Published in the GLOBE AND MAIL TRAVEL SECTION NOVEMBER 2.2013
Ominous storm clouds framing her jolly face, Mary Whistance offered us some pre-walk advice in her cheery Welsh lilt: “Tomorrow is the best day of the whole trail. Hergest Ridge is a right lovely walk. Steep though. And if a storm comes on, you’re in for it. A walker died up there last month, so he did. Poor lad, a boy and a half he was! Three days before they found him.” Her smile fizzled when she stole a furtive glance at the brooding sky.
It was the third day of our 136-kilometre walk north along the Offa's Dyke Path, which loosely follows the Welsh/English border. While we ate our Welsh fry-up breakfast ("Job done tidy! You slaughtered those sausages , you did!") Mary's warning added fuel to the theory forming in my mind: Nothing on this long-distance path is as it first appears. This is a land of mist and magic.
The Offa’s Dyke Path is named after King Offa of Mercia who, in the 8th century, built the dyke as a sort of poor man’s Hadrian Wall to keep the marauding Welsh mountain men at bay. Zig-zagging from Chepstow in the south on the Bristol Channel, north to Prestatyn on the Irish Sea, it is sometimes a great bank up to almost eight metres high with a deep ditch to the westerly Welsh side. It is a fascinating raison d’être for a National Trail: a route that follows a engineered landscape rather than a geographic feature such as mountains or a coast line.
That does not mean the path, Llwydr Clawdd Offa in Welsh is an easy stroll through a bucolic British postcard. To be sure, it has its moments of breathtaking views across lush green valleys dotted with remote villages, hills rolling off into the distance. But once up close and personal, the green hills are two-hour uphill slogs littered with climbs over countless styles,//what do you mean by this?/// the path itself strewn with ankle-twisting rocks or mud the consistency of sticky-toffee pudding. It is wild country, this border land known as the Welsh marches, home to centuries of raids, skirmishes and midnight sheep-stealing. Fortunately, the wild is tempered by the homey pubs and friendly B&Bs spaced at walkable intervals.
My wife and I had chosen to do the southern portion of the path – considered by many to be the best half – from Chepstow to Knighton, a doable six-day walk. (Those wishing to do the whole 285 kilometres should allow at least 12 days with rest time added.)
Since it was mid-September, we’d prepared well for rain but soon learned that British weather reports are notoriously pessimistic and usually wrong. Every night we’d hear rumblings at the pub and earnest predictions on the BBC: tomorrow will be wet, windy and turning cold.
But our heavy rain pants and ponchos stayed in our packs and we went digging for sunblock instead.
As Mary had warned, it was just as well. Several sections of the path are well above 500 metres, and what can be an annoying breezy rain in town can be deadly on the heights of the lonely Black Mountain Moors.
We learned quickly that the path is a smorgasbord of variety. One moment, it traverses a cool, wooded ridge high above the Wye Valley. The next it drops down and passes the magnificent ruins of Tintern Abbey, founded by hardy Cistercian monks in 1131. A few miles later, it crosses a cast-iron bridge, built at the smokey heights of the Industrial Revolution, when the Welsh Hills were ravaged for coal and slate. Then it’s through a lonely windswept moor with distant views west to Brecon Beacons and east to the Malvern Hills, mountain sheep our only company.
Some days we’d never meet another soul for hours, leading to suspicions that the Offa’s Dyke is Britain’s best-kept long-distance hiking secret. But just as the changeable weather was never predictable, suddenly a bustling town would unfold in front of us.
Two hours after a knee-popping descent from the desolate heights of Hay Bluff in the Black Mountains, where on a clear day one is treated to a good view of magnificent Lord Hereford’s Knob, the path bisects the town of Hay-on-Wye. We made straight for the Granary Cafe for two bowls of organic Gooseberry crumble and coffee.
“Something really smells in here,” said Katy, tactfully surveying the room.
But sheep dung and mud is a ho-hum reality in Hay, famous for its 30 bookshops – including the Murder and Mayhem Bookshop, the Poetry Bookshop and the Sensible Bookshop – the popular Hay Festival and Richard Booth, the self-styled king of Hay, who lives in the castle surrounded by groaning shelves of ancient books and notices brashly proclaiming political independence from Britain. We’d scheduled a rest day here and it was worth it. For a couple of Canadian bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye, the world’s first self-proclaimed “book town,” was bittersweet: So many books, but no way to carry them.
It was good we didn’t try, since the next day, our second last, was a gruelling 27 kilometres up and down over some of the most heart-stoppingly picturesque A.E. Housman countryside imaginable, liberally strafed with more than fifty stiles, a few questioning bulls, a fierce (but muzzled!) Rottweiler and hundreds of sheep.
The last night, tired but unbowed, we reached the comfy, isolated hill town of Knighton, the official end of the south half, start point for the wilder northern section and home to the Offa Dyke Centre with T-shirts, books and strange King Offa mannequins.
Staying with the Sharatts, who had a cozy sitting room well-stocked with maps and trail guides, was a fitting end to our trek. Not only did Pat tackle our long overdue laundry, but Geoff was a fount of helpful advice and knowledgeable comment.
“Too bad you’re ending it here,” he said in an enthusiastic lilt. “Because tomorrow’s stretch is the best part of the walk: most variety, best scenery … and toughest. Steep too. If the weather comes, you’re in for it.”
Now, where had we heard that before?
IF YOU GO
The Offa’s Dyke Path is rated “hard,” and is best suited to experienced hikers with proper gear. It can be walked in either direction, but is usually done south to north, so the sun and wind will be mostly at your back. The trail is generally well marked, with white acorn symbols indicating the route. But in many places, especially in rain and fog, it is easy to lose your way. Carry a good set of maps and a compass.
Getting there: Buses run daily to Chepstow, the southern start point, from London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports. nationalexpress.com Train service to Chepstow is also good, typically running through Newport. nationalrail.co.uk
When to go: The trail can be walked any time, but prime season is April to October. (In the off season, accommodations will be harder to find.) In spring, the days are longer and sometimes a bit wetter. The fall is a beautiful time to walk, but days are much shorter.
Where to stay: The Bear Inn is an atmospheric 16th-century coaching inn. Located in the middle of Hay-On-Wye, close to all the bookshops, restaurants and pubs. Inventive local cuisine and snug, well-decorated rooms make it a memorable stopover. Double rooms from £70 ($118) a night; thebearhay.com
Geoff and Pat Sharratt have been hosting walkers since 1999 in their spacious Victorian house, now known as Westwood**, a B&B in Knighton. They have lots of maps and guides and are well-versed on the trail and the weather. From £25 ($42) a person a night; 1-54-752-0317
For more information, visit the Offa’s Dyke Assocation atoffasdyke.demon.co.uk for planning tips, accommodation ideas and to order guides and maps.
**PS: Geoff Sharratt wrote to tell me their B&B is now closed. So sad. But he added that the story has been passed around Knighton, which is not so sad.