Tess Haynes has tackled all three sections of the Offa’s Dyke Path over three years. She found it an uplifting challenge both physically and psychologically, with thoughtful and inspirational fellow walkers connecting with an ancient landscape over more than 170 miles of history. Here’s her story.
As a keen hiker I decided to embark on my first UK National Trail. Offa’s Dyke seemed an ideal choice and I was able to book a week a year through Ramblers Walking Holidays. Little did I know as I was taking my first few steps south that I would forge friendships, reconnect with our wonderful countryside and gain the enthusiasm to learn how to map read.
First up, the Northern Section. At our first briefing we learnt that Offa’s Dyke is a linear 177-mile pathway starting at Prestatyn and finishing in Chepstow. It was basically a ditch and bank deterrent built by the King of Mercia 1200 years ago as a frontier to keep the Welsh from their former lands. As we set off following the acorn sign-posts, we immediately went up heading towards the Clwydian HilIs. During the wet and windy week we passed hill forts, marvelled at the skill of mountain bikers at Llandegla and saw alpine flowers clinging on to Castell Dinas Bran. We gained a head for heights as we walked over Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and recovered with an ice-cream at the section’s end at Chirk Castle. I was with a quiet reflective group who kept their counsel and gained inner strength, snug and warm in their waterproofs. I think Offa would have understood the seriousness of their personal quests as they looked forward to hot showers and delicious food each night.
The challenging Central Section from Chirk to Kington allows you to meet the River Seven and her plains, the Beacon Ring Hill and the half-way point at Knighton. The week was warm and dry and for me it was like stepping into a Springwatch Special, with memories of yellowhammers, hedge warblers, buzzards and tree creepers. This Section was led by Ramblers leader Trevor, and along with three other guests, we followed him through to the Southern Section. Here the leadership changed to his wife Jenny, who led us right to journey’s end at Chepstow. Trevor and Jenny are the embodiment of good leadership. Confident navigators, friendly hosts, yet kind when pushing you out of your comfort zone. However, during the evening briefs they both spoke in strange tongues – surrounded by OS maps talking softly about handrails, catching features and bearings. I was sure that my lack of understanding had nothing to do with the G&T that I was drinking. But just to make sure I had another one and decided to add the Ramblers ‘Learn how to Navigate’ course on my “to do” list.
I joined a very happy band of explorers for the Southern Section. We were blessed with good weather and a tangible feel that we were nearing the end. A fellow walker had a stowaway onboard who went by the name of Ted and who quickly became our group mascot and popped up in all the photos. This section from Kington to Chepstow takes in Hergest Ridge, where wild ponies guard the summit. Sound familiar? It’s the title of Mike Oldfield’s second album following his success with Tubular Bells and where he was living at the time. We browsed the bookshops in Hay on Wye and at The Kymin we learnt how Nelson during a visit in 1802 described the River Wye as a “a little gut of a river”. Thankfully our composure was restored by the time we had our sandwiches overlooking Tintern Abbey.
Oh the irony – what would Offa think of a bunch of English and a sprinkle of Americans yomping along his beloved Dyke, being led by a Welsh leader speaking in her first language! ‘Cariad’ is a Welsh term of endearment and so fitting as everyone I met had a life story to tell, from family struggles and heartbreak to overcoming illness and inspirational life achievements. Walking is cathartic and allows a reconnection to our wonderful countryside, grounding our very being and uplifting our souls. On reaching the end high atop Sedbury Cliffs, Trevor magically produced two bottles of bubbles to celebrate. With good cheer and a few tears we toasted Offa and started to discuss what next? Hadrian’s Wall or Coast to Coast? Let’s flip a coin to decide. Oh yes, did you know that Offa established the penny as England's standard monetary unit? Well I never!