April 30, 1988: Knighton to Newcastle
On Saturday, April 30, 1988, Dorothy, Toby and I climbed into a minicab at 7:00 AM and fifteen minutes later emerged in the empty underground garage of Euston Station. Upstairs we soon met up with Tosh and Harold and at 7:40 we were on the Shrewsbury train – beginning a three-day Bank Holiday excursion on Offa’s Dyke Path.
Naturally I was afflicted with the usual pre-trip debilities, a nasty cough left over from an earlier cold and a troublesome back, put out two days earlier, ironically, in the midst of a coughing spasm. At least I had abandoned my walking stick. Everyone else seemed to be in good spirits. Tosh made several trips to the buffet car for coffee and snacks.
We had only a ten-minute wait for our next train at Shrewsbury, the 10:42 to Knighton. What a difference eleven months had made. Last May, when we had left Knighton at the end of the second bank holiday, the train had been clogged with daytrippers. It had been a warm sunny afternoon, quite beautiful. Today it was grey and misty, with a threat of rain, and there weren’t that many passengers. Nevertheless two wizened but cheerful old ladies from the Heart of Wales Line support group trundled a cart up and down the aisles, selling tea and candy bars in an effort to make travel on the threatened line more tempting. After they had gone by I suggested that they were obviously two rejected stewardess candidates – living out the fantasy at last.
We reached Knighton after an hour and immediately put on layers of clothing. Then we made our way through streets crowded with Saturday shoppers, stopping at a market, the loos, a chemist, and finally the headquarters of the Offa’s Dyke Association. By accident we had arrived in Knighton the day of the annual general meeting. When I told Mrs. Beech’s assistant about this she asked if I wanted to make my formal apologies and wrote my name down in a book. The Lees bought a hat and some cards but I wouldn’t let them buy me any knickknacks. Harold bought a red Offa’s Dyke pin, which he proudly wore for the rest of the trip. It was 12:20.
As I was leaving the offices of the association I made the mistake of asking two bearded northerners which way they were heading. Since they were going from north to south they insisted on advising us that they had just endured knee-deep mud for miles. “Better wear gaiters,” one of them told a horrified Dorothy. “Never wear them!” she snapped. I can’t tell you how annoyed I was by this scarifying litany; twice I interrupted – once to inquire if they had any other cheering news for us and once to advise my wife not to pay any attention to them. I could already tell they could not have been giving an accurate picture – though it was harder for my fastidious wife to appreciate this. Whether they were just winding us up or were naturally hysterical I could not tell. Their boots did not look particularly muddy as they headed off on the next stage of a charity walk, leaving our group unsettled at the outset. I always believe that it is a mistake to engage other walkers in conversation about the route ahead. You don’t need to know the good news – and bad news will only add to your misery by depressing you long before you encounter any real difficulties.
We took some photos in front of the heritage center and then made our way down through Offa’s Dyke Park to the banks of the River Teme. Toby was unleashed for the first time here and had a marvelous time running about. We walked upriver around a few bends and then re-hooked the dog to cross a footbridge, the rail line and the A488. This put us at the bottom of our steepest ascent for the day, Panpunton Hill. Toby was allowed to run loose here and encountered rabbits for the first time. As we were chugging up the steep incline he was gamboling about; it took some coaxing to get him away from a burrow into which his prey had retreated.
I had xeroxed all the relevant pages from C.J. Wright’s guidebook; these were in a little transparent ziplock bag that could be crammed into the pocket of my blue sweatshirt. Wright’s maps were very useful, particularly on a misty day like today – when visibility was not much more than a hundred yards. Because we could not see into the next field we decided to hook the dog as we reached our crest. Indeed there were sheep about as we passed the memorial to Frank Noble and the viewing bench (a panorama of fog today). We had a nice stretch of level walking along Skyborry Spur and when we reached a clump of trees we decided to have a rest and some lunch. Dorothy had bought some Marks & Spencer sandwiches and these had been supplemented with British Rail fare. Toby had some biscuits; he was still on his long leash and wound himself around a fallen tree several times. We did not linger for a long time, mostly because it was chilly sitting on our fallen logs. When we started up again, however, the visibility had improved considerably and we could see into the valley bottoms on our left.
We climbed past another pine copse next to the dyke as a farmer was tractoring the nearby field. Around a corner there was a nice path through bracken deep above the gorge of Cwm-Sanaham. Then we had another short but steep ascent of Cwm-Sanaham Hill to the west. At the top I took out my compass to check on the correctness of a right angle to the north. We walked along field boundaries and gradually a descent opened up before us. I did not have the OS map handy so I was having a little bit of trouble figuring out which farms were now visible in the valley below. I had held out the possibility that we might encounter a tea-making b&b somewhere below and this naturally excited Tosh. Dorothy and I edged slowly down the steep slope to the spring at Brynorgan farmyard. After a rest we continued through the yard and on down to the Selly Cross road.
I had calculated that there would be six elevation rises this afternoon and we now encountered the two easiest: a short steep scramble up a rocky spur, over a grassy headland and down to a footbridge over a primrose-choked stream and then over a second even gentler headland to a footbridge below Garbett Hall. Here we found a sign indicating refreshments a hundred yards to our north, at Garbett Villa.
