Offa’s Dyke Path, day 3: Bigsweir to Hendre

May 21, 2019 0 Comments

The morning’s chilly and overcast, and at first a low mist flows downstream, blocking the view of Llandogo.  We march briskly along the riverside drive to Bigsweir Bridge, where G and A are waiting for us.  The iron bridge makes an elegant low curve across the water, with metal latticework beneath and a tollhouse on the Welsh side.  The road to St Briavels takes us up a hill, then we turn off, on to a path into woods owned by the Woodland Trust.  ‘Thanks’, says a Trust sign, charmingly, ‘for visiting this free wood’.  More climbing, and we reach Offa’s Dyke, then move on a rough contour line northwards. 

Again we’re in beechwood.  The trees are well spaced, and stand lightly in the wood.  Fallen trunks are left to lie where they landed, each to develop its own new insect ecosystem.  Walking, on a pliant bed of mast and leaves, is easy on the feet.  And above, in the bright canopy, are hundreds of birds, whose spring songs fill the air.  Traffic and other human sounds are left behind.

The path emerges from the wood and runs in parallel to its eastern edge, across a succession of large meadows that climb steeply upwards to another strip of wood.  This boundary has several mature beeches, whose branches bow over the fields and us as we pass.  Then woodland resumes: this is Highbury Wood, a nature reserve, with more lengths of the Dyke and a very steep slope to our left.  At length we get a long view down towards the railway bridge at Redbrook, and start a long descent to the Wye, through arrays of bluebells.  Towards the bottom we come across a collection of tents in a field, and a group of people, some with full beards, sitting on the ground in a circle, absorbed in intense discussion.  Who could they be?  A small notice says, ‘RR Gathering’.  Redbrook Rovers?  Remainers’ Revival?  Revolutionary Road?  It turns out that they’re members of Radical Routes, a network of housing and worker co-operatives working for social change.

Redbrook was an early industrial settlement, a centre for making iron and exporting it downriver, on boats with shallow keels called trows.  Today only some terraced workers’ housing remains.  The village looks neat and community-minded.  We cross the footbridge attached to the decaying old iron railway bridge and make for the Boat Inn.  It’s not yet open, but we stop for refreshments outside and watch a group of girls hiking past, dressed in waterproof trousers and rucksack tents as if the forecast was for heavy rain (it isn’t).  Then back over the bridge, and a climb up the road, past more workers’ cottages, towards Newland.  G points out the house she used to live in.

A minor lane climbs gradually uphill, past a riding stables (‘Warning: these animals are micro chipped’), and gives long views back to the Wye valley and its wooded sides.  At the highest point is The Kymin, with its famous view of Monmouth and many miles beyond the town.  Two small early nineteenth century buildings are here.  The cube-shaped classical Naval Temple, built in 1800, celebrates recent battles at sea, against Napoleon’s forces and others.  ‘Britain’s glory’, announces one frieze; the other rejoices in ‘Glorious victory’.  We reflect that Britain, over two centuries later, still prefers to believe in its ‘glory’.  A large figure of Britannia, with shield and trident, sits on the roof, names of ‘noble admirals’ fill small plaques, and there’s a picture of the Battle of the Nile.  The other building is the Round House, built in 1794 by local ‘gentlemen’ as a dining room (and possible other, more carnal diversions).  Its owner, the National Trust, has the cheek to charge several pounds for entry; we resist and pass on.

Down the path to Monmouth and one of its many cafés, for a late bite.  G and A say goodbye, and we’re reduced to a band of three for the next stage.  We cross the Monnow Bridge and head out of the town.  We discuss whether car drivers stopping at pedestrian crossings are a representative marker of a community’s social health.  Ch immediately tests the theory by stepping off the pavement into the oncoming traffic (though not at a pedestrian crossing).  He survives the experiment – proof maybe of Monmouth’s worth as a civilised place – and we move on, past a housing estate down a track called Watery Lane.  The houses, some of them ostentatious, peter out, and we’re at the foot of a series of huge fields to our left belonging to Bailey Pit Farm.  The soil is fine and rich and deep red in colour, and certain to be very muddy in wet weather.  Rule 1 of Offa’s Dyke might be: Avoid walking it after heavy rains. Next we climb towards King’s Wood.  In the early days of the Path this section was known as ‘the dread Bailey Pits’, the guidebook tells us, being notorious for bogginess and the absence of signs.  But we have no trouble, as we toil up through the wood to the watershed and down the other side.  In the distance we can make out the outlines of Skirrid and Sugarloaf, near Abergavenny. Out of the wood, we’re in gently rolling hills, with many, smaller grass fields and few farms.  Soon we reach Old Hendre Farm, our next home.  The name is misleading, because the house is modern.  It’s also isolated and very quiet.  In the evening we introduce C to the Chambers Biographical Dictionary game, a quiz game invented over thirty years ago and now seldom played.

Leave a Reply