‘You chose a great day for your hike,’ a man said as I walked under Monmouth old gatehouse.
‘It couldn’t be better,’ I agreed.
He smiled and waved me off. I turned my gaze upwards. The sun was bright and there was barely a cloud around. I paused for an instant, closing my eyes and feeling its warmth. Last time I had been on Offa’s Dyke Path, there had been no warmth to the air. Instead a cold tang had accompanied me from Chepstow to Monmouth, keeping me in constant motion not to lose body heat. I opened my eyes and stepped away from the bustling town centre.
Following the signs, I meandered my way out of Monmouth, easily finding the countryside. A few dog walkers passed me by, but soon I lost sight of any other human being as I entered King’s Wood. Bluebells adorned the floor, their bright blue a sharp contrast against the brown and green of the trees. The path was generous and well kept, making for an easy start to the day. Soon I reached the last of the trees and met grazing sheep. They raised their heads as they heard me approach, but dismissed me as of no importance.
The path led to a small road into the village of Hendre. B&Bs and campsites were available here and I made a note to come back with my partner. The silence of the village and the abundance of countryside would make a great escape from city life. Distracted by the farms, I missed a sign and found myself away from the path. Instead of turning back, I walked on, knowing I would be able to rejoin it a few metres away. The familiar acorn signs reappeared soon enough, leading me through a gate and into a field, and another one, and another one, and another one, and into a large meadow by the river Trothy. I stopped under a tree, watching the river flow. I knew I wasn’t far from a hamlet but for a moment it felt like there was no one around. It was only me, the river, and the sheep in the distance.
I eventually got up, meeting a group of hikers going in the opposite direction. Many hellos were exchanged. I let them disappear at a bend and walked out of the meadow, into a farm track and by the church of Llanfihangel Ystern Llewern. I spent a good five minutes trying to pronounce the name and failed, forever intrigued by the sonority of the Welsh language. I met up with fields and meadows again, rising and dropping all the time, the countryside sprawling uninterrupted all around. In the distance, I could make out the Black Mountains, Skirrid Fawr, the first of the peak I spotted. Those distant tops would become constant companions for the rest of the day, growing close with each step I took.
‘Good afternoon,’ I greeted an old woman in her garden.
‘Good afternoon,’ she replied with a tinge of Welsh accent. ‘Are you on Offa’s Dyke Path?’
‘Yes. I’m going to Haye-on-Wye, although not today,’ I hastened to add.
‘What route are you taking?’
So I told her about the eastern ridge of the Black Mountains, names of villages along its slopes confirmed by the guidebook. She told me about her younger days when she would walk to those villages to attend church services and the mischief she got up to with her friends. The conversation moved on to her life in this valley, to her farm and her son now the owner of it. We chatted about Bristol briefly, her memories of it different from mine and yet anchored in the same places. We exchanged one last smile and I was walking again, waved away by Gwyneth, a stranger no longer.
I followed a stream out of the village, into more fields, a stretch of road, a happy wedding, and onto a disused access road. Tall hedges grew on its side, blocking my view. I emerged on top, the ruins of White Castle around me. I dropped my bag and stick against one of its old wall and went to explore the remains. Over the years, I had stumbled upon and visited many castle ruins, but never as good as the Welsh ones. I made a mental note to come back to this area and follow the Three Castle Walk.
Part of me wanted to linger there until sundown and sleep under the shadow of the walls but I was still a good few miles away from my chosen end point of the day. So I went on, leaving the castle behind, turning my head often to watch it rise higher as I dipped into fields below. The rolling hills I had enjoyed were beginning to be felt in my legs, each incline harder than the one before. So when I reached Llangattock Lingoed church and its picnic table, I stopped. I dropped my bag on the bench and rested for a while. But curiosity got the better of me and I was soon up to explore the church. Once inside, I got sidetracked from the architecture by an alcove offering free tea. I poured water in the kettle, enough for a cup of tea and for my dehydrated evening meal. Waiting for the kettle to boil, I perused the books on a nearby shelf. There were the usual religious texts but alongside them were a few guidebooks for walks in the region, most of them so old even my parents hadn’t been born then. I was about to browse one when I heard the heavy door open. I walked out of the alcove and greeted an older woman with the keys of the church in her hand.
‘It’s a lovely church you have here,’ I commented eager to have a chat. But the lady was unresponsive and left me to my tea. Unfriendliness or respect for a devout moment I was not having, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. The kettle boiled, I walked out of the church and left its guardian to her evening duties. She walked away without a word.
Waiting for my tea to brew and dinner to rehydrate, I began to stretch, every muscle in my body glad for it. The routine finished, I sat on the bench, relaxed and happy for a long day in the hills of Wales. I slowly ate the warm meal, forcing my hand and mouth to take their time rather than devour the whole packet of food in too few mouthfuls.
