It’s hard to believe we only have two days of walking left. Sometime tomorrow evening we’ll stagger into Chepstow where Harri’s good friend, Newport poet Goff Morgan, will be waiting to drive us home. After just over three weeks and nearly 400 miles, our epic journey will finally be over.
Lying there in the early morning light, it hit me with sudden force that I didn’t want it to end. We’ve been soaked and parched, burnt and bitten, exhausted and exhilarated, happy and homesick, hungry and (a certain person who shall remain nameless) hungover; walking through Wales has been an incredible experience and one neither of us will ever forget. Rather than seeing it as a one-off there’s now no doubt in our minds that we want to complete as many other end-to-end walks as our fitness levels and bank balance will allow (completing the 870-mile Wales Coast Path in one go is definitely on our bucket list).
After breakfast, we bade our farewells to Coon and his friend, who were heading ‘up country’ to the book town of Hay-on-Wye. We never did learn the friend’s name, just that he preferred walking in minimalist shoes, had two children and co-ordinated large-scale IT projects for a living… oh, and he’d once visited Newport on a business trip. Our route was taking us in the opposite direction; however, first we had to climb out of the steep-sided Ewyas Valley.
Llanthony Priory has one of the most beautiful settings of any medieval building in Wales. From ground level, the Augustinian ruin looks quite amazing; however, it’s only when you’re looking down on it from high above that you really appreciate the remoteness of its location.
The priory was constructed during a forty-year period between around 1180-1220 and prospered for at least a century before entering a long decline during the fifteenth century (perhaps linked to Owain Glyndŵr’s war of independence). It stopped functioning as an independent abbey in 1481 and finally closed in 1538.
In the centuries that followed, wind and weather took their inevitable toll; the great west window collapsed in 1803 and on one fateful Ash Wednesday in 1837 all five central arches fell. It was the remoteness of the priory which saved this vast structure from destruction; its stones were not plundered for building materials as was frequently the case with other vast buildings.
The priory and adjoining hotel are now privately owned; however, the Grade 1 listed buildings are under the protection of Cadw and the site is completely safe and accessible to visitors.
We climbed steadily and eventually joined the Offa’s Dyke Path at a rocky outcrop where the ridge narrows considerably; here there are extensive views of the gorgeous and entirely under-rated Monnow Valley (which we explored in Castle Walks in Monmouthshire on the walks from Monmouth and Skenfrith castles).
Until the Wales Coast Path opened in 2012, the Offa’s Dyke Path was probably the most popular long-distance walk in Wales. Strangely, while Harri and I have followed various sections of this designated National Trail (which crosses the Wales-England border no fewer than 20 times on its 177 mile route) neither of us has ever had the remotest interest in walking the entire route.
Offa’s Dyke Path has never particularly appealed to us as a long-distance challenge for several reasons. First, it’s just so popular in the summer months (and we do like to escape the madding crowds occasionally); the border-hugging route also misses much of Wales’s spectacular mountain scenery like the whole of Snowdonia. Thirdly, we prefer the idea of a walk that remains in Wales for its entire route like the Wales Coast Path or O Fôn i Fynwy (though at this point I have to admit that Hatterall Ridge occasionally strays into Herefordshire and Offa’s Dyke Path sometimes wanders into Gloucestershire… however, the incursions onto English soil are so brief we swear you’ll barely notice them!).
Interestingly, Offa’s Dyke Path and the Beacons Way follow the same well-walked route from Llanthony, before briefly parting company at the bottom of Hatterall Hill, merging once again and finally parting for a second time soon afterwards. All this interweaving of paths and straying over borders has me well and truly confused… it’s a good job Harri can read maps!!
There were no facilities to speak of in Pandy so the longed-for ice-creams were not to be.
I keep repeating this, but one of the nicest things about O Fon i Fynwy has been the wonderful people we’ve met on route and today was no different.
We’d already decided to stop for lunch at White Castle, a place that will forever hold a place in my nightmares after last year’s Rack Raid. On an airless morning in early June, I took part in a 100-mile relay race from Grosmont in Monmouthshire to the Castell y Bwlch pub in Henllys), my own leg being the horribly hilly Skenfrith to White Castle.
While today certainly qualified as another airless day, at least no-one was expecting a sprint finish from me.
Last time we’d been in the vicinity of White Castle, we’d been devising walks for our second walking ebook, Castle Walks in Monmouthshire. I wondered out loud if I might be permitted to stand inside the barrier to take a few photographs of the castle and the CADW lady on duty had refused point blank and in such a haughty manner you’d think she lived there herself and I’d asked if we could picnic on the lawn!
Today being a Monday and the castle closed, there was no sign of Ms High-and-Mighty, however the lovely couple in the adjacent house were in the garden and seeing our weary expressions (we’d been walking uphill for some time) immediately offered us liquid refreshments and the use of their garden bench, toilet and water tap. We learned that they were great walkers themselves and I guess they treat other hikers the way they’d like to be treated themselves away from home. Lovely, lovely people.
For the rest of the afternoon we felt like characters in a film entitled ‘A Perfect British Summer’ as we wandered through the countryside in dazzling sunshine. The endless, undulating fields were impossibly picturesque and full of swaying grasses, hay bales, wheat and potato crops ‘Such lovely colours’ I exclaimed when I found myself surrounded by towering, pink-coloured grasses, vaguely aware I was echoing Bridget Jones in the hilarious ‘ever-so-slightly-high on Thailand beach’ scene.
When we’d set off this morning, we were confident we’d reach Monmouth today; however, it’s surprising how the constant heat saps one’s energy. By tea-time we were lagging behind our planned schedule, finding excuses to stop, even for a few minutes… a stone in my shoe, checking the map, needing a drink…
My feet – blister-free for the toughest parts of the journey – had decided enough was enough, with the result that I was now sporting a small but painful blister on the little toe on my right foot.
I limped into Monmouth behind Harri. There was a certain synchronicity to arriving in this border town with just one day’s walking left to complete. The day before we started walking O Fon i Fynwy, I’d completed in the Rack Raid for the second year, this time running the eight miles between Hengwrt and Monmouth. Now, on the penultimate day of our long walk through Wales, I once again found myself crossing the Monnow Bridge.
‘Never too old to backpack: a 364-mile walk through Wales’ by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store and other online bookstores priced at £2.99.
Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons by Harri Garrod Roberts is published by Vertebrate.