Day 4, Pandy to Hay-on-Wye

I think this section is the most dramatic stage of Offa’s Dyke Path and, on an early autumn morning, it certainly lived up to that billing with swirling mist, heavy low cloud and a warm stillness which promised some serious weather later in the day.

How you approach this stage will depend entirely on how you structure your accommodation and many people will tackle this section over two days, exercising the option of excellent accommodation stops in Longtown or Llanthony having broken the previous day in the lovely Llangattock Lingoed.

However, I had already pushed on to Pandy so decided to go up and over the top in one go, which is a distance of something like 15 miles if the signpost at Pandy was to be believed, though it felt just a shade longer than that to be honest.

There is no getting away from the fact that the early part of the day is all uphill, starting with the fields you reach shortly after crossing the railway line, where I had an audience of cows enjoying the sight of me struggling along and trying to get my legs moving.

However, you can get your breath back when you hit the section which follows a narrow lane and levels out slightly. With high hedgerows and a canopy of trees overhead, this is a dim green tunnel, made more so by the glare of early sunshine peeping through the leaves.

I had passed two hikers fairly early on and as it turned out, these were the last people I saw until I reached almost as far as Hay Bluff and, later on, that added greatly to the feeling of wild loneliness as I wandered along the ridge as the weather closed in.

But for now it was very hot and very still, the jumper came off and in a T-shirt, I assaulted the main climb from the road up to Hatterrall Common. You know you are climbing when the cows give way to sheep and I saw the first of many on this section.

Uphill and the cattle gave way to the first of many sheep

The trig point at 464 metres is a good place to stop and enjoy the view

Looking down from the ridge into the valley near Longtown

There were also some odd undulations on the hillside, which suggested an ancient hillfort, an impression helpfully backed by an information board for Pentwyn Hillfort, built around 2,500 years ago and one of the largest Iron Age forts in the area.

For visitors to this country, these are a surprisingly common feature of the landscape in this part of the UK and you will see a number of them as you cross from Herefordshire into Shropshire.

I reflected that this would have been a lonely spot for the generations who were born, lived and died here over a period of around 800 years and there was a glimpse into the transience of human existence – deep thoughts but it was that type of day!

But onwards and upwards we go towards Hatterrall Hill, where there was another information board offering an insight into some of the natural features of the area including the presence of whimberries. I had already munched on blackberries in the hedgerows on the way up but was cheered by the thought of a whimberry, sometimes known as a bilberry or a whortleberry.

These tiny blue berries can be hard to spot on the low-growing bushes and any hopes I had of snaffling some as I walked along were disappointed. It may have been that the season was wrong but I grumpily blamed the sheep wild-grazing the ridge …

However, those thoughts were banished by the realisation that I done my climbing for the day and the ground had flattened out into the wild high moorland that is my favourite kind of walking.

The ridge here is narrow and like a long finger, with the main body of the Black Mountains away to the left. Either side as you stride along are a couple of deep valleys, on the left leading to Llanthony and on the right Longtown.

The views are simply stunning and it is a hard job not to keep taking pictures. A good vantage point is the trig point at 464 metres overlooking Oldcastle, which is a handy reference because it can be hard to work out exactly where you are in the expanse of moorland, though the path is always simple to follow.

Another view from the ridge – it was hard not to take pictures all of the time

Wild-grazing ponies as well as sheep were my companions along with birds of prey – but no people

There are sections liable to become full-on bogs so there are some flagstones to help you and also to protect the delicate environment

There are some handy stone markers set in the ground at periodic intervals with arrows showing the way, two of which also give pointers to Longtown and Llanthony for people needing to come off the ridge to reach accommodation.

Looking down from the first of these, I could see the distinctive tower of Clodock Church, though the ruins of Longtown Castle eluded me. I tried not to think of a pint at The Crown and instead looked left where I was soon able to make out the shape of the magnificent ruins of Llanthony Priory.

Like Tintern before it, the skeletal frame of this abbey building is a real ornament to the landscape, impressive in its scale and beauty. But however much I love that spot, my path led on and away and with renewed vigour I set about eating up some miles, with a thought of a late lunch at Hay Bluff.

That was informed at least partly by the weather because the heat of the morning had gone and thick black clouds were massing in the west and a sharp, cold breeze was starting to come in sideways. It is a bleak spot to get caught in a storm and even the sheep had disappeared to some sheltered spot known only to themselves.

The sense of isolation increased as the sky lowered and the path suddenly seemed never-ending until I reached the crest of a hill and looked down to realise that Hay Bluff was close at hand. It was not the sort of day to sit on the ground to eat lunch but there were a couple of handy stones sunk into the path at this point so I broke for a hurried, uncomfortable stop as the weather at last appeared ready to deliver on its promise.

After a steep downhill, the path veers away from the rise leading up to the trig point at Hay Bluff, instead hugging the contours down and round the hill into the valley.

It was at this point that the first fat drops of rain started to fall, driven by a fierce wind and soon becoming a proper downpour. Having tried and failed to get my waterproof trousers over my boots, I surrendered to the fact that my trousers were already soaked and resigned myself to another three miles to Hay-on-Wye in sopping wet clothes.

Inevitably, my navigation went awry too at this point, the common beyond the road being criss-crossed by tracks and paths making it hard to work out which was the one I wanted. I followed the general direction and was rewarded by picking up the path again in a narrow gap between two belts of woodland.

There are some very steep bits of downhill here and in the pouring rain, with the ground already softened, it was extremely challenging and I was lucky not to end up on my backside. It was with genuine relief that I reached flatter ground near Cusop, where there was an interesting information board recording the story of ‘The Hay Poisoner’, Herbert Rowse-Armstrong, who had lived nearby and was hanged in 1922 for the murder of his wife.

By now I could have certainly murdered a pint of beer and magically, I was suddenly in Hay-on-Wye, the path running through fields up to the main car park.

Hay is famous as the ‘town of books’ thanks to the eccentric vision of Richard Booth, who inspired a host of second-hand bookshops to open up here to the extent that it is on the pilgrim trail for booklovers worldwide. For walkers, there is a good choice of accommodation too plus a pub or two, including The Black Lion, which I had set my heart on from quite a long way out.

The path snakes down off the ridge near Hay Bluff

Some gentle up and down between Hay Bluff and the common beyond the road – and more sheep

The Kissing Bridge near Cusop