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.

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