We did something slightly unusual on our Wales holiday: we each packed everything into one not-huge backpack and carried those packs ourselves for the entire trip. I say this is unusual because we didn’t meet anyone else doing this who wasn’t either camping or staying in hostels. The people we met in the inns and B&Bs we stayed in were having their luggage transported daily from one night’s destination to the next and using day packs on the walk itself. It’s not expensive to use a porter service (about £5/day), and our relatives who walked Hadrian’s Wall did it this way. So why didn’t we?
One answer is that we’re independent and like control: we didn’t want to have to think about where our stuff was and we had intended to make decisions on the fly. As it turned out we had every night’s lodging booked in advance, which meant we did have to get from one place to a designated next place and that didn’t factor in. A second answer was that we wanted to see if we could do a nearly two-week trip across a variety of conditions carrying everything ourselves, kind of like when we were young. We’ve downsized on a lot of our ten-day to two-week trips to a carry-on rollerboard, but those are still a bit awkward, especially on uneven pavements and cobblestones (not to mention having them drag behind in a crowded city).
I went down the #onebag hole on the internet and found subreddits devoted to the practice (r/onebag and r/heronebag). I watched YouTube videos and read blog posts. You will not be surprised to know that there is an entire community of people who are dedicated to traveling light, and thanks to the magic of the internet they’ve found each other.
Basically, if you’re willing to wash out your clothes and wear the same things repeatedly, you can #onebag it pretty easily, even in cooler weather. The main trick is to take clothes in materials that dry quickly and don’t wrinkle (or I guess you can take linen, which is wrinkly as a feature). In our case we also needed water-resistant and waterproof stuff, since we’d be outdoors every day.
Our last day! I should explain that we knew we didn’t have time to walk the entire trail, which is 177 miles. The part we chose, Sedbury Cliffs to Knighton, is the south part and slightly less than half the total at 80 miles on the official path. Knighton is the acknowledged (not-quite) midpoint stop, probably because it has train and bus connections as well as the Offa’s Dyke Centre.
When we planned the trip we talked about doing parts of the south section but not necessarily all of it. We’d make sure we had shorter sections at the beginning and then get from one stop to another by walking or some other route depending on how we felt. But I guess once we started we got hooked, never mind the rain and the mud, because it’s the only way we wanted to proceed. If you had told me that I would stop in Hay-on-Wye and fail to visit a single bookshop I would have never believed you. But walking 9-15 miles a day, carrying a 20-lb. backpack over hilly terrain, is time-consuming and taxing, and we were pretty beat by the time we got in. Plus, most bookshops we encountered didn’t stay open very late. Even the one in Tintern was closed when we reached there at 3:30pm, which was about the earliest we stopped on any day.
Today’s stage, Kington to Knighton, is described as one of the best sections of the path, in part because it contains so many examples of what the full walk offers. And not least because after 50 miles we finally rejoin the Dyke itself. We set off from Kington and were immediately walking uphill to a golf course. That was unexpected. We managed not to get hit by any golf balls and made our way to fields above the town, where we had lovely views:
And soon we were reunited with Offa’s Dyke.
We hadn’t met many other walkers over the week we’d been on the path. There was a German couple whom we met occasionally, starting at Llangattock and continuing through the rest of our stages (they were doing the whole path), but mostly we’d pass each other or say hello in the evening in town. In Kington we shared the inn with two British men, one of whom whom now lives in Canada, and we saw them off and on this last day. And we met a solitary walker, a man in his 70s, who was coming from the north. But it’s a bit early for peak season, but I get the feeling that even when the path is at its busiest it’s nothing like the Coast-to-Coast, let alone the Hadrian’s Wall walk. Still, there were enough people to make us feel both part of a group while also giving us the solitude that had made the path so attractive.
Walking on the Dyke turned out to be surprisingly tricky. In the first couple of days, when we walked alongside it for much of the time, we were always aware of its mass height, but now we were actually balancing on the top. The badgers (and possibly other animals) have been making homes within it, and it can be narrow and uneven. But there’s something about walking on a hundreds-year-old form that is unlike anything else. Yes, it’s man-made, but it has become so much a part of the landscape that it feels like part of the natural earth. Unlike the Iron Age stone circle, which we admired but weren’t part of, this felt like something that integrated us into its existence. Humans, sheep, birds, plants, and all kinds of natural life had shared space on the Dyke since the 8thC.
The path was indeed a lovely way to end our journey. We walked uphill, downhill, across different types of fields and pasture, and saw the requisite number of sheep and cows.
