Wales Border Walk: Chepstow to Monmouth

I can’t remember how it began. There were long-distance walks enjoyed and leaving me craving for more. There were people writing about walking the South West Coast Path in stages. There was Quintin Lake taking photos of the whole British coastline. And there was the move to Bristol right next to Wales. This somehow made me yearn to walk the Wales Coast Path. So when I realised I had a whole week-end off at the start of February, it felt natural to embark on the first walk around Wales.

I popped in Stanfords to get a book about it. There were publications about various stages of the walk and a chunky Cicerone guide. I picked the latter up before anyone else could snatch it and was about to pay when another book caught my eye. ‘Offa’s Dyke Path‘ I whispered, reading the title. Instinctively my hand went up and took the book off the shelve. I had heard of this walk, friends and vague acquaintances had followed it. I remembered it involved the Welsh border. So what if I walked the entire Wales Border? After all, this was only adding a 177 miles to my journey around Wales, and it would make a nice loop. Not thinking any further, I went to counter and paid for both items.

But now had a dilemma: which path would I follow first? I knew I was going to start in Chepstow. But would I veer north or west? I thought about tossing a coin or rolling a dice. Instead I checked the weather forecast. North was predicted to be marginally better. So that was it, Offa’s Dyke Path would be the start of my journey around Wales.

On Friday night, I packed my bag, and went to sleep eager for the hours to tick away. Six o’clock came, my alarm rang and I was out of the house to catch a bus. There was no traffic at this hour and the bus soon arrived in Chepstow. The sun had risen by then and I easily made my way out-of-town, half following the Wales Coast Path signs, half following Google Maps. I stopped on a bridge overlooking an A-road but didn’t linger to watch cars go by. Daylights hours were still scarce and I wanted to leave the urban environment. I spotted the familiar acorn of National Trails and followed it through kissing gates and fields.

The grass was cracking under foot, still trapped in a layer of frost. I thought of the camp I would have to make that night and shivered. I had my winter equipment with me, but I knew it would still be a cold night. But now was not the time to think about it, so I brushed the thought aside and walked on. The Severn estuary rolled away to the east with views of England on the other side. But I was more interested in what was going on to the west. I had reached Wintour’s Leap. Perched high in the landscape I overlooked the Wye gorge as the river made its final dash for the sea. A thin layer of mist hung low over the valley as if the landscape was not quite awake yet.

Buildings and tarmac disappeared as I made a turn into the woods. I remained below the dyke for a while and marvelled at the determination and manpower it must have taken to built it. And yet there are no contemporary accounts mentioning it. So its origin and purpose are still enigmatic today but it is generally agreed that Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796 ordered its construction. This earthwork formed the boundary between Mercia and the Kingdom of Powys. Even the full length of the dyke is debated. But what is certain is that it marked and still marks the landscape of the borderlands. More than a millennium later, it still passes within a few miles of the current England-Wales border.

I reached the Devil’s Pulpit overlooking Tintern’s Abbey. Legends has it that the Devil preached on the jetting stone to tempt the monks of the abbey. His efforts were wasted as Tintern Abbey became one of the most prosperous in Wales.

‘Admiring the view,’ I heard a man ask me.
‘Yes. It’s quite something,’ I replied. Two men had arrived from the opposite direction.
‘Are you going far,’ the older man enquired upon spotting my bag on the floor.
‘Monmouth. I’m walking Offa’s Dyke Path.’
‘Us too. We started down there,’ the younger man commented as he pointed to Tintern. ‘We’re going to Chepstow.’
I reassured them that the walk was going to be just as good and with a quite a bit of downhill for them. They couldn’t promise the same for me.
I waved them off as they continued on their way and strapped my bag to my back. There were still many miles to go.

I passed a few more groups of people, all wishing me well on my journey, and reached a crossroad. I could go straight ahead across to the Hudnalls or visit Brockweir and continue along the river Wye. I looked at the hills ahead and began walking towards them but soon I backtracked and descended to the river. I had never seen the river Wye but I had heard of it many times. I had read about people walking alongside it and people kayaking on its water. And I wanted to see it. The hills would have to wait.

I stopped for lunch in the village by the Wye. Its water was running fast and I didn’t fancy trying to paddle upstream. I thought about having a nap before walking on but the weather was too cold. I needed to move to keep warm. So I went on along the river, watching its murky water flow in the opposite direction.

I rejoined the main route at Bigsweir Bridge, climbing back to the top of the landscape, and into the woods. It wasn’t so cold under the canopy of trees so when I got hungry again, I stopped to brew a cup of tea. As I sat on a fallen tree, I realised I had not seen another human figure for a while, nor could I hear the sound of traffic or planes. There may have been human activity a few miles from me, but as far as I was concerned I was on my own in the forest. I smiled and enjoyed that cup of tea all the more.

I checked the maps and instructions and realised I wasn’t too far from Redbrook. I hadn’t expected to walk that far but the cold had powered me on with shorter breaks than usual. Maybe I could make it all the way to Monmouth? I brushed the idea aside. I wasn’t that far but there were a lot of ups and downs and I was beginning to feel the weight of the bag on my shoulder.

I packed my stove and walked on under the trees, occasionally crossing a muddy clearing. The brown and green of the ground were highlighted from the rain of the previous week, marking a sharp contrast against the bare canopy over my head. As I reached Highbury Wood, I found the whole of my body and brain drifting into the rhythm of my steps. The bag felt heavier than at the beginning of the walk and I couldn’t find a position that would relieve the pain. There were many spots that called me to stop and set up camp for the night, but it was cold and there were still another couple of hours of daylight. So I walked on, my thoughts obliterated by the pain.

Perched high in the woods, I was faced with a steep descent into Redbrook. Staying upright took all of my concentration, making me forget for a moment the load on my back. I arrived in the village and wondered what to do. There was a welcoming pub just around the corner from the path. A pub with accommodation. I looked at it longingly, a strange figure on the pavement by a park full of children. In the end, I walked away. I had not come to sleep in a bed in Wales. Monmouth was now just under four miles away. I knew that if I reached it I wouldn’t be able to carry on the following day. The guide was quite clear about the scarcity of transport between Monmouth and Haye-On-Wye (which was just a little too far for another day’s walk). This left me with two options: find a spot to spot between Redbrook and Monmouth or walk all the way to Monmouth and catch a bus home. Not wanting to bargain with buses, I checked timetables on my phone. As long as I kept walking there was a good chance I could catch the last bus to Abergavenny and from there hop on a train.

Invigorated by the idea of making it to Monmouth, I found a new spring in my steps. I left Redbrook via a narrow farm path surrounded by fields. I could see further than I had been able to most of the day. A few cars passed me by, people busy gathering chickens and horses waved at me, and a few dog walkers shared an amicable greeting with me. I was not part of their life but I was not an unusual sight either and in that moment I felt part of the general landscape.

The sun began to set, slowly draining the world from its colours. But the progress was slow and I could still see where I was going. I reached the Roundhouse on the Kymin Hill overlooking Monmouth. The buildings were impressive but I didn’t spare much time for them. Not far in the distance, a few miles below me, lay Monmouth illuminated like a starry night on the ground. And further still, I could just make out the contours of the Brecon Beacons. I gazed at them longingly. Ever since I had known I was going to move to Bristol, I have been lurking at the Brecon Beacons, desperately waiting for the weather to change so I would have time to explore them. The light was rapidly fading and I had a bus to catch. So I tore myself away from the sight and walked on. It was all downhill from there and I found myself almost giggling as I half walked, half slid on a muddy woodland path.

I reached a road, and found myself standing by Monmouth sign. I had made it. I had passed a pub a few metres ago and doubtless there would be more in town. And in that moment there was nothing more I wanted but to sit in one with a well-earn pint of ale. I checked my watch to see if I had time. I didn’t. In fact, I had to hurry to the bus station if I didn’t want to miss the bus. I drank some water, pretending this was an ale and walked on to the station. The bus pulled in as I arrived. I hopped in, the sole passenger at this time of day, and the driver took me straight to Abergavenny station where I caught a train home.

Pedalling Portugal – Photo report

In early March 2016, I found myself in a deserted coach station in Spain. At my feet lay my bike, wrapped in industrial size bin bags. Next to it, my four panniers rested in a line ready to be mounted on the racks. And I stood in front of them, the reality of my journey slowly sinking in. Eventually I hooked the panniers to their rightful place. I got on the bike and off I went. This is what I saw.
For 32 weeks, I will post a batch of photos every Monday morning.
Later words and sounds will come. But for now, I’m going to share what I experienced through the photos I took. If you miss a post, go to this page to find all the links.

The Alentejo region is peppered with walking trails. Each one of them enticed me to come back and explore the area on foot. But I didn’t just make a mental note of them. Whenever I took a day off, I would go exploring the local short trails.

#OutdoorBloggers week-end in Snowdonia

From the 14th to the 16th of October, a group of bloggers gathered at the Llyn Gwynant campsite for the second Outdoor Bloggers Week-End. I was one of them.

I buried my hands in my trouser pockets. It was cold away from the campfire. I could have stayed by the warmth and light of the flames but I wanted some time to myself, to gaze at the hill behind our tents and my new friends chatting and laughing around the fire. There was an odd familiarity to it.

A few hours earlier I had put up my tent, my hands finding the holes for the poles automatically and tidying each item to its place inside my nylon home without my brain having to think. It had been three months since I last used this tent but I had not forgotten the routine of it.

I was cold but I was smiling. It was October and this was Wales. I was meant to be cold and layered up. I closed my eyes for an instant and listened. There was no subtle traffic, not even in the distance. There was no TV or radio. There was only the crackling of the fires, people talking and laughing all around, and behind my eyelids, light flickering unevenly. I walked back to the campfire and sat by its warmth for a while longer.

I awoke to the sound of rain falling on my tent and grinned to myself as the memories of Portugal flooded back into the forefront of my mind. I opened the zip to assess how bad the rain was. It wasn’t a downpour. I peered at the field, my fellow bloggers hidden in their tents still or wrapped in waterproof on their way to the toilet block. It was early, so I remained cocooned in my sleeping bag and went about preparing breakfast. Gradually people began to emerge from their shelter, the rain keeping none of us hiding. We hovered around our tents, greeting each other and the newcomers we hadn’t met yet. And before long, Ross and Craig from Climb Snowdon  arrived at the campsite. They were accompanied by Tryfan and Nia from Mud and Routes who had kindly paid for the campsite. They were going to walk with us, chatting, snapping photos, and catching our breathe while Ross and Craig told us stories of legends and gin while leading us up Snowdon.

We geared up, climbed into cars, and drove to a parking lot at the start of the trail. Backpacks on we dutifully followed our guides on the gentle incline of the mountain. It was easy-going and words flowed between us all, people gliding through the group effortlessly. Ross stopped to tell us the story of the floating island where a young man had disappeared with the fairies long ago. We couldn’t quite see it yet but it was easy to imagine fairies living in the nooks and crannies of those hills, hidden between the rocks and long blades of grass.

We veered left at a crossroad, leaving the well trodden path for another route through old quarries and slates covered footpaths. Feet and walking poles clicked against the rock, giving rhythm to our steps. We kept ascending, the group gradually spreading between the fastest and the slowest before rejoining for breaks.

The views became wider and more spectacular. Lakes, peaks, and clouds filled our vision until our eyes met with the sea in the far off distance on one side and the endless undulation of hills on the other. I snapped photos, not quite believing I was here. I had seen documentaries on the BBC about Wales, about Snowdonia and it had looked exactly like what I was seeing. But from the comfort of my flat in London, it had never felt quite possible that those sceneries could exist in the UK. This was a land wilder than the one I know so well, were people are scarce and the weather dangerous. It was exhilarating to be here, to be climbing a mountain, and to be part of this landscape.

The path narrowed and we found ourselves scrambling to the ridge. My brain pictured the holds of a climbing wall, thinking three moves ahead, and always keeping my body balanced in a triangular shape. I was almost disappointed when I was able to make progress with my feet only. I had missed the intense focus, the narrowing of my world, and the hyper awareness of my body that climbing brings.

Up on the ridge, the weather got colder and I put on gloves as we stopped for another snack between the clouds. The wind picked up, chanting its monotone chorus into our ears, and making clouds dance around us. Sometimes all we could see were the bright colours of our waterproof gear against a world of mist. Details would catch my eyes, their shapes and textures as immersive as the wider landscape.

