April 7, 1987: Monmouth to Llangatock-Lingoed
I don’t believe I had ever left for a walk in complete darkness before, but this was to be the case on Monday, April 6, 1987 – when I headed for the tube stop one night at 8:20 to begin a three-day assault on Offa’s Dyke Path. Harold Lee, my partner in the completion of the first two days of the route two years earlier, was just emerging from his underground tunnel as I arrived at Paddington. Together we waited for his wife, my colleague Tosh – on her way from a choral rehearsal at the Barbican. We had time to visit Left Luggage and to inquire, on her behalf, if she could leave her scores here for three days. “You could leave a pencil,” the West Indian guard replied. When she showed up he checked her in and quizzed her about Handel’s Messiah – which proved to be the music in question. We told him we were heading for rainy Wales. “In that case,” he replied, “don’t forget the Water Music.”
As usual I was beginning the expedition somewhat under the weather. For over a week I had been suffering from (a) a head cold or (b) an allergy or (c) hypochondria. I had been feeling quite light-headed only a few hours before departure time, when it was necessary for me to commit myself to this expedition at last. The Lees were quite keen to go, and I too was looking for some relaxation after six tough weeks at school, so I decided to give it a try. In the event I revived almost immediately and had no recourse to the arsenal of medicaments crammed into the side pocket of my knapsack. A cough seemed to be my only surviving symptom as we settled into our seats on the 9:20 to Cardiff. Tosh was munching a burger purchased at Casey Jones only a moment before.
Our ride lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes. There were quite a few people aboard this fast inter-city and two of them adopted the quite un-English strategy of speaking to us. I think each took pity on our attempts to solve a problem in the conversion of Celsius to Fahrenheit. Most of the time was devoted to school gossip, with poor Harold nodding off. Tosh and I rarely get a chance to have a good natter during term time.
Shortly after 11:00 we reached Newport and got off. I forgot my green and white scarf on the train but Tosh rescued it. There was a map of Newport in the station lobby and I checked out a route to our hotel. We went astray once but were redirected by a taxicab lady, disappointed that we didn’t require her services. Four lads were larking about at a corner and they directed us to Commercial Road. The Westgate Hotel was nearby. I’m sure we presented a very odd picture, three senior walkers with packs on backs striding through a pedestrian precinct at 11:30 pm.
The Westgate proved to be quite comfortable. We put in orders for wake-up calls, coffee, croissants and newspapers and made our way to our rooms. Tosh and Harold had a TV in their room and a desk and TV in their bathroom! After a few minutes we met in the bar, having been informed that it stayed open as long as there were guests around. Surprisingly, the commercial traveler crowd soon disappeared and we proved to be the last customers. A friendly desk clerk brought us brochures about the local attractions. I took a sleeping pill when it was time to go to bed. Teenage Newport seemed to be screaming in unison two floors below and when this chorus ended trucks began to unload produce at the nearby shops. Still I soon became drowsy and had a pretty good night.
The phone next to my head jangled at 6:45 on the morning of Tuesday, April 7. I lifted the receiver and was blasted with a verse of “Good Day Sunshine.” This proved to be an error; it was drizzling outside. I hadn’t really unpacked but there were several last minute organizational chores to be accomplished before departure. A continental breakfast arrived and I managed a croissant and a cup of coffee. The Lees were already paying their bill when I got to the lobby at 7:10. This proved to be a protracted process, due – of course – to the introduction of computerized billing. We received final instructions on how to reach the bus station, donned our wet suits, and strode off into the grey. A left turn at Littlewoods and we were there.
There were buses everywhere and it took us some time to discover where our bus was waiting. “You want a red and white one,” someone told us. Harold was running off in one direction and I was darting off in another. We scanned the destination marker of every National Welsh bus in the station before finally finding one marked Monmouth. Five minutes later we were off. My long efforts to get us to the right place at the right time, the results of weeks of planning and many phone calls, was about to pay off.
The journey took us through Raglan and Mitchel Troy. The rain continued to fall and Tosh, who complains of poor eyesight, was more than adequate to the task of noting the pools of water standing in the fields we were racing by. A butcher in one village was “Happy to Meat Your Everyday.”
After an hour or so we crossed the Monnow Bridge and entered Monmouth. I had been planning a leisurely adjustment of packs in the shelter of the bus station, a spot well known to all of us, but we were disgorged into the wet: the station had been demolished! Fortunately there was a small lean-to with a bench nearby. Here Harold and I donned our gear while Tosh visited a local newsagent looking for snacks: we were too early for the markets. Water kept dripping from the roof of the bus shelter onto Harold. When Tosh returned we got only as far as the municipal loo, another spot well-known to Harold and myself. Finally, at 8:50, with a fourteen-mile journey facing us, we re-crossed the bridge and turned right past the Red Lion, our old guesthouse. We were launched at last.
Once again we were using C.J. Wright’s guide to the path in the Constable series. We had purchased a new 1986 edition however, and this proved to be useful in the earliest moments of this day’s walk – for since the first edition a housing estate had obscured the old escape from Monmouth. Instead of carrying the book, however, I had xeroxed the relevant portions and had these secreted in the pouch of my blue sweatshirt. After a thousand miles of walking I was reusing the same idea I had begun my first Pennine walk with; then the method had been disastrous, for my xeroxes had consisted of little gray scraps of the OS map. Wright’s maps were Wainwright-inspired drawings of every detail, man-made and natural, encountered on route. With them I never had to use the OS map or the HMSO guide stuffed into the top of my pack. We do a good quality of xerox paper at my school; my little maps did an excellent job of withstanding the rain at those moments when it was necessary to drag one out. Unencumbered by map case or walking stick I was able to make progress somewhat more easily on this trip than last.
Monmouth school children looked at us suspiciously as we crossed the street and turned off a main road onto Watery Lane. Aptly named today, this track began as a suburban byway accompanied by stream and sidewalk. We passed Rosebrook Cottage, where I would have taken B&B accommodation had we been able to get to Monmouth before sunset. It looked quite nice. Our lane became a slushy cut in the red earth and our boots tasted mud for the first time. Wright describes today’s route, with its many twists and turnings, as the most irksome section of the Path; he complains about poor waymarking and describes the section we were heading into now, Kings Wood, as the worst of all. Fortunately, the waymarking had obviously been improved; there were arrows, ODP signs and Countryside Commission acorns at most of the critical spots.
We crossed the stream on a footbridge and made a detour around a fallen tree. Then it was time to begin our first ascent of the day. The path, quite wide here, was terribly greasy. At one point I did a traction dance and, failing, pitched forward onto my face. The Lees helped me to my feet and rain washed most of the mud from my cape in the next few minutes. We crossed a forestry road and continued climbing. Near the top I took out my compass and checked our bearing. I never did discover the advertised shelter but I was cheered by the appearance of the boundary stone. Roads lead off in all directions but I kept us on a westward descent and eventually we ended up on the road opposite the farmstead at Lower Hendre. We turned north and descended to Hendre and another farm, its olive brine silage smell advertising its presence for a hundred yards.
A sign directed us into a wet field bordering the overflowing River Trothy. I noted, as we paused at a footbridge, that we had completed four miles at a pace of twenty-seven and a half minutes a mile – very fast for us. It was beginning to seem a little lighter above us as we passed the site of the Grace Dieu Abbey (nothing in evidence) and reached tarmac again. We crossed the river by bridge and headed uphill, encountering the first of several dead lambs on this trip. This was, of course, lambing season, and there were many wonderful comical little creatures bounding about after their moms on legs that didn’t quite know how to walk.
Although the rain was slackening there was water everywhere underfoot. Rivulets of tomato soup dashed down the hill where no stream normally occurs. As we turned west from northwest the Trothy had overwhelmed its banks and created a large shallow lake that obstructed the footpath. In the end we had to march through several inches of water in order to escape into the next field. We reached an access road at Sunnybank Farm and entered the village of Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern (St. Michael of the Fiery Meteor). The village seemed to consist of one or two houses and St. Michael’s Church. Because of a picture in the guidebook I knew that here we would find some shelter so we turned off our route slightly and sat for a while under the roof of the church entryway. Daffodils and other flowers were bright dashes of accent in the gray graveyard.
After a brief snack and a drink of water we left the church and used two footbridges to ascend a hill. Visibility was improving and it was easy to see what a delightful countryside this was. After more fields we reached a road and used it to obtain the crest of our hill, turning off to round on our next farm, The Grange, where the resident sheepdog stood anxious guard against these Yankee intruders. We had covered half of our distance for the day as we began a descent to a footbridge. Our path led up to a huge oak tree, then disappeared – though it was obvious that we were meant to continue to a stile next to the road. This latter could now be taken some distance, almost a mile, into the village of Llantilio-Crossenny. Some of the mud left our boots in favor of the tarmac during this trek.
Our objective was The Hostry, a 15th Century inn, whose beer we had been anticipating for many a long mile. Now we discovered that its doors were locked against all comers, even though it was just 1:15! We recoiled in disappointed stupefaction and the momentum carried us around the corner – where we could see another entrance. A lamp was lit. The door was unlocked! The landlady, returning to an abandoned pub, came in behind us just then and waved off our concern over muddy boots. We each ordered a pint of lager, then had a look at an extensive hot meals menu. Tosh and Harold ordered cottage pie and I had the macaroni and cheese. We started with soup. The landlady explained that she had started to add wholemeal and vegetarian dishes for the Offa’s Dyke Path crowd. In fact other visitors followed us through the door; these included two walkers who were doing the entire route and who wanted to quiz us minutely on our progress.
They were an unusual pair, Londoners, who seemed not to know what they were taking on. Their spokesman, a sharp-faced dark man with a moustache, was astonished that anybody had beaten his progress from Monmouth; he kept playing around with his morning departure time in order to account for our speed (though we were now down to thirty-one and a half minutes to the mile). His friend, who was wearing a fur-covered backpack, hadn’t the wit to challenge the astonishing goals his friend was setting for them; the latter insisted they would be beyond Hay by tomorrow night.
