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Joining The Ridgeway to Offa's Dyke Path ~ Avebury to Chepstow: 75 miles

Anchor 1

31st July to 3rd August 2017: 4 days

Introduction

Introduction

There was an apparently small, but glaring, gap between the western end of The Ridgeway at Chepstow and the southern end of Offa’s Dyke Path at Chepstow when I looked at the route lines I had drawn on my wall map of the UK. Being the type of person I am (ask anyone) I couldn’t allow this gap to remain unplugged. I did the usual research to try to discover any existing long distance paths that covered some or part of the countryside between Avebury and Chepstow. The Cotswold Way wandered around the area but didn’t solve the problem I therefore set about planning my own route.

I found the exercise really interesting and enjoyable. Armed with the online version of Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps and the MapMyWalk app, I did a virtual walk on my computer. I printed out a series of A4 pages of OS maps covering the area to be walked and indicated the planned route in pink highlighter.

The next step was to decide when to do the walk. This was easy: I was due to attend a reunion of friends I had made when living in Solomon Islands in the early 1980s. We meet annually and our 2017 catch up was to take place at the house of Thornton and Annie MacCallum near Stroud. I arranged to stay with them the night before the walk as Thornton had kindly offered to deposit me at my Avebury starting point. I also managed to arrange a lift back from the end of the walk at Chepstow, back to Stroud, with Keith and Fran Gristock, who would be travelling from South Wales to Stroud to join the reunion.

The Journey

After a good sleep I woke with the alarm at 04:45, the intention being to be on the road by 05:00: best laid plans! I ticked off the remaining jobs, which took a while, but when I went into the hall to pick up my pack to load into the car my 2.5 litre water sack had leaked all over the floor. It took me ages to mop it up and re-fit the sack.

I eventually got away at 05:40 and drove at 50 mph for the 17.5 miles of ‘Smart Motorway’ roadworks on the M6. I sped up for a few miles but then hit the rush hour traffic at Walsall followed by more roadworks on the M5. I then enjoyed a few miles of ‘normal’ motorway driving before stopping for a crash that added a further 15 minutes to the trip.

I was in contact with Thornton all the way down and he was at home to meet me at 09:00. I had a quick catch up with my old friend and with his eldest daughter Rhona, her partner Will and Thornton’s friend Roy, who I hadn’t seen in years.

We loaded my kit into Thornton’s car and he drove me the hour’s journey to Avebury. We talked all the way, particularly about our mutual friend Steve Rowlands. Steve and his wife Chris were two other ‘Solomon Islands’ friends. Steve was suffering from a rare skin cancer and had spent a very harrowing lengthy period in hospital. He was now home and very much hoped to join us for dinner one night on our forthcoming reunion.

Thornton dropped me at the Red Lion pub in Avebury, took my photo and left.

The Journey

31st July 2017 – Avebury to Kington St Michael: 21 miles

Day 39
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I checked the map and headed off past the old village. A lady pointed me in the right direction for Windmill Hill, but I was doubtful and did the first of many circuits of a field before doubling back and finding the right route. Not a particularly good start!

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The way ahead from Windmill Hill, Avebury

There were many pleasant houses but it was very quiet. I hiked up Windmill Hill where I stopped for a cereal bar. I then carried on round the hill looking for the right path which I found before gingerly selecting the next turn off. Coming round a bend I saw something that looked like a black cat disappear under a hedge: but I was too far from civilization, so could it have been…..? I saw lots of animals on the trail today.

I doubted where I was so checked the OS app which was very useful in getting me back to a signpost that I had missed, as it was broken. The paths, I soon realized, were not what I was used to. They were clearly underused and poorly maintained. They were, quite simply, very hard work! I came across a dead fawn in the middle of the track.

As I walked on the scenery was expansive if a little dull. Most of the time it was hard to see anything because of the high hedges. I descended from Highway Hill and Googled The Duke pub at Hilmarton, which was open for food until 14:15. I put on a spurt along a dead straight lane, crossed a field and found a gap in the hedge that led onto the lane into the village.

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The Duke at Hilmarton....promised so much but....

It was an attractive village but I got short shrift from some old bloke cutting his hedge. I made for the pub but noted, as I approached, a disturbing sign that, on closer inspection, said ‘Sorry – closed today!’ I was a little deflated so took off my pack, sat behind the bus shelter on a bench looking back to the church and tucked into a cereal bar and an apple: it did the job!

Off across the road I followed a long path down the hill to cross a stream and again failed to pick up the path on the other side. Eventually I came across a moto cross circuit in a field. I picked my way across the muddy, rutted expanse and managed to rejoin the path. Crossing the lane I picked up the path on the far side only to lose it again immediately. I traipsed around the field and used the OS app once again to locate the start of the path, which just wasn’t there.

I saw a ‘body shaped’ piece of blue plastic under a hedge and dived in, Inspector Morse like, to investigate. It turned out to be an innocent pile of bailing plastic. Unable to find the path I picked through the hedge and down the hill, disturbing a small deer. I stopped for ‘ablutions’ then pushed on, hopelessly lost but aiming for landmarks on the far hillside.

More ploughed and planted fields lay in my way so I detoured via Stockham Marsh Farm, with its Mazda Rotary garage and out onto the road. It was a strange road: immaculately tended wide verges in the middle of nowhere. I passed several very large farms and walked through the long village of Foxham. The pub was also shut on Mondays!

 

Leaving Foxham I followed a bridleway that was overgrown and extremely depressing. I passed under a railway line then came across the River Avon. Even it looked awful as it passed through a less than attractive flood gate. I got to a road where I stopped for my third cereal bar of the day and ‘took the weight off’.

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A typically overgrown 'right of way'

Setting off once more I really struggled to find the paths I had planned to walk. I tried to navigate using the electric pylons but again ended up wandering all over the place. I had to walk around huge wheat fields, at the end of which I felt utterly exhausted and could quite easily have lain down and called it a day.

Nevertheless I pressed on and eventually came to Kington Langley where I followed the road to the pub (permanently closed) and then to the path out of the village. It looked completely impassable so I carried on down the lane and took a parallel path. It was fine but I had to negotiate a large number of cattle. I made the mistake of keeping to what I thought was the path. I ended up at a friendly old chap’s place. He came out to help me accompanied by five dogs. He said that the underpass that I planned to use to pass beneath the busy A350 had been closed for over twenty years!

As a consequence, I diced with death crossing the A350 at rush hour, expecting to be able to pick up the trail on the far side: no such luck. I walked up and down the road beside the speeding traffic looking for somewhere to descend the steep embankment. There being no obvious route I finally lunged down through the brambles and nettles, getting badly scratched and stung, until I reached a hidden stream at the bottom. I jumped across successfully and negotiated the barbed wire fence to arrive in a small overgrown field.

 After a quick reconnoiter I realized that it was fully enclosed and that there was no way out. A tall hedge ran the entire length of the field and the bramble covered embankment blocked my retreat. I found a small badger run that passed beneath the hedge so pushed first my pack and then myself through to emerge scratched and bleeding on the other side. I still struggled to find anything resembling a path so just aimed straight for Kington St Michael church tower across a recently harvested field.

I spotted an exit stile from the field, walked into the village and spotted the pub. As I stopped my Strava recording it showed 21 miles – every one of them hard. What a day’s walking! I checked into the pub, getting bemused glances from the other punters. I must have looked an absolute sight – bloodied and bedraggled amongst the suited types in the bar.

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I was given a nice room where I relaxed in the bath and changed so as to feel human again. I received the great news of Joe’s promotion and WhatsApped the family. I had a nice meal of lamb shank and sticky toffee pudding and listed to a relentless American chap chatting to a caravanning couple from Clitheroe.

Day 40

1st August 2017 - Kington St Michael to Marshfield: 16.4 miles

I slept well, unsurprisingly, but woke early and enjoyed resting in bed until 07:30. Breakfast was good and I had a chat with the waiter, who then checked me out. I set off at 09:00 and walked up the main street of the attractive village of Kington St Michael.

I forked left then followed my map to cut across a playing field. Unable to find the footpath on the other side, I felt a sense of foreboding that today would be like yesterday. Eventually though I found the footpath but it was very indistinct. I walked back to the lane and set off for eastern Percy. I became distracted looking at the attractive cottages and missed the footpath so continued on the road, which was quite well used by cars.

