The best prescription ever
For me, this path marked a return to serious walking after more than a decade away. The break coincided with my return to London; as a student and in my first job, I had lived in York, Worcester and Lincoln, all places with good hills nearby.
But in London my priority was political struggle (the febrile 1980s; what to do about Thatcher?), and that left no time for my old pastime. Then along came family, and there was even less.
Until my GP, who recognised incipient depression in my tale of sofa days and desolation, prescribed not pills but a recreation: was there anything I used to do which gave me a break from the everyday, he asked? I used to walk, I said … Offa’s Dyke was to be my first big project.
Offa’s Dyke day-by-day
Monday 15 October 1990. Sedbury Cliffs to Brockweir. Eight miles.
Most walkers take their first day as a whole day, having stayed in Chepstow the night. I came up on the morning coach from London, took the local bus to Buttington, and still had ample time to walk high above the Wye to the riverside village of Brockweir.
Tuesday 16 October 1990. Brockweir to Llantilio Crossenny. 20 miles.
My goodness what a long way – only time for a cursory look at the historic town of Monmouth (even at my best I would think twice at planning as many 20-mile stretches as I did this time). I noted ‘a perfect autumn day’ – I can recall looking over the Wye from near the Kymin towards the forested hill of King’s Wood. Llantilio is a tiny village but big enough for its own music and drama festival!
Wednesday 17 October 1990. Llantilio Crossenny to Llanthony. 14 miles.
After such a lovely day, it was a shame to wake to mist – and more of a shame that it was not to lift until near Knighton. This stage crosses farmland before meeting the Black Mountains; however I broke the mountain stage by dropping down to the remote village of Llanthony.
I did not take a camera with me, and the mobile phone had barely been invented! A few of the images date from my own personal re-visits; all others on this page – from images as close to 1990-91 as possible, but that’s not always very close – are taken from geograph.org.uk, with copyright under Creative Commons license 2.0.
The start / finish stone at Sedbury Cliffs, 2010. Photo © Jeremy Bolwell
Thursday 18 October 1990. Llanthony to Rhydspence. 20 miles.
Never underestimate a mountain stage, but the long level track along the broad ridge to Hay Bluff, then the descent to Hay itself, allows for fast walking. Most would want to spend longer in Hay-on-Wye; I made a mental note, and came back to the bookshops some years later. Compensation, off route, was the Rhydspence Inn.
Friday 19 October 1990. Rhydspence to Maes-Treylow. 20 miles.
I really didn’t want there to be continual mist on this stretch, with Hergest Ridge and other small hills due to provide glorious views over unspoilt border country. (I can remember the fingerpost in the pic below but not the views!) The path runs by the Dyke for long stretches too. Most would stay in Kington, but I found a farm a few miles north. I remember resting for a few minutes at dusk by the Dyke; perhaps the most peaceful pause I can recall.
Saturday 20 October 1990. Maes-Treylow to Knighton. Seven miles.
Piece of cake after all that had gone before. The cloud lifted too – on the descent to Knighton and the train home.
Lonely fingerpost on Hergest Ridge, 2007. Photo © Chris Heaton
Knighton in 2021
Thursday 10 October 1991. Knighton to Newcastle. Nine miles.
I arrived in Knighton on the afternoon train and still had plenty of time for this stage over the first part of the ODP’s notorious switchback. The Crown at Newcastle was a good place to split the difficult up-and-down stretch north from Knighton.
Friday 11 October 1991. Newcastle to Buttington. 19 miles.
Gorgeous remote rolling countryside to Brompton Bridge, before a long level stretch along the Dyke itself. The stage finishes with a diversion to the hillfort of Beacon Ring; I stayed at Buttington View, half way down to the village itself.
Saturday 12 October 1991. Buttington to Trefonen. 18 miles.
Two contrasted halves: river- and canal-side to Llanymynech, followed by relics of industrial workings – including Roman copper mines – to Trefonen. Buttington itself is only three miles by bus from the market town of Welshpool, with its rail service to Shrewsbury and the Midlands, and so would be a practical place to break the walk.
Sunday 13 October 1991. Trefonen to Llangollen. 17 miles.
The approach to Llangollen is top class, first along Telford’s canal with its vertiginous aqueduct, then the Panorama Walk with its views to the Berwyns. Llangollen is a festival town well worth the diversion. (In summer, the route from Chirk Mill diverts past the Castle).
Monday 14 October 1991. Llangollen to Llanarmon-yn-Ial. 15 miles.
There’s a contour around Eglwyseg Mountain to just beyond the prominent height of Craig Arthur before a short piece of true moorland walking. After Pen-y-stryt, there’s the first encounter with the Clwydian range, but I broke the range off-route, at Llanarmon-yn-Ial: fatefully because …
Tuesday 15 October 1991. Llanarmon to Rhuallt. 18 miles.
Oh what a night. ‘A quiet spot’, the guidebook said. Not in the Raven Inn it wasn’t, with a heavy metal juke box till the small hours. Fretted, I slept barely at all. (The pub now looks delightful – I’m sure this wouldn’t happen again!) Soon after setting off, I noticed plenty of (undoubtedly quieter, despite main road location) accommodation on the A494. But the Clwydians are good rolling hills, and the walk over the main top of Moel Fammau passed well, and I took an early night at the White House.
Wednesday 16 October 1991. Rhuallt to Prestatyn. Eight miles.
Well this is it. Pretty straightforward stuff, the highlight being the final inland cliff two miles short of Prestatyn itself. I happened to be back in Prestatyn in 2022, and found that the finish point now has a good public sculpture in celebration, Beginning and End / Dechrau a Diwedd, by Craig and Mary Matthews, installed in 2009.
The Prestatyn sculpture in 2022
Transport and accommodation
Chepstow, Knighton and Prestatyn all have rail stations. Abergavenny (for Pandy), Welshpool (for Buttington, Powys) and Chirk are nearby. Knighton, half-way, was for me the obvious break point, but others might plan it differently.
The small towns, and some of the major roads, have bus services – after a fashion. As a southerner, I found it more convenient to reach Chepstow by the London to Cardiff National Express coach, which calls at the town’s bus station, from where local buses run to near the start at Buttington Tump.
Some other local bus routes may be relevant. Monmouth has a reasonable service. Pandy, Hay and Kington are linked to Hereford and elsewhere. Northwards from there, things are sparse except for some main roads until Llanymynech and beyond; the Denbighshire area (Llangollen northwards) has good services.
I found that many of the villages had either a pub or B&B serving Offa’s Dyke walkers – this was well before my backpacking days. But thirty years on, don’t assume that there will be accommodation where I happened to find it. The Offa’s Dyke National Trail website has an accommodation register; nowadays, I would use that, plus a quick google just in case.