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).

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
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

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine