The river Avon and me – Part 01

I love waterways.

I’m not sure I can explain it. All I know is that I love them. And for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to live next to some.
There was the New River in Enfield. I would walk past it on my way to work, watching a family of coot live and grow throughout the seasons. It was my moment in the day to pause and forget about any worries I had. There was the river Lea in Enfield. It was further from me and I did not visit often, but it was always a pleasure to take a day out along its banks. There were industries, kayaks, fishermen, families, boats, and all sorts of life around it. There was the Thames in Richmond. I use to live within walking distance of it for a while. It was a completely different river, a mightier one I didn’t dare trade in. It lived according to the tides, sometimes overflowing to remind people it is still wild, still have the power of its long travel through England behind it.

There were other waterways too. The Regents Canal that would lead me to a climbing wall, to the London zoo, to happy memories of time shared with a friend. The Beverley Brook was a heaven of peace in a crowded, noisy London borough. The trickle of the Vesle marked the end of the village I grew up in and the beginning of adventure. The steady flow of the Canal latéral de l’Aisne would bring me to childhood friends.

Waterways have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always loved them. That is, until now.

I live within cycling distance of the river Avon. I see it everyday on my way to work. I often pause to watch the gulls dance in the air while below the muddy banks form intricate patterns of lines and shapes, making me wonder if those patterns are the same a few miles away at the estuary. And in those moments I love the river. But it is not an unconditional love as it was for the New River, for the River Lea, for the Thames, for the Beverley Brook, for every other waterways I’ve lived next to or explored. And I don’t know why.

So this year, I’m embarking on a mission. I’m going to find out what’s missing, or what’s added. I want to love the river Avon. I want it to become my river as the other ones have been. I don’t have a plan on how to best do this. But I’m starting with walking the river Avon trail. I want to see it at ground level, at the slowest speed I can go. So in that spirit, on the 10th of January, I packed a day bag and headed for Pill, one end of the trail.

The tide was out, leaving an empty basin of silt exposed and boats stranded on the shore. The land appeared barren, as if someone had pulled a plug and drained the river. The houses around were silent and closed. I felt like the only person in this area of Somerset. I knew I was wrong but the wintry scenery was not reminding me of warmer days. I remembered the ebb and flow of the Thames in London. It too is a tidal river, but not like the Avon. The tidal range of the Avon is the second largest in the world. At Avonmouth, it can rise and fall as much as 14 metres twice a day, and in Bristol where I live, the water level can change as much as 12 metres. Pill is in between the two, and looking at the empty riverbed, it wasn’t hard to believe those numbers. I pondered briefly if those drastic changes were hindering my relation to the river, making it change its character too often for me to grasp it fully at any time.

I cast one last glance at the mud below and walked away. The path veered from the river immediately, passing through a park. I dropped my skateboard to the ground and pushed away. Standing on the board, I glided along on the asphalt as the flow of the water above the silt. I passed a few dog walkers but mostly I had the place to myself. There were play area and benches, views over the countryside, and the constant hum of the motorway just behind. I paused as I noticed it and looked at the bridge in the distance. In the past, this wouldn’t have been there. Instead, there would have been the constant noise of boats and seamen. The stretch of water between the Bristol Channel and the Port of Bristol was notoriously difficult to navigate, and Pill was a place to stop and let experience pilots guide big boats up the Avon Gorge to Bristol. But those pilots have long since disappeared into history books. The way into Bristol is now by road.

I rolled on, spotting familiar cycle route signs. I looked for a red barge on a blue badge, the official trail waymark, but no trace of it were to be found. I didn’t see it for the entire day. The River Avon Trail was not announced. I knew it existed. There was a website for it, even a guide, and definitely a path. But you wouldn’t know this without digging around online.

I kicked my skateboard up and attached it to my bag. The ground was no longer tarmac. Soft mud cushioned my steps and dirtied my boots in a few seconds. Houses disappeared and long expanses of fields opened the view to the right. On the left, the brown murky river passed quietly. Above its bank, a train rattled every now and again. And higher still, the traffic of the busy A4 gradually replaced the hum of the M5.

There was no one on the water, not even birds. And there was no one on the path but me. The river was mine but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. Maybe it was the emptiness of the landscape. I walked on, my steps squelching in the mud. I stopped by an opening in a ditch that let its water fall into the Avon. I heard water for the first time, an outpouring of life into the silent river. A couple of cyclists passed me by. We smiled at one another and I began to appreciate the river more.

