After last weekend’s gruelling 21-miler, Harri assured me today’s walk through the Wye Valley would be level, mud-free and easy. I sincerely hoped so as I’d been struck by a nasty cold virus which was making me weary and miserable. I knew Harri was really looking forward to getting out, which was why I was here in my shorts and fleece feeling like death warmed up, instead of being prone on the settee.
We parked in Monmouth, a county town on the Wales-England border and the confluence of the Monnow and Wye rivers. The last time we were here was the final night of our long-distance walk through Wales when, for an hour or so, it looked like we would be going without a bed for the night.
Harri’s plan was for us to follow the Peregrine Path along the south bank of the River Wye as far as Symonds Yat East, climb up the Rock (if I could muster the energy), catch the ferry to the north riverbank and return to Monmouth along Wye Valley Walk.
A fine weekend in early spring generally spurs everyone to be outdoors enjoying the weather. Harri reminded me that the Peregrine Path was essentially a cycle path built on an old railway line and, as such, there were likely to be a lot of bikes about. This warning was probably necessary because I have a long history of altercations with cyclists … some which involved being sworn at!
Not far along the path, we passed our first railway station at Hadnock Halt. The Ross and Monmouth line closed in 1959, by which time it was becoming expensive to operate and attracting too few passengers. Nothing remains of the railway station and the cycle path has replaced the old trackbed; however, you can still wait on the old platform for a train that will never arrive. It’s strange to think that Monmouth, a town once served by two stations – May Hill on the east bank of the Wye and Troy across the Monnow – now has no railway at all.
As we meandered along the river’s edge, it was easy to see why the Wye Valley has attracted visitors since the eighteenth century. The wooded landscape is pretty and would have been peaceful, had it not been for the continual hum of noise from the nearby A449. Thankfully, somewhere around High Meadow the road disappeared behind the hill and we could finally hear the birdsong.
In Lady Park Wood, we crossed an international boundary and found ourselves in England. The woodland straddles Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire and its dual citizenship is reflected by the bilingual Natural England interpretation board. There followed a little confusion about where exactly the border was … Harri announced with a lot of pomp and ceremony that when we’d stepped over a narrow stream we’d be walking in England, only to change his mind a moment or two later. Apparently, we were still in Wales until we crossed the next stream … the most easterly point of Wales.
Around noon we stopped at Biblins Bridge for elevenses (the snack between breakfast and lunch is always elevenses no matter what time we eat it!). We perched on the concrete bridge stanchion and ate fruit, nuts and hummus while the bridge swayed and creaked above us. A daredevil duck was taking advantage of the fast-flowing current and hitching a top-speed ride downstream.
Judging from the constant flow of human traffic, Biblins Bridge is quite a local attraction. It was built by the Forestry Commission in 1957 to reach the Biblins youth camp site on the other side of the river and was refurbished twenty years ago. There’s a sign at either end requesting that only six people are on the suspension bridge at any one time, plus a second warning, ‘for your own safety please walk, because running, bouncing and swaying could damage the bridge’.
The Wye Valley Path crosses the river at Biblins Bridge, which meant we were now following the same stretch of riverside path we’d walked a few years ago. As we drew closer to Symonds Yat East it became clear from the number of people congregating at the river edge that something big was happening. It transpired that something big was YatFest 2017, a two-day competition which pulls in climbers and canoeists from around the country. From the amount of parent ‘instructors’ bellowing from the bank, we guessed those currently taking on the slalom course across the Yat Rapids were young people. It looked terrifying, but Harri – who had a blow-up canoe in his younger days – insisted these particular waters weren’t scary at all.
The car park at Symonds Yat East (built on the former site of the old New Weir for Symonds Yat station) was heaving when we arrived and those drivers brave enough to venture along the dead end lane leading to the Saracens Head Inn were now queuing bumper to bumper to get out again. We had planned to stop for a drink ourselves but there were no free tables outside and when we ventured indoors, a Reserved sign stood on every empty table.
I was interested to locate the former tunnel where the railway line would have left the riverbank to head through Symonds Yat Rock. An interpretation board informed us that it was located behind the Forest View Hotel (built on the site of the old railway line). and it was obvious to the most casual of observers that the drive up to the property was laid over the old tracks. Sadly, we couldn’t see the tunnel itself from where we were standing, outside the grounds; however, the hotel’s website does refer to it being ‘set in the foliage next to the property’ confirming that it’s definitely still there.
Harri was keen to walk up the steep footpath (once an old miners’ route) to the top of Symonds Yat Rock, but it soon became clear how below par I was today when I struggled to stay ahead of some small children. Under normal circumstances, I’d have enjoyed the walk through the lovely beech woods but today it was just so hard too keep moving in an upwards direction.
A felled tree embedded with coins was attracting a lot of attention by fellow walkers. I haven’t been able to find out anything about that specific tree, but I discovered there is a superstition relating to the practice of hammering a coin into a ‘wish tree’. The idea is that you force a coin into wood to rid yourself of an illness – if the coin is later stolen the thief subsequently succumbs to the same illness. The entire trunk was covered with coins – including several old pennies (decimalisation took place in 1971) – hinting Symonds Yat East doesn’t attract the healthiest of visitors … like me today!
The stone viewing platform on the Rock was busy on this pleasant April afternoon; visitor numbers are undoubtedly boosted by a second car park at the top for those who’d prefer not to trudge half a mile uphill. At 500 feet above sea level, the panoramic views of the meandering River Wye are spectacular. There was a second viewpoint just 250 metres away so we strolled over to it. We briefly had the wonderful views to ourselves, then another couple joined us. The man had a serious-looking lens attached to his camera and told us they’d spotted a peregrine falcon flying into the trees a few minutes ago.
Our plan to cross the Wye on the ‘ancient hand ferry’ were thwarted by the strong currents (the ferry is hand-pulled by the ferrymen using an overhead cable and doesn’t operate if conditions aren’t favourable), so we decided to cross at Biblins Bridge instead and return to Monmouth along the Wye Valley Path.
The leafy path took us below cliffs higher even than Symonds Yat. Though we didn’t have the energy to clamber up to it ourselves, there is a large Iron Age hill fort – the Doward – on the clifftop overlooking the river, a location chosen for its natural defences, i.e. the cliffs. The hill fort was abandoned nearly two thousand years ago around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain; however, the banks and ditches are still clearly visible in the landscape.
As we wandered into Monmouth, we pondered what a strange and arbitrary thing national and local borders are. A 13-mile walk had seen us passing from Wales (Monmouthshire) to England (Gloucestershire and Herefordshire), back into Wales (Monmouthshire), then England (Herefordshire) to finish in Wales (Monmouthshire).
Harri had promised me an easy, mud-free route and he’d delivered on that promise. Now it was time for a much-needed lie-down.