Thursday, August 11, 2011

WALES: Offa we go

Offa's Dyke trail

The big day has arrived: we drive to south Wales to begin our two-week trek along the English-Welsh border following the line of Offa’s Dyke.

British Kingdoms c800Offa’s Dyke is a long series of earthworks, up to 20m wide and 3m high following what is now the English-Welsh border, but at the time of construction 1200 years ago was the border of the kingdoms of Mercia and Powys. Offa was King of Mercia for nearly four decades leading up to 800AD, perhaps the most powerful Anglo-Saxon before Alfred the Great. He probably called on different peoples to build parts of the dyke as tribute to him. It doesn’t run the whole way from coast to coast, but fills in many of the gaps between the hills in this border territory.

2011 is the 40th anniversary of the Offa’s Dyke National Trail being opened to the rambling public.

As on my walk of the Great Glen Way with Bondi in 2005, I’ve used an agency to book all my accommodation along the route, plus transfers of my bags between each stay, and any pick-ups from the walking route to more distant accommodation. When your accommodation is tied so minutely to the stop-overs of a walking track, parcelled out into approximately 20km per day, you can’t easily wing it; you may find everything within a few km of your day’s walk is booked out, or indeed not dog-friendly.

Even with email and websites, booking B&Bs in the UK is not a straightforward matter. The proprietors  may not check their emails (or answering machines) more than a couple of times a week, and in many cases the internet side of the business may be handled by a friend or relative who forwards on booking information in a roundabout fashion. There are times when I’ve reached the proprietor by phone (quite lucky as they’re often out during the day) and found that they had no idea if they had vacancies on a particular date. Conversations may run like a conversation between Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister, the elderly couple on the Goon Show. Imagine if you will multiplying this out over attempting to book 14 consecutive nights, with the additional complications of having a dog, exploring possibility of an evening meal, acquiring transfers and so on.

For these reasons I prefer to use an agency with a network of B&Bs, farm-stays and pubs to handle all of these painful logistics. It wasn’t easy finding one to handle the Offa walk: the first five I applied to rejected me for having a dog. After that I mass emailed every other agency I could find, and took the first one who was happy to take both of us on.

Munson's cafe 
First matter of business for the day was a stop in at Munson’s Cafe in Ealing Road. Apart from all the usual happy reasons of returning to see familiar faces and streets, it would likely be our last chance for decent espresso till the walk was over. It’s ten months since our last visit, and we’re fortunate to strike Keith sitting outside the cafe, and then Mario, Pan and so many others who come up to say hello, find out where we’re travelling to this time. Warm feeling all around.


Then it’s off to the west, stopping only once at a highway services on the M4 for Munson to be emptied. There are so many dogs pouring out of the cars, all to be walked around the field adjoining the human services area. Munson is still a bit weak in the bowels but happy to exchange sniffing pleasantries with a few other dogs. They’re all so well behaved!

Over the Severn Bridge into Wales and almost immediately off the main road at Chepstow to locate our B&B. For a small extra fee, the car will be left here for the duration of our walk.

My packet of walking instructions was to have been sent from the agency to this B&B, and I arrived early so that I’d have ample time to go over everything, check details were consistent and divide up material between my overnight bags and the day bag I’d be walking with. This hadn’t arrived, and the B&B proprietor grumbled that this was pretty typical. She called the agency and they said that they hadn’t yet sent out the packet despite everything having been booked weeks ago; it should arrive by 9am the next morning, special delivery. I wasn’t terribly happy about this, but there was little I could do about it.

I’ve already read the first pages of the official Offa’s Dyke path guide which suggests doing the first few kilometres of the path on the evening before the first full day’s walk.

The start of the path is a half hour walk south of us, and as it turns out, a little difficult to find from the official guide. As usual the “all you’ll need” guides (1) don’t offer sufficient detail in built up areas where the paths tend to wiggle much more then they do in open countryside, and (2) mash up navigation details with historical background on the surroundings, usually glossing over any hidden turns or markers essential to the first-time walker of that path. With any luck, the yet-to-arrive walking packet will give me better maps for the remaining journey.

Munson in pack (incorrectly tied, fixed after this photo)Last week in Sweden I bought Munson a strap on pack for this walk. I’d tied it on him in the store and he walked around without making any fuss about it, which seemed like a good sign. I fitted it on him today but didn’t load it up; I just wanted him to get used to it over the short distance we’re about to cover.

Thus fitted out, we strode down a country lane towards Sedbury Cliffs...


  1. I guess your computer is working again. Yay, I've been missing these updates to find out what my neighbor is up to.

  2. The new computer is working. I'm pretty pleased with it. I ordered it from PowerC in the UK on Monday morning, it was built to my order and shipped in time to arrive 3 days later.

    I coincidentally got an email from Dell France to advertise price cuts on their XPS desktops. I worked out that in order to get equivalent features to my PowerC I'd have to pay at least 50% more, and wait around 14 days for delivery.