Hiking along the entire Offas Dyke in one go was unfinished business for me. I attempted it from South to North a few years back and was defeated.
As they say in certain circles, proper planning prevents piss poor performance, and I had not planned properly. Poor mental preparation, poor research, and very poor kit, especially my ill-fitting boots and tortuous rucksack. All of which meant I came to an agonising halt no more than half way along.
Offa’s Dyke Path is a 177 mile (285 Km) long walking trail. It is named after, and often follows, the spectacular Dyke King Offa ordered to be constructed in the 8th century, probably to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms in what is now Wales
The Trail, which was opened in the summer of 1971, links Sedbury Cliffs near Chepstow on the banks of the Severn estuary with the coastal town of Prestatyn on the shores of the Irish sea. It passes through no less than eight different counties and crosses the border between England and Wales over 20 times. The Trail explores the tranquil Marches (as the border region is known) and passes through the Brecon Beacons National Park on the spectacular Hatterrall Ridge. In addition it links no less than three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Wye Valley, the Shropshire Hills and the Clwydian Range / Dee Valley.
In May 2017 I returned, but this time started from the north of Wales at Prestatyn.
I had arranged to meet Kevin and Simon, with whom I worked in Arthur Andersen’s Fraud Services Unit in London back in the late 1990s, all of us being former UK policemen, and very keen on hiking and the great outdoors.
Simon was also in my intake at the training school in Wong Chuk Hang when we joined the Royal Hong Kong Police together in February 1987. Later he was my boss at Arthur Andersen where I first met Kevin, and with whom I worked very closely on numerous fraud investigations and assignments.
Simon and Kevin had only planned to walk a section or two, do 7-10 miles each day, carry light day packs and stay in comfortable B&Bs along the way. They planned to leap frog their cars with their luggage between these B&Bs.
I, on the other hand, was determined to yomp the whole 177 + miles, carry 25 kilograms of camping gear and supplies in my backpack, free camp along the way, and attempt between 20 and 30 miles each day.
Since they were all Labour supporting football hooligan grim northerners I was not going to let them forget this southern poof called Rupert was going to do it the “proper” way. Of course, with all this banter that meant the pressure was on me to actually finish it this time.
As I live in Hong Kong my journey to the start of the hike was a lot longer than theirs, although you wouldn’t have known it given all their northern whining and gnashing of gums about their arduous car rides and the traffic conditions along the roads between North Wales and Derbyshire.
For me, my trip started with a bus ride from Mui Wo to the airport on Lantau Island, an Emirates flight to Heathrow via Dubai, and an underground train ride with the rush hour commuters to Covent Garden tube station in central London, where I knew I could buy a few more camping supplies that I didn’t have or couldn’t carry by air, such as a cooking gas canister, a fleece (I left mine in South Africa), and a waterproof cover for my new Osprey Atmos 65 rucksack that Fanny bought me off Amazon. I had already bought a new pair of North Face Hedgehog hiking boots that proved to be excellent.
After getting the things I needed, I then hiked across London in the rain to Euston train station, where I caught a surprisingly comfortable and remarkably cheap railway ride via Chester to Prestatyn.
As my hiking companions were still “en route” I immediately found a pub in town and started my Welsh beer appreciation survey and some “carb loading”.
Total journey about 40 hours door to door.
The northern boys had booked into a hotel next to the sea, no doubt because Pontins in Rhyll was full, and it was the only the place in town that would allow them to keep their coal in the bath, I am guessing!
Knowing that I would need a shower and a good rest after a long journey I had booked an AirBnB room in a private house located right at the start the hike at 25 quid a night. A very nice room, comfy bed, including a superb hiking breakfast of tea, toast, porridge and honey at 6 am, prepared by my very kind host, Anne.
From then on I was free camping.
As I hadn’t seen Simon and Kevin, nor Kevin’s wife, Denise for many years we had some catching up to do in the beer garden at their hotel. We were joined by a buddy of Simon’s from his Greater Manchester Police days called Andrew who was also a very keen hiker. Andrew also had the only decent OS maps in the group and by the looks of it the best hiking kit. By comparison, Kevin looked like he was popping down to the corner shop in his train spotter’s anorak and was carrying a well used supermarket plastic bag with his sandwiches inside.
I had decided against carrying any maps as the whole Offa’s Dyke requires six large OS maps in total which is far too much paper to lug, especially as the hike is pretty well sign posted. That said I did get lost on a few occasions, with several off piste excursions that added many miles to my already stressed feet. A map wouldn’t have helped anyway because I always think I know better, and rarely refer to one until well after I have got myself well and truly lost.
As is often the case nowadays, given that I have to work for food like everyone else, our evening was disturbed by a long call from one of my clients’ lawyers asking me to “do stuff” and amend documentation for a project I had started in China and France.
No worries, I had prepared myself with an EE network 4G Sim card that I bought when I arrived at Heathrow (EE being the best coverage for the Offa’s Dyke, so I read somewhere) and tethered my iPhone to various devices that I lug about so I can do my work anywhere in the world. Isn’t technology great? Although perhaps not the greatest idea to draft a legal contract after three pints of local brew, but there you are.
The next day I was up before 4.00 a.m., my body clock still tuned to Hong Kong time. I had to wait 6 hours before the cast of the “Last of the Summer Wine” had got their shit together before we set off, and even after that, and no more than 500 yards into the hike Simon had to run back to his car because he forgot something.
Simon has a PhD in “faffing about and forgetting stuff” and I cannot think of a day we have spent together, from leadership training in the wilds of Hong Kong, to investigating Holocaust Victims dormant accounts in Zurich when he has not had to double back on his tracks and retrieve something, contact lenses or an item of clothing being the usual suspects!
I had already collected my de rigeur pebble from the Irish Sea beach that I intended to deposit at Sedbury mud flats on the south coast of Wales, and we trundled off, calling by M&S Food in town to buy the sort of stuff that English and Welsh people shouldn’t eat, unless they burn through 5000 calories a day, which is pretty much what I consumed each day. Even with this high consumption of lard, sugar, crisps, sandwiches and beer I still managed to lose 7 kilograms by the time I completed the hike.
Not long after hiking up the first hill we meet a guy, perhaps a decade younger than any of us, with a seriously professional backpack and he looked absolutely “exhausted”. Covered in sweat, quite tanned, thin and just an hour or so from completing the entire hike in 11 days. I couldn’t help but notice that his backpack looked a lot lighter than mine.
Further along we bumped into a lively middle aged couple heading north and found out they had been walking the Offa’s Dyke over the last couple of weeks, carrying light day packs and staying in pre-booked B&Bs along the way. They told us about their route, how enjoyable the hike was, and that most of the B&Bs they stayed at also picked them up and dropped them off along the Dyke so they didn’t have to walk further than they needed.
Both of these encounters with fellow “Dykees” caused me to reflect on what I was doing, and for my walking companions to gloat that they were doing this hike the “enjoyable and sensible” way.
We walked together, Andrew stopping every ten minutes or so to consult his map, allow Kevin to catch up, garner collective approval we were heading in the correct direction, and then start walking again.
By mid afternoon, Kevin, Simon and later Andrew peeled off to walk to their bed and breakfast, and I continued to my a very nice camping site at Bodfari where I set up my tent and then wandered off to a very swanky pub called the Dinorben Arms and waited for the others.
Inevitably, and after 2 pints of Old Weasel, I received a message from Simon that they had booked a table at the crowded and very popular pub for dinner at 9 pm. It was 6 pm! No way I would last that long and so I ate on my own and repaired to my tent, read three lines of my book, and was out for the count.
I got my tent packed up the next day, made my coffee and porridge, and was ready to get going just after dawn. Clearly the “Derby and Joan knitting circle” were all still in their pits and so I left them a message that, just as we had planned, I was setting off on my own and wished them all well.
To make my 20-30 miles a day I had to walk for longer and perhaps slightly quicker and so I was on my todd for the remainder of the hike. They later told me they pulled the plug on their hike at the end of day 2 and went home. Apparently these retired northerners had other important commitments. Simon’s day pass from the Ayatollah (a.k.a Mrs. B) had expired and he had a Bridge appointment at the weekend! As for Kevin? Who knows?
So, I carried on and eventually completed the hike in 8 days, plus a much needed rest day in the very charming border town, Knighton where I camped in a farmers field next to a river, wandered about, caught up on the grim UK news, sat about in charming tearooms and local pubs, bought new “gel” insoles for my boots, and visited the Offa’s Dyke Centre
Of course I was not the only person walking along the Offa’s Dyke during those sunny days in May and I encountered various types of hikers along the trail.
There were those who I knew full well would get no further than where they were heading that day; elderly couples who had been ticking off sections of the trail over many years; fresh faced looking B&B hikers with day packs skipping merrily along, grizzled old men like Gandolf the Wizard who seemed to be in no hurry and were taking the hike in their stride; a young chap whose mother was following him in her car, collecting him at night, dropping him off in the morning and feeding him along the way (don’t knock it… at least he was doing something active); and I think a total of eight other nutters like me doing the whole trail with full camping gear and various aches, pains and blisters.
Two of the latter kind I met in a pub near the camp site at Llandegla, and who had broken the back of the hike with only another couple of days to finish. Really funny and amusing guys, and yes you guessed it, former police officers…. from Dorset!! Maybe we former “plods” really do miss walking the beat or something?
It was indeed a very tough and arduous hike, very hilly, my feet went through various levels of pain and torture I could barely tolerate, and worse, as a keen biker I had to endured the engine sounds and joie de vivre of an assortment of motorcycles whizzing along the wonderful Welsh roads. Occasionally I would encounter a group of bikers on their racing machines at various road sections and they would always wave at me, or perhaps they were laughing?
I did of course feel a huge sense of accomplishment in completing the hike and it was a big boost to my mind, body and soul. The Offa’s Dyke passes through stunningly beautiful countryside. It was invigorating to breathe the fresh air, admire the glorious wild flowers and greenery, and amble through fields full of Britain’s best livestock and wildlife. I was lucky with the weather, which for the large part was sunny and fresh. The evenings, mostly spent in the country pubs where I could eat and drink to my heart’s delight and yarn with the locals, were an absolute joy.
So, what next? A hike along the Coast to Coast? The Pennine Way? Appalachian Trail? Perhaps one day soon. But for now the next adventure on the calendar is back on a motorcycle where I plan to ride across Xizang, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Kazakhstan this autumn.