Long distance trails have always held an interest to me, partly because I like the whole concept of spanning a large span of countryside on foot, but also because of the lack of limitations it places upon you to start off from somewhere and end up somewhere entirely separate, without any plans beyond getting from A to B.
Despite this I have never actually completed a long distance trail and had very rarely attempted a prolonged period of walking until my Dad asked me if I would be interested in a walking a ~60 mile stretch of the Offa's Dyke over the summer of 2016.
I said that yes, I would be interested, and so in July of that summer we set off from Knighton, heading southwards down to Monmouth over 3 and a half days. As a day walker, I found the repeated days over the steep terrain heavier going than I would like to admit, but I also loved waking up every morning, breakfasting and heading out with only one goal in mind... reaching the next major town before the end of the day.
For much of the part we would be walking along, the Offa's Dyke path follows the original Offa's Dyke itself, which is a (very small) boundary built between England and Wales by King Offa of Mercia between 757 and 796AD to mark his territory (much as a dog might against a lamppost, but on a far grander scale).
This stretch takes in the climb up from Hay-on-Wye onto the Hatterrall Ridge and into the Black Mountains, whilst also taking in many of the more amiable delights of the border country between England and Wales.
Since I have been lived up in the North East for the past few years and since my Dad lives down in the southern commuter belt, we would be heading towards our starting point from two very different directions, but after two long train journeys we met up in Shrewsbury ready to start our very slow train ride to Knighton.
Day 1: Knighton to Kington
On this, our first day of this grand adventure, we faced from the off one very major and incredibly daunting complication - the act of travelling from one place with one name to another place with a nearly identical name; and on my part at least, this resulted in some serious levels of confusion.
But that complication aside and after inching our way towards our start line along the local equivalent of HS3 we approached the start to find to our enormous surprise no fanfare and to our even greater surprise a lack of mayor to wave us off.
Instead our great and magnificent adventure merely began with our rather ordinary and mundane exiting of the station, heading up the road and then pausing to make 100% sure that we would be heading in the right direction.
Here we found the potential for comedic opportunity to about turn and correct our initially wrong direction, but in a move that probably knocked a few millions off our potential film deal, we found that we had gone as planned and so we simply continued on up the road.
By this point it was about 3:30pm and with this this not being a normal time to start a days walking, we began at a strong pace and I began my tried and tested method of filling up with liquid calories to be ready for whatever came my way.
Being border country, this quickly took us to the foot of our first hill, which would take us up to find our first taste of this region's English/Welsh countryside.
|First View of Our New Countryside|
Still, as we pressed on, the countryside did also start to give up some glimpses of the unique countryside of this area, with aspects that shifted beyond your typical rural British hillside and the first glimpses of something that looked a bit like a dyke:
|It Looks Like a Dyke, But How Do You Test If It Quacks Like a Dyke?|
Further away from Knighton, we were definitely gaining height and started to begin a shift from well tended farming countryside into a landscape that was starting to have a more of a wild side to its character.
|It Is Definitely Hilly Countryside Round Here|
|Gate to Wilder Countryside|
However, by this point we really didn't mind this watery interruption, in part because the rain was more a spray than a heavy fall, but mostly because we now found ourselves in exactly the sort of countryside we had come all this way to see.
|It Is Raining More Heavily In The Distance|
|Hills Rolling Onwards|
However, it is now time for us to start thinking about our first descent of the day and as the path starts to drop down through the fields we start to become more vigilant about checking that we are indeed still going in the right direction as the path by this point is very faint and tricky to follow.
Despite this, we end up having very little trouble following our progress on the map and it isn't long before we are descending down off this ridge towards a lower level below.
Here we discover the reason for our descent as we cross over a very pretty little stream that is meandering across our path (seemingly in everything but a straight direction) and having crossed over this stream it keeps us company for the next section of our path before we become forced to leave it behind and start thinking about passing over the next ridge in our way.
|Bridge Over Meandering Stream|
Not wanting to make a mistake here, we check that we have indeed found the right path and begin the steep climb up the side, trying to maintain the good pace we have so far achieved today to ensure that we don't arrive too late into Kington at the end of the day.
|My More Elderly Companion Helping Demonstrate the Scale of the Climb|
|The View Along the Ridge|
|Trees Are Now Filling the Views|
|And Lining the Path|
With this we are now in scenery that provides a stark contrast from the countryside we had enjoyed earlier in the day, with contrast from day to day and even mile to mile going on to be a defining feature of our passage through this stretch of countryside over the coming days.
|Fields of Hay Bales|
|Tree In Field|
By this point we are back on the flat and continue along this level for the next phase before we begin our final climb of the day before our approach into Kington.
Ahead of us are clear markers that indicate that we are approaching this final climb of the day, and the first of these comes in the form of a bridge over a minor stream that puts us back alongside one of the local roads running through the region.
|Over the Stream|
As we move through these fields, the path gradually starts to gain height and then as the rain starts to fall down upon us once again, the path pulls up more sharply taking us up towards the fern covered hills above.
|View From the Climb|
With it having now passed 7pm and with our hoping to arrive in Kington at around 8pm, we are keen to find out any information about the route ahead, but are startled to find that we should face at least 8 or 9 miles of walking before reaching Kington at the end of the day.
Thanking our fellow traveller who sets back off on their way while we (being slightly alarmed) carefully checked our distance left, we soon realise that we have just encountered what are called an 'over-counter' in the industry, with the mileage left actually being far more reasonable than we had just been informed by our passing guide.
With a minor feeling of relief, we can now set back off on our way and we soon found ourselves at the top of a rainy and fern-encrusted hilltop that is cocooned by the surrounding clouds.
|Path Through Ferns|
|Surrounded by Clouds|
Before long though our spirits are lifted as up here the Offa's Dyke remains as well preserved as anywhere along the train and the mound of earth run far forwards into the distance, marking our path ahead.
|Path Along the Dyke|
Before long though, our confidence proves to be misplaced as a wrong turn put us off our correct path, but guided by a local out walking their dogs we soon find ourselves back on the right track and heading down the path towards our home for the night.
Here we are able to exchange our wet clothes for some dry ones and with it being too late to get anything to eat we head out to console ourselves with some liquid nutrition before returning shortly to turn in early for the night.
Day 2: Kington to Hay-on-Wye
After a late start on the previous day, we begin our second day with a much earlier start and after a welcome cooked breakfast (having not been able to get anything to eat the previous night) we are back on the road and ready to head onwards on our journey.
Before heading on towards Hay-on-Wye we take the opportunity to re-stock and top up on liquids ahead of what is set to be a very warm day and with the benefit of the morning sunshine are able to see the best that Kington had to offer from its old stone cottages.
|Heading out of Kington|
Before long we reach the base of a steeper section, taking us up onto the hills, where some of the local population are also heading up into the hills (and embarrassingly including a mother with a pushchair, who pulls away from us, rather taking the grandeur out of our departure; leaving us in her wake).
This humbling moment aside, we are please to find ourselves at the top, having by this point come a long way up from Kington and we take the opportunity to look back over the countryside we travelled across yesterday; having the luxury of watching rain fall behind us, knowing that we will be walking into sunshine throughout the day.
|Rain Falling Behind Our Path|
|Sheep on the Hills|
|Horses on the Hills|
|The Hills Were Fully of Four Legged Friends!|
|From Grassland to Ferns|
|Starting to Drop into the Valleys|
Pulling up alongside, this walker proves to be our first fellow trail walker who has also been heading to Hay-on-Wye today; having set off a few days ago as one of a party of four who had planned to walk 20 miles a day to finish in Hay-on-Wye.
In country like this, 20 miles a day can prove challenging even for well practiced walkers and with blisters and injuries taking the rest of the original walking party out of action, this walker would give us a bit of additional company for a large part of the day and across this phase of the route, we were spending most of our time passing through fields and past small clusters of what looked like old farm cottages so a bit of company was very welcome.
|Old Stone House|
Before long we climb back onto higher ground and with us now approaching the middle of the day, we decide to stop for a spot of lunch, whilst our brief companion continues on along the trail, with us not meeting back up until we would pass him as he stopped for a late lunch much later on in the day.
For now, however, we are able to take a break and look out over the green rolling countryside, with the views in the distance offering us our first views of the Black Mountains that we would be tacking on the following day.
|Back on Higher Ground|
|Sheep on our Path|
As we continue along, the countryside continues to offer up some incredible views of rolling hills and an almost picture perfect rural scene, with the path mostly allowing us to remain in the hills, but very occasionally taking us briefly down into the valleys, before taking us back up into the hills on the other side.
|Rolling Hills and the Path Ahead|
|One of Many Very Similar Churches|
This lower level provides a bit more variety to our route, but after a while we eventually scale the gap to the next set of hills and as we start to climb back upon onto higher ground we meet our most interesting fellow walker of the trail who is well into their walk having set off from Cornwall, but far from their finish up in the northern stretches of Scotland.
We try not to hold up this walker for too long, knowing how far they have to go before they can finish, and we soon let them head back on their way, noting their condition - which remains very good despite the distance travelled (although I'm sure there must be at least one sore foot after that sort of distance!).
That sort of walk makes our little trek look rather insignificant, but it is heartening to see someone make such good progress over such an ambitious trail and as we focus back on our own route, we now find ourselves climbing our final climb of the day; and it is a relatively short and easy ascent under the now very warm rays of the sun.
|Looking Back Over the Valleys|
|Fields and Blue Skies|
Having already stopped earlier in the day, we catch up with him for a bit and then it is our turn to press on ahead, as we start to close in upon Hay-on-Wye and our final destination for the day.
As the miles to Hay-on-Wye start to fall, the landscape starts to change and becomes increasingly wooded; and we are now passing a steady stream of day trippers who are out walking the countryside, with this this area being the most popular for tourists that we will pass through.
|Trees Increasingly Provide Welcome Shade|
Not wanting to linger too long given that we don't have that far too go, we soon get going again and for the first time find ourselves in a bit of a dull stretch, following some very minor roads heading towards Hay-on-Wye.
We briefly come off these roads in order to take a cut across a field or two, but whilst these cuts offer a bit of relief from the monotony of hedges and tarmac it is not long before we are back onto roads surrounded by high hedges (which to be fair do at least offer plenty of shade).
Finally we are able to pull off the roads once and for all and start to close in upon Hay-on-Wye.
|Fields (And in the Distance Tomorrows Climbing)|
|Dropping Through the Trees|
|Closing in on the River Now|
From here it is a short trek into town, over the bridge and into Hay-on-Wye.
|Over the Bridge|
With our bags dropped, we then amble back into town, where we opt for a very generous and yet very cheap portion of fish and chips that proves hard to finish after a long days walking, and after a pint in a delightful little beer garden we stop off at the supermarket for more supplies and head back to turn in for an early night, ahead of what will be our toughest challenge on the following day.
Day 3: Hay-on-Wye to Pandy
With Hay-on-Wye being the most touristy stop along our trail, we start our third day after a very good rest and continue to get off to a good start as we settled down to a very good breakfast to start off our day.
This day will be our toughest day's walking along the whole trail, but this is far from our minds as we settle down to a cooked breakfast that looks set to fuel us well for the day ahead.
An older American couple who had also stayed the night join us at the table and this proves to be an interesting meeting as the husband - who is now touring Britain with his wife - had two years ago travelled up from Cornwall to Scotland, both on foot and on a bike, during the first 6 months of his retirement.
With this company, the meal passes with us being able to listen to his stories of travelling up the Cornish coast and exploring the often desolate Scottish highlands, and this is certainly what we need on a day like today when it would be windy and wet all the way; requiring plenty of motivational thinking.
Whilst this conversation does somewhat take the gloss off our little holiday, listening to these trails is a welcome treat and as is often the case, serves as a reminder of how often we local-born inhabitants take our local countryside for granted; when others will travel thousands of miles to explore its riches.
But now we are well fed, it is time to leave this pleasant retreat behind and so with our bags packed back up, our day can now start in earnest; and so turning straight back onto the Offa's Dyke we head off down the road, across a few fields and continue along our path as it starts to climb up into the hills.
|Starting to Climb Up Above the Fields|
|Climbing into the Hills|
As we climb, though we now find ourselves in a forested area that is further keeping us cool, but before long this takes us up to a gate that marks our release into the wilder hills above.
|Into the Wild|
|Back to Our Previous Landscape|
|Our Major Climb Comes Into View|
|Road Through the Hills|
For a short while, we follow this road, but before long it is time to turn off to the left and start to head up onto the top of the ridge, which we can then follow for the rest of the day, safe in the knowledge that almost all of our climbing will have been behind us.
