day 11 – in Paris and wishing I were in Wales

Yesterday had a great day at the GeoHCI workshop, lots about mobile maps, and sense of place. I talked a bit about Frasan, the mobile app in Tiree and a bit about the Wales walk including the Monmouth campsite community, which I wrote about in previous posts (days 4, 8, 9), and which is interesting in being local and yet not local, permanent and yet transient.

This morning Clare Hooper shared a link on Twitter to an Atlantic Monthly article "How the Internet Reinforces Inequality in the Real World", which discusses how both Google and Wikipedia, whilst ‘open’, effectively reinforce the strength of voices of countries who have traditionally held power, while the poor and marginal are digitally silent and unseen.  So different from the facile article in Friday’s Times "Maps are no longer controlled by the mighty", which saw Iran‘s intention to create an alternative to Google maps, an "Islamic Google Earth", as reactionary compared to the ‘neutral’ nature of Google. While not decrying Google‘s attempts to maintain a level of neutrality, the idea that any representation is without bias and viewpoint is at best naïve and at worst dangerous from someone who is a regular Times columnist.

Eiffel Tower from hotel window

Despite feeling buoyed by the workshop yesterday, this morning I woke feeling miserable.  I’d kept waking in the night (maybe a phone is beeping occasionally, I thought I’d turned them off), and this morning realised I couldn’t find the fine tipped pen I use for writing in my new Moleskine. The pen is not expensive, just an ordinary roller ball, but was just right for writing in the small notebook.  I must have left it in the workshop room yesterday.  It added to my general dislike of being in a big conference hotel, and having five more days of conference.  I wished I had a flight back tomorrow after award dinner this evening, and could get back on the road walking.

Going down for breakfast, I sat down to read Rachel Joyce‘s "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry".  I had heard an extract from it on the radio some time ago, and then someone recommended I read it. Only a short while in, reading Joyce‘s accounts of ordinary yet poignant lives, I suddenly felt the stupidity of feeling sorry for myself for being in Paris (where everyone else wants to be), and an overwhelming urge to pray for all those with deep pains and regrets, that are often invisible and yet so mar lives.  I found myself with head bowed over my bowl of half-eaten fruit in the midst of a crowded breakfast room. We notice disasters and wars, illness and death, but can forget the day-to-day misery that lies behind so many people’s eyes.

Harold Fry is about an unexpected walk, literally setting off to post a letter and then simply keeping going. It makes me feel positively well prepared! However, whilst better shod, I recognised the blisters and stinging nettle burns, and sudden realisation of thirst and hunger.

I was struck particularly by a sentence on page 107, "As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open."  While in a way the Monmouth campsite community is interstitial, in the gaps, as walker and traveller I am much more so, whether walking along the chain-fenced path between industrial buildings and quarry side on the approach to Chepstow, the alleyway between estate houses, or the green lane level behind gardens, and bitumen-blackend rooftops.  And no less in the meetings with people, slipping not so much between their lives, but touching them briefly.

At Monmouth they asked whether I would be back, and I did not know.  And so many times already people have said they were jealous of me, or how they wished that they could do or had done something similar. I am struck by the privilege of this journey, and also the strangeness that people now look at me as one of those people that "do something", whereas I always thought that was others.

day 9 – leaving Monmouth and flying to Paris

It is with real sadness that I leave Monmouth campsite; a sadness that is, I think, the lot of a traveller. Not the debilitating sadness of regret, of life unlived, but the positive, rich sadness of a joyous time complete; if life were always filled with such sadness we would be so much happier.

Although the van has been camped here for over a week, I have had just two nights, and yet in that time felt such a warm welcome, that I feel there are real friends here.

I am sure there are terms in sociology for communities such as this. These are people with homes elsewhere, but who live large parts of their time here, in ‘touring’ caravans that have gardens and lights set round them. Pat lives in Staffordshire and feels she has to go home (or maybe make a trip home) as washing is building up and her washing machine back there is cheaper than the launderette. Yet clearly, this is her life, her ‘home’ too.

Offa’s Dyke takes us back to the Dark Ages where Saxon and Celtic British were still vying for the land. Yet this community takes me back to earlier times, 10,000 years ago, when only a few thousand Neolithic tribes roamed the lands. They must have gathered periodically, meeting and re-meeting old friends, spending time together around cockle beds, or hunting grounds, before separating for periods each in their own territories, scavenging the land.

As I set off to CHI I realise that the academic community too has many of the same features, although shorter periods together than those staying semi-permanently in caravans, a periodic meeting and re-meeting over years, like seasonal hunting camps.  Indeed many of my own closest friends are those I have met in such a way. Often the total time spent together is short, but the moments are intense and over long periods. Haliyana and I write about ‘extended episodic experience’ and the way these moments build to give an overall experience that is far more than its parts.

So let there be more such sadnesses as this, the sadness of the passing of moments of joy, rather than the absence of joy. The death that is always in life, not the death that is the end of life, but the death of the passing moment, the death of the leaf falling to give fresh life to the forest, the death that is the resurrection death, that makes each moment the beginning of new life.

day 8 – travel day from Kington back to Monmouth

a milestone - the first phase of the walk complete; a vetran walker on the bus, a 90 year old dancer, and the haunted house of Watery Lane

2013-04-25 08.48.11I wake up in Kington Youth Hostel with a feeling of accomplishment. The first phase of the walk is complete and I now have a week at CHI in Paris before I recommence back here at Kington in a week’s time. Originally I planned to start after CHI, which would have given a lot more time to prepare after Miriam‘s wedding, but then decided timing was a little tight and it would be good to get some miles ‘under my belt’. Despite the near panic packing in two days, this was a good decision.

Today I will travel by bus and train to Monmouth. I must admit I avoid public transport as much as possible, so the walk is also re-introducing me to this. Travel along Offa’s Dyke is especially difficult as the main transport lines seem to cut east-west across the north-south line of the dyke. However Kington is relatively well served by buses and I can take a bus to Hereford and from there to Monmouth.

I have breakfast at The Regency Café, £4.50 all in and huge … the sign by the kitchen hatch reads:

Annoying the Cook will result in smaller portions!

I have evidently not annoyed her.

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Later in the morning I am in Hereford Bus Station with a real rambler, Margaret whom I met on the bus from Kington, where she too was staying at the YHA and the source of the lovely bacon smell in the kitchen this morning. Margaret now takes more leisurely walks, but in the past has walked the South West Coast Path, West Highland Way, Hadrian’s Wall and others.

Margaret is a veteran of Youth Hostels and talked about the way many had closed over the years. For me this was my first YHA, but I recall the many red triangles I used to see on OS maps compared to what looks a sparse scattering on the map of Wales today. Margaret said that modern health and safety regulations had been a major problem as it was too expensive to upgrade some of the smaller hostels. Her son had been an environmental health officer, and had often felt constrained by rules and unable to use his discretion and, in cases like this, or Elephant’s End on Tiree, plain common sense.

After finishing our cups of tea and coffee at a great bus station ‘caf’, and a quick trip to slightly space age unisex public loos, complete with round frosted porthole in the door, to the bus stands where Margaret found that she had another half hour to wait as she’s missed the footnote that said the bus she’d hoped to catch stopped short of Worcester. So we took our leave, she with three more buses to catch to Worcester, Birmingham and then Dudley, whilst I stepped on the bus for my simpler journey on to Monmouth. However, Margaret had been pleased to point out that her journeys were free with her senior citizen bus pass. Together with staying at YHA, this makes a very affordable holiday on a pension.

2013-04-25 11.55.23On the bus through Hereford‘s black and white timber-framed streets, I hear the elderly ladies behind talk about borrowing eBooks from the local library to download to their iPads. I had never thought of this! I have an aversion to eBooks. I sometimes say that this is simply because the word eBook is an oxymoron, but actually I could imagine reading a novel on a pad-size screen. It is really issues of ownership that worry me. I have nearly all the books I’ve ever owned, but how long will an eBook be readable?

The rolling fields around Hereford give way to narrow lanes through wooded valleys and the bus squeezes towards the holly-edged bank, leaves pressed tight against the windows, as a JCB passes in the opposite direction.

Into Monmouth and a quick trip to Waitrose (there’s posh) for a pint of milk. I still have my rucksack with banner on the back and when I mention technology to the cashier she says, "you know Monmouth is the first Wikipedia town", but then, “"I heard about it, but not got the app yet." To be fair I don’t have a QR code app, I keep meaning to, but never get round to it, and wonder just how many people have a QR reader; the codes look impressive, but do they actually help people connect?

2013-04-25 12.43.58I recall one of the meetings of the Nesta-managed Arts and Culture R&D Fund. I think it was the National Galleries project who said that they had originally intended to use QR codes for their mobile app. However, after surveying their visitors, in the end they opted for simple numerical codes to type into the app as few visitors were able to scan QR codes. Why UK phones aren’t supplied with QR code scanning as standard like Japanese phones, I don’t know, but until they are QR codes will remain more an icon to say "we are tech savvy", but not a practical way to access information.

Of course, even if you can read QR codes, you need internet connectivity. I found no O2 coverage in the town, and Vodafone just has some ‘Edge‘ connection. Although there is a scheme to provide town-wide WiFi the practicalities of mobile technology outside major urban centre are not easy.

2013-04-25 14.38.01Later with laundry left at Rub-a-Dub, I visit Daybridge House, home of the Bridges Community Centre that hosts around a dozen different community events a day from French and the Floral Society, to Nordic walking and Zumba. Ann, one of the staff, introduced me to Georgie and Gilly, who organise the weekly tea dance. Happily for my feet the tea dance has ended, so they just pour me a cup of tea and chat. Georgie started the tea dances seven years ago bringing together all ages, from a 94-year-old who dances solidly for an hour to four-year-olds.

There are a number of small units in a courtyard. In one is the local provider of mobility scooters, packed together like a quarter-sized car park. The man there tells me that as I set off out of town on Offa’s Dyke earlier in the week I will have passed Bailey Pit Farm at the end of Watery Lane which he informed me was haunted.  Happily, the caravan site I’m staying in is not.

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In Monmouth, the Wikipedia town, I now want to find a café where I can get WiFi connection to upload blog and pictures.  The first place I try has none, and the lady there suggests another.  If I stand outside the Shire Hall there is the free open WiFi, but with it threatening to spot a little rain not the most sensible thing to do with a laptop.  In the end I find a café close enough to the Shire Hall that a little of the Monmouth WiFi sneaks in and I end up chatting camper vans with some other customers and the lady on the till.

Back at the campsite I have another wonderful evening at the caravan site club house.  I discuss quantitative easing with Malcolm, discover that Pat can trace her ancestors back to Llewelyn and learn how John had the opportunity to take a small recording contract back in the 1960s, but backed out to stay in a secure job with safe money.  Part of him always asks, "what if?" But look at me walking now; it was a childhood dream.  Maybe it is never too late.

day 7 – Hay-on-Wye to Kington

This was a relatively relaxed day’s walking through farmland and low mountain moorland. It started with a discovery and ended with a meeting, with the odd monkey puzzle tree between.

miles walked: 14.5
miles completed: 113.5
miles to go: 946.8

First, the discovery. As I began to pack my bags for the day I gathered together things from the floor around the rucksack, and there, just under a t-shirt, was a small black device, too fat for a phone … the lost Garmin! We had searched at the beginning of the walk, I had emptied the rucksack at Nash, and yet here it was. It must have slipped down somewhere in the rucksack and evaded my search, I have no idea how.

This was good news as it was no long lost, the bad news was that a replacement had already been ordered. However, the lost Garmin belonged to the university, so it means I now have one of my own.

It booted enough to tell me its battery was low, but had clearly managed to record the first day and most of the second day before its battery ran out.

After my breakfast at ‘Rest for the Tired‘, I left my large rucksack with the proprietors to take on to Kington, set my day pack upon my back and went up the road to the small electrical store I’d noticed the day before, in search of batteries.

[continued below April 2014]

At first I thought the shop was empty, but then from the back of the shop the proprietor emerged.  I already had lots of rechargeable batteries, but they were in the van, so I just asked the shopkeeper for two batteries.  He broke open a 4-pack and then, while I paid for them, he noticed my pack and asked about the walk.  I mentioned that I was interested in community issues in places along the way.

"Funny you should say that", he said, "just as you came in I was in the middle of typing last night’s minutes."

It turned out he was chair of a group trying to buy the local fishing rights for the community.  The idea was to make it easier for local businesses to offer hire of rods and short-term permits to make the most of the river as a tourist amenity. Having no web presence then (nor yet as I write), they were digitally invisible, and I felt thankful for this ‘happy accident’ that led me to his door at this very moment.  In support of the walk he threw in the other two batteries from the 4-pack, and I set off on my way.

