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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

Since 2007, Bryson has served as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and he's worried that the landscape is losing its distinctive visage as its hedgerows vanish. By one count, more than a third of all the hedges in Britain — 120,000 miles of them — have been uprooted since the mid-1980s because of maintenance costs or large-scale plowing.

"Without hedgerows, this could be Iowa," said Bryson, pointing to a distant hillside where they have been torn out. "It's not just the way they give a pattern to the land. They're an ecosystem all to themselves, a home to hundreds of species of birds and mice and hedgehogs. They're our Great Barrier Reef."

Late that afternoon, in the somnolent hamlet of Gladestry, we came upon another endangered feature of the British countryside, the village pub.

Dating to 1650, with heavy oak beams, an uneven flagstone floor and a crackling fire in the hearth, the Royal Oak Inn was a classic of the genre. Four village residents clustered around the bar, bantering in either (I couldn't tell which) Welsh or heavily Welsh-accented English. They welcomed us into their conversation, but I couldn't understand more than a word or two. I just smiled appreciatively and tried to chuckle when everyone else did.

It made for a more entertaining evening than what Bryson usually endured on the Appalachian Trail.

"When I was doing the hike with my friend Katz, there wasn't much to do at night except sit on a log for a while, then crawl into a tent on hard ground," said Bryson as he sipped a pint of Butty Bach ale. "This is so much more civilized."

But as owner Brian Hall checked us into our upstairs bedrooms, he lamented that running a country pub was more of a challenge than he had expected when he retired and moved here from England. "If I knew what I was getting into, I'm not sure I would have done it."

Since 2005, according to the Economist, 6,000 British pubs — about 10% of the total — have shut their doors, victims of consolidation by chains, a nationwide smoking ban and changing social habits.

"Traditionally, pubs like this have been the village's living room," said Bryson. "It's where you came to meet your neighbors, swap gossip and participate in the social life of the community. But these days people would rather stay home and have a glass of wine in front of the TV."

Over the next five days, wandering back and forth across the Anglo-Welsh border — which was rarely marked — we walked alongside Offa's Dyke for long stretches and even atop it for a short spell.

A weathered mound of dirt 4 to 8 feet high, it's not nearly as impressive as the Roman-built Hadrian's Wall, which stretches imperially across northern England. King Offa appears to have constructed his dike more as a line of demarcation — a political statement — than as an actual defensive barrier.

But woe to anyone caught on the wrong side of it in Offa's day. According to George Borrow's "Wild Wales," "it was customary for the English to cut off the ears of every Welshman who was found to the east of the dike, and for the Welsh to hang every Englishman whom they found to the west of it."

It's been called "England's greatest surviving Anglo-Saxon monument." It's certainly the longest.

One afternoon, as we left the dike and descended a steep hillside above the village of Llanfair Waterdine, we heard a bleating commotion and looked down to see a roiling sea of wool surging toward us.

Llewelyn Morgan, a shepherd straight out of central casting, was moving his flock to a higher pasture. Actually, his dog Sandy, an energetic and no-nonsense taskmaster, was doing all the heavy lifting. Morgan flashed hand signals and occasionally whistled, and Sandy raced back and forth around the perimeter of the flock, herding them into a tight, orderly bunch. Once a couple of sheep made a mad dash to escape, but Sandy chased them down and coerced them back to the flock, nipping at their heels.

Elsewhere in Britain, I've attended formal sheep dog trials, but there's nothing like seeing the real thing in action.

"I could have four men helping me," said Morgan, "but they couldn't do what Sandy does."

As we chatted with Morgan, I tried to burn the scene into my memory. For this too was another tableau of British country life that could be gone a generation from now. The next day we came across a younger shepherd herding his flock. He had no dog, and he was riding an all-terrain vehicle.

"That's what's so wonderful about walking," Bryson said later. "If we were passing by at 60 mph on the motorway, we wouldn't have seen any of this."

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