Jonathan Neale, feature writer with the Countryside Council for Wales, walked and wrote about Offa's Dyke Path in 2005 as part of his job!! This is his story.
‘Single To Chepstow, Please’
‘That’s it! I’m on the train at last…Why on earth am I doing this?’ This is the first entry in the diary, and written whilst travelling from my home (near Porthmadog) to Chepstow, from where I intended to walk the 177 miles of the Offa’s Dyke National Trail Path.
Thankfully, the Welsh countryside came to my rescue. Crossing Aber Mawddach on the Cambrian Coast Railway my view was drawn upwards, from the slow meander of the estuary to the mist-fed oak forests and, somewhere way above, the tumult of angry-looking cloud that covered Cadair Idris. Not the sunshine and clear blue sky of the tourist brochures; this was real Wales; its atmosphere; its varied landscapes; its moods.
Given the Welsh saying ‘teg edrych tuag adref’ (the fairest views are homewards), I decided it would be better if I walked north along the Offa’s Dyke National Trail. So it was, on a south-bound train, with brief changes at Shrewsbury and Newport, that I was soon admiring the Norman Castle at Chepstow, which towers above the River Wye as it skirts the sheer limestone cliffs before it flows south into the Severn estuary.
Wordsworth and the Wye Valley
Offa’s Dyke, and the National Trail Path from Chepstow to Monmouth, provided an uplifting day of walking. The Dyke, the dramatic cliffs, the yew, beach and chestnut woods, which open out in places giving dramatic views of the lower Wye Valley, including Tintern Abbey, all had a magical effect. Of course William Wordsworth discovered its romance a long time ago:
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! Though wanderer through the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
The Wye Valley is also home to the Tintern Spurge (Euphorbia serrulata), an extremely rare plant of woodland clearings here. Unfortunately, on this walk I had little time to get distracted and so, pausing briefly at some early purple orchids at Highbury National Nature Reserve (English Nature) I carried on, reaching Monmouth late in the afternoon comfortably tired, if a little weary.
Views from the Black Mountains
The next day, I crossed a quite different landscape of fields and hedgerows, with Skirrid Fawr and the Black Mountains drawing me, relentlessly, onwards. I reached Pandy on the Honddu river above Abergevenny by lunchtime, and seeing the sun still high above the Hattersall Ridge of the Black Mountains, I decided to do a second section of the Trail. I reached Hay-on-Wye, well into the evening, with my feet burning and my joints full of pain. I needed a nice hot soak, and so I booked into a hotel and spoilt myself. I drifted off to sleep with those wonderful views of the Olchon and Honddu valleys from over 2300 feet up on the distinctively layered-sandstone of the Black Mountains. I knew I had walked too much that day, but it had been a second day of wonderful views of Monmouthshire, with Herefordshire now replacing Gloucestershire as the path continually criss-crosses the border.
Hay is one of the many places I visited and left a mental note that I would have to return – all that browsing! Feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep, I walked on towards Kington, passing near to Clyro, where Kilvert painted his vivid picture of Border life in the 19th century. The pleasant walking, however, was to end when I was hit by torrential rain, and I eventually took refuge in the Oxford Arms at Kington, where a free Beef Balti, put on for the F A Cup Final, helped warm the senses.
The following day was, thankfully, sunny, though I had to pack a wet tent and much of my gear was still damp from the day before. The Dyke reappears north of Kington, and is at its most impressive: massive, and snaking through the pastoral hill country of east Radnorshire. Pilleth church gleaming white on the aptly named Bryn Glas overlooking the Lugg valley hill came to view, and adjacent, 6 tall pines, which mark the spot where Owain Glyndwr won a bloody battle in 1402. This battle later became the ‘news from Wales’ of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.
Reaching Knighton (W. Trefyclawdd = Town on the Dyke) in the late afternoon sunshine, I pitched my tent under Pantpunton wood, to a riot of melodious birdsong from the oaks on the steep slope above. I left the campsite (in England) and walked the few hundred yards to the Railway station (in Wales), where I had arranged to meet my brother. Later, he would recount seeing ‘an old man’ (of 42) walking towards him – Well! I had just walked 80 miles in 4 days.
Apart from the location, it seems quite appropriate that Knighton is where the Offa’s Dyke Centre is situated, and where the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail was formally opened in 1971. To me, nowhere else seems to encapsulate the rich history of the Marches better than this quiet market-town.
