I had, at one stage, thought of taking a whole day in Knighton, but the combination of having just had a long break at the CHI conference and trying to avoid excessive days in some of the future sections made me opt for a half day.
However, this did mean a relaxed morning, starting with a long breakfast at the George and Dragon. I knew that this weekend was the AGM of the Offa’s Dyke Association, but it was only after the other guests had left their tables and I was chatting to Justin, the landlord, about my plans for the day, that I found that two of the guests had been stalwarts of the association, living in the Barbican in London, but coming up every year for this weekend. He also told me that he had known another chap like me a few years ago, his laptop out at dinner and breakfast. Justin had asked him what he was doing, "writing Tony Blair‘s memoirs", he answered. So, not sure if that puts me in good company?
Knighton‘s architecture is more varied than Kington‘s, with a lot of Victorian as well as Tudor buildings, including numerous chapels, I guess a result of the greater access due to the through train line, compared to Kington, which, even when its railway was open, was very much the end of the line. There is a clock tower in the centre of the town at a Y-junction with ‘Broad Street‘ running away from it and one arm up the ‘narrows’, a definitely medieval-width street. At the top end had been the old ‘Butter Cross‘ and open sided market hall where local farmers sold their produce, mostly butter, and I assume heavily salted to preserve it for long journeys in the days before refrigerators.
I looked around for an old market cross wondering if there was any reason for the name ‘Weeping Cross‘, which, Fiona informs me, is what Mary Webb calls Knighton in her books about Shropshire and the Marches. However, if there was once a cross, the Victorian clock tower probably replaced it. Neither Justin the Landlord, nor Janet at the Offa’s Dyke Centre knew the reason for the name. I was told that the town crier might know, but I still don’t have the nerve to just knock on his door to ask, maybe by the end of this journey …
My plan was to visit the Offa’s Dyke Centre, run by the Offa’s Dyke Association, before taking a cup of tea at one of the cafés and then setting off, although by the time I had finished my (very) leisurely breakfast and got going it was almost eleven o’clock. The Offa’s Dyke Centre lies at the upper end of the town, the path exiting the town through the park to its back.
I sauntered up the hill, photographing occasional interesting buildings, dodging traffic as I swapped back and forth across the road to get better views. Almost at the Centre, you pass a building that looks as if it might have once been a schoolhouse, and there in the yard, half hidden behind an old bus, for all the world as if Gerry Anderson‘s Supercar had landed, a silver painted, metal and glass-sided, bulbous aerial-nosed vehicle. The four wheels below looked terrestrial, but everything else suggested it would take off at any moment, and not necessarily stay within the atmosphere. Not being sufficiently surreal in itself, jammed between van, Supercar and schoolhouse wall was another smaller, white bullet-shaped vehicle with the teeth of a shark panted on its pointed nose.
Janet, who shares the running of the Offa’s Dyke Centre and is a fount of knowledge, said that I shouldn’t expect space-suit clad figures to come out of the schoolhouse, nor Thunderbirds-like puppets bouncing their way up the street, this was the work of an installation artist Andy Hazel. The non-terrestrial appearance of his creations was no accident, the silver Supercar was actually made from the body of an old military helicopter, which he had bought online, and then attached to the chassis of an old DAF van. It would take part in light parades, when its silvered body would shine with hundreds of embedded LEDs. When Andy Hazel went to collect his helicopter (sans engine, air-to-air missiles, etc.), the vendor said, "and do you have any use for these?" So, he came away not only with a helicopter cockpit, but also four sonar-buoys, which are dragged behind a war ship as practice targets during live-firing exercises. One of these, fixed to a golf buggy, had become the shark-faced vehicle on top of which Andy would attach a horse saddle and ride, space-cowboy style.
Greeting you at the door of the Offa’s Dyke Centre is Offa himself, sat thinker-style, contemplating cutting nearly 200 miles of dyke, ditch and palisade across the countryside, and treading in the footsteps of Hadrian, Alexander and the Emperor of China. In an age of massive civil engineering exercises, and the reshaping of the Dubai coastline, still this seems a massive undertaking, this is not building-scale, nor even city-scale, but a country-scale endeavour. In the couple of years before moving to Tiree, I had shifted, by hand, approximately ten cubic metres of soil up the back garden of our house in Kendal (originally intended to be a narrow channel to stop damp in the garden shed, but it grew!). I spent nearly every spare moment doing this, in early mornings before work and weekends, and still it took me two years. I would guess nearly one thousand times this would be needed for each mile of the Dyke. To cap it all, I heard at some point that the whole exercise was completed in just four years.
I asked Janet at the Centre about the post-war growth of the town, but there was no substantial local industry, or other reason of which she was aware. The most likely explanation for the estates to the south of the town seemed to be simply commuting to neighbouring areas. Newtown to the west has local government offices, and there are good communications to the east to Hereford, Shrewsbury, etc. In the early days this would, I imagine, have been based around the railway, and later more car-based.
As well as chatting to Janet, I perused the various display stands and slowly built a pile of leaflets and books, limited only by the knowledge that anything I purchased, I had to carry on my back all day. Amongst these were ‘Special Offa‘ (ouch) a travelogue of the path by Bob Bibby, and ‘Earth Works‘ an anthology published by the Anglo~Welsh Poetry Society, but sadly I had to forego the glorious photographic journey along the Dyke written by Janet‘s fellow manager to accompany a BBC series some years ago.
In Earth Works, Kevin Bamford‘s ‘Offa’s Dyke’ begins:
his message of power
across the uneven landscape.
Later that day, while recording, I accidentally found myself saying ‘typography’ rather than ‘topography’, but then thinking, just like Bamford, that the Dyke was precisely a work of massive calligraphy, written by earth and sweat upon the land rather than pen and ink upon paper.
Having made my choices and about to leave, Janet went to fill my water bottles and in those few moments I noticed another title, and so added yet another small booklet to my load for the day, ‘Gwenllan: The Welsh Warrior Princess‘ by Peter Newton. Born in the early days after the Norman Conquest, she was a critical part of the Welsh resistance to the massive Norman military machine. I had never even heard of her, but also had been mortified when I listened to the BBC series ‘Story of Wales‘, at how little I knew of Welsh history. Newton talks about:
the dark days of history education in Wales when children and young people were taught little more than the lives of countless English, Russian, Prussian and French kings and queens as well as a prime minister and president or two, without mention of the proud history of their own country (Gwenllan, p.13)
Although happily escaping the ‘Russian, Prussian and French‘, in my own Cardiff education I recall a little about Llewelyn and the story of Gelert (albeit that I misnamed him ‘Rover’ when re-writing the story from memory), but of other kings and heroes nothing, merely the names of the houses in my primary school: Glyndwr, Howell, Powel. This can only have got worse in the early days of the National Curriculum, but I believe has now improved as has Welsh language education. It is still a great regret that I was not allowed to continue learning Welsh beyond 13, being forced instead to take French O’ level … which I went on to fail three times, before eventually passing with the help of a retired teacher who came in especially to give me additional, free tuition.
As I’ve said, the Offa’s Dyke Path cuts out the back of the Offa’s Dyke Centre, and then crosses the single track railway line, before a long slow ascent of the hillside beyond. The trail follows closely the line of the old dyke for much of the day, this being one of the areas where it has survived the years. I had learnt from Janet that while the path followed the actual dyke where it was still extant (about 70 miles in total), in other parts the reasons for the placement of the path were not always about closeness to the supposed dyke route. The criteria to be a ‘National Trail‘ include maximising off-road stretches and taking in views (although clearly not historical centres, or places to catch a cup of tea). Indeed, in the north, the stretch over the Clwyddian hills near Ruthin has nothing to do with the actual route of the dyke, which instead is thought to have cut nearer Wrexham and Chester … and would have connected much better with the northern start of the Wales Coast Path.
The area north of Knighton is criss-crossed with numerous footpaths and waymarked trails. Offa’s Dyke is a mini-industry in Knighton and although few walk its full length, they are encouraging visitors to take short circular walks including parts of the dyke. There are small yellow signs with a kings head saying “walk with Offa“, which I took to be informal, child friendly, versions of the Offa’s Dyke Path signs, as there have certainly been a number of variants over the years before the current acorn symbol.
I felt some unease as the path took a turn eastward that was not marked on the map, but took it first for a small dog-leg before returning to a northerly route, and then maybe a permanent path change since the map’s last reprint. I was reassured by further “walk with Offa” signs I passed, but as the route took me further and further west, and down the far side of the hill along which the dyke passed, I came the realisation that I had done something seriously wrong. I met a family on a circular walk at the bottom of the valley coming in my direction, and asked them if they knew where we were. They asked the youngest member of the group, and she showed me on their OS map and it confirmed my fears. Oh, why didn’t I take up Ramblers Cymru‘s offer to lend me the 2 1/2 inch OS maps along the path! So, nearly a mile off course, I had to re-climb the hillside I had just come down and found that at the point I had been confused, there was a ‘cross roads’ finger post …. only coming straight along the path towards it only the left and right arms would have been visible. I should have learnt by now, if at all uncertain, look twice!
When I got to The Quarry House later that evening, Michelle and Simon told me this was a frequent mistake, that they had reported the year before and had been promised would be clarified in signage … but this year I was already the third walker who had been led astray by those jolly and appealing king faces. As with previous problematic decision points, it would be so useful to have small signs a short way along potentially incorrect routes saying "NOT Offa’s Dyke"!
During this section of the walk the meandering River Teme and railway viaduct at Knucklas are constant companions, opening in slightly different vistas on each turn of the path, and a reminder of the Victorian engineering feats that were often, just like Offa’s Dyke, worked mainly by human labour rather than JCBs as nowadays. I don’t know the statistics for these railway lines, but I know that the Settle Line through the Pennines cost many lives for every mile of its length.
A few miles along I saw my first red kite, and for the next hour it would periodically appear, soaring over the hillside and above the tree line, occasionally swooping to the ground in search of prey. White blazes clearly shot across the rich red-brown plumage, it was magnificent to see, and later joined by a companion, they would sweep first together, then separate and rejoin.
The rest of the way was uneventful, the dyke-line swooping down a valley side beneath a crow’s nest in a low tree, which must have little crow-lets within by the density of guano (I stepped under quickly for fear of being similarly bespattered), then back up and after a few more relatively gentle undulations joining the road for a while below Llanfair Hill, before coming to the valley overlooking Newcastle-upon-Clun. The path passes about half a mile from Newcastle, but my accommodation for the night, The Quarry House, lies across the valley, less than ten yards from the path, tucked behind a half-timbered farmhouse. On the southern valley side the path cuts down from outside Springhill Farm, where an old three-legged dog barks at me, and which sports an inviting bed and breakfast sign, which I later learn is inaccurate.
Both Springhill Farm on the south side of the valley and the half-timbered house on the far side are exactly on the line of the dyke. According to Michelle and Simon this is not uncommon. Although making a building near the dyke has some advantages as a source of pre-cut stone, actually having it inline means more work levelling the dyke and ditch, so this seems an odd choice of location. I recall that in the Offa’s Dyke Centre it says that they have found no remains of any entrance ways to allow access through the dyke, but part of me wonders whether these farms are precisely the sites of such entrance-ways, perhaps small fortlets as on Hadrian’s Wall, which have then transmuted over the intervening millennium, burying or destroying any remains.
Having arrived at The Quarry House (a very superior B&B with walk-in shower) I sat down to eat one of Michelle‘s deservedly well-known meals. After a starter of a salad and tartlet with a red pepper dip, Simon joined me for the main course of chicken breast wrapped in Parma ham, in a creamy white wine sauce. Part way through he noticed another walker coming towards the house, a few moments later Michelle came in with Jacob, an Israeli walker, who could hardly speak from exhaustion.
That evening and in the morning over breakfast, when he had got his breath back, I learnt that he had walked much over the years, including the long distance trail that runs 500 miles north–south, the length of Israel, the path shifting over time for ‘security reasons’ (I assume sniper and rocket fire). The trail ends up in the southern desert, where he was used to sleeping and where the only things around, he said, were "snakes and scorpions". The day before he had taken the opposite route to my next day’s travel, which for him started flat, but then in the latter part of the day was "ups and downs". He had contemplated sleeping in a field, but had pressed on "while it is light" and come to The Quarry House.
I likened him to his namesake sleeping with a rock for a pillow. "Ah, the ladder", said Jacob, but no visions of angels ascending and descending from heaven, "I do not dream", he said. Later he described how he was not religious and deliberately described himself as Israeli rather than Jewish (although he knew the story of his namesake), bemoaning the attitudes of the religious in his country. I later considered his dreamless sleep, curse or blessing? Why is it that when the religious dream it is more often daemons rather than angels that speak to them?
Jacob was lucky this night, Michelle and Simon had one room free, which Michelle rapidly made up for him. This was the weekend of the Clun Green Man Festival when thousands descend on the small town for a weekend of flowers and frivolity with roots in pre-Christian times ritual. When booking before Easter, I had first rung the pub in Newcastle itself, which was full then, before contacting Quarry House (although the latter was very definitely a happy destination). If the room had been full at Quarry House, the next accommodation would have been in Knighton seven and half miles away; Jacob would have slept under the stars.
There used to be four B&Bs at Newcastle, one proprietor died, and the owner of the Springhill Farm had been ill, leaving just two in the valley. This reminded me of similar fragility on Tiree where illness or someone moving can radically cut or entirely lose some service. For those walking the length of the Dyke, there are often few obvious stopping places. The strength of a chain depends on its weakest link, and the ability to traverse the entire Offa’s Dyke National Trail depends crucially on a small number of strategic B&Bs like this.