Yet another sunny, warm day. This will be a three-water-bottle day, since it’s fifteen miles to Kington and there won’t be anywhere to eat or buy food en route. C and I pick up supplies from a shop and cross the Wye. Instead of carrying on along the road to Clyro, the Path turns immediately right and follows the north bank of the Wye for a couple of miles. Across the river tentmakers are at work building the set for the ‘How the Light Gets In’ festival. Morning light glances off the surface of the water. Here the Wye has the look of a much more mature river, rather than one that has many miles yet to flow. Its valley is broad and flat, and the valley sides rise gently.
The Path crosses the main road to Hereford and immediately begins to climb into deepest Radnorshire. Radnorshire is the smallest, least populated and least known (by outsiders) of any of the old Welsh counties. From this point until we reach the small village of Gladestry, four hours later, even though the Path follows roads on several occasions, we meet not a single motor vehicle. Maybe, as its special contribution towards saving the planet, Radnorshire could be the first county to declare itself completely car-free. It’s easy, I suppose, for us dedicated pedestrians to propose that. For people who insist on a faster pace than walking, we’d propose that cars are replaced by horses, which would give new life to roadside inns and their stables.
We climb up the edge of a wood in Bettws Dingle, and up again through more open shrubland, all full of birdsong. Then some road work, and, still climbing, along a tree-lined track that keeps very straight: some think it a Roman road. At a point that commands distant views back to the Black Mountains behind us and Radnor Forest ahead, we stop for refuelling. Two women on horseback come slowly by; they’re looking for a sports watch dropped in the area. More climbing, this time on the flank of the happily named Little Mountain before we descend to one of only two villages on this route, Newchurch. Really it’s only a hamlet, but it contains Great House, which has the oldest timber cruck construction of any Welsh house, and a handsome restored church. The Beavan family dominated this area, to judge by the monuments inside, at least for some time. One of them, commemorating Major Samuel Beavan, ends with the melancholy words, ‘At his death Ty’n-y-cwm passed to strangers’. The church was visited by Francis Kilvert from his home in Clyro. He recorded our route in his diary:
I strolled back to Clyro by the fields in time for the funeral from Newchurch at 3 o’clock. It was delicious strolling across the sunny breezy fields with the world of beauty lying all around, the light blue mountains and the green valley, and the grey clusters of a town canopied by blue smoke, the long line of variegated banks and hills dotted with white cottages and the beautiful village at the dingle mouth.
From Newchurch the path climbs up Disgwylfa Hill, where the close-cropped grass gives relief to our tired feet. We skirt the large grounds of an incongruous modern house, and eventually drop down into Gladestry. This is a larger village than Newchurch, with a large church and several characterful houses. Children are playing in the grounds of the primary school, which presumably has a precarious hold on life, but the post office and pub are both closed. We ask a local for directions. When we say he lives in a beautiful place, he hesitates before agreeing; he’s planning to move out. Gladestry seems to be a gathering point for Offa walkers: we meet Mr Red and his two dogs from the day before (he’s no longer wearing red), and with two others we form a very loose procession up and along the last hill, Hergest Ridge.
Hergest, pronounced ‘Hargest’ locally, was known to us before only through Mike Oldfield’s 1974 LP, Hergest Ridge. Neither of us has a copy. Are we curious enough to want to revisit the music? Like Disgwylfa the grass here is short and springy, and at times we seem to be on a golf course, with broad paths leading the way along the three-mile ridge. Three women on horseback come upon us from behind, near where an eighteenth-century racecourse once stood. Suddenly their horses gather speed and the earth trembles with the force of their hooves as they gallop past us. Towards the end of the ridge a bizarre clump of monkey puzzle trees stands on its own, with a bench underneath for taking photos of innocent visitors. The views are grand, or would be if a blue haze didn’t hang over the land. To our left are outlier peaks we’ll revisit tomorrow, and to our right the lower land of Herefordshire. Finally the path starts to descend, passing Hergest Croft Gardens on the way, and we’re greeted by a friendly road sign saying, ‘Welcome to Kington, the centre for walking’. We have a coffee in the Border Bean, and unluckily fall into a conversation with an over-talkative old Kingtonian, who gives us his history and then forces us to admit that we were both once librarians. ‘Books? I love them. Don’t read much but …’. Time to finish our flapjack and leave.
Our quarters are in the town’s main street. They’re centuries old, and we need to bend double when entering our rooms to avoid head injuries. Our host, T., has come from her other job in the local golf club (the highest in England) to open up. When we arrive at a local pub for a meal, who should be behind the bar but T, in her third job of the day – either an example of a portfolio career or a sad reflection of what our society has become. Kington has a well-preserved streetscape, with plenty of quirky architecture from the sixteenth century on, but also a slight air of neglect and isolation. On the recommendation of T. and The Old Kingtonian we visit Ye Olde Tavern, a remarkable alehouse on the edge of town that masquerades as an ordinary house. T. had warned us that there’s little to do in Kington than talk and drink. She was joking, I think, but the drink and chatter go on till late at night outside the pub next to our lodgings. My last thought before sleep is that this is the first, and probably last, day we haven’t got lost.