Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.
A superb walk along the Welsh Marches, border lands between Wales and England, separated by an ancient monument, Offa’s Dyke, estimated to have been constructed in the 8th Century. For much of its length you are walking on or alongside the route of the Dyke, through a wonderful, diverse landscape with commanding views. At times you will walk mountain ridges, river and canal paths, through forest and woodlands and over moorland. Many of the ancient market towns, with their defensive castles, record the historic trading in the area.
Time of year
Other than the depths of winter, the path could be walked at any time of year. Spring, Summer and Autumn each have their usual characteristics, highlighted by the lambing season and the wonderful autumnal colours respectively. I abandoned the journey at Machynlleth due to heavy rain and flood warnings for North Wales in late September 2012. I continued in Spring 2013 as soon as the horrendous snowfalls that winter had cleared.
Length of walk
177 miles from Chepstow on the Bristol Channel to Prestatyn on the north coast of Wales. I completed the walk in 11 days in 3 sections. Chepstow to Knighton to Welshpool to Prestatyn. The direction was selected to keep the sun on my back and to link to the starting point Glyndwr’s Way at Knighton.
I backpacked from Chepstow to Knighton with my traditional heavy and indestructible gear, camping each night at recognised campsites. In the spring I switched to Inns and B&B as campsites were more difficult to find on the later sections of Offa’s Dyke. It is not always easy to find accommodation on the path and you may need to divert from the trail into the towns and villages. Accommodation will general be easier to find in the southern sections.
(See also an article I wrote for the Offa’s Dyke Association Newsletter)
The plan is to walk both Offa’s Dyke and Glyndwr’s Way in one continuous journey, backpacking all the way with my indestructible and heavy gear. Over 300 miles. Before I have time to change my mind, a series of perfectly connecting trains has me standing alone on Chepstow platform, wondering what on earth I am doing. I walk to the start of the Dyke at Sedbury to gaze over the Bristol Channel and the Severn Bridge and contemplate the journey ahead. A simple but quiet campsite and an evening meal with a field of rabbits for company.
I awoke to a rustling around the tent, to find a pair of inquisitive Spaniel puppies looking for friendship. Packing with these two around was a challenge, but not as much of a challenge as trying to lose them as I set out for Monmouth. Luckily a distant whistle, signalling food, had them scurrying back to the farm. My whole body is complaining about the weight of my pack, but I press on past Wintour Leap towards the views of the River Wye passing Tintern Abbey. I meet a couple of walkers, completing Offa’s Dyke coming in the opposite direction, who confirm the conditions are good, but that the walk is much harder than they expected. Slowly my body stops complaining and I stop for lunch at a shop in Redbrook, knowing that if I popped into the pub I know well opposite, I would be waylaid. The walk along the Wye is pleasant as I arrive, after a last climb, into Monmouth. The campsite with an onsite restaurant is convenient for the town.
I’m up early and enjoy a pleasant day’s walk, stopping a White Castle for lunch, before descending into Pandy. The campsite is busy for the weekend, with foul-mouthed kids, and parents running riot. I walk down the road to The Skirrid Inn, for a meal and some peace and quiet. Up early again, this time to ascend onto the Hatterrall Ridge, which will take me at high-level into Hay-On-Wye. The views are stupendous, but it is cold and windy and I do not meet a soul until I come across an adventurous 10-year old on a trail motorbike, weaving his way along the path. I don’t see any supervision but I am sure he made it home, such was his nonchalance. The view from Hay Bluff is wonderful, as is the descent over grass slopes into Hay, apart from an appalling muddy section at the end, which reduces my cafe options. Great campsite, full of Duke of Edinburgh Award kids, laughing hard as they try to put up their tents.
Another great day alongside the Wye and over moorland and Hergest Ridge into Kington, which declares itself as “The Centre for Walking” – campsite and meal are good. A spin dryer is a perfect opportunity to wash some clothes, it has seen better days, but is very effective at drying my merino wool top. I meet another Offa’s Dyke walker travelling south. The usual opening question results in a declaration of homesickness. He loves the walk but is desperate to get home and is upping his daily mileage to reach Chepstow. I didn’t realise you could get it that bad, he was missing his wife, his local and his dog. I pressed on too, nearly doing some damage to my knee by falling in a gap in the Dyke, luckily my walking pole saved me. Arrival in Knighton saw me make a beeline for a local restaurant where I managed to make last orders for lunch. They served a three-course soup, full roast dinner, pie and custard with all the trimmings for £8.50! Clearly popular with the thrifty locals, who could not be interrupted as they scoffed what you would think was their only meal of the week. After visiting the Offa’s Dyke Centre, I was directed to Tiffins to stock up on food. What they didn’t tell me was this supermarket, hidden behind the pretence of a Petrol Station, was an IKEA maze of every conceivable food or material requirement you could ever wish for. It was enormous, it took me an hour to get out. Local campsite was basic but afforded the opportunity to now divert onto Glyndwr’s Way.
I returned to Knighton the following year after a very pleasant train journey to via Shrewsbury on the Heart of Wales service. Just one carriage, it filled with a whole community of people chatting away to the rhythm of the rail, as it made slow progress through unpronounceable villages. On disembarkation, a steep ascent led me back into a wonderful section of Offa’s Dyke into Clun, with sunbathing lambs a joy to see after the harsh winter. The Buzzards looked fat I thought, having fed on any stragglers. The views are stupendous into the Teme Valley and towards Newcastle-Under-Clun. The landlord picked me up from the path to run me back to the White Horse Inn, my accommodation and excellent St. George’s Day meal (we are in England at this point). I am delighted to be back on the trails after winter.