The tranquillity of present-day Knighton, however, belies a colourful past where Romans, Anglo Saxons and Normans, have all come and gone – the Dyke being the most striking legacy of this past. Known in Welsh as Trefyclawdd (‘the town on the dyke’), Knighton is situated on a glacial moraine overlooking a narrowing in the Teme river-valley (W. Tefeiddiad), and England lies beyond. I find border towns fascinating places, and Knighton with its rich cultural past is no exception. If the past has bred an individual character, Welsh flags and ‘Iechyd da’ from pub locals place it unmistakably in Wales.
“Two Full ‘English’ Breakfasts Please”
It was early morning on my walk of Offa’s Dyke, and I awoke in my tent to a confusion of birdsong from Kingsley Wood on the slopes above Panpunton Campsite. The 05:34 from Shrewsbury to Swansea (Heart of Wales Line) then rumbled past – a reminder that I too had a timetable to follow, and Montgomery was my next stop. Long distance walking is physically demanding, but this at least enables you to eat as much as you want and, now joined by my brother, we took full advantage of a bakery on the high street, which served up a big cooked breakfast. We were to need it, as the section north of Knighton is, by common agreement, the most testing section along the whole path.
It’s not that the Dyke scales great heights, though it reaches its highest point (430m – c. 1,400 feet) here, but it’s the undulating topography of the Clun which makes the going so hard. The many ridges run west to east, so there appear to be an endless succession of ascents and descents as the Dyke snakes through the countryside. The beauty of Clun (part of Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) compensates for the labours, and, with attempting to decipher the confused Welsh / English place-names (eg. Skyborrah = Ysgubor ‘barn’, Squilver = Disgwylfa), there was more than enough to ease the burden. The quiet countryside of Clun led A. E. Houseman (A Shropshire Lad) slightly tongue-in-cheek, to write:
Clunton and Clunbury
Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
The Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail runs with the Dyke for more or less the whole of this section, so there is also time to marvel at the engineering involved in crossing the endless maze of hills and valleys. Interestingly, at Hergan, there is a dog leg in the Dyke where, it is suspected, two gangs working on different sections (both sections use different construction methods) failed to meet, and a bridging section had to be built. As the Dyke enters the Montgomery Plain it is no less impressive, but now it loses any assistance given by ridge and slope, and it is difficult to question the idea that its role here was mainly as a mutually agreed border with the independent minded Princes of Powys.
‘I developed a fixed, determined look’
I left the Dyke at Montgomery for a short break, and later rejoined the Trail at Buttington, near Welshpool, where the River Severn (said to be a corruption of its Welsh name - ‘Hafren’) provided the Mercians with an alternative natural boundary. Camping overnight at Llanymynech, it was not long before I was following the Dyke again, in hills just west of Oswestry. After walking around 130 miles, I sensed that I was growing more single-minded in my quest to reach the end. I saw in myself what I had seen in other walkers I had passed coming in the opposite direction on the southern leg: a fixed, determined look, and an increasingly bronzed complexion.
Approaching the Dee valley I was struck by the sight of Chirk Castle which, lit up in the late afternoon sunshine, appeared totally incongruous in the surrounding pastoral countryside. Built as part of Edward I’s legacy in the conquest of Llywelyn’s Wales, it stands out far more than Edward’s other fortresses in the more dramatic parts of north-west Wales. An imposing military outpost on the landscape, it towers over the Ceiriog Valley to the west.
The path joins the Llangollen Canal at Pontcysyllte, crossing the famous 200-year-old Froncysyllte Aqueduct, and on to Llangollen, where I found the welcome comfort of a hotel bunkhouse. The next day was glorious; clear, blue, sky and the limestone cliffs of the Eglwyseg escarpment way above me as I traversed the dramatic scree-slope path. The broad expanse of heather on the Llandegla moors gave way to the Iron Age hill forts of the Clwydian hills and now, over to the west, Snowdonia, and home.
From Llangollen to Prestatyn the Trail provides some of the best views of the whole walk, but it wasn’t quite the same without the Dyke, which crosses the Dee valley near Chirk, and runs through the post-industrial sprawl of Wrexham to Treuddyn. Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail is special to me because it follows a fascinating man-made feature, a feature which has rich cultural and historic significance, especially here in Wales. I had grown attached to it, linking as it does the walker to a fascinating story.
Camping overnight in the Vale of Clwyd, I reached Prestatyn during the Whitsun holiday week. I promptly boarded a train to Bangor. Sitting among commuters, businessmen and holiday makers, I suddenly felt different. I had lived a kind of Bohemian existence for the previous 10 days and was now amongst the helter-skelter of people chatting on mobile phones and immersed in newspapers. I reflected on my walk of Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail and wondered why it felt so special, and then I recalled one of the many walkers I had met along the way saying: ‘It’s the simplicity of life away from everything; and the beautiful countryside.’ It’s also, I would add, a great personal challenge, and leaves you feeling that life before and after is different in some small way.