Offa's Dyke: Walk the line

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Offa's Dyke once divided England and Wales. Now the path invites hikers to explore the magnificent scenery on both sides

Hadrian, now, he was familiar: Roman emperor, liked walls, loathed Scots. But who on earth was Offa? I admit I knew little of the King of Mercia until I took to the National Trail – Offa's Dyke Path – which bears his name and wends 177 miles from Chepstow in south Wales to Prestatyn on the north coast, crossing the English-Welsh border more than 20 times in the process.

Whatever your knowledge of Offa, it's an enticing walk, embracing river valleys, abbeys, farmland and bleak ridgetops that are tough to access any way except on foot. This year the trail turned 40, which is what brought it to my notice, but the boundary it follows is significantly more venerable.

Offa (I now know) became King of Mercia in the year 757; he expanded his territory across much of England but failed to conquer the Welsh. So he built a barrier to keep them contained – not from stone, Hadrian-style, but mud: a deep ditch backed by a mound of earth. A muddy ditch is inevitably a less permanent structure than a wall, which perhaps explains why it doesn't have Hadrian-like status. But it has the same border-defining mystique. And there's something appealing about tracing a national boundary, even if no one wants to see your passport.

The four days at my disposal were not enough to walk the entire trail, which takes 12 to 14 days, but it was certainly enough time to allow a fine long-weekend yomp north from Chepstow Castle's 11th-century fortifications to the biblio-heaven of Hay-on-Wye (where, incidentally, books will be sidelined by boots on Friday when the town's first walking festival gets underway). I had approximately 55 miles in which to get acquainted with Offa, his legacy and some of the sights en route.

Sunshine glittered on the Severn Estuary as I left Chepstow; it felt like being beside the sea. Soon, though, I left the views, delving into forest that felt old as Offa to meet the Dyke itself. The aged earthwork is mostly gone, but stretches of the National Trail trace clearly discernible chunks of the ancient boundary. I followed some of it here: leaf-littered and tree-shrouded, but a dyke nonetheless. It felt primeval; the sheer weight of years seeped into my boots, soundtracking a detour down tree-root ladders, through woodland, to visit the hulking remains of Tintern Abbey.

A newcomer by Offa's Dyke standards, Tintern was built in 1131 by Cistercians who abstained from just about everything. I abstained from nothing, consuming ice cream and shandy in the pub opposite the medieval abbey's vast, ruined vaulting. What a spot: the monks chose this hideaway, deep in the Wye Valley, to escape from the unwanted attentions of men; centuries earlier Offa, too, had used the natural (and spectacular) rise of the valley to keep the unwanted away.

A sense of vintage seemed to be order of the day – after wonderful walking through hilly, flower-flecked country, I detoured from the path for a night's rest in St Briavels. On the Gloucestershire side of the border, the village is home to a suitably old beamed pub, and an even older red sandstone castle, its Norman bailey now an unusually historic hostel.

No time for regal lingering though: the next day I was up with the sun to rejoin the path, bidding the local deer good morning on my way. I had a long stretch ahead, my aim the hamlet of Llangattock Lingoed, via treetops rattling with woodpeckers, the relative bustle of Monmouth (and the big blueberry buns of its Wriggles bakery), rolling hillsides, and the turrets of White Castle. (You know you're in frontier country when such bastions crop up more often than houses.)

By the time Llangattock's whitewashed medieval church hove into view, I was more than ready for a Radox bath and a pint of real ale at the adjacent cosy inn, but utterly in love with this undulating, unpeopled borderland. If day two had offered sheep-filled fields and fairytale woods, day three was a different proposition. No more valley-dipping: now I was climbing on the back of the Black Mountains, ascending to 1,600ft and feeling like the ruler of both sides of the border in the process.

Clement weather – disappointingly calm for the paragliders waiting hopefully on the ridge's flanks – allowed me to survey with ease the drama of the Brecon Beacons to the west, the more bucolic ripples of Herefordshire to the east. From my lookout I could see the romantic ruins of Llanthony, my home for the night, long before I reached them. If it was a precipitous scramble down to the secretive Vale of Ewyas, in which the 12th-century Augustinian priory sits, it was possibly even hairier ascending the 60-odd tight spiral steps winding up the Priory Hotel's tower.

My room, tucked within the ancient building, wasn't plush, though it somehow held a four-poster. It was also magical, its tiny window looking down into the grounds, atmospherically deserted once the day-trippers had gone, with the Black Mountains framed through the old stone arches. It was back up to those mountains the next morning, a calf-testing climb to a land transformed overnight: the views were gone, obscured by a thick mist that erased centuries and left me tramping, unshielded from the elements, in a netherworld of heather, bracken and howling wind.

Thankfully, the path was well marked, though while I didn't fancy getting lost, the penalties are far less severe than in times gone by. In the days of Offa, I'd been told, the Welsh hung any Englishmen found on their side of the divide; the English relieved trespassing Welshmen of their ears. It was a wild bit of walking – drizzly but dramatic.

As the ridge dropped, spongy heath led to fields filled with oddly belligerent sheep. The landscape softened further, the sun peeped through, and by the time I entered the civilised environs of Hay-on-Wye, the morning's bleakness seemed to belong to a different dimension. I cruised Hay's second-hand bookshops, searching for tomes on Welsh folklore. I cappuccino-ed in hip arts spaces and feasted in good pubs, raising a glass to Offa's obstruction as I did so. Because though his Dyke was designed to keep people out, the path that now follows it through this fascinating borderland offers hikers a rather warmer welcome.

Travel essentials



Getting there

First Great Western trains serve Chepstow (08457 484 950; www.nationalrail.co.uk). Hay-on-Wye does not have a station; Hay-Hereford buses take 50 minutes. ( www.herefordshire.gov.uk).



Staying there

St Briavels Youth Hostel (0845 371 9042; www.yha.org.uk) is housed in a Norman castle. Dorm beds from £14.40.

Hunters Moon Inn, Llangattock Lingoed (01873 821499; www.hunters-moon-inn.co.uk) is a friendly pub. Doubles from £65, with breakfast.

Llanthony Priory (01873 890487; www.llanthonyprioryhotel.co.uk) offers accommodation in the 12th-century ruin. Doubles from £80, with breakfast.

Tinto House, Hay (01497 821556; www.tinto-house.co.uk) is a lovely B&B. Doubles from £85.



More information

Offa's Dyke Path: www.nationaltrail.co.uk/offasdyke. "Offa's Dyke Path" (£11.99; Trailblazer) is a useful guide.

The Hay-on-Wye Walking Festival starts on Friday ( www.haywalkingfestival.co.uk).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention