OFFA'S DYKE PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 7: Knighton to Mellington Hall
Thursday, June 20, 2019
The morning after the previous walk was still sunny, but the weather forecast warned of severe weather approaching so I decided take a day off the trail rather than risk getting caught out on the exposed hills during an electrical storm. I had time for a good look around Knighton, including a visit to the Offa's Dyke Centre, before dark clouds rolled in at lunchtime and it started to rain ... and rain ... and rain some more.
With the severe weather warning still in place the next day, I decided to use the railway to bail out to the historic town of Shrewsbury for a few days, as I had been planning to visit after finishing Offa's Dyke Path.
It would end up raining almost non-stop for three days, saturating the hills with, in the words of one BBC weather reporter, "a whole summer's rainfall". All that water wasn't going to stay on the hills for long. Before the rain had even stopped the rivers and streams were already rising. In Shrewsbury, the River Severn had risen by about two metres over two days, breaking its banks in several places, including flooding part of the riverside Quarry Park. Social media posts also showed that some riverside stretches of Offa's Dyke Path were also submerged. Since it was clear that it would take a few more days for the waters to recede, I skipped further ahead on the railway to visit the even more historic town of Chester.
Eventually, after ten days off the trail, I returned to Knighton, still under gloomy skies, but with an optimistic weather forecast. I only had three more days left before I had to return home, so I already knew that I wasn't going to finish Offa's Dyke Path this time around.
From the clock tower at the foot of Knighton's High Street (picture 1), the Path heads along West Street to the Offa's Dyke Centre (picture 2), turning down the driveway beside the building to cross a playground and descend steps to the wooded bank of the River Teme (picture 3). Turning upstream, the riverside path soon leaves Wales to enter Shropshire for the first time just before emerging into open pastures beside the Teme (picture 4), following the riverbank to a footbridge that crosses the river beside the Heart of Wales railway line.
The River Teme is Britain's second-longest inland river, rising high in the Kerry Hills near Newtown and flowing 130 kilometres across Powys, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire to meet the River Severn in Worcester.
Across the rails, Offa's Dyke Path runs up the side of the campground on Panpunton Farm (picture 5) and crosses the narrow Kinsley Road to begin climbing Panpunton Hill. The first part of the climb, in the edge of an oak wood, is fairly steep and was quite muddy and slippery after all the rain.
Higher up, the path meets Offa's Dyke and curves around the top edge of the bracken-covered hillside just below a stand of ancient-looking oaks, still climbing though less steeply than before.
As the path bends back to the right to pass a stone's throw below the 375-metre summit of Panpunton Hill, the bracken gives way to sheep pastures and the view gradually opens up over Knighton toward the latter stretch of the previous stage of Offa's Dyke Path over the plateau of Ffridd and through Great Frydd Wood (picture 6).
The Path and the Dyke continue to climb for a little longer to reach a bluff where a well-sited bench has a fine view up the Teme Valley (picture 7). Beyond a gorse-filled dip, the Dyke snakes its way north-westward, high up on the side of a long ridge, passing just below a couple of minor summits (picture 8).
After two kilometres following the Dyke across a series of rather soggy sheep-grazing pastures, the Path climbs past a small conifer plantation just before dropping down across the top of a combe separating Panpunton Hill from Cwm-sanaham Hill. As I passed the plantation, the sun came out for the first time, picking out the impressive thirteen-arch railway viaduct down in the Teme Valley just behind the village of Knucklas (picture 9).
Having crossed a farm track that runs down the combe, Offa's Dyke Path climbs a rough path beside a row of pines (picture 10) then bends around the far end to ascend a steep slope to a small headland, where a trig pillar marks the 406 metre summit of Cwm-sanaham Hill.
Over a nearby stile, the Path accompanies the worn-down remains of the Dyke downhill across more pastures. When the earthwork peters out, a couple of waymarker posts point the way across the top of a combe to the beginning of a steep descent across the farm of Brynorgan (picture 11). Ahead, the next segment of the Dyke is marked by a long line of trees climbing northward up Llanfair Hill on the far side of the valley.
The path down to Brynorgan was somewhat treacherous in places and my progress down the heathery slope was very slow until, with some relief, I reached a gate near the farmhouse (picture 12), from which a driveway leads out to a quiet lane.