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The path out of Hay-on-Wye leads over the river bridge and then along the west bank of the river for a mile or so, before cutting up the hillside beyond.  The way goes through woodland, but after a short while there was a diversion sign due to forestry operations, and sure enough some way ahead I could see large yellow vehicles at work and the sound of engines and saws.

Unlike the diversion between Brockweir and Llandogo, this was clearly marked with small paper notices in plastic bags.  The diversion led through fields at the edge of the woods to the left-hand (southern) side of the normal path, but eventually had to cross over to the far side as the path struck a more northerly direction.

For the first few days of the walk, as far as Monmouth, I had worn training shoes, as I wasn’t expecting hard going, but happily had changed to boots at Monmouth.  Where you had to cross the forest track it was rutted with caterpillar tracks at least a foot deep.  I look at it and wish I had gaiters as well as boots.  Happily the weather had been very dry, and what looks like deep mud is nearly solid, although I did need to take high steps to get my feet from rut to rut.

2013-04-24 11.24.26I was crossing the rutted forest path at a junction, and so almost followed the path opposite the way I’d approached, but then noticed orange arrows blazed on a tree trunk leading up into the woods, only then I also saw one of the plastic coated signs.  Further arrows were painted on the ground.

I have no idea whether this was the forest contractors marking the way or other ramblers doing it.  However, I did recall an email I had had just a few days ago from the LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Association) about arrow painting in the Peak District.  The email reported that there had been incidents where bright arrows had been illicitly painted by ramblers, and reminded LDWA members that this was criminal damage, and that the LDWA would cooperate fully in any investigations.

While I am sure this is strictly true, I can imagine that in difficult places additional signage would be most helpful, particularly at dusk.  It is surely in no one’s interest to have people go astray, whether this is simply inconvenience, leads to accidental damage to fences as people try to find their way after getting lost, or even have to call out rescue services.

I don’t know whether the arrows I followed were official or illegal, but I was grateful for them.

After the muddy patch I was quite glad as the path went first up a grassy field and then on to some road walking along a little country lane.  For a few miles the way alternates between tiny roads, green lane and open field, running around the slopes of Little Mountain.  Eventually I came to the little village of Newchurch/Radnorshire.

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As you enter the village from the south, the church of St Mary is pretty much the first thing you see, and, before you enter the churchyard itself, a notice board.  On the notice board was an announcement of a theology lecture at Swansea University and beneath that the words:

"Refreshments"

and

"Dykers and visitors refreshments in church"

What more can you ask, except there was more …

As I came into the churchyard through an old iron gate, I found amongst the gravestones a wooden picnic table, against which were leant a number of walking poles and rucksacks, and inside the church lounging on the pews, of course, the Three Dykers.

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They had, once more, set off a couple of hours earlier than me, and had stopped here for lunch; I had caught them just before they set off again.  They were hoping to get to Gladestry before pub closing time in order to get sustenance for the last pull over the Hergest Ridge into Kington.

I too needed to get on as I was due to meet Paul Sandham at Kington, but was worried that I wasn’t making sufficient time – I still had not quite come to terms with my real walking pace when I had made the plans to meet, and was worried I would be late.

So I stayed long enough to look round the church while drinking a cup of tea and then set off.  There was a small poster about Kilvert’s Diaries.  He didn’t have any particular connection with this church, but this area was his stomping ground.

At the other side of the village is a small Methodist Chapel.  On the notice board a single message:

I was glad when they said unto me
Let us go into the house of the Lord today
Psalm 122 v.1

Unfortunately the door was locked.

 

Going over Disgwyllfa Hill I soon caught site of the Three Dykers ahead, and caught up as they stopped to take in the view at the top.  I was worried about missing Paul, so hurried on down.

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More haste less speed.

2013-04-24 13.45.31I stopped to take photographs of a particularly distressed signpost, and then continued down the hill where there seemed to be a series of large Neolithic market stones, but closer up turned out to be bags of animal feed.  I was at the bottom trying to make sense of the map and what I could see on the ground when I heard a whistle from high up the hill.  It was Paul gesturing to me.  When I had stopped to photograph the signpost it would have also been sensible to look where it said to go.

After getting back up the hill and then back down the right way, it was less than two miles into Gladestry, but by the time I got there it was less than half an hour before I was due to meet Paul Sandham in Kington, with the whole of the Hergest Ridge between.

With some difficulty I managed to find phone signal, but got through to Paul‘s voice mail.  I said I was only at Gladestry and suggested he come there instead and that I’d wait at the church.

It didn’t take me long to realise this was a silly thing to say as I had no idea whether he would have got the message, so rang again to leave a second message to say to ignore the first … but then still didn’t know whether he had picked up the first before I sent the second.

So I waited for a while at the Norman church in Gladestry.   It was another St Mary’s and it too had tea 🙂

In the churchyard was the most beautiful miniature garden with a child’s seat, flowers and small toys.  As I was drinking my cup of tea a lady came in to pick up a flower vase.  She told me that a child had died tragically some years ago.  The family maintained this garden as a memorial.

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Eventually I decided that the best thing was to assume Paul never got my message and go on to Kington and hope that Paul had not waited too long for me.

As I left the village I peeked at the pub, but it was now long closed so the Three Dykers must be well on their way to Kington.

The way out of the village starts off on a small lane that runs steeply up the first slopes of Hergest Ridge. Just before the lane gave way to open ground there was a house to the side of the lane.  The slope of the land was such that the lane ran at eaves level where a small basketwork bird ‘box’ was placed, like a miniature bee skep.  I was puffed climbing it once, but the people who lived there would be up and down this hill every time they went out.

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The Hergest Ridge is about three miles from end to end. Unfortunately, I did not have my glasses on, which was fine from a navigation point of view, but meant that in all my audio recordings I referred to it as "Hengest Ridge".

Towards the top of the ridge there was a rectangle area with raised grass around it edges. At first I thought this was the remains of an ancient chapel or moorland farmhouse, until I found an exposed corner of what appeared to be reinforced concrete, so I thought instead a wartime construction.  I have later learnt (Wikipedia page on Hergest Ridge!) that there was once a race course on top of this hill in the early and mid 19th century, so now I wonder whether it was something to do with that.

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Looking north a large quarry dominates the landscape, digging what I guessed to be limestone, from lesser hills, but the rock of the higher ridge is either not suitable, or too difficult to get out, as it is free of quarries, and the home of grass, horses and sheep.

The path skirts the north west side of the main peak following the line of the old race course, passing close to the Whet Stone, a large erratic boulder dropped there during the last ice age.  However, it does pass directly over the lesser peak before the descent into Kington.  This smaller peak is topped with a small stand of trees, which I initially took to be firs, like the six pine trees in the Hundred Acre Wood.

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As I got closer they looked less and less like firs or pines, until I realised they were in fact monkey puzzle trees.

I have always loved monkey puzzle trees since the days when we would drive up to Brecon to visit Mum‘s old wartime landlady.  On the way into Brecon, on the left hand side of the road, was a monkey puzzle tree as high as the house.

These were good sized trees, so had been there some years.  There was a plaque, which I hoped would tell the story of the trees, but was instead for a seat that had been placed there just a few years earlier.

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Puzzled myself, I made my way down the slope on the last mile and a half before Kington, passing a lady out running … about to run up the slope I’d just walked down.  They are made of tough stuff in this part of the world.

And of course, it will be no surprise, that as I walked down these last few lanes before Kington, I caught up again with the Three Dykers.  Their bed and breakfast was just behind the church as we entered Kington proper, so we parted company after only a few minutes. This would be our last meeting as I was taking a break from the trail to go to the CHI conference in Paris while they would continue up north and finish a week or more ahead of me.

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Less than fifty yards further, the wall of the churchyard bulged out where an old piece of tree trunk broke through with the stones surrounding it.  I touched it, stroked it; it was so smooth where everyone who passed was tempted to similarly touch it polishing it by finger tip.

2013-04-24 17.07.09An elderly lady comes along accompanied by what looked like the smallest Irish wolfhound imaginable, not a small dog by any means, but just small for its kind, maybe a cross with a greyhound.  He was called Amadeus.  I wonder if she knows anything about the monkey puzzle trees.

"Are you a local?", I ask.

"No", she instantly replied, "I’ve only been here 20 years".

Unlike many towns and villages where the flows of population mean there are no longer roots, Kington, perhaps because it is a backwater, poorly connected, still has a number of old families, and it is hard for an incomer to become really part of the community without marrying into one of these families.  I guess this is not so different from Tiree; the doctor has been here over 30 years, and is certainly a part of the community, but still definitely an incomer.  But I notice a subtle difference, if I asked him, or if you asked me, we would say we are "local", just not native to Tiree.

Maybe I am making too much of a word (and the speed of response), but I wonder if the divide here between incomer and native is deeper.  However, I also wonder if this is another example of permeable boundaries making borders more contentious.  On Tiree those who come to live make a big commitment to the geographic space, it is bounded by sea and you can’t simply have a house there.  On the mainland many smaller towns and villages become just that, dormitories, places where people have a house but maybe have their lives elsewhere.  While this particular lady was clearly not in this category, still I wonder if the ease of transport that blurs its geographic boundaries can make a community more insular, whereas the clarity of an actual island community breeds a sense of cohesion.  On Tiree, ten miles of open sea is a clear indication of who is and is not local.

Yvonne does not know the origins of the monkey puzzle trees, and after few minutes chat we part our ways, but as I turn to go towards the town, someone calls my name.  Coming towards me is Paul.  We have never met, but I guess not many people are wandering into town with a banner on their back.

He has been waiting for some time.  He had never got my messages, but had been catching up with emails on a different phone (which did have signal).  He has a small company that creates map- and trail-based software for mobile phones, so tends to have a selection.

We make our way to a tiny pub he had spotted earlier, the Wine Vaults, which has its own microbrewery, and incidentally the most gloriously painted toilet, albeit at the back of the yard, so best not viewed in a thunderstorm.

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The locals were very helpful trying to find someone who knew the history of the monkey puzzle trees. The best answer seemed to be that the head of a local well-to-do family, the Banks of Hergest Croft, had been a bit of a plant collector;  many years ago, I’d guess towards the turn of the 20th century, he had placed them there, not as any sort of memorial, but just because it was a good place to plant some specimen trees.

Paul didn’t have long as he needed to get back home to Caernarfon, pretty much diagonally across the whole of Wales.  However we did have time to share a pint of Arrows Beer, to talk about mobile maps, GPS traces, and mobile content creation, and to arrange for me to visit when I got to Caernarfon in a month or so’s time.

I was staying at the Youth Hostel, the first time I had done so.  In years gone by you needed to take your own inner sheet sleeping bag, but now you have clean linen, can hire towels and even, for a supplement, have a room of your own.  As it was quiet I ended up with a small two bunk-bed dorm with en suite bathroom all to myself.

I ended the day eating a bar meal at the Oxford Arms, to the occasional sound of whoops from the function room where the Young Farmers were having a games evening.

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day 6 – Tom Bombadil country

Dropping down from the moorland toward Hay-on-Wye, the countryside opens up like the Shire in The Hobbit, rolling green farmland, hedgerows and the river winding gently through. To reinforce this, coming down the hill the woodland to the right and hedge-line to the left converge, but seem to lead nowhere; instead, apparently filling the way ahead, a gnarled Tom Bombadil tree, maw open, tempting you to rest within, and then swallow you in darkness, your only hope that Tom himself comes to sing you free. I sidestep the inviting hollowness and realise there is a gate at the bottom, leading to a path that is not sure whether it is a stream. And then, walking up the path towards me, it is no other than Tom Bombadil himself: green felted jerkin, balding head and sharp pointed goatee beard. We nod our heads and speak a word of greeting, but no more; what do you say to a character of legend?

I am reminded of the landlady in Nash, who said she lived in a little bubble and sometimes preferred not to think of or even know the things happening around. This was in the days after the Boston Marathon bombings. In Lord of the Rings, the Shire is a bubble; the folk of the Shire do not believe the things of the outside world are or should be their concern. Of course, it is not just Bilbo, Frodo and companions who go out from the Shire who make an impact on the greater world, but the dark and good forces from without make their own impact on the Shire.

Can some of the bubbles, stuck out of time, in the places through which I pass remain in a hyper-connected world? Should they, even? The folk in these bubbles vote for governments who can make or break the lives of many in our own country and overseas. Even in a bubble the outside can be seen, if only through a rainbow film.

However, it is precisely the innocence of the Shire that Gandalf values, a place worth fighting for.  And it is the one born in that innocence who can save the world.

So, I hope some of these bubbles can survive, wafted and gently billowing in the wind, so that when we look to the sky, we may all see it through that rainbow haze.

day 6 – Pandy to Hay-on-Wye

This day runs almost all along a ridgeway with only the odd walker along the way. So more a day of wide panoramas ( both real and photographic) with little in the way of human settlement, let alone technology.

miles walked: 17.8
miles completed: 99
miles to go: 961.3

I was walking in glorious weather, sunshine, a light breeze (but still enough to nearly drown out the audio recordings I made during the day); indeed at the end of the day the top of my head is feeling very slightly tender, so I’ve bought sun factor 50 spray for the next step.

Way finding is straightforward, after the first few lanes and fields, you simply go uphill to the ridge that slowly rises ahead to the north east.

2013-04-23 10.18.58  2013-04-23 10.21.52  2013-04-23 10.37.29

The previous day had been dominated by the changing face of Skirrid, and today the gradually receding Skirrid still was a large part of the early day. As the ridge rises gradually, it is the view behind, to the south, that is uninterrupted. This reminded me a little of the way the approaching Severn Bridges were the fixed goal of my second day of travel, but were still the initial, albeit brief, view from Offa’s Dyke.

2013-04-23 11.01.07

One of the things that struck home to me (although it is hardly a major revelation) is just how much navigation depends on following foot-beaten paths when signs are slightly ambiguous. When you come to a major decision point, it is good to have both "you’re on the right track" markers and also "not Offa’s Dyke" about 50 yards down the wrong path! Confirmation and dis-confirmation are equally true for real world navigation and digital interactions. Feedback is one of the core UI concepts, and even more critical, as many recent systems do a lot more ‘for you’ without you meaning to do anything!

2013-04-23 11.30.43  2013-04-23 11.31.03  2013-04-23 11.54.32

Way finding is easy when there are long horizons, more difficult in woodlands, or criss-crossing fields and stiles. I simply follow the long trodden pathway north, with occasional boggy patches, but largely sun-dried mud with stepping stones where sections of stone have not already been laid down. How different this would be on a rainy day, perhaps with low cloud. Arry (dragonrun1027) warned me about this section, "watch the weather forecast", she said, "take the road route if it is bad". The ridge is flat in places (hence boggy), and it would be so easy to take the wrong path if the long line of it were not visible.

2013-04-23 11.24.45Looking out westwards there is a line of ridges, many with sharp escarpments. The lay of the land either side of my own ridge line is not so clear, strangely it is often the things closest to us that are invisible. Occasionally as the ridge bends a gentle meander, I catch a glimpse of deep, near vertical, slopes in places, I guess ice cut, by the southern fringes of glaciation. It made me think again of how this countryside, just a few miles from towns, could be so dangerous when the weather closes in.

Paul, who had been at the Lancaster Arms the night before and whom I met again later in the day on the approach to Hay-on-Wye, is a volunteer ranger for the North York Moors National Park and also has worked with Duke of Edinburgh’s Award training. He told me how hard it is to impress upon those coming up from the south of England, just how extreme conditions can be in the Yorkshire Moors.

Apart from the semi-wild horses with their bandy-legged foals, and the near constant skylark song, there was little company along the track, I met just five walkers going in the opposite direction.

First was a lone walker with gaiters and a white bushy tailed dog so that, at a distance, it looked almost as if he had a fox as companion. In his soft country-squire-like voice, he said that he had come up from Llanthony Abbey. This is one of the few points of access to the ridgeway along its length, but a stiff climb up/down the escarpment, 1000 feet in just half a mile, and adding two tough miles for the day, so despite the promise of cream teas down below, I stuck to the ridge and my packed lunch!

2013-04-23 11.18.29  2013-04-23 11.23.06  2013-04-23 12.12.23

From the erosion on the path, I assume this stretch does get busier in the summer, but a couple I met on the way said that it was one of the quietest patches. Although spectacular, on any less perfect day, it would not be the ground for an unpracticed walker. Ray and Lynn, the night before in Pandy, had spoken about the pilgrim trail across northern Spain, how every few kilometres there was a small cafe. While it is obvious from the map that this stretch has no refreshment (other than clean air and clear horizon), they, like me, were amazed at the lack of tea shops, or kiosks along the Offa’s Dyke pathway.

2013-04-23 13.15.062013-04-23 12.51.102013-04-23 14.07.51

Partly it is about numbers; if there are not sufficient walkers, then there will not be facilities, but if there are no facilities it is hard to attract any but the more committed walkers. With public policy emphasising the importance of exercise, it seems this needs a central push to break the commercial impasse.

However, it is in fact the opposite. It would require little investment, for the occasional farm to put a sign up "teas and cakes" and simply serve a cuppa round the kitchen table. This would have happened years ago. However, nowadays planning regulations make this impossible. I told Paul, Ray and Lynn about the way Elephant’s End had had to close in Tiree as the living and commercial premises were not ‘sufficiently separated’. Rules that may make sense in a crowded city, with large throughputs of people, are a nonsense in rural areas with scanty out-of-season custom and where each person will often have two or three jobs.

[completed below April 2014]

2013-04-23 11.55.56At one of the peaks along the way, there is an area of rough broken rock.  I’m not sure if it is  natural, or small scale quarrying at some distant time.  The pieces are flat, and someone has constructed a round shelter, like a half-formed beehive hut.  The sun is beating down and there is little shelter on this exposed ridge.  After getting a little burn on my head and ear on day 3, I did buy factor 50 sunblock in Monmouth, and I am wearing a cap, but still it is good to take some shelter from the sun while I eat the packed lunch prepared by the Lancaster Arms.  I can imagine that in different weather it would be even more important to get some shelter; only a few weeks earlier there was six foot of snow on these hills.

I recall in school reading a short passage written by Sir Edmund Hillary about the final ascent of Everest.  It was in one of the comprehension books, with lots of short passages, maybe a couple of hundred words each, that you had to answer questions about and summarise.

Hillary wrote about the last hour or so, the tantalising skyline ahead that kept looking as if it were the summit, only to find when they got there that it was just a shoulder of the ridge line and another apparent peak behind.

The long ridge is a little like that. The combination of the gradual ascent and the curve of the ridge meant that at the beginning I saw what I thought was the final peak of Pen y Beacon, not so far ahead.  In fact what I saw turned out to be no more than the half way point.

The day is clear and here are views all around, and I had discovered the panorama mode on my camera, so I have panoramas at each minor peak along the way.  However, it is the line going forward and back that constantly holds my attention.

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The modern border between Wales and England follows the ridgeline precisely, and there is no visible sign of Offa’s Dyke here, there was no need to construct a barrier, when the land did it for itself.  Indeed this is the perfect example of the way a natural barrier makes an uncontentious boundary – it is exactly the same line one now as it was 1300 years ago.

At the low points between peaks the peaty ground becomes bog-like, with dark rainbow-slicked pools between, rank like the marsh lands that Frodo and Sam travel through in Lord of the Rings, guided by Gollum as faces of the dead stare up from beneath the miry depths; but beautiful also, iridescent in the sunshine.  Where the land was soft there were often small clapper bridges, chippings, or stepping stones.  At one point there was a stash of those yard-square tonne packs of gravel, clearly lifted by helicopter for summer path maintenance.

2013-04-23 11.36.29   2013-04-23 12.45.50    2013-04-23 13.06.18

2013-04-23 14.24.58   2013-04-23 15.07.34

I come to the highest spot, just short of Pen y Beacon, the northerly tip where, I assume, beacons would have burnt at times of national celebration, invasion or national disaster.  It seems to have no name of its own.

Suddenly there are people who have come up for the day, either from Hay-on-Wye, or from one of the car parks only a mile away down the hillside.  This will be a common experience of the walk, days meeting hardly anyone at all except within a mile of the end points.

The path does not go all the way to the end of Pen y Beacon, where the way down looks tortuously steep, but instead cuts obliquely down its north east flank.  The Vale of Eglwys is sandwiched between this ridge and a parallel ridge to the south west, and as the sides of these had closed together for the last few miles of ridge walking, I had seen patches of white on the opposite slopes.  I hadn’t been sure whether this was snow or simply patches of bare rock, but here, on the north east, in gullies protected from the sun, I could see the remaining snow at close hand.  It was so hard to imagine, in the burning sunshine, that this had been a snowfield just a few weeks previously.

2013-04-23 15.12.33  2013-04-23 15.16.20  2013-04-23 15.25.49

The path descends to the road and after a short period running beside it, across onto a small gentle grass-topped hill.  The map has ‘Dan-y-capel‘ marked by the hill, but I think this is the small hamlet which was out of sight below the western edge.

Sitting on a bench, boots off, rubbing feet and taking a rest were the Three DykersPaul, Ray and Lynn.  They had left a couple of hours earlier than me, straight after breakfast, while I had been making the most of the Lancaster Arms‘ excellent WiFi, and even doing some coding.  However, they took a more relaxed (sensible) pace than I, and also were seasoned walkers so knew to take care of their feet on the way.  We chatted for a bit before I set off again.

2013-04-23 15.59.33  2013-04-23 16.51.49  2013-04-23 16.15.48

We were still reasonably high (401 metres on the map), but had dropped over a thousand feet from the ridge top, and here were clearly in rich pastureland not moorland, the grass, the flowers, the feel of the air, so very different.

The path descends the hill in a sort of funnel between hedgerow and woodland, and I have written about the next part of the descent in a separate post ‘Tom Bombadil Country‘.

At some point after meeting Tom Bombadil, I met again with the Three Dykers, I’m not sure whether I stopped for a bit, or whether they were simply walking this part faster, but we stayed together for the last descent into Hay-on-Wye.

2013-04-23 17.18.31We were almost in the town crossing a large humped field (always a problem to see the signage on the opposite side), but had seen the stile with a marker on, and were climbing over when a man on the far side said, “the path doesn’t come through here”.

My instant, uncharitable, thought was that he simply did not like people coming past his property, but in fact, while there was a path down here, the main Offa’s Dyke Path stayed along the field for a little longer and we had simply followed the wrong arrow.

Finally we made our way into Hay-on-Wye and departed for our separate B&Bs.  Mine, Rest for the Tired (aka ‘Rest for the Tyred‘ for bicyclists), is set above a second-hand bookshop, not that that is a defining feature in Hay-on-Wye, the book capital of the UK, not to mention sometimes declared an independent state.

After settling down in my room and ‘tending technology’ for (quite) a while, I set off to find dinner.  As I went into the Blue Boar, who should come out but the Three Dykers again, they had eaten and were on their way back to bed!

2013-04-23 17.36.16  2013-04-23 17.35.59 2013-04-23 19.28.34

Day 5 – Monmouth to Pandy

A day with Les, the Lancastrian Welsh speaker; woodstove and subterranian pump, old churches and multicoloured markers

miles walked: 16.2
miles completed: 81.2
miles to go: 979.1

The route from Monmouth to Pandy is relatively gentle over fields and through lanes, with the occasional small hill. It was my first day sending my main pack ahead, so much easier than some previous days, and also I was accompanied for the whole day by Les.

2013-04-22 09.02.56Les and I had arranged to meet at the Monnow Bridge, an original gated entrance to the old walled town. We had never seen each other before, but we were easily recognisable by our rucksacks and boots. I had posted onto the forum of SaySomethingInWelsh, a Welsh language learning website, to say that I was walking round Wales and would welcome meeting anyone along the way. {Les} answered.

Les, a Lancastrian by birth, had lived and worked in Monmouth for 20 years, and six years ago had decided to learn Welsh. He discovered the SaySomethingInWelsh online materials and had not looked back. SSiW emphasises listening and speaking, with lots of repetition, rather like ULPAN method. One of my hopes while walking was that I would spend periods listening to Welsh learning audio in a little iPod nano that I’d had for Christmas, precisely for this purpose. Fiona had found the SSiW site and downloaded the complete set of MP3 files. Unfortunately, I did not find them easy to get along with as I really need to see something written before I can remember it, some sort of auditory equivalent of dyslexia, I can hear very fine details in sounds, but if I try to reproduce them I fail!

Les is actually part of a trend, Monmouthshire was the only area in Wales to see an increase in Welsh language speaking at the last census. Les also noted that red kites, often used as a symbol for the Welsh language, had also recently been seen in Monmouthshire.

Although he had never walked the Offa’s Dyke route before, Les had rambled over much of the countryside in the area (a more seasoned walker than I!) and often we would be on ground that he knew well. We started going out along a lane and then well-made paths past fields and through woods.

When we had been in touch, Les had said he would bring food for the day. Given my problems two days before, I needed to take lessons from his experienced approach.

2013-04-22 09.54.03  2013-04-22 10.30.41  2013-04-22 10.44.37

Our first stop was at a small church, St Michaels, at Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern, where we sheltered a little in the porch and ate banana and flapjack, the rubbish going back into a plastic bag that Les kept in his rucksack for this purpose. In the porch were various notices about the church, including one advertising a cancer care hotline operated by Tenovus, one of the charities I am collecting for on the walk.

In the graveyard were the usual collection of gravestones, some so old that the letters have all but disappeared. But amongst these a number of metal crosses, burnt rust red amongst the long grass. I don’t recall seeing this anywhere before.

