I’ve just added a 15-minute Shropshire Way video.
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.
Lakeland to Lindisfarne is a 190-mile (310km) coast-to-coast between Ravenglass and Holy Island, taking in the hills of the Lake District, the high Pennines and the Northumberland coast.
The low-level Lakeland to Lindisfarne route is not a difficult one: it’s about on a par with Wainwright’s Coast to Coast and much easier than the Pennine Way. The mountain alternative route, though easier than Snowdonia to Gower or the Scottish Coast-to-Coasts, is tougher and would throw out a stiff navigational test to the inexperienced walker.
“A coast-to-coast across the Lake District and the Pennines to the North Sea? Wainwright’s already done it.” I hear you say. But why should Wainwright have all the fun, steal all the best bits, and didn’t he go wrong – just a tiny little bit – on the Cumbrian plains, the flatlands between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors?
My route started life back in the eighties – as Ravenglass to Edinburgh, a 260-mile epic that left England at Kielder and crossed the Southern Uplands to Scotland’s historic first city. But instead of walking it I got married to Nicola, so Ravenglass to Edinburgh was forgotten; put into a dark drawer, somewhere in the loft.
Several years later, Nicola said that she’d like to do a long distance route with me but she didn’t want to do any of the camping on the tops that I had talked so enthusiastically about. We would do the walk in style; stay at B&Bs and eat bacon and eggs, not muesli and tea made with powdered milk. Oh! And Ravenglass to Edinburgh’s 260 miles was too far.
Edinburgh would have to be dropped. Looking at the maps I found that we could come off the hills to one of those castles on the Northumberland coast. But which castle?
Bamburgh might be the place, or Dunstanburgh perhaps? But when you get to the coast you look across the waves to yet another castle – Lindisfarne on Holy Island. How romantic to be stranded for the night on the island colonised by the early Christians, Aidan and Cuthbert.
And that’s three coasts! Wainwright 2 Gillham 3 – so far, so good.
The in-between routes of the Lake District were easy. Muncaster Fell, the hill above Ravenglass, drops you nicely into Eskdale, and Eskdale’s just one ridge away from Wasdale, Lakeland’s most spectacular valley. The next couple of days explores the heart of the Lakes – you could pick from a dozen routes hereabouts. Beyond Ambleside you need to go northwest to find a good line across the flatlands of the Eden valley. Two ways work. For the original book I chose Kentmere and Haweswater (now an alternative for campers). I have since modified the route to go by way of Patterdale and Ullswater. This offers a wider choice of accommodation for non-campers.
In Northumbria good paths were harder to find. Some were non-existent on the ground and not signposted: others were blocked by barbed wire. Many more were made unpleasant by the farmers’ plough or by five-foot high oil-seed rape. Council footpath officers pleaded poverty when asked to reinstate the paths. We were on our own.
But bit by bit the route was pieced together, and we set out on our first crossing.
Damp Days and Ducks on a Coast to Coast without Wainwright
Somewhere amongst that swirling grey mist are some of the Lake District’s finest rocky peaks, though you wouldn’t know it. And somewhere among those rocky peaks are England’s only golden eagles: they’re keeping a low profile too.
Nicola says nothing as we climb the tortuous boulder-ridden path that I told her was a splendid trek to the tops. She says nothing about my attempts to cajole her through the entire width of the English Lakes in three days on what is her first long-distance walk, and nothing about the incessant rain that trickles between our necks and our waterproofs. She says nothing, but I hear it all. After all I am a guide book writer. I invented this route, and I am the expert on what’s fun in the mountains.
We press on; the rain presses on even harder, but the sting cannot match the pain of my embarrassment.
Three days ago we left Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast to the sun and the seagulls. Within an hour of this take-it-easy sort of day we were strolling among the rocky bluffs and the wind-warped rowans of Muncaster Fell; by evening we had our feet up in the outside bar of the Wasdale Head Inn. Lingmell through a beer glass at twilight had never looked so good.
The next morning old packhorse trails took us into those high mountains before depositing us in yet another beer garden; this time at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where we were entertained by musicians playing old Eagles songs.
Yes, this was the life!
Well, it would have been if I’d planned the day to end at five in Elterwater. But I planned it to end at Ambleside, and it was seven-thirty. Nicola said nothing. Ohl, she did mutter something about me asking the landlady for a bath, as we didn’t have one.
The next day saw Nicola limping among Wordsworth’s daffodils, struggling through Skelghyll Woods, and hobbling up the rough Garburn Pass track. Had she battled with her injuries just to be here, in the dampness of Kentmere?
The rain still pours and our tortuous zigzag path reaches Nan Bield, a high windswept pass hemmed in by crags. The rocks are shiny with water and so are we. Finding a wet rock away from the howling wind, I reach for the tea. It’s amazing how good flask tea tastes when you’re out in the open, considering how bad it tastes when you try to finish it off back home. Would we be finishing it off back home? If things were bad here, what would they be like in the Eden Valley, where the map promised only dull flatlands?
Well, the tea got Nicola talking, even if it was just to say her knees wouldn’t bend and her feet were raw. We fumbled down the rocks to the shores of Haweswater. The plan was to walk the splendid paths along its western shores, but today they didn’t seem too splendid, so we put on our nice soft trainers and walked down the lane instead.
