Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Offa’s Dyke 4: Llanthony–Hay-on-Wye

Ascent from Llanthony
Today’s walk was going to be one of the shorter routes along the path so I took my time getting started. It was just after 10am when I started following Munson’s fluffy white arse tail up Hatterrall Hill from Llanthony Priory. We lost a little time while I tried an alternate ascent path slightly to the north, but eventually found a compromise route that partly retraced yesterday’s descent and then branched away in the desired direction. For the longest time we saw nothing but sheep, ponies and a succession of stone cairns. Munson’s quite taken by the ponies – he makes no noise around them, and they don’t seem disturbed by his presence. The curious but foolhardy mountain sheep are another matter – they run across our path quite frequently or will even approach us, stamp out a little war dance and then run off.
So far I’ve only met two people doing a long stretch of Offa coming from the northern end. I saw the first crossing a field yesterday. I hailed him and asked if he was “doing Offa” and then pointed out the non-obvious exit point he should aim for. We had a loud brief conversation while separated by about fifteen metres – not because of unfriendliness but because the sheer thought of covering an extra unnecessary distance when you’ve already been walking for four hours is enough to root you to your current position. The second was a young guy who was doing the lower half of the trail from Knighton but he said he’d skipped some sections that looked dull or too onerous. I think we both would have liked to have talked some more but some rain was bearing in from the west, and we both had some distance to cover.
the little-changing path
Most of the walkers we encountered were doing circular paths that overlapped or intersected with Offa. An older couple from Nottingham did walking holidays all over Britain but said they were being deterred by the extraordinary expense of catching a train to any of the route terminus points. One could more cheaply fly to the Canary Islands for a week than do a short return train journey within their own country that might allow them to spend more money domestically on meals and accommodation. I said that while Travel Britain encourages people to come to Britain to partake of the sights outside London, the border control policies make that impractical for most. It’s that failure of “joined up thinking” in government whereby the USA (for example) has to keep revising its aggressive passport policies so that tourists can enter and keep the Disney parks in business.

When I do get a chance to walk alongside some fellow ramblers or stop to chat with folks sandwich-and-thermos-ing  in the furze, I do enjoy being able to respond to the “where are you walking to?” question with “Prestatyn”. In an age where people are reluctant to expend calories that aren’t supervised by a personal trainer, I think it’s great to remind people of the manageable challenges on their doorstep. If you’ve ever watched any of the many beautifully presented shows like Coast, Mountain, Wild Britain or Wainwright Walks you’ll know that the British Isles have an incredible diversity of landscapes to treasure and readily available to experience first-hand. Too many Britons seem to think that anything out of their county is out of reach. Recently I had a brief exchange online with a woman who claimed she couldn’t go to a dog event because it would take 11-12 hours to get there. She lived just off the M6 motorway which meant it was actually not much more than two hours; to drive from the farthest tip of Cornwall to the top of Scotland is fifteen hours, staying within England cuts the longest drive (Land’s End to Berwick) down to less than ten hours.
O2-UK's desperately poor serviceGPS on the borderKnowing I’m not likely to have any phone network coverage while I’m out walking, whether I’m in valley or on a hill-top, I’ve taken to opening my phone’s map application at breakfast and running through the route at high resolution so that all the map segments are downloaded and available during the day.  The alternative is that your GPS works but you’re just a shiny blue pearl in a field of grey graph-paper.

As you can see from the screen-shot on the right, our path takes us exactly along the Wales/England border. Even the weather gods recognise this: I’m simultaneously being lashed by cold rain on my Welsh side and sunburnt on the English. Navigation-wise this ridge-top is the easiest part of the route. As long as one doesn’t become dizzy and spin around in the opposite direction with almost identical landscape, there’s little question about where to put the next step.

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We’ve actually been walking steadily uphill for three and a half hours,  and finally attained the highest point of the whole Offa’s Dyke path around 1.30pm. From here the foot traffic picks up and we pass quite a few groups of walkers from Hay; families picnicking and enjoying the expansive views. 

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Coming down the hill is proving to be rather a feat of endurance; foot blisters and knee shocks conniving with the sheep running around and around us to inspect Munson, ensuring that every descending step  is a painful one.

Munson follows the acornfinal miles into Hay-on-Wye

From the base of the hill to Hay is a rather tedious roadside trudge on tarmac interspersed with more stiles, and I can feel my blisters grinding as I heave Munson over them. At 3.45pm we’re in Hay. I drop into the office of our booking service, which is open but deserted. We linger for about fifteen minutes while Munson drinks a bucket of water dry and I poke my head around corners calling out “helloooo”.

I give up on that and walk to the Seven Stars B&B near the centre of town. I’ve been to Hay so many times now that it’s like a second home when I’m in Wales. We’ve been assigned a room out the back which is in a cabin adjoining their indoor swimming pool. My dreams of drifting around that pool when my host said “I bet you were so keen to get in that pool, but sadly we’ve been forced to do a special chlorination and it won’t be safe to swim in till tomorrow”. My shoulders slumped like a Eurotiger economy.
Hay sightsBlister pack
Because of its proximity to the pool’s heating apparatus, the room was a bit warm for Munson but it did have the virtue of an exterior door so he could simply sit outside. Meanwhile I stripped off my shoes to inspect the blistery mess within. Both feet had long flat blisters across the balls with some inter-toe tributaries, the left foot had an incipient damp bit of skin that was ready to mature into something more substantial as sure as curd turns into cheese. The pièce de résistance was a giant fleshy liquid-filled protuberance on the outer face of my right heel. All needed tender care.

Which reminds me: pedometer says 36,890 steps / 27.7 km.

I switched into some sandals and hobbled around the corner to the pharmacy. I opened the door and without entering, smiled at an assistant and proclaimed “I want your finest blister dressings and don’t make me walk to find them!” It would have been great to underline this Withnail-fashion and fall flat on my face into the pharmacy, but I did manage to follow her a few metres into the heart of the store and started rummaging through the low shelves she’d pointed at. The selection was rather disappointing but my pathetic presence on the floor seemed to bring out the maternal instincts of everyone working there. There was much oohing and aahing over blisterus giganticus on my heel as if it were my conjoined twin, and as a team, helped me find appropriate bandaging and some muscle ointments laced with capsaicin. .Meanwhile Munson sat across the narrow street quietly winning hearts of his own. I guess that’s almost a redundant statement : “Munson sits in public place and makes new friends.”

At the pharmacyI bought a few different types of dressing, but found the most useful to be the Compeed variety which have a sturdy rubbery feel and completely enclose and cushion the blister to speed healing.
I then staggered on to a camping store and bought a pair of walking poles (no connection to Pawel Strzelecki) to aid me on further knee-jarring descents and occasionally use for cow-parrying.

On an earlier visit to Hay, I experienced an unusual coincidence, which I recount thus:

In Richard Booth’s main store I did have a curious moment of intuition. Having decided that I was a little too tired to focus properly, I started leaving the store. Passing the children’s bookshelves, I looked up and spied 3 copies of C.H.Abravanall’s 1947 title Prelude, a fantasy-laden rendering of pianist Eileen Joyce’s early childhood in Tasmania. I already had a copy of the book, but I whimsically thought “What if one of them were signed?”. I reached up for one book, turned to the title page and read an ink dedication “with love from Eileen & Twink xxx” OMG! I nearly flung the £2.50 on the counter to get it out of the store. In another bookshop that Bondi had insisted on entering (I think he liked the owner) I recounted this story. As I did so, I turned to the title page, and then noticed for the first time that the book had not only been signed by the subject, but by the author, on the prior page.

Jeremy Dronfield - The Alchemist's ApprenticeOn this visit, one of the books I’d packed was Jeremy Dronfield’s The Alchemist’s Apprentice. I started reading this while relaxing before dinner. I was only a few pages into it when I came to the following short passage:

What I really wanted to talk about was what happened … in Hay, in the Granary, at my table, with an empty coffee pot and a few flapjack crumbs remaining on my plate.

Not only am I in Hay, but the Granary café literally faces my B&B across the street!

I needed to pick up some more supplies for tomorrow, and some fresh meat for Munson and asked for directions to the town’s supermarket. I forgot that Hay, despite being a sizeable town and the host of a major annual literary festival is completely off the radar for most of the mobile telcos in the UK so I couldn’t just check an online map. I remember getting about one bar of phone service in 2005, now it’s completely null. The Co-op  is out on the periphery, actually across the border in England. My muscles are starting to freeze-up now that I’ve come to a stop so it took ages for me to walk out to it – I think without Munson’s forward momentum, I may have just ground to a stop. It was worth it because I got some fresh meat to add to Munson’s kibble and he ate it all up. I think his tummy problems are well past him now.
Evening in Hay at Kilvert's

Hay is a pretty dog-friendly town. At least 95% of the many bookstores welcome them, and a good percentage of those will make an extra effort to provide water or treats. The pubs and cafes are a different matter, and over the years the number welcoming them has dropped to bare toleration and then for the most part banning them. I believe this is happening in many places where the breweries buy out the owners and institute corporate policies in the manner of shopping malls which are all about maximising cash-flow and  removing all the human elements of a normal streetscape. After being rebuffed my at least three places I’d eaten at before with Bondi or Munson, we found Kilvert’s which was really dog-friendly and it took me a little time to notice all the dogs that were there, snoozing under tables and chairs. Munson is a more conspicuous consumer of space, provided a focus for five tables to knit together across the room in banter and often raucous laughter.

Between blisters, poor signage and muddled bookings this hasn’t been a fairy-tale walk up the yellow brick road to Prestatyn so far. I don’t really mind, the most they cost me is some time and minor discomfort. I’m not going to meaningfully take in the countryside any other way, and it really is a great bonding experience for Munson and me. I also enjoy the small encounters with walkers, B&B owners and other random individuals, memories to take home and savour in our small corner of France.

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