Day 37 – Colton to Ellastone

Least said about today, the better; it can best be summed up by saying that the further you get from Uttoxeter the better things get. The beginning of the day is spent trudging along the edges of huge fields, trying not to twist an ankle or damage crops, and crossing stiles with what seems like unnecessary frequency. The view was all gently rolling fields of green wheat, with blue skies and little fluffy clouds in the background, but the cumulative effect was disturbingly like walking through a Windows screensaver.

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After a few hours of this I was feeling very discouraged, and was relieved to read in the trail guide that today was probably the low point of the entire trail. I stopped at the Tescos in Uttoxeter (full of brand new housing estates but not any scenic views visible from the trail) for a much needed cup of tea, then promptly got lost trying to find the underpass under the A50 (for those following the route, the strip map should read ‘go down some steps to your right immediately after crossing the bridge) and had to retrace about 3k. There was then another battle through completely overgrown paths and the peaceful sound of a shooting range. Just as I was about to chuck it all in, the day finished with a very nice walk along the Dove with an encouraging view of the moorland hills of the Peak District in the distance, before arriving at the bridge near Ellastone.

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Ellastone is pretty and the pub is nice-looking from the outside; Arran didn’t let me stop for a much-needed pint as we had to return to the campsite to get dinner for the kids. I was tired and fed up, but looking forward to some much better walking in the next few days.

HIghlights: No longer being in Staffordshire.

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Day 36 – Lapley to Colton

This was a nice day’s walk, full of variety. It started with some more canal walking, with beautiful boats and friendly boat people, followed by a short stretch through woods.

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Eventually I emerged at Bednall village. Many of the villages in Staffordshire that I went through have been competing in the Best Kept Village contest; however, Bednall has taken it to a new level by encouraging all the village schoolchildren to produce posters which are displayed on a big noticeboard. God knows what they told the children, but the tone of most of the posters was a cross between public information films and Stalinist propaganda, and they made me laugh out loud.

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The highlight of the day was Cannock Chase, a lovely mix of heathland and woodland with broad paths running through it. It was very peaceful and made for fast walking for a few miles, before returning to the canal for the final part of the day.

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Unfortunately, just after my last break of the day the heavens opened – it was raining so hard that rainwater was running down my face and into my mouth, and I was quickly soaked to the skin. I trudged (squelched) into Colton, a small village with two pubs but no shop. Unfortunately neither pub was open at 5pm; equally unfortunately Arran had gone to pick me up at Colwich by mistake! Home for a much-needed shower and a change into dry clothes, before tucking into a freshly-made chilli which Arran had prepared earlier. Definitely the way to a woman’s heart.

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Highlights: Beautiful canal paths, with overhanging trees and wildflowers; bracken and running brooks in Cannock Chase; schoolchildren racing each other over stepping stones in the Sherbrook.

 

Day 35 – Ironbridge to Lapley

A good start to the day’s walk, with a bit of an Industrial Revolution flavour about it. I started from Ironbridge in bright sunlight, heading out down the riverside before turning north over the canal and the Hay Inclined Plane (for those interested, an inclined plane in the industrial sense is a sloped railway used to transport boats to and from one canal to another; the one at Hay was 63m long and must have been very impressive in operation, but now has a slightly forlorn and forgotten air). A local pub had a chart up with record flood levels – a lot of entries from February of this year!

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Unfortunately, things then went a bit downhill. The route (described as a ‘clear path’ through woods) was impassable, and I spent about an hour blundering around through brambles, branches and nettles before emerging, scratched and cross, onto a footpath through a golf course, where a polo-shirted player suggested I limit my rest (on the public right of way, mind) to ‘a few minutes’. I left, muttering to myself (and pointedly picking up the Snickers wrapper which I hadn’t left there), for a dull road walk.

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A lot of the rest of the day was in the same vein. Footpaths diverted by order of Staffordshire council to avoid disturbing the privacy of large but deserted homes; road walking disturbed only by pressing myself into the hedge as shiny 4x4s whizzed past; paths blocked or invisible, necessitating long detours. There were some beautiful views, but they were largely wasted on me as I got more and more tired and fed up.

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I hit a low point round Hawkshutts, where no fewer than 3 of the alternative bridleways going northeast towards the reservoir were completely blocked. Faced with a road detour of several miles, I eventually crawled through barbed wire to get to a right of way; fortunately there was nobody around to hear what I had to say about farmers as it was unprintable.

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After that things improved, as I spent the last portion of the walk on the canal, which was cheerful and peaceful, with a good path underfoot and pretty bridges. I even got to cross a busy A-road on an aqueduct – a very strange feeling walking over a road whilst still on a canal! I was pleased to get to Lapley, after what had been a long and at times frustrating day.

