The scramble for Offa's Dike
Weekend walks: Over hill and dale, in country once the battleground of Celts and Saxons, Hamish Scott follows the contours from Llanthony Priory to the mound of Offa
Saturday 24 May 1997
A narrow lane, following the river's course up to the Gospel Pass, winds past the ruins of Llanthony Priory, a skeleton of Gothic stonework standing out from the fields. Despite appearances, however, the priory is far from lifeless. Since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, its old infirmary has been the parish church, while an undercroft beneath the prior's quarters has become the local pub. Far from any tourist route, and untouched by heritage consultants, Llanthony Priory is still as much a thriving centre of the valley as it was five centuries ago.
Signboards from the abbey car park indicate the start of paths up the hills behind. The line of Offa's Dike marks the English border just a mile to the east, but a thousand feet above the valley. Our intention was to climb up to this ancient Iron Curtain that once divided Celt from Saxon, take a distant look at Hereford through our binoculars and then head back to Llanthony for our lunch. Judging from the map, the route looked quite straightforward. We laced up our boots and set off in the expectation of a pleasant stroll. We should, perhaps, have paid rather more attention to the contours and the clouds.
Behind the abbey ruins, the right of way runs through a pasture grazed by mountain ponies before diverging to the left across a stream into a steeply rising field. As we climbed, panoramic views opened out across the valley and the stream cut an ever-deeper gorge in the hillside. Then, crossing the ravine, we found a ruined tower with a hiker in a bright cagoule poking round its fallen masonry. This, as we were informed in considerable detail, was the never-finished dream-house of the poet Walter Savage Landor, who briefly and tempestuously owned Llanthony early in the 19th century.
Paths diverge above the house and in our quest for Offa's Dike we followed an arrow indicating the "way to the hill". This was a mistake. An hour later we were back at the same spot, having scrambled over dry-stone walls, crawled up banks of scree, hacked our way through bracken, and bickered with increasing bitterness over the definition of a "way".
The route for humans, as opposed to the one for mountain goats, lies along the contours of the valley, with Landor's ruin and Llanthony to the right. Half-a-mile further on, the path skirts Wiral Farm, perched above the woods with wild moorland reaching almost to its door. We continued onwards, slowly gaining height, past a noisy duck pond that marked the upper limit of domesticated land. The path grew ever steeper, and the line of a stone wall guided us through swaths of mist. Then the hillside levelled off and we met the broad, well-trodden tack of Offa's Dike's long-distance path.
The dike itself is now curiously unimpressive - just a 5ft bank of turf. Sitting on its crest, we listened to a distant English dog barking through the clouds. "The view must be wonderful," said my companion. We decided to head back for lunch.
Returning to the dry-stone wall, we continued along its course until it reached a sharp right-hand corner and nose-dived down the slope. From here a faint footpath led us to the left, dipping down the hillside at a rather less exciting angle. Emerging from the clouds, we continued towards Maes-y-Beran farm, nestling in the valley far below. From here, a path across the open fields led back towards the abbey and our pace grew faster with the thought of lunch.
Despite its unique setting, the Abbey Hotel is an unpretentious pub serving hearty food to satisfy the appetites of farmers and exhausted walkers. A home-made stew of beans and lamb was perfect for our needs, basic pilgrim fare that seemed in keeping with the bare stone floor and vaulted ceiling of the ancient room. As we left, a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds, shining down into the ruined nave through the gaping hole of the west window. A buzzard soared above our heads. There was a burst of singing from the bar.
"The walk was worth it just for this," said my companion.
Llanthony is 10 miles north of Abergavenny, between Llanfihangel Crucorney and Hay-on-Wye.
From the priory car park, follow signs to hill walks.
At the rear of the priory, continue across pasture and bear left before a gate, following a sign to "circular walk" across stile and stream.
Bear right over the stile at top of the field and cross the stream.
Ignoring the "way to hill" sign to the left, continue straight ahead, with Landor's ruin to the right. Continue along the path for half a mile, passing Wiral Farm on right.
Continue over cross-paths, following the sign to Cwmyoy, with stream and duck pond to your right. Follow the path uphill to Offa's Dike.
Return to the path and follow a dry-stone wall to the left. At a right- hand bend in wall, bear left along the path.
Continue down this path to Maes-y-Beran Farm. Turn right at the farm and follow the path for 1 mile to the road. Continue for a quarter of a mile along the road back to Llanthony.
Length of walk: five miles (two hours). OS maps: 1:50000 Landranger sheet 161; 1:25000 Outdoor Leisure sheet 13 (Brecon Beacons East).
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