Sunday, 17 June 2012

Buttington Bridge to Llanymynech

Susan by the Montgomery Canal

After re-crossing the dangerous bridge on the A458 it was across a few fields along the West bank of the River Severn to rejoin the Montgomery Canal. Mostly it was sheep, but this is a fertile flood plain and there were also wheat fields with easy tracks along their edges. The river itself was well up, and the colour of milk chocolate. Offa’s Dyke is still in evidence, but at this stage is no more than a minor ridge and furrow across the riverside fields. It takes an act of faith – and map reading – to be sure that it actually is the Dyke.

The first stretch of the canal was parallel with the busy road from Welshpool to the North. However, the canal soon bears away from the road, and for the rest of the way it ran through open country.

At Pool Quay, a couple of miles out of Welshpool, it was decision time. The Offa’s Dyke Path goes back across the road, and then shares the next few miles with the
Severn Way
along the river before bearing off to the North towards Four Crosses and Llanymynech. The Montgomery Canal winds further to the West, but again becomes part of the Offa’s Dyke Walk as it approaches Llanymynech. Leaving Susan at the last lock of the Pool Quay flight, I enquired of a fisherman – the first I had seen on the canal – whether the towpath was continuous and open. It was, so we elected to follow the canal rather than going across the open country by the Severn. There’s no great difference in the distance, but the canal promised to be more scenic. And so it proved.

A lift bridge over the Montgomery Canal
The canal skirts hills to the West, and then a river valley where there used to be a spur of the canal to the West, and then skirts more hills before crossing the River Vyrnwy, which flows from the huge reservoir in the hills to the West and eventually joins the Severn to the East. This is quiet, pleasant country. But though the locks theoretically still work, there is no boat traffic. Indeed, all we saw was one further fisherman, and a half dozen walkers. Every couple of miles there would be a couple of swans, mostly with flotillas of cygnets in attendance – now the size of ducks, but still covered in grey down.

All the dozen or so locks we had passed so far saw us going down a level – six feet or so for most, with one or two dropping a good ten feet. But after Wern you reach the two Burgedin locks, where you go up a couple of levels rather than further down. There are other canals such as the Kennet and Avon where you reach a summit after climbing and then start descending, but there must be relatively few cases where there is a low section with higher stretches in both directions.

Canal Reflections
At Ardllean we found that the canal suddenly became impassable. The main road crossed it on a bridge that provides only eighteen inches of clearance. This was our predetermined lunch stop, and we planned to stop at a pub marked as being on the East side of the canal. But the beer mug symbol was misleading, we learnt: the pub was actually in the village on the West side of the canal. We also learned from the dog walker who put us right that the aim eventually was to drop the canal level six feet or so with locks either side of the road, and that it had already been cleared to a depth of eight feet to permit this. However, our informant told us, this would be very costly, and he didn’t think it would happen for years, if at all.

The road obviously prevented any navigation, so the three or four barges we had seen on the Welshpool side must have been physically hauled out, carried overland, and re-floated on the “navigable” stretch. It is obviously the reason – or one of the several reasons, it subsequently transpired – why there is so little canal traffic. In practice it’s restricted to kayaks and canoes that can be carried past these obstructions and indeed past the locks. It seems a great pity. Huge effort has been put into making much of the canal navigable and a potential for leisure activities, but this and subsequent blockages render the effort somewhat futile. It’s a pity, because the canal goes through lovely country, and making it more accessible would be a huge benefit for the boating community and the area in general. Much of it looks pretty well ready for boats, with fifteen or more expensively refurbished locks, but nothing of any size can get to the best bits without being hauled overland. According to the excellent book on the canal we were to see at our B&B that evening several hundred thousand pounds – if not millions – had been spent on improvements over the last couple of decades, and Prince Charles had shown a healthy interest in the project on several occasions, but the investment that would really unlock its potential has still to be made.

Another mile completed!
This was further underlined by the fact that there is another road bridge a mile further on where the canal just disappears, a system of aqueducts over the Vyrnwy that are in need of serious work, and a “dry” section beyond Llanymynech before the Montgomery Canal reaches the Llangollen Canal at Lower Frankton.

After rejoining the Offa’s Dyke Path a half mile to the West of Four Crossed, there’s a final loop to the West before it reaches Llanymynech. One old building was obviously some kind of warehouse, still with the hoist for loading and unloading barges. Then there are the splendid aqueducts across the River Vyrnwy, unfortunately partially dry. This is real canal engineering – perhaps not as grand as the metal aqueduct across the Dee at Chirk on the Llangollen Canal, but impressive nevertheless.

The real owners and their family
Llanymynech was little more than a crossroads with a few pubs, various unprepossessing buildings and new estates and a rather decrepit petrol station. There we found our B&B, and the ended the fifth week of the walk. I had originally intended to walk on for a further day to Chirk, but we had a lot of things to do in London and decided to head back to London from Welshpool the following morning rather than spend another day walking. Besides, the 50km Sue had walked had not been without cost: two blisters, and a limp as a result.

