the way with kissing-gates, of which there are a number early on—the sooner the better! This section also includes a number of picturesque villages, including Llanfihangel Ystum Llywern, one of the many places with unpronounceable placenames that I encountered.
One really good thing about the walk is the way-marking, or signposting, which is excellent. The path was set up in 1971 and much of the original marking has been retained, and augmented with newer markers. It is almost impossible to get lost. Carved wooden signposts either show the full name of the Path or bear small round markers with yellow arrows on a white background with the logo Offa’s Dyke Path. In all cases the Path is also marked with the acorn logo, the symbol of the National Trails.
From Pandy to Hay-on-Wye the route turns into wilder country, as the Path crosses the Black Mountains, steep bracken covered slopes leading to wild moorland and black, peaty bogs. This is a tough, bleak section, with a steep climb out of Pandy followed by a long stretch along the ridge to Hay Bluff, the highest point of the whole trek at 621 meters. The boggy area has been paved with a long pathway of large flagstones and is well marked with posts and rocky cairns. The cold, clear weather allowed superb views of long, narrow valleys dotted with isolated farms but the strong north wind, blowing straight into my face, discouraged standing to admire them for more than a few moments at a time.
The ridge walk is followed by a steep descent through more sheep filled meadows to the small town of Hay-on-Wye, famous for its castle and its many outdoor bookshops. I was joined here by two friends, Mike and Debbie, who walked the next two sections with me. A few pints of well earned Welsh bitter at the Blue Boar pub, a good night’s sleep followed by the inevitable full English breakfast saw us rearing to go the next morning on a shortish section to the old market town of Kington. This is a relatively comfortable walk with the Path initially following the Wye and then climbing steadily to pass over Disgwylfa Hill and Hergest Ridge before a long, easy descent into the town. The airy slopes of the green moorland and the soft grass underfoot, together with the welcome appearance of the sun, made this a beautiful day’s walking.
This is drover country. Droving is the practice of moving livestock over large distances by walking them on the hoof, and for many hundreds of years the drovers pushed their sheep and cattle, at a rate of about 10 miles a day, through a myriad of narrow lanes and across open moorland to the markets of towns such as Hereford and Shrewsbury.
About two miles beyond Kington the Path returns to the Dyke itself, and remains with it, and in places on top of it, for some considerable distance. This stage of the walk took us to Knighton, deep in the Teme valley and home to the Offa’s Dyke Association.
This is true border country where it is difficult to be sure if you are in Wales or England. It is said that in times gone by the penalties for being caught on the wrong side of the Dyke were severe—Welshmen had their ears cut off and the English lost their lives. We three were all English but if things had become difficult I would have sheltered behind my Australian citizenship!
The descent into Knighton was long and became ever steeper. As Mike said “It looks like a long way up for you tomorrow, mate.” He was right, but the good amber liquid and excellent food in the Knighton Horse and Jockey assuaged my fears.
The next morning did indeed start with a very tough climb out of the valley. Accompanied by another friend, John, my programme for the day involved a walk of about 22 miles over some demanding terrain, to the B&B at Caemwygal Farm, north of the town of Montgomery. The Dyke was very much in evidence as the Path passed through farms and meandered through woodland and over hills, with some very steep ascents and descents, until finally levelling out near Montgomery. The sun was shining and the views at times were breathtaking It is in this section, on Llanfair Hill, where the Dyke reaches its maximum elevation at about 430 meters and also where the Path reaches its halfway mark.
An easier day followed with just one long hill up through woodland that contained, to my surprise, sequoia trees, the redwoods of the USA. It was here that I lost my way for the first time and had to back track for about half a mile—entirely my own fault as I had missed a perfectly obvious acorn symbol. The Dyke is lost again now as the Path descends and follows the line of the River Severn, across flat meadow land for about three miles, before turning to follow the towpath alongside the Shropshire Union Canal.
The sheltered walk along the towpath was blessed relief from the icy north wind that had been blowing into my face for most of the day and its resident swans provided some peaceful company and photographic opportunities.
Then it was back to the banks of the Severn, where the Path rejoins the Dyke once more, followed by a second walk along a towpath, this time along the Montgomery Canal, into the village of Llanmynech and the welcome hospitality of the Bradford Arms Hotel. Llanmynech, Church of the Monks, straddles the present border between England and Wales, with its eastern half in England and the western half in Wales. Quarrying has been an industry in the area for centuries and the town is dominated by a huge limestone quarry, now defunct. Quarrying seems to have destroyed sections of the Dyke in this area and it only becomes reunited with the Path at Froncysyllte, some 18 miles to the north.
It was now, after a series of cold and windy, albeit dry days that the weather gods deserted me. The next morning dawned grey and drab, with a strong smell of rain in the air. The route was to the town of Trevor, a walk of 19 miles through quiet lanes and fields. All was well for the first couple of hours although ominously the wind had dropped, the first time for a week. Then the heavens opened, the wind picked up and I was treated to a delicious mixture of rain mixed with hail. Raingear on, camera buried in the backpack! It was a fairly comfortable walk, but hard work in continuous rain. No pictures until I emerged, well wrapped up in a thermal top and fleece, from my B&B in Trevor.
There is a fascinating twist to the passage of the Offa’s Dyke Path as it enters Trevor, where two options are on offer. Thomas Telford, born 1757 and arguably the greatest engineer of his day was commissioned to build an aqueduct that could take boats across the River Dee. This structure, completed in 1805, stands 120 feet above the Dee and supports an aqueduct over 1000 feet long. Walkers are offered the choice of walking across this amazing structure or taking the more comfortable path underneath it. Don’t try it if you suffer from vertigo!
Sadly the last two days of the walk were dominated by atrocious weather. This was late May in England, I was walking in a mixture of rain and hail, straight into a north wind from the Arctic with temperatures lurking around eight degrees Centigrade. Whatever happened to English summers?
It was a shame, because the next section between Trevor and Clwyd, crossing the Clwydian Ranges, although quite remote, is said to offer some beautiful views—I’ll have to go back to see them! The terrain is certainly up and down, but the gradients are not steep and boardwalks carry walkers over boggy areas early on. I quote the Cicerone guide book (which, by the way, is excellent) “May the gods of good weather be with you today, blessing you with blue skies, billowing white clouds and light cooling breezes, for this crossing deserves to be enjoyed to the full”. Further comment would be superfluous!
The final section was a comfortable, if very wet walk following lanes and field paths into Prestatyn, through the Nature Reserve, and thence to Offa’s Tavern, to raise a glass to the ancient King of Mercia.
So, to sum up, Offa’s Dyke Path is an excellent walk, traversing beautiful countryside, offering varying degrees of difficulty with regard to the distance walked each day and providing excellent choices of accommodation, food and drink along the way. The weather will always be a factor, but that, especially in the UK, is a risk all walkers have to take.
The highlights for me were the flora and fauna—birdsong everywhere from the dawn chorus, blackbirds singing their hearts out in the woods, skylarks singing high above the moorland and a nightingale in Monmouth! The flowers were superb, bluebells, wild roses, campions, primroses and violets splashing colour through the greenery of the fields and hedgerows. Added to this was the friendliness of everyone along the way, especially the hosts in the pubs, farmhouses and B&Bs.
Thanks are due to Northwest Walks, who organised my itinerary with their usual efficiency, to the Offa’s Dyke Association who have done so much to promote the Path and to all those who are responsible for the way marking. Thank you all!