Cicerone author Mike Dunn explores the Offa's Dyke Path National Trail, a long-distance walk along the English-Welsh border between Sedbury (near Chepstow) and Prestatyn. He discoveres more about one of Britain's ancient monuments and uncoveres an area of remarkable historical and natural richness.
It’s late afternoon, the autumn sun still strong enough to bathe the bracken-strewn slopes of the Welsh border hills in shades of green and gold, and I’m on Hergest ridge for the fourth time in a year, taking the last photographs for Offa’s Dyke Path. If there’s one stage of the National Trail that sums the whole trail up, and draws me back time and again, this is it: 14 comfortable miles from Hay-on-Wye to Kington, with easy slopes and a kaleidoscope of unforgettable views. From the curious clump of monkey-puzzle trees on Hergest summit there are views all round, from Radnor Forest to the Clee Hills, the distant Malverns and the blue northern scarp of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons. A sensational day’s walking, 14 miles of pure delight, and it doesn’t even have the Saxon monument thrown up by King Offa for company…
But for 60 spectacular miles the extraordinary earthwork of Offa’s Dyke, by some distance Britain’s longest ancient monument, does accompany the National Trail. It is an astonishing feat of construction and even now, more than a millennium after its construction, stands as a stunning testament to the determination and organisational skill of its creators, forming a dramatic landscape feature etched across the rolling hills of the Welsh Marches. Yet it remains an enigma: there is little documentary evidence relating to its construction, and so its purpose, extent and even its age are all the subject of vigorous dispute.
Offa’s Dyke walkers have an unparalleled opportunity to appreciate the scale of the construction work involved in creating the Dyke, and in particular the way in which it was planned and engineered. The whole walk is magnificent; one of the real classics among Britain’s challenge walks, the trail offers an unforgettable journey between the Severn estuary and the north Wales coast, conquering mountain ranges, contouring above the Wye and Dee, visiting superb hillforts and Norman castles, and exploring the hidden heritage of the Marches.
The natural and historic landscapes through which the National Trail passes are magical and inspiring.
The natural landscape is one of vivid colour and extraordinary contrasts, a kaleidoscope of intimate scenery interspersed with wide-ranging and inspiring views.
The historic landscapes of the Welsh Marches weave a rich tapestry, too, reflecting the troubled past of a border region where rival tribes disputed territory and defended it with dykes, hillforts and castles on a scale unknown elsewhere in Britain.
Offa’s Dyke Path is easily accessed, the walking is only rarely arduous and the waymarking is excellent, so that experiencing this rich heritage by walking the trail is surprisingly easy. Much of the route lies through the farmed landscape, from the cider orchards of Monmouthshire to the dairy farms of the vale of Montgomery and the sheep pastures of Clun forest. Other sections make use of old drove roads, ancient tracks and field paths, while the moorland sections provide wonderful, airy walking on high ridges.
How long does it take? The beauty of Offa’s Dyke Path is that there is no one answer to the question, and individual walkers can adopt a variety of different strategies to suit their interests and circumstances.
The whole trail can comfortably be walked within a fortnight, and indeed strong walkers might aim to complete the walk in not much more than a week.
On the other hand, why rush? It makes more sense to take three weeks or so to complete the whole journey, allowing time to explore the sights along the route and to venture off-trail to experience some of the eclectic towns and villages of the borders, rather than compressing an immensely pleasurable journey through the Welsh Marches, an area with an emphasis on the joys of slow living, into just a few days.
This emphasis on exploration rather than challenge walking will appeal to walkers who would rather tackle the trail in a series of separate excursions. In the middle March the sharply undulating and surprisingly challenging hills of Clun Forest can be tempered with side trips to Clun, Bishops Castle and Montgomery. Further north an exploration of Chirk castle, Llangollen and the castle towns of Ruthin and Denbigh can accompany the magnificent traverse of the Clwydian hills, while in the south walkers can take three or even four days to walk from Sedbury to Hay-on-Wye, savouring the Wye gorge, pastoral Monmouthshire and the Black Mountains and visiting the White Castle and Llanthony Abbey.
The trail also provides several possibilities for linear day walks along the trail sometimes using bus services to connect start and finish.
The sections between Chepstow and Monmouth, and Kington and Knighton offer superb full-day walks along dramatic sections of the trail, and (on summer Sundays only) the spectacular bus ride from Hay-on-Wye over the Gospel Pass to Llanthony and Pandy is the prelude to an equally dramatic walk along the Hatterall ridge back to Hay.
Choosing just a few sections of the trail to highlight here is an invidious task, but the moorlands – the Hatterall ridge in the Black Mountains and the heathery ridge at the heart of the Clwydian range – certainly help to explain why Offa’s Dyke Path is widely regarded as one of the jewels in the crown of British trail walking, a journey to be savoured and long remembered. For 15km the National Trail follows the crest of the Hatterall ridge, the most easterly ridge of the Black Mountains, with superb views both westwards across the Vale of Ewyas into the dissected upland plateau, and eastwards into the Golden Valley and the ridges and valleys of southern Herefordshire. The ridge is frequented by sheep, wild ponies and birds of prey together with hang-gliding enthusiasts and pony trekkers, so much so that extensive path repairs have been needed to avoid further erosion of the fragile peat surface.
Much further north the journey along the long, undulating ridge of the Clwydian Hills, the narrow range dividing industrial Deeside from rural Denbighshire, is one of the highlights of the entire walk. A near-continuous scarp slope to the west divides the ridge from the Vale of Clwyd, centred on the medieval castles and market towns of Ruthin and Denbigh. The trail uses a succession of green lanes in the Clwydian foothills, passing a string of superb hillforts crowning most of the major summits, and rises to the ridge at its central, highest point to visit the iconic Jubilee Tower, originally a two-tiered Egyptian-style edifice, on Moel Famau. Cader Idris, Snowdon, the Carneddau, the Dee estuary and Beeston Castle are all visible from the summit.
The sheep country of Clun Forest may at first sight appear to involve less strenuous walking, but in fact this is the toughest section of the trail, with some steep though reasonably short climbs and some equally steep descents as the Dyke, which is superbly preserved in places, uncompromisingly heads directly across the green hills of south Shropshire, which are unhelpfully aligned from east to west. The scenery is magnificent, from the Teme Valley at the start of the day’s walk to the Long Mynd, Stiperstones and Corndon Hill towards the end. The towns of Clun and Bishop’s Castle, distinctive and entertaining, are some way from the path but very much worth the diversion.
Perhaps the most varied day’s walking leads north from the Ceiriog valley towards the Clwydian foothills, passing the intact fortress of Chirk castle and the short-lived, ruined Castell Dinas Bran, crossing Thomas Telford’s world-famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct carrying the Llangollen canal high above the Dee valley (an alternative route caters for those without a head for heights!), skirting below the dramatic limestone outcrops of Trevor Rocks and Creigiau Eglwyseg, and crossing heather moors populated by the elusive black grouse on the way to the mountain biking mecca of Llandegla forest and the village of Llandegla.
And then there’s that superb walk northwards from Hay-on-Wye to Kington. It begins easily, alongside the Wye, before parting company with the river near Clifford castle and using a classic old drove road (Red Lane) to reach the village of Newchurch, where the church offers tea and coffee. Beyond the common land of Disgwylfa lies the quirky village of Gladestry and a stiff climb up Broken Bank onto Hergest ridge, a great whaleback of a hill with its wildlife, glacial erratics such as the Whet Stone, old racecourse and amazing views. A gentle descent past Hergest Croft, best known for its landscaped gardens with azaleas, rhododendrons and collections of trees, leads to Kington and, perhaps, a pint of real ale in the timeless Olde Tavern. It doesn’t get much better than that.