Under Saxon rule, Wales had no need for political borders, for Wales had hills: the English border kingdoms in general did not. So the foothills seemed to satisfy the early warlords, until Offa. This Saxon king had extended his Mercian borders as far as Northumberland and Wessex, and had other ideas. The Welsh were not a major threat, just a nuisance. Offa needed to flex his muscles.
He decided on a border dyke. Maybe it would not be in the class of Hadrian’s Wall, but Hadrian was Roman, and had more soldiers and slaves to build it for him. No, Offa’s wall would be symbolic rather than strategic.
Little did Offa know that in trying to keep the Welsh out of Mercia he would centuries later entice new armies over his earthworks. Twentieth-century walkers liked the idea of the Dyke for company: after all, this was a coast-to-coast earthwork, passing through some darned good countryside, and there were castles, old Iron Age forts and lovely valleys en route.
At first Offa’s Dyke seeks the shade of the Wye Valley woodlands. Then there’s the first of many gaps – from Redbrook right through to Kington, covering much of the Herefordshire sandstone area. The mystery of this bit of missing dyke was solved by Sir Cyril Fox, who discovered that in Offa’s day the place was blanketed by impenetrable forest. Here, the path heads for high ground – the Black Mountains.
From Kington to the Ceiriog Valley near Chirk Offa’s Dyke is at its best. Even when confronted by the chaotic east-west ridges of the Clun Forest it runs powerfully up and down the hillsides without wavering. In Flintshire the Dyke runs through what was coal-mining country, and sensibly the path leaves it for the heathery Clwydian Hills.
It has to be said that Offa designed a mighty fine path.
Chepstow, the Wye Valley and the Black Mountain
So here I was on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late April, following the Offa’s Dyke Path through the woods north of Chepstow. Down through the trees, the sleepy Wye meandered among fields that were green after weeks of rain. Four miles ahead at Tintern was our first night’s B&B. Thirty yards ahead was Nicola. This last distance was widening, my head was thumping.
“Are you OK?” Nicola asked without turning her head. How many times have I done that to her without waiting for an answer?
“Yep!” I lied, and tried to pick up speed beneath my brand new Lowe Alpine rucksack.
Last night, at home in Hoddlesden, neither of us had managed any sleep. Some mystery bug had left me shivering uncontrollably in the bed, and Nicola, restless with the violent vibrations of my shivers.
Our walk had started a few miles back in Chepstow, a busy little town where the Wye, brown with tidal mud, flowed swiftly by the ramparts of a powerful castle. Attractive streets of shops offered last chances to stock up with the things that had been forgotten, the night before – another pair of socks for me; a couple of Mars bars for Nicola.
Tintern Abbey appeared through the trees; tantalisingly close, but in reality, still a mile or two away. The B&B, when I finally got there, was a pretty cottage next to the Cistercian abbey and right by the riverbank. And, inside this pretty cottage, Mrs Russill had a cup of tea waiting for us – this was all very civilised.
Next morning the sun had gone. “Two or three days of rain,” the weatherman informed us with a grin. After managing (in my case only just managing) the first of many breakfasts of bacon, egg and sausage we went out into the rain, clad with our pristine waterproofs. Past Bigsweir we climbed through more woodland where oak, beech, holly, and lime perched high on the valley sides above the Wye. The river was still brown with mud. So now were the woodland paths, but the scent of bluebells and wild garlic was a heady mix, and the trees gave us a certain amount of shelter. Yes, this was all right! Across the valley the dark steaming forests, some conifer and some oak, were punctuated by little clearings with huddled whitewashed houses and the odd riverside inn.
Rain and bluebells in the Wye Valley forests
After making us come down to the valley at Redbrook, the Offa’s Dyke Path wanted us to go back up the hill to Kymin. Offa’s reward was a naval temple and an airy view of Monmouth. We were having none of this for the Wye Valley Walk offered us an easy riverbank way into Monmouth.
We didn’t give historic Monmouth the time that it deserved, for we had still four miles before nightfall, three of them uphill. Statues of Henry V and C S Rolls of Rolls Royce fame overlooked Agincourt Square, and we hurried under the 13th-century gatehouse of Monnow Bridge. The forestry track up this last hill seemed to go on longer than the map promised, but the last mile to our B&B at Hendre Farm was easy and downhill.
Another night’s rest and a full English breakfast later and we were on the path again. The rain rained, and the mud still flowed. It was good red mud that lodged itself in every cleat of our bootsoles. I’d hoped for a newsagent at Llantilio Crossenny. There wasn’t one, just a church, attractive though that was, and a pub, The Hostry. It was early for a pint, and a bit late for salvation, so we pressed on, over rolling pastures, with the ghostly grey outlines of distant peaks peeping over the hedges.
I hadn’t expected much of White Castle, but it turned out to be rather splendid, and, better still, free. It’s not white; the whitewash has long since been removed. However, there’s an impressive moat round the inner walls and a well-preserved keep. The only thing wrong with White Castle was that I couldn’t get a decent picture of it – it was too big for a measly 28mm lens.
The Black Mountains appeared through the damp grey atmosphere – not the proud, rock-fringed escarpment we had anticipated, but a faded shadow, capped with wispy clag.
The sound of rustling waterproofs and fast moving bootsteps made us look back up the hill. Two walkers were moving just as swiftly as the rustling had suggested.
Jenny and Josh were doing Lands End to John o’ Groats. Offa’s Dyke was a short link in their itinerary. We picked up speed and walked with them down to Pandy.
Some places look unpromising, and the Lancaster Arms was one of them – just a turn-of-the century box of a building between two roads. Inside was a rather tatty bar area with furniture and fittings from the sixties. But the Lancaster Arms gave us one of our most enjoyable nights of the walk. Here we shared the company of people who we were to meet and remeet along the whole of the route. Jenny and Josh had come in for their meal, and Tom and Jill had, like us, decided to stay at the pub.
The landlord, Terry Lyon, had seemed quiet when he first showed us to our rooms, and his hands shook badly from high blood pressure. So it came as a shock when this quiet man announced confidently that he would sing us some songs, if we promised to drink plenty of his beer. He strolled to the corner of the bar, where an old guitar, a microphone and an amplifier stood, then burst into I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester Way……he was doing Mike Harding and Ewan McColl proud.
Somebody said that a weather lady had promised a change in the weather – tomorrow afternoon. But much of the talk was of tomorrow morning. We were told that the wet winter had made the Black Mountains ridges very, very marshy. Jill looked troubled and muttered something to Tom. Tom, well he just laughed. He had been planning the walk all year, and wasn’t to be put off by a bit of peat.
Terry cheered the rest of us up with a monologue about King Harold and William the Conqueror. Now he was doing Stanley Holloway proud. In turn, we kept our promise.
Next morning the cloud hung even lower across the green foothills of the Hatterrall ridge. Jenny and Josh had beaten us to the path and were steaming up the fellsides ahead, soon disappearing into those clouds.
Having done the Black Mountains before, I knew that their valleys were much nicer than their ridges. The tops reminded me of the worst of parts of the Peak and Pennines. Nicola and I planned a route through the Olchon Valley before climbing the narrow rocky ridge to Black Hill, then onwards to the main ridge near Hay Bluff. “Where are you off to then?” asked a man on the street by Longtown Castle.
“We pulled a bloke out from there last Thursday. It’s just a mire.”
The man was from the local mountain rescue team and told us about a bridleway that goes round the mountain and onto Hay Common.
This route was pretty. The lanes had sweet smelling hedgerows with flower-filled verges, and we could see the odd spot of sun highlighting distant hillsides. Bathed in sunlight and standing proud above the common, Hay Bluff looked impressive. The path up it was steep, but Nicola and I were feeling like wimps and we were compelled to make amends by climbing to the top.
At Hay, we had a B&B, aptly named Rest for the Tired, and had been looking forward to a bar meal at Kilverts, one of the best pubs for food in Wales. Kilverts was heaving with hungry hillwalkers, bookbuyers and locals. We grabbed a corner table, then saw Jill and Tom, two tables away.
“Never again!” said Jill. “I was up to my knees in it every few steps!”
Nicola and I felt slightly guilty, after having such an enjoyable day.
Over the Green Hills of Radnor
The Wye is one of Britain’s loveliest rivers, and this morning it was bathed with sunshine and flecked with wildflowers. My camera battery decided this beauty was just too much for it to take in, gave me one picture, then died.
Once out of the valley, Offa’s Dyke threads through devious countryside of small hills and remote farming valleys. It uses the odd country lane and wanders through wooded dingles. I remember seeing apple blossom in abundance and hearing dogs and shepherds on distant pastures. Highpoint of the day was to be Hergest Ridge. Being a bit of a Mike Oldfield fan I had bought the record. Now I needed to climb the hill.
Today, Hergest Ridge was not at its best, for the views from this free-striding grass and bracken ridge were lost in a dull, grey mist. Sinister silhouettes appeared through this mist. Hergest is known for its mysteries – the Whet Stone, for instance, goes down the hill each morning for a drink of water. As we neared the sinister silhouettes, they cleverly turned themselves into Monkey Puzzle trees – perhaps under the spell of the local ghost, Black Vaughan, or his murderous wife; or maybe they were an evil experiment in genetic engineering.
One of my ankles had started to bother me. I checked it out – just a faint red patch on the bone with a bruise underneath it. The terrain was dry enough to put my trainers on for the descent into Kington. This did the trick – for the moment.
Kington greeted us with an attractive spired church, half hidden by the blossoms of cherry trees. At the Swan Hotel we remet Josh and Jenny; Tom and Jill, and another Offa’s Dyker, Martin. Martin was travelling light and was strutting around the bar in his stockinged feet.
Next day, after crossing dew-soaked fields by the River Arrow, we climbed back to Offa’s Dyke proper at Rushock Hill. The path gets more erratic in its quest to seek out the elusive dyke. After dropping down to the wide green valley of Hindwell Brook and climbing past the delightfully restored half-timbered farmhouse of Burfa, the path finds the Dyke more helpful and stays with it across the high pastures of Hawthorn Hill.
The George and Dragon, our B&B at Knighton, turned out to be rather less salubrious than we had imagined a country town pub would be. We left the local rugby club players celebrating in the bar, and found the Horse and Jockey at the bottom end of the village. Here, they served the best Chicken Tandoori I had eaten all year – all hot and sizzling in cast iron bowls.
The following morning I decided to buy some waterproof trainers to help with my ankles. Knighton had no outdoor gear shops, just a shoe shop with a few boots and some promising looking white trainers on display. It was five to nine. Two men were in the shop, examining shelves at the back, but they didn’t seem to be keen on opening the door. We waited… The others must have been well up the first hill by now.
At ten past, one of the men finally opened the door, then returned to the back of the shop. On close inspection the trainers were less promising. They were a job lot of outsize ladies’ trainers. In desperation I picked the best fitting pair I could find. They helped me up the first big hill without any real pain, and the leather seemed to be keeping the morning dew out of my socks.
With my new trainers by the River Teme at Knighton
The book said this was to be the toughest section of the route. It calls these next hills the Switchbacks, though the map calls them the Clun Hills. As we strode the flat high sections of Llanfair Hill, we wondered what the fuss was about. This was grand pastured ridge with the dyke, now straight and proud, for company, and with one wonderful section in the shade of some larch trees. But Llanfair Hill and the dyke finally deposit you back on the roadside, and the road goes downhill to another path, which takes you further down – in fact, to the very bottom – of the Clun Valley.
Offa’s Dyke nr Llanfair Hill
Now the Clun Valley goes east and Offa wanted his dyke to go north. So back up the hill you go, then round into an anonymous, twisting cwm that makes you climb towards another steep sided spur, Hergan. The path now has you crossing a series of pastured spurs to Knuck Bank. Here, you have hit the heights. But the path dumps you into depths of despair by diving straight down into Cwm Ffrydd.
Nicola and I studied the view for some time.
“Lovely place. We must come back here, sometime….” then added, “without these heavy packs.”
We’d gone only a few yards further, when we met some scousers, who were picnicking on the slopes overlooking the Cwm Ffrydd.
“You doing the Dyke then?”
“All the way?”
“You’re the fourth lot we’ve seen today.”
“Are the others much ahead?” I asked.
“The last couple are about half an hour ahead of you. The lady was struggling. I’ve not seen them come up the other side yet.”
That would be Tom and Jill.
“There was a lone man (Martin) steaming ahead and then there was another couple. We saw them come out of the valley onto that hill…” He pointed towards Edgehope Hill. “… but, they were faced with a bull and seemed to stand still for a long time. Finally, they went on, the bull panicked, then scampered into the next field. I saw it all through my binoculars.”
That must have been Jenny and Josh.
Churchtown at the bottom of Cwm Ffrydd has the church, but not the town. The climb away from it was steep, and my trainers only just gripped the grassy hillside. I scanned each beast for udders, but we made the top of the hill without seeing the bull. It’s now all downhill to our B&B at Little Brompton Farm.
Little Brompton Farm was as picturesque as a chocolate box cottage – whitewashed, with pretty gardens, blossom everywhere.\
Across the Shropshire Flatlands: Brompton Crossroads to Selattyn
They call this next stage the flat bit. Well, we were due a bit of a rest. I got lost looking for Offa’s Dyke at the back of the farm. Half an hour later we were back on course and really motoring. But really motoring even faster were Joss and Jenny. They appeared in my viewfinder while I was trying to capture Montgomery for the album. We picked up speed and walked with them. Joss and I lagged behind the girls. Joss told me that he always lagged behind Jenny. She was the energetic one. But, as he had already walked several hundred miles from Lands End, I concluded that Josh was underselling himself.
We were all making good time, and the pub at Forden seemed like a good idea. The landlord was in crisis. His wine machine had sprung a leak. Tom and Jill were already there, contentedly sipping their beers, and resting their feet in a puddle of Stowells French Dry White.
We had one ‘up’, the Long Mountain, to do before a long flat section through the Severn Valley. Beacon Ring, at the top of the mountain, had looked promising, but, disappointingly, it turned out to be obscured by forest.
The last we saw of Josh and Jenny was through a car window. As usual they had their heads down and were steaming down the road towards Llanymynech. They were to peel off Offa’s Dyke at Chirk and head for the Pennine Way, or their version of it. The car? No we hadn’t cheated: we had been forced to take a B&B off route and were being brought back to the point we left it by a very kind host, Illid Parrot.
‘There’s a view from the crags of Llanymynech Hill’, the book proclaimed – not on this day, though. There were some limestone quarried crags to explore, and another golf course to negotiate before coming down the other side of the hill. Although there were no flying-out-of-control golf balls around our ears there were flying-out-of-control heather flies – thousands of them!
This was to be a long day, but a good one, with the afternoon sun filtering through a thick haze that would have drawn Turner back to his canvas.
The Home Run: Selattyn to Prestatyn
The stretch from Selattyn to the Dee is the last you see of the Dyke itself, and it’s fitting that the earthworks are prominent and substantial. You’re soon looking down on the beautiful Ceiriog valley and across to the imposing Chirk Castle.
Getting back up the other side of the valley to the castle was made easier by the woodland’s shade. Cars lined the lane by the outer walls. This was going to be a bumper bank holiday weekend for the National Trust.
From the castle we dropped down the hillside to join the Llangollen canal. The canal is high up on the south side of the valley and has to cross to the north; hence Telford’s masterpiece, the Pont Cysyllte aqueduct. Here, a cast iron trough carries the canal for a kilometre, 120ft (35m) above the River Dee. Queues of people and a couple of colourful barges were crossing it. On the other side at Trefor, scores more were sitting on the grass, eating ice creams.
The Llangollen Canal
Though most Offa’s Dykers do Llangollen, it’s two miles off route. Llangollen Bridge is a nice one. You can while away time, hanging over the edge looking at the trout swimming in the fast-flowing Dee. Today, revellers were diving into the river to join the fish.
The next morning Llangollen itself had a hangover: the bank holiday was gone and the place was silent as we set off in search of World’s End. The castle on the conical hill, Dinas Bran, watched from on high as we rounded its lower slopes to rejoin the Offa’s Dyke route.
To get to World’s End you walk on scree paths beneath the fine limestone cliffs of Eglwyseg. This is one of the walk’s highlights. But World’s End is not much of a place for such a grand name – a car park, two limestone crags peeping out from a conifer-filled hollow, and lots of confused motorists driving up and down the road looking for the real World’s End.
Beyond World’s End, the limestone terrain gives way to peaty heather moorland, and I felt I was back on the Pennines. There was just a bit of field-walking, then a few Clwydian outliers to be done before tea.
Our B&B at Clwyd Gate turned out to be one of the more interesting – in a sixteenth century farmhouse with tiny windows and original beamed ceilings that pub landlords would pay a king’s ransom for.
“That’s a big bed,” Nicola said to Mrs Gates.
“Well, actually it’s two beds pushed together.”
They were big old beds too. When you slumped onto them you really slumped into them, then further into them. But that night I didn’t sleep too well, and it had nothing to do with the roast beef dinner I had at the nearby pub.
At one, I heard Mrs Gates go to the loo.
I heard her come out of the loo.
I heard our door open.
I felt a hand on the bed.
Oh no, she’s a sleep walker. This is going to be embarrassing!
I turned on the light.
“Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
It was Nicola!
Mrs Gates did us all a b-i-g breakfast. It fuelled us for the ups and downs of the Clwydian range, and her for the canvassing she was about to do for the first Welsh Parliament elections. By ten we were standing on the biggest peak, Moel Fammau. Last time we were here we had to share the old fort on top with well over a hundred walkers. This time there were only four others.
You can see the whole of Snowdonia from Moel Fammau, but in today’s haze, even Snowdonia wouldn’t be able to see Snowdonia. Nicola and I moved on through the heather to see the Iron-Age fort on Moel Arthur, what a steep climb, and then the even bigger fort on Moel Penycloddiau.
Today Brian and Jean, Nicola’s Mum and Dad, were bringing their camper van up to Bodfari. They would also bring my little two-man tent. This trusty old Vango Beaufort had served me well over many years. Even when I let the wind blow it out of my hands and down the Afon Goch in the high Carneddau, it had the sense to wedge itself under a rock rather than plummet down the Aber Falls.
“David Hempleman Adams had one just like this for a South Pole trip,” I boasted to Brian as I knocked in the last peg. Brian, unimpressed with my revelation and its minuscule proportions, carried on with the more serious task of brewing up some hot tea.
The last day
The last day was a bit of an anti-climax. Its first hill may have been little, but it was steep, and the path seemed to go to great lengths not to avoid its steepest slopes. We advanced onto the last of the book’s maps by lunchtime and the Prestatyn cliffs an hour later. Prestatyn town sprawled across a narrow coastal plain, but the sea was still disguising itself as part of the sky. Brian appeared from the thickets that lined the cliffs, then Jean. They had parked their campervan in a small car park at the foot of the cliffs.
“I could murder a coffee,” Nicola said as we drew up to the van.
Then a familiar face popped round the corner. It was Tom; then Jill appeared. So it was coffees all round.
“Well, we’ve made it. Does anybody know about Martin?”
“No: the last time we saw him was at Knighton.” Jill said, rubbing the perspiration from her brow. “Never again. Next time Tom wants to go off on his own, I’ll let him.”
Me, Nicola, Jean and Tom near journey’s end
Prestatyn’s concrete sea-defence walls are a strange and unfitting end to the walk. Perhaps we should have waited until the tide went out. It is a tradition for the Offa’s Dyker to continue the line of the path out to sea for as far as he or she dares! Well, we didn’t have bathing costumes and the sea looked quite boisterous and freezing. Instead, we signed the Offa’s Dyke book in the Tourist Information Office, shook hands and parted, Tom and Jean to their B&B: Nicola and I to the van, which Brian had kindly parked nearby.“Home then?”
“Who was this Offa geezer then?” Brian asked.
“Oh, some ditch digger who couldn’t afford a wall.” I said as the van crossed the tarmac that crossed the line where Offa’s Dyke should have been.