Good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue. – Isaak Walton
A convivial beer in the Blue Boar with a colleague and his partner (coincidentally in Hay for the weekend was a lovely evening last night, but followed unfortunately by a spectacularly poor night’s sleep for both of us: three and a half hours for Stephen and two and a half for me. The delight of having two groups of guests walking with us, though, gave us extra energy to face the 36km day. We were also looking forward to better weather. The uplifting May morning did not disappoint: as we crossed the water-meadows north of Hay with a student and his father who had driven from Malvern to meet up with us, the views back to the scarps of the Black Mountains immediately started to open up. We crossed the Wye for the last time, bidding farewell to the river which has been with us since Chepstow. It winds westward to its source in Plynlimon while we head north, following the Offa’s Dyke Path for half a day again tomorrow.
The early morning was damp but brilliantly sunny, the air invigorating as we drew it into our lungs and climbed (talking, talking all the way), up past steaming potato fields
through cleared plantations where foxgloves and cistus has colonised by taking swift advantage of the light which had opened up.
I am the usual pace setter when Stephen and I walk together but our guests were running-fit, and had masses of energy, long, long legs, and seven-league boots. It wasn’t so much that I was scurrying to keep up, although at times I was, just that the stride length increased and were covering over 5km/hr. Talking, talking, talking. Two and a half hours passed in a flash: such pleasurable, stimulating company!
Our paths diverged at Newchurch for them to return to Hay and pick up their car, just before the really special and distinctive part of the day’s route started, the climbs onto the higher open hills, grazed short by sheep.
We were back with the larks, the gorse and the hawthorns, now heady with blossom, draughts drawn deep. Ancient oaks and huge crab-apples give the impression that this agricultural and natural landscape has survived for centuries, largely unchanged by modern technology.
The farmland between the hills was studded with scattered farmsteads, ancient settlements with barns and outbuildings built of local grey stone, summer nesting sites for the swallows and martins for centuries.
After a short stop for a pork-pie lunch under an oak tree which also provided some canny shelter from an unexpected shower, we completed the pull up onto the top of today’s signature feature: Hergest Ridge, a long, high hogsback open hill off the north east end of which lies the town of Kington.
On the skyline were ponies, and a tiny foal with greenstick legs keeping close to its mother and wobbling unsteadily on its tiny hooves. A little further on was an old hay-turner the kind we both remembered fitting onto the back of the Britain’s toy tractors, this one used perhaps to turn the cut bracken for drying and bailing and using for animal bedding. A pair of walkers were taking a break, dividing up some chorizo. We agreed that it was excellent walking food.
We powered along the ridge, loving its soft turf, carried along on a tidal wave of larksong and dropping down of the end of the hill to see the smiling faces of our friends of two decades Tim and Susie, who were to be the companions for the rest of today’s walk. Before setting off, we all treated ourselves to a cream tea in the tea rooms of Hergest Croft, a stunning garden which at this time of year specialises in glorious azaleas.
The route to Presteigne now climbed up north of Kington to more open pastureland from which extraordinary views are to be had. We could look backwards to the full range of the Black Mountains, westwards to the Brecon Beacons, and further west to the Bannau Breicheniog. Heart-tuggingly, we could see east to the Malvern Hills in the hazy distance and identify also the trees on the top of the Bromyard Downs above our own home. We could’ve chosen a route like Mark Moxham through Upton-upon-Severn (deciding not to because it would bring us too close to home), but looking out over such a familiar landscape, I rather wonder whether we might not have chosen differently.
But we were with friends, and the kilometres passed joyfully, chatting about every subject under the sun, and pausing to admire an extent stretch of Offa’s Dyke before dropping down into the wooded bluebell valleys where the Mortimer Trail winds.
The established rule seems to be that in the last two hours of a walk, there are route problems. We missed a turning off, and took an alternative footpath which looked definite on the map but which had been trampled into oblivion by a herd of cows, dried out, and left the ground transformed into a solid, uneven charnel house of bone-like baked mud. A little further on, it morphed into a semi-mined quarry filled with pools of stagnant, startlingly green slimy water.
Next we found ourselves detouring to avoid a field of cows with calves, threatening homicide. Their leader seeming to be rallying them for an attack, with the strangest and most disturbing sound that echoed down the valley. All that stood between us and them was a tiny electric wire. We hurried away down the river valley.
There was a long road-walking session into Presteigne (it’s the law), for a total of 36km, but what was waiting for us was pure heaven: Tim and Susie’s friends were putting us up for the night, and we were welcomed by Cindy and Francis with fabulous hot baths and beer, and a wonderful, home-cooked, enormous fish pie for supper. Kindest, loveliest people in the world!