May 1, 1988: Newcastle to Montgomery
When I woke at 6:00 on the morning of Sunday, May 1, I was cheered by the sight of sunshine in the little Clun valley. Slowly we gathered our gear together and, abandoning a whimpering sissydog, descended to our breakfast at 7:30.
More “excuse me’s” accompanied the full English breakfast. Our landlady had packed some sandwiches for us; these were stowed in our gear as we put on our boots and hoisted our packs. Toby was allowed to come down as Harold was settling up the bill. We were ready to leave Newcastle at 8:40.
When we had reached Lower Spoad Farm on the previous day I had pointed out that (as we were taking the long cut to Newcastle), I did not intend to return to this same spot in order to cross the valley. We would have to do without a few hundred yards of Offa’s Dyke Path (on a long day of eleven miles) in order to rejoin the route on the north side of the valley. To do this required a bit of road walking past St. John’s Church and a left fork uphill and through a gate into a field containing our path. Then, with the dyke on our left, we began a very steep ascent (the first of seven in five and a half miles) along the dyke up Graig Hill.
The wonderful sunshine revealed the richness of the deep green valley and grassy hill landscape that we had missed in the grey of yesterday. We climbed steadily, with Toby free to scamper up and down at will. Dorothy, who had been exercising on the hydra equipment at Pineapple, was clearly in great shape and I never heard her complain of fatigue at any stage of this walk. Certainly she was always well ahead of me (so was everyone else) on ascents.
We rounded the corner on Graig Hill and began a descent above the lane to Bridge Farm. Here we encountered a large flock of sheep and Toby had to go on lead. Tosh, who often assumed the task of walking with the dog, tried to go around the flock and succeeded in driving them ahead of us. I urged her to keep her line. When she did this the sheep parted and let us through. When we reached the next stile there was a conference on the name of a white wildflower. Dorothy convinced them it was celandine but I had my doubts; no one ever called Dorothy an expert on countryside culture.
We crossed a footbridge and emerged on a waterlogged road, followed it for a few feet, switched to a second going in the opposite direction and passed several cottages rich in flowery display. A track took us up Hergan Hill in two stages, with the dyke always at close call. Once again we rounded the corner of a hill without reaching its summit and obtained a view of Skeltons Bank on the opposite side of the facing valley. With our back to the dyke we paused for a nice rest in the sunshine. I was very close to taking off my sweatshirt but thought better of it when a few drops fell. The snacks and the drinks came out. This was an idyllic resting place, not another soul about, sheep grazing in the distance, wildflowers in bloom.
A few more drops fell as we returned to a muddy track up the road at the saddle between Hergan and Skeltons Bank. Here we headed almost due north along field boundaries, with finger posts and stiles helping us manage all the tricky bits. With Golly Coppice off to our right we ascended a small ridge before descending to a little brook and climbing steeply again to Middle Knuck farm. Toby was made secure, always a good idea in farmyards; indeed the farmers were intently discussing the day’s chores as we passed their driveway. We continued uphill next to the wooded dyke and reached a road at the top of Knuck Bank. We could see our next ascent, Edenhope Hill, across the deep valley of Cwm Ffryd before us. There now began a perilous descent through Churchtown Wood on a greasy ride.
The Lees and Toby seemed to dart down this very steep slope but Dorothy and I inched our way down, cutting switchbacks and planting our feet in any vegetation we could find. A large party of lads was being urged upward by an adult leader. When he said something about the incline I said he had only a little way to go but he was, in fact, warning us of a similar stretch opposite. “One, two, one, two,” he urged his charges forward. There was much laughter when he pitched forward onto his face. One of the kids was echoing his master, “One, two, one, two, one, one, none.” Another party was about to pass these lads – a party of three quite serious young ladies. Shame spread in the ranks and even those who had come to a standstill sprang forward at the warning cry, “Girls!”
Toby ran back up to see what was taking his master and mistress so long. We threaded our way along a dryer path at the bottom, through some fir trees and reached the road at the hamlet of Churchtown – where a vicar in a white surplice was greeting worshippers at St. John the Baptist. We drew up level with the church and sat down for a rest and another snack. The skies had been darkening and while we were seated the drops began to fall in earnest. I put on full wet gear – always a sign to the others that I take the threat of wet weather seriously. We didn’t feel like sitting in the rain so we were soon on our feet for the steep ascent of Edenhope Hill.
We had gone only a short distance upward when something quite unique in my walking experience occurred – a peppering of small hailstones. Fortunately there were some large fir trees just off route and we cowered under these while the hail shower persisted. Toby was evidently quite surprised. When we emerged from the trees the skies were beginning to clear and there was sun again when we reached the top. The dyke is exposed on this hillside, thus the footing was much better than in the woods on the opposite side. We could see forward into the valley of the River Unk and forward to our last ascent for the day, the famous Kerry Ridgeway. Rain gear had to go on a second time on our descent. Dorothy used a wire fence as a kind of security ladder here, making her way down gingerly.
There were a few ambiguities at the bottom, but we persevered through mucky fields and crossed the Unk on a footbridge. Then we continued along a road and climbed a stile for a path through Nut Wood. Toby was able to move much more freely today and was having an excellent time. Near a pond we emerged onto the Kerry Ridgeway track. Dorothy paused to add some lip gloss at this moment. I had to take a picture of this trailside chic. We had now covered half of our day’s distance and all of the uphill; it was, however, well past noon by now and there was no hope of reaching a pub.
We passed a house called Crowsnest. Here the local dog and Toby got into a furious barking match and had to be separated. We had our first views of the Plain of Montgomery and I could identify several places we still had to pass, including Mellington Hall. As we began a steep descent toward the Drewin farm, however, I slipped and fell heavily on a pile of manure, jarring my tender back but absorbing most of the muck on the raincape, which I was still wearing. Everyone had a good laugh, though I noticed they kept their distance. A little bit further down I fell a second time. “If only it would rain again,” I prayed. Naturally we never saw another drop. When we paused for a rest and a snack just before reaching the tarmac road past the Drewin Farm Tosh approached close enough to wipe some of the offending muck off with a log. Eventually I gave up on any more moisture and folded the raincape up in my pack.
We walked down the tarmac road, passing the hamlet of Cwm, climbing a small hill and continuing along the dyke at a T-junction. I had proposed that we see if tea were being served at the Mellington Hall Hotel and we therefore abandoned the path for a stroll through a tidy caravan park. There seemed to be quite a few people in residence. Four old ladies sat around a table gossiping away in one of the caravans. We went beneath an arch of the hall and Tosh tried to see about tea at what was obviously quite a posh hotel. She returned to report that the manager was having his lunch and we would have quite a wait – so we sat on a low wall in the sunshine and had a nice snack; I ate my cheese and tomato sandwich and some prawn-flavored crispies while the Lees finished the last of their pork sarnies.
We used the hotel’s access road to continue north. There were plenty of benches along the roadside for strollers but too much traffic for comfort. It was now a lovely afternoon and, now that we were at a lower altitude, plenty of bluebells to complement the blossoming fruit trees. We passed through the arches of the lodge and there was even a brief shower but everyone except Harold, who was chilly, ignored it. Some road walking took us over the River Caebitra and out to the Blue Bell Hotel on the A489. Tosh toyed with the idea of asking here about tea but the unwelcoming visage of an old lady, glaring out at us, put an end to such an idea. We had just a little bit more road walking on the B4385 and escaped in the farmyard of Brompton Hall to continue along field boundaries in rolling countryside.
Toby had to be reigned in only occasionally, at Ditches farm for instance, but there didn’t seem to be many sheep around now. There were many stiles and I was growing quite weary of hefting myself over them – especially because my sore lower back meant that I couldn’t swing my leg over the top rail on the descent: I was actually carrying it over by clutching my pant leg. Toby was really adept at scrambling under the bottom rails of such devices. He could even turn sideways is mid-leap when the slit was really narrow. He too was getting tired.
We passed several stands of wood and at last drew even with the cattle grid over a farm road through Lymore Park. Here we had a last rest at 5:00 pm. Tosh was supposed to be minding the dog by sitting on the handle of his lead but for some reason he decided to attack a young Golden Retriever who innocently passed by and we were lucky that Dorothy retrieved the miscreant before the other dog’s owner became upset. I don’t know what got in to Toby – it was most uncharacteristic behavior.
After a rest we headed west on the farm road, forsaking the Dyke Path for the day. I was very happy that the route was open – you never can tell whether something that looks good on the map will be available to walkers on the ground. Indeed we had a most pleasant stroll through parkland along tracks, with improving views of Montgomery and its ghostly castle rising above us. One of the reasons I took things slowly was because Toby’s victim was still a few hundred yards ahead of us and I didn’t want a repeat performance. Instead Toby impressed us all by pointing at some pheasants in a nearby wheat field.
We reached the road into Montgomery and headed north. A dark-haired woman in her Sunday best was emerging from a row house. She got outside, pulled the door to, then unlocked it and went back in – which was just as well because she was still in her stocking feet. When we drew opposite Montgomery’s impressive square we could see the Town Hall, the Dragon Hotel, and – as we came up to the latter – the b&b establishment of Mrs. Holloway, Llewyn House. It was 5:30.
Mrs. Holloway asked us to come alongside her flower-spangled driveway and put our muddy boots in the garage. Toby’s feet were covered in mud so we picked him up when we went inside, promising to get him cleaned up as soon as possible. Mrs. Holloway, a very congenial, jolly lady did not seem at all fussed. Her house was full of very interesting pieces of furniture and everything – including the steps to the top floor – was shiny and slippery. In stocking feet it was a perilous ascent. Everyone came into our room and we finished the gin the Lees had been lugging; happily, I even had some tonic in my pack. Then Harold was sent down for the first bath while the rest of us finished our drinks. Dorothy had a little shower and I descended to do the same and to get one layer of muck off the dog’s legs and my raincape.
At seven we left the dog his food and went across the street to the pub of the Dragon Hotel. We had some more drinks – I switched to lager and studied the elaborate menu. After a while we gave our orders and still later we were summoned to the dining room – soon quite crowded with tourists and locals. Our waitress turned out to be the same woman we had seen emerging so briefly from her door. We asked her what the events on her front porch signified but she only hooted in laughter and said that the only thing she would tell us was that “it was something naughty.”
We had a nice leisurely meal, from starters to dessert, and left the ceramic dragons on the sideboard about nine. Dorothy and I fetched Toby and took him on a short walk in the darkness. Montgomery was full of nice architectural detail, the town hall being a real ornament. Everyone seemed in a good mood and I cannot say how gratified I was to see Tosh and Dorothy over their midsummer sulks. At about 10:00 it was lights out.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: