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Wales: A walk along Offa's Dyke Path with Bill Bryson

A convivial hike with author Bill Bryson on the Anglo-Welsh border features stops at bookstores and village pubs, plus encounters with shepherds.

April 02, 2012|By John Flinn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Llewelyn Morgan tends his flock near Llanfair Waterdine, Wales.
Llewelyn Morgan tends his flock near Llanfair Waterdine, Wales. (John Flinn, John Flinn )

— — WELSHPOOL, WalesBill Bryson leans his walking stick outside a tiny, rough-stone church, where a hand-lettered sign invites "Dykers" — that would be us — to step inside for orange juice, barley water, tea and coffee.

Cracking open my guidebook, I note that this Welsh hamlet's tradition of providing free refreshment to walkers and other travelers dates to a visit by King Charles II in the late 17th century.

"In that case," said Bryson, pouring us each a cup of tea, "you might want to check the sell-by date on that milk."

Since moving back to Britain in 2003, the author of "Notes From a Small Island," "A Short History of Nearly Everything," "At Home" and other bestsellers has been walking the hills and dales of his adopted country. Hiking here is nothing like the sweatily disagreeable trudge along the Appalachian Trail that Bryson recounted in his 1998 classic, "A Walk in the Woods."

Instead of staggering under 50-pound backpacks, we're carrying little more than rain jackets and toothbrushes. Rather than pitching tents on hard ground or sharing trail-side lean-tos with the funk-encrusted socks of other hikers, we're looking forward to soft beds, fresh sheets and hot showers in a succession of bed-and-breakfasts and repurposed manor houses.

On this hike there will be no boiling of noodles over a temperamental camp stove, no pressing of toilet paper into service as a coffee filter. We'll dine in convivial pubs and the occasional Indian restaurant, and start our days with a proper, full-bang English breakfast.

Our setting couldn't be more at odds with the tangled, bear-infested mountains harboring "armed, genetically challenged fellows named Zeke and Festus" that Bryson described in "A Walk in the Woods." We're strolling the gentle (well, mostly), beckoning hills along the Anglo-Welsh border, which at the moment are alive with newborn lambs and carpets of bluebells, and punctuated every few miles by handsome steepled villages.

"Compared to the Appalachian Trail, this is hiking at its wimpiest," said Bryson, pausing to take in the view of the plump and verdant Shropshire Hills. "But I much prefer it. On the AT, we were always stooped over, staring at our feet, like we were carrying a chest of drawers through the American wilderness. Here it's just a pleasant stroll in the country, and we've got a nice pub waiting for us at the end of the day."

I was accompanying the author and his regular hiking partners — Andrew Orme, a retired marketing executive, and Daniel Wiles, a retired television producer — on a six-day walk along part of Offa's Dyke Path, one ofBritain's19 official long-distance trails.

The pathway, which winds 177 miles from the River Severn in the south to the Irish Sea in the north, loosely follows an earthen "dyke," as the Brits spell it, "dike" as Americans do — a dirt wall and ditch — built in the late eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia to keep out the Welsh. Today the dike, the footpath and the modern border between England and Wales all traverse roughly the same ground, crisscrossing each other like strands in a braid.

We began in the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye, where it took some willpower to escape into the hills. Hay is home to at least 30 used and specialty bookstores, and its tangled warren of streets is lined with open-air bookcases sagging under the weight of tempting volumes. But any acquisitions would have to ride on our backs for the next 65 miles, so we followed the River Wye out of town, reluctantly unencumbered.

Our route traced a hedge-lined country lane and wandered past the tottering stone barn and outbuildings of a small farm, where the farmer, standing in mud-encrusted Wellington boots next to an ancient, mud-encrusted Range Rover, nodded a hello. At the edge of his pasture we scampered over a stile, a little stepladder to help walkers surmount fences and hedges.

Across large swaths of the bucolic British countryside, there is no such thing as trespassing. The British staunchly protect and defend their right to amble wherever their feet may take them — even across fenced-in pastures. It was enshrined in a national Right to Roam law in 2000, but the impulse dates back almost two centuries, when poet William Wordsworth described the Lake District as "a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy."

The landscape here is hardly in a league with the jaw-dropping spectacles of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but it's beguiling in a quiet and homey sort of way, and Bryson, for one, is exceedingly fond of it.

"It's certainly not a wilderness like you'd find in the U.S.," he said. "It's a handmade landscape, and it's been tinkered with and improved for centuries. The hedgerows and the barns and the little humpback bridges and the steeples are all there to serve a purpose, and the result is just accidentally gorgeous."

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