Riding and mourning

My grand dad passed away. It was mid-April when I learned the news. It didn’t come as a shock. For the last few years, his health had been worsening with every passing month. So when I learned he had pneumonia, I had little hope of seeing him again. I was right. This didn’t make it feel any better. So I did what I knew best to clear my mind. I packed my panniers and went cycling for a couple of days.

I locked the front door of the house and pedalled away on my local Sustrans route. I began to cry as I exited the city, thankful for how few people were wandering the path in a mid-week morning. By the time I was out of Bristol, my tears had stopped and I was feeling a bit better. The route was going up and down and required no navigation. I knew this stretch like the back of my hand. There was a farm on the right, and then to the left a view would emerge through the leaves of the trees but I wouldn’t get to see it for long. The downhill was too much fun. A few more stroke of the pedals and I had to navigate the always muddy stretch of road. A down, an up, another down and I was at Chew Valley Lake. The sky was grey and I knew it was going to rain. It didn’t matter.

I stopped by the lake, sat on a bench, and munched on a cereal bar before cycling away. There was nothing to keep me around the water that day. Lost in thoughts, I took a wrong turn but soon realised it and turned around. I pedalled on, the rain beginning to fall. I didn’t bother with waterproofs. There was a couple of big hills coming. They would keep me warm.

Panting my way up the last hills into the Mendips, I began to feel numb. I wanted to turn around and go home. I wanted to wrap myself into my partner’s arms and cry my heart out. It was stupid to be here, struggling up a hill in the rain. Why was I always assuming that a bike ride and sleep outdoors would make things right? I pushed the thought away and absorbed myself in the looming fog. Soon, all views disappeared. The landscape that I had filmed almost a year before was now gone. I stopped to put on lights around the bike. I couldn’t see much further than my front wheel. It was like the landscape was engulfing me in its own embrace. There was nothing to be distracted by. I let go of all thoughts, pushing away my desire to go home, and focused on the turning of the pedals.

The time was soon approaching twelve and I was feeling hungry again. I ignored my stomach for a while knowing a picnic area with a view of the Somerset Levels was coming. I had no illusion about the view but at least I would have a table and bench. The rain had stopped and the sun was slowly chasing the fog as I arrived at the view point. There still wasn’t much to see but I carried with me last years Summer expanse of green and blue in my mind. I ate a quick lunch before freewheeling my way down the Mendips. From there on, it was going to be flat.

I passed through Wells, stopping at a sweet shop for some on the road fuel, before settling on a bench on the outskirts of town. I got my eReader out and began a new book, Maigret chez le ministre by George Siménon. It had been my grand father who had introduced me to the detective. I can’t claim that I knew my grand father well. All of our conversations combined wouldn’t even fill a week. And yet, he was not unknown. He had often shared his love of woodwork and Maigret in his own way. I remember going in search of wood in the Jura mountains for his workshop. I remember being shown into his workshop, allowed to sit at the side while he operated his machines. I remember the dark blue covered books lining his holiday house in the Jura. All Maigret stories I was allowed to read when he wasn’t. I remember him bemoaning Bruno Cremer’s interpretation of the detective and praising Jean Gabin performance. It had been one of the rare time I’d seen him so passionate. I felt like crying again. I shut off the eReader and went on.

The land around me was wet, damp, and still resolutely winter brown. The weather had been incomprehensible this year. I wandered what my grand father would have made of it. A farmer for most of his life, his livelihood had depended on the whims of the weather. I used to climb in the tractors with him sometimes, but being a girl I was never initiated in the secret of the land. That was knowledge of the men.

I arrived in Glastonbury and stopped for a moment to decide which way to go. Home was no longer an option. I’d gone too far and I didn’t want to climb the Mendips Hills again. I settled on a loop around the Somerset levels. I pedalled away from the city, passed sodden fields and noisy agricultural machines. Wealth was gone from my surroundings. Houses began to look sad and abandoned. Few cars passed me by and I wondered if life was as bad as it looked here or if the long winter was making it look that way.

The route took me along a river and I was surprised to see it still sitting in its bed, just. Houses were brighter here and garden bigger and well maintained. But the land was still desolate of people. I don’t know much about agriculture but I know there was nothing to be done yet. The frenzy of spring had not began and wouldn’t until winter decided to loosen its grip.

I arrived at a crossroads and was about to check my map when I saw Burrow Mump. A low hill I had climbed a year before on my way to Exmoor National Park. I had wanted to sleep on top of that bump in the earth ever since. It was early still but I didn’t care. I would sleep in the ruins of the abandoned church standing on top. There was a pub not far from it. I parked the bike and order a pint of ale. I almost ordered a cider in memory of my grand father but didn’t. He used to make his own. Every year the taste differed but it was always very homemade. I couldn’t remember him drinking any other cider.

‘Where have you come from,’ a man asked seeing my helmet and the bike.
‘Bristol.’
‘On that?’ He pointed at the bicycle.
‘Yes.’
‘But there’s no motor on it.’
‘I’m refuelling the motor now,’ I said pointing at the beer and smiled.
He laughed and we began chatting about his life as a farmer in the Somerset levels. I wondered how his parents lives would have compared to my grand dad. They probably had had a similar story. The man eventually left. The clock ticked on and I judge it was time to haul my bike and camping gear up the mump to settle for dinner and sleep.

My tent put up and dinner on the go, I observed the scenery in front of me. As far as I could see the land was flat and full of fields. This would have been a place my grand dad would have understood and I was glad to be here.
‘You would know this land,’ I said aloud. ‘What it all means and how to live of it. You would have soon argued with tonton (uncle) on how to best manage the fields.’ With those words, I realised that he had passed away on the eve of Spring. His body would be carried into the earth as everything was about to be reborn. I’m not a religious person but that thought comforted me. I smiled a true smile for the first time that day and felt a weight lifted of my shoulders. I went back to my stove for diner, and spent the rest of that evening nestled in my sleeping bag reading Maigret chez le ministre. I fell asleep with the book by my side.

—*—

The sky was still overcast when I awoke but at least it wasn’t raining. I ate a cereal bar, and boiled water for tea as I packed my belongings. Once everything was in the bags, I sat on the broken wall of the church and watched the morning scenery with my cup of tea. I felt rested and calmer. I wasn’t happy but I was good.

Tea finished, I carried the bicycle down the mump and began cycling. The road I needed was flooded over 100 metres. I sighed at the idea of getting my shoes wet so early in the day but there was nothing for it. Carefully, I pushed on, my feet dragging into the water and pushing me forward. What had been a desolate landscape the day before began to take on some colours. There were subtle buds of green and quaint villages. One even had a fancy village shop and café. I stopped in need of some fruit. I didn’t plan to stay long but the café was too alluring and I ordered a second breakfast of cream tea. I settled on an outdoor table with my book. It was a little too cold for that but I didn’t care. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.

I savoured the scone and tea, slowly sipping at it. My grand father never told me what he thoughts of my journeys. I wondered if he approved. A part of me wanted to think that he did, but another suspected he didn’t. I had never asked and never would be able to now. Second breakfast finished, I hopped back on the bicycle and followed the road as it wound its way upwards. I struggled up the hills, getting down to push the bike at regular interval, the efforts obliterating all thoughts from my mind.

On top, I sat at the edge of the road and looked down. The sky had cleared and everything was springlike now. The trees were still bare, but the grass was resolutely green and higher up, the land was saturated with water. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, and enjoyed the shy warmth of the sun. On a day like this, my grand dad would have headed to his garden to tend to his vegetables. He was so proud of his tomatoes, the one crop he was able to grow in his last years. Memories of my childhood flooded me. I smiled at them, my eyes shining with happy times of spring and summer at my grand parents house. There had been barbecues, homemade alcohol of all sorts, an endless freedom to roam, and my grand father always there overlooking the family quietly while everybody babbled away happily.

‘I love you,’ I whispered.

I looked up at the sky, as if this link between England and France could carry my words all the way to his village. He wouldn’t be able to hear but I wanted the words to brush his ears anyway.