Soon everyone was deep into food and drink. What a splendid interlude this was – and well worth the early start needed today in order to insure proper drinking time. Our landlady ushered all sexes in search of a loo through the kitchen and into the Ladies. I could not tell if this was because the Gents was out of service or just out of doors. Tosh was disturbed that even here in rural Gwent it seemed necessary to chain the towel to its handrail.
A walk to an outdoor loo would not have been much of tragedy now – for when we decided to leave, at about 2:30, we discovered that the last of the rain had passed. I stuffed my rain cape behind the straps of my pack, but I had to use my blue coat (soon to be mud-encrusted) for it was still quite chilly and gray. We crossed a muddy field and emerged on the B4233. Here we decided to have a look at the moated site of Hen Cwrt, an ancient manor house whose crossroads site was certainly full of water today. Following a suggestion in the guidebook we chose to give our feet a rest by proceeding on a second road due north to the Norman ruins of White Castle. This dry but steep stretch, following so much that was level but juicy, raised a considerable irritation on my left heel. After we had rounded the corner of the hill and had a look at the impressive monument (though disdaining the invitation to pay 50 pence for a closer look) I sat down at the ticket taker’s kiosk and, in the shadows of a Robin Reliant, undertook the grisly task of taking off my left boot. Sure enough all the water had washed away the protective tape and produced a nice blister. I put some cream on it, then some moleskin, then some more tape. The Lees ate apples. After a short pause I was able to continue without too much bother.
With a last look back up at the walls of White Castle we turned off at Duke’s Barn. Wright’s drawings were so accurate he even had a hole in a hedge indicated here and I astonished Tosh and Harold by predicting we would find such a gap the instant before it hove into view. We descended steeply to a footbridge over the angry Trothy and climbed through several fields and around a pond (not much water in this, ironically) to reach the village of Llanvertherine. Wright suggests two routes (one muddier than the next) but all the signs opted for the official route – which left Caggle Street shortly after we had passed the Baptist chapel. We pressed forward past Coldbrook Barn, where our friends from the Hostry at last caught up (claiming they had spent half and hour in the dungeons of White Castle), and along a terribly muddy track to Little Pool Hall. All the slipping and sliding punished our feet sorely and as we neared this antique farmyard I decided I had better have a look at the right heel too.
We sat down on a pile of boulders and I tugged off my boot. There was a small blister forming on the right heel too. I repeated the White Castle process but this time there was a small tragedy. The scissors attachment on my Swiss Army knife came to pieces as I was cutting tape. I gave it an honorable burial in the boulders. I had carried this still useful knife longer than my stepfather, who received it as a Christmas gift from his friend Bill Colvig in 1959.
We pressed on through the muck of the farmyard as the farmers themselves, both ancient, went about their chores. “You from the States?” the elder of the two inquired as I climbed his stile. Then he complained about all the wet.
One more footbridge brought us out onto a track near one more Sunnybank Farm. This we followed north past an ancient farmstead, Old Court. After Cwm Farm we were sent steeply uphill by a signpost indicating the way to the Church; the establishment in question was St. Cadoc’s in the village of Llangattock-Lingoed and this was good news for us – for our evening’s accommodation was in the former rectory next door, Mrs. Jones’ South View. The ODP actually makes a left turn after passing the side of her house in order to pass her front entrance – one of the closest meeting points of accommodation and route I have ever encountered. It was 5:30.
Mrs. Jones proved quite capable of handling three muddy walkers. Boots were deposited on newspaper in the front hall (later we stuffed more paper into them to absorb moisture) and waterproofs taken off to dry. The Lees were shown to a most delightful bedroom, featuring the south view, a wonderful horizon showing a little gold and pink at the edges. Here we had some sequestered gin, and each in turn trooped off to the bathroom for a welcome soak. I left on all the new tape.
Tosh was studying the motorcycle trophies of Mrs. Jones’ son when it was time for us to go in to supper at 6:30. We had turkey and veg followed by berry pie and custard: simple landlady fare but very welcome. Harold disdained a trip to the village pub so Tosh and I went out alone – now wearing our tennis shoes. In front of the Hunter’s Moon, a 14th Century inn, I found a telephone call box and spoke to Dorothy. Tosh went inside while I was doing this, though the entrance was quite unusual. You passed through the kitchen, turned right at the washing machine, passed through a kind of conservatory where the cat was asleep among the plants, and through a rear door into the bar. Here a Jack Russell rushed forward to greet pub-goers. He had little work to do tonight for Tosh and I were the only customers. We had a relaxing drink and the dog jumped into my lap several times. The cat would have visited Tosh but every time he got close the Jack Russell wanted to wrestle – and there were objections to this.
We left shortly before 9:00. It was very dark outside and the streetlight (singular) of the village didn’t help much. In its reflection you could see water streaming down the tarmac, even though it had not rained in hours. At South View we watched the nine o’clock news in the lounge. Then it was upstairs for an early night. I feel asleep with my walkman on.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: