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Wales Walking

Taking in Welsh lore, rural byways and timeless vistas. as a solo rambler along the historic Offa's Dyke Path

June 07, 1998|SHARON ENRIGHT | Enright is a freelance writer based in Greenbrae, Calif

LLANVETHERINE, Wales — 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.

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