May 23, 1987: Hay-on-Wye to Gladestry
On the morning of Saturday, May 23, 1987, I was sitting in the front seat of a Shogun jeep wagon speeding toward Hay-on-Wye. Squeezed into the back seat were Dorothy, Tosh, and Harold. On my lap was Toby the Schnauzer and together we were on our way to complete three more days on Offa’s Dyke Path.
Our driver was Lisa Richardson, a friend of the Lees. She had picked us up at Hereford at 6:40 on the previous afternoon, driven us to the Castle Pool Hotel for a drink, and then announced that we were going to stay in another of her hotels, the Burton in Kington. We had enjoyed a most elegant evening in this newly refurbished hostelry but it was time to abandon this refined world for the rigors of the path. It was already well past ten and the weather was most unpromising. The best that could be said for the start was that today I didn’t have vomit on my trousers; poor Toby, an uncertain car passenger, had upchucked twice on the way to Kington the night before.
Lisa found a parking space only a block or so away from the Olde Black Lion. We donned our gear in drizzle and said our goodbyes. The women made some purchases in the local shops as Harold and I stood huddled under an awning. Dorothy was having trouble with her gaiters, an item I had suggested she buy as a weapon against the kind of mud we had encountered last time. On the corner she went into a camping store but they had never seen this model. “No gaiter aid,” I remarked; then I redid the straps myself. In the event one of these broke and we encountered no mud of any consequence anyway. This experiment had proved a complete failure.
It was 10:40 before we made our exit. We crossed the bridge over the river Wye; a sentry in wetproofs was peeking over the rim in search of the first contestants in a local raft race. At the far end a wooden finger post directed us down along a riverside path. If anything, the waymarking on this trip was superior to that encountered on our last outing. We had only a few moments of indecision in three days of walking, a factor that certainly added to our enjoyment.
One moment of doubt came after we had completed several minutes of river walk. I guessed that we needed to turn inland and left the others while I scouted out a likely looking track. A concrete plinth confirmed my hunch and I used my whistle to give the signal to the others. They were too busy yakking to pay any attention to this but Toby ran back to fetch them. The dog was loose at this moment, as he was for much of the day. It was our habit to check out each field as we approached it for animals; if it was clear we let him go. He was very good about returning when we needed to hook him and he proved even more adept than our Bertie in learning how to scramble under gates and through the rails of the many stiles we encountered on route. He limboed from Hay to Knighton. Nor did he seem particularly bothered by the steady rain; in town he won’t go near a puddle if he can help it.
We crossed several fields as we headed north. In the last of these a group resembling the Jarrow marchers carried a large banner on poles. We were so mesmerized by this procession that we missed a footbridge over a small steam and walked through a campsite. The marchers weren’t protesting, it turned out – just moving a large tent to a new location. We had to retrace our steps, cross the hidden bridge and climb a steep track, with views of kayaks on the river below. At the top of a grassy scramble we reached the A438 and turned northeast.
There followed a short stretch of road walking before we turned up a steep track heading northwest. A motorist tugged by two ferocious Alsatians was hurtling down the hill. We left the track and followed a nice path up the left side of Bettws Dingle. In spite of the rain it was comforting to note that surfaces were much drier than last time; it was a kind inauguration for two new pair of boots, Dorothy’s low-slung Mephistos and my new Trionic Mantas. But what service had my old Italian boots given me – ten years and over one thousand miles.
Ruined barns decorated the left side of the green hillside as we continued our ascent. Dorothy had discovered a particularly delicious boiled sweet with a gingery taste and we paused to get these open while the loyal family dog ran ahead with Tosh and Harold. A herd of cows was rounding itself up as we approached them and it was decided to hook the dog briefly. Then we left the open for a dark woodland as we descended to cross a stream. Toby danced delicately over the boggy surface of the bridge, free again, and then uphill along a rutted forestry track. Tosh was beginning to complain about hunger so after we had passed the turnoff for Upper Bettws Farm Dorothy and I selected a likely looking bed of pine needles under a tall canopy of evergreens and here, mostly protected from the drizzle, we stopped for a brief lunch, packed for us at the Burton Hotel.
Toby ate half a ham sandwich and some other tidbits. I was getting stiff on the ground and the others got chilly quickly – so after ten minutes it was decided to press forward. The girls asked for some privacy at this point and Harold and I walked to the upper edge of the wood and waited by a gate. Here I described in detail what I anticipated on the next section of the route, trying to memorize as much as possible from my little xeroxed sections of Wright before having to emerge into the rain again. Toby was hard to restrain at this time, eager to press forward on the next leg of a great adventure.
When the girls came up behind us we left the wood and climbed up to a paved country lane. Then we proceeded north for several miles, on lanes and tracks, with occasional farmhouses, and very little traffic. The rain made me a bit cross, for it was very hard to study the maps without getting them soaked, and I thus missed out on one of my greatest pleasures: charting our progress step by step. The others were in remarkably good spirits – conversation never ceased and this was actually a hazard because we were often so intent in our chatter that we were in danger of walking past a turn-off. Harold walked by the turn off to Cae Higgin at the bottom of our lane – but I spotted the finger post before he got too far away.
We climbed gradually along tracks heading due north. Just before leaving our last lane we encountered a genuine Offa’s Dyke Path walker, heading south. He pronounced this the worst of the weather on his trip so far – he was doing the entire route (one that would take us 19 days) in 10 days! We walked along field boundaries over the top of Little Mountain, a brief return to moorland at 1100 feet. Then it was steeply down among flocks of sheep to Gilfach-yr-Heol Farm and out onto another paved road to the small hamlet of Newchurch.
Here we decided to see if we could find some refuge in the entryway to St. Mary’s Church, following a tradition set on the first day of our last outing. Ignoring a mysterious turn-off to Emmeline’s grave we were soon sprawling on the cement under a protective roof. A few snacks were consumed and then the gin bottle made the rounds. What disgraceful behavior for a churchyard! Toby was crouching in discomfort, steam rising from his short hair; yet in spite of the wet and the chill he was quite warm to the touch. Once again it was not pleasant to sit still for long in our sodden condition and after fifteen minutes we decided to move on. Even with our late start and the problems of the weather we were making excellent time. It was shortly after 3:00.
There remained only one major ascent for the day, Disgwylfa Hill. Access to this was through a well-kept farmyard at the north end of the village. A track to the top offered tolerable gradients but we were soon walking in mist on moorland and found ourselves indebted to those who had planted a series of poles as guideposts over the top. A large group of walkers clad in colorful wetproofs was approaching us from the opposite direction and this also proved useful. Toby was somewhat discomfited by this eerie moorland and kept tangling us up in his long lead as he circled his party nervously.
On the other side things were clearer. We returned to paths across fields, missing one half left, however, and ending up next to a locked field gate. I insisted that we were facing a lane that we needed to cross anyway and that if we climbed the gate and turned left all would be well. This we did and it was. After Stone House barn we began a descent. A steep gully gave Dorothy some problems and the stile and gate at the end were impervious to small dogs and it was the only time in the trip that we had to carry Toby over the top. We had reached a paved lane that passed Stone House Farm; quite a few walkers were about because Mrs. Hughes offered b&b here. I had chosen to put us in Gladestry’s town pub – now near at hand. We turned right at the church and, opposite the Zion chapel, we found the Royal Oak. It was close to 5:00; we had walked ten and a half miles. To the best of my memory this was the first day, in almost 100 days of walking, that had been rain-filled throughout, from first step to last.
We pushed open the door and Harold gave a shout. After a while there was an answering cry, but not from our hostess, who was on an errand to Kington. (Had we gone in the other side of the pub we would have found a note.) Instead we were greeted by a young couple with two small children, also guests. They were friends of the owners and offered to make us welcome, rushing off for the teakettle while we pulled off our wet things in the snug. We had a very welcome cuppa and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Toby was dried off with his towel. Fortunately he was damp but not muddy. We were about to go up to our rooms when Gwen Pattison herself returned. She was the very pleasant proprietor of a comfortably laid-back establishment. I also met bearded Mr. Pattison, coming into the kitchen with loaves of bread, while Toby encountered a large fluffy black cat (who offered him a gratuitous swipe of the claw on his backside as we exited the bar) and Ron, the pub dog, whose food and drink Toby helped himself to in the kitchen. The Pattisons were not at all distressed by our animal and Toby made himself at home instantly, rushing up and down the stairs at will.
We took all of our wet things to the laundry room behind the kitchen and stuffed paper into our shoes. We got cleaned up in our rooms and, with Toby left behind to his own portion of Mr. Dog, descended to have our own dinner. We had drinks first (I supped Bass on tap) accompanied by bags of crisps and peanuts – as the pub filled with all the regulars eager for a night out. In the dining room everyone had River Wye salmon (except for me, the scampi eater). The bar staff was rushed off its feet so this was a very slow meal, but we didn’t mind. Mrs. Pattison was dressed in a red tracksuit; she resembled Tosh, who wore red canvas trousers and a maroon opera sweatshirt on this trip. All that was missing was a photo of the Bagwan on her chest.
We had more drinks in the bar (Harold had his first Bailey’s Irish cream) and I brought Toby down at this stage. Then he and I did a circuit of the village in the dark. (It had stopped raining the moment we had arrived at the Royal Oak.) Mrs. P. had warned Harold that there would be pub noise on a Saturday night and this was certainly true. The joint was jumping. A band of Lions Club members from Kington dressed as Vikings and towing a trailer made up to look like a long ship had arrived to collect donations for some charity from the pub crowd.
At ten o’clock we decided to go up to our rooms. Only one of the toilets was working and this did not coincide with the interests of my digestive system. The noise from below gradually faded as I listened to my walkman and after midnight there were cries of good night. At least there had been no jukebox.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: