May 5 1985: Bigsweir Bridge to Monmouth
I was not surprised, having heard the dark predictions on my radio the night before, to awake to the sound or tires sluicing through the wet streets of Monmouth on Sunday, May 5. A light rain continued to fall throughout breakfast, which we had at 8:30. Harold disdained one of his bacon slices and turned his cooked tomatoes over to me. Bed and breakfast had cost us only £7.50 each.
Our cab arrived at 9:15 and we were soon speeding down the Wye valley again. Our driver wanted to drive us up the St. Briavels road as far as the path’s turning off point here – but I puritanically insisted that we had to walk this stretch on the road as well. We had only an eight-mile day as it was. So, with light rain still falling, he stopped at Bigsweir Bridge and helped us on with our packs; we paid him £8.00 for the ride.
Then we began our ascent on the tarmac and turned off at the 200-foot level to follow tracks and paths through Wyeseal Wood. The rain had produced some wonderful smells but footing was much muckier than the day before. It improved as we reached an open pathway through the grass below the barn at Ferney Leaze. We continued to climb gradually and there were soon views of the bridge we had just left. These and the last of the rain soon receded behind us.
We crossed the Coxbury & Wyegate Lane, with some puzzlement over how to untie the gate string, and rejoined both dyke and woods on the opposite side. Gradually this delightful ridge leveled out, the foliage disappeared, and we were in the open again – above Highbury farm. The views ahead were spectacular, Monmouth on the left, the Kymin on the right, spring blossoms against the green, and Redbrook and its bridge below. We were far enough away that the Little Chef looked like a double-decker bus.
We started a steep descent, even cutting switchbacks at one point. Then we tried to shake some of the recent mud off as we reached the steps that led us down into Lower Redbrook. The local pub, The Bell, even had a sign for the attention of walkers on these stairs, but it was only 11:40 and I had some doubts over whether they would be open this early on a Sunday. There was no one around so I tried the door, which was open. We had a peak into the bar, which was dark, so Harold and I retreated to consider our next move. At this point the proprietress appeared. “Did someone go in?” she asked in a panic. “Yes,” I replied. “Do you think they went upstairs? “No, it was only me. I wanted to find out what time you open.” “Twelve,” she said, “but who went in?” We went half way through this conversation a second time and Harold and I wandered off to visit the old railroad bridge, a magnificent iron structure bearing the name of Wolfman Jack on one of it under-struts.
I asked a barmaid preparing for lunch in a pub across the bridge when she opened. She seemed surprised to be addressed from above. “Twelve,” was her answer too. We retreated to the east bank and threaded our way between the home field of the Redbrook Rovers and the Little Chef. Wright promised a pub, the Queen’s Head, on the Upper Redbrook Road, and, as this was on our route, we decided to walk up there – and not stand outside the Bush until opening time. We chugged up the steep road but couldn’t find any pub, just a suburban residence calling itself the Old Inn. On the benches outside wood sculptures of stick men sat mocking us.
Harold, surprisingly, suggested we go back down to the Bush, which we did. The flower gardens were magnificent and the diversion gave us two more times to see them. We sat in the smoky bar and drank our lager. I had to remind Harold not to put his chair on the oche. They took their darts seriously around here: the local team was tied for first in the league. There was some sunshine by the time we finished our drinks and headed up the hill. We turned off at a new exit, slightly earlier than that pictured in Wright; this was a track which soon put us on a ridgeway pointed directly at the Kymin, our hilltop destination.
A dog barked suspiciously while I took a picture near Duffields farm. There were wonderful views of a valley to the north of the ridge here. Then we walked along hedgerows on a track that became a path, with sun and breeze and cloud making for an exhilarating change of atmosphere. Once, near Cookshoot Ash Barn, we encountered a foul farm smell. We walked on grass beneath power lines for a while, then through a barnyard path at Shortlands. We were beginning to meet other walkers and casual tourists who had parked in a National Trust lot. We circled this on our approach to the Naval Temple and the round tower on the top of the Kymin.
Harold and I took lunch in a recess of the Temple, sheltered from the wind. We dined on the foil wrapped sandwiches prepared the day before at the First Hurdle. Not a single tourist made an appearance until we were packing up to leave and sucking on our hard candies. We walked around the tower, which was inhabited. A Toy Poodle emerged from its back door to see us off the hill. The prospect from the bench on the tower’s lawn was one of the grandest encountered in many a mile of footpath walking: Monmouth circled by miles of yellow flowering rape, with the Welsh mountains as backdrop.
For the descent I put on my walkman, Michael Tilson Thomas’ version of the Firebird, but this gesture was evidently resented and commented on later – not by Harold but by Tosh. Of course I too resented the appearance of the walkman on hikes, but in this case I did want to test my equipment – and how two huffing ramblers in single file were supposed to have a spirited conversation after forty-eight hours in one another’s company remained a mystery. Of course I could hear everything else, as well as the music, and Harold and I did chat throughout the descent, part of which was through woodland; huge dogs requested our departure whenever we neared habitation. We walked on some farm tracks and at last reached the A4136 above May Hill, where we had to return to pavement. We stamped around and used every handy object in an attempt to get the mud off our boots, but it took the next walk to clean mine sufficiently.
We walked over the Wye Bridge into Monmouth and used an underpass to escape the A40. The same back streets that we had used to enter town on Friday now served as our path. A rugby team marched against us on the pavement. I was astonished at how quickly we had descended. The first strains of the Stravinsky had been heard at the Naval Temple and the last came on Monnow Street when my tape, which had been grinding to an amusing atonal halt as the batteries lost their power, gave up the ghost outside a lingerie shop one bar from the end of the score.
For the last time we stopped at the gents. It was 3:00. The xeroxed appeal for funds for a local liver transplant candidate had fallen from the door and lay trampled underfoot. At the car in the backyard of Red Lion House we removed our boots and put them in the boot. I hadn’t heard most of the tapes I had brought with me so we put them in the car for use with its tape deck. Harold wanted a picture of himself negotiating the narrow archway that separated us from Drybridge Street. I took this and helped direct him out of this peril.
Then we drove to the A40 and progressed a mile or so north of town before reaching a roundabout that allowed us to make a U-turn and thus reach the Wye turnoff. We hadn’t been driving more than a few minutes when a hailstorm hit us. This soon cleared and we had a delightful and surprisingly traffic-free trip to Chepstow. On the way we got to pass the Little Chef at Redbrook for the sixth time on this trip. Elgar’s First Symphony sang us out of Offa’s Dyke country. Harold became so nervous over how much the toll would be at the east end of the Severn Bridge that he ran his tire up against the curb of the tollbooth. In the event, it was still 20p.
I started to doze again of course, but Harold stopped at the first Services. He had a coffee and I had an orange juice. Then we continued all the way to London in light traffic. It was lovely here at 6:00 – bright and sunny. It had been a most successful outing.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: