Swimming in the Wye!

Having paddled the length of the River Wye last week and written about it, I felt I needed to have a different approach to this week’s two-day trip.

Chris & Angela

We were told the day before our trip that we would not be able to travel through the rapids at Symonds Yat as vital maintenance work was being done to the groynes that channel the water. Although the experience is short-lived, and underwhelming in the present conditions, I thought it necessary to add a little entertainment into the itinerary. I know how certain individuals within this particular group hunger for some excitement that enhances their experience and gives them something to talk about for months.

The whole team

The first incident took place at Kerne Bridge just before lunch. I was well aware of a problem on a sweeping, narrow stretch of fast flowing water that took you very close to the bank. It is where we had a spillage last week when a canoe hit a protruding tree stump just above the surface. I gathered the group by the bridge so that they could see the problem and advised them on how to approach it. That said, the protruding stump could not be seen. Then, one at a time each canoe went through the area of concern. Angela and Chris got their line wrong and hit the bank but managed to stay afloat and somehow bumbled through. Sitting nearby in his canoe was an instructor from another company. As I passed him I said, “Why is it always your wife who embarrasses you and gets it wrong.” With that I entered the fast water, knowing instinctively that I had got my line of entry wrong. There was no way I could bring my canoe round that sharply and I found myself in a web of willow branches and then I hit something more solid. The combination of a sudden stop and branches pushing against me, tipped me out if the canoe and turned it over. It all happened so quickly. I soon found the stump, it was now under the surface and my canoe was stuck on it. As I struggled to release it I discovered that I could only just put my feet on the riverbed and keep my head above water.

In drier times! (Photo Chris Woodcock)

Whilst all this was going on I was also aware that I was wearing a non-waterproof Fitbit on my wrist and my non-waterproof iPhone was tucked into the pocket of my life vest! The instructor who had watched my demise unfold came to my rescue and helped me release the canoe from the stump, empty it of water, turn it over and retrieve most of my kit, which remarkably had remained in the upturned canoe. Those ahead of me could see that I had come out of my canoe but were in no position to turn round and help. I was fine. Yes, I was wet but the water was not cold and I had retrieved everything from the river, except my Sigg bottle.

When I, a few minutes later, went for lunch at the Inn on the Wye, I discovered that both my Fitbit and phone were none the worse for their soaking. It was my first canoe capsize after several years of travelling down the Wye and everybody found it hugely amusing, including me.

Tim’s long body is not suited to hours of sitting in a canoe

Nothing dramatic happened in the afternoon as we paddled through the gorge and around the huge loop into Symonds Yat. I say nothing, but Tim’s back was suffering so Angela and I hitched our canoe to theirs and towed them in for the last mile or so. Tim was very uncomfortable and he came to the sensible decision that he and Beryl would drop out of the second day. A shame, but much the best decision.

We had a lovely evening together in Ye Old Ferrie Inn, eating, drinking and catching up with a beautiful outlook on to the mirror flat river.

The following morning the river was still like a mirror and there was hardly any flow in it at all. A couple of kingfishers sat on the hand pulled ferry staring intently into the dark, still waters in an effort to find breakfast. Finding ours was much easier and much more tasty than raw, live fish. Ye Old Ferrie Inn had looked after us well.

Ross on Wye Canoe Hire picked us up from the inn and took us to Biblins on the down river side of the rapids where we launched for our 10 mile trip to Redbrook.

It was a lovely morning, generally cloudy but still quite warm. As we passed through the deeply forested gorge the trees on either side were reflected perfectly in the river. A two foot salmon leapt out of the water across our bows and very nearly ended up in our canoe.

Picking up the pieces after the “Mayhem of Monmouth!” (Photo – Claire Cox)

All was going really well. We made excellent progress down to Monmouth, arriving at the boat club steps at midday, too early for lunch, particularly after the substantial breakfast we had eaten earlier. We continued, passing under Monmouth Bridge. Here the river is quite wide but much of its width is too shallow to navigate, even in a canoe. Angela and I were in the lead canoe and we headed for a narrow channel of fast flowing water tucked in against the left bank. We aimed for it but got too close into the bank and an overhanging willow tree. It was not my intention that we should explore the tree closely but the flow made it impossible for us to avoid it. In the middle of the foliage was a thick, cut off trunk, which stopped us dead in the water and tipped Angela over the side, quickly followed by me, with the canoe ending up upside down. It was so funny to see Angela with a bemused look on her face, her sunglasses askew, having been fully submerged. Our so-called friends in the canoes behind, as well as coming to our rescue, were highly amused by our spectacular exit from our canoe. While there were no pictures of the actual event, some were taken of the aftermath, I think by Claire. Again the watch and phone survived the dunking, although the phone seems to have developed a white line up one side of the screen. I have also, subsequently discovered, that if anybody rings me up, I can’t hear them. The perfect phone!

I think Angela will receive enormous amounts of sympathy but I am destined for a lifetime of stick! Well, if it makes them happy.

Finished (Photo by Chris Woodcock and it is her thumb!)

By the time we reached Redbrook we had dried off. Mark, from Ross on Wye Canoe Hire picked us up. He quickly learned of my demise and, like most who know me, was amused.

I have had two great trips in the last couple of weeks, made special by the people I have shared them with and by the excellent service provided by Mark and his team at Ross on Wye Canoe Hire. Thanks to all.

