National Geographic Travel Writing Competition Entry – Offa’s Dyke National Trail 1987

The National Geographic magazine ran their annual Travel Writing competition earlier this month: 500 words max, preferably with a narrative style. Hmm,500 words. That’s really not a lot, but then as it was free-to-enter, I guess it enables them to read through the vast number of entries relatively quickly.

I’ve not travelled extensively. I’ve only spent a fortnight out of 54 years out of this continent, though I have visited maybe a dozen European countries and around 60 of the 92 English football league grounds of the early to mid 1980s. None of these glorious trips leapt out at me as being sufficiently adventurous for the National Geographic until I remembered 1987, when with two fellow bank employees, I attempted to hike the Offas Dyke trail which runs along the length of the England/Wales border. So, while other entrants may glory in tales of avoiding poison darts in the rainforest, brigands in the Andes and skidooing up the Matterhorn, here is my own story of endurance and hardship a long long way from home (well, about 100 miles):

How hard could it be? A walk of 177 miles along the Welsh border over seven days – only 3mph given an eight-hour walking day – and we had all day to get to each pre-booked boarding house.

   Training had gone well: two ten mile hikes had been successfully accomplished, each celebrated with a similar numbers of pints at the pub. Spirits were high as befitted three twenty-something chums with a week away and them with the promise of the open road and adventure along the length of the Offa’s Dyke National Trail.

    But our training walks hadn’t factored in the weight that even remarkably few possessionsin a backpack can add up to. Then there were the hills. OK, so the Welsh Ordnance Survey map had more brown lines than a rugby team’s bath, but we had not equated these to such extremes of gradient while weighed down by our sadistic possessions. Churchtown was particularly savage. The mere half-inch on the map did not disclose the extreme discomfort of the precipitous descent requiring an immediate and equally absurd ascent the other side.

   John gave up the walk at the beginning of the fourth day. His blisters prevented his getting his boots on and he was mentally shot. He cadged a lift to the station and caught the train to our next destination at Welshpool where in his muddied camouflage gear and deadbeat state he was stopped and challenged by the local police for ‘looking like a terrorist’.

   Paul and I persevered, hardly disheartened at all at the thought of John not having to carry his pack, sitting feet-up in anticipation of our exhausted arrival at our next stop; a horse-riding centre in Capel-Y-Ffin. It may have been August, but the weather closed in on us on top of the Black Mountains – as damp as our spirits and as bleak as our moods. We did not talk for 2 hours. Nor did we see a single National Trust acorn motif nailed to every stile to mark the way. When we came across the rotting carcass of a long-dead sheep we admitted we had gone wrong and turned back, re-tracing a gruelling two miles to discover where we’d left the correct path. When we finally got in it was almost dark. We were so relieved not to have succumbed to exposure on the mountains, that the sweetcorn and gravy prepared by our horsey hosts tasted of ambrosia while the blankets that their horses had spurned gave us the deepest sleep of our lives.

  Us three refreshed amigos set off next morning, but within a mile had given it all up: we hurt too much.

   If you ever walk the whole if Offa’s Dyke, then bully for you. All we can say is the pubs of Prestatyn, where we spent the last three days of the tour, cursing the memory of King Offa and vowing to buy Segways to save ever walking again, are far more worthwhile visiting.

There. 500 words is really not enough to describe the bodily soreness, mental anguish and depth of thirst we suffered in that most inhospitable of landscapes. I fear the strictures of the limited word count may portray us as wimps, but I assure you, those horse blankets were seriously rough, even the flattest bits were hilly, and footpaths do not host as many pubs as you might like.

Paul dug out the photos in anticipation of this blog piece, some of which I copy here. We do look like hobbits on the way to Mordor. Today, we somehow look a little older and more haggard than we did way back then. Perhaps we left our youthful vigour on the mountainside. We always said we would go back, restrict our possessions to the essentials, such as a second pair of pants and a tub of painkillers, and walk it at the recommended pace of 10-14 days. We didn’t. Now self employment, gout and lack of stamina means we never will.

I hope King Offa is proud of himself.

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