2013-04-22 11.16.15  2013-04-22 11.35.21  2013-04-22 11.35.40

Before we left Les pointed out the name of the village. I didn’t understand the significance until he explained: Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern is the longest true place name in Wales.

audio: Les on Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern

I have always thought that Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch was the longest placename in Wales, but this name was a 19th century invention.

I have always had my own story about Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, inspired by the film "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain" (incidentally the story of Garth Hill a few miles north west of Cardiff). I imagine the urbane English mapmaker in tweeds and his nervous assistant speaking to a local Welshwoman in black hat and red checked skirts.

"Madam, if you would be so kind, what is the name of this place?"

She looks bemused.

The assistant has picked up a little broken Welsh, and tentatively asks, "Ble ydw i?"

Her eyes light up, "Llanfair", she says, which means "St Mary’s", but of course there are many places called Llanfair, so she expands, in Welsh, but here in English paraphrase, "Oh the St. Mary’s in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool at St. Tysilio of the red cave."

The assistant dutifully writes this all down in his leather-bound notebook, occasionally dipping his pen into its portable inkwell, while the mapmaker gazes disinterestedly into the distance.

And so the little old lady’s directions on how to get there became the place name on the English map.

I like my version of the story, but sadly, the truth is more prosaic, a PR stunt in the 1860s to market the railway station on the newly opened London–Holyhead line.

Beyond Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern the path alternates between sections along small country lanes, and crossing grassy fields. Although we stay on the Welsh side of the border all day, we are not far from Herefordshire, the heart of cider making, and we pass the occasional orchard.

2013-04-22 12.17.14 2013-04-22 12.22.04 2013-04-22 12.22.34

I was a little lazy with my direction finding as Les knew many of the paths, but once he seemed to be taking the wrong way across a field when the marker post was telling us to skirt along the edge, but just five yards in he stopped and showed me a deep rectangular slit in the ground, with mud covered stone steps dropping down into darkness. From only a few yards away it was invisible, like an entrance to a secret passage out of Famous Five. He had been shown it himself by another walking companion some years before and in turn showed me this hidden secret.

Despite passing it before, Les had never gone down into its depths, but, maybe emboldened by his role as guide, he stepped slowly down the treacherous steps, each almost angled up to the next by a thick accretion of washed earth. Stiff grass and bramble grappled from each side, and the sides of the narrow passage brushed our elbows, our rucksacks abandoned at the top.

We stood at the bottom, me peering over Les‘s shoulder into the darkness of the buried threshold. Neither of us had a torch, but we each took a flash photograph. Instead of the red glow of troll eyes, there was the dull grey of pipe work. Maybe half a mile over the hillside we had seen a large house near a church and we guessed this was something to do with its water supply.

2013-04-22 12.44.59  2013-04-22 12.46.03  2013-04-22 12.46.51

We started to walk away, and then, happily before we had gone more than ten yards, I put my hand to my neck and realised my glasses were not hanging from the neck of my t-shirt as they normally were. Retracing our steps slowly to avoid stepping on them, we looked down the steps into the ground, the most likely place, and sure enough Les found them part way down, in the mud but thankfully not trodden on.

I never really sorted out the problem of the glasses. For a while after this I used to keep them in a plastic wallet with my phone, but then risked squashing them in my pocket. Later I kept them with the map, but with similar danger. As it was always a bit of a pain pulling them out I ended up reading the map without glasses, which did hinder my orienteering skills, and led to some strange misreading of names on my audio tapes. A long time after, I gave up on the plastic wallets and hung them back inside my t-shirt, but with the glass side inside so they were unlikely to fall out. This was more secure, but meant that they were completely misted whenever I tried to use them.

Les seemed to know half the people in the area. A few miles beyond Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern, we passed a stone cottage and Les said, “let’s knock and see if we can get a cup of tea”. At first I thought he meant to beg tramp-like for refreshment, but in fact Marge was an old friend of his, and brought us tea and biscuits around her blazing wood fired stove.

We talked about the closure of local pubs, garages and shops over the years, but also those that survived, shaping themselves to the modern age, less a regular evening haunt of locals around the corner, and more bar meals and a pint in the country for town dwellers out in the car, or weekend wedding receptions. I also learnt about a local author collecting tales of a folk hero of the area, an ordinary man winning over formidable foes by wile.

2013-04-22 13.36.36On the stove a fan was spinning. Marge explained that it was blowing hot air from the stove into the room, and thought it worked in some way due to convection. However, when I looked more closely there was an electric motor driving the fan, with the wires connected, not to a battery, but to some metal plates.

Only a month or so before I would have wondered how this worked, but while preparing for the walk I had come across the BioLite CampStove. This is a small wood burning stove that creates intense heat from the smallest twigs by using a small electric fan to drive air through, like the bellows in a blacksmith’s fire. The fan is powered by thermoelectric material in the sides of the stove, which generates a small voltage when heated. The electricity also powers a small USB charging power, so not only can you brew a cup of tea, but charge your phone at the same time.

This fan was working on a similar principle, but with small plates of thermoelectric material drawing heat from the stove.

Our next stop was at White Castle, near Llantilio Crossenny, a Norman castle built to control the local land in the 13th century. It is managed now by CADW who look after many of the castles of Wales. There was a small kiosk to pay for entry and selling CADW booklets and merchandise. Two women were on duty who, of course, Les knew well.

2013-04-22 15.03.44 2013-04-22 15.04.58 2013-04-22 15.04.05

While we were there Les pointed out to me the site of a proposed solar energy farm, 42,000 panels over 67 acres. He was active in objections to the solar farm, not because he objected in general, but more the particular site. Partly because it was prime agricultural land, and partly because of the impact on the view from the Offa’s Dyke Path and White Castle itself.

"It would fine if they had some sort of quota for the county and then decided the best place to put them", he said.

However, the actual choice of sites depends on the external companies who wish to create solar farms, and farmers willing to have them in return for a long-term lease on their land. The places that then get chosen are not those that make most sense in terms of amenity, agricultural value and energy production.

audio: Les on the solar panels

After White Castle the path is almost all across open countryside, except for a couple of very short sections on country roads, one where I was surprised to see a Saltire.

As we crossed the brow of a hill and came over a stile, we came across three walkers sat on a fallen tree taking a short break, Paul, Ray and Lynne. I didn’t realise then, but they would become intermittent companions over the next few days.

2013-04-22 15.58.35  2013-04-22 16.02.33  2013-04-22 15.58.28

Not too far after we came to St Cadoc’s Church in Llangattock Lingoed. Les obviously knew it well, and as he led me to it he pointed out a weathered welcome note with an image of a tea cup on it.

The church is a medieval church that has recently been restored. It has original paintings on the wall and lovely timbers. If there was a church that had an excuse to keep things as original and traditional as possible, this was it. Yet instead, at the back of the church, in the nook underneath the bell tower, was a full kitchenette with kettle, tea and coffee, etc. It was a beautiful church, but most beautiful of all was the simple witness of hospitality.

2013-04-22 16.47.04  2013-04-22 16.47.19  2013-04-22 16.48.49

2013-04-22 16.51.08  2013-04-22 16.48.37  2013-04-22 17.22.34

2013-04-22 17.38.40Some while later, we came through a hedgerow into a gentle slope of pastureland down to a stream. Set against the dull brown and green of land still recovering from late Easter snows, were bright blue, red and yellow flags. They sat on metal spikes around 8 inches high. At first we saw a handful, but as we came lower more and more, probably a hundred and fifty or more, clustered along the stream side, but some coming up into the field itself.

Various explanations came to mind. When we had seen just a few, we thought maybe a trail, or some sort of treasure hunt where your team has to collect its flags as you run by; but as we saw more they were too many and too close. We thought maybe a nature survey marking the spots where some kind of flower bloomed, but some flags were set in the middle of the stream. Nothing made sense, they remain one of the unsolved mysteries of the walk.

2013-04-22 18.23.49For much of the day The Skirrid dominates the landscape. This consists of two peaks at either end of a long red sandstone ridge, Ysgyryd Fawr and Ysgyryd Fach rising from the largely flat land around Abergavenny. Their shape had changed through the day. Originally the ridge had been prominent, but as we passed to the north, the single peak of Ysgyryd Fawr was all that could be seen. However, nearing Pandy, due north, was the most spectacular view, with the twin peaks brought close by the angle and looking for all the world like the twin horns on a Viking helmet. The portion between had fallen in a landslip, it is believed in the ice ages, but local lore says that this was instead at the moment of the Crucifixion.

2013-04-22 18.34.47Eventually, tired but happy, we came down the hill towards Pandy, where the path comes out onto the A464. The Lancaster Arms, where I was staying this night, was opposite.

We were greeted by Keith and Sandra, the landlord and landlady who told us where to hose down and then take off our boots (no mud inside!). Les was going to ring his wife to pick him up and have a quick pint with me while she came. But as we went inside, who was there but the Three Dykers who we had met on the way. It turned out that they had passed us at Llangattock Lingoed, not realising that they could get refreshments there.

Les tried to ring his wife, she works in a school, but would be home and waiting for him as it was already after 6:30pm. However, he could not get through, so sat down in the very comfortable bar area and enjoyed his beer. The Lancaster Arms used to be a pub, but closed the bar some years ago and is now a B&B, catering particularly for walkers for whom this is one of only a few places to stay in this section. Evidently walkers are less hard work than typical pub clienteles!

It was, to be fair, some time later when Les remembered to ring his wife again. It was obvious that the conversation was slightly frosty. By this time it was well after 7pm; he had set out with someone he had had contact with on the internet – for all she knew I was a wild axe man, or we had got stuck down a secret hole in a field (as if).

The frostiness had not completely worn off by the time she arrived to pick him up, so I hope she forgave him and me.

2013-04-22 17.23.19

Day 4 – Llandogo to Monmouth

An easier day; walking with Janet and Lewys, tea & cake at the Kymin, Monmouthopedia and BBQsrc, a missed meeting and a welcoming interstitial community

miles walked: 7.3
miles completed: 65
miles to go: 995.3

2013-04-21 06.09.26I had planned the day with military precision. It was my first Sunday on the path and before I’d left I’d looked up the Monmouth Churches Together web page for Llandogo; there were two services, a Eucharist at St Odoceus, the old Parish Church, at 9am and a family service at the village hall at 11am.  In my armchair enthusiasm I planned to get breakfast at 8am, go to the Eucharist, then return to the B&B, pick up my things before going to the service in the community hall before setting off.  I was due to meet Baronne in Monmouth for coffee at 3pm, but thought, "10 miles, 3 hours, easy".

Before leaving I’d not walked any distance since I was eighteen.  At that age I used to use dead reckoning to work out where I was on a long walk and always used 4 miles an hour as normal walking pace.  In the couple of weeks before I left I managed my first practice walks on Tiree, and, at a purposeful, but relaxed pace I still found it was 4 mph, almost exactly.  I found I could easily do 10 miles before breakfast, a whole day’s work and then another 10 miles at the end of the day.

However, I neglected to factor in a few things.  At eighteen I was, well, thirty-five years younger.  Also I was often walking mainly on roads as there was almost always a lot of road walking to get in or out of the city.  On my Tiree practice walks I was on the flat (there is little that is not flat on Tiree!), beach and road, knew where I was going and, critically, was not taking photographs.

Andrew and the Ramblers had told me two, maybe two and half miles an hour tops, but did I listen to the experts … ?

In these first three days I’d realised that they were exactly right.

So, even with the small experience I’d gathered so far, I had abandoned the idea of attending the family service, although sadly, as Tiree Baptist Church also meets in An Talla, the community hall on the island.  However, I had also arranged to meet Janet en route.

2013-04-21 06.08.36After ten and a half hours walking the day before, sore footed and tired, I also abandoned the idea of an early breakfast and Eucharist at St Odoceus. Instead, when I woke, I simply sorted out my kit and tended my sore feet, and then set off after a lovely breakfast.  I did try to connect into the WiFi and Rosemary had given me a slip which she thought was the access code, "my son set it up", she said.  The code turned out to be the admin access to the router, so, with Llandogo in a valley and with minimal mobile signal, not for the first time, I had to abandon any idea of ‘start the day’ tweets or blogging.

Over breakfast I learnt that I was only the second guest that season, the recession and Easter snows had cut severely into Rosemary‘s business.  She also told me how a local business development person had told them they needed to use the web and social media more, hard for a small B&B owner.  I’d found the Old Farmhouse B&B across the road more prominent on the web and originally contacted Elaine there, but she had been full and passed me on to Rosemary.  I wondered if the better web presence was helping the Old Farmhouse weather the recession better, but no, Rosemary explained that Elaine had also found the season very slow, the "fully booked" was actually because she was away, and evidently prospective guests do not like being told that the landlady also likes to take a holiday sometime.