We walked on, other people going past us until we reached the crowded area of the café and summit. We queued for a photo at the top where I found the highest and busiest trig point I had ever seen. We relaxed and I felt again like this was not really a mountain. Having grown up in France my point of references are the Alps and the Pyrénées, their highest peaks four or three times higher than Snowdon. Finding a peak where oxygen was still plentiful and where snow didn’t linger all year round didn’t quite feel like a mountain peak. But I shook the idea from my head, remembering cycling the mountains of Spain and Portugal. I had never quite reached a height like Snowdon and yet the peaks had felt like mountains then, my legs and lungs burning as I wheeled my way up. I laughed at myself. Mountains were declared such by government bodies and geography measurements. They were not measured by exertion and personal feelings.

I crunched my teeth in a cold apple and followed the rest of the group on the path down the mountainside. We amble along large tracks, the rocks of the top and slates of the ascend long forgotten. Grass surrounded us in a show of autumn colours, Snowdon determined to put on its best coat to wave us back to the cars. Smiling, proud of ourselves, and eager to get back to the campsites for a taste of local gin, we clambered into the cars and drove back to our tents.

Chris from Snowdonia Distillery was waiting for us. Muddy boots and sweaty bodies, we all gathered into Camping With Style bell tent to listen to Chris passion for gin and Snowdonia. I had never thought much of this drink before. I’d had a few gin and tonics at friends’ houses but had never felt the need to buy one. But I had seen juniper and I had seen the gorse flowers that day. I had seen heather flowers in the past and I had walked up Snowdon, feeling the wind on my face, tasting the rain on my lips, and smelling the dampness of the air. So when Chris handed up small bottle of his Yellow Label production, it felt like drinking the essence of the mountains. The alcohol warmed my throat and hit my taste buds instantly before releasing an array of floral notes on my palate. If this was gin, then I liked gin.

Chris, Ross, Craig, and Nia eventually left us, their homes and families waiting for them. We spread out in the campsite attending to our grubby appearances and grumbling stomachs. A fire was built and brought us all back together. We sat on camping chairs or the ground, we devoured pizzas and camping stove cooked food, words shared slowly between us. We were tired and relaxed. Helen from Camping Tails emerged from her lotus tent with a treasure of booklets in her hands and began to sing, her voice sending us travelling back to the legends we had heard and a world were we didn’t need TVs and our phones. The moon shone behind the clouds and little by little we disappeared into our tents, a contented sleep waiting us all.

In the morning, rain was falling again, and the plan to run 5k was quickly abandoned. Instead we helped each other pack, we hugged goodbye with smiles on our faces and promises to see each other again. Soon there was only a handful of us left. We hopped in kayaks and went to explore the stream and lake. This was my third time in a kayak, the motion of the paddle and the boat growing familiar and known to my body. We glided on the stream, its flow calm and sheltered before venturing into the lake, its water at the mercy of the wind. My arms ached as my muscles tensed to battle the choppy waves to get back to shore. I stepped out of the boat and handed back the paddle almost reluctantly. There was nowhere to go and it was time to leave. A train was waiting to take me back home.

I stuffed my backpack with my gear, placed it into Jenni’s car, closed the passenger door, and we drove away. The mountains began to shrink as we neared the coast before flattening out completely, their presence a vivid memory into our body and mind.

I waved goodbye to Jenni, walked to the station with Daniela and Christian before parting ways with them as I hopped into my train. I found an empty seat, closed my eyes to let the memories and feelings of the week-end submerge me. And I made myself the promise to stay curious and keep exploring the countryside of my new home.

The Outdoor Bloggers Week-End was organised by the wonderful Jenni from The Thrifty Magpies Nest and Zoe from Splodz Blogz.

Our camping sponsors were Dave, Tryfan and Nia from Mud and Routes.
We were lead up Snowdon by Ross and Craig from Climb Snowdon.
We were enlightened about gin by Chris from Snowdonia Distillery.

And we received an awesome goodie bags with treats from Kitshack, Hi-Tec, Real Handful, Aquapac, and Nikwax.

