Some of England's most beautiful scenery, and some of its best bookshops, lie on the border with Wales. The 75-mile Wye Valley Walk takes in the lot. By Peter Fynn
BETWEEN THE River Severn at Chepstow and Rhayader to its north- west, a mere 100 miles from London, lies a magical and largely overlooked hinterland which features some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. It is traversed by the Wye Valley Walk a waymarked 75-mile path that meanders alongside and occasionally crosses the border dividing England from Wales.

The Wye Valley has something for everybody - the 12th-century Abbey of Tintern; Grosmont's medieval castle; the earliest known map of the world, Mappa Mundi, in Hereford Cathedral - and it can also offer a great opportunity to blend the energetic with the sybaritic.

The walk begins at Chepstow, just over the Welsh border, where the River Wye flows into the Severn. Before you leave the town it's worth exploring the castle, built in 1067. Dense woodland dominates the first part of the walk, with dramatic views across the river several hundred feet below. From here the path follows the course of the Wye up to Tintern Abbey, which was founded by Cistercian monks in 1131. The present remains date from the 13th century.

As you leave Tintern, the countryside becomes more rugged with steeply rising wooded hills on both sides of the river. After crossing the Wye at Redbrook you follow its banks past Monmouth, birthplace of Henry V, and on up to Symonds Yat. This lies at the neck of a dramatic loop in the river and there's a spectacular viewpoint overlooking it at nearby Yat Rock.

From here the trail winds gently away from the river for a while, then rejoins it at the mellow old town of Ross-on-Wye. At this point the landscape gives way to rolling farmland until you reach Hereford. Hereford means beef, cider and the magnificent cathedral, begun in the 11th century on the site of a community founded by the first bishop in ad676 and home to the 13th-century Mappa Mundi as well as a unique chained library containing 1,500 rare 17th-century books.

As if to sustain the mood, the walk shifts into a lower gear and leads you along part of a Roman Road, through villages with names like Monnington, Bredwardine and Poolpardon until you arrive at Hay-on-Wye. Hay's other name, Y Gelli Gandryll, tells you it's a border town, but in any language it has to be the book capital of Britain. Richard Booth opened the first second-hand bookshop here just a quarter of a century ago and there are now 38 others selling rare and out-of-print books. Even if you usually don't have time to read more than a daily paper, you should browse a little. It's good for the soul.

With Hay-on-Wye behind you the footpath enters rural Wales, and this signals the start of a very different kind of terrain. To the west is the sprawling mountain range of Mynydd Eppynt, and the route to Builth Wells takes you through its steep and rugged foothills, although the friendly Wye is never far from sight. From Builth the walking becomes easier as your path hugs the river bank, still amid sumptuous scenery that stretches all the way to Rhayader and journey's end.

The Wye Valley Walk can sometimes be heavy. But if you like the idea of a not-too-strenuous day followed by a relaxing bath and a home-cooked dinner, with a night in a four-poster bed, this can all be arranged by Hereford-based Acorn Activities. They'll transfer your baggage ahead of you by bus, from hotel to hotel along the route - all you carry is your day pack with lunch and whatever extra food and drink you need. Or, of course, you can have a bar snack in any number of pubs that you'll find along the Wye Valley.

If you feel you want just a little more freedom, you can travel independently, plan your own itinerary and stay at inns and farmhouses. Whether you're looking for a walking or touring holiday or a leisurely sightseeing trip, the Wye Valley will provide it. But the best way to see it is on foot.

wye valley fact file

Guidebooks and maps are available from the various tourist offices in the area, but serious walkers should carry the relevant 1: 50,000 Landranger Series Ordnance Survey maps: Sheet 162 (Chepstow - Ross-on-Wye), Sheet 149 (Ross - Hereford) and Sheet 161 (Hereford - Hay-on-Wye).

Acorn Activities (01432 830083) provides walking packages with overnight stays at selected hotels and inns along the way.

Tourist Information Centre, 1 King Street, Hereford, Herefordshire HR4 9BW. Tel: 01432 268430.