Monday, 29 June 2009

Kington to Drewin Farm, north of Knighton

Kington to Knighton

13.5 miles, 1216 calories used, 9.00 to 4.30

A hard day for me for some reason. A friend who goes on a lot of distance walking holidays had told me that she always feels that she is really into her stride in the second half of the first week so I suppose I had expected to feel the same. Both Erica and I had found that we had a hot, red rash on our calves, mine practically from sock to knee, Erica's a bit more localised. Whether it was that or just a general flagging I had to work hard as we climbed out of Kington and wondered where my increasing fitness was supposed to be. Maybe it had decided to have an extra day's rest in the comfortable shabby chic of Church House.

For the first time our acorns deserted us and we found two gates which were unmarked. We had been playing catch up all day with a party of five men who arrived at the first gate at the same time. Much consultation and the superfit man in too short shorts who seemed to be charging ahead of their party whizzed off up the hill to inspect another gate. We hung around and eventually followed the group decision through the acornless gates. It was funny watching the dynamics of another group walking: wiry short shorts at the front, two Americans in the middle, one charming and chatty, one taciturn, two other Brits bringing up the rear with the odd witty, self deprecating comment as we passed. An oddly assorted group.

Coming down into Knighton we found our B and B easily and were welcomed with Welsh cakes and tea by charming, one legged elderly landlady. Knighton is far less monied than Hay but a pleasant little town with a variety of shops and a couple of decent pubs and, wondering if I was just short of chips, we settled down to replenish our chip stores. You can see that the very prospect made us feel better.

Friday 5th June

no miles, no fun, no point

This was another rest day and we spent it in Llandrindod Wells. I am very happy to be told that the fact that we thought there was nothing there was because we missed the centre somehow. There was a fine Art Deco hotel called The Metropole in which we had a good lunch and there was much fine architecture but the town itself seemed empty and curiously devoid of shops. It was a popular spa town in Victorian times and looks like a place which would like to relaunch itself but hasn't yet worked out quite how.

Saturday 6th June

Knighton to Drewin Farm

14 miles, 1264 calories used, 8.50am to 5pm, gallons of water absorbed by clothing: 15 (possibly)

The first day of pouring rain. Erica's husband had joined us for the weekend. He drove the car to our next destination and he was then to walk back to meet us, hoping that we would meet about lunchtime. As we finished our huge breakfast the rain lashed on the windows.

Now in ordinary life you don't spend a day outside in the pouring rain. You run from the house to the car, you put up your umbrella on your walk to the station, you dash into shops or you just decide to stay home. There wasn't much option for us. The B & Bs were all booked, the itinerary written, Erica had her time off work all scheduled. So we cagouled ourselves up and off we went.

The wet weather head gear is of Erica's own design, involving a snood, a visor and a plastic rainhat. Her intellectual property rights will be fiercely defended so no copying without huge payment.

The climb out of Knighton was the stiffest yet although to begin with the rain was steady but fine. Soon however we were walking in a heavy downpour. There were tantalising glimpses through the curtains of rain of what may have been glorious views but there was little to see for more than a few seconds and we put our heads down and slogged on. We stopped for lunch in a barn at a farm, asking permission and suddenly understanding the force of the need for shelter, a basic human need which we take utterly for granted. The barn was piled with straw and we were visited by two curious farm dogs. We changed our soaking socks for dry ones which gave us a surprising amount of improved comfort for about an hour or so until the sense of squelching along with our feet in buckets returned.

We met Chris a little further along and continued to trudge up hill and down dale and up hill again (this area is known as the Switchback) through relentless rain. It had to be done. We told ourselves it would hardly have counted if we had done the whole walk in the dry and just got on with it.

Ian was at the farmhouse to meet us and it was wonderful to see him, to have a blast from my normal life, and to eat a marvellous meal, perhaps the best of the walk at the Castle Hotel in Bishops Castle. The farmhouse kitchen was festooned with our wet gear, steaming gently over the Aga as we went to bed.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Hay on Wye to Knighton

Burfa House

Erica walks the Dyke

Tuesday 2nd June

no miles, no additional calories used but plenty consumed, only walking to the shops

A day off, a day to read the papers, eat a sizeable breakfast, laze in the garden, half asleep in the sun. A day to wander the shops of Hay, to fantasise about buying unusual and beautiful clothes to wear with green shoes and huge earrings, as opposed to the usual tatty jeans and white t shirts. A day to resist the lure of bookshops and antique shops and anything weighing more than a plaster.

Wednesday 3rd June

Newchurch churchyard, welcoming walkers

Hay on Wye to Kington

15 miles, 9.00 to 4.50, calories used 1215.

There is nothing like a day off to make you ready to walk again.

It was another hot but hazy day as we set off from Hay in the direction of Clyro. This was the parish of the Reverend Francis Kilvert who wrote a diary of his time as a vicar in this area of the Welsh borders in the 1840s. He was a passionate and kindly man with an eye for beauty: of the landscape, in architecture and of young girls. Read his diaries and muse about our current obsession with the sexual abuse of children and how our fears fit with a society like Kilvert's. Perhaps a less sexualised society has its benefits, one of which may be a restraint on behaviour which which we have lost. I don't mean to minimise the hyprocrisy which underlay much of Victorian society in relation to sex but read Kilvert and there is an odd innocence in his love of beautiful children which is inconceivable in our responses now.

It is an odd reminder of the role of a church as a sanctuary to find that some of the churches on the way welcome walkers and thoughtfully provide seats, water, biscuits and words of encouragement. Here is the churchyard at Newchurch which has all of this, with a handwritten sign by the gate which makes you turn in gratefully, pratical Christianity.

And for much of the day we walked the Dyke too, sometimes large and tree covered and mysterious, sometimes a long low ridge, punctuated by gaps which may be trading gates, to police the traffic between Wales and England. I find I move between taking it utterly for granted and simply trudging along, and suddenly having goosebumps at the breath of the past on the back of my neck.

Up from the dyke we ascend another ridge, the Hergest Ridge, and walk springy grass with mountain ponies wheeling away from us with their foals. There is a breeze up here although it is sunny and clear and Erica pulls out a snood she has purchased with promises that this is the perfect all purpose head gear. She transforms instantly from her cheery, elegant self to my grandma, headscarved up for the day she cleaned the front step with a donkey stone. I chortle, she grins and bounds on.

Coming down we pass Burfa House, the oldest building we will see, beautifully restored in the 1990s.

And coming into Kington we have the perfect moment as we walk past the church looking at some beautiful double fronted stone houses as we scan for our B and B.

"I hope it's that one" I say and it is, Church House, Kington. Its owners are somehow related to Charles Darwin. It has the biggest bathroom and the best bedlinen in the world.

The photos won't behave today and it is a quarter to twelve so I am giving up! I hope you can make sense of them.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Llanvetherine to Hay on Wye

Sunday 31st May

12 miles, 9.10 to 5.00, calories used 1126

The reality of long distance walking kicked in: my blister was so enormous it was too huge for the tiny Compede plasters I had optimistically brought along and needed one of Erica's larger ones; I had skimped on the sun cream yesterday and the backs of my calves were glowing red and warm even through my walking trousers. Cover up day.

The day started with the compulsory big breakfast and a fairly gentle walk to a beautiful little church, St Cadoc's.

Britain is full of these beautiful ancient buildings. What will happen to them all I wonder as church attendance falls off and they become unable to sustain a congregation? I am not a religious person but a well used church has a lovely feel, peaceful, warm and sustaining. This one had an extraordinary carved beam, an amazing find in a tiny church which must always have been tucked away in its backwater.

More walking on farmland took us to Pandy and then the beginning of the climb up Hatterrall Ridge. I had pondered about how to do this stretch when I was planning the walk. Because we had not got as far as Pandy the previous day, walking the whole length of the ridge was impossible. Reorganising the first two days of walking to ensure we got to Pandy would have led to two long days when we were finding our feet (or our blisters) and even if we had managed that the walk from Pandy to Hay on Wye is seventeen and a half miles, beyond what I thought we could do. So I had settled on coming down from the ridge to split the walk.

As we started to ascend I started to think this was a very stupid idea. The ascent is steep, the views breathtaking and the descent over the side of the ridge looked a long way down but we were committed now. We nearly missed the stone marker showing the path down to Longtown. We had asked a fellow walker if he knew where it was and he didn't. We had been looking for the stone for about twenty minutes and had just about decided that we must have missed it when we saw him up ahead waving and pointing. Without that we would have turned around and landed ourselves with a very long and miserable day. Walkers are very helpful to each other like that. It is similar with sailors and campers I have found. I suppose you offer the help you would like to receive yourself.

It was a very long way down and we longed for an enterprising farmer to come steaming up on a quad bike offering lifts to the pub but it didn't happen. The day ended with chips and lasagne and wine outside in the sunshine, backs firmly to the view of the huge climb back up to the ridge. We could think about that in the morning.

Monday 1 June

15 miles, 9.00 to 5.00, calories used 1207

This was the day we were to get to Hay on Wye, a small town on the Welsh border which has transformed itself into a place of pilgrimage by virtue of its bookshops and its Literary Festival. Hay was also to provide us with our first rest day, assuming we got there. Four long days of walking had seemed daunting. When I was planning the walk I thought that if we managed to get to Hay we would probably be able to do the whole thing, on the basis that we were getting fitter as we went. First of all though we faced the long climb back up to the ridge.

As always things looked better in the morning. Fuelled by cereal and eggs we steamed back up the hill and soon were walking high above the world with only buzzards and Welsh mountain ponies for company. To one side was England, spread out for miles with its small fields, stands of oak and farmhouses.

To the other was Wales, the folds of the Black Mountains beautiful, high and empty.

Ridge walking is fabulous. You are up, so you don't have to climb, meaning you don't have to puff and ache and stop to pretend to look at the view. And you can see for miles. The day was hot, perhaps almost too hot for walking, but up on the ridge there was a gentle cool breeze. It is bleak up there I suppose and in bad weather it must be harsh but we were lucky and we bowled along on top of the world.

Towards the end of the day we met a walker sitting by the side of the path with his map out and stopped for a chat. After a few minutes of swapping stories he asked us where were going to.

"Hay on Wye," we said.

He looked surprised. "Then you are going the wrong way."

Now I have had a lifetime of being wrong if Ian and I ever disagree about where we are so just for a moment I felt a flicker of horror that somehow of other I had totally lost it. Then logic kicked in. We knew where we had come from and a ridge is a bit like a one way street. There is not a lot of room for getting it wrong. Alngside that, the views of mountains to one side and farmland to the other and the sun on our backs all showed we were heading north, as we should be. Momentary panic over, we tried to persuade him. I even got my compass out but he was not interested in taking it or looking at it. Eventually we said goodbye, cheerily indicating that we were carrying on regardless and leaving him clearly thinking we were mistaken.

A few miles further on he caught us up and came to thank us for putting him right, with a mixture of good grace, embarrassment and angry frustration with himself that he could have made a mistake like that. We tried not to be impossibly smug, we tried to think there but for the grace of God go any of us, but we were pretty damn pleased with ourselves really.

And arriving in Hay on Wye we found ourselves in a fabulous B and B, Tinto House, with friendly hosts inviting us to sit in their glorious garden. We showered, we sat in the sun. All was well with the world.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Walking Offa's Dyke - Chepstow to Llanvetherine.

Thursday 28th May

We left home in the late morning to drive down to Chepstow. The rucksack had been packed and unpacked four times to get it down to fourteen pounds, with water but without lunch! With steely determination I had reduced my clothes to three pairs of knickers, three pairs of socks, one set of clothes to walk in every day and another set to change into. With the waterproofs, sunglasses, suncream, camera, map books, first aid kit and toiletries, the pack filled up with startling speed. Toiletries had been a real struggle with a tiny toothpaste, an all purpose gel for washing body, hair and clothes and a single tiny tube of moisturiser.

"Bet you have some mascara in there though," Ian said. Well of course I did, the aim was to reduce the pack to the bare necessities.

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.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Did it!

We did it! 182 miles and sixteen days away and we have walked the length of Wales. It might take me a day or two to find my camera among the dirty washing and the forest of weeds but I will blog about it properly when I have drawn breath. It has been totally great but isn't it wonderful to be home!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Halfway there!

Ian here - Elizabeth has asked me to report that, after six days of walking and one rest day, she and her friend have reached Knighton, the halfway point on her south-north trek up the Offa's Dyke trail.
Fortunately, the weather has been fantastic - if anything too hot and sunny (I certainly thought so when I accompanied them on their first day). The second half could be 'interesting' as the weather is now definitely on the change and quite a bit of rain is heading their way.
I shall leave E to tell her own stories about blisters, insect bites, prickly heat, etc. Suffice it to say that I am very proud of her achievement and looking forward to joining her in a week's time for a triumphal march into Prestatyn.