Hello, dear ones. Apologies for being behind on the blogging thing. I finished Offa’s Dyke over a week ago, but settling down to write usually results in falling asleep. I’m also now trying to blog on a phone screen, so I can’t guarantee free flowing eloquence. But surely being over 400 miles around Wales deserves a little grace?
Either way, here’s how it went on Offa’s Dyke…
To be completely honest, 6 months ago I’d never heard of King Offa of Mercia. But at some point in his reign, this Anglo-Saxon king decided to build a mound of earth defining his kingdom, separating what we now know as England from what we now know as Wales. It’s a Hadrian’s Wall of the West, a symbol of division.
And it makes for a great national trail walking path.
As the path follows a man-made construction rather than a natural feature, you pass through an impressive array of different landscapes, including three areas of outstanding natural beauty (the Brecon Beacons, the Shropshire Hills and the Clwydian Mountains). It crosses the modern day border more than 20 times. As a result I spent most of the two weeks not knowing what country I was in, and admiring views unsure which nation it belonged to. I’d usually pick the prettiest and decide that was probably Wales.
The first day I headed out of Chepstow with Mum, Dad and my good friend Tristan who popped over from Bristol. After a day’s walk we heated up a huge saucepan of Cawl on my tiny camping stove in the Wendy house of a public park. It was a very surreal experience. They left me in the camping spot the kindly pub owner had recommended, and headed home.
I had company to look forward to the next day too, my glorious friend Mel. There’s something about walking in step with someone for a while that does something great to your conversation.
But both days I really struggled going back to being alone after having people with me. I’m totally wired to be around people. There are sore muscles, aching feet and times of low energy, but by far the biggest personal challenge is spending so much time by myself.
The other challenge was that the walking difficulty on Offa’s was a massive step up from the coastal path.
The evening after walking with Mel, I camped in an amazing spot by a stream. Laying in bed I was watching the stream out of one tent door and the sunset out the other, and the most beautiful church bells I’ve ever heard were chiming somewhere close by. However in the morning I woke up to two horses breathing on my tent, and made a speedy getaway. It was meant to be a short walk from my random stream to Pandy. I planned to get there, get some breakfast and then do the actual walking for the day. But my supposed ‘short walk’ was actually a full on ten mile hike, a taster of the knackering terrain to come.
I knew that if I gritted my teeth and chugged on, rigidly holding on to my little Offa’s Dyke schedule, I’d have hated it. So I very intentionally took it slow. I took that afternoon off after getting to Pandy. When I strolled into Hay on Wye, I basically took a whole day off there too, getting lost in bookshops, quirky galleries and cafes. And I spent three full days at a friends prayer house outside Welshpool, hanging out with God and writing songs. Yet somehow I got to Chester and finished Offa’s Dyke exactly on schedule. Figure that one out.
It’s been a massive surprise to me how much I’ve been able to take in my stride (literally). I’d never have thought I could handle a whole day walking across the Black Mountains, alone, and be able to wild camp at the end of it. Or that I’d complete the notorious ‘switchback’ section and then go on to walk another 10 miles that same day. I can only imagine it’s called that because people take a look at how steep the hills are and think, “nah mate.” At one point you climb well over 100 metres (350 feet) in less than a quarter of a mile. If those numbers mean as little to you as they did to me, it’s the kind of steep that feels like you’re hanging on to the edge of the world by the tread of your boots.
But I have to say, the trip really took a turn for the kick-ass when I got caught in a snowstorm on top of Llanfair Hill. I’d walked in a light snow for a while, but then it came in thick and fast. I took of my backpack to put on waterproofs, saw it was caked in a thick layer of snow and realised waterproofs wouldn’t quite cut it. So, launching into a survival mode I didn’t know I had, I scanned for the nearest flat ground, climbed over a few gates to get there, put up my tent in record time and piled everything inside. It was a bit like a game of ‘get down Mr. President’ but with just me playing. I even gathered snow so I’d have enough water, made myself a hot water bottle from it and in the morning, filtered it using my aeropress so I could make breakfast. It was an incredibly cold night and even the condensation inside my tent froze, but I couldn’t help but think, “I can’t wait to tell this story.”
So, anyway. Offa’s Dyke was a great couple of weeks. The tag line on the signposts is ‘breathtaking borderlands’, which is true in the sense that it is a stunning stretch of British countryside, and also true as a nod to the amount of panting it takes to walk through it.
I’ve had moments where people’s hospitality have absolutely warmed my soul. Once, when I totally ran out of water, I’d asked two older gentlemen sitting outside their garage if I could fill up from their tap. Before I knew it I was sitting with them drinking coffee and being updated on all the village gossip. I left with a bottle of Roy’s homemade cider and the advice from his son-in-law to drink it when I was “done with walking hills for the day”. The night before it had snowed, June at Panpwnton Farm came out with a big woollen blanket for me having noticed the sudden cold snap. In Chester I had a great evening staying with the parents of a friend from uni, sitting for hours at the dining table talking about books and movies and the Bible with themselves and their guests. And not forgetting my own lovely dad sister for spending their bank holiday weekend trudging along beside me. People have, in so many ways, made me feel loved and looked after as I’ve bounced in and out of their borders. To them, and to all the people who have encouraged me, sponsored me or passed me on the path and said hello, thank you so much. I’ve hammered my feet but my heart is happy.