07 Jun Offa’s Dyke – reflections
I took a notebook, as I always do, to record my journey on Offa’s Dyke Path. By the end of the third day it was saturated, pages pleated together, curled, sodden scraps detaching from the edges. I put it on top of a radiator in our bedroom at the B&B that night; the one virtue of the otherwise lamentable place was the possibility of radiated heat for a while in the evening. It was still damp by morning.
The upshot of this was, of course, that my note-taking was limited. Now, reflecting on completing the journey, I’m relying on the pictures in my head of the 121/2 days it took to walk all the way from Chepstow to Prestatyn. 177 or 182 miles – seems there are two possibilities: at the beach in Prestatyn the waymark points to Chepstow 182 miles away; halfway along the path there’s a waymark suggesting 88.5 miles to each. Whatever. It’s a long way.
I’m not sure Offa ever did the whole thing or dipped his kingly toe in the water at Prestatyn back in the 790s. His dyke is a bit hit and miss. There are places where you know you’re on top of or alongside a huge earthwork that’s obviously manmade. Elsewhere there’s no sign of it, though we felt sure that every rounded ridge or deep ditch running along a field was bound to be the dyke. Maybe, maybe not. Does anyone really know exactly where Offa’s Mercian kingdom met its neighbour? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The link to Offa and his Dyke gives the trail some kudos.
But the dyke isn’t the main thing that will stay with me about this journey. Rather it’s….
– The soft, early evening sunlight on Tintern Abbey. From high up on Devil’s Pulpit, a clifftop outcrop across the winding River Wye, there you stand with almost a thousand years of history at your feet.
– Discovering the meteorological distinction between fog and mist
– And the definitions of copse, wood, forest
– Walking 126 ft above ground, held aloft on the majestic arches of Thomas Telford’s astonishing 300-year-old masterpiece of engineering, the aqueduct at Pontcysyllte on the Llangollen Canal. The highest navigable waterway in the world in the most unpronounceable place (Jilly could say it effortlessly – the phonetics of Welsh defeat me).
– The lovely Clwydian Hills with their steep sides and smooth summits.
– Birdsong and buttercups.
– The company of friends, Liam and Jilly, who also love to walk, who relish the challenge and, like us, probably wonder sometimes about their sanity. Who enjoy or tolerate us, perhaps in equal measure, over two weeks. No doubt, we’re not always easy.
But the whole thing wasn’t what I expected. Part of the joy of walking this kind of trail, end to end, day after day, is the people you meet from different places, cultures and mindsets. There is something magical about how vastly different worlds and individuals collide for a short while in pursuit of a common challenge. Sated with observing nature, landscape and the laces on your own boots by day, you look forward to observing your fellow man in the evenings, exchanging some banter over a half or two of ale, swopping stories of wrong turns taken. But there were hardly any other walkers. For most of the time, we were on our own, the four of us hardy souls navigating our combined 274 years and our daily cargo of snacks, drinks and waterproofs south to north.
So, we had to make do with the B&B owners whose days are constantly intersected by complete strangers. We had fun with a little light conjecture about their lives and loves. Usually well-intentioned; undoubtedly way off the mark; admittedly at their expense – sometimes. Our hosts were a rare mixture of the darkly sour, the slightly wacky and the utterly delightful. And there were quirky ones too with life stories to amaze you. People who’ve travelled the world and then taken up a life running a B&B in a quietly remote part of Wales. You contemplate the journey they must have made in their minds and their souls.
We stayed in places that were modern, comfortable, well-equipped, sanitised, unobjectionable and bereft of personality; in places that were tired and dull. We stayed in glorious houses furnished with grace and style that have been in the same family for generations. Huge rooms with high ceilings; old dressers stacked with Spode or Wedgewood; bookshelves lined with leather-bound books from the 19thcentury; walls hung with photos, paintings, personal treasures. Tiny windows into other worlds.
And each morning we got up and got to work. The walk works you very, very hard. Not just on a few days but almost every day. You don’t scale huge, high peaks but you scale steep slopes. Unrelentingly. We calculated there were probably around 50 tough ascents over the 180 miles. Cumulatively it’s the same as climbing Everest. It was amazing, unforgettable. But I’m not sure I’d go back and do it again. For all the beauty of the Welsh valleys in May and early June, the joy of the trails in the Clwydian Hills with their gorgeous views, the effort:satisfaction quotient comes up just a bit short. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the Coast to Coast with its stunning variety. It’s my marker and it’s difficult to come close.