Over-dosing on Offa's Dyke

We’d only been walking for a few hours on the Offa’s Dyke Path - a 285km long distance trail along the border of England and Wales - when we were abruptly asked if we were drug addicts. At least, that’s what it sounded like at first.


 We were up on a sunny hillside happily munching our lunchtime sandwiches and admiring the view of a quaint village in the valley below, when a pair of fellow walkers stopped to talk. They were both dressed in the standard-issue British rambler’s uniform of green and beige, with beards and compasses and waterproof OS maps around their necks.

“Are you Oh Dee-ing?” one of them asked, in a loud and cheery voice. His companion nodded knowingly.

I looked at Sue, and she looked at me. ‘Oh Dee-ing’? Did it look like we were overdosing on something? Was it because our Kiwi tramping outfit of pack, t-shirt and shorts just wasn’t the done thing?

And then I twigged. “Oh, Offa’s Dyke-ing!” I replied. “Yes, we’ve just started out today.”

They both smiled happily, and then demanded to know where we’d started - Prestatyn, a seaside town in North Wales - and whether we were going to walk the entire path - no, we’d only got a week, so hoped to get at least half way. (Two weeks is usually suggested for the whole walk.)

“Well, have a jolly good time,” they bellowed enthusiastically, still nodding and smiling. As they strode briskly off, one of them called over his shoulder, “Hope you’ve got coats - it looks like rain.”

They were friendly, if eccentric - and dead right about the rain. It had been hot and sunny all day, but as the afternoon wore on, huge thunder clouds had begun to build up over the hills around us.

We’d been walking steadily across a rolling landscape of farmland and open moorland, and had just reached a section on a narrow sunken old road, when the storm struck. And it wasn’t that steady persistent drizzle that the British Isles are infamous for - this was monsoon stuff. And it just didn’t stop.

After 20 minutes my cheapish jacket had given up even pretending to be waterproof, although Sue was still dry and snug (and smug) in her more expensive NZ-made jacket.

Luckily for us, we reached the tiny cafe/shop in a village evocatively named Bodfari before we drowned, only to find someone from an equally exotic sounding place sheltering inside - a couple from Waitaki, in Otago, combining a visit to their son in London with a bit of tramping in the British countryside.

Like most of the other walkers we met on the trip, these two had daypacks, and had already arranged Bed & Breakfast accommodation (and transport) for each night of their hike. We, on the other hand, were made of sterner - or perhaps stupider - stuff, and were carrying a tent and full camping kit.

And we needed it.

While there are towns and shops and accommodation possibilities galore on either side of the trail, the path itself is surprisingly remote. As our empty stomachs attested on more than one occasion, it pays to plan ahead and check out the facilities on each stage of the trip.

But if we sometimes went hungry for a few hours, our appetites were more than satisfied with the incredible history and scenery of the trail. The Offa’s Dyke Path is described as being not the longest, nor the highest, nor the hardest, but possibly the most varied of all the National Trails in England and Wales.And even though we only managed 100km or so, we would wholeheartedly agree.

Our first day, for example, took us from a bustling British seaside resort, through ever-so-twee English/Welsh countryside, complete with hedgerows, stone-built farm houses, and copses of towering oaks, to the tops of bracken covered hills dotted with millenia-old remains of Bronze Age burial mounds and forts.

Subsequent days bought waterfalls and and cliffs, countless churches, a couple of castles recalling the long lawlessness of the ‘Welsh Marches’, and a solitary hilltop tower celebrating the 1810 jubilee of ‘Mad King’ George III - not to mention the occasional but oh-so-welcome sight of a good old-fashioned British pub.

A particular highlight, perhaps because of the numerous pubs at one end, was the incredible Pontecysyllte Aqueduct - essentially, a 300m long tin bathtub, supported on 18 massive stone pillars, that has carried the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee for the past 200 years. Being only 3.5m wide, as we crossed it we felt as if we too, like the passing canal barges, were simply floating above the valley far below.

And the name of this path is a reason in itself to walk it, or at least parts of it. The eponymous Offa was an 8th century ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and for reasons now lost in the mists of time, he had ordered the construction of a massive earthwork ‘dyke’ between his lands and those of the unruly Welsh to the west.

Despite almost 1300 years of wear and tear, and of weathering the great British rain, parts of the original Offa’s Dyke still remain, with the path at times running atop its length, with ploughed fields and hay meadows on either side.

The trail, which can be walked year-round, or in short sections, starts in either Chepstow, on the River Wye near Bristol, in the south, or in Prestatyn, on the Irish Sea, in the north. The official Offa’s Dyke Path website - www.nationaltrail.co.uk/offas-dyke-path - gives all the information one could ever need, including such nuggets as “it crosses the border between England and Wales over 20 times”.

As for Sue and I, we’d left the track in the market town of Welshpool, which, as the name suggest, is just inside Wales. Fortunately, it means we’ve unfinished business with the remainder of the trail, and the rest of its history and views - and of course, its pubs.