I turned left and headed into Yatton Keynell. The noise coming from Castle Combe motor racing circuit was very loud and I continued to hear it for the next few hours, though never actually caught sight of the track. I stopped for a breather at Yatton then took a right along another narrow lane. Passing the marvelous manor house I was myself passed by a runner and then a dog walker. I turned the corner at the attractive Ivy Farm and called Joe to congratulate him on his promotion. We had a good chat during his break from training relating to his new ‘top secret’ assignment!

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Macmillan Way

I dodged the cars on the narrow lane and then walked down a smaller lane at Long Dean to a small hamlet where I took the attractive Macmillan Way through ancient woodlands and up above the river By Brook.

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Grains Quarry Plantation

The fields below had sheep, horses and donkeys in them. I passed a chap and his ‘mail order bride’ just before reaching the road which led by the river into Castle Combe.

The village was beautiful but quite crowded with tourists. I was determined to find the house that I thought I remembered from a childhood geography book so knocked on the door of what looked like the most likely candidate.

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The house from my geography book?

A woman answered but professed no knowledge: understandably given her Kiwi accent. She said she would ask ‘her boss’ as the ‘lady of the house’ was absent. A small chap in a jacket and tie came to the door and shook my hand. He too hadn’t heard of the book to which I referred, but we had a pleasant chat before he bade me farewell in his very upper crust accent.

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Castle Combe

I walked through the village and had a coffee and cake outside The Castle Inn. I watched an overly cheerful chap, who was clearly driving an American family around on vacation, as he ‘explained’ things to them. I was sure most of what he said was made up on the spot, but they loved it.

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The Castle Inn and market cross, Castle Combe

I had a quick look at the church, sheltered under the strange roofed stone cross as the rain started and then took the road uphill and out of town. Taking a sharp left I followed the footpath around the beautiful golf course. I tried to help a four-ball who couldn’t tee off as a couple of large families were sitting on a stone bridge right where their shots were being aimed at. I chatted with the golfers as I crossed the bridge and continued on across the course.

Ascending a fairly steep hill I reached a road where I took a right, walked for a while and then took a left onto a path. This would be one of the first sections of non-road walking today. My aim was the Lugbury Long Barrow.

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Lugbury Long Barrow

As I arrived Mum called and we had a brief chat as the rain again came down. It didn’t last long so I photographed the three large stones and moved on through the fields. I emerged onto a lane which I took to Nettleton. Again I struggled to find the footpath across the fields but eventually identified a converted chapel that indicated where the path exited the field. My next village was West Kington, which I approached via a large horse stud. Several mares and foals grazed in the paddocks. I walked round the property to reach the attractive church of St Mary the Virgin. I sat outside the church and ate the two pieces of toast I had taken from breakfast. I then had a look around the church, which had benefitted from recent, very good value for money, renovations.

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St Mary the Virgin, West Kington

I left the church and descended a very slippery path to the village. It was another quaint hamlet, but I realised that I had, once again, missed the footpath I was aiming for. I decided not to waste time but to take the lane. This passed several quaint houses and a nice small brook where I photographed a strange footpath sign in the river and then a heron.

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A not so helpful footpath sign

I walked up the road to where the footpath forked off to follow the river. I passed some lovely gardens and then the path wended its way through sheep paddocks as it followed the river for a couple of miles.

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West Kington

I stopped to photograph a murder of crows. When I reached the Tormarton Road I turned left, conscious of the fact that Tormarton, only a mile to the right, would take me five miles to reach tomorrow. I had to accept this as I had not found any accommodation in Tomarton so was instead required to make for Marshfield, a mile or so to the south.

I slogged up a steepish hill with plenty of fast traffic. At the top I took in the expansive views eastward that showed where I had walked from: The Ridgeway clearly visible on the far horizon.

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The path reavelled and yet to come

The final path of the day proved as elusive as the first. I found a signpost to the second part of the path but once again it went through a wheat field. I was thoroughly fed up of this blatant disregard for public rights of way so walked along a tractor tyre rut through the field.

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Where's the path?

The next part of the way was blocked by a chicken farm, which I had to walk around and then by nettle patches and bean fields, all of which were hard to traverse.

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Another overgrown 'public right of way'

I did, however, eventually reach the Marshfield by-pass. Crossing this I walked into town and bought far too much food at the local store. I walked along the slightly jaded main street and found Windrush B&B.

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John showed me to my room. I had a bath but still felt very stiff afterwards. I got John to fix the broken TV and broadband, had a cup of tea, some crisps and an apple and wrote up my journal. I paid a quick visit to the Lord Nelson Inn for a beer before turning in.

2nd August 2017 – Marshfield to Thornbury: 24.79 miles

Day 41

I slept well but woke early to the sound of rain: ominous! I heard John in the kitchen, so went down and enjoyed a ‘Full English’ whilst chatting to him and Sandra. I finished packing and put my jacket and over-trousers on before leaving at about 08:15. I had a phone chat with Kym before setting off.

I crossed the busy main road and took the lane towards West Littleton. I passed a caravan in which was a sign that said ‘Here just for a month’, which looked at least ten years old. Tom called as I climbed the hill to the village and we chatted as I dodged cars and horses. Heading off past the church I passed through horse paddocks, down the hill and to the first field of the day. There was a semblance of a path through the corn: I followed it to the busy A46 which I crossed.

I found the path on the other side whish followed the perimeter of the Dyrham Estate. I was following part of the Cotswold Way. I wasn’t entirely sure why the route circled the park but it did give me a good view of the house and the formal gardens after passing Dyrham village.

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Dyrham Park

I walked around a large ‘combe’ through frisky cattle and then across the same main road that I had crossed over an hour earlier. I caught sight, in the distance, through the drizzle, of the Severn Bridge: a disturbingly long distance away. To add insult to injury, the path veered eastwards, away from my destination.

I passed a couple doing the Cotswold Way who asked me about signage. I walked past a radio transmitter and through Beacon Lane Plantation before I came upon what can only be described as a ‘Dogging lay-by’, littered with a dreadful amount of ‘this and THAT!’ I waited for a while to cross the very busy A46 yet again. A couple of other walkers in Aussie hats and plastic capes crossed during the same gap in the traffic as I did.

I came to one end of a long and beautiful, brand new, Cotswold stone wall. I struck up conversation with some of the chaps working on it and disovered that they had ha a team of up to twelve people a day working on the wall since early March. I asked who was paying and they replied ‘James Dyson’.

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James Dyson's dry stone wall

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The far end of the wall was still derelict. It gave way to a few houses, a drive and then the road, over the hectic M4 motorway, which led into Tormarton. This is where, had accommodation been available, I would like to have spent the night. Instead, I had already done eight miles this morning and it was 11:00.

Tormarton was very sleepy and I saw nobody. I stopped at a bus shelter for a welcome sit down and some snacks before leaving the village and picking up the path that led into Dodington Park. Signs bearing the owner’s crest gave clues as to his identity. 

The extensive grounds of Dodington Park were immaculately maintained. Unfortunately it was raining as I passed through, seeing the imposing hall in a more formal garden area below. After some time I emerged at Coomb’s and then traversed the hillside before descending to Old Sodbury.

  

I crossed the main road and climbed again to lovely St John’s church on the hill.

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St John's Church, Old Sodbury

The views were ok but would, I suspect, have been spectacular in good weather.

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The Severn Crossing from Old Sodbury

I had a quick look around the church then, as the heavens opened, sat on a bench in the porch and ate biscuits and a banana. The rain showed no sign of abating so I left the church and descended the hill back to the village. After a quick route check I picked up the Jubilee Way across fields and lanes and followed it until I arrived on Sodbury Common.

It proved impossible to see any route across the common so I struck out in the rain and strong wind to find the entrance to the golf course. Swallows flew all about me, feeding on the many insects that I was disturbing as I ploughed through the grass. I checked out a couple of hedges before coming across a sign hidden in the undergrowth. The path that this sign had once pointed to led onto the immaculate but deserted golf course, across which I navigated thanks to some reasonably well placed way markers.

I left the course and skirted the old Yate quarries before entering a housing estate, making my way past ponds, finally to pick up the trail to the north of Yate. I stopped for another bite to eat and narrowly avoided stepping on a passing frog. I was starting to feel very tired. I walked through fields and along lanes, over a railway line and then through a further field to meet, first, a greyhound and then its owner, who chatted for a while.

I left them and walked a long muddy path, missing the path that went off diagonally to the left and arriving at the road between Bagstone and Rangeworth. I kept to the main road then turned right, past Rangeworthy Grange (which establishment had failed to respond to my request for accommodation) and to a charming little Norman church. I looked around and again took advantage of a church porch to eat a snack on the ancient benches.

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Holy Trinity Church, Rangeworthy

I set off past a yappy dog farm beneath which was a dreadful field of thick mud through which cows had walked: very hard going. The gate out of the field was almost impassible due to the mud. I mentioned this to Mary at the B&B I was booked into as I called her with an update on my e.t.a. I ended up on the wrong side of a big field but the OS app assisted me with getting back on track. The next few wheat fields actually had paths cut through them…joy!

I skirted a railway line, crossed a final cut field and came into Tytherington. I asked a chap for directions but he was very vague. Fortunately, I chose correctly and ascended the lane adjacent to the old Castle Quarry. Missing the turn off the first time I quickly picked it up and passed through a farm to follow a concrete lane for a mile or so. It led to a small hamlet of houses and a beautiful old derelict farm.

I turned right and headed up the steep narrow lane where I checked directions with a dog walker and clung to the gutter as cars used this rat run beneath the M5. I decided to abandon the planned route as my satnav told me I was still 2.1 miles from my B&B. Instead, I followed the road around the old quarry. It was quite a dispiriting stretch that went on for ages.

Finally I arrived at some housing and the road gave on to the A38. I crossed over and stopped to admire a fine floral display that said ‘Love’ in memory of the Manchester and London bombings. I descended the road towards town, getting views of the Severn Estuary in the not too far distance.

I followed Google maps to the B&B, a small bungalow: rang the bell and was greeted by Mary and then Roger, my very pleasant hosts who showed me upstairs to my twin single bedded room.

I sorted myself out, showered and phoned Kym whilst drinking a cup of tea. I was horrified to find that my shin had been bleeding and had left a large blood stain on the beautiful new beige carpet! I used a toilet roll and glass of water to carefully attack the stain which, fortunately, I managed completely to remove.

Mary had booked me a table at the Anchor Inn so, after cadging a plaster for my shin, walked off in the drizzle. The Anchor was bright and welcoming. I enjoyed a great steak and ale pie then home grown crumble. The staff were very friendly, as were the other customers, two of whom I chatted to about my now very soggy maps that I had laid on the table to dry.

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The landlord, Pete, then came in and bought me a pint. We stood at the bar and chatted about boules: a game of which he had just been playing with my B&B host Roger. Peter gave me a tour of his 500 beer pump labels, which were stapled to the roof beams. He rather had the appearance of having tried every one of them!

I paid and walked back to the B&B, calling mum on the way for a chat. I climbed up to my bedroom and went straight to bed, only managing to read one page of my Kindle.

3rd August 2017 – Thornberry to Chepstow: 13.04 miles

Day 42

Another fitful sleep disturbed by heavy rain hammering onto the Velux roof window. Breakfast was good: in front of the TV with news of temperatures in the high 40s in Europe! I chatted with Mary. I packed, paid and set off into the steady rain.

I passed a few world weary souls before reaching the main street of Thornbury. I doubled back to pick up the path that descended through the playing fields to re-join my route. I climbed the first of several hills, following the Jubilee Way signposts past a golf course. Then I caught my first, tantalizing, glimpse of the Severn Bridge over the trees.

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The Severn Crossing from Abbey Lane, Thornbury

I crossed a stile and had it not been for my very sore legs would have jumped into the road right in front of a Transit van. Fortunately it just missed me so I walked gingerly on down the road to a bridle way. I had to double back to find  a hidden path that I had missed and which I then followed through a gap in the woods. The heavens opened! I donned wet weather gear and put the bright orange rain cover over my rucksack before setting off again.

I lost sight of the bridge but saw the Severn Estuary and journey’s end on the other side. I descended the hill to Littleton-upon-Severn: a quaint little village with a nice looking (closed) pub. Walking through the village I headed for the levee that ran alongside The Severn. I turned towards the bridge and found myself walking straight into the teeth of the, by now, very strong wind. Progress was slow and hard and I had to bury my head in my hood to avoid getting stung by the rain.

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The 'First' Severn Crossing

The bridge crossing looked daunting but I ploughed on, passing an old railway wagon that had been used as a hut. I climbed a very steep hill that took me to what I thought was an hotel but was, I think, offices. I went to the bridge viewing platform, took photos and read the inscription on the memorial that advised that the bridge was constructed during Barbara Castle’s time as transport secretary. Another memorial stone recorded that the bridge had been officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen.

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The Severn-Wye Bridge

Walking away from the river I found the entry to the pedestrian walkway. I passed a couple and asked them how to get onto the bridge. They told me but said that they had given up their attempt to cross as they were scared of getting blown off and they had only ventured a matter of yards onto the bridge. This did not bode well for someone with a morbid fear of heights.

Unfortunately, as my goal lay some two miles to the west, I had no option but to press on, so crossed the roadways by an overhead walkway. I wound down the zig zag path on the southern side of the carriageways until I got to the entrance to the bridge walkway itself. The bridge was closed to ‘high-siders’ and restricted to only one lane of cars in each direction.

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On the Severn Bridge

As soon as I left the shelter of the bridge support I was hit and almost blown off my feet, by the strong wind. I returned to the lee of the concrete bridge support and stowed my rucksack rain cover as it wouldn’t have lasted a minute out in the wind. I thought seriously about giving up but decided I had to finish the walk, so set off, crouching low and keeping to the right of the path and hugging the crash barrier wires that separated the pedestrian from the vehicle carriageways. I lurched from one successive vertical bridge support cable to the next.

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On the Severn Bridge

It was so windy that I didn’t really have the opportunity to get scared about the height of the bridge above the waters of The Severn. I then saw a cyclist trying to pedal across on the northern pedestrian carriageway: madness! I got to the first bridge tower just as a Transit van drove up the pedestrian path behind me. He didn’t use a horn: just drove straight past, scaring me half to death.

The wind got stronger nut I pushed on and eventually reached the mid point, where I sat down and tried to take photos with both my phone and my camera: it was particularly difficult. I quickly set off quickly as the movement of the bridge was even more apparent when I stopped walking. I reached the second tower and felt good. I took more photos and was just congratulating myself when I realized that there was a second bridge, almost as long again, that crossed the River Wye. The wind did not abate until I got right to the end of the second section of bridge and passed through the final pedestrian gate.

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The second crossing from the centre of the first

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The Wye Bridge

As I passed through the gate I took the phone out to take a photo looking back and got a call from Keith with whom I had arranged my lift from Chepstow to Stroud. He was shocked that I had only just made it across the bridge and said that he and Fran were already in Chepstow. We agreed to talk again when I was closer, which I estimated would be in about twenty minutes: yet another underestimate!

I joined the Wales Coastal Path and read a sign that explained that it couldn’t follow the coast due to industry and housing. The tarmac path wound, in, out and around the houses and industrial units, on to the road and down to the station. Keith rang again and was getting agitated but said they would kill time by having lunch in The Three Tuns.

I made for the Wye road bridge, which I crossed at a lick. I climbed the stairs on the far side and found myself on a road that I thought I recognized as one Phil and I had walked on at the start of the Offa’s Dyke Path. That was good enough for me. I asked a chap walking with his daughter to take my photo then doubled back and dashed across the bridge and found Keith and Fran in the pub.

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The end of the 'Link', Chepstow

Afterward

Afterward

I remember very little of the round of golf, save that I played abysmally. For once, at least, I had an excuse.

Our reunion was, as ever, a very enjoyable affair. It was, however, tinged with sadness. This would be the last time I saw my good friend Dr Steve Rowlands. He and his wife Chris had given their excuses (none needed) for the weekend but made a super human effort to join us for dinner on the Saturday night. Steve had spent much of the year in hospital in intense discomfort. Nevertheless, he was never anything other than cheerful and up-beat when we spoke to him. He was a shadow of his former self when he arrived for dinner but put a brave face on throughout and even regaled us with his wonderful story of his ‘dialogue’ with a particularly annoying patient. It meant so much to the rest of us that Steve had joined us for dinner. It was the last time that I saw him. I dedicate this walk to him. RIP old friend.

Musings

Musings

The walk will be remembered for:

  • missing signposts

  • overgrown paths

  • brambles

  • nettles

  • pubs that were closed

  • rain

  • rain

  • more rain

  • good golf courses

  • length

  • soreness

  • wheat fields

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