After a very slow pint at the Haweswater Hotel we floated down, limbs anaesthetised, to Bampton Grange. Hanging over the bridge, we watched as some of the locals raced plastic ducks down the river – sensible folk on such a day. After the excitement of a close finish everybody traipsed into the Crown and Mitre, our B&B for the night.
We had always hoped for the best weather to be saved for the days spent on high ground but we got it on the next day, which was to be a short one. One little limestone hill and we were out of Lakeland. Basking in sunlight, we strolled across the pastures of Eden on country lanes and riverside paths, through villages with apple and cherry blossom … and into Mrs Jephcott’s at Temple Sowerby.
Nicola needed mollycoddling after her hardships, and Mrs J was the person to do it. Tea and biscuits were waiting on our arrival – just the thing, as we’d had no lunch. Our room overlooked the cottage garden, complete with a red swing, lots of primulas and tulips, and a fishpond with Koi carp in it. Nicola bounced on the bed and wrapped herself in the luxurious pink duvet.
“Pour me a bath, slave.” she ordered. I dutifully obeyed.
Mrs J had taken Nicola’s “no lunch” remark of yesterday very seriously and provided a breakfast to last all day. Huge portions of scrambled egg accompanied the sizzling smoked bacon, mushrooms, fried bread and tomatoes.
It seemed a shame to leave the green fields of Eden, but Cross Fell had been casting its shadow across the fields for a while. We could see fluffy white cloud skimming over its summit. But those pretty clouds meant there was a Helm Wind. This wind builds its strength on the slopes of Hexhamshire Common then unleashes its full force over the edge of Cross Fell. Often walkers caught in Helm Winds are forced to their knees and unable to make further progress. Hmmmm!
At Kirkland there’s nowhere else to go but up. The winds strengthen as we climb to the shoulder of the moor, by which time I look like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame with Ace Ventura’s hairstyle.
A lead-miners’ track takes the route through some of the remotest and complex hills in England, and it is with relief that we descend safely into the South Tyne Valley.
In the George and Dragon at Garrigill, we traded stories with mud-stained Pennine Wayfarers. They talked of their adventures in the peat bogs of Kinder, and we of rocky mountain traverses and a sunset over Wastwater.
From Garrigill we climbed over a dark windswept moor and into the next valley at Nenthead. Today the old lead-mining village was closed, and dreary under the blanket of low grey cloud. A dull day in Nenthead keeps your expectations low and your feet on the ground. There’s a Wright Brothers’ garage, but these brothers don’t fly aeroplanes, they drive buses.
We climbed out of Nenthead past a blackened statue with railings round it, then out of Cumbria.
Northumberland greeted us with more driving rain as we reached the top of the Black Hill.
A Ford Transit van pulled up beside us.
“Want a lift?” the driver asked.
Nicola’s face lit up for a moment, but I said, “No thanks”.
The white van disappeared into the murk, and we turned off the road onto a path ominously signposted, the Black Way.
Everybody talks about blooming purple heather, but on a stormy day out of season, heather can be as dreary as the wet peat it grows in. Today its wicked tangled stalks tried repeatedly to upend us whenever we lifted our eyes to the horizon. This must be England’s bleakest moor.
East Allendale shyly presented itself. First as a sliver of green beneath the black, then as a pretty pastured valley with woodland hiding the fast-flowing river. Narrow paths squeezed through the woods to reveal a fine waterfall, Holm’s Linn, and colourful wildflowers on steep grassy riverbanks.
Northumberland had been as kind as it was going to be today. Raindrops regrouped on the sycamore leaves, then bucketed down our necks. By the time we reached Allendale Town we were drenched.
Allendale Town is really a village, even though its four-storey buildings suggest that it has known greater importance. Our hotel, the Heatherlea, looked posh, so we thought we had better take our muddy boots off at least.
“Hoody was here,” proclaimed the graffiti on the stone walls of the bus shelter. “Well, he wouldn’t want to be here now.” I thought as I watched the steam waft from my thick red walking socks. At the Heatherlea they gave us the bridal suite, which was nice – there was plenty of room to hang up our soggy clothes.
It’s a short section – just ten miles to Hexham. Normally it would be a quick one too, over the heather moors of Hexhamshire Common and down leafy lanes, and woodland paths.
But today a little spice had been sprinkled into our itinerary. Nicola opened the bedroom curtains and wiped away the condensation on the windowpane.
Mr Bucher, the Swiss chef and owner of the Heatherlea, was driving into Hexham for supplies.
“I’ll give you a lift,” he said.
“No we’re walking.”
It was Nicola who said it this time. I think she was actually enjoying herself.
“Strange people these British.” I could hear Mr Bucher thinking.
With our boots and socks still damp from yesterday, we squelched up the lane into the grey and white murk of the hillside. Primroses poked through the snowflakes of the roadside verges. Through the top gate at the end of the road we could see that any semblance of a path was hidden under a blanket of snow. Here was my chance to regain expert status, something that sadly had been lost on the pretty paths of the Lake District. I did so by getting across safely on a compass bearing, only to lose the compass and credibility together somewhere on the streets of Alnwick.
Hexham’s too fine a place not to dwell in. Its magnificent priory dominates the town centre; its Moot Hall and Manor House add to the market town’s proud history.
“The Railway Hotel is not a suitable place to stay.” Nicola had told me.
“Oh it’ll be OK. The man said he had a fine restaurant.” I had this vision of an old-fashioned ivy-clad inn with a roaring fire in the bar, and I had tried to convince Nicola of this when booking in advance. I was wrong.
“What did you expect?” she said as we looked up to see this horrible red engineering-bricked pub right next to the railway station and a huge car park.
North of Hexham we spent two more days in the rain. Sloshing through the fields of the North Tyne, and climbing through misty spruce forests, we could have done with Wellingtons rather than walking boots. My boots were sad – and leaking: I’d asked of them one trip too many. Their reward was to be discarded in an Alnwick waste bin.
I remembered Alnwick from my misspent youth in bedsitter Newcastle. Like me, it had tidied itself up since then (though Nicola might dispute my part of the claim). A magnificent castle stands out from the town’s Georgian terraces and cobbled ginnels. It’s only 8 miles to the coast at Boulmer.
Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh! Socks and boots tossed off, and sand in her Elastoplast-covered toes; Nicola rushed for the crashing North Sea waves, and soaked herself in cool surf. She’s always liked the sea. Me? Well I’ve never been much of a water baby – I was content to take in that salty air and search for seafood in the nearest rockpool.
The rugged Northumberland coastline transforms many times. The ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, set on dark dramatic cliffs north of Craster, are followed by two rocky coves, Newton Haven and Football Hole. Then there’s the long, sweeping sands of Beadnell Bay. Two fishing villages, Beadnell and Seahouses lie between here and Bamburgh. Beadnell’s a rustic place with lime kilns on the seafront, while Seahouses is like a mini-Blackpool, with funhouses and ice-cream stalls. But then you’re back to the rockpools, the sand and the kittiwakes.
The locals call it haar. Before we knew what was happening, this swirling mist had drifted in from the sea, and made mysterious shadows of all around us. Small rocks could have been cliffs, and headlands, mere rocky islets. Wanting to keep our toes sand-free we had been keeping to the east of the dunes. In doing so we nearly missed Bamburgh Castle and a well-earned cup of tea at the local café.
The red sandstone fortress is not as romantic as some, having been modernised many times. People live here in double-glazed luxury. But Bamburgh’s sheer scale cannot fail to impress. From rocky perches it towers over the beach and the village green.
We arrived at Beal Sands. The timetable said that we had enough time to cross safely to Holy Island. A line of poles marked the ancient Pilgrims’ Route, but those sands looked more like mud; deep, deep, “you’ll sink to the bottom if you dare tread on me” type mud. I used the excuse that we didn’t want to be treading all that mud into our nice B&B. Nicola nodded and we followed the easy tarmac causeway instead.
Free of heavy backpacks but filled with tea and scones, we walked the shoreline, passing a little chapel, then some fishing boats. The tide came lapping back onto the sands: the noisy seagulls came with it. In silence we watched the setting sun flickering pink onto the grey North Sea waves and flooding red into the skies behind the castle walls. We remembered Ravenglass. And we remembered Mrs J.
We remembered Nan Bield, but said nothing of that.
This article first appeared in Coast-to-Coasting by John Gillham and Ronald Turnbull
Cumbria sits pretty on the top of England. Its beauty is timeless, one that inspired the words from Wordsworth’s quill, and enticed ‘the Lakeland Poets’, Coleridge, Ruskin, Keats and Shelley to stay in this place of lakes, riverside woodland and high fell. If you’re looking for a place to walk, where better than here, and if you’re looking for long distance walk that you can do in a week, look no further than the Cumbria Way.
At just over 72 miles long the Cumbria Way allows you time to walk, also time to look around and be inspired by these great landscapes too. It takes in all that is best in the Lake District; views of the majestic fells, lakeshore promenades and strolls through woodland, past waterfalls, pretty cottages and fine inns. Devised by local Ramblers’ Association groups during the 1970s, the route starts in Ulverston not far from the shores of Morecambe Bay and finishes in the City of Carlisle.
The official way is a low-level walk though the valleys of Cumbria. It’s ideal for both youth hostellers and those liking a bit of luxury. The latter group can ease through leafy Cumbria in style and dine in some of the country inns for which the Lake District is famous. This is not to say backpackers are not catered for: they are, for there are plenty of good campsites throughout the journey.
Ulverston is a place unknown to most but you’ll feel its friendly ambiance and laid back style straight away. This is a place of festivals – enjoyment and entertainment is high on the agenda. Strolling around you’ll come across the statues of Laurel and Hardy, Georgian houses and shops and little ginnels threading between the main streets. One of them, Bolton’s Place, has a colourful 70-foot mural painted by the townsfolk and the schoolchildren. If you have time, perhaps you’re staying the night, you may want to visit the canal, climb to see the Sir John Barrow Monument on Hoad Hill and take in a Morecambe Bay sunset from the end of the town’s short canal.
The walk out of Ulverston starts well, on a little beckside path, and more often than not the continuing route is pretty. However there are lots of field paths to negotiate and it’s ‘bitty’. By the time you get to Gawthwaite you’ll feel you won’t make it to Coniston. But you will. The second half of the day seems to go quicker than the first and the paths get easier to follow and enhanced by glimpses of the Coniston Fells peeping above low hills and moors on the horizon.
The Lake District proper starts small, with Beacon Tarn, a lake in miniature, surrounded by small but rocky and perfectly formed hills. And those Coniston Fells get nearer and nearer, their rock faces more and more defined. Towards the end of the day you’re strolling on easy paths by Coniston Water, staring across at Ruskin’s Brantwood mansion and contemplating Wordsworth’s daffodils – well okay if it’s too late in the year you can buy the postcard.
The next day the Cumbria Way goes into the heart of the Lake District, taking in more tarns, waterfalls in the woods and whitewashed cottages with rose gardens. It enters Great Langdale, where the rocks form great buttresses and gullies and the mountains become distinctive and gob-smackingly inviting temples. Beneath these temples is the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, a fine place to stop, eat and discuss tomorrow’s route with fellow travellers.
You look to the skies for next day’s route and there’s no obvious way out. The map shows you that the way out is up, over the 500m Stake Pass. It’s steep but short-lived and the path is easy to follow. Next you contemplate Langstrath, a wild, uninhabited valley with nothing but a bouldery river and bouldery mountainsides for comfort. It’s a long way to Keswick from Langdale, maybe too long, so when the walker sees beautiful, ever-so-green and lush Borrowdale he or she may feel the urge to make this an overnight stop. And it would be a good decision for Rosthwaite and Grange are pleasantly peaceful places among beautiful mountain and riverscapes.
Derwent Water is a prince among the Lake District lakes and that view of Skiddaw’s smooth pastel pink and green shaded slopes is exquisite. Keswick at its north end is lively, a place to restock, maybe recover before the long day over the Back o’ Skidda to Caldbeck. Those who stopped at Rosthwaite are lucky as long as they’ve pre-booked the hostel at Skiddaw House, for they will find they’ve discovered one of the most remote and romantic locations en route and they will have shortened the next day to Caldbeck.
As long as you’re confident enough about the weather to ignore the inferior foul weather Bassenthwaite route, the day out of Keswick will be highlighted by reaching the summit of High Pike, highest place on the whole of the official Cumbria Way at over two thousand feet. It’s an airy place with a view indicator to show you the hundreds of hills in view, including the Scottish ones across the Solway Firth.
Looking north you can see that there are no more big hills left in England. Between you and your destination there are low ridges and mile upon mile of pastureland. All is not lost though, for the last day will be remembered for its riverside scenery. The Caldew, which you first saw near Skiddaw House, will guide you all the way, including through the streets of Carlisle. And Carlisle’s cathedral quarter is rich in the histories of both England and Scotland. It’s a fitting end to a truly memorable walk.
If all this is not exciting enough for you, what about taking in some mountains?
If all this is not exciting enough for you, what about taking in some mountains? The mountain routes come down to meet the official route at convenient points, allowing you to mix and match according to the weather and your inclination or mood. The Cumbria Way passes beneath the Coniston Range but by leaving it a Torver the mountain route takes in Goat’s, Water Swirl How and Great Carrs. It descends to Slater’s Bridge, one of the prettiest ancient packhorse bridges in Cumbria before rejoining the ‘Way’ at Elterwater in Great Langdale.
The moraine scenery of the Stake Pass above Great Langdale is fascinating but climbing beneath the buttresses of Bowfell, past Angle Tarn and onto the high peaks of Allen Crags and Glaramara is more spectacular. The way views of Borrowdale open up on the descent from Thornythwaite Fell makes the day worthwhile on its own. Walla Crag comes next. It’s not big but it’s got a well-sculpted rock and heather top with superb views of Derwent Water, Bassenthwaite Lake and the surrounding Fells.
The big one is Skiddaw, one of the Lake District’s three thousand footers. If the day is a fine one Skiddaw is so close that you’ve got to do it. If the day is too big you can drop down from the summit to the hostel at Skiddaw House. Either way, Great Calva, the Knott and High Pike can be included in a high-level traverse to Caldbeck.
Cumbria runs out of mountains beyond Caldbeck so the now-hardened mountain walker can take it easy and follow the official route by the Caldew into Carlisle, knowing that they have completed the ‘Cumbria Mountain Way’.
Once much of Cumbria would have been covered by oak woodland but today’s mosaic of diverse landscapes has been shaped by widespread farming and grazing by deer and sheep. Sheep and cow pastures form a large part of the early Cumbria Way landscape between Ulverston and Gawthorpe and although you’ll see some wildflowers the continuous grazing means species are limited. The thin acid soils of the Coniston foothills mean that bracken, rushes and cotton grass proliferate with the odd birch tree and juniper bushes scattered across the fellsides. In the marshy areas by Beacon Tarn you’ll also see a Bog Myrtle a deciduous shrub about a metre tall with oval leaves. Its oils are claimed to repel biting insects. Although they’re quite common in the dry moors and mountains of the Lake District you’ll probably not see any adders. If you are lucky enough to see one basking on a rock, leave it be for it will almost certainly slither away into the undergrowth when it knows of your presence.
As the path makes its way through mountain valleys you’ll see ravens and buzzards soaring on thermals around the crags above, searching for carrion. The sheep are still here in the low fell country so the main colour will be provided by the larger ‘less tasty’ flowers like the bright yellow gorse and the purple-pink foxgloves. Primroses, bluebells, wood anemone wood sorrel, herb Robert and red campion, will be confined to woodland and hedgerow.
Many of the modern forests are of spruce, pine and larch, although the old coppiced woodland still covers the central regions of the park, especially so between Coniston and Langdale and in Borrowdale. The high rainfall in the sessile oakwoods of Borrowdale has helped propagate lichens, liverworts and insects, which in turn have offered a habitat for various owls, peregrine falcons, pied flycatchers and greater spotted woodpeckers. In the rivers and streams there are otters and you may well see the dipper, a small active dark brown white-chested bird that bobs and dives into the waters looking for insects. I’ve seen grey herons on the River Derwent near Grange. These large long necked wading birds wait, ever so still and patient, for an unsuspecting fish to pass by.
