On the fourth day of my walking adventure in Wales, my B&B; host in this tiny village sketched what lay ahead of me on the Hatterall Ridge of the Black Mountains: "You'll be above the trees," he said, "the path is clear and straight, and you can see for miles down into the valleys on either side."
Two days later, as I stumbled along the rain-lashed ridge, the only view I had was of a thick mist rising from the valleys on either side, with an occasional glimpse of huddled mountain sheep sheltering amid the wind-blown bracken. Bending into the wind, I clutched my compass and consulted it often. As the guidebook noted for the walker in the Black Mountains, "in wet or misty weather, the chief joy must be in overcoming the conditions--and dangers." It was the mention of "precipitous edges" on either side of the flat ridge that made me pay particular attention. I was all alone. One misstep, and . . . .
When I decided that a solo walk along one of Britain's legendary long-distance footpaths would be a fitting way to celebrate my 50th birthday, my fantasies had not included a day like this.
Two hours later, I reached the sign for the cutoff to Llanthony, a village in the valley west of the ridge. I set off down the steep, muddy trail, and within half a mile I was below the clouds. My reward for "overcoming the conditions and dangers" was the otherworldly view stretched out below: the bright green pastures of the Vale of Ewyas and the ruins of Llanthony Priory shimmering in shafts of afternoon sunlight. Soon I was seated on an ancient stone bench in the priory's ruins (pictured on L1), drinking a welcome pint of the local stout I'd bought in the adjacent Abbey Hotel and congratulating myself for having avoided those precipitous edges.
I spent eight days last July walking in Wales, mostly on Offa's Dyke Path. This is a national trail that attempts to follow the line of earthworks erected in the 8th century, supposedly by King Offa to keep the Celts of Wales out of his corner of Saxon England.
Only occasional stretches of the original dike remain. Still, when walking along the top, I was impressed by the labor required more than 1,000 years ago to produce this massive mound of dirt and rock that ran the length of Wales, almost 200 miles.
While the storm in the Black Mountains was the most extreme weather I encountered, the contrast between the treeless ridge and the lush valley was not unusual. Each day as I moved along the footpath, the scenery changed, and more than once I mused that I might have fallen into a set designer's fantasy.
I began the walk with a climb out of Chepstow--the southernmost town on the English-Welsh border--up onto the limestone cliffs high above the Wye Valley. The weather was sunny; a light breeze was blowing. I had a reasonably light pack and a good French walking stick. I ate my sack lunch that first day perched near a rock outcropping that looked down on the roofless ruin of Tintern Abbey.
In "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," William Wordsworth wrote, in 1798, "In this moment there is life and food for future years." I felt well nourished by the panorama that spread beneath my feet.
Tales of King Arthur and his knights flourish in the borderlands. He is even reputed to have stopped for a nap in the cave under Chepstow Castle. Being enamored of all things chivalric, I detoured after a few days on Offa's Dyke Path to follow a 19-mile circular route called the Three Castles Walk.
The Grosmont, Skenfrith and White castles were built in the 11th century to protect the interests of the invading Normans. White Castle was the grandest of the three.
I entered on a bridge across a dry moat between the two round towers of a massive gate house. The afternoon sun lighted the grassy inner ward, and as I climbed the few safe staircases, I was awed by the size of the place. There were three separate enclosures, including an inner ward surrounded by a wet moat with steep stone sides, and an outer ward where whole armies would have camped. From the top of the tower, the view down across the valley made it clear that this was a fortress to be reckoned with.
Charmed as I was by the villages of Grosmont and Skenfrith, I had to remind myself of the oppression these castles stood for in the defeat of Welsh independence.
Leaving White Castle, I rejoined Offa's Dyke Path.
If my day of stumbling through wind and rain in the Black Mountains was the low point in my walk, the day that followed was sublime. I had spent the night in Capel-y-ffin at the Grange, a threadbare old place where my tiny bedroom was painted hot pink and featured a ceiling so steeply pitched I could barely stand and a bed with all the support of a hammock. The property, which included a 19th century monastery, was notable in that it was once owned by Eric Gill, an Arts and Crafts designer. Gill established a short-lived religious community here in the 1920s. It is now popular with pony trekkers, and as I learned that night at dinner, aesthetics are of little concern to the horsy folks this place attracts.
