Why the Wye?


Why the Wye?

Martin London

Martin London

pastorale on the Wye
Pastorale on the Wye

Photographer and locum GP Martin London ambles happily alongside the River Wye, from Hereford in England’s West Midlands to Chepstow in Monmouthshire, Wales

Having walked the River Lune from source to sea, we think we might try the Wye. The source, high in the Plynlimon Hills, is surprisingly close to that of the River Severn, which sets off in a north-easterly direction. The Irish Sea is only 24 kilometers (15 miles, as they say here) away to the west, but the Wye chooses to flow south and east for 215 km (134 miles) through Mid-Wales and the Welsh Borders to join the Severn at Chepstow. But for that two-mile separation of the sources, a good chunk of Wales would be an island.

The whole length of the Wye Valley Walkway seems more of a mission than time or crumbling joints will allow and, anyway, we are there for a delightful walk and not to prove any points. So we pick the sweetest stretch of river and book our B&Bs for a four-day walk from Hereford, through limestone country and old deciduous forests, to Chepstow.

Avoiding suburbia, we cut down the first day, Hereford to Ross-on-Wye, with a drop-off at Mordiford. Karol and I have had a week of socialising, so we draw breath and spend the day walking gently through pastoral landscape, sheep resting in the shade, cornfields emblazoned with poppies.

A hillside, once agricultural land with an old orchard, has been left to go wild with meadow flowers and hedgerows offering havens for biodiversity. (Read Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, by Isabella Tree, for a captivating account of planet-saving change in land use.)

Approaching Ross-on-Wye

Descending from an Iron Age hill fort, we find the river in a languid phase, fishermen and canoeists taking their ease, and follow it towards Ross.

We meet three men being “laddish” and generally jovial. Tonight is a stag party and they’ve come to Ross to play up. We join the humour of the moment – one of them is about to be hitched – and say, “Well, if it’s any encouragement, today is our 40th wedding anniversary.” Another of the guys immediately changes tone and, with exceptional warmth and sincerity, shakes our hands offering his congratulations. It’s really quite moving. The treasured moment passes, they carry on their rollicking way and we follow, aiming for the beacon of the town’s graceful church spire.

A very old B&B opposite the castle. “Be careful,” she says. “The bedroom floor is uneven.” She is right. One of the bed-legs is raised 200mm (8 inches) to level it. A trip in the night becomes decidedly uphill work.

Our plan to avoid a stretch of farmland is thwarted. No bus on a Sunday. We take a taxi. Our driver was in heavy machinery but gave it away when his marriage finished, and started driving for his mum’s taxi firm. He had once thought of working the big machines in Australia. “Still could,” he says, but we sense his heart isn’t really in it. Has a lot of gloomy things to say about Boris and Brexit. We can only agree. He hasn’t heard about Jacinda and does not seem interested, but happily drops us near the river.

We pass a large, semi-derelict building with a tall chimney and a wing with windows like those of hospital wards. Was it a sanitarium? We accost a woman, out for a walk. “No,” she says. “It was a cable factory and more recently used for packaging then closed. The yards are now used for plastic recycling but there’s nowhere to send the plastic.” We ask, “What about converting it into desperately needed accommodation?” “There’s some problem with the river flooding. Last year these fields were deep under water.”

Towards Symonds Yat

How little we understand of the places we pass through so blithely in holiday mode. But we also start to learn the industrial past of this glorious river valley. The path joins a dismantled railway line, which once carried timber, mineral ores and coal. The local availability of these resources supported cable-making, the maritime industry based around Bristol and the Severn Estuary providing a ready market.

The railway route makes for easy walking along tight meanderings of the river as it curls under the high limestone cliffs of Symonds Yat. We look for tracks through sun-dappled trees showing where rock climbers gain access to the crags, but see none. One comes, draped in his ropes and slings. We ask where the routes are. He’s new to the area and doesn’t know. He may be in for a fruitless bush-bash; farther on, we see more purposeful locals heading somewhere quite different.

Old friends reunited

An intriguing pair comes towards us. One, a Dutch librarian, the other a Filipino, once her assistant. They have just reunited after 27 years and are doing what’s the best way to re-engage – long walks in lovely countryside. Their closeness is a delight to behold. Soon our conversation lurches to the disaster that is British politics – it seems impossible to keep away from it – but we shake ourselves off and return to nature and companionship.

This is no wild walk. Further down river is the Symonds Yat settlement, alive this sunny Sunday with visitors revelling in water activities. The Wye is a famous kayaking river, so we wonder how the Victorian tourist launches ever found their way upstream through the rapids. There are several cafés here, a chance to celebrate our brief return to civilisation with tea and tucker, watching the weekenders at play.

It’s hot. I need a swim, then sense the amusement of a family nearby as I totter clumsily over uneven rocks in the shallows. “If you think I look ridiculous?” I call to them, “I certainly feel it.”

Bridges near Monmouth

The current above the rapids is strong, so I deliciously cool myself immersed in the shallows, hanging on to rocks to avoid being swept downstream.

Past a Scout encampment, bright with orange Vango tents and along woodland paths winding between limestone cliff and glistening water, we watch fish being caught as evening brings us to Monmouth.

On the dining room wall of The King’s Head is a cartoon of William Cobbett, a reforming journalist, often on the run from the authorities whose corruption he challenged. In 1810, he initiated the recording of parliamentary proceedings still known as Hansard, an early strike for transparency.

The Boat Inn at Redbrook

Leaving Monmouth we pass decaying Wye Valley Railway bridges. Against the remnant abutment of one, we’re told by Alan of the impressive bridge further on at Redbrook. “And the Boat Inn there – great food!” putting a new spring into our step. Bridge and pub live up to expectations. We leave the river and climb high through forest tracks and down to Tintern.

Tintern Abbey detail

What’s good about Tintern? The Parva Farmhouse Riverside Guesthouse, a complete delight. Stella & Rose’s Books – a treasure trove of titles. Various art galleries. Above all, the magnificent Tintern Abbey.

Heavy rain is forecast. The Abbey beckons and it’s time to abandon the last day of walking and indulge in sightseeing.

What’s bad about Tintern? The A466 to Chepstow, closed by rockfall sucking the trade away from struggling tourist businesses. It sounds like Fox Glacier. While we wait for the bus, which will take us by a circuitous route to Chepstow, Bob emerges from his empty shop and, time on his hands, regales us with the village’s woes. The road has been closed for months. Trade down to 15 per cent of normal. He had much to say of the geologists, “those PhDs, who haven’t a clue”.

The woes of Tintern

Bob fills us in about the valley’s heavy industry, early adopters of the industrial revolution. He suggests the name Tintern goes back to tin mines from Roman times (Wikipedia disagrees). Before the railway, goods were transported in flat-bottomed barges called “trows” to and from Landogo. Suddenly the puzzle of an old pub name is solved. The Landoger Trow is a favourite 17th century pub in Bristol, famous as the inspiration for The Admiral Benbow in Treasure Island. Shock horror! It has just closed and is up for sale after 355 years.

Bus comes. We go. Chepstow appears with its quaint streets, old castle and the start of another long-distance walk – Offa’s Dyke Path – heading back north. But we are off to Bristol, though not to buy a pub.