Attending bloggers (let me know if I have forgotten anyone. I hope not…) were Jenni from The Thrifty Magpies Nest, Zoe from Splodz Blogz, Tryfan and Nia from Mud and Routes (our camping sponsors), Shell from Camping With Style, Ben from The Water Boy, Catherine from Muddy Mam, Katy from Katyish, Lucy from Paddle Pedal Pace, Cristian and Daniela from Go Straight Ahead, Chelsea from Loving Life In Wellies, and Cerys from Mascara and Mud.

Find out more about the Outdoor Bloggers network here.
More photos of the week-end, especially Snowdon can be found on my Flickr account.
Read about the first Outdoor Bloggers Week-End here.

Walking the 1066 Country Walk

A month ago, I received a message from Jonathan (from In Which I). We’ve been in touch regularly via our blogs but it was the first time we’d chatted through e-mails. His message went something like that:

’Are you a walker? We’re planning to walk all of the 1066 Country Walk on 10-11 September over two days.’

I did not hesitate when I read that line and replied that I would be more than happy to tag along. Ever since coming back home from my recent cycle tour, I have been meaning to go on a walk. I had gone as far as cleaning up my walking boots. They were still dirty from the Lyke Wake Walk. And that had been almost a year ago. I had missed the slow pace of my feet and the amount of details that come to life from this mode of transportation.

1066 directions

river

On Saturday 10th of September, Jonathan, Dan and me departed from Pevensey train station, quickly exciting the village to venture into the flatlands of Pevensey levels. The sky was hidden behind a cover of grey clouds choked up with rain but I did not worry. The weather people had assured us it would remain dry until mid-afternoon. Our stride was light and eager as we followed the green line on the map more than the signs. We talked a lot and without us noticing a couple of hours had passed. It was easy to walk.

But soon the hills began. We stopped on a bench in a churchyard for a break, filling ourselves with snacks to power us on. Above the field by the cemetery a crow and a kestrel engaged in an air pursuit, the bigger of the two intent on chasing the other one away. We watched them until they became two ball points in the distance, and we couldn’t distinguish which bird was which.

cemetery

map checking

We rose from the bench and went on. We passed Herstmonceux castle, the Observatory Science Centre, and a lone trig point, an odd sight at such a low altitude. We entered a forest, our bodies shadowed by a canopy of leaves and emerged by a very orderly brown field.
‘It’s like a zen garden,’ Jonathan commented.
I had to admit it was impressive. Tidy lines zigzagged throughout, the patterns changing at regular intervals. I couldn’t even spot a wheel track anywhere. I let my eyes rise to the top of the field where the earth stopped and the clouds began. I knew there was a slope on the other side but from the bottom of the rise, I could easily ignore it and pretend the field stopped where my gaze did. I smiled at the simple vision. I would have never found it if not for this walk. I snapped a picture, backing up my mental memory into the digital one of my camera.

zen field

The hills became steeper and I was surprised at how well my legs were taking it. I knew walking and cycling did not engage the same muscles but my body seemed to fair well. I silently hoped it would remain so. There were still many miles to go. But first we stopped for tea under the watchful eyes of cows.

tea time

curious cow

Lunch followed soon after. We were over halfway into our route for the day. As we packed away what we had not eaten, I braced myself for the afternoon dip I usually encounter when walking. But it did not come. Instead of my world narrowing down into pain and boredom, it expanded and I noticed every details of our surroundings. A bee was nestled in between John Dowie apples. Blackberries sprouted on bushes everywhere, their juices melting in my mouth as I pressed them against my palate. The breeze sent ripples through the high grass, their blades rubbing my black trousers. Flowers still shone defiantly in spite of the turn of the season. And we were walking in the middle of it all, words and ideas easily flowing between us.

apples and bee

flowers

And before I realised it we had crossed a road and found ourselves by Great Park Farm shop and café, a couple of miles from Battle, our end point for the day. We sat down for tea outside. And the rain began to fall. We huddled closer, trying to fit under the sun shades that were now used as umbrellas, and drank our teas safe and dry. But one of the sun shade had other ideas in mind and dropped a puddle of water over Dan.
The waitresses came around to clean the tables and it was time to go. The rain had petered out into a drizzle but still we put on our rain coats and climbed one last hill for the day before taking off our boots. My legs were still good but I knew better than to trust my body and began to stretch my muscles. There was still 15 miles to walk the following day.

tree trunk portal

The next day I awoke with the sun. I rolled over in my bed and glanced out of the window. There was a blue sky. I got off bed and eagerly made my way downstairs. My legs felt stiff but I ignored them. I hoped that once we got going, the muscles would relax and forget the miles of the day before. Boots on and snacks packed, we met up with friends and set off to Rye.

group walking

We excited Battle via the Great Wood and soon found ourselves in the middle of a golf course. Balls flew to the clacking sound of metal against plastic, but I paid them little attention. I was too busy chatting away with new friends, getting to know one another. Conversation flowed and it felt great to be sharing this walk with other people on such a beautiful day. It was summer again and my worries about job hunting, interviews, and money melted away.

grass and tree island

lone tree

A lone swing hung from a tree. ‘You want a go at it, don’t you?’ Jonathan said looking at me. I couldn’t resist the smile growing on my lips. ‘Oh yes.’ I admitted and climbed onto the seat sending my legs in the air and leaning into the air flow. There was nothing to do but enjoy that simple moment of joy. So I did.

jonathan swing

We left the sheltered footpath we had been following for an open field. The sun heat fell on us and we took a break to hydrate and shed some layers of clothes. I could have easily taken a nap but there were many more miles to go. I took another swig at my water bottle and marched on with the group. The hills began and we promised Peter that they were all actually flat or downhills rather than uphill. I wished that had been true. My calves began to hurt as we ascended and I found myself stretching at every opportunity hoping it would help the muscles. It mostly didn’t but it wasn’t difficult to ignore the pain. The sun was shining bright, I was in good company, and summer felt like it would never end.

many paths

going uphill

Paths spread out in front of us as we climbed down yet another stile. We poured over the map trying to find the right way. Everybody seemed to have their idea as to which route to take and we spread out over the hill, all trying to find the next way marked post. Jonathan had picked the right path and we all converged towards him, past a farm, past a pub, and into a field where we stopped under the shade of a line of trees for lunch.

lunch time

More hills followed and led us to a trig point. It still felt too low for one but at least we had climbed a hill and the view spreading out in front of us was worth a stop and a photo. Square of greens joined yellow ones, with the occasional brown and white dots of cows and sheep. And everywhere trees clustered in small woods or borderlands between the fields. Above it all, the sky was baby blue, trails of translucent clouds like paint brushes on canvas.

view

view

The afternoon slumber didn’t come that day either, and it was with high spirits that we approached Winchelsea where we had promised ourselves a pub break. But before entering the town, Jonathan got stung by a wasp, sending a ripple of panic through our group with his cries of ‘Get of me! Get of me! Get of me!’. Luckily, he wasn’t allergic and the sting hasn’t been deep. He was able to walk on.

We stopped at the pub for a well-deserved break and sipped our drinks with relish, their freshness a welcome relief from the hill climbs, and the alcohol soothing to our aches and pains. I could have happily remained on the bench watching the light of day dim into night but we were not at our final destination yet.

pub break

We strapped our backpacks on once more and walked out of the village and met up with Dumb’s Woman Lane before leaving it for the gentler ground of a footpath. The sun was at our back, its warmth fast disappearing. I gave it a silent thanks for the day it had given us and walked on. Houses began to appear and it hit me that we must have reached Rye. ‘Is that Rye?’ I asked Jonathan unsure of myself. I couldn’t quite believe that the day was already coming to an end. There had been two miles to walk from Dumb’s Woman Lane and somehow it didn’t feel like we had done two miles since then. ‘Yes, it is.’ He confirmed. So that was it. We had walked the 1066 Country Walk and it was time to go home.

sign

A walk along the Beverley Brook

The Beverley Brook is a minor English river in London. It begins near Worcester Park Station and ends just above Putney Embankment where it flows into the Thames. It lives for 8.9 miles and for 6.5 miles there is a (more or less) waymarked path following it. I walked along it last week-end and made this audio slideshow from my experience.


If you prefer YouTube, you can watch it at this link.

More photos from the walk can be seen on my Flickr account.

If you’re tempted to go on this walk, Merton Council has a handy downloadable guide for you.