Cloudy, with occasional spells of sunshine; reasonably pleasant. Temperature 14 to 18C. 18.49km; 47m ascent, 42m descent. Virtually completely flat, except when level changed after locks on canal.

So far – 31 days. Total distance to date – 766.15km; total climbs 17,229m. One blister; one night of moderate cramp, but otherwise I’m pretty fit.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Mellington Hall to Buttington Bridge

My new walking companion - Susan at Mellington Hall
A good breakfast, and a leisurely start to the day. The “official” ODP path route from Mellington to Buttington is a relatively easy crossing of the Vale of Montgomery, followed by a long, 300m ascent to Beacon Ring, and then a long descent to Buttington on the River Severn.

Instead, we elected to take a longer but more level route – though not until the end of the day did we appreciate just how much longer. This started out down the drive to Mellington Hall (surprisingly busy, until we worked out it was people from the caravan park as well as hotel guests), and then followed Offa’s Dyke, just like the official route, for a couple of miles or so. This is a 50:50m mix between arable land and pasture. Muddy and slippery edges to fields with crops; long grass where hay has yet to be cut; only the occasional easy turf where sheep were grazing. It’s all stiles, too: none of the brand new gates that characterise much of the Offa’s Dyke Path.

Half way to Montgomery I discovered that I had left my walking poles in the entrance porch of the hotel. Luckily our luggage hadn’t yet been collected, so a quick phone call added the poles to the clobber to be transported on to Buttington.

It was then a turn off the ODP towards Montgomery, through the attractive Lymore Park, which is obviously a major local area for walking, jogging, exercising the dog, or collecting elderflowers for making cordials. The map shows a house called Lymore right by the road, but we never saw it. Either it’s totally screened by trees, or it’s no longer there.

Mewlligton Hall - a fine Victorian pile
Montgomery itself is a tiny little town, with a very attractive Georgian centre. All the significant buildings have informative little plaques explaining their history. Most, at some stage or other, seem to have been hostelries of one kind or another. We sampled a modern equivalent – the Castle CafĂ© – where we had an excellent coffee, and were tempted to more, though it was really too early for lunch!

To keep to our intention of a level walk we then went West on minor roads, stopping at a very disappointing pub in Caerhowell for lunch – the Lion Hotel. We had extraordinary soup, and shared an indifferent and obviously commercial pate, all served in a funny little alcove.

Then it was a further mile or so to cross the Severn, and reach the Montgomery Canal. The
Severn Way
, one of the long-distance paths in the area, follows the canal rather than the river.

This, it turns out, is a wonderful walk through largely delightful scenery. There are distant hills to the East, and the map also shows them to the West, but here they are hidden behind gently rising ground, often wooded. It’s very quiet: all afternoon we saw only half a dozen people. Of course, it wasn’t the most conducive weather for walking, and it’s not exactly the most populous part of the world, but we had expected to see a few more people.

Montgomery Town centre
The canal has been extensively renovated over the last 30-odd years, and the locks are apparently in working order. I say “apparently” because we never saw anyone actually boating on the canal, and some of the canal gates have vegetation growing out of them. So it’s sometimes difficult to believe that it’s in active use. This, after all, was a Saturday, and if anything is happening one would expect to see signs of activity over the weekend. I find it hard to believe that the rain would put off a dedicated enthusiast.

Our canal-side walk extended to about 9 miles, according to the regular mileposts. There is an aqueduct over one river – our first experience of water-over-water, I think – and several places where the canal crosses smaller streams. But it’s difficult to see how even a shallow-draft narrow boat can use the canal. In places there are marestail right across the width of the water, and in many others there are reeds, irises and other aquatic vegetation which severely limit its navigability. Yet there are notices that there was to be a major canal event in early July actually involving boats. Though perhaps “major” would be overstating it!

After about five miles we did actually see a narrow boat moored just above a lock, though no-one was in residence. One lock later there were two British Waterways workboats that looked almost as if they had been abandoned. It all feels rather sad: the impression is of a major undertaking, started years ago, which has somehow run out of steam. This was rather confirmed by the book on the Montgomery Canal which we found that evening in our B&B. It had wonderful then-and-now pictures, with several showing well-attended re-openings of various locks and other parts of the canal system.

The final bit through Welshpool is less attractive. North of the town centre the canal disappears under a major new road, and loses its towpath. Here we walked along the road for a few hundred yards before finding a footpath which cut the corner to the Severn bridge, which we had to cross to get to Buttington.

Susan at a Montgomery Canal lock - dressed for the
day's prevailing weather
Sue had removed the bottom section of her convertible trousers. Mistake! It turned out that the first part of the footpath was little more than a field of nettles – and hadn’t been trodden down, so she acquired a fair few stings. This did not improve her morale. I had estimated the day’s distance as little more than 20km, but that was if one had taken the high road. The level road I had chosen for us was nearer 31km – just a few too many. However, after the nettles it was a good footpath behind the huge new livestock market to the North of Welshpool, built by Tesco in exchange for the former livestock market close to the centre of Welshpool. It had not necessarily been a good exchange, as we discovered later that among other things it cut the railway off from the rather imposing old station, leaving access to trains a long walk along footbridges and ramps. The new market is apparently the largest sheep marked in Western Europe; it certainly seems huge enough to qualify.

The it was a final half mile to our B&B, across a rather dangerous bridge across the Severn and then along a few hundred yards of road. A welcome arrival – but a rather chintzy room and not enough water for two well-earned baths. And the local pub – the Green Dragon – demonstrated once again that culinary excellence is not one of the reasons to visit Wales.

Light rain all day. A few occasions when it relented for a few minutes. Temperature 12 to 17C. 30.81km; 180m ascent, 240m descent. Easy, but long.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Knighton to Mellington Hall

An early departure for Irvine, who had to drive to Glyndebourne for the opera in the Ferrari he had arranged to be delivered to Knighton the previous day. It had sat outside the hotel in the rain overnight, unlocked because the key had been lost. Ferraris of that vintage have separate keys for access and ignition. A very satisfactory throaty roar as Irvine left.

High Street, Kington
Full rain gear was the order of the day – even to the extent of gaiters. Though I have to say I didn’t find the ones I had bought in Hay that easy to keep up, they did at least keep some of the worst of the mud off my trousers.

A gentle half mile down to the river Arrow and across it, and then the first of the ascents. This section is referred in the guidebook as the switchbacks, and it was certainly the case that there was not that much level walking all day. The first ascent was steeply up through woods to start, and then long but easier, with a total climb of over 200m. Looking back I saw a couple of other walkers following me, perhaps a quarter of a mile behind, and it was rather gratifying that, fit young men that they were, they didn’t actually pass me until the best part of an hour – and two miles – later. Such are the small boosts to morale one experiences on days like this!

As one climbs the valleys spread out beneath, with what would be splendid views on any more clement day. Though not so appealing in the rain, of course. This section of the path follows Offa’s Dyke pretty religiously, just as yesterday’s had done. It makes one realise how much effort must have gone into building it in the first place – presumably with little other than basic tools to do the work. I suppose the only advantage, in comparison with Hadrian’s wall, is that there would have been little quarrying and carting stones, as it’s basically just repositioning local materials. There wouldn’t have been much change in the technology available to builders in the interval between the respective constructions.

One of the more impressive stretches of Offa's Dyke
The first descent was to cross a couple of streams at Selley Hall. At least I took the right path this time (though I made mistakes later) whereas the two fit young men stayed high, and I got ahead of them again, though not for long. These descents are, in many ways, worse than the climbs: the mud can be extraordinarily slippery, and it’s sometimes challenging to keep ones footing. Walking poles were certainly de rigueur all day. They’re helpful both physically and in terms of confidence on terrain and in conditions such as this.

This section involves little road walking. There are occasional bits where you have to cross a minor road, or even walk along one for a quarter mile or so, but it’s almost entirely open country walking. Mainly sheep again, but the occasional field of cattle, and the inevitable stretches of uncut hay to get ones feet thoroughly soaked as the grass is so waterlogged. Just before my own expected lunch stop I caught up with a couple I had last seen resting at Selley Hall, this time brewing up something on a tiny gas-powered stove. It’s a feature of the proper, traditional approach to long-distance walking, I suppose, but not something I would care to do!

The path crosses the River Clun just half a mile from a tiny village called Newcastle., There’s a tempting beer-mug symbol on the map, and it wasn’t yet two o’clock, so the temptation was strong … But there was still a long way to go, and the thought that the pub mightn’t be open on a wet weekday persuaded me that it would be better to keep straight on. I’m glad that I did so. There had already been three pretty significant climbs and as many more modest ones, but there were plenty more to come.

I'm not doing all of it, I know, but it's still rewarding to
see some definite signs of progress!
And a couple of mistakes added to the time and distance. I missed a couple of the waymarks, and on two occasions found myself off track. The first meant that I had to climb down to the valley when I found myself confronted by a fence with no stile or gate; the second meant that I actually had to retrace by steps for half a mile when I found myself on the Shropshire Way instead of on the Offa’s Dyke Path. The trail identifiers no longer had the tell-tale acorn of the ODP, and I almost had to get out a compass to work out where I was.

There were three more significant climbs before Churchtown, and two more after it. The corresponding descents were often steep, and in a couple of cases very muddy and treacherous. This is a section of the Path that would be much more pleasant – and easy – in dry weather. There are obviously great views from the tops, which are a real  recompense for all the effort, but they too would have been so much better in more reasonable conditions. But it seems that June 2012 is not to oblige.

The final descent is into the Vale of Montgomery – a flattish area surrounded by hills. The last stretch is along a muddy track atop Offa’s Dyke, rather undulating and slippery, with the Mellington Hall caravan park behind a secure fence. I had started to think that there was no access to Mellington Hall itself, but eventually there was a track off to the right to the hotel. It was on this very final stretch that I encountered the worst mud of the day. Having got my boots reasonably clean – if wet – by tramping through long grass I now discovered that what looked an easy track covered in leaf mould actually concealed ankle-deep muddy holes.

An evening rainbow. There must have been some sunshine!

Purely by chance Susan was coming out of the hotel to try to get mobile phone reception as I arrived. But before going in I had to spend several minutes wiping the most offensive of the mud off my boots, gaiters and trousers on the grass outside the hotel. So it was barefoot upstairs for a well-earned whisky and shower before coming down again for dinner.

There it was another whisky in front of an open fire in the rather ornate Victorian hall of the hotel, chatting to as very nice couple from Cardiff who had been given a weekend break at the hotel as a Christmas gift by their kids. They could have chosen a better weekend, but June this year continues to disappoint.

Mellington Hall has been through several different stages of development since the middle ages. Now it’s a rather over-blown Victorian pile, high ceilings and rooms full of brown panelling and ornate furniture. But they’re very friendly and welcoming, and it is comfortable.

Rain all day – generally light, but sometimes more intense. Only a few occasions when it relented for a few minutes. Temperature 12 to 17C. 25.70km (estimated from map); 1,267m ascent, 1,273m descent. Severe. Very undulating with half a dozen major climbs and several minor ones. The hardest day since the tough stages on the South West Coast Path.

Map: None!! Very frustratingly the technology let me down on this toughest of sections.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Kington to Knighton

Irvine Laidlaw and me at ChurchHouse, Kington
Irvine was already up before me to supervise the loading of his BMW onto a transporter. This was driven by Irvine’s Motor Manager, who would also to take our luggage on to Knighton. Breakfast served promptly by Liz Darwin, who then announced that once more she had to dash off almost immediately. As a result we never had any chance to explore the family history. I understand (from my brother Nick) that they are direct descendents of Charles, and his portrait hangs in a prominent position in the dining room. Though I doubt that it’s one of the finer portraits, it looks strikingly like the one on the ten pound note.

So then it was off, shortly after 9:00, for the first climb up out of the valley of the River Arrow. The first landmark is Kington Golf Club – reputedly the highest golf club in England. There’s a notice offering refreshments which (according to the Offa’s Dyke Guide) include excellent bacon rolls. Though I can’t understand the demand model: it’s too soon after breakfast in Kington for Northbound walkers, while I’d have thought the Southbound lot would want to press on to the finish of the stage.

Offa's Dyke - one of the molre open stretches between Kington and Knighton
After the golf course it’s undulating countryside between the 300 and 350m levels. The view changes radically, though, as after the first couple of miles it’s towards the West, which up until then has been hidden by the higher part of Bradnor Hill. One is high enough to get a real appreciation of the country, with views to the distant hills as well as down into the valleys. The only trouble was the weather, which muted the colours into a mere approximation of what they would have been under a sunny sky. Basically this was the greatest disappointment of the day: personally I didn’t really mind the weather, even when it rained later In the day, as it was just the right temperature for walking, but it really made the scenery so much less attractive than it should have been.

This is where Offa’s Dyke really becomes apparent, and from here onwards the path follows it very closely. It’s still obvious, but surprisingly variable. In places it’s across open country with little other than the occasional bush; in others it’s completely overgrown, and more like a narrow wood than an old dyke and ditch. Everywhere the rabbits have been at work, presumably for the best part of several hundred years. As a result it can be quite treacherous on top where rabbits have undermined the structure. And it’s sometimes surprising that they haven’t completely destroyed it, though I suppose if contains too much rock to be easily obliterated.

Irvine on the way into Wales - old county names and new

The path – and dyke – then descend, rise, and descend again to cross the various streams that flow East to meet the Wye. First a fairly modest stream, and then the River Lugg, which I remember from fishing days was often the cause, after rain in its valley, of the lower Wye becoming very coloured. Each time it’s a 200m descent, and a 200m climb up the other side. The valleys here are wider, and largely arable, in contrast with the uplands which are almost entirely given over to sheep, though with the occasional (uncut) hayfield. It’s also right on the border between England and Wales, so it’s not always easy to work out which you are in.

After climbing up from the River Lugg it’s a generally high level track until the final descent into Knighton. This is no longer the open moorland experienced further south, but large fields of pasture or hay, with forestry much in evidence as well. Unfortunately it’s all conifers, though in many cases it’s larch or pine rather than spruce, which at least means it’s not so dark and forbidding beneath the trees.

The final drop into Knighton is alongside the Knighton Golf Club, some of which is at over 300m. Is this higher than Kington GC? The highest in Wales? At any rate, it makes the section a golf club to golf club section, which must be unique on this – and many other – national trails. It’s also step and slippery, so we were very please eventually to reach a road, even though it was the best part of a downhill half mile before we reached the hotel.

The River Lugg - rather less of a flood than elsewhere
The weather hadn’t been great all day, and the rain set in earlier than expected, so the last couple of hours were pretty damp. At least there was the compensation of having a walking partner. And much to talk about – South Africa, where Irvine and Christine now spend more time than anywhere else; golf croquet (a form I had never heard about, though now apparently ever more popular); the trials and tribulations of dealing with German purchasers of Sardinian houses; horse racing; education; the British problem of the permanently unemployed (and unemployable?). And for a future country experience in the UK he and Christine are thinking of exploring the Kennet and Avon Canal. Rather smaller scale, I suspect, than his other watery adventures.

He may have been pretty tired by the end of the day, but so was I, so I figure for someone with less training than me he did very well.

The Knighton Hotel was welcoming, though surprisingly ill equipped for walkers. Wet boots seemed to cause them a minor panic attack, so the rest of my wet gear had to be taken up to the room and dried there. And Irvine was unable to find anywhere in Knighton that sold trousers, so had to make do with the damp and muddy pair he’d arrived with.

Knighton is far less attractive than Kington, and feels much more down at heel: no quality shops in the centre, and a generally rather drab appearance. Maybe it was just the weather, though, and I’m being unfair. But I did explore much of the centre looking (unsuccessfully) for a mobile signal.

Dinner was not brilliant, though the alternatives were not obvious, so it was Hobson’s choice. The twin room I was allocated was so small it was virtually impossible to sit down to type at the tiny dressing table. And the water temperature control wouldn’t allow anything hotter than 37C water, so my bath was lukewarm. Not a hotel I would recommend!

Cloudy to start, with rain developing in early afternoon, becoming persistent by evening. Temperature 13 to 18C. 24.55km; 802m ascent, 773m descent. Severe. Very undulating with three major climbs.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Hay-on-Wye to Kington

Two rest days with (brother) Nick and (sister-in-law) Moira in their immaculate house in Hay. Or almost immaculate: there’s still one room filled with the various stuff they’ve accumulated over the years but for which they still have to find homes. Their house is beautifully renovated, with lots of original wood complemented by well-chosen new bath and kitchen appliances, and with great pictures everywhere – many by my mother, who was a very talented artist.

One had to be careful, though: slippers mandatory when indoors, and an accurate description of what they do when going upstairs or downstairs on polished old wooden steps, some of which are rather uneven or slope towards the front. I hope they’re well-insured for their B&B guests. Though no casualties were reported for the ten days during which they had put up Hay Festival speakers. It had obviously been demanding and stressful, which was evident in Moira’s reaction to my muddy (but dry!) boots and trousers when I first appeared on their doorstep.

The East door of the church of St Mary
and St Nicholas with its unique carvings
We were joined by Susan, arriving from Hereford by bus that evening. Monday was dinner in; Monday a local walk in a loop to the South of Hay followed by dinner out at the Griffin in Felin Fach some dozen miles away (very good), and Tuesday was a guided tour of three churches on our way to drop Susan off in Hereford for her train back to London. First there was Dore Abbey, a grand church which is the only remnant of a major Cistercian monastery; then St Nicholas’s Church at Grosmont (partly an ancient nave, but with much of the body of the church rebuilt in Victorian times), and then the tiny Norman church of St Mary and St David, with extraordinary, unique and well-preserved carvings around the door and beneath the eaves. Nick is obviously a great enthusiast of church architecture, and there are plenty of interesting ones in this part of the country.

On Wednesday it was time to set out again and resume the Offa’s Dyke Walk. Nick and Moira elected to accompany me, at least for some of the way (which turned out to be all but the final bit into Kington).

This is more domestic country than the Black Mountains to the South of Hay. There are open fields, largely arable, on the flood plain alongside the Wye. And there was even someone fishing in the river itself. It made me feel rather nostalgic about times I had been salmon fishing on the Wye, but I’m not sure it would have the same appeal if one can’t keep anything one catches.

After the first couple of miles it was a turn to the left and up into the hills. It’s undulating country, attractive, almost entirely sheep farming, though with occasional cattle. Views from the higher levels are superb, and it’s an entertaining challenge to work out which distant hill is which.

Lunch at Newchurch with Nick and Moira
Just before reaching it we came across a couple struggling up the hill from Newchurch. She was heavily loaded, and thrust a leaflet into our hands. She was on her way from John O’Groats to Land’s End – but was “walking for Jesus” rather than purely for exercise. Late 60s? She had started the previous year, but was forced to stop because of injury; she had resumed in Penrith at the beginning of May, and planned to get to Bristol on this leg.

At Newchurch we found that the church provided drinks and biscuits on a serve-yourself basis, and there was a table outside for lunch. Very welcome – and an excellent way to get the extra few quid for church funds. I’m surprised that it isn’t a more frequent offering: there are, after all, enough churches on the way across country.

After Newchurch it’s a long climb up Dysgwilfa Hill – open moorland at the top. Then there’s a long, high level traverse before the descent into Gladestry. Very attractive country. At Gladestry it was time to say goodbye to Nick and Moira, who were to catch a taxi back to Hay (There’s only one bus a week from Gladestry, and that’s on a Tuesday, and doesn’t go to Hay.)

Monkey Puzzle trees on Hergest Ridge - an incongruous sight
Then it was the final cross-country stretch into Kington. This is across Hergest Ridge – a wonderful open area, with a maximum altitude of just over 400m, and superb views in all directions. Now one can see the hills to the North and West as well as across lower levels to the East. It’s smooth grass paths between large expanses of still quite young bracken. Here, apparently, it’s mown and baled for animal bedding. At the top of the Ridge there’s an incongruous copse of monkey puzzle trees, and the tracks of what used to be a race course. And then it’s the long final descent into Kington.

I arrived at Church House at 5:30; Liz Darwin showed me my room, made me a cup of tea, and dashed off, leaving me to wait for Irvine Laidlaw. It was a fine evening, and their garden is gorgeous. Just a pity that the splendid wisteria was past its prime. A few late flowers, but nothing like the display there must have been a monh or so ago. The house is beautiful, too – Georgian, and well proportioned, with a warm, comfortable and lived-in feeling to it.

The view North from Hergest Ridge, just before Kington
Irvine turned up bang on schedule at 6:30, and as soon as I had finished my delayed bath we set off for the Stagg at Titley in the BMW Alpina Z8 that he had just imported from the US (one of a limited edition of 555 cars, apparently). There we had an excellent dinner, though the service could be somewhat abrupt, with plates whisked away almost before you had put down a knife and fork.

On our return Ollie, Liz’s son, was in the garage with a couple of his local buddies, playing around with motor bikes. Ollie is at UWE in Bristol, doing a business degree, but is already in business selling motor bike parts around the world. Evidence, if one ever needed it, of the way that the Internet makes all sorts of new enterprises possible.

Ollie and his friends – and Irvine – were in seventh heaven talking about cars, bikes, engines, and the like. All over my head, I fear.  But it did become rapidly apparent to all that Irvine is rather wealthy and well-endowed with classic cars. And so to bed.

An excellent day, despite the forecast. Almost totally blue sky to start with, and then cloud building up during the day. Looked threatening in the early afternoon, but then improved to finish with a sunny evening. Despite the threats, there was no rain. Temperature 15 to 21C. 26.23km; 724m ascent, 629m descent. Moderate to severe. Very undulating with four major climbs.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Llanthony to Hay-on-Wye

My guess was that everyone at breakfast was a walker, but in fact I never saw any of them again, so perhaps some were cyclists, or at least going eh other way. I left soon after 9:00, having arranged for my luggage to be taken on to brother Nick’s home in Hay.

The local horses taking it easy
There were no more than a couple of hundred metres of gentle going before the path turns uphill, and then its solidly uphill for 2km or more. It rapidly became apparent that the route I had taken down the previous afternoon was the wrong one, and obviously less well defined and more difficult. The route I took this time was much easier to follow. It may not appear as a nice green dotted line on the map, but it’s pretty obvious on the ground.

It’s a long ascent through – the best part of 400m of climbing from the Half Moon and Llanthony Priory. Most is relatively modest in gradient terms, but there are several steeper pitches. Quite soon after leaving the priory I was passed by a group of three climbers (out for a day trip from Bristol, it later transpired), but felt rather better when I found them taking a rest near t he top of the climb. Classic hare and tortoise stuff!

Looking back down at Llanthony Priory
After that it was just a long fairly level walk across the top of the ridge. This is right on the boundary between England and Wales, and involves an almost imperceptible climb from an initial 600m where one first reaches the ODP to just ov er 700m where it reaches its highest point some 5km later. There are good views to the hills in all directions, but the lie of the land is such that you don’t really see down into the valleys. I had been told before starting on this section that I might find it more interesting to get to Hay via opne of the valleys either side of the ridge, and I can understand that point of view. However, even if the views were not everything one might want, they’re still pretty impressive. It was hazier than it had been the previous day, but one could still see huge distances in all directions.

Most of the going was fairly straightforward with grassy paths and occasional gravel laid in rougher stretches. However there were several places where flagstones had been laid across boggier bits, and given the recent rain and the state of the surrounding ground I was grateful for this. Only at one stage is the path not obvious underfoot. This is where it crosses a stony area devoid of any vegetation, but there are stone cairns at 50m intervals to show the way. However, even without them I think it would be virtually impossible to lose one’s way. The Guide Book makes much of navigating across these heights; in fact it’s kid’s play. I don’t think it would really be a problem even if cloud restricted visibility to a few yards.

Me at the Trig Point on Hay Bluff - 677m
After passing the high point of the ODP (702m), the route starts to drop gently towards the North. Here I met a father and his (?) 10-year old son who had made their way up from the opposite direction, He had Swarovski binoculars, so was obviously into birds, He said that they had just put up a grouse. Unfair! I had been hoping to see red grouses at some point on these heights, but despite walking 10km to their one didn’t get as lucky as they had been.

There is then a steep descent for 20 ro 30m, where the path divides – right down the gentler way to Hay, and left to Hay Bluff, which is a real lookout over the area to the North, and has a trig point at 667m. I chose the latter – and felt I had made the right choice. The view from the Bluff is fantastic. There’s nothing as high for miles and miles to the North and East; only to the West is there anything as high, and here there is a succession of bluffs at the edge of the Black Mountains overlooking the Wye valley below.

At the top I took a photo for a group of four (of my sort of age!) who had come up from beneath the Bluff. One of the women was actually in sandals, would you believe! I was hugely impressed by their efforts, though I did soon realise that they had actually climbed only a little over 100m from a car park beneath the Bluff rather than all the way from Hay.

The path down from Hay Bluff.
Would you tsckle it in sandals?
It was actually a long descent – first steeply down the North face of the Bluff, then a long way across an open common area, then down through fields and lanes to Hay itself where the festival was coming to a close after a fortnight of (sodden) capacity crowds. A pint in a local pub, and a knock on my brother’s door soon after 5:30. Susan arrived from Hereford by bus a couple of hours later to join me for a couple of days in Hay.

Another reasonable day. Cloudy with sunny intervals; no rain. Temperature 13 to 19C. 20.66km; 560m ascent, 663m descent. Moderate to severe. Long climb from Llanthony, occasionally rough going on the rockier bits of the ridge, and a long descent into Hay.

The end of Week 4. So far, it’s 640.37km and 14,209m of climbing. (Pretty well the same amount in descents, of course, which are sometimes more demanding.) One blister, one night’s cramp, three atrocious days and a couple of others that weren’t too brilliant. Lots of good company, and some outstanding scenery. Morale pretty good.


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Pandy to Llanthony

The Honddu in flood
I treated myself to a late start, as this was expected to be a shorter day. Many walkers do Pandy to Hay-on-Wye (or the reverse) in a single day, but I had elected to take two. I had planned to do some work on my blog after breakfast, but abandoned the idea when my landlady said that she had to get the room ready for the coming night’s guests.

So it was on my way shortly after 10:00. There is one level field down to the river – the Honddu, a tributary of the Monnow – but after that it’s all uphill. Fortunately most of it is fairly gentle climbing at a modest gradient, but there are a few steeper and more demanding stretches. But the views are magnificent, and a real reward for all the effort. Initially it’s views back down to the valley of the Honddu, but as one climbs the vista extends, so that by the time you reach the first real peak, with a trig point at 464m, you can see for perhaps fifty miles to the East, with the Malvern Hills and even the Cotswolds visible on a clear day like this. The views to the South and West are equally impressive, but the distance you can see is much reduced, because it’s all high ground in these directions. To the North, where you are about to go, it’s just higher ground that confronts you.

On the tops - looking North towards the Black Mountains
The vegetation is partially heather, with stunted gorse in places, and the odd patch of bracken. But the most dominant plant is what looks like bilberries, which in places seem completely to smother everything else. It’s not like any other moorland I’ve seen. The birds are everywhere – mainly skylarks and meadow pipits, but also the occasional stonechat. I’d hoped to see grouse, as there are grouse butts marked on the map, but perhaps they are no longer here. Merlins are advertised too, but I failed to see any. The corvids were mainly carrion crows, though I did hear a couple of ravens.

The trail is obvious, and obviously well used. The guidebook refers to difficulty in following it, but I could see no reason for concern. Most of it is pretty rocky, but there were also boggy patches after the recent rain, and occasional grassy stretches. There were a few other walkers in the opposite direction, including one very unhappy looking couple with huge backpacks which obviously included camping equipment. There was not so much as an acknowledgement from either of them, which is very unusual on the Path. I don’t think they were enjoying themselves – or perhaps they had just fallen out with one another, and were striding out to get off the b****y hill.

M ore evidence of the recent storms
I elected to carry on to the second path down to Llanthony, partly so that I could say I’d done the whole of the top section, partially because there was plenty of time to spare, and partly because I could then reconnoitre it for the ascent back up the following day. It was long, tricky in places, but fortunately reasonably easy to follow despite the lack of any waymarks. I was also surprised not to see any bootmarks, and from time to time thought it must just be a sheep track, but it did gradually go downwards. And eventually there was a sign and a stile.

The final bit of the descent was down a long winding track leading to Llanthony Priory. Only when I reached the bottom did I learn that it wasn’t the correct route, as there was a sign stating that it wasn’t a Right of Way. I thought there was generally reasonably free access in a National Park, but perhaps it’s still possible to have restrictions.

Llanthony Priory - open to the sky
I stopped briefly at Llanthony Priory. It’s mainly a rather striking ruined Priory, but it’s privately owned, and incorporates a pub and a hotel. They allow free access to the ruins, which are surprisingly well preserved. I suppose in remote parts of the world like this there were always fewer people, so old buildings stood a better chance of survival in earlier times when antiquities weren’t valued but simply treated as an easy source of building materials. That was the fate of large parts of Hadrian’s Wall, for example.

I arrived at the Half Moon Hotel by 3:30. Rather disappointing. An adequate room, though within minutes I had bumped my head a couple of times on the low ceiling over the desk on which I’m writing this. There are about a dozen rooms, and presumably most of them don’t have en-suite facilities, because there’s a series of shower rooms and loos opposite my door.

There’s no mobile reception here or for miles in either direction, as the National Park Authority has prohibited the erection of radio masts. So it’s a hungry payphone.

But the beer is good, and the staff are friendly. A good day’s walk.

At long last fine weather! Fairly cloudy to start, but fair weather cumulus, not rain-bearing stuff. Marginal improvement throughout the day, with fairly frequent spells of sunshine. Fairly windy, particularly on the tops. Temperature 14 to 18C. 15.5km (estimated; iPhone did not record the last bit into Llanthony), 533m ascent, 427m descent. Moderate to severe. Long climb initially, and occasionally rough going on the heights.

Map (with missing detail at the end) -

Friday, 8 June 2012

Monmouth to Pandy

An inauspicious weather forecast – continuous heavy rain, and high winds. What a June! Fortunately the worst failed to materialise. It was raining only slightly as I set off, and never actually got very much worse.

The gate over the River Monnow at Monmouth
For the next three days I would be on my own. Whether it was my description of two of them being arduous, or simply that everyone had better things to do, I shall never know. Anyway, the miles have to be walked, so I set off shortly after 9:00. No success in buying a poncho as a new top layer of waterproofing, so my only purchase was a bunch of bananas in the hope that they would prevent cramps after strenuous days.

Monmouth itself is an attractive town, with the older part between the Wye and the Monnow, which gives the town its name and which joins the Wye just below the town. There’s an arched gate on the bridge over the Monnow, which I had to cross as I left the town. The map was fine for the first part out of town, but I then managed to get lost in a housing estate before retracing my steps and – with some  local guidance – finding my way back onto the Offa’s Dyke Path.

It’s across agricultural land, then up through woods, and down through more fields to the valley of the little River Trothy. It’s pleasant enough, rolling country, but not at its best in these dull conditions. Red kites were much in evidence; I hadn’t appreciated that they had wandered this far from their Welsh strongholds. After leaving the river, it’s a climb over more farmland, and a well-groomed cider orchard, before descending once again into the little village of Llantilly Crossenny and rejoining the River Trothy. The ODP Guide breaks the Pandy-Monmouth section into two, with an overnight stop in Llantilly Crossenny, but I couldn’t for the life of  me see why. It seemed to me an undistinguished little place, with no obvious accommodation. And no pub! I had been anticipating one, given that it’s supposed to be a stopover point, and hadn’t checked the map, as it’s just after one goes from one map to the next, and I hadn’t read the next sheet in advance. So it was just a couple of cereal bars and a banana before setting off again.

Evidence of the wind and rain over the last few days
This was the low point of the day. It was only a couple of miles to White Castle, the supposed high spot of this section, but what a couple of miles! First there were two wheat fields which had to be crossed. They were totally sodden after all the recent rain – cloying mud, slippery and treacherous. But this was nothing compared with the next field – newly ploughed and ridged for potatoes. There was a clear track across where people had obviously walked since the ploughing, but it turned out to be a case of people following previous footprints rather than actually crossing in the right direction. In places I sank ankle deep in mud, unaware from the surface that it was so deep. At one stage I thought my boot would be pulled off, so difficult was it to extract myself.

No was I done when I eventually found the ODP sign at the far end. There was yet another wheat field to cross, with even more cloying mud, so that by the time I had crossed it my boots must each have weighed a couple of pounds. And then, at last, there was relief – pasture. Some of it was being grazed, and other parts were uncut hay. So I was able, over the next mile or so, gradually to relieve myself of the mud attachments to my boots. And then there was a pleasant lane, gradually rising to the White Castle – a very impressive monument, and quite well preserved.

The White Castle
The rest of the stage was all grassland, but quite undulating. Towards the end it involved a long steady climb before finally reaching the top, and a long, gentle, boot-cleansing descent into Pandy. There I found my destination – the Lancaster Arms, a de-consecrated pub which the owners now use only as a B&B. They’re used to walkers, too, so there was a drying room. And the fact that they’re no longer a pub doesn’t mean one can’t get a drink and an evening meal. All  very welcome – and a very comfortable room as well.

I only saw two groups of walkers all day. The first was half a dozen teenage boys, accompanies by an older man, and I assumed it was a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition. The lads did not look very happy about it. The other was a group of three women, who it turned out later had stayed at the Lancaster Arms the previous night. They looked far more cheerful: the wind was behind them, and while it may have been pretty damp it was nothing like the downpour and headwind they had experienced the previous day as they crossed the Black Mountains.

The church at Llangattock Lingoed
The ODP Guide describes this section as “quiet” and “descending gradually from the Black Mountains”. Obviously I was travelling in the opposite direction so for me it should have been “gentle” and a “gradual climb to the Black Mountains”.  Both are inaccurate. There are several hundred metres of climbs and descents, and Monmouth is only 100m lower than Pandy. Apart from finding it very frustrating that it covers everything from North to South, with little accommodation for walkers going in the opposite direction, I find the guide seriously deficient in describing the terrain.

Light rain all day. (Nothing like Aberystwyth, which had 100mm of rain in 24 hours, with campers having to be rescued by helicopter.) Temperature estimated 12-16C. 29.0km, including morning mistake; 653m ascent, 568m descent. Offa’s Dyke Path followed religiously. Going occasionally very muddy. Moderate, but a long day.