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.

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