The first 6 miles the following day were hard going before you descend to the Montgomery Plain. I met only women walking that day in organised groups. Before the last steep section leading to Beacon Ring, I met the Trail Officer, and we exchange stories concerning some unusual signs that had been erected by the local estate, stating “Please minimise the use of the Public Path”!! You could tell the local gamekeepers and owners weren’t happy about you walking through the Pheasant breeding grounds. These birds were so dopy you could have picked them up like kittens. The descent to Buttington, for Welshpool, was marked by another sign warning you about a friendly sheepdog, who would happily follow you to Prestatyn if you befriended him. That is the trail information sign I prefer.
The B&B in Welshpool, was great, traditional farmhouse, welsh furniture and FWB! I caught the train the next day to Machynlleth to complete Glyndwr’s Way before return to Welshpool again, to return home to nurse a badly blistered foot.
Only a few days later, and benefiting from a wallet full of usable train tickets, I set out again along Offa’s Dyke north. Going was very easy along the canal side, but not so easy along the banks of the River Severn where evidence of the previous years’ flood confirmed the wisdom of my decision to bale out last year. Lovely locks and cottages as you approach Llanymynech and my accommodation for the evening.
Day 8 saw me stocking up at the local cafe, noting some kids catching buses to English schools and some to Welsh. Only the former has to pay apparently. The ascent up to a quarry, the scene of a huge explosion, was interesting in that Charles Darwin had assisted in measuring a slope angle I was walking, which led him to be invited on the Beagle Expedition some years later. Historic stuff eh! My boots were feeling good as I passed along the former Oswestry Racecourse, removing those footbeds solved the blister problem. I made good progress into Pontcysyllte and the amazing Viaduct, built by Thomas Telford in 1795, standing straight and true. I double backed to a wonderful B&B, where unprompted, the landlady cooked me a lovely evening meal. She didn’t tell me, but I saw a certificate that declared she was a Cordon Bleu chef.
The next section overlooking Llangollen, was dramatic, with wild abandoned castles and valley views. Castell Dinas Bran is a photographers dream as is the Elizabethan Manor House a few miles further. The wind was getting stronger as I arrived at the shelter of Llandegla Forest, with its custom Mountain Bike Trails, I had to keep my ears open to avoid any collisions. Huge Airbus ‘guppies’ flew overhead delivering airframes sections made locally to the assembly plant in France. I slept well at a Horse Riding Centre that evening, building stamina for tomorrow’s awful weather forecast.
High northerly winds, hail and a drop in temperature had me wearing everything in my pack. I had to keep a good pace to keep warm, but the views were more than a reward, as I crossed the Clwydian Hills. A roller coaster of successive forts and peaks, crowned by the Jubilee Tower on Moel Famau, littered the hills. The northerly winds maintained their vigour, but I felt fit and made good progress through the squalls, sunbursts and showers which gave plenty of warning of their arrival. This was more seascape than landscape. Descending into Bodfari, I was greeted by South African goats, who, unlike sheep, are very inquisitive and likely to eat anything, including my boot laces! My B&B that evening is a cosy caravan and with a nice meal at a local, which unfortunately is down a steep hill. I struggle to make it back.
Up early and commence a march into Prestatyn, determined to reach a specific train departure that connects perfectly to a fast train at Chester. A more pastoral landscape now, with fields full of sheep, horses, ducks, geese, goats and cattle. This isn’t the best section of the path and a disappointment after yesterday’s dramatic walk until you reach the bluff overlooking Prestatyn to the site of huge wind farms in the Irish Sea. The northerly is getting stronger as I arrive at the end point of the walk, greeted by golden National Trail acorns indicating the route to the sea. The waves break over the seawall, meaning no ceremonial dipping of bare feet to mark the end. I retrace my steps to the station after buying lunch, only to find all trains cancelled due to a fire down the line. Quick thinking has me arrange a group to catch a taxi to Chester, where I manage to miss a connection, so arrive home much later, but in time for a pint.
At this point, I note I have completed 50% of the National Trails. That deserves another pint.
- Day 1 – 1m – Train to Chepstow, walk to start, Sedbury – camp
- Day 2 – 17m – Monmouth – camp
- Day 3 – 17m – Pandy – camp
- Day 4 – 18m – Hay-On-Wye – camp
- Day 5 – 15m – Kington – camp
- Day 6 – 14m – Knighton – camp
Day 7 – 11 are spent walking along Glyndwr’s Way to Machynlleth. I return the following year to complete both walks.
- Day 1 – 8m – Train to Knighton, walk to Clun – Inn
- Day 2 – 22m – Buttington, Welshpool – B&B
Day 3 – 6 I finish Glyndwr’s Way and return home briefly to nurse a blistered foot.
- Day 7 – 17m – Train from home, walk to Llanymynech – Inn
- Day 8 – 18m – Pontcysyllte – B&B
- Day 9 – 15m – Gweryd Lakes – Bunkhouse
- Day 10 – 15m – Bodfari – caravan
- Day 11 – 12m – Prestatyn, taxi/train home.