WALK THIS WYE
With her Welsh sheepdog Teg, Kate Humble explores the length of the Wye Valley, trekking from the river’s source to Tintern Abbey
Kate Humble explores the length of the Wye Valley from source to her home near Chepstow in the company of Teg.
I’ve lived in an old stone farmhouse perched above the Wye Valley and the ruins of Tintern Abbey longer than anywhere else since I left home at 18. This is my 10th year here, so to celebrate I decided to go for a walk.
The Wye Valley Walk runs 136 miles between Hafren Forest in Mid Wales to
Chepstow, on the English border. Most people choose to walk from Chepstow and my guidebook describes the walk from this direction, but I wanted to do it the other way around and walk from the source to home.
Mid Wales is often overlooked. It doesn’t have the dramatic scenery of Snowdonia or the beauty of the Pembrokeshire coast, but I love this rural part of Wales with its rolling hills, small farms and gruff hospitality. So together with my Welsh sheepdog Teg and a rucksack full of socks and dog food, I travelled to Llangurig, the little village nearest the start of the Wye.
In the village pub I joined a group of men at the bar. They were local farmers, wearing checked shirts and holding pint glasses in gnarled, hard-working hands. There was
“THE ODD BRAMBLE SCRATCH IS A SMALL PRICE TO PAY”
lots of banter and teasing. “What are you doing here?” they asked and when I told them, one man offered to give me a lift to
Rhayader, a day and half’s walk away. “I can’t do that! That’s cheating!” “Well then, you’ll be needing more of this,” replied another, pulling me a pint of cider. A third man, Dai, told me that he owned the source of the Wye. “It rises on a hill on my farm, so you’ll be walking across my land tomorrow. How long will it take you to get back to Tintern?”
“I’m planning to do it in nine days,” I said. “Although my navigation skills aren’t brilliant. My husband said he’d be surprised if I was home within a month…”
The next morning, as Teg and I got out of the taxi at the start of the route, I stood listening to the sound of the retreating engine and suddenly felt a bit apprehensive. Rain was falling, cloud hung low, we were completely alone and my phone had no signal.
Teg, on the other hand, had no such qualms, and raced off down a path marked ‘walks this way’. So I buckled up my rucksack and followed.
An hour or so later, going through a gate on to an open hillside, I heard the sound of a quad bike. “You made it this far without getting lost!” It’s Dai, the man who owns the land where the Wye rises. “Just thought I’d check to see if you are doing OK. Sorry the weather’s not great. You’ll see a path a bit further along this track that takes you to where you can get a view of the source of the Wye, but you won’t see a thing today. Good luck!” And with that he was gone, swallowed up by the cloud.
That small act of kindness made my apprehension disappear. I was reassured that if anything did happen to us – if we got lost, for instance – there would be someone who would help, because that’s just what people do around here.
We took a short detour across Dai’s hillside to find the Wye’s source. There were any number of boggy patches and little riverlets that could have been it, but if there was any sort of sign marking the spot, it was obscured by the mist.
We returned to the main route, easily navigable here, but not in anyway beautiful. It followed a gravel road (which is used by a local rally driving centre) through a rather barren and sodden landscape. At this point, the River Wye was just a narrow stream trickling along below me. But after a couple of hours we crossed a main road and
followed the waymark over a bridge and into the woods where my spirits were lifted.
GO YOUR OWN WAY
For three days we walked the paths, lanes and hills of Mid Wales. And as my husband predicted, we got lost. Or rather we lost the path – numerous times – although never disastrously.
The Wye Valley Walk isn’t a national trail, like Offa’s Dyke or the Pennine Way. It developed as a collaboration between three local authorities and the Wye Valley AONB (a feat in itself) and there isn’t the funding to keep the route regularly maintained. Some waymarks are missing; others are so faded that they’re unreadable or have been swallowed up by the undergrowth. Paths, particularly in the early summer, are often overgrown. But the odd wrong turn and bramble scratch is a small price to pay for some truly lovely and varied walking.
The route doesn’t stick beside the river, but often climbs away from it, providing a different perspective on the unfolding landscapes that are frequently, and sometimes literally, breathtaking. The birdlife was, too – red kites, the bird synonymous with this part of Wales, wheeled above us; chiffchaffs called from the woods; newly fledged swallows skimmed low over the river in formation like tiny fighter jets; and the hedgerows were full of wrens and redstarts.
The first day we walked over 18 miles and camped in a field, after getting permission from the kind farmer who owned it. It was next to a stream and the only sounds were the evening birdsong and water babbling over stones, lulling us to sleep.
Having a Wales of a time: Teg and Kate admire the view BELOW A red kite – the unofficial bird of Wales – glides over the Wye
ABOVE Higher upstream, the river winds its way through forested hillsides of the Wye Valley