Offa’s Dyke Path, day 9: Knighton to Cwm

September 15, 2019 0 Comments

Four months have passed and we’re back in Knighton.  In another seven days we’ll have finished a project started six and a half years ago to walk round the edges of Wales.  This time, C. and I are joined by M., who walked the southern half of Offa’s Dyke 39 years ago, but has never tackled the northern part till now.

C and I arrived yesterday by the Heart of Wales, one of the finest rail lines in Britain.  The journey started well enough.  English, Welsh and Polish voices filled the single DMU carriage.  As the train gathered speed past Llandeilo the fields of the Tywi plain flashed past like a film.  We edged across the Cynghordy viaduct, then through a noisy tunnel (C says his mother used to tell him that lions lived in railway tunnels).  ‘Press plunger’, instructed a trackside sign. We debated what that might mean.  Later the train stopped.  Driver and conductor got out and examined part of the undercarriage.  We crept on, but the problem, a loss of air pressure, had not gone away.  At Llanwrda the train was ‘declared a failure’ and we limped slowly forward.  At Llanwrtyd two carriages travelling in the opposite direction were commandeered and hitched up to ours, and we resumed the journey, an hour late.  What happened to the unfortunate passengers trying to reach Swansea we never found out.

Next morning the weather’s uncertain.  It’s dry for a while, but then rain blows over the hills in bursts, the breeze gathers strength, and the air feels colder.  We stroll through the town from the pub we stayed in, past the Offa’s Dyke Centre (it’s too early to look round it), and cross the Wales/England border (you have to cross your legs to fit the painted footsteps, one in each country).  We walk through meadows alongside the Teme, then cross the river and the Heart of Wales railway line.  By strange coincidence a train approaches and passes us: another ancient single-carriage DMU, but with a healthier-sounding engine than yesterday’s.  The walk then changes abruptly from pastoral to upland.  Within seconds we’re huffing and grunting up a steep grassy slope, Panpunton Hill – M and C with the help of walking sticks, me without.  This is just the first of many near-vertical ascents and descents today.  It doesn’t take us long to learn an elementary geography lesson, that the Welsh borders are scored by rivers and streams that all flow from west to east.  Walking from south to north violates this truth and means we can’t avoid endless switchbacks.

At the top of the hill we’ve big views back to Knighton and the valley of the Teme, through the branches of rowan trees that carry berry clusters of the brightest possible red – with the possible exception, M reminds us, of the flag of the People’s Republic of China (he’s been there recently).  We follow the edge of the hill, and after the trig point at the summit we start to descend, past Brynorgan (we’ve been in Shropshire since before crossing the Teme, but many of the place-names are Welsh). 

Then, after a break, it’s up again over Llanfair Hill.  Here Offa’s engineers excelled themselves, driving the Dyke northwards across the hill – and after that across streams and over hills, often disregarding contours and hurtling up and down steep slopes.  In these quite remote places the ditch and bank survive as massive earthworks.  We wonder how Offa, if it was Offa, organised the huge bands of labour needed to create the Dyke, and we fail to find an answer.  Where, we wonder, were the Welsh, and how did they respond?  A metal sculpture beside the Dyke has one answer: it takes the form of a rebellious red dragon.

At Springhill we’re back in another valley, and need to climb again, only to fall back down as the Clun river crosses our path.  The map shows a water tap – we’re thirsty and running short of liquid by this time – and a tap duly appears, though we find it’s not connected to a water supply.  Then, in answer to our prayers, a house, and a notice offering water refills in exchange to a donation to the local hospice.  Then we’re up again, past the marker showing that we’ve reached the Path’s half-way point between Sedbury Cliffs and Prestatyn, and down yet again.  At the next valley there’s a lonely church, St John the Baptist at Churchtown.  It’s a comprehensive Victorian rebuild, but older parts survive, including a Lord’s Prayer painted on the north wall. 

We’ve seen few walkers today.  The elderly pair we met on the pub last night turn out to have springier heels than we’d given them credit for, and soon they’ve disappeared over the horizon; we don’t see them again.  A man with very white legs and an array of walking gadgets attached to his rucksack passes us with a nod; he too doesn’t make a reappearance.  A woman runs past with a thin dog wearing a red cover.  She says she’s doing a reconnaissance for a forthcoming day-and-night group run between Chepstow and Montgomery.  We silently decline her unstated offer to join them.

The next ascent is severe to the point of brutality, climbing 350 feet in quarter of a mile, and we need to take a breather every few yards.  Finally, after another valley and ascent and wooded descent in the rain – so slippy, steep and prolonged that it’s a miracle one of us didn’t end up on our backs – a big vista opens up over the broad plain of the river Severn, the first major river since we left the Wye behind, and the Dyke makes a long descent to the flat lands below.  Our legs give a sigh of relief that the switchback’s over and we amble gently on metalled roads to our destination for the night.

We’ve walked just fourteen miles – not an excessive distance if we’d been on the flat, but it’s seemed far more like forty.  This is the toughest section of the whole Offa’s Dyke Path.

Leave a Reply