Rosemary also told me about her daughter who works at the National Museum in Cardiff.  Evidently there has been a lot of ‘rationalisation’ with departments closing down and people being redeployed, often outside their specialist area.  This will be partly a result of ‘austerity’ and partly because of changing ideas of scale and culture.  Years ago you would only have one museum in easy reach, whether a big one like Cardiff or a small town museum. Each museum had a bit of everything and it was exciting to see stuffed wild animals, pieces of lava or a dinosaur bone.  Now it is so easy to travel, and the competition from both media and ‘attractions’ is strong, so museums have to specialise, be master of something rather than Jack of all trades.

Eventually, well fed and with feet surprisingly fit, I set off.

First of all about a mile back down the road to Bigsweir to rejoin Offa’s Dyke Path. At the bridge I met a couple, Peter and Cathy, out walking for the day.  They were on holiday, but Cathy was originally a Forest of Dean lass.  I have sadly forgotten most of the conversation – however I do recall that they told me of a photo of a relative outside a works1 and we pondered on the idea of the factory or shop photo, rather like a school photo, with everyone lined up, and I guess the manager in the middle.  Nowadays this is more likely to happen at an office party.  The one exception I know is Daniel Keim‘s Data Analysis and Visualization group in Konstantz who take a photo of everyone (with Daniel in the centre!) each year at their summer retreat.

From Bigsweir the path follows the road uphill for a very short way, and then enters a woodland area. There is a post absolutely covered with markers for different named footpaths. There are two paths, one smaller path going further uphill, the other a large forest path tracking the contour of the hill.  The post with the markers was nearer the small path, and nearly all the markers were on the side of the post pointing up along the path.  However there was one, the Offa’s Dyke Path marker, that was on a different side of the post, which seemed to suggest that it was a different direction.  I knew I was uncertain,  and of course I should have checked the map at this point, but did not and followed the large forest path.

The way was pleasant enough and easy underfoot, edging ever so slightly downhill, until eventually it was not far from the road that runs along the west side of the Wye at this point.  I can’t recall what made me wonder, but at some point I felt things were not right.  I looked at the map and realised I should be far further up the valley side, it was the same path as all the rest, the side of the post with the many markers must simply have been too full.

I had come at least a mile along this wrong route, and did not want to backtrack all the way, so instead looked for a clear path in the woods and set off up hill.  The trees were happily widely spaced and it was not too far up the hill before I found a path cutting diagonally uphill which I could follow until I eventually found myself on the right path again.

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One thing I recall noticing the day before was that if a tree fell, it seemed to always fall path-side down, so you had to scramble over, under or round.  Part of this will be that you only notice the ones that have fallen in your way, but there may be some truth in this walker’s version of Sod’s Law as the gap of the path will mean that trees are slightly less well supported on this side and so more likely to fall and block your way. At one point during this part of the walk I had a particularly large example, which was too large to easily climb over and had some sort of fence or embankment making it hard to get round.  I found myself face down, pushing my rucksack in front of me like at an army assault course. Happily at that point the path was on grass, not mud.

2013-04-21 12.07.18Once I was on the right path the way was quite quick, following the contour, but far higher up the valley side, perhaps 250-300 feet above the Wye.  Eventually the path dives down towards Lower Redbrook where I was to meet Janet.  I could see that there had been a missed call on my mobile, but when I tried to ring back I couldn’t get through, but I wondered if she might even see me wending my way side-to-side, slalom-like, down a steep grassy field, trying to reduce the strain on my knees from a straight descent.

When I got into Lower Redbrook, there was a large car park in the centre, but no sign of Janet and Lewys, her rather large white Maremma.  I looked at all the cars, but none looked like hers, so I wandered a little.  There is the most wonderful derelict railway bridge crossing the river, one of the last signs of a rich industrial past.  The village now seems to be the epitome of rural peace, but it used to be at the heart of metal production, originally producing iron (hence the rust-red of its name), then copper, and the highest quality tin plate in the world.  The tin works only closed in the early 1960s, and evidently it also used to host three breweries.  I think this used to be the highest point that tidal boats could navigate upriver.

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With mobile phones clearly not connecting I was beginning to wonder what to do, when down the road I saw a large white dog with Janet in tow.  I should explain that Maremmas are always large, but Lewys particularly so; when he stands in a room it feels as if you are surrounded by doll’s house furniture.  Maremmas are Italian sheepdogs, but unlike British sheepdogs that are constantly under the control of the farmer mainly to herd the sheep, Maremmas are left to roam wild with the sheep mainly to protect them – they are bred to fight off bears.

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The path from Redbrook initially follows the road uphill for half a mile before turning off and cutting up the open hillside.  It is sometimes more level, and sometimes steeper, but gradually makes its way to the top of The Kymin, a hill standing near 800 feet above the valley bottom looking out over Monmouth.  On top of The Kymin is the Naval Temple a monument built by public subscription in 1800 to commemorate the famous admirals and naval heroes (maybe a lot of ex sea captains retired to Monmouth), and also the Round House, a small tower that was built as a Jane Austen-style picnic venue.

The National Trust owns the monuments and out of a small window at the side of the Round House teas and cakes are being served.  The weather had threatened rain, but was now clear, and so a cup of tea and a home-made bake looking out over the view was most welcome.  We did not realise at first how fortunate we were; although the Round House is always open with a National Trust guide, the tea and cakes was a one-off event.

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The way back down was uneventful, cutting steeply down the hillside, sometimes through open ground, sometimes through woods, and, at the end, along a small road.  Eventually we are at the edge of the town, passing by the suburbs on the east side of the river, and perhaps more significantly the east side of the A40.

Monmouth is a walled town in the gap between the River Wye and the smaller Monnow.  The waters acted in part as defence and are an integral part of the town.  However, when the A40 was upgraded to a dual carriageway, it effectively cut the town off from the Wye. From the east you now cross the Wye on a road bridge and then take an underpass beneath the A40, coming out beside Monmouth School, an old public school that I know about mainly because my sister once dated a boy who had once studied there, if I recall a soft-spoken boy, the son of a Methodist minister, whose musical taste was centred on punk and the Sex Pistols.

Janet and I parted ways, I to go into town to find Coffeewhere I was to meet Baronne, and she and Lewys to follow the river bank path back along to Redbrook.  It had been lovely having her to walk with and this day felt so much better than the day before, although also helped no doubt by being only half the miles.

As I came out from the underpass, on some grass beneath fragments of medieval town wall and opposite the genteel red brick walls of Monmouth School a burnt out hatchback sat, heat greyed steel, bright red paint, meeting in a lichen-like boundary of black char.

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I wasn’t sure which way to go to get to the town centre, so followed what looked like the largest road (well, excepting the A40), which actually slightly runs round the town, I guess concentric roads may be the legacy of being a walled town. Eventually I got to an open area with a large church in the middle, St Mary’s Priory Church.

2013-04-21 17.17.23I think I would have found my way from there, but when I checked with a man who was passing he walked with me for a bit, guiding me towards the centre.  He was called John Evans, a good Welsh name.  I asked him about MonmouthpediA, how aware he was of it.  It seemed to have been rather low key in the town, but he was going to ask his sons, one living in the US, one in Australia, to see if the news of it had got that far. He also told me to look out for the Savoy Theatre, an Elizabethan building and the oldest theatre in Wales.

Just after I left John I passed a lamppost with my first MonmouthpediA QR code.  It was set in a lovely ceramic plate.  I soon saw others.  I think these were part of the town trail that Baronne had told me about when we met on the second day of walking.  As I entered the town centre proper there were more and more, on public buildings and shops as well as the odd lamppost.

2013-04-21 16.28.00I found Coffee and met Baronne.  We talked about MonmouthpediA, initially in the café and then walking through the streets, looking at them in context.  While the QR codes themselves are the visible side of the project, the provision of WiFi had been critical, as otherwise few people would have accessed them.  It is a project that will probably take time to grow into itself; while QR codes are ubiquitous in magazines and posters, many people still have little idea how to use them.  More problematic still is the fact that the QR codes effectively link physical and digital worlds, but for small businesses there may be no ‘virtual’ equivalent.  Shops were asked to say what they would like the codes to be placed outside their shops to point to.  I saw a fish and chip shop, where the QR code pointed to a Wikipedia page about fish.

One thing I had considered was to drop off QR codes myself as I walked.  Waterproof tiles to stick to every Wales Coast Path or Offas Dyke signpost along the way.  It was a nice idea, but the combination of the logistics to make them and the need to get permissions meant it was one idea that was put aside … maybe for a future project.

My plan had been to create QR codes that pointed to uniquely numbered URLs that meant nothing, a bit like TinyURL or other URL shortening services.  Once a code had been stuck on I would photograph it in situ with GPS tag so that at that point the QR code would get bound to the place, whether simply the location or something at that place such as a café or historic site.  Just like with TinyURL, when you subsequently captured the QR code the unique URL would redirect to some information at the point of interest.

While TinyURL uses these arbitrary names (e.g. http://tinyurl.com/kytrlo8) to make long URLs shorter, here the aim is to make the binding of QR code to URL more flexible. This would partly make it easy to produce QR codes without knowing in advance what would need to be tagged, but also partly because the resulting codes.  However, it would also mean that this binding could be changed at a later time.

I imagined what MonmouthpediA would be like using such a schema.  If you clicked the codes normally you would get the ‘vanilla’ information (e.g. Wikipedia Fish), but if there were some art or special festival, this might change to reflect it, for example, poetry related to a spot.  Even better, if you logged into the site, the content could be personalised, I could imagine families following a treasure hunt around the town.

As well as discussing MonmouthpediA, Baronne told me about his plans for BBQsrc.  The idea is to have an outdoor web festival, rather like a music festival, but slightly more HTML than heavy metal.  The idea is to hold it on the big field that is already used for other festivals, with marquees for workshops and sessions.  It will take a lot of work to get it off the ground, but I’m looking forward to when it does.

Part of my military planning had also been to meet Jonathan, the Baptist minister, to chat about the church and the community in Monmouth.  We had arranged to meet at the Baptist Church at 5pm, so Baronne showed me the way, stopping off at the small museum on the way to show me the historic 3D model of the town, and get me a facsimile map of Monmouthshire also.

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When we got to the church all the doors seemed to be shut, we tried the first door, the side door, and assumed that Jonathan hadn’t arrived yet.  We sheltered under a nearby shop front when a rain shower came and then tried again.  Later when we were in touch by email it transpire that Jonathan was there and waiting, so I’m still not sure whether it was just that there was some other door we did not find, or if he had forgotten to leave a door unlocked.

However, it meant that Baronne and I talked for another hour before he had to make his way home and I set off for Monmouth Caravan Park where I had left the camper van six days before.  The van was safe and it felt like ‘home’.

My first task was phoning a taxi service.  As I was finding the going tough the day before and realising that my schedule had been slightly unrealistic, I had been trying to work out what I could do to make it easier.  The distance and the timeframe were both fixed. I can’t recall if someone else suggested it, or whether it simply came to mind, but I realised it was common, albeit not cheap, to send bags on each day so that I would only need to carry a day pack.  This would have the added advantage that I would be able to send more kit, allowing more flexibility for clothing, and also include the little PC laptop that I needed to upload the data from the ECG monitor I was wearing.

This done, I made a cup of tea (what else), and began the task of uploading, recharging and generally ‘tending technology’, a regular task that typically took me an hour each day.

I had been planning to either go into the town and eat or bring a takeaway back to the van.  However, I noticed that the Park club house was open and served food, so decided to go there.

Sometimes small decisions make a big difference, this was to be one of the high spots of the walk.

At first I felt a little awkward. Some people can simply walk into a pub and start chatting to people, but I’m not like that. Once I start talking it is hard to stop me, but I find it really hard to make ‘first contact’; in fact one of the reasons I kept the rucksack with the banner with me at all times was to be an ice breaker.

Apart from myself, sitting with computer for company, there was, I think, just one other group, which grew and shrunk from half a dozen to eight, who clearly all knew one another and the proprietors well, mainly drinking, I assume having eaten in their caravans earlier.

There was a small ‘pub food’ style menu, and I chose faggots and gravy.  I had last eaten faggots as a child. We did not have them often, maybe this was because we always had half-board guests and Mum knew they were not a universal taste.  However, occasionally, she would spot them in a butcher, and bring them home as a ‘special treat’.  Thinking back, I think always times when it was just the three of us. I’m not sure about Jacqui, but I never liked them.  I’m not sure if it was their liverishness, I never liked it much when we had liver and bacon either, although the latter was always rescued by the fact we had them with my Mum‘s unsurpassed chips.  I think Mum‘s love of faggots will have come from the war years when meat was in short supply and faggots became popular.

Anyway, having chosen the faggots for a mixture of nostalgia and wanting to have the most ‘local’ food, it was lovely – whether my tastes have changed, or there are different kinds of faggots, but if you are in Monmouth and want a treat …

I finished my faggots and then, I’m not sure how, I think maybe someone asked me something because I’d left a few leaflets at the site office, but suddenly I was chatting and before long was welcomed into the group as though I had always been part of their circle.

When I dropped the van off I had noticed that the site was all smaller caravans, real ‘touring’ ones, no static caravans nor even the enormous caravans that you sometimes see.  However, many of them clearly had small ‘gardens’ around them and must be seasonal pitches.  Some of these will be people who visit regularly at weekends or for odd weeks, but some are clearly semi-permanent residents, and it was some of these I had found myself welcomed into the heart of.

Everyone had other ‘homes’, but they would spend four or five days a week or maybe stay for weeks at a time. The owners of the site lived in a house at the edge of the site, but the day-to-day management was left to two residents who shared the job.  One was there and told me how she went ‘home’ by bus to Abergavenny for a couple of nights each week. The couple who ran the bar and food in the club house were also residents, spending regular days at the campsite, and then closing the club house for a couple of nights while they too went ‘home’.

Another lady told me how she needed to go ‘home’ soon for a visit as the laundry was building up.  The caravans had virtually all that you need, but not a washing machine, and she said the launderette in the town was too expensive.

I keep writing ‘home’ in quotes, as the idea of ‘home’ seemed problematic.  While they still saw their permanent house as being ‘home’, they spent more time, certainly during the summer months, here.  They will have had family and friends at ‘home’, but clearly an intimate and open community here also

2013-04-22 06.42.36   2013-04-22 06.42.54

When I had been writing in the run up to The Walk I had been using the words ‘community’ and ‘locality’ almost interchangeably.  It is not that I equated the two: clearly in urban areas I expect there to be different communities living side by side in the same geographic area; on the internet I am used to ‘virtual communities’ and ‘online communities’, and in social analysis the idea of ‘communities of practice’.  And yet, still there was clearly a part of me that held on to a simplistic model of geography = community.

This is a community that is in a sense defined strongly by locality, the caravan site extends no more than a few hundred yards in each direction.  Yet it is very separate from the geographic ‘community’ of Monmouth town, even though the two are geographically overlaid.  In some ways it is the accidental community of a street party, simply living close by one another, and yet also by the nature of those who choose this lifestyle, with common features, not least most were semi-retired.

I wonder too at that connection between their ‘home’ communities and the community here, how do their lives differ?  Of course in my own life I have often travelled to work, living during the weeks in one town and then returning to my family and home for long weekends.  Transhumance is no new phenomenon.

They made me a bacon butty ready for the morning, as I would be gone before breakfast time, and I paid my bill as everyone started to leave, but John, the proprietor, and I were still chatting, so, with barman’s privilege, he continued to pour us pints (note to exciseman, no money changing hands!) until the early hours of the morning.

Eventually, mindful of an early morning start, I went to bed for at least a few hours sleep, and replete with that wonderful sense of welcome, which made me feel, however fleeting my visit and whatever this ‘community’ is, that I had been made part of it.

  1. I can’t recall what, but related to local industry[back]

day 3 – Severn Bridge to Llandogo

Day 3 takes me from the Severn Bridge to Llandogo, in the heart of the Wye Valley. Whereas the trip from Cardiff to Severn Bridge was dominated by the signs of 19th and 2oth century industry and heritage, moving into the Wye and Offa’s Dyke is more a shift to the mediaeval and older: castle and monastery, hill fort and folktale, wild leaps into the unknown. However, as I walk I found that while this certainly is a place of Norman Castles, Saxon ramparts and Iron Age hill forts … it is also home of First World War ship-buiding and the heart of early copper and tin industry. The day also marks the end of the Wales Coast Path and start of Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Path.

miles walked: 15.7
miles completed: 57.7
miles to go: 1002.6

I wrote the first words of this day’s post with a large plate of gammon, egg and chips in front of me at the Sloop Inn in Llandogo. This is not insignificant as food … or the lack of it … has dominated my mood during the day.

The original plan was simple. I start the far side of the Severn Bridge, walk the few miles to Chepstow, then pop back and forth to the start of Offa’s Dyke on the banks of the Severn, then have a late breakfast at Chepstow, before making my way to Llandogo.

That was the plan …

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Things started well, I left Severn Bridge services at 9am. The bridge over the motorway runs along the roof of the toll booths, which seems an odd irony walking over the top of those queues of cars waiting to pay their fivers for the privilege of coming into Wales. On both the old and new Severn crossings the toll booths are only one way. You travel from Wales to England for free, but have to pay to enter Wales. I have always claimed that this is because otherwise everyone would want to come to Wales and some sort of control was essential.

Walking on the approach to the bridge I passed a group of walkers going in the opposite direction, and even two runners. A group of cyclists passed me by, and one greeted me by name; it took a few moments to remember that this was because my name was on the back of my rucksack: “Alan Walks Wales“. There were many cyclists passing, I guess a regular route for Saturday morning.

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In fact when I got on the bridge, I realised it was almost eerily quiet, the entire bridge was closed to traffic for maintenance. I had noticed the evening before that beyond the rumble of traffic, the bridge was surprisingly serene, and, now, with no traffic, so calm.

The run into Chepstow was uneventful, but a bit longer on the Wales Coast Path than the 3.5 mile route signposted at Severn services. The coast path tries to hug the banks of the Wye and alternates between housing estate, woodland paths and edges of industrial estate. One spectacular stretch lies along an alley with warehouses to the left and chain link fence to the right, and then a yawning chasm, possibly 150 feet deep, beyond which sheer cliffs rise the opposite side of the quarry.

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Wending slowly into the town past the post office and funeral parlour, supermarket and Wetherspoons, eventually the path cuts back down an old church alleyway towards the river again. The church had a notice board, and on the notice board a small card with QR codes on it … and I’m not even in Monmouth yet. The card is by historypoints.org; I need to look them up. Although this was the only digital signage there were ceramic information plaques on walls across the town, both beautiful and telling in small snatches the history of the town. In particular I found that Chepstow and Wye mouth were not only the site of old border disputes (William the Conquerer‘s castle to subdue the Welsh, (and not far off Caerleon where the Romans did the same for the Silures), but also a major centre for shipbuilding during the First World War, with workers being drafted in from as far away as the Clyde.

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In fact, strictly, the church’s QR code was not the only digital signage, as in one of the streets approaching the town there was a car with musicwithmummysuzie.co.uk painted in large pink letters on its side. This made me think of the music groups my daughters took part in when they were little and how much music was a part of their lives then, and part of their careers now.

Beyond the church with the QR code it is not far to the riverside, the cliffs rising steeply opposite, a union flag painted next to the mouth of a deep river cave, and then … like a miniature stone circle, a ring of inscribed stones surrounding a circular plaque on the ground … the end of the Wales Coast Path.

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The Coast Path begins/ends by the old bridge across the Wye, and the Offa’s Dyke Path passes close to the opposite bank. I had misremembered the distance to the end of Offa’s Dyke from here to be 0.8 miles, it is in fact 1.81 … and it seemed a long 1.8 for that, not helped by a significant number of signs having been vandalised. It would have been better to save a few miles on my feet and get a taxi from Chepstow to the start of the trail, as it was a little disheartening walking through the paved streets of Sedbury knowing that I was soon to retrace my steps, indeed so absorbed was I in a little bout of self-pity, I almost missed the moment when I was first walking along the top of Offa’s Dyke.

A short while further, a small sign announces "congratulations you’ve almost finished". As I was only just starting, and feeling pretty tired already, it was both reassuring that I was near the start, but also very slightly like a poor joke. However, there was a feeling of exhilaration actually standing on the spot of the Sedbury cliffs where the plaque announces the official start of Offa’s Dyke.

Looking south, the two Severn Bridges dominate the landscape, as they had during the previous day, linking the two. So to the south the 20th Century, but to the north, as soon as the path dips back down the far side of the cliff, one enters old times, walking Offa’s Dyke, where 1200 years ago it was raised by human-powered civil engineering on an epic scale and Saxon feet first trod its ramparts.

A man and his son came walking along the cliff path, discussing where the Offa’s Dyke Path ended; the man said it went to the north of Wales, but didn’t know quite where. Routes and destinations have been so much part of my consciousness that it is easy to forget that for the local person, it is simply a landmark. The man told me of the joys of living so close to a lovely part of the world, but feared that a long planned bypass for Chepstow would cut through this small strip of farmland between Sedbury and the cliffs en route to the M4. I assume they would have a flyover across Offa’s Dyke.

[the following written April 2014]

The man offered to take a photograph, so I have a snap of me and my rucksack waiting to set off from the ‘start’ of 186 (or 168 depending on the sign) miles to Prestatyn on the North Wales coast.

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They set back off down the path along the water’s edge and I set off north, back along the early ramparts of Offa’s Dyke, back along the streets of Sedbury and past an ancient gnarled tree in the heart of a modern estate, past a cul-de-sac marked Offas Close, back along the small lane with high walls either side, like a scene from Hardy, until I stood on the  steps looking down towards Chepstow.

2013-04-20 13.06.49When I had walked through Chepstow I had wondered that I had not seen the castle. When you come by train the castle appears to dominate the town, and yet, while I came through the town walls, I never saw the castle.  Now I could see it clearly.  When I had crossed the old bridge it would have been behind me, high on the cliffs looking down on the river, guarding the traffic.  But I never looked back.  I wondered, not for the last time, how different things would be walking in the opposite direction.

Now it was already one o’clock and I had not had any breakfast bar a chocolate bar.  I should have stopped for breakfast on my way through as it had already been half past eleven, but I had thought "I’ll just do the short walk to Sedbury Cliff and back".  I had thought that Offa’s Dyke Path would take me back through Chepstow, but in fact I had been looking at a county boundary line.  In fact Offa’s Dyke turned away on up the steps.  When I realised this I should have walked the short distance back into Chepstow.  But I was worried about time as I still had a long way to go up the valley to Llandogo and thought that one of the villages I would be passing through would be bound to have a shop or pub.

So I went on.

The way led up the valley side on the east of the Wye, until it crossed grassland towards a large Victorian semi-mansion, its mock-tudor woodwork painted green and white like a play-park shelter.

As the path cut across the mown lawns, straight ahead there was an Offa’s Dyke sign and an inviting lane running below a wooden bridge that connected the house to the river without crossing the peasants’ path between.  I followed it down, past an old wall that suggested there had been major houses here for some time, unless it were merely a Victorian folly, and dark viewing holes through which the flash of my camera showed long passage ways, maybe simply storage, but in my minds eye the stuff of Famous Five.

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The peasants’ path followed the river bank along, gradually dropping as huge red cliffs rose above.  It became less and less lane-like, and more and more narrow and rough, until a point where I clambered down to the waterside.  There I met a man, out for a stroll through the woodland, who told me that I had gone far wrong; Offa’s Dyke Path actually ran along the top of the cliff and there was no easy way to rejoin it except to turn back the way I had come.

Although frustrated to have wasted time when I was already late, I also relished the lovely woodland I would have missed if I had not gone astray,  I was reminded of the time in Ireland when I had missed my way in the car and ended up at the most glorious beach at the end of a 13-mile dead-end.

It turned out that the Offa’s Dyke sign by the house I had seen had in fact had an arrow pointing right, directing you in front of the house and down its drive to the road; I had been so enamoured by the wooden-bridge-framed path I had assumed it was the right way.

The path follows the road for a bit and then round the back of houses and touches a few villages and groups of houses, but there was no sign of a pub or shop or tea shop.  I had yet to learn that the distances between refreshment and food are writ for cars not feet.

To be fair the Harvey’s map did not show any symbols for shops in these villages. I had simply assumed it was only marking major ones, in fact it was very accurate and an excellent guide – if it showed no refreshment there was none.

During this time it also followed the red cliffs high above the path I had been on earlier, just as the man had said.  The red sandstone of the riverside cliffs had been cut away in vast quarries, and climbers with brightly coloured ropes clung to the sheer sides.   This is the place called Wintour’s Leap where, during the Civil War the fleeing Royalist Sir John Wintour had escaped the pursuing Roundheads by taking his horse down the near sheer sides of the valley and across the river.

I was now in the open country following sometimes along the top of the dyke, sometimes along its side.  Although it was still April the day was hot and the sun beat down from behind.  That evening I would discover that my arms, the top of my head, and the tip of my left ear were scorched and sore.  I drank water and ate another chocolate bar, and saw from the map that the first place marked with food was the pub at Brockweir, many miles ahead.

2013-04-20 15.54.28Offa’s Dyke Path runs along the valley top, sometimes in the midst of trees, sometimes with vistas along the length of the Wye.  After some time, when the path again broke clear of the trees, Tintern Abbey appeared, soft focused by river haze, spread on the calm grass bank as the river curves around.

By this time I was getting increasingly hungry and, more critically, my water was also low. Although it is possible to drop down into Tintern from the path, it is a long diversion, and a long way back uphill.  So I went on.

As well as the hunger and thirst my shoulders had begin to ache badly, especially a point on my right shoulder blade.  It is my Apple-injury, which I often notice whilst driving, the result of using the oh so pretty, but ergonomically hideous track pad on my Mac.

Soon after Tintern I met a couple walking the opposite way down the path, one of only three walkers I met during the whole day once I’d left Chepstow behind and before I came off the path at the end of the day at Bigsweir. We chatted for a while, and when I mentioned my water was getting low, they gave me some of their own.  I learnt later to have more larger water bottles, as they had, but I was still young to the path.

So refreshed, but still hungry, I set off with fresh purpose and grateful for the kindness of strangers.

The end point of this day’s walking was to be Llandogo, about a mile off the track and just over half way between Chepstow and Monmouth.  It was another nostalgic stop, as it had been where my Mum and Dad had taken their honeymoon, and where we often went for day trips when I was a small child.

I recall one day especially, when we had stopped at a field and were walking amongst the grass where Jacqui and I picked daisies.  Jacqui, nearly two years older, was more efficient than I, and had a large bunch when she unexpectedly came to a spider’s web by a gate.  In panic she dropped the flowers and they fell amongst the web, from which she would neither retrieve them herself or let them be picked.

2013-04-20 16.17.14They were simply flowers and there were many more, yet long after, well after the flowers would have withered and become dust, after the web had blown away and seasons come and gone, I still felt the sense of loss; and truth be told as I feel myself that young boy now, I still recall and feel in my heart, as I did then, that nameless presentiment of the ending of things, of the many small deaths that make our life.

Llandogo was not easy to get to by public transport, so we did not visit for many years after Dad died.  Once, in my late teens Mum organised a bus trip to Tintern; a coach full of ladies, mainly in their sixties and seventies.  Then some years later when I could drive (a Vauxhall Astra not a Ford Popular), we took a trip along the same ways that Dad would have driven, although with too many years between for the landscape to be familiar, albeit remembered in my heart.

Llandogo is on the west bank of the Wye, but Offa’s Dyke Path passes on the east bank.  There are two alternative routes for the path in its last few miles before Bigsweir, the closest point on the path to Llandogo.  The first, shorter, route stays high and cuts off a bend of the river, while the other cuts down to the valley bottom at Brockweir and then follows the river bank.  On the map there was a pub marked with food at Brockweir, so I chose the longer path and came at last to the Brockweir Inn – at last something solid to eat.

2013-04-20 16.52.20 2013-04-20 17.21.45

But alas, the Brockweir Inn does serve food, but not during the afternoons: lunches, and dinner after 6pm, but at 4pm in the afternoon, nothing, not a sandwich, not a pie; so my  late, late breakfast consisted of a pint of beer and two packets of crisps.  However, it was good to get the weight off my feet, and my rucksack off my back.

Behind the bar was a young man in his early twenties.  I can’t recall if I mentioned my slight detour back along the banks of the Wye, but he told me a story of a trip that he and some friends had made a few years ago.

One afternoon they had decided to go for a visit to Chepstow, just six miles away down the river.  They were young and knew the way, so set off without a second thought.  They  walked for some while, but eventually realised they had got lost.  They tried to find their way, but the light dropped and they had no torches, so at last, in desperation, they rang 999.  Happily they had phone signal.  The police came out and sounded their claxon while the lads, like a submarine sonar, said "nearer", "further", "to the left", "to the right", until the police worked out where they were and sent a river boat to pick them up.

It was only afterwards when I thought about it some more that I realised just how desperate a group of fit 20-year-old men need to be to admit they are lost and call out the police.

I finished my pint and my crisps, and set off once agin, to go the few miles left following the flat grassy river bank to Chepstow.  I could have crossed the ridge and instead followed on the opposite bank and roadside, which would have been a shorter way to go as I would need to double back along the west bank once I got to Bigsweir.  However I wanted to stick to the ‘proper’ path, even if it were longer.

At the start of the path was a sign saying that there had been erosion of the banks and a diversion was in place.  I almost considered going back up the hill to the high-level path, but the thought of the long pull up was too much so I set off along the river bank trusting to the diversion when it came.  After about a mile, just as it had been told, a gate was closed off with plastic tape and another notice announced the path was closed and was diverted onto other public footpaths, but no directions as to where.

2013-04-20 17.29.10  2013-04-20 17.24.22  2013-04-20 17.37.13

The only directions were either back or a public footpath going up into the riverside woods to the right.  It was the only footpath going, so I took it.  It must have been the intended way, but a lot rougher than any of the paths so far.  Through the woods there were numerous tiny tracks that would have been pleasant for an afternoon stroll, but became harder and harder as my lack of food and the long day took their toll, and my tired feet became more and more clumsy.  I wanted to walk as slowly as possible to avoid tripping, but also was worried that I would arrive in Llandogo too late to find food.

As I walked I pondered on the young man’s story and realised that if I fell now and even sprained an ankle it would likely be the next day before I was found.  Amongst the trees I would be unlikely to have phone signal, the B&B would think I was a no show, and Fiona would assume I hadn’t rung because of lack of signal.

Before I had left I had seen a SPOT device advertised.  It is a small GPS receiver that also can transmit to satellites.  The device is equipped with an SOS button that sends a signal to the satellite with your location and then the SPOT service will alert the emergency services.  It can also be set to periodically transmit so that your support team or family can know where you are.  It is designed for those doing jungle adventures, off-piste skiing and the like and the SPOT service has a contact database for rescue services from Bolton to Burma.

I had toyed with the idea of getting one as it would be useful to have the live signal as the phone-based ViewRanger service I would using would be limited to areas with mobile phone coverage.  The device was not too expensive for what it did, around £100, but there is also an annual contract for the service at another £100 or so, so not negligible all told.  And it seemed total overkill! I wasn’t going to the upper reaches of the Amazon2, just Wales, and would be on Offa’s Dyke and the Wales Coast Path, surely with frequent passers-by.

However, on only my third day on track I realised that you can be just a few hundred yards from a road, but if you fall and break your ankle you could easily be hours or days before you are found. UK nights in April are not like the Arctic and the largest predator is likely to be the farm tabby cat, but hypothermia can soon set in.  And here, in the Wye Valley on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the path was not awash with day walkers, but instead I had met at most three or four during the whole day.

So, later that evening, I asked Fiona to order me a SPOT device, which found me a short while later and I never regretted it.

2013-04-20 18.16.17However, I am still not in Llandogo.  The wood walking seemed to last for ever, but was probably no more than 20 minutes.  Where there was a choice of paths, I took the path to the left, which would run lowest down the valley side and closest to the river.  Then eventually, I came out by a small lane, a house visible at the end.  Along the lane were daffodils, not just growing from the bank, but in small vases to greet the visitor.  Then, a short way from the house, in a small gap amongst the roadside hedge, a votive offering, a wreath of branches, almost as if they had fallen naturally, but clearly placed with care with a glass jar full of daffodils in the middle.

Rebecca Solnit wrote A Field Guide to getting Lost, glorying in the joys of the uncharted, the magic you find when you are prepared (or forced) to lose yourself.

And then, oh joy, I came to an Offa’s Dyke sign, I had rejoined the way.  It was then just a short way over some more fields, past a hollow tree and a fallen tree that looked like a dragon’s head, and then to the bridge at Bigsweir where a whole group of walkers, maybe 20 or more, some sort of club, were there, several times more than I had seen the whole day.

2013-04-20 18.35.49 2013-04-20 18.35.352013-04-20 18.50.50

It was just a mile back down the road towards Llandogo.  I ached, my feet were sore, and I started to count my steps to help the remaining time pass … and then realised I had no idea where I was going.

My laptop was in the rucksack, but my ‘where I am staying’ spreadsheet was in Google Docs, useless without an internet connection.  Happily I did have mobile signal and as I walked the last few hundred yards into the village, Fiona looked up the details for me from Tiree and I came at last to the Lugano bed and breakfast.

Mrs Townsend made me welcome and put me in the ‘bridal suite’, a tiny sitting area opening out into a bedroom with a floor to ceiling French window looking out over the wooded hills.

The 50 yards down the hill to the Sloop Inn were excruciating, I had changed out of my walking shoes into sandals, so my toes were no longer crushed, but it seems that the moment or two of inaction had seized them completely.  I recall ordering soup, wonderful and hearty, followed by the gammon with which I started writing, and a pint of something local, before making my way slightly less painfully back up the hill to bed.

  1. Thinking about this later, I think I must have measured for the new high level road bridge which is towards the south of the town, hence the extra mile.[back]
  2. Like Rosie, but that is another story.[back]

day 2 – Nash to Severn Bridge

The second day starts in the wildlife wetlands near Newport and takes me to the Severn Bridge (a short diversion form the path!), icon of 1960s modernism.

miles walked: 22
miles completed: 42
miles to go: 1018.3

I stayed overnight at the Cedar House at Nash. The landlady told me some of the stories that Rosie had told her when she passed that way on her own journey round the Coast Path. She wants to be the first Brazilian to do the route and sounds quite a character … I’m looking forward to meeting when our paths cross somewhere in North Wales, and maybe hearing some of the stories from her own mouth.

The landlady at the Cedar House gave me one of their business cards.  She told me that she was thinking of laminating a few and pinning them along nearby points of the coast path – an interesting (non-digital!) take on off-path destinations for Claire.

[the following added 13th April, 2014]

Claire described her life as living in a bubble.  I can’t recall exactly what was on the news to prompt this discussion, maybe the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.  In an age of instant global media, the flood of traumatic events that we can do nothing about can seem overwhelming; Claire described a sense of disassociation, ignoring much of the media tumult and focusing on the small world about her.  It reminds me a little of the Hobbits in the Shire in Tolkien‘s writing, although whether that made me Gandalf or Bilbo Baggins I’m not sure.

It was a short walk from Cedar House into Nash where I had finished last night and I passed again the church with the flood plaque and the Waterloo Inn before setting off on the fresh path, across fields, back towards the sea.  Nash is a few miles inland, but a power station stops the path tracking the Usk river completely along the waterside to the sea.

I didn’t start as promptly as I intended and I had a long day ahead, around 24 miles, albeit very flat.  So I set as good a pace as I could, and maybe because of that I had my first detour from the path (aka ‘lost’), although not by any means my last.  I knew the way led near the Newport Wetlands  and when the path joined a small lane near the visitor centre, I turned to go past it (and towards the sea), whereas I think I should have turned the other way and taken a slightly longer arc skirting the edge of the wetlands.

The Newport Wetlands were created as a reserve as a form of environmental compensation when Cardiff Bay was enclosed and in the process losing some wildlife habitats beside the Taff and Ely.  Along the coast there are many wildlife reserves, which at first seem perfect for the Coast Path, allowing walkers to go through managed natural areas.  However, the opposite is the case as it is feared that the volume of visitors attracted by the Coast Path will disrupt the wildlife, so often, as here, the Coast Path skirts reserves.

However, I ended up going through the middle of the reserve, itself clearly designed to attract visitors with an extensive visitor centre including a café and artworks along its well-laid paths.  Of course these are paths designed for meandering along, rather than getting through the reserve, and at first I thought I’d need to retrace my steps, but happily it is possible to get out, quite close to the East Usk Lighthouse, smaller sibling to the West Usk Lighthouse I’d visited the day before and could see, a small white speck, far away across the Usk river mouth.  Although the East Usk Lighthouse is now diminutive, it evidently once stood tall, but was partially buried by fly ash tipped in the area.  Interesting that this ex-industrial site is now a ‘natural’ environment.

2013-04-19 10.47.28 2013-04-19 10.48.42  2013-04-19 11.00.37

It was at the lighthouse that I experienced my first Twitter failure.  My original intention was to tweet extensively as I walked.  The previous day, because I’d been walking with Andrew, I’d not done this, but decided to do better this second day.  However, despite there being signal when I looked, it was clearly insufficient, and my carefully crafted tweet was lost, sadly, like getting lost myself, an experience that would repeat until I largely gave up on Twitter.  Even three or four miles from a major South Wales city, technology was failing.

Apart from a few detours inland to cross streams, or bypass land where the Coast Path officers had not been able to negotiate access, the day’s walking was all along a great dyke, with salt marsh leading to grey mud on the right and drained farmland to the left, mini-Holland.

I passed Goldcliff, which has the last remaining ‘Putcher Rank‘ in Wales.  All along the Severn estuary the remains of fish traps can be found, lines of posts going out into the mud, where once wicker baskets would have been laid to catch salmon as they made their way up river.  The Goldcliff Fisheries were the last, but may not be operational anymore, as their web page says they were hoping to restart fishing in 2007 after a period of set-aside, but were waiting for the Environment Agency‘s approval.

2013-04-19 11.19.42  

I had arranged to meet Matt Chilcott and Baronne Mouton for lunch at the Rose Inn in Redwick, about 3/4 mile inland, and clearly I was running late, even before a rain squall forced me to don waterproofs, but I could not find mobile signal to let them know I’d be late.  This was compounded by not being at all sure which road that met the path led to the village.  One mini-mission during the walk was to look out for these ‘off path destinations’, to see how well signposted they were, and here, at my first attempt, I found signage wanting: there were plenty of finger posts to show me the way along the path, but nothing to say what lay even a short way inland.

I came to what I believed was the first road towards the village, but still a mile and half to go.  However, joy, I had signal.  I rang, got through to them where they were enjoying a pint at the Rose and chatting whilst waiting for me.  To speed things along I gave instructions as to where I was and they drove off to pick me up.  Only when a map slowly loaded on my phone did I realise that I had come further than I’d thought and was actually at the nearest point.  Of course, while I had mobile signal Matt, driving in the opposite direction, clearly had none, and the best I could do was leave a message and start to walk along the small lane towards Redwick.

It was not far, but just as I got towards the village I found the lane ahead flooded with slurry.  I’m not sure if the tank had overflowed, or the farmer was deliberately pumping it out, there was some piping around to suggest activity, but not pumping it off the road.   Even with walking boots on, it would have come over the tops, but this day I was walking in just running shoes.  Happily I found a pile of gravel filled sandbags, I assume these were for directing the flow of slurry, but I laid them as stepping stones at the shallowest point and made my way gingerly across.

So I got to the Rose Inn, not too filthy footed and again unsuccessfully attempted to ring, until a car pulled in and it was them.

Matt is from University of South Wales, Newport, but seconded to CMC2 a community interest company set up by Monmouthshire County Council to promote sustainable development.  Baronne is (in the words of his website!) a ‘web frontiersman’ living in Monmouth and planning to create a new web conference BBQsrc in the heart of the Wye Valley.  Both have been involved in the launch of MonmouthpediA, a collaboration between WikiMedia and Monmouthshire County Council to create the first ‘Wikipedia Town‘.  I will see more in a few days when I get to Monmouthshire, but essentially the town has been filled with QR codes that link to special Wikipedia pages for each monument, shop, and indeed anything you can stick a QR code to.  In addition free WiFi access has been provided in areas of the town to make it easy to snap QR codes with a smartphone and see the associated web content.

Unfortunately our lunch was rather brief due to my lateness, mutual lostness and Matt‘s afternoon meetings, but Matt did have time to drop me back at the path, so I didn’t have to brave the slurry lake again … however, I hate to think what his car smelt like for the rest of the day.

As a schoolchild on a fine day I would sometimes walk out from Cardiff, either on my own, or with Martin, my best friend.  My preparations were slight.  I would fill up my water bottle, one of those metal military-style ones that could clip to a belt.  If I had any money I might go to the baker’s and buy a single cob roll, the kind with a crusty top; from the fridge I would take one or two Dairylea cheese slices, and, if I was lucky, maybe a chocolate biscuit.  I rarely had sufficient money for the bus, and for rainwear I had an old cut down raincoat of my Dad‘s, that was sufficiently large that I could wear it more like a poncho.

2013-04-19 14.58.50I most often went north, towards the low hills that surrounded the city, and the foothills of the coal valleys beyond, as this was the fastest and most pleasant route out of the city.  Occasionally I would go west towards Penarth and the coastline beyond, although that involved a good few hours’ walking across the city before I reached the countryside.  Only once or twice I went east along the coastline I had walked on the first day.  With a ten-mile radius for a reasonable day’s walk, that took me only part of the way to Newport, but still, my abiding memory was one of acres of flat drained farmland, an seemingly endless seawall, and the thick foul grey of estuary mud.  To be honest, for a 16/17 year old’s eyes, boring.

This was one of the reasons to get this bit of coastline done first, to ‘get it out of the way’, but I was also aware that I no longer had the eyes of a 16/17 year old, and that this area was rich in wildlife.  So 36 years later, three times the age of those eyes, it did seem different.  An austere beauty, but beauty nonetheless, and although it was always the same, yet it was not; my eyes after hour upon hour of gazing at flat drained land, dyke, salt marsh, grey mud and sea, became aware of variations, changes in the quality of the sea-washed grass, the flotsam, and occasional lines of abandoned fish-trap poles.

I have no vocabulary for these subtle differences, and I struggle, without the scaffolding of language, to recall these now, and yet, in the midst of the time, I developed the tacit understanding of the inhabitant.

I live my life in mortal fear of boredom, I hate to be early for meetings in case I am stuck sitting, standing, waiting; if I am setting off somewhere and realise I do not have a book, or paper, I begin to feel out of breath, my heart rate rises – a true phobia.

And yet …

In all those miles of monotonous walking, I never felt bored for a moment.

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Maybe I was lost in my own thoughts, maybe lost in the landscape, maybe simply lulled into a semi-trance by the constant rhythm of the walk.

So it was, with surprise, when a man walked along the path towards me and greeted me by name.

It was Jez, a lecturer in the Arts Faculty at UWE.  He had left a note on my web site to say he would try to meet up, but I had entirely forgotten.  A few hundred yards on from where we met a road came down to the sea and at the end of it was JezVW camper van, like the one Fiona and I used to have many years ago when the girls were little.  He had driven down the road from his home, which was not far away, and waited, I don’t know how long, for me to come along.

Jez made me a cup of tea … well actually I think we got through several, he fed me biscuits … and was there cake too, I can’t recall?  He told me about his ongoing chef d’oeuvre Coastline.  On weekends and holidays Jez walks the coast of Wales pushing his bike with a small video camera mounted on the handlebars, and then cycles back to where he has left the van.  Each section becomes a audio-visual work, with time-lapse video overlaid with soundscapes, or interviews … and he recorded our conversation, so maybe on one of his videos there will be my voice.

After a while Jo and Jeannie, his wife and daughter, came cycling down the road to say hello, and then after they left we talked more.  I felt so blessed at this rich and unexpected meeting and privileged that Jez had taken so much effort to make it happen.

However, I still had many miles to walk, and so, reluctantly, set off again.

I can’t recall when it first came into view, but for much of the day the Second Severn Crossing dominated the view, first quite small in the distance, but gradually closer and its size more impressive, its white concrete piers striding for five miles across the Bristol Channel, to Bristol docks, the seaside towns of North Somerset and the brooding presence of Hinkley Point.

As the bridge drew closer, the path temporarily diverted inland, to the north side of the M4 and then back again less than a mile from the bridge when it came out onto a concreted waterside path leading towards and then under the bridge.

2013-04-19 18.07.06The noise of traffic overhead is in its way ineffable, the ongoing low-pitched rumble broken by the periodic rattle as a lorry or car crosses directly above (hear it here).  This all set looking through a tunnel of concrete piers, rising from the water as far as the eye can see.

However impressive the Second Severn Crossing is, once I passed under there was no looking back, for, far ahead, lay the old Severn Bridge.  By ‘old’ I do not mean medieval stonework, not even Brunel‘s Victorian ironwork, but the 1966 motorway bridge.

My target for the night was to cross the bridge and sleep at the Travelodge at the motorway services that used to be called ‘Aust‘, but now Severn View.  This is a detour from the Wales Coast Path, which passes the west end of the Severn Bridge, but stays firmly in Welsh territory.  My English diversion would be for nostalgia’s sake.

As a child I recall the first time we crossed the then’ ‘new’ Severn Bridge.  Until that time the only way to cross was either to wait for the ferry at Aust, or to drive thirty miles north along the bank of the Severn to the first bridge at Gloucester.

We were driving in a blue Ford Popular, Mum, Dad, Jacqui and I.  When Jacqui and I were very little we had another Ford, one of the black taxi-cab style ones, but this was the modern saloon with rounded curves.  Dad loved the inventions of the modern world, and so it was not just Jacqui and I who were excited as we approached this wonder of the 1960s white heat of technology.

In years to come I would often find my imagination had made things bigger than they were, so was disappointed to see them in reality.  But at this age and this time there was no disappointment.  We gawped in amazement at the immense size of the bridge, until Dad said, "this isn’t it yet", we were still on the maypole-suspended Wye crossing that leads on to the twin-towered cable suspension of the Severn Bridge itself.

In memory of that day when we stopped at the services and walked along to the observation point where we could look down from the red sandstone cliffs across the expanse of the Severn and the glory of the bridge, I would cross over and stay the night on the far side.

But there were still many miles to go, and it was two and half hours later before I got there.

Soon after the Second Severn Crossing was a vast, strangely shaped, brick building at Sudbrook that I realised was the air pumping station for the Victorian railway tunnel that dives through the rock deep below the water.

Sudbrook campI went slightly wrong at Sudbrook, when the Coast Park sign seemed to direct me through a tiny rough gap between undergrowth onto a small semi-wild playing field.  I thought I’d got it wrong and backtracked onto the main path that skirted the area on the landward side.  It was only when I got to the other side that I saw the far more clear sign from the opposite direction.  Now, with the benefit of satellite maps, I can see a half round embankment and the name of the road leading to it, ‘Camp Road‘, clearly an Iron Age fortification, most likely once a full circle, but cut in half by riverside erosion.

Not much further again is a small estuary. On the map it is marked simply ‘Red Cliff‘, which is hardly a defining feature in this area. Small boats lie on the mud and a tiny lighthouse rises on the diminutive headland beyond.  The Severn Bridge (the proper one!) is now close, barely two miles away across the water, and in the middle of the flow, a rock with another small light, Chapel Rock on the map, with the remains of St Twrog’s Chapel on it, just a small piece of broken wall.  It is marked as entirely below the high tide mark and accessible only at low tide, but a small grassed area clearly does always peek above the high water, suitably isolated for the medieval hermit.  It was evidently well visited in the 14th century and a light maintained there, but happily abandoned by the time of the 1606 flood.

2013-04-19 19.41.18The path does not stop the tiny stream, St Pierre’s Pill, but instead cuts inland to the village of Merthyr Tewdrig, where a wooden statue of Brenin Tewdrig, king and saint of Gwent, who in a tale of Arthurian tenor, abdicated in favour of his son to live a life of prayer, but then took up the sword to defend the monastery from the despoliation of the heathen Saxons.  The Saxons were defeated, but mortally wounded Tewdrig was on his way to the isle of Flatholme to be healed when he succumbed to his wounds and was buried here.

It was approaching eight o’clock and I had been walking for more than twenty miles when I passed through the large industrial estate on the west bank of the Severn.  I passed a warehouse where they were still at work, wind-turbine towers laid out in ranks, and then, eventually, onto the bridge itself.

Although it is a motorway bridge there is pathway each side for bicycles and walkers; strictly the southern side is for walking and the northern side for bicycles, but in practice there seems no difference and I wasn’t sure how to get onto the northern side anyway.

I looked back along the M48 leading into Wales, a deep sunset forming in the west, and then out along the bridge arching to England, nearly two miles away; first the single maypole support of the Wye Bridge that I remember so well, and then the dual towers of the box-girder suspension bridge.

It was late so the traffic was not so heavy, and it was not so much the sound, but the feel of the vibration of trucks passing and the shaking and rattling of the structure that made me glad to know it had stood for 47 years and was unlikely to collapse just now, whatever my senses told me.

I was crossing the bridge for nostalgia’s sake, thinking that it would be a long slog, exposed to the elements.  Worthwhile, I hoped, for its symbolic value, but not of value in itself.

Nothing prepared me for the deep serenity of that crossing, with the lights and sound of the traffic still there was a sense of peace beyond anything I felt at any other point of the long journey that was to come.

2013-04-19 20.35.49I started to cross with the sunset and the day moved from dusk to evening as I walked, for nearly half an hour from side to side.  First past the barracks on the low headland between the Wye and the Severn, and then out along the wide span.  The lights shone on the wide span of the Second Severn Crossing, now many miles downstream towards the sea, and red lights topped the towers close at hand that suspended the electric wires connecting the Welsh and English grid.

Half way between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon worlds, above flowing water, yet suspended in air, it is no wonder that there is a magic.

The waters far below seemed still in the half light, and sounds of birds were muted by reflection.  I remembered a time as a schoolchild, standing on the bridge at the top of the hill in Penylan in Cardiff, looking out over the dual carriageway of  Eastern Avenue, hearing the traffic below, and then realising that behind the sound of engine and tyre on road there was a deeper silence.

Here, the deep peace needed no seeking or meditation.

And so to rest, at the far side, a Travelodge, the modern equivalent of the monastic hospital, but the refectory was closed, I was too late, as if vespers had already been called, but more likely open during commuting hours only.  So my meal was the pies of the garage, open all hours, a traveller’s fare.