Rendezvous with our friends went smoothly. That is me on the right and my friend and erstwhile colleague, Erica, on the left. We whipped out from central Chepstow to Sedbury cliffs to the official beginning of the walk, a tiny taster of what is to come.
We had a great meal with my lovely brother and niece that night and before settling down to eat my brother came up with us to the site of the end of the next day's walk so that we could leave Ian's car ready for him to drive home.
As we drove up the Wye valley my brother said "How long will this bit take you then?"
"About eight hours."
"It will take us about thirty five minutes tonight. Do you think this is telling you something? If God had meant us to walk he wouldn't have given us cars."
Not a natural walker, my brother.
Friday 29th May
13.5 miles, start 9.15, finish 5.05, cals used (per Erica's nifty machine) 1212.
An easy start today with Ian walking with us so we were not entirely dependent on our own navigational skills and the trusty book (Offa's Dyke Path South, National Trail Guide). As we were also intending to stay that night with some friends of Chris and Erica, we had no need to carry our full packs so we tripped along with lunch, water and a mini-pack of suncream and first aid kit.
The first real day takes you along the Wye valley, much of it high above the river through ancient woodland, walking right next to the earthwork which is the Dyke. This far south we were just too late for bluebells but the woods were still a glorious mixture of broad leaved trees, full of bird song and welcome shade on a hot, hot day. This is Tintern Abbey seen down and far away through the trees.
We had been given a great lunch from our very fine B and B, Park Cottage , and an equally fine breakfast. Food looms very large in this tale and so we ended the day with an icecream at Redbrook, just short of Monmouth. The day had been hot and the walk quite hard, and when I inspected my feet I found a large blister on my left heel. A couple of people had recommended Compede to us, a magic sort of plaster which becomes a second skin over the blistered area. I just hoped it would work.
Saturday 30th May
15 miles, start 9.05, finish 5.35, cals used 1309.
We felt adventurous, as Erica's husband Chris dropped us and drove away. We were fuelled with a big breakfast and a fine meal from the night before. We had had our easing ourselves in day and now we were carrying our full packs and attempting to navigate without male assistance. The Offa's Dyke Path is a National Trail which means it is marked along its length by acorns and "spot the acorn" was the way to go. Again it was hot which meant sunhats and sunglasses and suncream, in my case not enough.
We climbed up away from the river, feeling the packs heavy on our backs. Soon we could see Monmouth spread out in the sun. We were walking to a pattern recommended by Ian and used by long distance trekkers: walk for fifty minutes and rest for ten. It feels strange the first couple of days you do it, especially in the morning when you find yourself stopping well before you feel any urge to rest, but it sets up a gentle rhythm which ensures that you pause, drink, look around you and move at a pace which you can sustain all day.
Monmouth is a pretty little town, with Monmouth School dominating one end, and a general air of prosperity. We stopped for a drink in a cafe and consulted the map book again. We were making for an isolated medieval church, Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern, the church of St Michael of the Fiery Meteor. It was a lovely old churchyard, baking in the sun.
I took some pictures while Erica wandered off to look for the next acorn. She came back at speed.
"There are two blokes and a woman sitting on the path on the other side of the wall with no clothes on."
Now this little church is in the middle of nowhere. A silver mercedes van was parked by the side of the lane, presumably the bearer of nudists. We retraced our steps to the church gate and walked slowly up the road, theatrically consulting the map book and wondering loudly where the path resumed.
"Perhaps we should go along to the crossroads up there," in ringing tones.
A male head popped up over the wall.
"Are you looking for the Offa's Dyke? It is just through this gate here."
"Thank you." We exchange a look. Let us hope they have their clothes on. Through the gate we find the three people perched on the side of the path, the woman in her underwear, the men in tiny briefs, all the deep mahogany brown of the true sunworshipper.
"Hope we didn't bother you," they say.
"Not all all, what a beautiful day," we trill. If there were prizes for Englishness we would be in the running.
The day ends near White Castle. We have walked hills and through farmland rich with flowers.
We are shattered.
This will take forever at this rate - I promise to hurry up.