Row, row, row your boat, / Gently down the stream, / Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, / Life is but a dream! – Traditional
Tuesday was the last of our luxurious mornings for a while, enjoying a comfortable night’s rest and a wonderful breakfast courtesy of Mark. We eyed up our rather fuller packs, loaded as they now were with the camping gear. Again we had been brutal with the weight and discarded between us a few more kilos, of clothing for example that it turned out we hadn’t used in the first fifteen days’ walking. I had had another pair of boots sent down thanks to the Bromyard Postal Support Team of Jane and Clare, and had given them a spin the day before on the bank holiday when we were packing (which for some reason took all day – how we ever thought we could re-pack in half an hour late at night after walking from Easton to Chepstow I do not know). I think these boots are better than the others. Time will tell!
Mark kindly drove us out to Chepstow. There was solid traffic working its tortuous way into Bristol, but we headed west out over the iconic original Severn Crossing to Chepstow and the start of the Offa’s Dyke Path.
Chepstow’s pride in both its Welsh and English cultural and municipal heritage was visible in the beautiful contemporary stonecarving and dual language quotations which form the modern centrepiece of the ancient town and which emphasised the fact that we would be constantly moving between Wales and England as we walked today.
The River Wye roughly marks the modern border between the two countries – and Offa’s Dyke itself marks the border as it was when it was constructed in the 8th century as a defensive earthwork running nearly from Liverpool Bay to the Severn estuary. We walked down to the river Wye to begin the Llwybr Clawdd Offa in Wales, marked in Welsh on the signs, looking back upwards to the castle, the first one of several of the Marches castles we will see on this section of the route. It is built in a superbly scenic defensive position high above the river Wye.
The Wye was racing: the tide was coming in unbelievably fast, and the eddying water seemed thick with red mud. The Wye is tidal for about 8 miles upriver – seals follow the salmon, fishing for which the river is famed. At this time of year glass eels can also be found, having migrated mysteriously all the way from the West Indies.
This is the first part of the End-to-End route south of the Peak District that is familiar to us. About 10 years ago maybe more, we started to walk Offa’s Dyke in short sections with the children, taking two cars and leaving one at the start and one at the end of each day‘s walk. We followed the route right up into Montgomery over the course of a couple of years, but as we went further north it became too onerous to drive both cars so far there and back in a day. This way of walking the route is much more efficient!
We had been so looking forward to walking Offa’s Dyke. Each section of the path was familiar to us, and it felt like coming home, home, home. The weather was stunning for nearly the whole day, and we both walked with stupid grins on our faces, utterly content, at first up into the woods high above the river itself as it winds its way through wooded valleys. The Dyke is really visible here, a high mound created partially by digging a ditch on the Welsh side and piling up the soil on the English side. Offa’s Dyke is a scheduled monument, remarkably well preserved in many places, although since we last walked it some sections of the path have been routed away from the wall to stop erosion. Sadly there is no such respect from the local badger population.
The woods were magnificent. They fall away steeply to the left hand side and are thick with mixed deciduous trees, but mainly beeches. They seem to have a different character here in the Marches to those on Exmoor: more graceful, more graceful, less battling against the elements. They look like dancing dryads. The understory was covered with wild garlic, creeping Jenny, sweet woodruff and just a few late windflowers.
At a certain point you get a particular view down to Tinton Abbey, lying in Romantic ruins in a spectacular position on a bend in the river. This very view had particularly moved William Wordsworth in July 1798 while on a walking tour with his sister Dorothy, and the poem explores not only the impact of nature on Wordworth’s Romantic philosophy but also his joy in sharing the experience with his beloved sister. Mark had lent me his copy of the complete works to re-read Wordsworth’s great poem ‘Lines Composed above Tinton Abbey’ the night before. I read it last as a teenager, and thought the sentiment turgid then, but now re-reading it in my fifties, I found it, and the view, shared with Stephen, powerfully moving.
Because we have walked this path before, we decided to come down off the high Dyke Path and this time take the low-level Wye Valley route which meanders enjoyably along a mostly wide grassy bank following the course of the river because it was new to us. The sallows and alders, the swans and the ducks and the occasional cormorant, the salmon fishermen (mostly spinning but we admired one fly-fisher casting expertly at the end of the day), all were set off perfectly by the wooded slopes and the slow-moving wide green water.
The swifts are back at last, impressing with their superlative aerial antics and drawing attention to themselves with their screaming cries. It was all indescribably beautiful. And familiar. And felt like home.
It would have been extremely rude to have walked this way without calling in on a lovely OM family, the Hopkinsons, who live on the Offa’s Dyke Path. The cladding for Stephen’s shed had come from their wood yard about twelve years ago, which I think was the last time we had visited, and we spent an extremely jolly hour drinking fabulous coffee and catching up.
The Hopkinsons put the seal on a perfect day’s walking, and on we continued to the day’s end in Monmouth, rather missing Malvern, and appreciating more than a quarter of a century of human connections forged through its community.
Stats for today
Kissing gates: a decorous 15
Badgers disrespecting scheduled monuments: 1
Number of times I had to correct ‘defensive earthworm’ to ‘defensive earthwork’: 🙄
Today’s mystery ovum, encountered on the less-frequented western footpath:
(We thought a swan, and formed a hypothesis that the egg had been stolen and eaten by a (republican) fox.)