My meal and tea over, I packed up and regretfully left the church. I love the quiet of an isolated churchyard for a night under the stars. But this one was in the middle of the village and visible by all. I rejoined Offa’s Dyke Path and followed it out of the village. I passed a field with grazing horses before settling into a neighbouring one filled with sheep. A brook gurgled at the bottom and I settled in for the evening. I rolled out my sleeping mat and sleeping bag, laid down and read for a while. The birds, water, and horses were the only sounds I could hear. The light grew faint and I put my book aside. I changed into my night clothes, tucked my shoes under my bag and pulled on the rain cover to protect them from morning dew, and slid into my sleeping bag. I was slightly too warm in all my layers but I didn’t care. The night would grow colder and then I would be at optimal temperature. I closed my eyes, gently drifting into sleep.
I woke with the sun and birds, smiling to myself. I had long learned that setting an alarm when wild camping is of no use. The natural world will take care of waking me up gently. Eyes open, I lingered in the sleeping bag watching the clouds drift by. The day was not going to be as bright as the previous one. But it didn’t matter. Rain was not forecasted and that was good enough for me.
I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and began packing my few belongings. I drank some water, too lazy to brew a cup of tea, and munched on a cereal bar as I went on my way. I crossed the stream over a narrow footbridge and found myself in a field full of horses. The land was green and undulating, a continuation of the previous day. I enjoyed the ups and downs, knowing they would soon end in favour of the eastern ridge of the Black Mountains. I tried not to think too much about it. I had walked in mountains before but never on my own. I knew what to expect, but couldn’t help a slight pinch to grow in my stomach. This time there would be no one to lead the way and know what to do in case of bad weather or an accident. I would be on my own.
I walked on, leaving Pandy as I reached it, its inhabitants still asleep in the warmth of their beds. The path led me up, the slope gentle at first before shooting upright, the acorn signs lost to my eyes. But I knew where I was going and I could guess at the trail easily enough. I passed an Iron Age hillfort, the shelter of its wall making me wish I had departed that much earlier on the previous day. It would have made a great sleeping spot. My mind lost in a whirl of memories never created and of times gone by, I forgot to look at the signs and lost my way. But all the trails led to the ridge. I picked one and climbed. Soon the path levelled and I met the first trig point of the day, rejoining Offa’s Dyke Path at the same time. I paused and marvelled at the valley below me, envious at the people leaving in the shadow of the mountain.
I left the trig point and followed the path, the only one big enough to exist outside of local knowledge. A man passed me by, his pace too fast for me match. I kept pausing to admire the view or compare the features of the map with the landscape before my eyes as a way to improve my navigation skills.
Heather and grass mingled on either side of the route, small birds darting low above ground, too fast for me to spot any of their features. Soon, I stumbled upon a wild horse, its unimpressed look at odds with the growing grin on my face. I yearn to touch it but knew better than to try. So I stood my ground and watched it breathe and eat before I moved on. There were still many miles to go.
The path kept its undulation, gently rising under my feet. It was easy to follow and I let my eyes drift to the landscape, unafraid of losing my way any longer. There was only one way to go. I noticed a change in temperature as a puff of air appeared in front of me and I was reminded to stay on my guard. I was not strolling in the valley. A check of the map and I was reassured. I still knew exactly where I was.
Moving dots appeared in the distance. It took me a moment to realise they were people. On the few miles I have walked of Offa’s Dyke Path, so many had been unshared that it was a shock to be able to count more than five dots ahead of me. Our paths crossed, we shared a nod, a smile, sometimes even a conversation. It was a good day for a ridge walk.
I stopped at another trig point for lunch, stretching as the water came to a boil and I waited for my dehydrated food to rehydrate. A runner stopped by, his words flowing out of his mouth without the consent of my ears. But he was soon gone and I had the peace of the ridge to myself again, the clouds enveloping me in a world outside of the valley below.
Lunch eaten and legs rested, I left the trig point behind. The path climbed through a rocky section, the landscape barren and dry for a while before vegetation grew again. More walkers appeared, and I knew I was getting close to the end of the ridge. I passed the highest point of the walk, only noticing it had gone when the path began to lead me downwards. Heather was replaced by wind burned grass and fresh sprouts. I stopped and turned around. I had just walked a mountain ridge by myself. I nodded in appreciation, a notch of confidence gained in my outdoor skills.
Soon I was at the side of a tarmac road, the sight of it odd after a few hours with no signs of human life other than passers-by. I went alongside it for a few minutes, cheering the cyclists going uphill, but I soon left it for a wide open field where a father was playing with his young daughter. Not a bad day out, I thought, happy that the dad had chosen the outdoors over an indoor play centre.
Alone once more, I followed a stream to a farm to a field, and was rewarded with a wide view of the Wye valley and Haye-On-Wye, my destination for the day. I checked the time. I had time for a beer before my bus. With a steady pace, I followed the acorn signs, narrowly avoiding being chased by a playful calf and angry cow, before reaching empty fields and a full car park. I had reached Haye-On-Wye. I strolled in the streets, gazing at the windows of bookshops, before I settled at a pub terrace. The clouds had cleared, letting the sun soak the city of books in the warmth of a beautiful spring day. I took a sip of a local ale, closed my eyes, and smiled.