Although it’s in serious decline in southern Britain the shy red squirrel still thrives in the woods of central Cumbria. Elsewhere it has been displaced by the larger grey squirrel, which was introduced from North America.
As the Way approaches Derwent Water’s flood plains you’ll be able to see more Bog Myrtle, also Alder woodland and reed beds, which are ideal for wildfowl and wading birds, including sandpipers. Beneath the waters of the lake is a rare fish, the vendace, which only exists in four British lakes.
In the 1990s ospreys were seen feeding in Bassenthwaite Lake. They had been absent from Cumbria for over 150 years and the Lake District Osprey Project was set up to encourage them to nest here. A nesting platform was erected in woodland above the lake. In 2001 the project’s efforts bore fruit and a chick successfully fledged, the first of many. If you have any time to spare there are viewing platforms in Dodds Wood off the A591 west of Keswick.
The Skiddaw and Back a’ Skidda peaks have thin soils and very few plant species other than expansive carpets of heather, a perfect habitat for the red grouse and the insect-eating sundew.
When to Go
April and May are best for wildflowers and vivid colours – the bracken is still red and contrasts beautifully with the fresh green leaves of the forests. The days are still short but, if you’re a photographer, the sun creates a much better light with pleasing shadows to give depth to your pictures. Also, the campsites and B&Bs won’t be at full capacity and will be more reasonably priced. Summer is obviously warmer, meaning you’ll need less clothing in your rucksack, and the long days give you more time to get to your destination. There would be more time to see the attractions on the way. Autumn is still good, with with the woods, and there are lots of them on the route, displaying beautiful fiery colours. Often the British weather is quite settled at this time. Winter days are short so you’d need to break down the route into more sections and you’d need to pack far more clothes and equipment. Snow and ice would add to the difficulties, especially on the crossing of Stake Pass between Langdale and Borrowdale and the Back o’ Skidda. Most of the campsites, youth hostels and small B&Bs will be closed at this time.
The OS 1:25,000 Explorer maps needed for the route:
OL6 (Ulverston to Coniston)
OL7 (Coniston to Great Langdale)
OL4 (Great Langdale to Skiddaw House)
OL5 (Skiddaw House to Dalston)
315 (Dalston to Carlisle)
Harvey Maps do a special Cumbria Way 1:40,000 map, which is convenient because everything is on one water-resistant map and it also includes useful town plans
‘The Cumbria Way’ by John Gillham (Cicerone) ISBN 978-1852847609
The floods of December 2015 caused two landslips in Dentonside Woods east of Caldbeck (at NY 351 403 & NY 355 404). Cumbria County Council has issued a closure notice However in July 2016 the Ramblers Association reported that this section could be walked with care. Check the Ramblers Association site for further updates.
A few miles north the same floods also resulted in Bell Bridge being washed away. Work begins this summer (2017) to rebuild the bridge. Until then follow the short stretch of lane between Sebergham and the west side of the bridge.
Here’s my 15-minute video of the Cumbria Way:
The black ball rolled slowly over the baize and into the pocket. Roy beamed. No rapturous applause here: the pool room of the Aber Falls Hotel was empty, and silent, except for the ticking of an old wooden clock on the wall. Through the window the skies had darkened.
“Come on then, the mountains are waiting.”
This was to be the start of a 200-mile coast-to-coast walk across the great mountain ranges of Wales. Delaying it no further, we left the warmth of the hotel for the cool of the evening.
As we headed south along the lane, the streetlights flickered into life. A squeaky iron gate let us into the glen, then a narrow path led us into the darkness of a forest.
After fumbling around for twenty minutes we escaped the clutches of the wicked pine branches to reach the sanctuary of scree-covered hillside. At the head of the glen, the cascades of Aber Falls splashed down shadowy cliffs.
Across the screes, a tricky bit of rock reminded us that we should have been here at least an hour earlier, but soon we were strolling through the remote corrie of the Afon Goch above the falls.
At ten our eyes were making harder work of the darkness than our feet were of the terrain – no moon here to light the hillsides, just fading torches. Stomping our boots into the invisible nothingness that was the ground, we found by trial and error a firm pitch for the tent. Onlookers with bright torches would have surely reported a strange ritual dance.
Morning sunlight transformed the mysterious marshlands back into the high moorland corrie we had been expecting. But what a long corrie this was, and what a climb to the ridge! Somehow my rucksack seemed to weigh more than it did yesterday.
“You’re a little slow today,” Roy quipped, making somewhat easier progress up the grass and boulder slopes of Bera Bach.
We made the ridge at eleven and were soon striding the grassy Carneddau whalebacks onto the stony 3000ft plateau of Carnedd Llewelyn. From here you can look back to the Irish Sea, and look forward to Snowdon, whose pointed summits peer over the Glyder range.
By mid-afternoon we were down in the valley again, at Helyg. Tryfan soars into the clouds – a giant wedge of rock and scree just waiting to be climbed. Beneath it, the dwarfed orange tents of a campsite promised the comforts of a loo, running hot water and the possibility of a bar meal at nearby Capel Curig. But these were to be Spartan days. I had been searching the map for an idyllic wild campsite high in the mountains and had come up with Braich y Ddeugwm, a rugged spur next to Tryfan.