And we came into Knighton via, of all things, a second golf course! This one had sheep mingling with the golfers, so it was clearly a multi-use facility; a links course in every way.
Although we thought we would have a chance to visit the Offa’s Dyke Centre, they had changed their hours and now closed at 5:30, so we missed them. We checked into our lodging, which had been operating as a coaching inn since the 14thC, according to its website. I’m pleased to say the mattress and bathroom were of much more recent vintage. The dining room served excellent food, and after baked sardines for a starter it was TheH’s turn to have a Hereford steak while I went for the Cauliflower Cheese.
We felt an immense sense of accomplishment. TheH has done a lot of backcountry trips and mountain climbing, but I’ve never done anything like this, and neither of us had backpacked in forever, so leaving the next morning from Knighton’s little railway station was bittersweet.
We were ready for a break, but now we want to find more of these kinds of activities. Britain is full of marvelous walks, of course, and we still have the second half of Offa’s Dyke before us, but we’re also exploring possibilities in the USA, and one of the best-known is even in Missouri.
I’m so behind! But I want to finish out my posts on this, both for my own sake and so that people looking for information on the route can find it in case it’s helpful.
This stage was going to be one of the long days, about 14.5 miles, and we were really starting to feel the aches and pains of daily walking. TheH had developed a pressure blister which made the last few miles into Hay-on-Wye yesterday pretty uncomfortable, and we had a day with plenty of up-and-down walking ahead of us. The lack of bus services in Wales really hit home here, because despite the route being popular, there was no direct bus service from Hay to Kington, our destination, so we couldn’t decide to abandon the walk partway. Unless there was Uber or something, which, just, no.
However, in addition to its famous bookstores (which were closed when we arrived and hadn’t opened by the time we left), Hay is blessed with an excellent pharmacy which was a 5-minute walk from our B&B and the start of the path, so we decided to go there and seek advice. If they had something that would alleviate the discomfort, then we could start off and just hope for the best. TheH went in to talk to the pharmacist while I waited outside (in excellent weather, our first such morning) with the packs. I was joined by a walker who was also waiting for his partner. They were doing a top-to-bottom, nearly 1000-mile walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats to raise money for prostate cancer research. They were about our age and doing magnificently despite experiencing even worse weather than we had.
TheH was successful in his quest, so he bandaged himself up and we started on our way. The first mile or two of the path took us along the Wye River again, and it was a much less demanding way to begin the day. Eventually, though, we were back crossing farms, complete with famous Hereford cattle in large pastures. A photo for Ros:
Today’s stage is not considered particularly demanding according to the guidebooks and other people’s accounts, but it had plenty of verticality: the total ascent is 2230 feet, almost as much as we did yesterday in climbing to Hatterall Ridge. We could see back to Hay’s Bluff, where we’d been yesterday:
We broke for lunch at a welcoming church in Newchurch, which puts out drinks and biscuits for walkers. There we met a young woman who was walking the full path, more or less on the same schedule as us, and we walked much of the rest of the day with her. She was in her 20s, walking alone and camping or staying in hostels, while taking a break between jobs.
I’ve learned to decode British understatement when it comes to these descriptions, though: Americans tend to call anything off-road a hike, whereas Brits will call strenuous exertions (by American standards) a walk. This stage had two healthy ascents, the second taking us to Hergest Ridge, which offers gorgeous views of the surrounding counties and back to the Brecon Beacons. It began to rain when we were on the ridge, so we didn’t see as far as we might have on a clear day, but we did get to see the big Brecon peaks before the clouds came down. And there were more cows. These seemed to find us more interesting:
We also walked through fields which were full of these grasses, making the landscape look pink/red from a distance. I don’t know what they are, but they were beautiful:
Part of Hergest Ridge lies within Hergest Common land, which is privately owned but made available to walkers and local residents. You will be completely unsurprised to know it is also utilized by sheep:
There is also a lovely garden, which we bypassed on our way down into Kingston. We found our inn, which was located close to the huge church that looks over the town, and checked in. Our hosts were a lovely young couple who had spent years renovating the property into a gracious and welcoming retreat.
We went down to one of the local pubs for dinner and, as usual, had excellent food: a Hereford steak salad for me and cod with summer tomatoes for TheH, with a shared strawberry trifle for dessert. We chose to eat in the bar, where regulars were having their usual get-together, and were made very welcome (especially when we agreed that turning on the footie was an excellent idea).
Fortified, we made our way back to the inn and turned in early. Only one more day to go, and it would take us back to Offa’s Dyke itself. I leave you with our day according to our Garmins:
When we awoke in Llanthony it was raining lightly and the mist was low in the valley. But by the time we finished breakfast and checked out the mist had partially lifted and the rain had stopped. We couldn’t face the road so we headed off across the fields, past Llanthony Priory and up Hatterall Hill.
Our host at the inn had warned us it was a bit of an uphill, and it was. First the fields, then the rockier terrain. TheH admired the views while I clutched his hand and concentrated on my footing. I did not admire the view, knowing I was better off not looking down. There were a few flatter places where we could rest a bit before going on, and I was able to look out then. The higher we went the steeper it got, until very near the top where it was boggier and the footing was better.
An hour and twenty minutes and nearly two miles later we were at the top. I had made it (not that retreating was an option)! There was mist but no rain, and we could see patches where the clouds were higher. It was windy, but not quite as bad as the day before. And we were the only humans around. There were sheep and ponies but that was it.
We began walking north across the ridge on a relatively wide trail. It was beautiful. Once again we could see England better than Wales, but the nearest mountains were visible.The bilberry was just starting to have some tiny fruit. And partway we met a group of ponies with a frisky, adorable foal:It seemed interested in us and we even had an apple! But we kept our distance and it turned its attention back to its mother, who was having none of it:We had been a bit apprehensive about the footing, because one of the guidebooks described the path as wet and boggy even apart from all the rain that had fallen recently. But the path had been reinforced with large stones and it was quite straightforward to traverse.Which, given the large pools of water, was a blessing.Six miles or so later we were near the crest of the ridge and Hay’s Bluff, which purportedly offers spectacular views of Hay-on-Wye. But the descent from there was hair-raisingly steep and rapid, so we stuck to the official path, which slowly followed the ridge downward on one side. It was challenging enough for me, since the trail was completely exposed, occasionally windy, and narrow. But as usual, the views were spectacular when I had the guts to look out.We made it down and set off across the fields to Hay. We saw the smallest lamb of the trip near the base of the bluff:We crossed huge common pastures filled with sheep and horses and eventually made it to Hay and our lovely B&B on the river. 13 miles with a big ascent and non-trivial descent, and we had only two days and about 30 miles to go.
We set off from Llangattock Lingoed with Miss Mary’s good wishes ringing in our ears and rain threatening but not falling. This was the day we would go up a steep hill to walk Hatterall Ridge, at the eastern edge of Brecon Beacons National Park. We first walked over the fields to Pandy, the childhood home of the philosopher, critic, and novelist Raymond Williams. His house is supposedly on the Path but it’s not well marked and I didn’t see it. Oh well.
It rained on us a bit early on, but the clouds were high as we started up:
It was a steep slope, over lots of fields. Part of the way up we were greeted by an Iron Age stone circle which had been a hill fort and settlement, occupied for hundreds of years:
At the top of that ridge we encountered the southernmost Trig marker on the ridge, so we knew we were near the top:
TheH and I both thought of his late father on this Father’s Day: he would have loved to see it, having spent part of his youth surveying mountains in the Alaska Range to build the Alaska-Canada Highway.
We finally made it to the top, where it was so windy that we were shoved off the path a couple of times. But the views!
That’s England, by the way. The ridge path marks the border, so to the right of the path is England and to the left is Wales. Wales was cloudier (surprise), with a couple of the higher Brecon Beacons peaks occasionally visible through the mist.
Some people walk the whole stage from Pandy to Hay-on-Wye in one day, but that’s 17 miles and we had started two miles east of Pandy to make it a total of 19. And come on, my chances of walking 18 miles up, across, and down a steep ridge in one day were nil. So we’d planned a break at a small village, Llanthony, down the western side, which was also the location of an old priory.
It was about two miles down a steep, rocky slope carved out of the side. I picked my way verrry slowly and carefully, and at one point was overtaken by a family with a small girl and a toddler in the father’s shoulder pack, all nimbly making their way down, in Wellies.
The priory looked impossibly far away at first but eventually drew closer:
And tlllThere is a posh hotel and restaurant right at Llanthony Priory, but its six rooms were booked. So we stayed at the village pub down the road, the Half Moon Inn, where we had a comfortable bed and good food and drink. It’s an old inn and you have to be prepared to share toilets and showers. And there is no internet or wifi, which some visitors find difficult. We didn’t.
Over pints of local ale and cider we deliberated the next day”s path. The way back up to the ridge was steep and stony to the point that the path even had switchbacks, a rarity here. But it was shorter than the road, and we didn’t fancy 13 miles of pavement. We decided to wait and see what the morning brought.
In the meantime we turned our thoughts to dinner (beef casserole for TheH, cod and chips and peas for me) and then crashed for the night.