Offa's Dyke Path: A Walk Through History

An account of the trail in Wales and England, starting in Chepstow on the Severn Estuary and ending in Prestatyn on the Irish Sea.

Click to enlarge map

 

A coin from offa's reign


Day-by-Day Route Description and Photo Galleries:

| Day 1 | Day 2 |

| Day 3 | Day 4 |

| Day 5 | Day 6 |

| Day 7 | Day 8 |

| Day 9 | Day 10 |

| Day 11 |


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The online Offa's Dyke Accommodation and Services Guide, including information on B&Bs, camping sites and more. Great for planning.

 

The address for the Offa's Dyke Association is :
Offa's Dyke Association
West Street
Knighton
Powys
United Kingdom
LD7 1EN
Phone (from the U.S.) : 011 44 1547 528753

 

The Offa's Dyke Path Association carries many useful publications, including:

Offa's Dyke South: Chepstow to Knighton
and
Offa's Dyke North: Knighton to Prestatyn

Both of these are authored by Ernie and Kathy Kay and Mark Richards and contain detailed route descriptions and strip maps. You probably do not need more detailed maps than these, though some hikers also carry the various government Ordnance maps in the 1:50,000 scale.

A Guide to Offa's Dyke Path
An alternative guide to the path. It's pocket-sized, has hand-drawn maps and better historical information about the country and the various sites along the path than the two above. This one is written by Christopher John Wright.

Where to Stay (How to get there, and other useful information)
This guide, published annually by the association, lists B&Bs and other accommodations along the route and is a tremendous help in booking ahead for reservations. Don't go without it. It can be obtained at the association's online site.

 

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MForty head of sheep trotted up the country lane toward us, closely followed by a Welsh farmer and his black-and-white border collie.

MThe farmer waved and pointed.

M"Move over to the right, please," he shouted. "I want them to go down the other road." I'd been standing at this three-way intersection for several minutes, talking with a telephone lineman. The farmer was herding the animals to fresh grazing down the path I'd traveled. We moved as quickly as we could to block the other way, managing to help shepherd all but one of the sheep down the intended way.

MBut one of the ewes managed to get behind us and was headed at a full run in the wrong direction as the other animals, the farmer and his dog passed.

M"Back, Tom, back," the farmer shouted. The border collie responded instantly, looking for the missing sheep, then heading up the road after it. He soon had the ewe pointed toward us, but it ran back where the flock had come from instead of rejoining the others. The farmer ran back and corraled the wayward animal with the help of his dog, then picked it up with one arm under its front legs, hopped onto a Honda all-terrain vehicle parked near the barn and came whizzing past us on his way back to the flock.

M"Stupid animals," he shouted as he passed. "And they wonder why we eat them."
A Welsh farmer carries a wayward sheep back toward the flock as his dog follows alongside.
MI hadn't expected to find Welsh farmers using ATVs, or sporting an earring as this young one did, but I was learning that today's Wales is just such a mixture of the ancient and contemporary.

MI was on the second day of an 11-day walk from Chepstow on the Severn Estuary to Prestatyn on the Irish Sea on a trail called Offa's Dyke Path. The 177-mile route roughly follows the border between England and Wales, in fact crossing it nine times on the journey from south to north. On its way, it passes some of the most spectacular scenery that either country has to offer. The walled towns and remains of fortifications along the path ooze history—mostly one of warring between the Welsh and English kings that lasted through the 16th century and continues on a political and cultural front today.

MThe path follows an eighth century earthwork built under King Offa, who ruled the English kingdom of Mercia for 39 years between 757 and 796. The dyke was intended to define the boundary of the western limit of his lands. While the footpath extends from the bottom to the top of Wales, the actual dyke is included only in the southern and central portions, from near Chepstow to the River Dee above Chirk Castle. A nearly unbroken section of the dyke is followed for more than 80 miles.

MSince the dyke was intended as a defensible border, it follows the high ground wherever possible. In some places, rivers or other natural features were used to delineate boundary instead.

MOffa brought all the southern English kingdoms under his power. He made his influence felt with Charlemagne and the pope, and he obtained an archbishop for his own kingdom at Lichfield. His coinage, the finest since Roman times, and a few surviving letters and charters of his reign indicate a competent administration. The dyke probably dates from the period of supremacy and peace that Offa achieved in the latter part of his reign after the last great Welsh attack in 784. When Offa died in 796 in his last battle against the Welsh, it is believed he was trying to establish the final link of the dyke to the Irish Sea in the north. After his death, the kingdom gradually declined until it was crushed by the invasions of the Vikings.

MSince this border area between England and Wales has played a crucial role in the history of both countries, the path is lined with castles and abbeys, some dating to just after the Norman Invasion of 1066. It was an area ruled for many years by the Marcher Lords, appointed by English kings to keep order and exploit the resources of the area.

MThe path passes through or near many cities, towns and villages and offers side trips to visit historic sites. There are farms where camping is permitted for a fee along the path, but "open camping" is discouraged since most of the land is privately owned, with rights-of-way having been established with landowners by the government to permit walkers to cross the property.

MThere are many bed and breakfast establishments, so it's easy with a little planning to spend every night under roof. Most bed and breakfast owners will transfer luggage to the next destination, so it's possible to do the walk carrying just a light rucksack with the day's necessities. Most villages and towns have at least one pub, so it's easy also to find an evening meal.

MAfter one of the most strenuous days of walking, I found my way to the only pub within a couple of miles of the 17th century farmhouse where I'd booked a room. It was a small country pub, a single room about 12 feet square, with a couple of tables and a small bar. The grandmotherly owner greeted me as I came in, but began to apologize when I asked her if she could prepare an evening meal.

M"I can only do a sandwich," she said. I hadn't eaten since 8 a.m, so a sandwich sounded pretty good, I told her. Before I could ask what kind of sandwich, she disappeared into her kitchen, leaving me with a pint of lager and the evening newspaper. Twenty minutes later, she emerged carrying a large wicker tray.

MIts contents: two pieces of bread, two slabs of cold roast beef, horseradish sauce, sweet pepper relish, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cold cooked new potatoes, carrots, pickled onions, two chunks of cheddar cheese and a hard-boiled egg. It may have been the best meal I've ever eaten. When I was ready to leave, I asked her for the bill. "That'll be 3 pounds 80," she said. That's about $6, including the lager.

MBed and breakfasts range from private homes renting a single room to more elaborate country and farm houses where it's their primary business. In towns, some are centuries-old pubs and hotels. Many have ensuite bath, though it costs a bit more than the £25 ($40) average per-person charge. The Offa's Dyke Association publishes a booklet each year with complete information on all the B&Bs along the path. Or use the excellent Offa's Dyke Accommodation and Services Guide. Booking a day in advance is usually safe, though several local festivals may cause problems if they coincide with your trip.

MThe path crosses scores of hills and valleys, and two high ridges. The first is the Hatterall Ridge, which extends from near Pandy to Hay-on-Wye, a 12-mile stretch of open moors covered by heather, gorse and bracken and inhabited by sheep. The second is the Clwydian Range, which extends from near Llandegla nearly to Prestatyn. From the high points in this range, walkers can see 50 miles in every direction on a clear day. The path also crosses through some beautiful high country above Llangollen and around World's End, where cliffs above are a nesting site to kestrels, whose sharp cries can be heard overhead.

MNearly all of the path is through open ground, though there are some short stretches that follow country lanes. These are normally lined with hedges and are too narrow to permit two cars to pass, so some caution is needed when walking on them.

MDetailed maps and guides are available through the Offa's Dyke Association. The guides include historical and other information about sites along the path. Most walkers take between 12 and 20 days to complete the trip. I trained with a backpack two to three times a week for five weeks before leaving, walking a relatively flat route of about 8 miles. During the trip, I was walking 15-24 miles per day over hilly terrain. I would have enjoyed it more if I'd done 10-12 miles per day and allowed more time to complete the walk. While I averaged 3.5 mph on my training walks, I found the best I could manage on the trip was about 2 mph, including rest time through the day.

MA typical day began with breakfast at 8 a.m., on the trail at 8:30, then walk until anywhere from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Then I'd stop at a B&B, take a shower and go find a pub or restaurant for an evening meal. Some B&Bs in remote areas will serve evening meals on request. Many will also pack a lunch. Evening meals at B&Bs cost around £6 ($10), and packed lunches are about half that. Some B&Bs also will do laundry or have laundry facilities, and there are coin laundries in the bigger towns.

MWalkers need to carry quite a lot of cash. Figure on spending £50 ($85) a day per person if you are staying in B&Bs and eating in restaurants. Bigger towns have banks with automatic teller machines, and I found this the best and easiest way to get cash, using my checking debit card. If you carry traveler's checks, get American Express in pounds sterling, not in dollars as I did. Only banks will cash the checks in dollars. In many remote places on the route, there is no way to get money, but most B&B owners would cash a traveler's check in pounds sterling if it was a small enough denomination.

MI flew Virgin Atlantic from Newark to Heathrow. The six-hour flight left about 9 p.m. and, with the five-hour time difference, arrived in London at about 8 a.m. From there, it was easy to go to the central bus station at Heathrow and find a bus to Chepstow. After a two-hour wait and two-hour bus ride, I arrived at Chepstow at about 2 p.m.

MI found a B&B, left my pack there and walked the 3 miles down to Sedbury Cliffs, south of Chepstow, where the Offa's Dyke Path officially begins. If you want to be really traditional, you walk down to the water, dip your feet in and pick up a small stone. This you carry along on the trip, so you can toss it into the Irish Sea at the end. This short walk allows the next day's trip to begin in Chepstow and shortens distance to Monmouth to a more managable 15 miles.

MI spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the town, then had an evening meal at a restaurant and went back to the B&B to go to bed. It had been more than 30 hours since I'd slept, and I figured toughing it out this way would get me adjusted more quickly to the time difference.

MIt worked. I arose the next morning feeling more or less normal, had a good "full English breakfast" and set out for my first day's hike. The English breakfast consists of a poached egg, two sausages, bacon, mushrooms, cooked tomato, beans, toast, orange juice, and coffee or tea. I found myself "enjoying" it all day long, and on subsequent mornings moderated the meal to exclude the sausage, ham and beans.

Day-By-Day Route Description and Photo Galleries

Last updated 11/21/2005