|Climbing Up Onto the Ridge|
|Continuing to Climb|
|Looking Out From the Path|
|The Valley Below (Formerly Known As the Hills We Climbed Up To|
Before long though, we've made it up to the top and now we are truly in the clouds, with visibility limited to only a short distance in front and behind and with the plains below now well and truly hidden from view.
|Along the Ridge|
We're now set to be up here for most of the day and it is time to get used to plodding on into the mist as we're not going to be seeing much more than a few meters in front and at times we'll be struggling to see each other through the clouds.
|Yours Truly in the Mist|
For today, the countryside lacks a true wild nature and will not be providing much competition for the country around the Jamaica Inn for instance, but up here today, we were only ever going to be treated to a display of wild weather or an incredible view backed by strong sunshine and we're a day to late for the latter conditions.
The greatest challenge of such conditions can be the sheer monotony of both the scenery and the driving winds, but after a while we find that whilst there are only very few fellow walkers up here, there are at least signs of life that pop up whenever we pass groups of horses frolicking about up in these hills.
|Coming Up On Some Horses|
|With Those Off the Path Almost Fading From View|
However, once the horses are behind us the desolate feel of this ridge starts to take back over and this feeling increases as the path starts to disappear entirely, and as we start to navigate solely using mounds of stones that have been left to guide our way.
|Navigating Via Stone Mounds|
|Definitely on the Right Track|
We don't want to stop here for too long, however, and before long we're back on our feet and enjoying the worst of the weather that the day has had to throw at us, with our heads now firmly down and with us now firmly focused on pushing on through the driving rain.
|Through Driving Rain|
As the minutes pass by this driving wind starts to reduce the levels of cloud cover and it is not long before the first chinks in the mist begin to appear and we start to see some rays of sunshine coming down into the valleys on either side.
|The Mists Are Clearing|
|Views on Offer|
Not only this, but we now have the chance to look back and get a better idea of where we have come from, and lying behind us is this long snake along which we have traversed, with steep drops down onto the plains below on either side.
|Looking Back Along Our Path|
|The Ridge is Now Starting to Come to an End|
At the same time, there is much to make the most of, with the views heading back down the ridge being even more impressive than those we encountered heading up it.
|Heading Down the Ridge|
|With More Civilised Country Ahead|
|Down Into the Trees|
Gate to Pandy
Upon reaching this gate we almost instantly hit the road, with our stop lying directly on the Offa's Dyke path by this road.
Stopping off we take a quick shower to clear away the mud from the day's hike and after enjoying the company of our very welcoming hosts, we head out for some dinner and having paid for absolutely nothing so far on this trip I do the honourably thing and make this meal the one thing that I will actually be paying for and treat us to a nice pub dinner.
Day 4: Pandy to Monmouth
Normally the Offa's Dyke is a 12 day trek from Prestatyn on the North Wales coast, down to Sedbury in the Severn Estuary, but this stretch from Pandy to Monmouth marks our last day of the trail before heading home; having completed about 38% of the mileage on offer.
Given the variety offered along the path we have been walking so far, it seems a slight shame to be leaving it behind so early, but it is welcome to once again be waking up to a cooked breakfast and by this time the feeling of getting a bag on your back and heading out the door has become a very welcome start to the day.
This sheer act of having nothing to achieve between now and late afternoon but heading on for mile after mile to the next calling point has become a welcome almost meditative habit, even after only four days, but with this being the last day it is going to be important to make the most of it.
Our day begins, by heading directly away from the hills of yesterday and into much pleasanter countryside, passing through fields with some hills on either side that we will have the pleasure of not having to climb today.
|Some Sort of Hill|
Instead of climbing it would seem that the next few miles will be spent passing through farmland and we are busy hoping from field to field and starting to meet some of the local residents that are enjoying their breakfast as they get ready to start in earnest for the day.
|Cows Having Breakfast|
Already it is clear that today is likely to be the most pleasant day, both in terms of climbing and in terms of weather, with the day set to have neither the heat of our second day nor the rains of our first and third day; and with the climate being in general just right.
At the same time, whilst the scenery is perhaps not as dramatic as some of the previous days we do find ourselves in a very idyllic rural and enjoyable setting.