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Highlights: Poppies next to the Iron Bridge; the industrial leftovers, including an unexpectedly elegant lime kiln; a grey heron watching the still green waters of the canal.

 

 

 

 

Day 34 (rest day) – Dragoons and musket fire

We went to an English Heritage-organised Civil War event at Beeston Castle. Although both Rowan and I were a little disappointed to find it was not a battle re-enactment with thousands of actors, it was extremely entertaining. They had lots of people dressed as the Northwich militia, with a temporary camp set up with tents and 17th-century daily activities; we saw all kinds of useful things including a pedal operated lathe, washing with paddles and a board, and toymaking. But the highlight of the day (for all of us) was a drill display with mounted dragoons, pikemen and musketmen, including firing actual muskets with real gunpowder.

We persuaded Rowan to climb to the top of the castle, where you can see for miles in all directions, made the obligatory shop purchases, had an icecream and went home tired but happy.

 

Day 33 – Strefford to Ironbridge

Today was a very very very long walk in the woods. I started by heading up to Wenlock Edge, which is an 18-mile long limestone ridge which runs from near Craven Arms to Much Wenlock. Although the rain had stopped, it was still very wet and muddy underfoot, and when I got up to the top of the ridge it was beautifully misty.

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Wenlock Edge is full of fossils, a reminder that this whole area was once underwater in a primordial sea; I saw nobody at all for nearly the whole 18 miles and it was very easy, wandering through the huge mature trees, to feel that this was a very ancient place. The ridge itself was very easy walking, if a little boring; an 18 mile stroll through woods, with very limited views beyond the trees. Still, they are very nice woods and there were lots of wildflowers in the gaps.

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Eventually the trail emerged into some fields, with nice views of the valley and some very beautiful cow parsley, before heading back into woods.

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I opted to walk the second part on the disused railway line, much scorned in the official trail guide for being fast but monotonous, but actually a decent way to cover ground with some occasional good views of the Wrekin valley. The last part of the ridge, just before Much Wenlock, climbs above an ugly quarrying area, enlivened only by another ‘leap’ spot, this time a Major Smallman (also, like Wintour on the Offa’s Dyke path, escaping Civil War pursuers).

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A quick saunter through Much Wenlock (very pretty, full of ancient half-timbered buildings and a surprising amount of bunting) and then through some more woodland, with the remnants of old quarries now overgrown with vines.

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The last part of the route descends from the ridge via what felt like hundreds of steps, all carefully engineered to be slightly longer than one natural step – by the time I got to the bottom I was hobbling slightly, but my spirits were lifted by reaching Ironbridge and the beautiful bridge itself.

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Highlights: Leaves silvery with moisture; lunch on the damp edge of a field, looking out over the valley; sunlight filtering through beech and birch leaves; a woman in a beautiful red and gold sari on the bridge looking out over the river.

 

 

Day 32 – Knighton to Strefford

I began the day by leaving Knighton, the Offa’s Dyke path and Wales, all by crossing the bridge by the railway station. As I headed off, I heard someone shouting my name – it was Israel, who had interrupted his breakfast when I walked past his B&B, wishing me luck on my onward journey.

It was a drizzly, bleargh sort of day, but a very enjoyable walk. I was feeling full of energy and bounce, and although I had enjoyed the Welsh ‘bit’ of the trail, I was excited to be heading towards the Peak District and the Pennines. The day started with a pleasant walk through woods (excuse slightly blurred photo), and some equally pleasant fields.

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Then the route headed up onto Stow Hill, which was amazing – all of a sudden Knighton was far behind (and below) and it felt very remote and wild, with views over the valley and no sound but the sheep and the wind.

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It was then a short ‘stroll’ (more wading through armpit-deep nettles, brambles and cow parsley in a tiny fenced-off path, ohh how I’ve missed this experience) to Hopton Titterhill (good tracks, mainly because the whole area seems to have been given over to mountain biking) and then down to Hopton Castle, which was an extremely pretty village full of half-timbered houses and climbing roses. I had lunch sitting on the steps of the castle, which is free to enter and has interesting noticeboards up about its siege during the Civil War.

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After lunch I headed past more fields of crops – apologies for yet more photos of wheat but I really like the way fields of grain look – before stopping for a cup of tea at the very highly recommended Rocke Cottage tea rooms in Abcott. It is a recreation of a 1930s tearoom, with ‘guest teas’ and some excellent cake.

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It started to rain in earnest as I headed towards Craven Arms and I got soaked, in a proper wet-trousers-sticking-to-me sort of way, but I managed to stick to my original plan of going past Craven Arms to make tomorrow’s walk a little shorter, and headed up the river to Strefford, a tiny but pretty village about 2 miles further on.

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On the way I passed this delightfully dedicated bench; whoever he was, he was clearly loved.

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Finished the day soaked through but in good spirits.

