Offa’s Dyke Path
Start: Chepstow, Monmouthshire
End: Prestatyn, Denbighshire
Distance: 177 miles (285km)
Time: 2 weeks
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Surface: Path, Mountain Trail, Tow Path
Offa’s Dyke, the famous 8th-century earthwork created under the reign of the Anglian Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796 CE, was originally 20 m wide and up to 8 m high, measuring from the top of its wall to the bottom of its accompanying ditch. Though its precise purpose is still debated (and of late even the time frame of its construction is being argued in some scholastic circles), it appears at best to have been built to create a political and cultural boundary, and at worst as a military application in the form of a defensive wall raised to defend Mercia to the east from the Welsh ‘petty kingdom’ of Powys to the west. The ditch which parallels the wall on the western or Welsh side of the wall, the soil from which was used to create the embankment on the eastern Mercian side, is certainly a defensive obstacle (though a section in south Shropshire has an eastern ditch). However an absence of roads, fortifications, and other associated military infrastructure suggests it fell short of being a fortified frontier along the lines of a Hadrian’s Wall. Whatever its true intentions, the fact is it is wholly unique, and remains as a testimony to the lost culture of the Anglian/Mercian people.
Well preserved for much of its length it runs from the banks of the Severn Estuary on the Irish Sea and ends at the Sedbury Cliffs, a boundary tangible enough to be followed with the naked eye – and tangible enough to have one of Great Britain’s best-known trails run beside it. Offa’s Dyke Path, opened in 1971, passes through eight counties, crosses the English/Welsh border on more than twenty occasions, and is a conduit joining three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Clwydian Range/Dee Valley, the Shropshire Hills and the Wye Valley – as well as the Clun Forest, Brecon Beacons, the Vale of Clwyd and the Black Mountains.
Walking the trail south to north remains the preferred option, if only to have prevailing winds at your back. Starting out from Sedbury the trail passes through woodlands to the east of the Wye with a small climb of around 180 m to the Devil’s Pulpit with its view to Tintern Abbey below. Also worth admiring is the lovely white Round House, a folly-like tower built in 1794 with its crenellated roof (from the top of which it was claimed you could look into nine counties) on the slopes of the Kym in to the east of Monmouth.
Monmouth to Pandy – through orchards and following lines of dry stone walls – can be a muddy walk if it’s been raining, but the trail dries out from Pandy as you cross the walks highest section along a somewhat sinuous ridgeline along the Black Mountains on a flagstone path, followed by a 677-m descent to the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye, in the far northeast of Brecon Beacons National Park. Laneways and farmlands take you to Newchurch and Gladestry, the local churches of which have erected welcome signs for Offa’s Dyke walkers and offer milk, tea, coffee and biscuits – a sanctuary and a blessing on a rainy day. A wide grassy path leads from Gladestry up over Hergest Ridge, a sheep-grazing moorland area over an elongated hill that straddles the Welsh/English border, and from there to Kington you’ll find yourself walking along a series of sealed roads, though this may come as a relief after hours spent the previous day slogging your way through potentially muddy fields. And there’s the option of stopping bY the Kington Golf Club, England’s highest golf course. Three peaks are bagged between Kington and Knighton – representing a cumulative elevation gain of 760 m. Don’t underestimate the capacity of this trail to exhaust the novice hiker.
A series of switchbacks is next, including steep climbs and descents as well as a section on Llanfair Hill where you are actually walking upon the dyke itself. Your arrival at Brompton Crossroads will be eagerly anticipated too, especially if you’ve booked ahead and secured a night’s accommodation in The Drewin B&B with its panoramic views over the Welsh borderlands. The walks flattest section, from Buttington to Llanymynech, is next, and you stay on Offa’s Dyke Path through the centre of Trefonen, the ‘village of ash trees’ where the path runs adjacent to Chapel Lane through the very heart of town.
A steep climb out of Trefonen leads through more woodlands before passing the Oswestry Old Racecourse, set in a lovely habitat of scrub, heathland, woodlands, ponds and grasslands and which saw its first horse race in the 17th century. Chink Castle soon follows, built in 1295 and continually inhabited since 1310, with its beautiful clipped yew hedges, herbaceous borders and terraces. The Llangollen Canal is another highlight, linking Denbighshire in North Wales with Hurleston in south Cheshire and a section of which was declared a World Heritage Site in 2009. Crossing its famous 307-metre-long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, built by Thomas Telford from 1795 to 1805 with its eighteen piers of local stone and capped with an iron trough to carry the water from its source at Horseshoe Falls, is an encounter to remember (though an alternative ground trail exists for anyone who prefers not to cross it), as is Castell Dinas Bran, the medieval castle above Llangollen and one of many hill forts in the region.
A lovely section passes along the base of the Llangollen escarpment before a steep climb on to moorlands ends in a descent to Llandegla in the upper valley of the River Alyn. A series of hilltops are then skirted on the way to Bodfari, and a last push through farmlands and hedgerows before dipping your boots in the Irish Sea and so officially completing the only one of twelve designated National Trails to follow, as closely as is possible, this extraordinary man-made feature, and Britain’s longest ancient monument.