odfari – Never been so glad to see such a sparse little village

There’s no telling what sort of jibberish is going to be coming out of my pen this evening. I am finally in front of a fire again, slowly drying and thawing out after an outlandishly exhausting 17 mile march across the Clywd National Park, taking in pretty much all of the summits that make up the mountain range within it. The photograph below was taken at around 0930 and shows my route, as I understood it to be, in my early morning optimism, with the last peak on the left being my final one. Fat chance, as I was discover during the following seven hours.

I had just completed a steep ascent onto the high ground and could see the various peaks of the Clywd range waiting for me to stroll over them on my way to Bodfari. My worry over the last few days, that the weather would be too inclement for me to navigate this longest up mountainous sections safely (I was going to do it whatever, but better weather would be, well, better), proved unfounded as the early morning shower had given way to a virtually cloudless sky and the probable prospect of decent weather, at least until I had scaled Moel Famau, the highest point on the traverse. What it doesn’t say in the instruction manual is that, between each of those peaks, there is a descent almost to the valley, only to start up on the next ascent almost immediately. Imagine a series of V- shaped ascents and descents, the top of each one called Moel something or other and you have a pretty good idea of the Clywd range. It doesn’t matter, by the way, how many Vs you decide to arrange in sequence, because after number three you are so exhausted that your mind numbs to each further one. Even my OS map was fooled and seemed to be a surprised as I was, when we arrived at what we both thought was the final Moel before we, finally and very deservedly, were going to be allowed to meander down to Bodfari, when whoosh, up we went again to the unpronouncable Penycloddiau fort. By this time it was getting dark and starting to rain and my hands, despite the gloves, were freezing from the icy strong wind that had been howling in my back from the south west almost all day.

The highest point of the trail (overall, I think) was Moel Famau (which I keep referring to in my head – remember I have had no-one to talk to for over 10 days, except people who say “Will that be all, love?” at some stage during our exchange – as Mo Farrer) at 554m. Moel Famau is famous for the Jubilee Tower, a hideous construction which squats like a giant version of Jabba the Hut in stone atop the equally hideous moonscaped summit of the mountain itself. The 360 degree views from the top are, admittedly, glorious, but the only impression I took with me was of the dark clouds rapidly forming in the south and being pushed towards us at rapid speed.

The final descent to Bodfari was a two mile walk down very steep tracks and field paths, horribly slippy and getting slippier by the minute, as the rain set in. I keep forgetting – and this happens every day – that even though the last sign that says “XYZ village 2 m” (that’s an example, not a Welsh name), gives me the feeling, after around 14 m, that we are almost there, those 2 ms are just as long as the first 2 ms of the day and indeed all the other 2ms inbetween, with the one exception that, irrespective of how far I have gone, I never really want to walk for more than 1 m at the most and my energy and feet awareness levels are at their low respectively their high points. Added to which in this part of the world, the last 2ms are invariably over very steep slippery banks or equally steep metalled roads and after 140 miles, I am still not sure which is worse.

As if to punish me for grumbling so much after what had been a wonderfully invigorating and exciting day’s walking, the last m seemed to go on forever and it was very dark and very rainy when I finally arrived at my accomodation, the Downing Arms in Bodfari. You can imagine how my entire being was screaming for a cup of tea, the chance to take my boots off and the prospect of a bath. It was 1705 when I arrived and found..the pub was shut and a sign informed me politely that the opening hours were from 1800. I resigned myself to an hour in the pouring rain sitting at a drenched bench-table by the side of the main road, watching the evening traffic go by. As it happens, my wait wasn’t quite that bad and the publican arrived to show me to the fire and to my quarters. I am not going to dwell on my room tonight, suffise it to say, if this were any other month than January, I would probably be sharing the room with 5 others in the bunk beds and arranging myself with my roommates in the outdoor shower house, the floor of which is not quite finished. I knew that I was going to have to pay the price for my night of luxury in Bodidris Hall Hotel last night. I have now experienced both ends of the scale described by “four poster bed” within 24 hours.

Tomorrow I start at 0700 – nothing is going to keep me in that room a minute longer than necessary – for the final leg to Prestatyn. Tradition states that those who have successfully completed the Offas Dyke Trail walk down to the beach and take off their boots and socks and wash their feet in the North Sea. I can’t wait.

Llangollan and Llandegla – Up, over, along and up again

The last two days have been wonderful: Yesterday I awoke to crystal clear blue sky that stayed with me all day as I travelled by train and bus from Kinghton to Llangollan via Shrewsbury and for the afternoon I spent in the delightful market town of Llangollan. Llangollan takes the prize for being the friendliest, most self-confident and active town on my route so far and given the paucity of towns on the journey ahead of me I think the title is pretty safe.

Llangollan_on_the_River_Dee.JPGI spent a few blissful hours wandering around without my backpack (a luxury in a category all of its own) popping into various shops most of them having some connection with food. There was Mary at the bakers who supplied my with my Eccles cakes for todays trip and the wonderfully aristocratic lady from the cheese shop who supplied me with a stilton pork pie and a large slice of Caerphilly cheese and would have happily filles a second rucksack with goodies. She will stay in my memory for the answer she gave me to my question for directions to my B&B “Oh I have no idea what any of the streets here are called, I don’t even know which street we are on.” How laid back is that (and the answer is Church St.). Fortunately, Mark (a different Mark this time) from the Outdoor Equipment shop, a new category of establishment in which I have developed a heightened interest, was able to help out, but not before spending an hour pouring over ordinance survey maps of the Offas Dyke route and regaling me with stories from his ODT trip last summer with a mate. He managed the whole route in 7 days, bivouaking every night and marching 10 hours a day. He admitted to having to be almost carried the last stretch downhill to Prestatyn, but was a great encourager and gave me the only pub recommendation of the trip, The Crown in Llandegla, which I promptly tried out today and had the best tomato soup and toasted ciabatta, along with a robust conversation with two farmers and a woodman on the relative merits of being outside volontarily at this time of year. It was a three to one opinion split.

Castle_Dinas.JPGToday’s walk from Llangollan to Llandegla has been just amazing and amazingly varied. This section took me from the centre of town straight up – almost vertically, although I suspect after reviewing the last 5 posts it is apparent that I don’t need to emphasise that aspect: every moring starts with a vertical ascent – to the hill top upon whose summit the ruins of Dinas Castle can be seen from miles around.

The weather was fine enough with a good showing of sun, but an icy wind and a dusting of frost on the turf, which, joy of joys, had hardened the ground to make for easier going. The weather ahead in the North was looking less comforting, but the morning climb and descent was magnificent. I pocked up the official Trail route again after leaving the castle hill and spent the next three and half miles hugging the side of the massive rock formation on the road initially, thereafter on a small track which became successively smaller until it was only foot wide. It reached its slimmest point at the section at which I was both at my highest and the fall away of the terrain to my left at it its steepest. Of course. I navigated that section very well by forcing myself to think of all the places in the Alps at home that I had been in similar positions with narrower paths and steeper inclines. I couldn’t think of any, but the exercise took my mind off the predicament long enough for me to traverse it in one piece. I heard once, from a master pickpocket I recall, that the human mind can only focus on one thing at a time, which is useful to know when there are things about which you definitely do not want be thinking. That track led me to the aptly named Worlds End, which marked the end of that mountain, just as the clouds enveloped it and me and reducing visibility down to about 50 yards. Just in time.

Worlds_End.JPGOnce off the top and up the next valley, the next section of todays adventure playground was revealed to me as the Trail was signposted off across a heather moor for about a mile and half. Nothing difficult about that, except dor the fact that visibility was seriously impaired by this time and the track, how shall I put it, not always easiƶy recognisable as such. Time for the compass and a come hell or high-water march off at 320 degrees in a northwesterly direction in the hope that I would hit the edge of Llandegla forest at roughly the right point. It was an eary feeling walking half-blind across the open moor in the fog, with only strange wildlife noises echoing across the emptiness. One sound that I couldn’t for the life of me put a creature to, a cross between a screech and a growl, reminded me of nothing so much as a Roc (you remember the big bird from Sinbad the Sailor), but they are probably rarely seen in North Wales. Whatever that section felt like a scene from the hound of the Baskervilles and ended with my arriving exactly where I planned to be (“Wilkinson! Wipe that smug look off your face”) for the start of section three which will call “Hansel and Gretel forest”.Directly on leaving the moor and the Bodidris_Hotel_Stables.JPGcloud, I entered a dense, dark green pine forest, the first and certainly the biggest I have come across on the Trail. It was so dark and so dense, that I thought seriously about trailing crumbs from my KitKat in case I had to find my way back, only to remember that that trick didn’t work for Hansel and Gretel either. So it was either Gingerbread House with witch or the Crown at Llandegla. An hour later, I was slurping soup at the crown with my KitKat safe and sound in my pocket.

I am now esconced in a deep armchair in front of a roaring, well-established fireplace, a pot of tea by my side in Bodidris Hall , a small hotel about a mile off the trail and am preparing myself for tomorrow’s long slog over the top of Moel Famau in the middle of the Clwyd National Park on my way to Bodfari and the penultimate stop. The weather is turning very cold and windy and I have no idea how navigable the tops will be. But I have my Kitkat and a compass and at least I konwI have think of something else if it starts getting tight.

Knighton – Offas Dyke Centre and end of the Southern half

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!