Highlights: heading northeast; the silence on the top of Stow Hill; perhaps my raincoat isn’t quite as waterproof as hoped; excellent coffee and walnut cake and Golden Monkey tea; dripping leaves and puddles on the road; changing into warm dry clothes in the car.

 

Day 31 – Kington to Knighton

My rather old Offa’s Dyke guidebook is given to waxing lyrical in places and described this stretch as the best of the path. I’m not really qualified to judge, having only walked just under half, but although today’s walk was pretty and full of variety my favourite day was still the walk from Pandy to Hay-on-Wye. This was however the last day on the Offa’s Dyke path, as the next step for me was to leave Wales and head northeast towards the Peak District and the Pennines.

I started the day badly by asking the lady in the baker’s shop in Kington whether she had any Welsh cakes. She was indignant, and seemed shocked at the very idea that she might make or sell Welsh cakes when ‘after all, we are in England here, you know’. I bought an apricot flapjack to placate her and escaped into the street with a sigh of relief.

The day was grey and much colder than the last few days; by the time I climbed up past the golf course (the highest in England, allegedly) to rejoin the Dyke itself at the top of Rushock Hill, it was very windy and felt like I was once again on moorland.

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The path followed the Dyke for a bit before heading over the ridge and down into a very green and manicured valley, all neat fields and grass drying in rows for baling.

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The walk was pleasant but uneventful, until I came down a hillside looking for a spot to have lunch, only to rediscover Israel and two Californian women who had been chatting to us on the walk to Hay. I joined them for the rest of the day and it was nice to have some companionship for the last day on Offa’s Dyke. It began to rain as we climbed over the last two hills before Knighton; not the deluge I had feared but a refreshing cool shower.

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It was however nice to arrive, even if Knighton is a bit short on places to stay out of the rain. It’s also short on shops selling maps to anywhere that isn’t Offa’s Dyke, as I discovered; I compromised with a nice commemorative sweatshirt from the tourist information centre.

Highlights: Standing alone on top of the Dyke in the wind, feeling very Dark Ages; the sudden transition from windswept hill to lush green valley coming down to Harpton; looking forward to leaving Wales for the next part of the walk.

 

Day 30 – Hay-on-Wye to Kington

The trail guide suggests walking from Hay to Knighton in one go. That’s a mere 28 miles, at which I blanched. My original plan was to split the distance between Hay and Craven Arms into two long (21 mile) days, stopping in Discoed or Evenjobb (a village name which I still can’t quite believe is real despite seeing road signs for it). With this in mind I set off early from our campsite, full of energy and determined to make it to Kington soon after lunch.

The route from Hay to Kington is pretty, but nothing to compare to yesterday’s ridge walking over the Black Mountains. From our campsite, the path climbed for most of the first two hours, through some rather heavily logged woodland (amazing foxgloves, but nothing much but scrub left otherwise), before heading through some small villages and up again onto Disgwylfa Hill.

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Then a gentle descent into Gladestry, where I was pleased to find the pub open and serving lunch. There were two horses in the car park, looking patient and resigned; they had been rented by two people in the pub garden who were riding cross-country (a company called Free Rein will apparently let you loose with a horse for a few days if you can tack it up yourself!).

Refreshed by a pint of beer and a large pot of tea I headed back uphill for the final part of the day, a lovely long walk over the springy turf of Hergest Ridge, which I enjoyed very much indeed.

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I made what I thought was very fast going and phoned Arran from Kington at about half past two, to check if he was able to find Discoed or Evenjobb on the satnav to pick me up. Neither place was identifiable on the satnav and when Arran revealed that he and the kids were in fact in Kington themselves we decided to call it quits for the day – a respectable 14 miles walked in 5 1/2 hours including my lunch break!

Highlights: Gentle rolling hills after the wild moorland ridges of yesterday; a tiny frog in the road (see below); the silky turf of the old racecourse on the top of Hergest ridge; excellent home-cooked ham sandwiches for lunch; feeling fit and energetic.

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Day 29 – Pandy to Hay-on-Wye

Today’s walk took us over the Black Mountains, and for the first time I saw the views I had been waiting for. Having been informed by the pub landlord of a shortcut to the path from our previous night’s stopping point, we were soon back on our way and climbing steeply up towards the ridge. A flock of sheep in a field on the way provided a diversion by chasing Alfie (safely on a lead, but amusingly subdued at the sight of his ‘prey’ chasing him for a change). It was a stiff climb, especially as it was another hot day, and unlike Richard (who simply bounds up hills, unfazed and without apparent effort) I was soon sweaty and out of breath.

Although we hadn’t started early we reached the top with no other walkers around, and for a long while had the ridge to ourselves. This was ridge walking at its best. The views were amazing – probably 20 to 30 miles to either side, obscured only by a slight heat haze which burned off while we were up there – there was a fresh breeze, skylarks everywhere, and the going underfoot was easy and pleasant. My guidebook had gloomily predicted large boggy patches, with walkers leaping desperately from tussock to tussock watched by sardonic hang-gliders, but none of this materialised. In the 20 years since the book was written large sections of the path have clearly been resurfaced; in what must be the wetter parts flags and aggregate have been laid and we made fast progress.

At a cake break we were joined by Israel, who accompanied us for the rest of the day – it was great to see him again and get to know him a bit more. He was walking the whole Offa’s Dyke trail, up to Prestatyn, but still appeared to have managed to pack everything he needed for 12 days (minus a tent) into a backpack about half the size of my day pack. It is true that I am a terrible packer – I always seem to carry extra stuff, especially snacks and water – and I have been giving this some serious thought as I will need to get it to a bare minimum if I am going to wild camp the last couple of weeks north of Fort William.

We encountered a couple of groups of Duke of Edinburgh students coming the other way; for those non-British readers, this is an award scheme for school students which involves them (among other things) organising an expedition. Students ‘doing D of E’ as it’s known are easily identified by their enormous backpacks, their heavy steps, and their depressed and hopeless expressions, and this lot were no exception despite our assurances that it was all downhill from here.

After spending most of the day high up on the ridge (the highest ground on the Offa’s Dyke path and the LEJOG trail so far) I was very reluctant to come back down, and Richard and I decided to walk to the end of Hay Bluff and head down that way before rejoining Israel at the bottom. After a steep descent we came into Hay-on-Wye very hot, tired and much in need of a pint. Fortunately the landlord at the Blue Boar Inn took one look at Alfie (a clearly exhausted dog after 3 days’ hard walking) and bent the rules about allowing dogs in, and Richard, Israel and I had a quiet pint before Richard and I headed over the Wye bridge towards our campsite. It was great being able to walk into camp, rather than Arran having to pick me up, even though the kids were clearly more excited to see Richard and the dog than me.

A great day’s walking, and having said goodbye to Richard (who may or may not be rejoining for the last bit in Scotland) I went to bed early with a nice feeling that the walk was progressing well.

Highlights: The mountain ridge; the mournful expression of the DofE students; the lovely river Wye, all peaceful shallows and green banks; home to the caravan through fields of sheep.

 

Day 28 – Monmouth to Pandy

Richard being around meant Arran didn’t have to drive me to the drop-off point, so he and the kids got a much-needed extra sleep this morning. We began our walk at the top of the Kymin, descending into Monmouth to get coffee (me) and something for lunch (Richard), before heading on our way through the famous medieval gatehouse and out into the countryside. As a Londoner I find it very difficult to get used to towns just ending and giving way abruptly to fields (I mean, proper countryside! just minutes away!), and this was another example – 15 minutes walk from the town centre and we were walking on bridleways on the edge of fields of crops.

With unerring timing, Alfie decided to ‘do his business’ just as we got into proper countryside, and as a responsible dog owner Richard cleaned up the mess and popped it into a plastic bag. But what to do with the bag, with no convenient bins for miles around? Eventually we opted for emptying out the dregs of my coffee and putting the bag into it before replacing the coffee cup lid, which largely worked but meant that every time Richard turned round too sharply for the rest of the day there was a faint but unmistakable odour. Lovely.

The walk to Pandy was very pretty, over rolling fields and along river edges, but again not the spectacular views I had sort of been expecting. We lunched on the side of a hillside, watching a lone walker ahead of us trying to find the path a couple of fields over. We caught up with him shortly after lunch – a very friendly Spanish man called Israel who despite describing himself as ‘not much of a walker’ appeared to have walked most of Europe!

I had high hopes of the White Castle, but unfortunately it was shut so we were confined to the views of it from the outside; reassuringly impressive (although not very white, perhaps that is one of the things explained if you go in?). We headed onwards, with Richard becoming increasingly restive at the lack of a pub. My guidebook’s OS maps showed the only pub for miles as being some way off the path in Llangattock Lingoed, so we detoured, only to find no pub at all where the map said it should have been. Heavily disappointed, we trudged off down the hill, only to find that the pub (the excellent Hunters Moon Inn) was in fact just round the corner (next to the path) and my map was wrong. The pub has recently been purchased and has clearly had a lot of money spent on it and looked very charming – the landlord, and the surprising number of people who wandered past while we were drinking, were all extremely friendly AND it sells chocolate bars, which in my view is something that all pubs should do. While we were sitting there, Israel turned up and we all headed on together for the last bit into Pandy.

Highlights: Richard’s masterful quelling of restive cows; gentle hills and peaceful farms; a skittish Arabian horse in a field on the way in to Pandy; the view of the White Castle; a lovely pint under a balcony covered in clematis.