May 3-4, 1985: Sedbury Cliffs to Bigsweir Bridge via Chepstow
Four walks were in progress (the Coast-to-Coast Path, the Cumbria Way, the North Downs Way, and the London Countryway) when I began a fifth on Friday, May 3, 1985. This was Offa’s Dyke Path. Tosh had already covered the Chepstow to Monmouth stage as part of the March, 1984 Alternatives program at the American School. I had planned her trip, but as coordinator of the entire program I had been left behind in London. There still remained a possibility that we might walk the continuation of this route as part of some future Alternatives outing and I was therefore anxious to catch up with her. In the event we never did walk with students on this route.
I had hoped that Tosh might do the first part of the OPD all over again but she had to sing in one or her choruses and Dorothy had a doctor’s appointment. Harold was eager to undertake the expedition, however, and he had brought his car around to Loudoun Road as I made an early departure from my school chores on Friday, May 3, 1985. He drove me home, where I picked up my gear and said goodbye to a sulky wife and disappointed dog – and we were soon threading our way toward the motorway. For me this was the end of a very busy week and I dozed off once or twice before we stopped for lunch, 45 minutes at a giant “Services” area near Swindon. The place was being taken apart and it was like picking your way through a bombsite to reach the cafeteria. Here there was just the usual chaotic queuing for this and that. Harold had an English breakfast and I had a nice fish, chips, and peas. Harold had located a table for two overlooking a builder’s skip.
I put the petrol on my Visa card and we were back on the highway, only sixty miles or so from the Severn Bridge. I do not remember these miles for I fell asleep again. Perhaps if Harold hadn’t turned off the radio I might have done a better– but the next thing I knew he was talking about the bridge towers and fishing out 20p for the “light vehicle” toll.
We drove over the tip of our eventual destination, the Beachley Peninsula, and around the outskirts of Chepstow before reaching the A466 to Monmouth. I had travelled this road before – with some cousins back in 1972 – but the Wye Valley was even more beautiful in spring blossoms and sunshine today. Tintern Abbey seemed strangely reduced in grandeur as we sped by; perhaps I was remembering my photos of the scene and not the reality.
We passed a number of sites to be visited later on foot, including the village of Redbrook, whose brazen red and white Little Chef sounded a truly sour note in an otherwise idyllic countryside. We reached the outskirts of Monmouth at about 3:00 – but it was obvious we were not going to make the 3:15 bus back to Chepstow because the junction of the A466 and the A40 was jammed, and it took quite a while before we were waved across by a policeman. I directed Harold on how to proceed through the town without a map, relying on prior study and instinct, and we emerged on the high street just a few blocks away from the charming Monnow Bridge. On the other side we found Drybridge Road and the Red Lion Guest House.
Harold squeezed the green Granada through a tight tunnel into our landlady’s backyard. I had made arrangements for us to leave the car here now and return to stay at the guesthouse tomorrow. Harold, whose wing mirror had snapped shut as we inched into the backyard, now nervously re-parked the car several times so as to leave maximum room for everyone else, imprisoning in the process the bicycles of our landlady’s children. She was not in, but a guest poked his head out of an upper-story window and we explained that we were the Londoners who had arranged to leave their car.
We then did our packing and I changed into hiking gear in the back seat. Next we walked back over the bridge and visited the gents next to the cattle market, located the bus station, checked bus times and strolled up the street to an International Market to buy some ginger ale in screw top bottles. We sat for about fifteen minutes on a bench at the station. Harold was getting antsy because the bus hadn’t shown up and also because it appeared that we would have the entire upper school population of Monmouth as company. Several National Welsh coaches pulled in and two of them took two-thirds of the kids with them. This left only the remaining third for us on the Chepstow bus, but they were a noisy enough lot. We hadn’t even left town before the driver ordered them to turn off their portable radio.
We were soon caught up in a long tailback on the A40. The traffic jam – caused by a lorry that had leaked its load onto the tarmac – was worse than before. The kids at the back of the bus began hanging out the windows to harangue other drivers (those in German cars were addressed as “Erik” and interrogated in broken Deutsch) and to heckle courting couples strolling by the Wye boathouse. Once again the driver had to order some quiet – “Get back in your seats, every one of you.”
Eventually we earned our chance to get off the A40. Kids alighted at all the sites we had just driven by in the car and quiet returned. The blossoms were at their fullest moment – all the whites, pinks, and plums, even one tree with salmon-colored plumage south of Bigsweir Bridge.
The bus made up some time – not helped by a slow-moving tractor – but we were half an hour behind schedule when we reached the end of the line in downtown Chepstow at 5:30. We had just disembarked when our number 12 bus, bound for Beachley, pulled up. I asked the driver to let us off near the start of the path (“Buttington Terrace,” he replied) and we were off again. There was only a short 30p ride.
At 5:45 we found ourselves alone on the Beachley Road near Sedbury Park. A lone girl sat disconsolately staring at us from a bus shelter across the street. I wasn’t quite sure where we were on this road and headed mistakenly toward the south. As soon as we reached the first crossroads, however, I knew where we were and I was able to get us turned around. The girl was still staring at us when we returned.
Just above the spot where the driver had left us there were Offa’s Dyke Path signs. We headed toward the Sedbury Cliffs, a walk of ten minutes along the littered dyke itself over a chewed up mud path that was dry – fortunately. It was cool at 6:00 pm but I did all right in my new blue sweatshirt and a Detroit Tigers cap. There were good views of the Severn Bridge at the cliff edge. Here, next to a plaque-embedded stone, we used my camera to take “before” pictures.
We ate candy bars and had a swig from our ginger ale bottles, snuck in a pee, and at about 6:10 we began to retrace our steps to the Beachley Road. We had actually begun to make progress on Offa’s Dyke Path – beginning a journey that would not be complete for another four years. Had this been a full day of walking this would certainly have counted as our latest start. But I wouldn’t have been able to put up for a full day with the stabbing pain in the fourth toe of my left foot – a mystery malady I decided to ignore at the time.
From Buttington Tump we descended behind pink-suited joggers to the Pennsylvania Estate and walked along the sidewalks of Mercia Way until we reached the unmistakable sewage works. Little boys were up to mischief on the green. One in glasses rode by on his bike, shouting, “Hey, Wolfgang.” Then we were on a gravel track behind the fences of suburbia – with views of Chepstow interrupted by trees on our left. A little road walking on the B4228 and more suburbia eventually brought us to a steep paved lane. This could have been used to descend immediately to the Chepstow Bridge but I wanted to make sure of tomorrow’s route by continuing up the steps at the end. This brought us out on the A48 and tomorrow’s turnoff to Tutshill. I now elected to take the easier contours of the highway as it looped down to the bridge. There were excellent views of the castle on the way. Harold had been making his throat clearing noise since Sedbury Cliffs and by now I was doing it too. Harold had allergies. I had swallowed a midge.
We walked across the bridge and up into Chepstow. I found Upper Church Street before we had done much climbing and we found our inn, appropriately named The First Hurdle. I rang the doorbell to get the attention of a waiter, who showed us to separate single rooms on the ground floor. We agreed to meet again at 8:00. I exploded my pack and had a nice bath. I had actually brought with me the shirt, tie, and sweater I had been wearing this morning. These I now put on.
Harold was having a scotch and I had one too. We ordered a carafe of the house white and Harold had something fancy from the French menu. I had scampi. I was quite tired and had difficulty keeping up my end of the conversation. We had coffee but no sweet. I made some inquiries about the morning while Harold fetched the OS map for me to study. The dining room contained a number of other guests: a young couple who were trying to decide which house to choose in a new estate (being £4000 short of the one they really wanted); a solitary, mature lady walker; a lone cyclist from London; and a large wedding party who were intent on drinking a lot in preparation for tomorrow’s nuptials. I called Dorothy and met an Old English Sheep Dog. I was glad I had my earplugs, which replaced the earphones of my radio sometime after 10:00.
Harold and I had agreed to meet for breakfast at 8:00 and I was almost ready on the morning of Saturday, May 4 – when he knocked. We were alone in the dining room when we started, but it gradually filled up with the rest of last night’s crew (plus a baby) and it was obvious that our proprietor would be some time before he got to our lunches, especially when he asked, “What exactly is your definition of a packed lunch?” Harold went out for a paper and a Kit-Kat and we settled up shortly before 9:00. We were provided with several sandwiches and some apples, one of which had already been gnawed into – but whether the teeth marks were those of homo sapiens, rodent, or canine I could not tell.
It was about 9:20 when we began our descent to the Wye Bridge. With only nine and half miles to go today there was no rush, one of the great advantage of having done the first mile and a half yesterday. There was a sidewalk up part of the hill and then we walked on the grass verge until we reached the Tutshill turnoff. There was sun this morning, though things grew greyer later. It was very pleasant walking weather.
At a bench I paused to change film. Then we continued up the B4228 until it was time to climb a field path up beyond Tutshill Tower. We were using the original edition of Christopher John Wright’s Constable guidebook. Its text was very detailed and informative and its Wainwright-like strip maps were excellent. The way was also extremely well-marked and route-finding was a pleasure. There were wonderful views behind us of Chepstow and the Severn Bridge. Though we were often on the Wye side of the ridge we nevertheless had glimpses of the Severn valley to our right as well.
The charming sight of the Victorian villa of Pen Moel greeted us at the top of our first climb. We crossed the field to its walls, where we seemed to have a choice of routes; one soon lead downhill along the cliffside – so I retreated to follow Wright’s instructions and emerge again on the B4228. Behind us a large group of walkers was crossing the field; perhaps they too tried the alternative because it took them some time to catch up with us.
We passed under an archway and climbed to the top of a cliff again. This permitted us to take in a vista that included the quarry below, the Lancaut peninsula, and the Wye retreating to the south. Wintour’s Leap was a particularly exciting viewpoint where we stopped for picture taking. Again there was road walking for a while. Just as we were turning off for Wallhope Grove we were overtaken by the party behind us – ten girls on their way to Monmouth Youth Hostel. “Only 14 more miles,” one of them groaned grimly. Our climb to “Double View” was also accented by overtakers, first two senior walkers and then a hurtling jogger. Then another stretch of road walking – the last – lead to a piney path back to the dyke above Dennelhill wood.
I had removed the insole of me left boot and separated toe four from toe three with a little wad of yellow toilet paper in order to counteract yesterday’s problems. This seemed to work and things were much better down there today. But Harold, stumbling over the roots of dyke top trees, had much to complain of today.
There was a steep descent to a quarry road; someone had brought a horse on this part of the route and hooves had kicked out some of the wooden step supports. This seemed unwise – erosion was a big enough problem without horses. I had my suspicious about the damage caused by the jogger too – he now ran by us in the opposite direction.
Shortly before Devil’s Pulpit we started to get excellent views of Tintern Abbey below. We paused by the trailside in a spot that offered some protection from a chilly wind and here we had a short rest. A large party of children rushed up to Devil’s Pulpit, with puffing parents trailing behind. On the trail again I spotted a tiny mouse; it ran back into a little hole beneath a tree and stared out at us. It was so still I had trouble locating its little shiny eyes for Harold and we were so intent in our attentions that we failed to note a sign directing us around the mouse’s tree – and we ended up at the dead end of a field fence.
At Madgett Hill we were at last ready to begin a steep descent down a grassy slope, encouraged by a guidepost. I cut switchbacks. We reached a dirt road to Brockweir and here we encountered the Monmouth-bound girls again. I asked them which route they proposed to take – for we had reached a parting of the ways, with one path climbing the Hudnalls and the other descending to follow the east bank of the Wye. “The river,” one of the girls answered, “it’s our only chance to see the Wye.” “But it’s longer,” another added woefully. “Yes,” I agreed, “but easier.” Harold and I had decided on this route too, for many of the above reasons, and also because in this way we could make a visit to the Brockweir Inn, one of the many local places I had fruitlessly called in search of accommodation.
The pub was full of people, but we found a quiet table near the front window. “Do you mind if we eat our sandwiches,” I asked the barmaid in overalls. “Well, yes, we do – as we serve food,” was the reply, “but you could eat them in the garden.” We had come in to escape the chill so this was not a particularly useful suggestion and eventually we gave in to this subtle form of pressure. Harold had mackerel and I had a ploughman’s. I was slowing down our excursion in anticipation of a rendezvous with a 4:36 bus but we almost left it too late to order any food. After a pint and a half we were ready to leave at 2:30. The place was almost deserted by then; a large percentage of the guests were locals. They still smoked. Fishermen drank out in front. Cribbage league results were posted inside.
(In 2001, sixteen years after this pit stop, Pauline Quirk produced and starred in a full-length televison comedy-drama called “Arthur’s Dyke.” The quartet of walkers in this adventure marched through some exquisite countryside and dropped a number of genuine ODP place names into their chatter (though hopelessly mixing up any sense of the geography of the route) and it was difficult to reconcile the script with any memories I might had retained of the path – with one exception. Days after their leaving Chepstow there was a long pause for Pauline and her friends in the clearly visible Brockweir Inn, where Harold and I had lunched so many years earlier.)
Sustained by our beer we now began a lovely stroll along the river’s edge. The footing was very good, except for a wet patch or two. Another large group of walkers was parked in a meadow but we couldn’t tell which way they were heading. A two-man kayak team was paddling slowly downstream. “Can you tell me how far it is to Tintern Abbey?” one of them shouted. “I’m thinking,” I replied slowly, “over three miles I’d guess.” At this my interlocutor held up his sore hands and shrugged unhappily.
About this time I spotted the tree with the salmon blossoms. “I have to take a closer look at this,” I told Harold. We walked up to the woods to make a closer examination. Surprisingly these were not blossoms at all I had seen but pinkish leaves in a very smart spring shade.
We reached a long right hand bend opposite the village of Llandogo, where someone was practicing his drumming. Our route put us on a farm track clogged with toddlers for the last mile or so, and even took us away from the river for a bit, but I noticed that a few hundred yards of riverbank walking had been added to the route described in C.J. Wright. We came out at the blue Bigsweir Bridge at 4:15. We had a rest in the grass at a spot where we could see the approaching bus and were joined by a solitary senior walker from Leeds – who had also timed his walk to coincide with the 4:36 bus.
We chatted for a while and I spotted the bus. There was time to scramble to the other side of the road because there was a one-way signal system in effect for vehicles crossing the bridge. Soon we were speeding through Redbrook again, even winding through May Hill before re-entering Monmouth and getting off at the bus station. It had been a very nice day.
We paused once at the gents and reached our landlady’s steps by 5:00. She had done some taxi research for us and we soon had the next day’s ride back to Bigsweir Bridge all arranged. Harold and I shared a room on the first floor. Each of us took a shower and relaxed. At 7:00 we strolled up Monnow Street and selected a Chinese restaurant; Harold was better pleased with the cuisine here than I was. More Americans sat at a nearby table and some Aussies occupied the window – but locals kept coming in for takeout.
After our meal we strolled around the town, visiting the castle and the square. In one back street kids had erected a skateboard ramp in an empty lot. All this time I was searching for a telephone kiosk. I found it behind a pillar in the square and called Dorothy. It was almost dark before we returned to Red Lion House.
Harold changed into his pajamas and cleared his throat to the Guardian. I slipped on my walkman – more to find out about the weather than to escape more desultory chatter; I didn’t get much useful information unless you count the opportunity of catching up on the last thirty years in the career of Teresa Brewer.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: