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Hiking Offa’s Dyke -- Wales’s Mystical Path

It was the kind of day you could never forget. Actually, all the days I spent on the Offa’s Dyke Path were days to remember.

Memories -- a sampling: A side trail that led to an abbey founded in 1103, where I dined on freshly killed lamb and, even better, slept in a top floor room reached by a spiral staircase. Trails that clambered over rolling terrain. Often bundled in a hooded waterproof parka during sudden afternoon thunderstorms. Learning a new vocabulary on a track that passed across dolau (meadows), through kissing gates and up and over stiles. And a castled town devoted to second-hand books, where searches through musty shelves turned up rare and unusual titles.

Church and cemetery at Newchurch, on the Offa's Dyke Path

Sheep-dotted hills
Hills, meadows, and grazing sheep along the trail

Wales’s Mystical Dyke

The Offa's Dyke Path is unlike any trail I had seen. Imagine hiking through farms and country lanes to the still rural outskirts of cities. Add a hilly landscape, a foreign but friendly culture, emerald green fields, an intriguing blend of history and mythology, and the result is Offa's Dyke Path. It basically follows the border country between Great Britain and Wales. For 177 miles the national trail traverses a north-south line from Chepstow, a town at the mouth of the Severn River, to Prestalyn and the Irish Sea.

Offa's Dyke, which the path follows for about half its distance, is seeped in mystery and unknowns. Some believe the dyke was built by King Offa, who wanted a sea-to-sea barrier to divide Wales and Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that extended over much of central England from the mid Seventh century to the late Eighth century. The dyke is sometimes an earthen wall with a steep 25-foot high bank and a deep ditch, and, at other times, little more than a hedgebank along a ploughed field.

However or why ever it was built, Offa's Dyke Path is one of many long distance hiking routes in the United Kingdom. Unlike the United States, where most extended trails only pass through wilderness areas, the British routes meander unapologetically through private farm lands, cozy villages and, occasionally, small cities.

Ruins at Llanthony Abbey

Welsh home
Restored medieval farmhouse at Bufra

B&Bs and Abbeys

Over four days I walked 50 sometimes-wandering miles from Pandy to Knighton. Some people carry backpacks with sleeping bags, tents, stoves and food, but I toted only a daypack with basic necessaries. Instead of campfires at mountain camps, nights meant meals at pubs and bunks at low-cost bed and breakfast inns.

My most unusual stay-over was Llanthony Abbey. It was founded in 1103 and most of its surviving ruins were built in 1115. The prior's lodging area is now the Abbey Hotel. It was exactly 39 steps --Albert Hitchcock movie fans will understand the curiosity -- up a steep spiral stairway to a musty room with a pair of four-post double beds. A window looks out on the remains, which feature tall, graceful Norman architecture. Lush fields filled the foreground, backed by a tree-tangled hillside and, further off, barren hills freckled with grazing sheep.

Roughing it, it wasn't. Dinner was Black Hills lamb lathered with a wild mushroom sauce and accompanied by locally grown potatoes, vegetables and a pint of bitter.

The Black Mountains

Except for dropping into Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas, the 17 miles of path between Pandy and Hay-on-Wye undulates along the rollercoaster Black Mountains, a region memorialized in Bruce Chadwin's classic novel, On the Black Hill.

The next morning, in a steady rain, I hiked through fields cluttered with heather and whineberry and, more often, across high moors where blasting winds blew me about like a feather. Hiking was unlike anything in the U.S. The path often changes direction very suddenly, sometimes angling along fence lines or aimed straight-arrow across fields. I climbed over stiles, dipped into gullies and followed cleared swaths through shrub-choked highlands.

Fence and Horse
Climibing a stile near Llanthony Abbey

Hikers in the moors
Hiking the moors near Hergest Ridge

Discovering Hay-on-Wye

An afternoon and night was blissfully spent rummaging through some of the many shops at Hay-on-Wye, a small town made famous, and prosperous, as the capital of second-hand bookstores. Special buses travel to and from Hay and London. With its distinct town clock and curiously winding streets, the town has also been used as the set for numerous English films and television shows. I sold my just-finished paperback, and replaced it with a rucksack load of books that I hadn't found anywhere else, from an autobiography by theologian Thomas Merton to travel writings by D. H. Lawrence.

It was another day and 15 miles to Kington. Expansive ridge top views revealed distant farms divided like quilts, while narrow, muddy passages were as dark as tombs but often lined with ripe, fresh-for-the-picking blackberries.

A Different Challenge

I'm seldom confused in snowy mountains, forests or high desert, but each day I spent part of my time aimlessly, once having to backtrack after a lost hour. During the summer the path is typically clogged with walkers, but in early September I saw less than a handful of trekkers. My final day I walked another 14 miles or so, not counting unplanned detours which paralleled the variously obvious and obscure remains of the dyke to Kingston.

Welsh countryside from trail

River Wye
River Wye

Over the days I learned new words: dingl, a small wooded valley; phone box, telephone booth; waymarking, trail indicator; and, most enchanting of all; kissing gate, which I'll leave for your discovery. There were also Welsh words: dyffryn for valley, llyn for lake, bryn for hill, caer for fort, clawdd for dyke, dwr for water, and dolau for meadows. Many of the Welsh names sound like water lapping down gentle, rock stream beds: Llagattock Lingoed, Llech y Lladron, Hatterrall, Capel-y-ffin, Blaen Olchon, Rhos-y-meirch, Frydd, Titterstone Clee.

Wilderness it isn't, but walking the Offa’s Dyke Path is like wandering through the mists of time, places of wars and forts and castles, of rich agricultural lands -- a place with a past, and a present.

 Click here to plan your own trip to Offa’s Dyke in Wales.

                 Lee Juillerat
                 Article and Photos

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