I'd chosen each night's lodging--mostly rooms in private homes--from a list sent by the Offa's Dyke Path Assn. The Grange turned out to be the only disappointment.
I arose early the next morning, not unhappy to leave the dusty disorder of the Grange behind, and set off on the narrow, paved road leading out of the Honddu Valley. Within a few miles, the traffic picked up and cars and vans were parked alongside the road. I noticed some people hoisting long canvas-wrapped bundles onto their shoulders as they started to climb the hill known as Hay Bluff. I looked up and was startled to see that the sky was full of colorful, drifting wings--hang gliders and paragliders, and even two kestrels who, like the bird men, were pleased to drift on the strong thermal updrafts.
Since it was Sunday, a crowd had gathered to watch the show. I bought a mint chip cone off the strategically placed ice cream wagon, found a perfect perch, and joined the sky gazers.
While not as high as Hay Bluff, the hill where I sat was still a good distance above the valley below, and when not looking up, I looked down to watch pony trekkers wending their way down the twisting trails.
After an hour of sitting still, it was time to move on. The evening's destination was one I had looked forward to since the first day of this adventure: Hay-on-Wye. A village of 1,400 inhabitants and 34 book stores, Hay is famous around the United Kingdom as a literary center.
When I arrived in Hay, having walked from Hay Bluff through several miles of pasture and woods, it was past 4 p.m. I was dismayed to find several charter buses parked in the village, but they were gone by nightfall.
I spent the next day wandering along the narrow streets from bookshop to bookshop. It can't be an exaggeration to say that Hay is home to several million books, ranging from hand printed, priceless antiquarian ones to broken-down paperbacks stacked haphazardly on outdoor racks.
I splurged and spent my two nights in Hay in the Old Black Lion Inn, which served as a coach stop in the 17th century but dates back to before the 13th. Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have stayed here while Hay Castle (currently the site--not surprisingly--of a bookstore) was under siege by his Roundheads. My room included an adjoining bath, where the glorious big tub and its very hot water served as the perfect welcome that first afternoon.
For eight days I'd walked almost entirely through rural landscapes. Back home I'd planned what I would cover each day, miscalculating the topographical map only once, when I discovered that an easy detour down to one village meant a difficult 1,200-foot march back up to rejoin the trail.
Offa's Dyke Path took me through the middle of farmyards and forests, and across footbridges fording small streams, and there were hundreds of times I climbed up and over stiles to cross fields of sheep or cows.
My adventure ended when I boarded a train in Knighton for a reunion with my daughter, who had been staying in the English town of Salisbury. Saying goodbye to the Welsh landscape (and vowing to return for the northern half of Offa's Dyke Path next spring), I found myself thinking about life in these isolated communities, particularly life before the automobile. The footpath was usually the shortest, most direct route from house to house or village to village. I thought about Jane Austen's stories, fueled by conversations or private thoughts the characters had while walking endlessly across fields and moors in all kinds of weather.
My walk brought me few profound thoughts but many small pleasures. When I think of Wales, I see castles and abbeys, and also a farmer and his border collie working the sheep, a pheasant moving through tall grass, a Welsh Tom Sawyer fishing his local stream, a carpenter restoring an ancient barn. As I walked toward my 50th year, I could agree with Wordsworth. Here, indeed, "there is life and food for future years."
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A Welsh Ramble
Getting there: American, Continental, United, Virgin Atlantic, New Zealand and British Airways fly nonstop LAX to London. Advance purchase fares start at $819 for travel after June 15; some restrictions apply. Rental car to Wales, or British Rail; U.S. telephone (800) 551-1977.
On the trail: The essential source for trail and accommodation guides, which can be ordered by mail, is the Offa's Dyke Assn., West Street, Knighton, Powys (Wales), LD7 1EN; tel. 011-44-1547-528-753.
Where to stay: Rooms in private homes, with breakfast, run $25 to $35 per person. Book in advance. Some hosts will deliver your pack to your next night's lodging.
My favorite was Brian and Gail Fitzpatrick's Brook Cottage in Llanvetherine; tel. 011-44-1873-821-315.
Where to eat: Village pubs were unremarkably the same. A notable exception was dinner at the Cromwell Restaurant in the Old Black Lion, Hay-on-Wye; tel. 011-44-1497-820-841.
For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; tel. (800) G0 2 BRITAIN (462-2748) or (212) 986-2200, fax (212) 986-1188, Internet http://www.visitbritain.com.