Offa’s Dyke: Day One

22nd August 2007 – Chepstow to Monmouth – 19.5 miles

As I left Upper Sedbury House the sun was already shining on what would be a lovely late-summers day. I retraced my steps along the small lane that leads to this secluded farmhouse and then up the hill through the town, back to the kissing gate and the lookout tower beyond it.

This is a wonderful old building set in front of a much more modern house and seems to be standing in defiance of the usual laws of gravity, the base is much crumbled away and a large arched doorway runs all through the tower.

The path now teases you with views of the River Wye until reaching Wintour’s Leap where you get a classic view (in all the guidebooks) of a loop in the river with a graceful curling sandbank topped with greenery rising from the brown muddy waters of the river. This is the last view of the river for a while and I now followed the way markers down the side of a row of houses, the narrow track seemed surprisingly overgrown with nettles and brambles for a national trail.

Bend in the River Wye, from Wintour’s LeapI left the traditional route at Dennelhill Farm and followed the minor road north to bag a trig point in a parcel of Forestry Commission land called The Park. A very handy footpath led from here back to the Offa’s Dyke path at the Devil’s Pulpit, another point of interest on any ODP walkers check list. This raised outcrop of stone affords the only view you are likely to get of Tintern Abbey, on the banks of the Wye far below, unless of course you decide to make a large detour.

The path now drops down through the wooded hillside to Brockweir, a small settlement beside the Wye. If you were to arrive here after noon you would get a chance to rest your feet in the pub. If, on the other hand, you arrive, like I did, long before that time, you have to make-do with the old bench by the bridge.

I’ve always said I prefer a water bottle to a bladder system, it’s generally easier to judge how much water you have left and if you can access the bottle easily, you don’t need to stop all the time to take on water. However, a little earlier in the year I had decided to take the plunge and join the 21st century and my rucksack now included a 3-litre Platypus, half filled on this occasion with water. The day was warm though and I had been taking lots of sips of water as I walked and I now felt sure that I wouldn’t have enough to see me through the rest of the day, especially if it got any hotter as the day progressed. This was a concern that gnawed away at me for the rest of the trip – I became obsessed with the amount of water I had and whether I would have enough to see me through to the end. It quickly became quite obvious, that I just hadn’t spent enough time adapting to this new hydration system.

The next possible place to get any water would be Lower Redbrook, a further 8 miles along the track. With the pub closed I had little chance of topping off the tanks, until I spotted a lady walking backwards and forwards from her house to her car with black bags. I left my pack on the bench by the bridge and walked over to see if she needed any help. I carried the last two bags, filled with the contents of her freezer, which had died the previous night to the boot of her car and then asked if I could get my water bottle topped up. She kindly obliged. I was carrying the bottle simply because it’s so difficult to fill a Platypus – you have to take the whole thing out of your pack, tube and all and then re-thread it all back in again. So I carry the water bottle in case I needed to top up during the day.

There is a choice of path at Brocksweir, although for the life of me I don’t know why. One option is to climb 700-800 feet up to St. Briavels Common, which sounds great, until you look at it on a map, you’re actually following a series of farm roads and country lanes for 3 or 4 miles. The other option is to walk the riverside path through the valley.

Water obsession alleviated, at least for the time being, I walked along the bank of the Wye. It was all green, flowery and very pleasant, but like canal towpath walking, it gets a bit monotonous after a mile or two. The village of Llandogo, on the opposite bank of the river is very picturesque, with the houses climbing up the side of the hill in a series of terraces and after a couple more miles I reached Bigsweir Bridge.

Here the path leaves the river bank and climbs the wooded hillside on its eastern side. After the bridge, I stopped at the first convenient seat sized rock I could find, beside a small car park in Slip Wood, for a bite to eat and a short rest. I’d taken just over 3 hours to cover the first 11 miles.

I had been deliberately trying to take it easy today, the 19.5 miles (and over 3000 feet of ascent) from Chepstow to Monmouth would be my longest walk since last May on the Coast to Coast and I didn’t want to bust a gut and suffer tomorrow. With hindsight I bit off more than I could chew in the first two days of this walk, 19.5 miles on the first day and 17 miles on the second was hard going, especially as I’d not been training as rigorously for this walk as I did for the C2C. I use this, in part, as an excuse for what happened later.

I was soon out of the wood and following a series of field boundaries with the wood on my left, hiding any views of the river below and fields on my right climbing steadily to the horizon 300 or 400 feet above.

You’re never far from the ubiquitous yellow markers pointing you along the national trail and this section seemed to be especially well populated. The local footpath volunteers that look after this section had obviously been issued with a new batch of markers and told to go forth and populate. They are needed in this section though, due to the large number of field boundaries, stiles and changes in direction it would be easy to miss the path and wander off.

A little way on (and several dozen stiles later) you leave Highbury Wood and are instantly rewarded with a magnificent view along the Wye valley, with the little villages of Lower and Upper Redbrook set out below you. The path descended, steeply in places, and one of the first buildings I came to was the “Bell Inn”.

It was gloriously cool inside out of what had become a very warm and sunny day. I polished off a pint of coke with loads of ice and instantly upset one of the locals by asking if I was in Wales or England. There is a point in the village, somewhere between Lower and Upper, where one side of the street is Welsh (look you) and the other side is English. The Bell Inn was English.

I left the Redbrooks behind and began the 800 foot climb up to the Kymin, I took 45 minutes over this mile and a half section – I was really trying to take it easy. There is a splendid Naval Temple at the top of the Kymin, a fine memorial to the admirals who served Britannia when we ruled all the oceans of the world. Hawke and Hood, Vincent and Nelson amongst others. The memorial was raised in 1800, when we were a proud nation, when we were proud to acknowledge the achievements of the men in our armed forces. Now we seem to be permanently afraid of upsetting one section of society or another by honouring those who serve our country.

The views from the Kymin are as inspiring as the Temple itself and I could see the hills that awaited me in two days time and the much closer, welcome sight of Monmouth. I made another steep descent into Monmouth, sorry Drefynwy as the sign by the road proclaimed; we are definitely in Wales now. I crossed the fine Wye Bridge and walked into the main street looking for a reasonable pub to sit down out of the sun and take on some fluids.

It was approaching 16:00 when I left the pub and walked through the town to my B&B for the night. This was located in a very residential neighbourhood, in a modern semi-detached, it looked like I had their son’s room while he was away at University. The landlady was very attentive and well organised and I enjoyed tea and biscuits in my room while I cleaned what kit was dirty and set it on the radiator to dry. I checked the Platypus and found I still had over 1/2 a litre left in it. Only slightly less than I had received from the lady in Brockweir. Looking at the map I could see that there would be nowhere to top up tomorrow, not until 12 miles into the day, so I resolved to carry at least 2 litres in the Platypus. This adds two kilos to the pack weight of course, which already felt very heavy by the end of this first day.

I walked back into town a little later and had a couple of reasonable pints of Courage in the first pub I found, the “Gatehouse”, followed by excellent pie, sausage and chips sitting on the parapet of the old gatehouse bridge looking down onto the river. I couldn’t finish all the chips, which shows how big the portions were. I found a shop to buy supplies for next day’s lunch and then wandered back to the B&B for an early night.

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