Bwrw hen wragedd y ffyn – Welsh proverb [it’s raining old wives and walking sticks]
We managed to pack up the tent in the dry in Monmouth, but as we began to walk it was raining again. A million million leaves in the woods had the dust washed off them, and a million million roots thirstily drank. Eight hours of heavy rain overnight changed the woods. It turned all the treetrunks black, and emphasised the bright spring green of the leaves.
It also showed up the terminal condition of the ash trees. Something we spoke of with the Hopkinsons yesterday was the terrible fungal disease Chalara fraxinea, which fatally affects the ash and causes lesions on the trunk, and dieback in the crown. We heard it was endemic in Monmouthshire as in so many parts of the UK, and we saw ample evidence of this today. A tell-tale sickly orange trunk instead of healthy ash green, a few leaves trying to break out, but straggly and sad-looking, and showing up in stark contrast against the greening of the rest of the wood.
The guidebook commented that this was one of those link days, without set pieces like the Wye yesterday and Hay Bluff tomorrow. It was just going to be a pleasant walk over fairly uninhabited farmland, a mix of livestock and arable. And it was: many stunning views, of rolling pastures but also out towards the Welsh hills, Hay Bluff and the Sugar Loaf. We passed through a commercial apple orchard we remembered, saw many beautiful farmhouses and barns, some converted, some dilapidated and collapsing, many extraordinary trees. We met several other sets of walkers, mostly retired folk exploring Offa’s Dyke, and one driven and determined young man, Anton, who is walking End-to End but in the other direction, rough camping. How far he has come! Go well, Anton!
A pleasant land, that is, except for the rain… At one point a sign on a gate warned of ‘exceptionally muddy conditions’, and suggested a road alternative. We decided that we did not want to face ‘exceptional mud’ and took the road detour. The sign was in both Welsh and English and I was pleased to learn that the Welsh for mud is ‘mwd’, to rhyme with ‘wood’. The word feels so much more onomatopoeically thicker and stickier in Welsh.
In general though, for the first half of the route the mud underfoot was much softer than it has been in recent days, and we no longer had any problems with the sun-baked mole-hills on which it is so easy to turn an ankle. We had a diverting conversation about the difference between baked mole-hills and baked-mole hills (the same hyphenation issue with which the owner of the Bromyard Market Square café of old did not wrestle when they added ‘hot dog-rolls’ to their menu).
Mud was a feature again when we laboured across a freshly-sown potato field, impeccably mounded up in a professional manner which made crossing it really difficult. Our boots became giant clods of sticky red soil, which washed off in the next field, in the long wet grass. It’s the law to have a field which washes boots after one which clags them with mud, leaving them sodden.
White Castle at the foot of Skirrid hill, was the scene of long-ago hide and seek games with the children.
Lulled into a reverie we made exactly the same false move as we did when we came this way before. In general the OD path is brilliantly signposted with highly visible yellow-topped posts. Around the foot of Skirrid, though, we again missed a sign embedded in a hedge and ended up in exactly the same stressful field of cows as a decade ago, off the path, trying to find a way to cross a river by a footbridge. We took our packs off while Stephen ran back to locate the hidden fingerpost.
The weather was pretty rancid all day, and once again it was on and off with the waterproofs. Although we started the day wet we managed to get everything dried out just by walking in the stiff breeze. Then the showers started again, just in time to coincide with the biorhythmic dip in spirits and speed which assails us between 2 and 3pm. They also coincided with some thin transverse tracks along the uncomfortably steep slopes of spectacularly muddy fields churned up together with copious quantities of sheep and cow dung. The countryside at its fertile best.
We finished at the welcoming Rising Sun pub in Pandy, at the foothills of tomorrow’s walk up onto Hay Bluff. We arrived in the nick of time to pitch the tent in the dry, and then repaired to the bar for the evening: a hearty heaped plateful of turkey carvery, a pint and a half of our favourite local beer Butty Bach (we really are close to home!), a charge of the mobiles and A Radiator to dry things on. Martin whom we had met in Monmouth and also walking Offa’s Dyke joined us after a while in our laundry corner with his wet things and his carvery plateful.