I left the side of the roads and went back on the saddle. The road continued rolling up and down along gentrified villages and national trust properties until I emerged on the edge of Yeovil, crossed a park, found the train station, and booked a ticket back home. The landscape I had cycled the day before rolled at speed by the window and I felt content. I now knew this land better than I had the day before. I could name memories and places that people around me couldn’t. And I could trace the shedding of my tears and sadness along the roads, a last goodbye to a quiet man I’ll never see again but who had left a strong legacy in me.

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Introducing… well… me

www.allysseriordan.info

Things have been quiet on the blog over the Summer. There are several reasons for this. One is my annual struggle with August, but another is that I’ve been busy developing new projects. One such project is a website about me.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve most likely noticed that on top of the blog, I have a Twitter account, an Instagram account, a SoundCloud account, and even a YouTube account. Put like that, it’s a lot. So why add a website to the mix?

A bit of background

Before I answer this, let me give a bit of background. I started Beste Glatisant back in January 2014. My online presence before then was confined to the world of fandoms and fanfictions, my name and avatar a presence on a multitude of forums. But in the early 2010s, I began to move away from television and into the outdoors. I discovered right of ways and the concept of microadventures. Expeditions were not confined to a screen or the pages of a book any longer. But as with anything starting was the hardest part. So I logged onto WordPress.com, created a blog, and shouted to the world that I was going to step outside of my front door.

And so this blog became a drive to get me outdoors. I would have no content to post about if I sat in front of the television all day. So I walked out, sleeping in my garden at first and taking day walks around London. And as I built my confidence outdoors, I built my confidence as a writer. I began to experiment with words, pictures, and soon afterwards sounds. I expanded onto Twitter, Instagram, SoundCloud, and YouTube. But at the core of it all was this blog, Beste Glatisant.

Why create a new online space?

The trouble with Beste Glatisant is that it has always been deeply intertwined with microadventures. And while this has been fine for over three years, it is now becoming a problem.

There is no denying that my outdoor life is at the core of my creativity. But my projects are outgrowing the niche I created here. I have albums coming up this year and creative writing plans for the future. So I built a website, a place where you can find all of me under one roof.

A portfolio of my work

This new website collects all of my work whether in words, sounds, or images. If you are only interested in my microadventures, the best place to follow me is still right here. But if you want to know more about what my life outdoors inspire in me, and about my work with sound, be sure to visit www.allysseriordan.info and to subscribe to my newsletter. It will contain all of my latest news and exclusive sneak peaks of upcoming projects (hint: an album trailer will land in your inbox very soon. Be sure to subscribe).

www.allysseriordan.info

Exploring Somerset – A solstice microadventure

‘Do you want any specific days off in June,’ my manager asked as she prepared to write the team rota.
‘If I could have the 21st and 22nd off it’d be brilliant.’
‘No problem.’ She left the shop floor for the quiet of the stock room, leaving me grinning like an idiot at the idea of having the whole solstice off work.

Planning for what to do was a short affair. I had wanted to cycle south from my front door since moving in, following Sustrans cycle route 3 to Glastonbury. After that, I didn’t know or care very much. There were plenty of options. So on the 21st of June, I packed my panniers, pumped my tyres, and pedalled away from home, my skin lathered with sun cream.

My handlebar bag was full of camera and recording gear and my mind breaming with ideas. I had been wanting to film one of my journeys for a while but I didn’t see the point of filming me. There seem nothing extraordinary or worth recording about me, not on film anyway. So for a long time, I did nothing. It was only when attending the Cycle Touring Festival a month earlier that an idea had began to emerge. I had joined the ‘Filming your trip‘ talk and discovered another way to record cycling journeys. Most videos focus on a person, but Geoff Broadway offered another possibility. His film excerpt was about the place he had visited, not about him. It was a simple idea but one that, for some reason, hadn’t occurred to me. I kept thinking about what I could bring to a cycle touring video and this is my answer:

For photos of the trip, visit my Flickr account.

Wales Border Walk: Monmouth to Haye-On-Wye

‘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.

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.