A Trip Down the Wye

With the summer we are having it was never going to be easy, even after the wet spring we had had. Everybody involved in the Wye, from the guys at the canoe hire to the fishermen we encountered along the way, they all said they had never known the river so low. So low, in fact, that it was deemed impossible for us to launch at Hay. We would be much better launching five and a half miles up stream at Glasbury, making our first day, potentially, very long.

Ready for the off

Despite the signs telling people not to launch until 10am we made preparation. Apparently this rule is so that the salmon can rest! Unable to wait until 10 we embarked upon our 84 mile journey down the Wye. We did not come across any complaining salmon, but we did encounter a lot of shallows where all we could do was climb out and drag our canoes through into deeper water.

It took us two hours to reach our previously designated launch spot in Hay, and ironically, a guy from another company directed us down the channel which we understood to be impassible. It was entirely so but by now we were well used to wading through ankle deep water dragging a canoe. It meant that we had not only lengthened our distance by five and a half miles but by late morning we had still only reached our starting point with a full day of paddling still ahead of us.

Nic taking it easy while Natasha does all the work

It was proving to be hard work, not just the dragging, but the river, where it was deep enough, was giving us no assistance whatsoever. There was no discernible flow and we had to work hard all the time. I found it particularly so as I was travelling solo. At least when travelling in pairs you can take a rest while your partner maintains some forward travel. That said, I was enjoying the additional challenge of propelling myself downstream.

The river was very quiet. There were no fishermen, they being dissuaded by the poor conditions of the river. There were plenty of heron but they were so timid by our presence on the water, that they flew off long before we drew level with them. There were very few kingfishers. Either that or our eyes had not yet adjusted to spotting them as they dart from bush to bush at the water’s edge. The good weather had brought people out, and just before Bredwardine we came across some naked sunbathers on the river bank, who plunged into the water as soon as we had passed.

The Black Mountains

More often than not on a journey of this nature your horizon is the river bank. Occasionally, where it rises further you can see splendid houses with sweeping gardens down to the water’s edge. On this stretch of river the Black Mountains rise sufficiently high for them to be visible for much of the journey. Against a clear blue sky the summits of Hay Bluff and Twmpa stood out clear and proud.

Under normal conditions I would have expected to reach camp at Bycross by about 4.00pm but with the difficulties we had faced and the sluggishness of the river, we did not reach camp until 7.00pm. We had been on the water for about ten hours and covered about 23 miles. It was a tough introduction to paddling on the Wye for those who had not done it before.

Leaving Bycross

As the second day was potentially our longest with 29 miles needing to be travelled to Hoarwithy, I was keen to make an early start. Despite getting up at 5.30am it was still two hours before we got on to the water. Nic had warned us that he was not a morning person. I discovered that the best way to get him going was to take him a cup of tea in bed.

Monnington Falls

Immediately we were on the river we were faced with our first challenge, Monnington Falls. This is a section of fast flowing water, squeezed at times when water levels are low, into a narrow channel with a large area of bedrock exposed to one side. This proved to be straight forward but gave us a bit of momentum at the start of our day.

It was twelve miles to Hereford and we made reasonable time, arriving there by late morning. We had had less difficulty with rapids and there was slightly more flow to the river than yesterday.

Idyllic riverside residence

We stopped on the steps to Hereford Rowing Club for a brew and a snack. I took a little time out to consult the guide book. I was already concerned that Hoarwithy was still some seventeen miles down stream and that in the heat of the afternoon it might be too far and too long a day on the river. There was an alternative, we could stop at Lucksall Caravan and Campsite about eight or nine miles beyond Hereford, if they could take us. It would mess up the booking I had made with the pub in Hoarwithy, but that could not be helped. It was important that everybody was enjoying the experience and not overwhelmed by it.

Leaving Hereford, we continued downstream, seeing very little of the city as we passed through it, just glimpses of the top of the cathedral tower, a few industrial sites well camouflaged by trees, and, on the outskirts, a number of large houses, which made the most of their riverside position but failed to enhance it with their rather gauche appearance.

Passing the confluence of the River Lugg, which provided nothing more than a trickle to the dwindling waters of the Wye, we eventually reached Lucksall at 4.00pm, a much more acceptable finish time if they could take us. They could. Lucksall Caravan and Campsite is excellent. We had lovely flat pitches looking out across the river. The facilities are excellent and included a shop, bar and restaurant. Guess where we spent most of the evening.
The following morning we were greeted with yet another cloudless sky. Ducks had gathered around our tents, making enough noise to encourage us to get up, even Nic. Early morning steam rose from the glass-like surface of the river. It seemed a shame to destroy it with our ripples. But destroy it we did.

It took us three hours to reach Hoarwithy, which confirmed that it was the right decision to truncate our journey the day before. We stopped on the stony beach at the foot of the steps up to Tressick Farm campsite for a brew and some energising flapjack.

The journey from Hoarwithy to Ross takes in a stretch of the river where there are few views beyond the banks. There are no villages, only the remnants of old railway bridges and plenty of signs warning us against landing. Occasional herds of cows were standing knee deep in the water, cooling off. There were fishermen and in places, where there was only a narrow channel of navigable water, we had to encroach on their space. On the whole they were understanding and friendly.

We reached Ross at the now acceptable time of 4.00pm, giving us plenty of time to get ourselves organised before going out. We were sharing the field with a group of D of E expeditioners from Kelly College, in Devon. They were a delightful group of young people and seemed to be managing themselves much better than a group we had seen on a similar expedition further up stream.

Nic quietly enjoying his sweet!

That night we treated ourselves to a meal at the Royal Hotel overlooking the river from a high vantage point. England v Croatia was on in the bar next door, allowing us to appreciate England’s demise in the World Cup.

Day four brought about a change. As I surfaced from my sleep, I was aware of spots of rain falling on my tent. Or was it an insect caught up between the layers of fabric? It was rain. After so long without it it was quite refreshing.

All was going well until we reached Kerne Bridge. We were managing to average 3.3mph. I reached the bridge and the rapids on the other side of it first, the other two canoes a little behind me. As I went through the first narrow, sweeping little rapid my canoe made glancing contact with a sawn off branch. The other two canoes came through together and while Peter and Ann-Marie passed the branch safely, Nic and Natasha were too close behind to be able to react quickly enough. They hit the branch full on, catapulting Nic into the water, closely followed by Natasha. I wish I had seen it. They needed to dry off and change delayed us a little.

We were now passing through the most beautiful and dramatic section of the river with steep, forested slopes and exposed crags of limestone, home to Peregrine Falcons. It is stunningly beautiful and it does not matter how many times you paddle this stretch, it’s beauty never diminishes.

We were also entering the busiest stretch of the river with a corporate group whom we saw on several occasions, others paddling towards us from Symonds Yat and, by the time we reached the popular beauty spot motor launches carrying day trippers up and down the river.

Nic and Natasha shooting the rapids

Having lunched at the Olde Ferrie Inn at Symonds Yat West, we approached the rapids. They were hardly any more challenging than some of the others we had encountered up stream, and we were certainly over and through in the blink of an eye.

Once through, we enjoyed the dark water with its overhanging woodland and dead tree trunks lurking like mythical monsters in the shallows on either side.

Quieter waters

The final straight up to Monmouth can be difficult with a prevailing wind coming straight at you, but there was no wind at all. The rain of the morning had been replaced with hot sunshine, and the run up to Monmouth was the easiest I have known. There we disembarked and loaded everything into the waiting minibus and the canoes on to the trailer.

It had been a fabulous four days in perfect conditions, apart from the lack of water, although that was not really an issue after the first day. It is a trip I could repeat again and again. I probably will!

Lads on the Gower

Tired already?!

Having filled ourselves with bacon butties, Rob, Ian, Stephen and I drove down to Llanmadoc on the north western corner of the Gower Peninsula. It was a beautiful morning of cloudless skies criss-crossed with many vapour trails.

It was my intention that we should park in the village car park for three days, but I noticed a rather old and faded sign warning that no overnight parking was permitted. I wanted to find out if this was still the case. Enquiries led me to the village community shop/cafe where I found the owner of the field. She was fairly brusque in he response and told me that under no circumstances could I or anybody else park there overnight. If she allowed it the council would be on her back immediately. Before I could ask my next question, another lady, volunteering in the shop, offered me her drive. What a kind and generous lady. I offered to make a donation to a charity of her choice but she said it was not necessary. She asked for my mobile number just in case she needed to contact me so I gave her my card. Arrangements sorted, we parked in the drive of The Old Rectory before returning to the cafe for a coffee. It was 11.30am by the time we set off for our walk.

Trig point selfie

We immediately climbed out of the village on to the hillside above with a thick layer of fresh, green bracken either side of the path. Horseflies kept making little pin pricks in our arms and legs, which would then swell. Rob was affected most by them and his hands swelled badly, making his wedding ring very tight.

From the trig point at the top of Llanmadoc Hill we looked out over the grassy sand dunes immediately to the west and then nothing but a very placid sea. To the south we looked over the village of Llangennith towards our next hill, Rhossili Down.

We made our way into Llangennith and deliberated briefly as to whether we needed to take some refreshment. Having only been walking for an hour, we decided it was, perhaps a little soon, so we pressed on. It took us a while to pick our way, haphazardly across fields to the foot of Rhossili Down.

The climb up is steep, and it was noticeable that, with about 15kg on my back, it required a little more effort than normal. As we climbed the beauty of Rhossili Beach was gradually revealed. Beautiful, largely deserted, golden sands stretched out all the way up to the headland with Worms Head stretching, monster like, out to sea.

Worm’s Head and Rossili Beach from Rossili Down

At the top of the first climb we sat enjoying the view. For a long time a kestrel sat on a rock a little below us, unperturbed by our presence. Once it had flown Stephen sent his drone up to do some aerial video. All was going well until a Border Collie joined us and took exception to the drone, so much so, that Stephen guided it home and put it away. The collie belonged to a group who joined us at the summit cairn and, after the peace had been restored, sang gently and rhythmically. It was fascinating to listen to but I did not feel brave enough to enquire of them what they were doing.

Another trig point selfie

Shortly afterwards we left them to their summit singing, passing the remnant foundations of a Second World War radar station, before climbing again to the trig point towards the southern end of the Down. Below the beach was a little busier as this end was accessible via a steep path from the car park. We were in no rush and were enjoying the moment when we were joined, once again, by our singers. This time I engaged them in conversation and learned that they were a group from ‘Dreaming the Land’, www.dreamingtheland.com. They were a non secular group on a pilgrimage, visiting ancient and interesting sites on the Gower Peninsula. Despite it being a bit hippie and alternative, I found their idea interesting and it added a new dimension to walking in beautiful countryside on a glorious summer’s day. They removed themselves from the conversation for a group improvised interlude, which, although being quite bizarre, seemed to be natural. I think I might have felt rather self conscious. We eventually parted company and we headed down to Rhossili where Ian decided he needed a pint. He suggested he would catch up but I insisted we were in this together – ‘all for one and one for all’. So we all had a pint.

Worm’s Head from Rossili Down

Had circumstances been right we would have considered wild camping on Worm’s Head, but, as it was, the tide was in and the rocky causeway giving access was submerged. Even if we waited several hours the tide would be against us in the morning, delaying our progress around the coast. As we sat in front of the Coast Watch lookout post admiring the monster-like features of Worm’s Head, Geoff, one of the Coast Watch volunteers came over for a chat. He was one of the pioneering English surfers, originally from Essex but having lived on the Gower since the 1960s. He guessed that we were wanting to wild camp and suggested a quiet little cove, Ram’s Grove, an hour or so along the coast. “Just make sure you have enough water.” He was full of useful information. For example, if we ever do want to spend a night on the Head, visit the Coast Watch first and tell them. They will then let the Coast Guard know that you are night fishing and we won’t be disturbed. Then, when someone on the mainland dials 999 when they see torches, thinking people are stranded, the appropriate authorities will know that not to be the case. Otherwise they have to investigate, wasting a lot of time and money. He was a really friendly chap, but all the time he was talking to us he was watching, watching where people were going and what they were doing.

Ram’s Grove

Leaving friendly Geoff behind, we worked our way around the coast to Ram’s Grove. It is a deep v-shaped valley dropping steeply to a shingle beach. Just before we dropped down, Ian found an animal water trough with a pipe of fresh water feeding it, so we were able to fill all of our bottles etc.

Ian was quickly in the sea, soon followed by Stephen, cooling off. I went in up to the waist band of my trunks but could not bring myself to take that final plunge. The temperature contrast was too great.

Our wild camp

We set up our tents on the four flattest patches of grass we could find, only pegging them down minimally as there was very little soil under the grass. Then we set about supper, a variety of pre-cooked meals that only needed to be heated in their sachets in boiling water for about five minutes. Very tasty and perfectly adequate.

After that there was not much to do. There was no sunset to watch as we were hemmed in by the steep valley sides. Stephen sent his drone up to film it and us in our secret little world.

Rob and Ian enjoying their All Day Breakfast

Sleep was not too bad but I tended to alternate from hot and clammy to cold and clammy. The sheep that had been around us all night ensured that we did not linger in our tents by bleating loudly as soon as it was light. There was no point in lingering, and the more walking we could achieve in the relative cool of the morning, the less we would have to do in the stifling heat of the afternoon.

We climbed out of our valley at 7.00am and headed east to Port Eynon, just in time for the cafe opening, and a welcome coffee.

The walking became much easier from this point. The coast is less indented and the path follows a contour above the rocky coastline. We were able to make much better forward progress. I was walking a little ahead of the others and as I climbed up the path something caught my eye. There, just a couple of feet ahead of me, an adder slithered off the path where it was sunning itself into the undergrowth at the side. It was about a metre long and looked very healthy, with a good set of distinctive markings.

Our lunchtime view

As we rounded the headland towards Oxwich Bay a very large grey seal was luxuriating on a rock at the water’s edge, while another bobbed about in the sea nearby.

Once round the headland we were in lovely woodland, a welcome respite from the sun. There were some steep sections of up and down through the woods but we eventually emerged past the church to the Oxwich Bay Hotel, where we decided to have a long lunch.

After lunch, all we had to do was walk across the expansive bay along the beach to our campsite on the other side. It was a relief to be able to walk barefoot in the warm water lapping gently on the sand. In contrast, the hot, dry sand of the dunes we had to climb in order to reach our site, really burnt our feet.

I now have to make a confession. In my plan for this walk I had intended for us to camp at Three Cliffs Bay, but that campsite is not marked on the map. The only one marked is a little west of Three Cliffs at Nicholaston Farm. We stayed at the wrong site. In all honesty, I don’t think we had enough energy to go much further and the climb up to Three Cliffs Campsite was much steeper and longer. As it was, Nicholaston Farm had excellent facilities but not a great deal of flat land! There wasn’t much for us to choose for supper in the shop. We were restricted to buying the last two chicken curry pasties, a tin of beans and half a dozen eggs. It was a forty minute walk to the nearest pub and none of us fancied that.

Looking towards Three Cliffs from Nicholaston

After we had set up camp, all, with the exception of Rob, went back down to the beach for a swim in the beautiful evening light. The water felt much warmer and I enjoyed swimming around, although there were a number of purple/blue jelly fish that concerned me. There were also some monster ones washed up at the water’s edge that I couldn’t determine whether they were dead or alive.

Back at camp we ate our mixed bag of food and I boiled the eggs for the next day’s lunch.
After a much better night’s sleep than I was expecting on a sloping pitch, we were again up early. This time it was cawing crows that were our morning call.

Looking across Oxwich Bay on our last day

We were again away by 7.00am. Unfortunately the tide was in so we could not go down to the beach to enjoy the full splendour of Three Cliffs Bay. We could only enjoy it from above and from the landward side.

The route took us across the golf course at Pennard Burrows just as a tournament was getting underway. Balls were flying everywhere and we had to stop occasionally and watch the action before continuing. This brought us into Southgate where we stopped at the cafe/shop at West Cliff. There we had a coffee, followed by another coffee, followed by a bacon buttie, or other similar delight. Why we needed it, I don’t know. We had had porridge a couple of hours earlier, before we left the campsite.

An unwelcome beach companion at Caswell Bay

The remainder of the walk alternated between clifftop walking descending to sandy bays and climbing again. We were seeing more people along this stretch of coast as we got nearer to Mumbles. We also saw aspects of coastal tourism that is so disappointing. Caswell Bay is a beautiful sandy beach. Monstrous flats have been built overlooking it and at the hub of the bay there are kiosks selling nothing but junk food and tat. There were queues of people willing to gorge themselves on this rubbish served in polystyrene containers. Yuk!

From Caswell Bay the path is laid to concrete and unforgiving on the feet, but, at least, progress was quick. Stephen and I went on ahead so that we could organise a taxi to take us back to Llanmadoc to pick up the car before returning to collect Ian and Rob from the pub on the pier later. It was getting hotter and hotter, with heat also radiating off the white concrete and parched verges.

Mumbles Pier

We reached our destination, Mumbles Pier at 2.00pm, rang for a taxi, which arrived within five minutes. Sally, on who’s drive we had parked, asked me if I could promote the St Maddox Centre where her son worked. It caters largely for children but during the winter months it is quiet and would benefit from adult groups using it as well. It is worth a thought. More information can be found on www.stmadoc.co.uk. It might be something to consider and we would certainly see another side of the Gower’s nature in the winter.

Precious time with Stephen

We had had three magnificent days, seeing the Gower Peninsula at its very best. The beaches are stunning and some of them are as good as anywhere in the world. I would be tempted to repeat this three day walk, but I know, what we have experienced can probably not be repeated. I am grateful to Ian, Rob and Stephen for their excellent company; we did a lot of laughing. The walk was also enhanced by the friendly and interesting people we met along the way, from Sally who rescued us at the start, to Angharad Wynne and her Dreaming the Land group, and Geoff, who inspired us to fulfil our desire to wild camp. We certainly have some memories to treasure.

Offa’s Dyke, Sedbury Cliffs – Newcastle-on-Clun

Offa’s Dyke Path

It would seem, as things stand at the moment, that we might be heading for a good summer. After the long winter, which brought its own special pleasures, it will be very welcome. I hope that writing this is not going to be the kiss of death to July and August. But we were blessed with super weather while walking the southern half of Offa’s Dyke, an area well known for depositing rain.

The starting line-up

Having established camp at the Rising Sun in Pandy, we all met up at Sedbury Cliffs, Chepstow and the official start/finish of the 177 mile trail that runs along, either side of the modern England/Wales border. Marking the start with a photograph we headed off on woodland ridges overlooking the silty waters of the River Wye. Occasional breaks in the trees afforded us views across the valley at Wintour’s Leap and later overlooking the ruins of Tintern Abbey. We were walking through ancient woodland, which, with its very steep westerly slope, formed a natural barrier to the marauding Celts!

Eventually we dropped down off the hills into the riverside village of Brockweir where the day’s walk ended in the Brockweir Inn.

Returning to Brockweir the next morning, in glorious sunshine, we continued along the riverbank for three miles before climbing back up to the forested ridge. Views were restricted by the density of the forest, but it gave us welcome respite from the intense sunshine.

The Naval Temple

We descended briefly to Lower Redbrook for lunch by the river, before climbing yet again, through pastureland to Kymin. At the top of the hill is a round house, built by the gentlemen of Monmouth as a place to meet and dine. The adjacent Naval Temple was built in 1800 to commemorate the naval victory in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and other similar naval battles. Admiral Nelson visited it in 1802.

We descended into Monmouth where we took a little time out in Wetherspoons before continuing through more delightful woodland and countryside to Lower Hendre where we picked up the waiting minibus.

If the first two days had been dominated by woodland walks, the third day was very much about walking across pasture and arable land, of rolling countryside and just the odd hint of history. It was extremely pleasant walking.

Claire, the hot shot!

For lunch we sat on grass surrounded by an ancient moat, where once had stood a medieval Manor House. Unfortunately, for the next couple of miles the path was diverted along a lane because of overhead power line work, but as this gave us the short side of a triangle to walk, nobody really complained. This brought us to White Castle, which is one of the castles that featured on the Three Castles Way. When we visited it a few years ago there was an entry charge but that now seems to be a thing of the past. It is the largest of the three castles, the other two being Skenfrith and Grosmont. Inside we found a child’s toy gun which gave Claire some fun as she shot David and me with a large, orange sponge bullet!

From White Castle we skirted around the eastern and northern slopes of the Skirrid, taking a welcome detour into the Hunters Moon Inn at Llangattock Lingoed, originally built to serve the stonemasons building the adjacent church. Soon afterwards, we walked into camp.

The long Black Mountains ridge

Our final day’s walk before we moved camp saw us climbing out of Pandy on the the long, open moorland path that took us the length of the Black Mountains towards Hay. Although this took us to the highest point along the whole of the Offa’s Dyke trail, it is not necessarily the most interesting, and the fact that for much of the day cloud hung about just above our heads meant that whenever there were possible far reaching views, they were limited. Quite a strong breeze kept the temperatures down, making it perfect walking weather. We made very good time and were back at the minibus at the foot of Hay Bluff, at 2.00pm. Plenty of time for us to call into the bar at Llanthony Priory for some refreshing tea!

That night we ate in the Oldest pub in Wales, the Skirrid Mountain Inn, where Judge Jeffreys supposedly condemned some of those before him to hang from the hook in the ceiling of the bar. No hangings on this evening, just good food and beer.

Rockbridge camp

While the group walked with David to Newchurch, I transported all the kit to our next base at Rockbridge Caravan and Campsite just outside Presteigne. This was a perfect site. We had a flat pitch on the banks of the tranquil River Lugg. The camp facilities deserved a 10/10 score and the manager, Steve, was really welcoming, friendly and helpful.

Having set everything up with help from Paul, Angela and Annie, I travelled to Newchurch to meet the group. They had, again, made good time and I found them sitting in the church yard drinking tea. Inside the church there is a help yourself cafe for passing travellers. What a great idea to make the church accessible to all.

It is very satisfying to see people’s reactions when you introduce them to their home for the next few days. Rockbridge certainly ticked everybody’s boxes and it even surpassed the excellence of the two sites we used on the Jurassic Coast last year.

If we had thought the walk was stunning so far, the next two days were going to surpass all our expectations. The first day was relatively short, taking us to Kington. Firstly, we climbed out of Newchurch up to the open moorland of Disgwylfa Hill, which gave us views over hills with a lot of walking potential and deserving of further investigation. I’ll save that for another day.

We soon found ourselves in Gladestry before the climb up on to the Hergest Ridge, a long ridge of open moorland and outstanding views. The dominant hills are those of the Radnor Forest which rise in excess of 2000 feet.

From our lunch stop by nine monkey puzzle trees on the top, the guide book tells us that from this vantage point we could see fifteen counties. Unfortunately the guide book did not name them so most of our lunch break was spent agonising over them. We got nowhere near the fifteen and now that I am home I’m not going to waste my time trying to name them all. It is sufficient to say that the view in every direction is stunning and, in the perfect conditions we were experiencing, far reaching.

Keen competition!

Our descent into Kington followed and we treated ourselves with tea and cake in the Border Bean Cafe before heading back to camp for games of Kubb and Boule in the glorious evening sunshine.

David and I convinced the group that we could walk from Kington to Knighton on our penultimate day as it was only about 12 miles. During the course of the walk I was consulting my Cicerone map when Kath peered over my shoulder to read that it was actually 14 miles. Oops!

Any mistrust they might have had with us soon dissipated by the sheer beauty of the walk and the countryside we were experiencing. Singing rousing songs also helped make sure they remained cheerful. Despite it being two miles longer than they were expecting, we reached Knighton in good time, arriving at the Offa’s Dyke visitor centre at bang on 4.30, the time when they stop serving tea and cakes. However, the girl behind the counter was so obliging she made us tea and served us lovely portions of chocolate sponge cake. My plans to be abstemious on such occasions seems to have deserted me, but I deserved it. I had, after all, walked two miles more than anybody had expected!

A trig point selfie on the summit of Cwm-sanaham Hill

A slight deterioration in the weather greeted us for our last walking day. It must have been Tina’s fault, who joined us for the last day. A touch of overnight and early morning rain meant, that for the first time during the week, I needed to wear boots in order to keep my feet dry. Until the weather improved the long grass was going to hold droplets that would quickly soak through trainers. Also, gone were the clear views that we had so enjoyed so far. The first half of the walk up to the ridge above Knighton and along to Cwm-sanaham Hill was lovely, and, although we were walking along visible stretches of the dyke, much of the path beyond was tedious under foot. It was strewn with masses of sheep poo, which we tried our best to avoid. Nevertheless, we made good progress and reached the minibus, parked in the village hall car park in Newcastle-on-Clun, in time for a late lunch. We preferred to sit on the dry seats of the bus in preference to the wet grass.

That evening we ate in the Royal Oak in Presteigne to celebrate the end of an excellent week’s walking. It didn’t quite have the atmosphere, or the sense of history of the Skirrid Inn, but the food was good.

We had walked 89 miles in perfect conditions. I wonder, when we walk the northern half, in early September, whether we will be able to say the same. The weather is usually good the week schools go back. Let’s hope that is the case this year.

The Last Phase

Remarkably, despite being out in the field for seventeen days we had only seen nine schools. In the concluding four days we would be visiting a further eight schools.

During our last evening in Lelep we were joined by the Deputy Chairman and Deputy Director of the SWC (Social Welfare Council). They are a government organisation with the function of checking on all NGOs and INGOs in Nepal. This visit, by such important people, was part of an accreditation of our and REED’s work.

Before we left Lelep, we took the two visitors from the SWC to look at the girl’s hostel. Not only are the facilities unsatisfactory, but we wanted to share our concern with the lack of pastoral care for the girls. They agreed with our concerns and vowed to speak to the Ministry of Education on their return to Kathmandu, to lobby for a full time carer and improved facilities. I hope they live up to their word.

Feeling rested, particularly in my case, we climbed out of Lelep to find a path that generally contoured around the hill overlooking the Timor River far below. After about two and a half hours we reached Sabriti Basic School, a lovely school for a little over fifty children. When we arrived the children were playing on the playground and I was interested to see that there were two games of football taking place. One of the games consisted of girls only. Whilst this is not perhaps uncommon on school playgrounds in the UK, it is the first time I had encountered such activity in Nepal. The school continues to make progress as it embraces the skills and child friendly approach so ably taught by the REED team. The school now benefits from a fresh water supply, part of last year’s initiative to make sure that every school has access to water. On my previous visit I was concerned for the safety of children as they came out of their classrooms as there was a significant vertical drop from the narrow walkway, without any protection. There is now a very sturdy fence, ensuring that children, in their eagerness to go to play, do not fall and hurt themselves.

The dismal environment of Mohendra School

Whilst Sabriti School is flourishing, the next one we visited, barely an hour further along the track, is in a very sorry state. Mohendra Basic School once had 165 pupils, but because of poor leadership by the head, now has 23, a decline that has occurred in just a few years. Two years ago I gave the head a dressing down. Then he had to write a letter of commitment ensuring that he would improve his performance and that of the school. Unfortunately, nothing seems to have improved and I gave him another serious dressing down in front of all there, including those from the SWC. The head has a serious drink problem. In most other countries he would be out of a job but, for some reason, he cannot be replaced. Sadly, until he is replaced, he is letting down the community and children within its catchment area.

From Mohendra, we climbed steeply up the terraces of maize and potatoes for several hundred metres to Deurali Basic School. Deurali has a great sense of community and there were lots of people waiting for our arrival. There were some REED trainers working with staff on the concept of MGML (Multi Grade Multi Level) teaching, where children are all taught in the same room by a number of teachers. We visited the workshop. At first it appeared to be quite noisy, but then you began to appreciate that it was focused noise and that the children were not distracted by what was going on elsewhere in the room.

Deurali was another of the schools damaged in the earthquake and all the children were gathered in the single, large classroom that has been built. It is quite large and lends itself to this style of teaching. Everything we saw impressed us.

Once the training had finished the opening ceremony of the new building took place. Unfortunately, it started to rain so the formal gathering had to take place in another part of the school, across the playground. By the time the formalities were finished, the rain ceased and we were able to go outside under the makeshift shelters that had been erected. As was now the tradition, great pots of rice and goat meat were produced for the whole community. We chose, without offending, to decline the food.

Our distinguished guests from the SWC left us after the ceremony, well pleased with what they had seen and with the work of the Himalayan Trust UK and REED. If ever we need support from them in the future, I think it would be guaranteed.

That night, instead of putting tents up on to a wet and muddy playground, we all slept on the floor in the new classroom. It was one of the best night’s sleep of the whole trip.

The five classroom block built by the Gurkha Welfare Trust

The following morning we left Deurali to wend our way on a beautiful walk to Sundevi Secondary School. The walk took us through a variety of landscapes from terraced fields, to cardamon plantations to thick forest. The walk was made all the more interesting because it was wet and there were thousands of leeches just waiting to latch on to us. Roma popped into a house as we passes and collected lumps of rock salt for each of us so that we could fight back. It was very funny watching a paranoid group walk, constantly checking their footwear and legs for leeches.

By the time we reached Sundevi School, the weather had brightened up. A tour of the classrooms and of the lessons taking place, confirmed that this school is performing well, giving the students the best possible start in life.

To mark our visit, nearly every child in the school had made a garland. Each child, in turn, presented their garlands to us as we sat in a line in front of them. We were fairly heavily weighed down by the time the procession was finished.

From Sundevi, we could see our next school visit, Bipudham but in order to get there we had to descend steeply for about an hour before climbing for a further three quarters of an hour. It was a slippery descent and we had to take care not to fall.

One of the bright new classrooms

Bipudham School is situated on a little plateau on the edge of a ridge stretching down towards the Timor River. It too was damaged in the earthquake and we were going to experience yet another opening ceremony. Unfortunately, shortly after we arrived, it started to rain and the proceedings were moved into one of the temporary learning centres we built in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. I was disappointed to see that the school, despite the fact that we had built them some new classrooms, were still using the TLCs, now looking a little worse for wear after nearly three years of use.

Amongst the parents attending the ceremony was a mother who was very drunk. She staggered about the school, making a nuisance of herself. One cheek was heavily swollen, probably as a result of a drunken fall. Later in the proceedings she sat on a bench hugging a girl, her daughter. What chance does that girl have with a mother that is incapable of looking after her properly? The mother would be in no fit state to provide a meal. At least there was going to be food available after the ceremonies were completed.

The school certainly benefits from the new classrooms we have built, and we saw evidence of improvement in the teaching. However, this school has a weak head and you get the impression that that weakness is holding the rest of the staff and the children back.

Having avoided the rice and goat meat we took our leave and descended to Chhiruwa for the night, where we were to stay in the lodge I have used frequently in recent years. We had more rain in the night. There had been hardly a day during this trip where we had not had rain. This is the wettest part of Nepal but the pre-monsoon rains seem to have come early this year.

Early the next morning we visited the Phoktanglung Health Post. Nothing has changed here in the last three years, apart from the personnel looking after it. Each time I have visited they have requested a birthing centre and nothing has materialised. Since my last visit they have had a fatality during childbirth so I am hoping, that once Yamphudin is finished, we can give some attention to this particular need. It will not cost anything like the money we have put into Yamphudin.

While Kate and the rest of the team stayed on at the health post, Tim, Mike and I went down to Phoktanglung School. We arrived in time for assembly on the playground. This was led by one of the older girls, but even so she could not have been any more than ten years old. She fulfilled her role with confidence as she first led the assembly and then the brain gym activities. Upon the conclusion the children set about going to their classrooms but before they settled to their work they swept out the rooms while other children litter picked around the playground and others filled buckets for the toilets. At no time did a member of staff have to tell them what to do. This was a daily routine and was very impressive.

This young man does not want to miss out on his classwork just because we are visiting.

Having observed some lessons, the school then wanted to give us a short cultural show. Just before it started the Chairman of Phoktanglung Rural Municipality visited the school. During the show there was one member of staff who was particularly impressive, the ECD teacher. She seemed to be efficiently involved in all aspects.

This school relies very heavily on community contribution, having only one government allocated teacher. All other staff are paid for from the interest raised from a community fund. It means that they get paid only a fraction of the normal rate. I seized my opportunity after the presentation was over and went to speak to the chairman of the PRM, asking him to use his influence to improve the remuneration of the teachers in this school. He gave me a positive response without any guarantees.

A Sewalung lesson

From Phoktanglung we headed up hill for an hour or so to reach Sewalung School. They too had had a rebuild programme following the earthquake, so this would be our fifth building opening ceremony. When we arrived the children were still in lessons so we had the opportunity to observe some lessons in the new classrooms we had built and also in the government funded classrooms that were under construction when I visited the school in 2016. In 2016 the school was in a sorry state. There had been significant damage to many of the school buildings but they were still having to use them out of necessity, along with a neighbouring building that was not really suitable. Then all the classrooms were dark and the teaching was uninspiring. Now, they have bright and airy classrooms and the teaching was much improved.

I remember there being a weak head teacher in 2016. He has now left but has been replaced by a similarly weak head, appointed based on his years of service to the school rather than his quality of teaching and leadership. At least the Key Teacher is good and there are others who are self motivated to work for the benefit of the children.

Embarrassingly, I suggested that we might have some noodle soup before the formal celebrations started. Unfortunately the formalities started before the soup arrived, so, when it did come, we sat there in full view of everybody eating noodle soup. These events, despite their formality are actually fairly relaxed and chaotic so I doubt for a minute that anybody was surprised or shocked by our eating lunch.

After about two hours, during which there were a lot of speeches, the longest being from the Chairman of the Rural Municipality, who spoke for seventeen minutes and which Rajendra translated for us in just forty seconds, the event came to a close.

Climbing up further from the school, we eventually reached a path that contoured high along the hillside. After about an hour we reached our overnight accommodation, the house belonging to one of the Sewalung teachers, where Tim and I stayed in 2016. The difference this time was that there were ten of us, plus Rajendra, Passang, Sujata and eight porters. There was a surprisingly large amount of space available to fit us all in, although Tim, Kate and I elected to sleep on the upstairs veranda. That produced one of the best night’s sleep of the trip.

My last speech of the trip!

We were only about twenty minutes from our last school, Rani Basic School, in my mind the best school of all those we work in. Despite it being a Saturday nearly all the children turned up to enthusiastically greet us and show us, with pride, their school. After the usual assembly and brain gym, all ably led by the children, we were able to observe a number of lessons that were both engaging and informative for the children. They also have a computer suite and there I observed, with the use of a programme projected on to a wall, a geometry construction lesson. It was all really good.

Afterwards, we all gathered on the playground again for us to be festooned in so many garlands that they weighed heavily and the strings cut into the back of our necks. As we listened to the speeches the clouds cleared from the high mountains and we were treated to super views of Jannu at the western edge of the Kangchenjunga massif. Eventually there were no more speeches to be made or dances to be performed. It all came to an end and we began the long, knee jarring descent to Siwan 1000 metres below. After three hours it was good to finish. Despite all my trouble earlier in the trek, in these last few days I had felt much better and much more able to cope with the endeavour needed to visit these remote schools. This trek, unlike most is unusual. A normal visitor who embarks on a trek gradually gains height by following a recognised route up a valley to a high point. On reaching that high point they either turn round and return the same way or continue down the other side. We were not having it that easy. In order to visit a school we might have to climb anything up to 1000m to then descend before visiting the next school. And all the slopes were steep, the temperature and humidity levels high. Mike and Ann, who have done a number of treks with me, maintain that this is the hardest they have ever done! Well done, everybody!

The full team of REED staff, porters and ourselves

The jeeps were there to meet us and take us back to Taplejung ready for the journey to Bhadrapur the next day. In fact we were only travelling as far a Ilam, so that we could then make sure that we got to Bhadrapur in time for the late morning flight.

The flight back to Kathmandu was remarkably on time, which gave us some time in the afternoon to do a bit of necessary retail therapy. Tim, Kate, Ian and I managed to eat in the Garden of Dreams before returning to our guest house in Patan.

Our last full day in Nepal was largely spent in meetings with REED where we discussed the various options for our future involvement. It has been made abundantly clear to us that there is a growing need for us to expand our work. At the same time, there are schools that need less input from us now that they have had the training. What they have learnt and the approaches to education that they have adopted are now part of each school’s culture. We have made a difference, and, as long as the schools are monitored and supported further when necessary, we can move on and give more children in these remote mountains the better opportunities in life that a quality education brings.

One of the problems I have wanted to solve is the provision of a midday snack for children so that they can focus on their learning in the afternoons rather than worry about their rumbling stomachs. We had looked at a number of ways we could do this but never found anything that was going to be guaranteed and cost effective. REED announced that they were going to make some savings in their budget so that they could buy every child a snack box. That would be about 2,100 snack boxes, costing NRs200,000 (£1400). They would then use the schools to educate the parents to send their children with a simple snack. I had NRs50,000 left in the trek kitty, so that immediately went to support the cost of snack boxes. While the problem is not entirely solved and there can be no guarantees that all children will be eating snacks, it is good to know that very soon every child in the schools where we work, may soon be having refreshments in the middle of the day, allowing them to concentrate on their afternoon lessons. All it requires now is some parental responsibility and cooperation.

The three trustees

Despite the difficulties at times, this has been a superb trip. It gave me a great deal of pleasure to share what we do in this remote region with people who had little understanding of the problems associated with trying to provide quality education and health care. I hope it has opened their eyes and that, perhaps, they can find some way of supporting the Himalayan Trust UK to continue with this important work.