Whilst the going is much flatter and easier going than before, it is hardly like walking in Norfolk and between fields we are still seeing quite a lot of ups and downs, but it is all broken up the variety of farm animals on offer, with horses continuing to be a common sight throughout the day.
|Some Ups and Downs|
Before long the day's walking is starting to have a feel of a long Sunday's stroll and whilst there is no prospect of a roast dinner just down the road it is hard to deny the general pleasantness of this border country.
As we continue on and as the whole idyllic rural theme starts to get slightly over-done, we start getting into some of the more historical areas with a very old and lovely church, with a very old image of George killing a dragon inside it, being the more interesting such historical example:
|Very Old Church|
By this point it is hard to continue along a narrative without continuing to use words such as 'lovely', 'idyllic' and 'pretty', but the fields and general pleasantness continue through most of the morning with repeated scenes of fields, hills and trees, which struggle to get old when you are walking through them under the warmth of the sun:
For now the key attractions that are breaking up the day are the wildlife and after stopping for a bit to watch some birds of prey (kestrals I think) hunting we are back to passing through fields of horses and enjoying their company.
Otherwise the day just keeps going with perfect rural view after perfect rural view, for mile after mile under the warm sun of the day.
|Yours Truly in Sunshine|
Finally breaking the monotony of pleasant scenes, a sight we have been looking forward to for some time comes into view in the form of White Castle, which is an incredibly well preserved Welsh Castle that comes almost out of nowhere (what more could you ask for!).
|Castle Coming into View|
It is not every day that you stumble onto a medieval castle while out for a stroll and in this case we are fortunate to stumble across one that is not only incredibly well preserved, but also entirely free to enter and walk around.
|Outer Castle Section|
|Crossing the Moat|
Even better, we are lucky enough to come to this castle on a day when it has its very own cat, making the most of the bridge over the moat as a place to lie down and take in the sun's rays.
|(This Cat is Alive - I Checked)|
|Back to the Historical Stuff|
|Inside the Keep|
After having a good look around, we head out of the castle and start to turn on towards Monmouth knowing that we would now start to progress away from the rural scenes of the morning towards more urban farmland, until we finally reached our final destination along this trip.
With this in mind it is time to start clocking up the miles walking through field after field which is exactly what we start to do.
|Moving Into More Urban Farmland|
After navigating a series of fields we continue to progress through the urban countryside, turning onto a road and heading past small clusters of houses, and before long we start to see endless orchards of apples trees popping up on either side.
After a prolonged stretch along this road, we turn into one of these Orchards, whilst a couple who joined the Offa's Dyke path at Monmouth are resting coming the other way carrying what look like some very heavy packs and from the signs on the gates it is clear that we are now entering a Bulmer's cider orchard (there were no free samples).
Having passed through these orchards we start to climb up the other side and after climbing up a small hill, we can look out to see many acres of apple trees stretching out before us (supplying some fairly hefty quantities of cider I would imagine).
|All Those Trees Are Apple Trees|
|This is Not a Tree, it is an Ent|
|Bit More Rural Again|
|Small Old Church|
|On the Other Side|
|Pretty Mundane by Now|
In this setting it is almost as if we have already headed down south and it has a very southern feel reminiscent of the Surrey Downs as we start to climb back up onto higher ground.
|Starting to Climb Onto Higher Ground|
|Fields of Wheat|
Pushing on into the town centre we soon reach the recognisable Monmouth bridge where we are able to pop into Waitrose and make the most of finishing our trip by topping up on enough food and drink to take us through till the end of the day.
After half an hour we are picked up by the local bus, which drops us an hour later in Newport where we are able to wait for our train to take us home and where our journey finally ends.
Over the four days of this journey, we enjoyed two days of rain, one day of real heat and one pleasant day of warm sunshine; we climbed up into the hills, we walked along the remaining sections of the Offa's Dyke, visited castles and passed through picture perfect rural scenes.
The greatest element of sadness on this walk is that we only completed four of the twelve days, and at some point I'll certainly be planning to come back and walk the full stretch from the very north of Wales down to the very South, taking in everything this remarkable stretch of country has to offer.
Until then it is goodbye to this part of the world, in the knowledge that I'll very likely be back one of these days...