You will remember that at school, there was always one teacher who insisted on working right up to the end of term, even if it was your very last term and you were done. They were the ones who set latin transaltions or maths papers in the last lesson, despite the fact that everybody else in the school was playing general knowledge quizzes or readimg Asterix comics. Well, today, my last day before finishing the Offa’s Dyke Trail, I was in the frame of mind for a gentle stroll off the Clywd Hills gently sauntering through peaceful lanes sloping inexorably, but not strenuously down towards the shore line and the finsihing post by the beach in Prestatyn. Crossing a few fields, rambling underneath the escarpments of a ruined castle, the screech of seagulls accompanying me to the waves lapping on the sands of Prestatyn beach. You get the picture.
The final leg is however made in the mould of that odious teacher and come to think of it, that teacher was very probably welsh. Anyway, there was no gentle stroll, no sauntering, no meandering down leafy lanes to the approaching beaches, but instead a little compact overture containing all of the melodies and primary themes from the previous nine days all rolled into the space of 11.5 miles. All my friends from the past 150 miles were there to pay their compliments and to ensure that whatever happened, I would not forget them: there were Moels aplenty, four if I counted correctly, two of them with ascents, if only a few hundred metres of such stupendous steepness that they were almost parodies of Moels. Then there were all the varieties of mud that I have encountered during the Trail: lazy mud, squelchy mud, sticky mud, slippy mud, mud with sheep droppings, mud with horse manure, mud with grass, mud straight, no ice or lemon. Sometimes the mud was so egregiously copious that I had to laugh out loud, exclaiming “Yes, alright, I understand this is a muddy field. No need to lay it on quite this thick.” There was even my friend the “eight inch footpath on cliff edge” on the last and final stretch before the path finally descended down into the town. Of course the cousins of the Moel family were in plentiful supply: Backbreaking vertical ascent and footwrenching slippery descent. I even managed to lose the Trail at one stage – in the middle of a field – an experience, which I was sure I would not have to repeat again.
And some new friends: a whole field of gorse bushes (the welsh equivalent of cactus) through which I had to battle as a result of losing the Trail ( see above), a stile with sheep dung placed (pooed) strategically on the top of the wall, just so that it was invsible until you (I) put my hand on it to heave myself over (don’t even ask how a sheep managed to get up on the wall and why it decided to poo just there). And there were two llamas hissing and spitting like a pair of large sheep crossed with a rattlesnake, guarding the entrance to a farm at a critical junction on the trail – I do not have enough experience in war zone reporting to have the presence of mind to whip my camera out at moments like that, so you will have to take my word for it.
But it was the Moels that did me today. There was no undulation too small or irrelevant between Bodfari and the coast which Offa and his latter days Trail designers deemed unworthy of directing the path over. The Trail led over every hill imaginable and just when I was convinced that this one had to be the very last possibility, wham another Moel was produced out of thin air and up we went again. Even when we had run out of space in front of us, it was not too much trouble to take the next hill adjacent to us and it got to the point where I was so tired and so exasperated and so desparate finally to put the last Moel behind me and get down into town and on to the beach, that I think I would have wept, if there had been just one more hill to clamber up after what proved to be the final one.
It was only 11.5 miles today and therefore one of the shorter days walking and indeed having started at 0700 in the pitch black of the pre-dawn morning, I was in town and on the beach at just before 1400. However the effort of walking those last miles, combined with my rising impatience at wanting to get to the beach, which was always tantalisingly visible behind the next Moel, made for a hard test on the this last leg. However, there were many, many wonderful moments during the day: a glorious dawn over the Clywd Mountains, that first sight of the sea as I came out of a forest and onto a large open field high above the plain below, the round of applause from a large group of elderly walkers, who looked equipped for a professional intenational walking competition, as we crossed on a narrow path and their leader immediately accosted me with “You’ve just walked Offas Dyke, haven’t you? You’ve got that look in your eye!; the walk barefoot over the sand to the waters edge and the delicious sensation of ice cold Atlantic energising my throbbing feet and the cup of tea and deformed ginger fudge, sitting on a bench on the promenade, having just put on my last pair of clean woollen socks, saved especially for the occassion.
It has been a wonderful, wonderful walk: exhilarating, physically testing, enormously varied, with mostly much better weather than I had any right to expect for this time of year, good, honest food, and one or two examples of exceptionally good cooking in two pubs, views that will remain with me until I die and the unconditionally friendliness of the few people I did meet and who looked after me in their homes, inns and hotels on my way. I cannot quite believe that tomorrow I will not be shouldering my pack and spending the day covering 15 miles in the countryside somewhere and I miss it already. But it really was a great start to the new year.
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When I did the O.D.P. in 2012, I was very surprised at how poorly marked it was in places, I found myself repeated carrying my Ciccerone guide in my hand such was the frequency at times that I had to consult it. I can remember one particularly large field just before Bodfari which I ended up walking the perimeter 2 times before deciding which exit was most likely to be the correct one. An infinitely more difficult walk than the West Highland Way but the experience of removing boots and socks for a paddle at Prestatyn was savoured to the full.
I remember that field! It was steep and wet and I was aching to get down and in front of a fire after the long crossing. But I must have been lucky – or the signage had been significantly improved in the intervening two years – as I found the exit immediately. I loved that walk and am probably going to do it again soon.