Climbing the spur’s tangled moor grasses and gritty slabs of rock, I was again hampered by the weight of my rucksack, and I lagged some distance behind Roy. A luxurious grassy shelf to lie on, views across to Tryfan, and sizzling sausages made up for the hardship. Braich y Ddeugwm was indeed good.
Looking for a toothbrush, I found four cans of lager at the bottom of my rucksack.
Roy looked sheepish.
“Fosters: I thought you’d like them.” He had stowed them there the previous night. “They weren’t heavy were they?”
“You’ll carry the empties tomorrow, I suppose?”
Tomorrow starts with a morning on the Glyderau. A scramble over boulders led to Glyder Fach. We were the first there, and had the whole fairground of rock to ourselves. First, the Cantilever, a gigantic slab supported at one end by vertical pillars – no queues of rock stars waiting to pose on the end today. Next in line was the a huge pile of boulders forming the summit cairn, and finally, Castell y Gwynt (Castle of the Winds), a wall of spiky rocks, and the start of the rollercoaster. You swoop down over boulderfields to the col, climb back up to Glyder Fawr, then plunge to the depths of the Pass of Llanberis. Just when you think it’s all over, you look up and see the ramparts of Snowdon.
Doing Snowdon and the Glyderau in one day proved to be a bit of a grind, and I felt like checking my rucksack for bottles or cans. Snowdon’s little steam trains, and the afternoon trippers in sandals, were wounding our pride by racing past on their eager ways to the summit. The hurt turned to frustration as the cafe closed its doors, leaving us to descend into the depths of Nantgwynant without the cool beer we’d been expecting.
The next stage was easy by comparison. We followed the old Welsh Highland Railway track through the gorge of Aberglaslyn, tackled Cnicht (a rugged little hill known as the Matterhorn of Wales) and descended to the green fields of Ffestiniog, where we saw another of those fascinating little narrow-gauge steam trains.
On the Rhinogydd there’s more fun to be had. Purple heather masks a heart of stone, and a mischievous heart at that. Loose boulders lie in wait for their chance to roll you over onto your haunches, and great transverse canyons, only hinted at on the map, make progress tiresome and route-finding troublesome. And yet you always forgive the Rhinogydd their mischief: they’re so different to the rest of Wales, and they let you get to grips with bare rock without the fear of falling from great heights.
The weather broke: maybe the gods were angry that we had succumbed to worldly comforts. We had crossed the Mawddach estuary on the mile long foot-and-railway bridge and were about to set foot on Cadair Idris when the skies burst open with the malevolence of a true enemy. Idris himself was warning us to keep off his seat.
Roy and I had a great time scrambling up and down the rocks, but by the time we were onto the easy grass of Diffwys and Llawlech we were more than ready to stop and admire the Mawddach river as it meandered among sandbars to the sea. It seemed to be as lethargic as we were.Roy, never the one to capitulate first, looked relieved when I suggested a B&B at Barmouth.
“I suppose we could make an exception: after all, we’ve done pretty well today.”
The weather broke: maybe the gods were angry that we had succumbed to worldly comforts. We had crossed the Mawddach estuary on the mile long foot-and-railway bridge and were about to set foot on Cadair Idris when the skies burst open with the malevolence of a true enemy. Idris himself was warning us to keep off his seat.
But good long-distance walkers like warriors do not retreat from the enemy, and battle commenced. Idris waited behind the clouds, ready for the ambush. Boulders, like shiny cannonballs, slithered beneath our boots, and grassy tracks were converted into rivers of mud.
As we took the summit, the cowardly clouds parted to reveal the battleground. Far below Idris’s cliffs, a couple of steel-grey tarns drifted in and out of vision through swirling mist. We marched down to the soft green fields of Dysynni valley, past an old Welsh castle, and into the little village of Abergynolwyn. Now only the Tarren hills barred the way to Machynlleth.
Forest plantations have all but engulfed the Tarrens, and the Sitka spruce we walked among were hung with damp mist. Eventually the tree cover parted to reveal the slate rooftops of Machynlleth. We two ragged warriors, tempered by the elements, hobbled and squelched through the streets in search of another B&B – a place to dry out, rest and recuperate.
Across the Elenydd
We were halfway across Wales. The rocks of the North had disappeared behind the conifers of the Dyfi Forest. They were to be replaced by softer rolling hills of the South.
The rain pounded Machynlleth’s shiny main street, where market traders sheltered beneath their tarpaulins. For them, and for us, it was to be a long, hard day.
Paths threading through dripping conifers led to a wide cart track over soggy ridges. Somewhere in the middle of a thick mist was Pumlumon, where the great Severn and Wye rivers begin their journey to the Bristol Channel. Nineteenth-century traveller, George Borrow drank from the rivers’ sources, but today, finding drier places seemed more important – just finding Pumlumon and the way off it afterwards would be good enough.
Compass work got us over the tops, out of the high winds, and through the ever-pounding rain to make it down to the Wye Valley. After an extravagant three-course dinner at the Glansevern Arms we needed to appease the mountain gods, and perhaps earn some good weather – so we camped on high amid some of the most malicious tussocky ground imaginable.
Maybe it worked, for the next day was easy and rewarding. The overnight rains had filled the streams of the Elan Valley so that their waters were roaring down the stone-built reservoir dams. Sunlight gradually showed itself between the boughs of lakeside oaks as the clouds dissipated behind the high moorland skyline.
Now when clouds dissipate, Roy has a habit of tucking spare clothing loosely under the straps at the top of his rucksack. On this day the item was a waterproof jacket. But a branch from some impish tree robbed Roy of his jacket.
The inevitable rain arrived at Elan Village. A rucksack liner, which was really a bin bag, came to the rescue, doubling as waterproof after holes were cut for head and arms. Wearers do get wet arms and get to look like bedraggled spaniels, but that’s better than a wet everything.
Llyn Brianne lies to the south of the Elan reservoirs. Surrounded by plantations of spruce and larch in two narrow valleys, it mimics a Norwegian fjord. The splendid countryside beyond could only belong to Wales. Here the boisterous Tywi and Doethie rivers twist and turn among rocky, oak-clad peaks. Beneath a particularly conical hill called Dinas, the rivers meet in a violent cauldron of foam. There’s a cave in the crags, where Twm Sion Catti, the Welsh Robin Hood, used to hide from his enemies. We didn’t find it. But I did see my first red kite soaring above the woods and the summit rocks. These lovely birds were, in the last century, common on the streets of London, but had been hunted to near extinction, before their recent reintroduction.
After being in the Elenydd wilderness for three days, finding the Royal Oak at Rhandirmwyn was like finding an oasis in the desert. After a lunchtime tipple of Welsh Bitter and plates of piping hot chilli con carne we ambled down country lanes to Llanddeusant, where a low-level campsite provided an excellent overnight rest before tackling the great escarpment of Mynydd Du (the Black Mountain).
It was good to be among real mountains again, but these mountains were not black at all, the were red! Their rugged sandstone cliffs were layered with gritstone strata. The climb to the tops, which rise to over 2600 feet at Fan Brycheiniog, was delightfully easy, as was the grassy spur of Fan Hir, which descended right to the door of the Tafarn y Garreg Inn. Unfortunately, it was mid-afternoon and the door was closed.
Now battle hardened, we decided to keep going across the little urban hills on the north-west side of the Swansea Valley and get as near to the coast we could. In semi-darkness we pitched the tent by the shores of the Upper Lliw Reservoir. Through the steam of crunchy pot noodles, we watched the wind whip up white horses across the lake. The day’s efforts meant that we could go for the coast a day ahead of schedule, but it would need an early start.
To The Coast
The quiet world of the golden Lliw Hills allows the first real glimpses of Gower and thus strengthens the resolve to press on – an ambition aided by superb paths over smooth terrain. These moors were the last high ground of the route. The remainder would be across the flatlands of Gower, through woods, across fields and to the coast. Small landscapes, but pleasing landscapes too.
The going was fast: at four we were on the Gower Coast at Pwll du. Pwll du means Blackpool, but there were no crowds, donkeys or candy floss; just a limestone headland, a storm beach of white pebbles, and a couple of cottages.
Spurred on by the bracing coastal air and sight of crashing waves against the rocks, we completed the clifftop finale to Three Cliffs Bay.
Spurred on by the bracing coastal air and sight of crashing waves against the rocks, we completed the clifftop finale to Three Cliffs Bay. Climbers with their eyes to the skyline grappled with shoreline crags, and a links golfer was lining up a putt with his stern eyes to the ground.
Watching the surf bubble beneath my wrinkly, blistered feet I couldn’t help wondering why I put myself through this when the climber was having such fun on his piece of rock. I watched the golfer miss his put, then throw his putter to the ground, and I had my answer. I would do it all again – next year.
Roy headed for the nearest bar with me following. The pool championship recommenced. He won: but then, he always does.
Excerpt from the book Coast to Coasting by John Gillham and Ronald Turnbull (PB David and Charles)
I’m back in Blaenau Ffestiniog and, as usual, it’s raining stair-rods. In the main square a small child is playing on one of the town’s monuments, a replica of an old slate train, while his mother struggles with her unruly plastic umbrella which looks like it will soon be gone with the wind.
Above the town’s rooftops, great pyramids of slate slag rear up into the sky as they have done for over two centuries, completely obscuring the mountainsides from where they came. The scene of devastation embarrassed the authorities enough to warrant its exclusion from the national park, so Blaenau remains as an urban island set in the heart of the mountains of Snowdonia.
There’s a whistle and a plume of white smoke wafting up to join the clouds as a little narrow-gauge steam train comes chugging by, its red carriages rattling away behind. More slagheaps rise above more terraced housing as I enter Tanygrisiau, Blaenau’s next-door village, which is almost built into the rock-faces. I can now see the power station on the far shores of a huge reservoir, which looks as though the town’s thirsty inhabitants have drunk it up. It turns out that the hydroelectric power station – the first pumped storage scheme in Wales – has pumped most of the water up to the higher Stwlan Reservoir. Looking around the corner into the chasm that is Cwmorthin, it’s obvious that here too the quarrymen have been at work, but on the climb up the tarred Stwlan Dam access road, the damage is less intrusive and more fascinating.
Here are natural rock-faces. On most days you’ll see climbers tackling near vertical routes and hear the jangling of their ironmongery. Among the cliffs there’s a steep pulley incline with a tunnel on top used by some walkers as a quick way to the peaks (despite the danger signs) and a couple of ladder stiles leading over an intermittent wall into a pathless jungle of bracken and dripping moss-fringed outcrops.
At the end of the tarred lane the Stwlan Dam grimaces down on Ffestiniog with a mouthful of reinforced concrete teeth – not a pretty sight at the best of times, but quite menacing on a dismal day like this. Beyond the concrete, the tarn is a good one. Moelwyn Bach on the left is an angular peak with a ‘lion’s head’ crag topping an extensive scree slope. From this angle the loftier Moelwyn Mawr is a grassy dome. Between the two peaks lies Craigysgafn, a rocky arête banded with snow-white quartz, which affords an entertaining, but very easy, scramble route onto Moelwyn Mawr. This is typical Moelwyn country: savaged by Man, but somehow all the more fascinating for it. The Moelwynion, as they are known in the Welsh plural, have the form and presence that overrides such indignities. They will be here when we are no more.
An excerpt from John Gillham’s book A Pictorial Guide to the Mountains of Snowdonia Vol. 3. The Eastern Peaks
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
In valleys of springs of rivers
By Ony and Teme and Clun
The country for easy livers,
The quietest under the sun
Three verses from A Shropshire Lad by A E Housman in which the ‘lad’ yearns for his home county and his ‘blue remembered hills’.
Shropshire is indeed quiet, for easy livers and, although few who have never visited would think of it as a prime hillwalkers’ destination, in reality those rivers flow through some of the prettiest hills in England. True, none of them reach the 2000ft ‘mountain’ status but if you’re striding out along the long, airy ridges it matters not a jot. The hills are mostly velvety green like the Howgills but many have underlying geology of hard volcanic rock, which surfaces as summit dark crags and tors.
Shropshire lies at the heart of England, an extremely rural county with only two sizeable towns, Shrewsbury and Telford. Stand on any of its mountains and you’ll see a patchwork of greenery; pastures divided by hedgerow and woodland copses. It’s undulating country, never truly mountainous, but with enough distinctive peaks and rocks to keep a walker happy for years.
The county is divided into two by the River Severn, which meanders from the Welsh hills into Shrewsbury, where it forms a wide loop before threading through a wooded gorge at Ironbridge and, beyond Bridgnorth, out into Worcestershire. To the north and east of the great river, the landscape is one of flat, fertile pastures; to the south and west it’s one of fine but little-known hills. The latter area has been designated ‘the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Beauty’. Most but not all of the walks are here.
When I was asked to write a book Hillwalking in Shropshire by Jonathan Williams at Cicerone I jumped at the chance. I’d always loved the county, nearly as much as Wales, the land of my mother and generations of her family.
My first recollections of the county were as a 7-year-old, seeing it from the window of my dad’s old Flying Standard 12 car.
My first recollections of the county were as a 7-year-old, seeing it from the window of my dad’s old Flying Standard 12 car. Motorways hadn’t been invented so each year the family would follow the winding A49 from the red-bricked terraces of Lancashire to the pastoral landscapes of this beautiful Midlands county on a journey to my grandparents in Bournemouth. I was fascinated by the red earth of the newly-ploughed fields, the pretty half-timbered cottages and the attractive crag-fringed hills on both sides of the road. Shropshire also meant lunch, for my dad knew of this great lay-by where we would get the camping chairs out and gorge ourselves on mum’s deep-filled ham and egg pie – we didn’t call it quiche in those days. I didn’t know the name of the place or the hills but I’ve since found out that it was on the outskirts of Church Stretton and the hills were Caer Caradoc and the Long Mynd.
Starting from the south I’ll begin a journey through the county in the magnificent town of Ludlow, where the River Teme cuts a fine valley, winding through the south Shropshire countryside to the Knighton and the Welsh borders. Here Offa’s Dyke takes us over green ridges to the Kerry Hills and the small town of Clun. Hereabouts many of the hills are topped with Iron Age forts to enliven the day and spark the imagination. From Ludlow you can look east to Titterstone Clee Hill, a rakish, rugged escarpment crowned by towers and white radomes and a fine viewpoint with some craggy slopes. It’s scarred with mines and quarries but, if you love industrial archaeology, then you’ll love the place, also Brown Clee Hill a few miles to the north. Brown Clee is the highest hill in the county and its industrial scars have been softened by forests in the east.
The most spectacular scenery however lies to the north and east between the wooded limestone escarpment of Wenlock Edge and the plains of Shrewsbury and the Severn Valley. Here are three distinct ranges; the Stretton Hills, the Long Mynd and Stiperstones. The Stretton Hills are steep-sided, whalebacks of volcanic origin
The Devil’s Mouth, the Long Mynd
with tremendous ‘free-striding’ ridges. Caer Caradoc is the highest of these and has a huge fort on top but the Lawley offers the purest of the ridge-walks. On the other side of Church Stretton is the Long Mynd, a broad 7-mile (11km) heather ridge cut deep in the east by several crag-fringed, steep sided batches (small valleys), which provide superb walks to the tops. Across the wide valley of the East Onny lies Stiperstones, another long heather ridge but this time studded with shattered rocky tors. Manstone Rocks on Stiperstones is the second highest peak in Shropshire.
The Devil’s Chair, Stiperstones
The hills get smaller as you go northwards towards Shrewsbury but the volcanic hog’s back that is the Wrekin makes one last stand. Although covered with forest there’s just enough open ground and lots of rocky outcrops to make this a top priority on a hillwalkers’ list.
Finally, to get a real idea of what lies waiting for explorers of the Shropshire Hills watch my 15-minute YouTube video.