Leaving Kington on a cold damp drizzly morning proved difficult and despite my very best intentions of getting off and onto the the Trail at 0730, willingly assisted by Adam who had my breakfast ready at 0700, I was thwarted by my trusty guidebook and spent thre quarters of an hour on a wild goose chase through the alleys and footpaths of downtown Kington, a town whose backstreets I now know better than I ever wanted to. Finally on the track at 0820 I left Kington on an uphill climb of such steep ascent that I was exhausted and ready for a cup of tea before I had even tucked a mile under my belt. The last 100 yards of the ascent crossed the fairway of the Kngton Golf Course and there is nothing more disconcerting than struggling up a hill only to find a relaxed group of men in light attire knocking a little ball over the grass. I felt mocked.
I was still deciding what sort of a mood I was in and whether today was going to be a good day or not, when after a further mile, I stumble across a large mound running across my path which then turned and ran parallel to it. It took me a few seconds to register that this indeed was Offas famous Dyke and that after five days of walking on it in name only I had finally discovered it! I had read in the guide book and seen on the maps that at around this point north of Kington the Dyke and the Trail joined together, but I had not imagined how it would be to see it and walk on it. Offa saved the day and made a grey, wet and muddy walk into an adventure as Offa kept me company for the rest of the day as I crossed and re-crossed the Dyke and marvelled at the extraordinary feat of engineering and design that resulted in the building of this military boundary.
It doesn’t look like much, but at the time of its construction around 780 AD it was three metres from top to bottom, was constructed along its 180 mile length (there is some dispute about the actual length but later a medieval poet sings of Offas Dyke stretching from “sea to sea”) and was completed in around 5 years. I spent a lot of the day wondering about the economic impact of 100s if not thousands of men pressed from the tenant lords estates at Offas behest spending gruelling days and months for little if any pay, neglecting their farms and families and suffering great privations in Offas service building what must have been the greatest civil engineering project of the pre-medieval age. As it happens, the truth is a great deal more palatable and a remarkable testament to Offas skill as a manager. Initially, records that I inspected in the Dyke Centre in Knighton this morning show, the whole Dyke was staked out by his team who placed torches and stakes at regular intervals using the lie of the land to give maximum protective design to the wall. Then local farmers were paid to plow a line between the stakes and each manor was instructed to supply one man to work a four foot 2 inch section of the Dyke with his own equipment and working in teams of five. Manors which were unable to supply a man were expected to supply food and drink instead. When a man had completed his alloted section he was free to return home. In this way not only was the Dyke completed according to a precisely calculated budget (Offa knew how long the Dyke would be, how many manors were in his kingdom, how many men he would have a his disposal and how much earth one man could sensibly move without exhausting him and rendering him unfit for his normal work and the benefit in terms of speed and quality in defining the precise terms of each mans input and the benefit of working in teams).
Late afternoon saw me tramping down the road off the tops into Knighton into the welcoming arms (more or less) of the Knighton Hotel and a proper Hotel room with a modern bath and a huge bed. Feet aching – I dont even want to begin describe the mess the little toe on my right foot is in – and body crunched from the difficult muddy ground, that, apart from one glorious section over Hawthorn Hill from Dolly Green at the end of the day, had characterised most of the trail from Kington, I made the decision to give my self a break today. Consequently I have spent the morning in the Offas Dyke Centre, planned my route and decided on the section that I am going to leave out in order to be able to make the walk into Prestatyn by Wednesday morning. So I am off to Llangollan (pronounced Chlangochlin with a hard “ch”) by train and bus (and donkey) this afternoon and tackling the mountain range in north Wales on the last three days. I am curious to know how many toes I will be coming home with.
A small aside: I decided to eschew shaving for the duration of my trip, mostly because my girls had asked several holidays ago whether I could grow a beard. I couldn’t answer them because I had never tried and all my previous attempts had been aborted on day two after the itching became unbearable. I now have the makings of a beard and one question only to the perma-beardies of my acquaintance: How do you stand it!!!? Having itched this far, I am keeping it on until i return home, pose for the photos with the girls for posterity and then off it comes!