Offa’s Dyke Path Stage 2 (Part 1): Chepstow to Bigsweir Bridge

Published 12 November 2023

An elderly and worn looking Offa's Dyke Path waymark disc, attached to a signpost.
A rather worn but still usable Offa’s Dyke Path directional arrow.

Following the route of an ancient earthwork claimed to have been created on the orders of King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century, the Offa’s Dyke Path provides 177 miles of walking along the length of the England/Wales border. It’s a walk through beautiful scenery, where every day is different from the day before. In March 2023 I arrived in Wales, ready to set off for a journey in borderland. And after a very short first day, admiring the Severn Estuary, I was ready to hit the trail and head to Monmouth.

The last time I’d walked in Wales, I had been surprised how many B&Bs offered me a Full English for breakfast. Not a Full Welsh. But a Full English. True, a Full Welsh is supposed to include Lavacakes. That’s a seaweed and oats concoction. To this day I’ve yet to ever come across lavabread anywhere other than the pages of the internet. Even in places that proffer a Full Welsh.

Full English? Full Welsh? I was intrigued to find out what Woodfield House, my B&B in Chepstow, would serve me. It was in Wales, but only minutes walk from the English border. So which would they offer? The answer, it turned out, was diplomatic. A Full Breakfast. Not English. Not Welsh. But definitely Full all the same.

Old Wye Bridge, crossing the River Wye at Chepstow.  At the end of the bridge is a sign saying Welcome to Gloucestershire.
Popping over the Old Wye Bridge into Gloucestershire.

That conundrum answered, I set off out of their front door, and headed out for my first proper day on the Offa’s Dyke.

Crossing back over the Old Wye Bridge into Gloucestershire, I I headed up an alleyway. Alleyways down paths near the River Wye would be a key feature of the first few miles. Indeed, much of the day would feature walking down paths between two fences, with little to see. And when the Offa’s Dyke Path wasn’t in an alleyway, there was a good chance it would be walking down a road instead.

Whatever. I had a spring in my step, for a good chunk of the morning would also be spent with my new bezzy mate, Offa’s Dyke.

A metal signpost stands on a plinth in woodland on the Offa's Dyke Path.
Follow the signs into the woods.

It was near Dennel Hill that I met up with the dyke again. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have known had it not been for a sign. English Heritage had installed one to tell everyone it was responsible for maintaining this stretch of the dyke. Well it was important to know.

One question was, why Offa had even bothered having his Dyke built here. The River Wye marked the boundary of Offa’s kingdom, and on his side of the border was a big hill with steep sides. Only a fool would attempt to climb up it. For defensive purposes, the hill would have been plenty. Yet at the top of the hill was the added extra of a large earthwork. Seemingly pointless, but still there. It gave fuel to the theory that the Dyke wasn’t a defensive structure, but more of a “feature”. Built to show off the might of his kingdom, and nothing more.

A wooden fence blocks off access to the Offa's Dyke, near Tidenham.  A faded sign on the fence is barely legible.
Behind the fence lies the Offa’s Dyke itself. But the Path has been diverted away.

One of the challenges with a walking trail that runs along the route of a medieval earthwork, is that walkers can damage the same historical feature that they are celebrating. At times the Offa’s Dyke Path goes right along the top of the Dyke. But if there’s too many walkers – trail walkers and others – and there’s a good chance that erosion will occur. The Dyke is, after all, only a pile of earth.

To counter this, there are times where the path has been re-routed. Times such as in Worgan’s Wood where a large fence blocked the route of the Dyke. Weathered signs declared the path had been re-routed. I didn’t mind. On top of the Dyke, alongside it, whatever. I was happy to be stretching my legs, You didn’t need to be on top of the Dyke all the way. You can argue it’s better not to be. Not only for the sake of protecting it from erosion. But also because you can see it better from nearby. It’s like an elaborate bridge. You never get the best view of it on the bridge itself. That view always comes from somewhere to the side. Anyway, it was it was just nice to spend some time in its company.

A view from a hill down towards the River Wye, and Tintern Abbey, on the Offa's Dyke Path.
Tintern Abbey and the River Wye, just about visible.

As well as the Dyke, there were other bits of history too. Gaps in the trees revealed views of the ruins of Tintern Abbey, nestling down in the valley, by the sides of the river. Founded in 1131, it was the second Cistercian abbey in Britain, and the first in Wales. The monks remained there for four centuries until Henry VIII’s strop with Rome that led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The abbey’s valuables got sent to the Royal Treasury, the Abbot pensioned off, and the buildings given to the then Earl of Worcester. Who was, slightly confusingly, called Henry Somerset. The building’s lead roof was swiftly flogged off for a quick buck, and the abbey left to fall into general decay.

A flat rock called the Devil's Pulpit, right next to the Offa's Dyke Path.
The Devil’s Pulpit – where Old Nick once preached.

There was one viewpoint of the abbey that stood out in particular. And all thanks to a small rock formation, with a wide opening in the trees. This was the Devil’s Pulpit. Legend has it that the Devil himself stood on this little cliff to preach to, and taunt, the monks in the abbey. Whether he was successful in his endeavours, does not appear to have been recorded.

The pulpit wasn’t the only interesting curio on the hilltop. On the other side of the path, a large tree was busy growing out of, and almost enveloping, some old ruins. Roots and branches tangled and weaved their way round the rocks. Whether this tree has a name – Old Nick related or otherwise – was also unclear.

Tree growing out of an old pile of rocks near the Devil's Pulpit.
Tree growing out of an old pile of rocks near the Devil’s Pulpit.

Near the village of Boughspring, the Offa’s Dyke Path splits in two. Walkers have two routes they can take. One goes along the banks of the River Wye. It’s a mile longer in distance, but sounded quite lovely. The other option is a higher level route carrying on over the hill ridge, on St Briavel’s Common, and a Site of Scientific Interest called The Hudnalls.

On the map, this seemed like the lesser of the two. A route that went along twisty tracks and lanes. But it had one significant advantage. It went close to the Brockweir and Hewelsfield Village Shop; a community run store staffed by volunteers. This was a most important facility for the local area. And for me as I needed to pick up something to eat for my lunch.

Brockweir and Hewelsfield Village Shop, a short way off the Offa's Dyke Path.
Brockweir and Hewelsfield Village Shop – for almost all your refreshment needs.

Perhaps due to it being a Sunday, pickings were slim. The takeaway food shelf was bare. All the sandwiches, pies and sausage rolls had gone. All that remained was a solitary item declaring itself to be a “Vegetable Foggy”. It looked like a pasty, and with no other options, I paid for it and headed back to the trail.

It didn’t take long for my fears on taking the high level route to come true. Endless narrow tracks, walled-in between houses and fences. Little to see and little to do. I spent most of my time wondering who the people who lived here were, and why they did. If they’d been farms, well I would have understood. But the buildings appeared to be only isolated houses. There was no real village. Nothing that looked like it would give any sense of community. Even each house’s neighbours were well spaced out. In the end, I decided that those that lived here, must like being alone.

A road surrounded by hedges, used by the Offa's Dyke Path.
Walking down a lane towards the Hudnalls.

The trail’s official guide book told me I was walking along the route of the Dyke, but as you couldn’t see it, this was little consolation. I kept thinking about all the nice riverside views I could be enjoying. It had to be better than Yet Another Lane of the Finest Tarmacadam.

There wasn’t even anywhere to sit down and eat my foggy. I’d turned down the option of eating it on a picnic bench near the shop, as I hadn’t felt hungry at the time. This would prove to be a mistake as by the time I did find somewhere I could stop, I was ravenous. The stretch of tumbledown stone wall I finally found, was hardly an amazing location. It provided a functional rest stop for what turned out to be a rather functional meal. The foggy proved to be rather bland, very dry, and definitely not an experience I was wanting to repeat.

I could only assume that my lunch was a modern bit of taunting from Old Nick.

An extremely muddy path through some woods in the Hudnell's area
A path so muddy, it’s almost impossible to stay upright.

The path split at Brockweir is the only one on the whole of the Offa’s Dyke Path. At no other point does it offer the walker a choice of routes. I’d assumed there was a good reason for it. Although what it was, I never did work out.

I could have understood offering a low level alternative it if the high level route was particularly difficult or taxing. Or if it had potential to be blocked due to bad weather. Or, well, anything. But it wasn’t. My guide book wasn’t much help. It only stated the presence of the two routes as a fact. No reason for it was given, nor any pros and cons of each. I read later that the high level route was closer to the original line of the Dyke. But it was long gone round here. No trace of it to be seen.

So I came to my own conclusions. And whilst I I didn’t do the riverside path, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly as the high level route was quite dull. There was little of interest along the route. The highlight, and I use that term loosely, was an incredibly muddy path through some woodland. The kind of mud where you expect that every time you place your food, it will slip off in one direction. Then when you place the other, that would go in the opposite direction. Even in my younger, more nimble days, I’ve never been good at the splits.

Cast iron made Bigsweir Bridge, crossing the River Wye, on the Offa's Dyke Path.
Bigsweir Bridge, crossing the River Wye.

To cut a long story short, the path through the woods was evil. And I still don’t quite know how I got through it without falling over and landing face first in the mud. A few minutes after that, I was standing at the point where the riverside route joined back up with the high level one. It looked lovely. Idyllic even. I signed a deep and heavy sigh.

The two paths re-met at Bigsweir Bridge, a cast iron bridge built to cross the River Wye in 1827. A simple yet elegant cast iron structure, it was built as part of a turnpike road connecting Chepstow and Monmouth. It’s still there. I could have followed it all day instead of the Offa’s Dyke Path. That wouldn’t have been as much fun. Although maybe lunch would have been better. Still, it marked the point where the Offa’s Dyke Path’s dalliance with route options was over. It had done the one, and that was it, all the way to Prestatyn.

Next time: more mud, a naval temple, mud, a roundhouse, and some mud.

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