After weeks of heavy rain, I took a chance with the skies and was rewarded with the most perfect autumn day for walking, the low sun warming my back and the breeze light as I heaved my rucksack onto my back in the car park in Hay-on-Wye.
I know Hay-on-Wye very well so spent a little less time there than you might as an occasional visitor, stopping only to pick up a packed lunch before threading my way through town down to the bridge over the River Wye.
Hay-on-Wye is, of course, world famous as the ‘town of books’, its streets lined with a wealth of second-hand book shops, several of them specially dedicated to subjects like poetry and even crime.
At time of writing, the ruins of the castle were clad in scaffolding for some remedial work but there is plenty else to enjoy as you wander through and the only real issue is not starting your walk at all!
However, I was determined and crossed the wide bridge in quick time, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a pack of middle-aged joggers, and then turning right down to the river bank and striking out across country.
The cows in the fields were my only companions as the path followed a section of the river for a short way before slowly diverging towards Bronydd Farm and the first test of my legs for the day, scrambling up the bank to the A438.
The path follows the side of the road for a short distance and you need to be aware of the traffic because this road is well-used and fast.
It was nice to turn off the road and thread up through a
narrow belt of woodland towards Bettws Dingle though this was quite a puff
uphill and I was soon labouring, pausing rather too often to ‘admire the view’
and catch my breath.
The River Wye from the bridge as you leave Hay-on-Wye for your day's walk.
The River Wye recedes into the distance as you turn towards the road.
Nature's autumn bounty in the hedgerow - just the thing to keep you going as you puff uphill.
Nature came to my rescue in the shape of that autumn favourite of blackberries because the sides of the path were full of them and, where the right amount of light and shade combined, the fruit was absolutely perfect.
The berries positively fell off the bush at the lightest touch and were sweet and full of juice. The pauses now were to rifle the bushes and I had to be disciplined to keep any kind of pace.
Fortunately, I was distracted by that other wonderful autumn sight – fungi! I love the variety to be found in a day’s walk in this part of the world and was not disappointed by the clumps of mushrooms springing up in the shadier parts of the path. There was one huge one in particular that I just had to stop and photograph.
It was with genuine regret that I climbed out of the woodland, though my legs were pinging from the rather punishing uphill, and gained the single-track lane, which was slightly flatter.
The hedgerows were very high here, several feet over my head and it felt like a long open tunnel. There was not a hint of traffic though, nor of people either in fact as I started to make some slightly better time.
I had set my heart on lunch at Newchurch, which would give me a breather before I tackled the climb up Hergest Ridge but that goal was proving quite a stretch – the truth is that I had forgotten that this is quite an uphill day and had failed to mentally prepare so made rather heavier weather of it than I should have.
But never mind, I ploughed on, it is mostly lane and
farm-track in this section and the ups and downs were quite minimal. The
improvement in progress meant that Newchurch was upon me faster than I
expected, which was a welcome surprise and I set myself to finding somewhere to
sit down and enjoy my Hay-on-Wye scotch egg.
As I rounded the bend, I spotted a sign on the church gate offering tea and coffee so galloped in – I was not disappointed because though the church was unmanned, a tray had been laid out with everything I needed, including a chocolate biscuit. I was very happy to contribute to the honesty box because that cup of tea was a lifesaver after a hard morning’s walk.
The church itself is very small, whitewashed inside and with wooden pews. It is characteristic of many country churches in this part of the world and was a lovely place to sit in silence and contemplate how many generations had passed through here.
I was soon joined by two other ramblers but it was time to push on so I left them to the tea-tray and set my mind towards the challenge of more uphill, the first of which appears almost immediately in the shape of Disgywlfa Hill.
This is a properly stiff climb, especially on the back of a chocolate biscuit, and I was grateful that the other two ramblers were not witnessing my struggle up the slope though in truth it is worth the odd break to admire the view here.
The day was at its best, the sun was warm and the sky blue, whilst all around me the colours of autumn were breathtaking, the gorse bushes sinking into rich browns whilst retaining their bright yellow flowers, set off by the sun and the bright green of distant hills as a backdrop.
I truly loved this section and was amazed to find that I had it to myself apart from the odd red kite wheeling away in the distance, its distinctive cry high and piercing in the silence.
All good things must end though and soon I was on the move through farmland again, this time heading for Gladestry, which sits at the foot of the climb up Hergest Ridge. It is a fair step to Gladestry and I was tired once again by the time I arrived but there is a handily-placed bench by the side of the road through the village, where I parked myself to catch my breath.
I needed it. The climb up Broken Bank the other side of the village to Hergest Ridge is a tough one after a long day and even the sheep looked sympathetic as I laboured along. I was truly grateful to reach the summit and feel it flatten out a little.
I began to feel that I could look around me again and enjoy
the scenery, which is very lovely and includes several points of interest,
including the discernible oval outline of an 18th century racetrack.
It was odd to think of crowds of people making the climb up here to watch
racing and it must have made quite a spectacle.
Follow the acorn - the path here on Disgywlfa Hill is easy to follow
On the last climb up Hergest Ridge - the worst is now behind you!
The 'plague stone' on Hergest Ridge
Close by and just a fraction off the path is the ‘plague stone’, which is the subject of much local folklore. Hergest Ridge is an ancient trackway and was once a key route between England and Wales.
The story goes that the stone was used as a point of exchange in times of plague, with money left there to be collected by drovers who in turn left food and goods, thus avoiding the need for direct interaction with the afflicted.
It is a melancholy thought for such a beautiful spot and hard to imagine as I stared across at the lovely scenery of Hanter Hill but overlying complications of history and nature are one of the facets of the Offa’s Dyke Path and the opportunities for reflection make it that much more special.
What also felt special at this moment was a marked shift to downhill, I took a swig of water by a stand of monkey puzzle trees and steeled my thighs for the steep descent, initially off the ridge and then down a lane past the well-known Hergest Croft garden.Now you are on the outskirts of Kington and the first houses soon start to appear and with them the things that every walker needs – good accommodation for the night and a pub or two to relax in. You will have earned both after a 15-mile day full of interest but also of challenge
Clouds massing on Hergest Ridge but the day had been golden
Gentle walking down on Hergest Ridge before a final sharp downhill
A seat among the monkey puzzle trees and a final look at the wonderful view from Hergest Ridg