We found Mr. Thomas, our host, in conversation with a neighbor. Mr. Thomas, ex-army, ex-police, challenged his friend to guess what kind of dog we had. He failed and went home. Mr. Thomas said, “Used to shoot at him in North Africa, now we’re best of friends.” The departing neighbor, it turned out, had been an Italian prisoner of war who had remained behind at the end of World War II. Bronwen, an old sheep dog soon made her peace with Toby but a fierce Jack Russell had to go inside. The sun was beginning to break through so chairs were brought out to a garden table and we had coffee and Mrs. Thomas’ Welsh cakes.
Mr. Thomas began a lecture on local bird life and the state of the garden’s glacial marl. “My neighbor says he has the best soil in Britain – as long as it rains twice a week.” We found it hard to believe this was a problem but we were assured otherwise. Mr. Thomas also said that for every hundred feet of elevation the spring was delayed by a day. At close to a thousand feet this explained why bluebells were blooming in London but not here. We had a very nice chat, gratified to find this place of rest in the middle of our journey. Mr. Thomas had encountered the two hysterical walkers from this morning, indeed he had advised them to abandon the path for roads because of the “mud.” We were beginning to put this specter behind us – there were wet patches about but we encountered no really muddy stretches at all today.
We returned to Garbett Hall where delightful yellow goslings were following their hissing mum. A farmer driving a tractor down the hill indicated he wanted the gate kept closed until he could get two of his sheep dogs into his cab – perhaps because he saw Toby. A third ran ahead and joined us while we waited for the tractor to trundle through. Then we closed the gate and headed up Llanfair Hill, often walking along the top of the dyke itself. Toby was at liberty in those areas given over to cultivation – for the sheep are naturally excluded here. We encountered quite a few walkers heading south, but we never seemed to meet up with walkers heading north like us. The dyke reaches its highest altitude on Llanfair Hill, 1400 feet. We had to forsake it soon thereafter, for without a right of way the path takes first to a green lane and then to a paved road.
We descended to a stream separating Llanfair Hill from Spoad Hill. While we were walking we discovered that Harold was leaving on Tuesday for our old home territory in Michigan, that he would be staying in Fowlerville and doing research on farms near Williamston! We were so excited by this accident, Harold on our old turf, that when we reached the gentle top of Spoad Hill and turned right at Springhill Farm we missed seeing the turnoff of the dyke path altogether – and continued walking several hundred yards along a ridgetop road towards Clun. I started to get suspicious, then uneasy, then fretful – as this missed connection coincided with the return of the mist. I ordered a retreat as a few raindrops fell. We found our turnoff, quite well-marked as it turned out, and began our last descent after I had sneaked off into Springhill’s fir trees for a pee.
We could now see into the valley of the River Clun, our village of Newcastle clearly visible on the left. Waymarking had been quite good today but on this descent there seemed to be little evidence of a good path. Sometimes it made sense to move out onto the bare hillside rather than fight along the edges of the dyke. We made our way gingerly down a very steep hill and reached the backyard of Lower Spoad Farm. Here we washed off our boots a bit and tried to get one layer of muck off Toby’s legs. He had done wonderfully today.
After we reached the road at the entrance to the farmyard I took his lead and led us westward along the tarmac. Just as we were reaching the village it began to rain. I didn’t stop to put on my gear, as Harold did, because I knew there was so little distance left – only about three minutes – to out guesthouse. I waited out of the rain under part of the old drover’s inn while the others caught up. Our portly hostess asked us to take off our boots on some papers she provided; then we scooped up Toby and followed her upstairs where we were shown to two very nice double rooms. We had arrived at 5:50.
In our room we dried off the dog’s legs. We had tea in the sitting room. Then Dorothy and I had baths in a very nice bathroom next door. (Poor Harold had no hot water when he tried the same a few minutes later.) At 7:00 we left a whimpering Schnauzer by himself and went down to the dining room for a very nice meal beneath the exposed woven laths of a very old wall. Pork, cauliflower cheese and vegetables were all quite good and filling. Our landlady whispered “Excuse me” apologetically every time she approached the table to serve or remove any item. She told us how to find the pub and tried to get us interested in watching telly but Tosh curled up with next Tuesday’s assignment (Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde) and never even made it to the pub.
Dorothy and I took Toby up the street to the Crown but it was hard to find a comfortable seat. I ended up in a ledge near the dartboard. It was very smoky and noisy. There was one other large table full of walkers but most of the guests were locals. They were about to have their annual general meeting in the village hall. Dorothy drank two vodka and tonics and I drank a g&t. I bought Harold a large scotch when he showed up but we left him waiting (in vain) for Tosh and took the dog out for his final run. Unfortunately it was beginning to drizzle and we were both relieved when he settled down to his business quickly.
Both of the Lees were in the guests’ sitting room when we returned. We made plans for tomorrow and said good night. I was full of aches and pains and took two Excedrin and a sleeping tablet. Toby slept like a log wedged between us on the narrow double bed.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: