Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Offa's Dyke days 1-9:Up The Hill And Down The Slope.

Offa was an 8th century Mercian king who, for some unknown reason, built a massive dyke between his kingdom and that of the neighbouring Welsh. It probably had something to do with defence but no-one seems to really know. This, eventually, became the de facto border between England and Wales. It's still there in some in places. Not in others.

What is there, however, is Offa's Dyke Path. A 176 mile hike stretching from Chepstow on the Severn estuary to Prestatyn on Liverpool Bay. With a faint nod to my dual heritage I decided, in 2013, that I'd walk the length of the bloody thing.

I was ludicrously optimistic about how many miles I'd cover in a day. With a heavy rucksack on. Going up and down hills that can't be far off mountains. It became apparent almost immediately that I wasn't going to complete this trek in one trip so I promised to myself I'd keep coming back until I finished it.

The 2013 trip saw me walk from Chepstow to Hay-on-wye. I stayed overnight in St.Briavel's, Monmouth, Pandy, and finally Hay itself. The Wye valley was stunning. The views of Tintern Abbey equally breathtaking. I walked an extra few miles as I got lost leaving Monmouth. I criss-crossed the England Wales border countless times. Much of the time I didn't even know if I was in England or Wales. At Pandy I stayed in a room full of bunk beds that were usually occupied by visiting Scottish loggers.

The owner of the pub (and the digs) warned me the next stretch would be tough. He kindly made me a packed lunch and asked me to phone him when I reached Hay. I thought he was being over dramatic. He wasn't.

I walked up and up until I reached the ridge of the Black Mountains. It was the start of April but it had been a cold winter and spring wasn't proving to be much warmer. I'd seen animal carcasses pecked away by starving birds and I'd seen snow topped mountains on the horizon.

Now I was getting into the snow itself. Totally inappropriately attired I forced my freezing hands into my pockets and trudged along the ridge. For about five hours. The landscape looked almost lunar. I could see walkers in front of me and others behind me. Sometimes we'd pass and exchange brief pleasantries.

Finally I started to descend. This was not easy. It was very slippery under foot. I gingerly placed my feet where I thought they'd be safest. But, eventually, I fell. I've joked to friends since that I'd slid down Lord Hereford's Knob and it wasn't fun. Actually the Knob was nearby and I'd slid a very small distance down Hay Bluff. Just enough to graze my hands and scare the shit out of me.

That was enough for the first visit. I didn't want to be on the news being rescued while people at home tutted. I'd come back in better weather next time. Which, last year, I did. Starting off in Hay I made it all the way to Welshpool. Overnight stays in Kington, Knighton, Clun, and Montgomery along the way. As well as a night in Welshpool itself and, just for fun, stays in Hereford and Aberystwyth bookending the trip.

The place I stayed in in Knighton appeared to be a pub. A pub with no lights on and a few male clientele. It served no breakfast and was run by a very strange lady. When I got to Clun I was told it may've been a brothel!

Then again when I got to Clun I slept in a caravan in someone's back garden. The B&B was full of people cycling Land's End to John O'Groats. It's on the route as I'd already discovered when I met a young lady doing a 90 day walk between those two places. Pissed all over my little stroll. We walked together for a few hours and the time passed quicker with some company.

It can get a little lonely walking on your own for hours on end. I sing to myself. I think about the past. I think about the future. I make plans. Many of which are completely ignored on return to normality.

On arriving at a destination I grab a pint, sort out some accommodation, and get myself some food. I'm normally pretty knackered so, after another pint or two, it's off to bed. Be that in a caravan, a potential whorehouse, or some rather nice hotels. Like the ones in Monmouth, Chepstow, or the almost toytown like Montgomery.

I see far more animals than people. Sheep mainly. The sound of bleating accompanies me through forests, fields, and meadows. One of them even chased me. I got a funny look from a goose and some of the cows looked like they could easily turn should I make a wrong move. The badgers were no hassle though. They were all dead.

Most of the few people I meet are friendly enough. Friendlier than dead badgers anyway. Only the grumpy B&B owner in Hay who pretty much slammed the door in my face, presumably because I had bloody hands and was covered in dirt and snow, was rude. Oftentimes folk will offer me a lift (which frustratingly I have to refuse) or help me out with directions. I get lost a lot.

It's been exhausting and even stressful at times. The rucksack hurts after a while. But it's also been highly rewarding. I'm going back again very soon. I'll start at Welshpool where I finished last time. Again with the intention of reaching Prestatyn. As you can see below I've already passed the halfway mark. I can do this. Surely. There's a pint in Prestatyn with my name on.

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