I walked on a little more relaxed, a little more appreciative of the waterway. Villages came into view on the north bank, bringing wildlife with them. There was the surprise squeak of a field mouse that I never saw, and the shrill call of gulls in a ballet over the water. In the field behind, blackbirds replied. And for an instant, I forgot about everything else.

As I approached Bristol, I entered the sheltered space of Leigh Woods. Trees enveloped me but their bare branches allowed for a view of the Avon. It began to change here. It felt wider. I knew this was most likely not true. Maybe if it was the reflections of the buildings and the sky ahead that made it looked that way. I paused often to watch the clouds in the river and made slow progress on the trail. I wasn’t in a rush anyway. I was here for the river and I needed to let its pull on me work its magic. It wasn’t quite like the draw of the Thames or the New River, but it was the beginning of something.

A long lorry drove past on the A4 and jolted me out of my reverie. I looked across the water to the unceasing lines of vehicles and wondered if they were not one of the cause that were keeping me away from the river. I do not like traffic sound and sometimes find it hard to block it out. It overpowers smaller natural sounds, making them disappear into the forest unless you actively pay attention to them. It felt like they were masking the river, the new thoroughfare erasing the old.

I continued on the path, human noises growing louder as the traffic of Clifton Bridge added its chorus to the A4. I was getting into Bristol now. The mud underfoot stopped to be replaced by tarmac. I unclipped my skateboard and rolled away from the cacophony of the road network above the Cumberland basin.

In a few kicks, I was within familiar territory. There was the Bristol marina and up ahead the floating harbour. Instinctively I headed for the north bank of the Avon but halfway across a bridge, I stopped. I wasn’t here to speed away from irritating aspect of the riverside. I was here to explore and get to know the Avon. I turned around and went back to the south bank and walked into the Underfall Yards. I had seen the old chimney from afar but I’d never quite ventured to it before, always passing in nearby streets. I was about to roll away when I was stopped in my track by the 78 feet (24 metres) long replica of the Matthew propped out of the water. Raised above ground, the boat looked even more impressive than on water, and I couldn’t help but wonder again how John Cabot made it to North America in the 15th century on such a small vessel. We have ocean liners today, big massive metal boats shaped like unsinkable tanks that look sturdy and safe. But this boat was only a caravel, a small wooden sailing ship. I sat down for a moment and listened to unseen workers carry out maintenance in its belly.

The maddening criss-cross of roads over Cumberland basin was just behind me and yet, I couldn’t hear it. A few metres from it I had found an island of stillness. The water was calm, people were on foot, and the only noises were of men working on boats. I felt like the river was its own here. It was controlled by men but it was allowed to breathe and live.

Bristol used to have a tidal harbour, grounding ship into the silt bottom of the river at low tide, causing damages to the hulls and hassle to commerce. So in the early 19th century, William Jessop created a dam and a lock not far from the harbour to control the water level. The excess flow was diverted into the freshly dug New Cut which was allowed to reveal its silt bottom while ships were safely docked in the level water of the floating harbour. The Underfall Yards where I was were crucial to its operation with its sluice system and I marvelled in at the feat of engineering.

After a while I got up and went on with my journey. I knew exactly what lay ahead. I would pass the SS Great Britain, the large tourist attraction forcing me to veer away from the river before returning to it and meet the old rails of the Bristol Harbour Railway. Trains used to run between the harbour and the train station but nowadays they go back and forth from the SS Great Britain to the industrial cranes at the end of the harbour, transporting tourists, train lovers, curious locals, and children.

I zigzagged my way between the rails, sometimes on foot, sometimes on the board. I wasn’t alone here. A handful of people were enjoying a scenic walk along the river. On our side of the river, boats of all sizes and shapes were docked along its edges. On the opposite side, Bristol coloured houses brightened the day, and all around us gulls danced and fought with one another provided a show in the air.

I reached the M-Shed, my favourite museum in the city, and sat on a pillar for lunch. This was the end of the harbour and the end of my walk for the day. I like it there. You can read Bristol’s history by sight. Often the replica of the Matthew is docked there, welcoming people on board for a tour or a private party. Opposite, the once Baltic trader three-masted barque Kaskelot rest, and further beyond, skateboarders practice their tricks while shoppers and arts lovers meander along the water’s edge. Back on the south bank, tall cranes are a reminder of Bristol trading heyday’s in the 1950s. But this is gone now, the smoke, the noise, the business of commerce. Instead there is the gentle footsteps of passersby, the conversations of people, and the clatter of plates and cutlery from the thriving restaurants and cafés along the goal ferry steps.

I unpacked my sandwich and took it all in. Here, at the harbourside, I was in love with the river. I basked in this feeling because I knew it was only fleeting. I loved this place, this harbour, but not the whole waterway.

My sandwich finished, I hopped back on the skateboard and pushed my way home. I was no closer to an answer to my original question. But I felt I had got to know the river Avon a little bit more intimately. Knowledge I had gained from books and the Internet was a little more concrete, helping me to understand who the river Avon is today. I am not in love with it, not like the other waterways of my past but I was left a little smitten, hopeful that this spark would grow. There is still half of the trail to go, and then miles and miles of water to explore in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset. There is still time. The river is not going anywhere and neither am I.


A circular walk around Dursley

The summer holidays came and went in a frenzy of job applications, interviews, and finally a new job. There were also family and friends visiting, WarmShowers guests to welcome, and an album about Bristol to get ready for release in September. My outdoors time became limited to evening walks in the city and occasional drives out near Bristol.

So, late in August, during a regular visit to the library, I couldn’t resist grabbing Beyond Bristol: 24 Country Walks by Robin Tetlow when I spotted it on display. I came home, settled with the book and selected a walk. The choice of Dursley was easy. It was just far enough that I wouldn’t go back the following week but still easy to reach.

The very next day, I packed a day bag for my partner and I. We hopped in the car and soon left Bristol behind. City streets transformed into motorway lanes before narrowing into country roads. We missed the car park mentioned in the guide but found a spot in an unremarkable residential street. The sun was shining and it was easy to pretend summer was finally here.

We set off and left Dursley and its shops unexplored. Narrow lanes took us between fields, past grand houses, and finally into the open countryside. We ascended steeply on Cam Peak, as if to escape everyday life we had to exert ourselves and reach higher ground. We stopped for a moment on top to regain our breath and admire the views. To the east lay the rolling hills of the Costwolds with valleys nestled in their crooks, rivers, and copses dotted about. To the west lay the Severn estuary and the mountains of Wales. I stared at them, longing to be back on Offa’s Dyke Path but knowing it would be a while before I could meet it again.

We went on, descending and ascending until we reached the flatter ridge of Cam Long Down. Wales was still visible to the west and I fancied a wild camp in one of the recess of the ridge, watching the sun set over the Brecon Beacons. But it was early in the day and I didn’t have any sleeping bag with me.

We followed the path down, up, and down again. A couple advanced towards us with loaded backpacks and walking sticks. They looked like they were hiking the Cotswolds Way.

‘Beautiful day for a walk,’ the couple greeted us with a clear American accent.
We agreed.
‘Are you on the Cotswolds Way,’ they enquired.
‘Not this time no. We’re doing a day walk around Dursley. Are you?’
They were. We carried on chatting about the English countryside, the USA, and the plans they had for the rest of their time in the UK. We shared names and photos before finally parting ways, them comforted in knowing their destination was in reach and without too much uphill, us knowing we were just at the beginning of our day with plenty more uphill to come.

Out for a walk

We traversed a muddy copse to be greeted by the sight of a bench with a viewpoint. But before we could settle on it and consider lunch, a group of walkers arrived.

‘Beautiful day for a walk,’ they greeted us with a clear British accent.
We agreed once more.
With only a light pack on their shoulders, we didn’t enquire if they were on the Cotswolds way but chatted about the beauty of the local area. One of the man turned out to be very local and enlightened us on the best pubs around for a drink, a meal, or both. We took note for the evening. As the conversation drew to a close, they had inched closer to the bench, leaving us with no choice but to go on.

Our disappointment wasn’t long lived though as we happened upon Uley Bury, an Iron Age hill fort, within minutes of having left the bench. We settled at one side of it, our view made of trees, hills, and fields. Everything was coloured green no matter where we looked. Happy with this find, we sat down and unpacked our food.

Our bodies refueled, we hiked down the hill and followed the river Ewelme for a while. The going was easy as we followed the lay of the land chatting about this and that, watching the birds play hide and seek with the trees. We took a turn left and entered the village of Uley. We found a small arts centre adorned by a coffee shop. Tempted by the idea of tea and cake we considered stopping but time was ticking on and we still had a good five miles ahead of us. Soon the map and book instructions stopped matching the land around us and it became clear that we were lost.

We knew we weren’t too lost as Uley was on our route. We only needed to find the old mill. So we walked out of the small back roads in search of a high street. On the way we met a lady gardening and enquired about the mill. Unfortunately she had only recently moved in and knew nothing about it.

Defeated, we reached the main road and stopped for a minute. I assessed the map more carefully. I could see the road, I could see the path we were supposed to be on, and I could see a telephone box not far from it.

‘Let’s walk on, there’s supposed to be…’ But before I could finish my sentence, an old woman came running towards us.
‘I hear you’re a bit lost. You’re looking for the old mill?’
I closed the book and smiled.
‘Yes. Do you know where it is?’
‘Absolutely. You just need to go on this road and follow it until you see a telephone box. There’ll be a junction after that. Turn left, follow the road and take the first left. Follow it for a few minutes and you’ll find the old mill.’
We both thanked her, happy to have confirmation that we weren’t about to go horribly off-piste and that the telephone box still stood erect.

A few minutes on the main road to Dursley from Uley we found the crossing, the first left, the old mill, and a few metres away, our path. We were going through fields once more, going up and around electric wires before entering Coopers Wood, the path muddy under our feet, and our views restricted to trees. The path veered to the edge of the forest, the trees thinning to our left and opening onto the landscape we had walked a few hours earlier. It felt good to see how far we’d come and to know what the land looked like on the other side of the valley.

As we went, both lost in our thoughts, we happened upon a rope swing and couldn’t resist taking turns. Behind us, a young farmer glared at us with envy in his eyes. I hoped he would soon be finished with his day’s work and be able to enjoy the swing.

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the rope, mindful of the grey clouds inching their way in our direction. The woods ended replaced by the outskirts of Dursley. We stepped along quiet roads until the path veered under the trees once more. As we disappeared under their canopy, the rain began to fall. Grudgingly we paused to change into our rain gear, there was less than a mile to go. Soon we were back on Dursley streets, our steps fast as if to pass between the rain drops. But before we could reach the car, the rain intensified and made us run to the shelter of the market place where we had began the walk. We looked at each other, both with the same question in our mind.

‘Do you want to wait it out?’
‘For a bit.’

I sat on the stairs and began perusing the pubs in the area, the list of the local man we had met earlier still fresh in my mind. Unfortunately all of them where in the opposite direction from Bristol. So we headed for a Dursley pub instead. There was no food available, but we had a drink and a rest in the warmth while we let the rain pass before heading home.

Bonus video

Dappled leaves on the Cotswolds Way

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.

Stockwood Open Space Nature Reserve

What images does Stockwood Open Space conjure up in your mind?

Trail Guide, Stockwood Open Space, Avon Wildlife Trust 1984

Unless you live in South Bristol, the images are probably a blur of green field, maybe some trees and a pond of some sort. That would be better than the picture I had of it a couple of months ago when I first arrived in Bristol. My new home was filled with the bare essentials and I was free to explore. So I set off on foot to find out what my local area contained. Google Maps didn’t look promising. There was a big green space but it was a golf course. The rest was a mix of dull greys. At least it’s what I could see without the satellite imagery. I didn’t have access to those in what was then an Internet free house.


Trail Guide, Stockwood Open Space, Avon Wildlife Trust 1984

I tucked my phone in my pocket and walked out of my front door, my sole focus being on walking away from the busy A4 connecting Bristol to Bath. I meandered in narrowing streets and soon found myself in Scotland Road. A sign declared it was flooded but I ignored it, ducking under the barrier. The last houses of the city disappeared behind me, leaving their space to trees, shrubs, and fields. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. There was the distant roar of the A4 but everything else was telling me I was in the British countryside I had come to know. Bewildered, I went on, eager to see where the road would lead and if the trees on my right would offer an opening for me to see what lay behind them because as far as Google was concerned the answer was ‘nothing’. But soon I reached the flooded area and unless I was up for a paddle, I couldn’t walk on. So I turned back. By this time the sun was already setting and I resolved to go back to the blank space on the map the following day.

I was standing at the edge of Stockwood Road, the blank space spread out before me. I had expected a disused industrial estate of sorts, or a wasteland forgotten by the people, but not what I saw. There were trees lining a tarmac path and nature as far as my eye could see. I stepped in and noticed a sign. I had entered the Stockwood Open Space Nature Reserve. I could hardly believe my luck.  I left the sign behind and set out to explore what would undoubtedly become my new nature patch.

I followed the path and was led back home with a smile on my face. I had seen the remains of ancient woodlands, green fields, ponds, and an orchard full of apple trees. I knew I had only glimpsed what was contained in this open space. There was more to discover but my new job was starting the following day, my house mate would arrive a couple of days later and soon Christmas would take over everything. So it wasn’t until a couple of weeks into January that I had the opportunity to go back to spend a morning wandering away from the tarmac. By this time, I had done a bit of research and had even joined the Friends of Stockwood Open Space.

I came into the area via the Hungerford Road Open Space. A fenced-ringed path covered in wet crushed leaves separates the two spaces. It opened at the cart pond meadow where I found a hidden stone lined pond. The bare trees laid their branches over the water, sheltering it from the golden rays of sunlight. I snapped a photo. A dog arrived, his head already bent down to drink. I didn’t move and watched him for a while as he took a few strides into the pond. Refreshed, he lifted his head and saw me, a startled expression in his eyes before he began to bark in sheer surprise at finding an unknown human being in what clearly was his pond. I moved away and back into the sun-drenched field.

I crossed over to the dipping pond meadow and followed a slippery path along the water’s edge. The light was muted and the smell of wet earth invaded my lungs. I felt like I had entered a secret garden only accessible when water levels were low. I crouched down, watching the shimmering reflections of bare branches on the calm surface of the pond. A few people walked in the distance on the tarmac path but they didn’t see me. As my legs began to ache, I left my spot and went over a bridge made of two heavy wooden planks leading me into a bush. A narrow corridor had been cleared in the hedgerow, opening into a wide playing field. The light almost blinded me as I stepped away from the dipping pond.

Dog walkers were throwing tennis balls far and wide to the sheer delights of dogs. I ignored the frenzy of activity and made straight for the meadow opposite. Grass blades were long, welcoming thistles and newly planted trees still encased in plastic tubes. I wondered what they were. They were still too low to cover the view but eventually they would join the older trees I could see up the hill. I climbed up, carefully avoiding the few patches of ice the sun hadn’t yet melted, and found myself in a small woodland. It reminded me of the woodlands near Hertford that had once been my home for a night. I sat by a fallen tree and closed my eyes, remembering the peace I had found in that secluded place just outside of London. A similar feeling was growing in me here. Sheltered by the trees, I could barely distinguish the traffic of the A4 any longer. Instead there was the gentle crackling of dry leaves dancing on the floor, and the clashing of bare wood against one another above my head.

Growing cold, I moved away from the embrace of the forest and descended onto the playing fields once more. The pungent smell of rotten apples announced its presence before I could see any of it. Back in December, the apples had seemed like Christmas baubles on the trees. There were now more of them on the ground and as the ice covering them had melted, they were releasing their sweet decaying fragrance in the air and for once I wasn’t tempted to bite into a fruit.

I walked away heading for Ilsyngrove wood. I climbed up through the trees, emerging into the Coots meadow. Facing me was a row of houses, the border of the open space clearly defined by their bricks. I envied the inhabitants for having this meadow right on their doorsteps and I hoped they knew how lucky they were. I turned around to descend into the wood once more but was stopped short. I was at the highest point of the Open Space and I could see for miles. There were hills and fields stretched out in shades of yellow and brown, blurring into the distance. I wondered where Bristol and Bath had gone for a moment. Having lived in London for so long, I wasn’t used at seeing unbuilt land from any vantage point in a city. And then, I remembered this was one of the reasons for the move. There were limits to Bristol, limits I could reach by foot or bicycle. The countryside was there for me to explore under my own steam. I didn’t need a train or a bus journey to reach it.

Walking through Ilsyngrove I barely noticed the ancient trees around me. My head was filled with the vision of the hills outside of Bristol and dreams of future wanderings on their footpaths and surrounding roads. Not looking where I walked, I eventually emerged onto the tarmac path and followed it home. Stockwood Open Space was no longer a dull colour on Google Maps. It was a green space with wide open areas interspersed with ponds, hedgerows, and woods. But more than that it was now mine. I had seen its colours under the sun, I had smelled its earth, I had touched its trees, I had heard its birds, I had tasted its air. The courtship had begun and I can’t wait to go back to it over and over again to witness it grow and die throughout the seasons.