Thursday, 7 June 2012

Chepstow to Monmouth

Wet, wet, wet!

Malcolm Chalmers, with Chepstow Castle in the background
An early breakfast, accompanied by Minkie the ginger cat, and Sol the Labrador. Then down to the old Wye Bridge to meet Malcolm Chalmers, who had caught the train from Gloucester to join me for the day. As I waited one high speed walker set off across the bridge, not to be seen again; Malcolm duly arrived on time, and we set off at about 9:10. But not before admiring the splendid views of Chepstow Castle, poised on a cliff overlooking the Wye itself, now flowing steadily upstream on a rising tide.

It was uphill immediately – a long steady climb up to the first viewpoint over the Wye. Tracks initially, and then footpaths across fields with occasional bits of road between. Lots of rather fine houses in these parts. The first vantage point was Wintour’s Leap, an hour and a couple of miles outside Chepstow. There’s a fine view, almost vertically down, to the river, which describes a great meander around a spur of high ground, mainly open fields, but with the little hamlet of Lancaut in its centre.

The path then follows a line set well back from the Wye. It’s pretty well the peak of the ridge, with the land falling away steeply to West and gradually all the way to the Severn on its East. The steep slopes on the Wye side are all wooded; on the Severn side much is open fields, interspersed with some woodland where it is on both sides of the ridge.

The beginning of a section where you actually walk along Offa's Dyke
After a spell on roads, we rejoined the “proper” path where it actually runs along Offa’s Dyke. This is the most impressive part of the path, with the remnants of the path quite obvious. It’s stony going, with tree roots to add to the need to watch one’s footing, but one can see how it would act as a defensive wall. Anyone approaching from the Welsh side would have to climb a 45 degree slope to get to the dyke; from the English side it’s a gradual climb to the crest of the ridge.

The whole of the Wye Valley here is wooded, with only the occasional field where there’s a flood plain. Largely beech, but ash, holly, yew interspersed, and even occasional areas of oak. It would be wonderful in sunlight, with a dappled light filtering through the trees, but on a gloomy day like this was dark and forbidding.

The next notable landmark was the Devil’s Pulpit. This is directly above Tintern Abbey, which is visible through gaps in the trees, a kilometre away and two hundred metres beneath. It’s a fantastic view, but somewhat spoiled in the gloom to start with, and then completely lost as the rain swept up the Wye Valley and completely hid the Abbey. From then on, for a bout the next four hours, we had continuous heavy rain. Perhaps it was slightly ameliorated by being under tree cover, but after a while you get the same amount of water, but in larger and more irregular drips.

Tintern Abbey through the gloom - it disappeared
behind a downpour a few minutes later

The first descent was down to Brockweir, the first point where there’s enough of a hinterland to the East to require drainage, and therefore a stream and a side valley. Malcolm knows this area well. Gloucestershire was on his patch when he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries a few years ago. (A historic name: what is it now?) And in Brockweir there’s a village shop which was supported by the Department, and which won all sorts of awards for build quality, sustainability and contributions to the local community. Malcolm had been there when it was officially opened by Prince Charles seven or eight years ago. His (Malcolm’s) boss was astonished that they were supporting this kind of enterprise. We went there – despite it requiring a three hundred metre uphill diversion. A striking building, with new oak beams throughout; excellent soup, and a welcome break from the rain.

The next area is St Briavel’s common. Both the name and the appearance of this area on the map remind one of Western Cornwall – lots of tiny fields in a jigsaw pattern. But in fact there totally different. Fields may be small, but the hedges have regular, well established trees, so from afar the area almost looks like parkland. There were good views as we climbed down into Brocksweir, but when you actually travel through the Common there’s little in the way of vistas, and I didn’t really get a full appreciation of the unique nature of this bit of country.

It’s a long climb up through the Common, but the descent down into Bigsweir is steep and difficult. Malcolm noted with approval that Gloucestershire County Council were proud to announce that they had built a crossing of one particularly bad bit, but we both agreed that could have done a lot more with advantage. It was rough, steep, very muddy in places, with tree roots and stones to complicate matters. We both used poles, myself for the first time this week (and discovered that one wouldn’t lock properly) and It was a good section to complete.

The section between Bigsweir and Redbrook involves another climb up through woodland, a long traverse through the top levels of the wood with fields above, and the another steep drop at the end. Not, unfortunately, a day to get the best from this sort of country. The woods were dark, and hid the river itself.

Looking down at Redbrook before our final descent
At Redbrook we decided to take the Wye Valley Path for the final three miles into Monmouth. The river here is above the reach of the tide, and is a great salmon fishing stretch. I’d thought it looked a bit too coloured to fish, but not so. We talked to one fisherman whose friend as still fishing – elegant Spey casting – and had lost a fish that morning, and then two others who had caught two salmon each that day. All Wye fish now have to be returned to water, so all we could see were photos. Understandable, I guess: last year only 700 salmon were caught in the whole of the river, whereas years ago the annual tally was 11,000 to 12,000 salmon. I must find out why there has been such a disastrous decline.

We finally arrived in Monmouth a little after 6:15; Malcolm to catch whatever bus was on offer and construct some way of getting home, myself to my B&B. We received a rather brusque welcome at its gate (we both looked rather bedraggled, after all) by the landlord, who explained that they weren’t open. But they were, it turned out, still open for my stay. Malcolm, assured that I was looked after for the night, took his leave. He said that it was probably the furthest he’d walked in a day – so heavy labour in his allotment obviously pays a dividend!

After taking me to my room and bringing up my forwarded luggage, Richard actually got to his knees and stuffed newspaper into my waterlogged boots. Full service! To complete the day I had an excellent meal (apart from a couple of stones in my curry) at what is allegedly the best Indian restaurant in Wales.

Rain almost all day. Little more than drizzle until 10:30, then steady, and occasionally heavy, except for a brief respite between 4:00 and 5:00. Temperature estimated 14-18C. 31.26km; 487m ascent, 497m descent.(Only minor deviations from Offa’s Dyke Path, and shorter route for last stretch into Monmouth, so it’s difficult to reconcile with the Guide Book’s 26km.) Undulating, with long steady climbs and steep descents (would be tougher North to South). Going occasionally very rough. Some roads, but these were part of Offa’s Dyke Path; Wye Valley Walk from Redbrook. Strenuous.


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