A few steps down the lane, a fingerpost points up steps into a field, where the Path runs around the lower edge in the Dyke's ditch, overlooking the farm buildings of Selley Hall (picture 13). Through a wooden kissing gate, the Path descends a field to cross two successive wooded gullies via footbridges before climbing to another country lane by the farmhouse of Garbett Hall.
A rather excited puppy came out to escort me through the gate beside the house and onto a hedge-lined track that climbs alongside the Dyke and the row of trees seen from across the valley earlier. The hedges end halfway up the first large field, but the track continues to climb steadily up Llanfair Hill, swapping sides of the Dyke in the third field. Up three more fields, a track comes over the Dyke, carrying the Jack Mytton Way long-distance bridleway and walking trail, which now joins Offa's Dyke Path. The Dyke itself heads along the left side of a grove of conifers, while the track carrying both long-distance paths passes a large sheepfold and a small barn to run along the right side (picture 14).
By a gate at the corner of the grove, I caught up to a retired Yorkshireman who was also walking Offa's Dyke Path northbound. Like the group of walkers I had met earlier in the walk, we would meet several more times over the next three days as we leapfrogged each other along the path.
After chatting for ten minutes, I left the gentleman to enjoy his lunch and continued to follow the dusty track, which crosses back over to the left side of the Dyke just beyond the grove. This is the highest point of Offa's Dyke at 430 metres above sea-level. A trig pillar in a field fifty metres further over to the left marks the marginally higher summit of Llanfair Hill.
The track now accompanies the Dyke northward along the ridge of Llanfair Hill (picture 15), a welcome stretch of easy walking after the two stiff climbs to open the day. Along the way, several combes drop away on either side of the ridge. Perhaps the most scenic of these is the long and winding Cwm-mawr (picture 16).
Beyond Cwm-mawr, the track begins to descend more noticeably, eventually reaching a junction where the main track turns left toward a country lane, but Offa's Dyke Path continues ahead on a grassy path to meet the same lane a bit further north. The lane heads down across a shallow valley, where the Jack Mytton Way departs to the right while Offa's Dyke Path keeps to the tarmac as it climbs to a crossroads on Spoad Hill.
At the junction, the Path turns right across the Dyke to pass Springhill Farm (picture 17), then turns left through a gate onto a track that soon begins to descend steeply across Scotlands (picture 18), still beside the Dyke though the earthwork is not obvious at first. About halfway down the hill, the track bears left to cross over a more prominent part of the Dyke and follows it a little further downhill until the track kinks further left to descend through the farmyard of Lower Spoad (picture 19) to cross over the B4368.
Over a stile just to the left, the Path follows the left edge of a meadow down onto the floodplain of the River Clun (a tributary of the Teme) and follows the edge of the next meadow toward the farm buildings of Bryndrinog (picture 20).
Just before the farm, the Path crosses a footbridge over the River Clun and turns left through a gate to climb up the right side of a field to a stile by Church Road. A fingerpost indicates that the village of Newcastle-on-Clun is a kilometre along the road to the left, while Offa's Dyke Path goes a few steps to the right to find some overgrown steps up into a field beside the next stretch of the Dyke. As it was already after one o'clock, I decided to skip the detour to Newcastle's pub and press on.
The Path climbs beside the Dyke up several fields on the steep side of Bryn-y-cratch, reaching a fingerpost that purports to mark the halfway point of Offa's Dyke Path (picture 21). To the left of the path, there is a good view up the valley to Newcastle (picture 22).
Over one more grassy meadow, the Dyke drops down across a combe then climbs very steeply over Graig Hill under a line of gnarled larches that all lean to the east, indicating the direction of the prevailing winds (picture 23). The Path was right on top of the Dyke here and was quite stony and eroded, making the climb quite slow with my heavy backpack. The Yorkshireman I met earlier overtook me here and a large group of elderly walkers armed with trekking poles came down the slope a few moments later, bound for the pub in Newcastle.
Beyond the last of the trees, the Path climbs a little further to a gate on the crest of Graig Hill then begins a longer and much gentler north-easterly descent beside the Dyke (picture 24).
Towards the bottom of the descent, the Path passes above Bridge Farm and continues across a few more fields to cross a small stream (picture 25) just before meeting a lane. A signpost points right to a junction, where the Path turns left and shortly right to climb past a large white house to join a lovely woodland path that sticks close to Offa's Dyke as it climbs around the hillside of Hergan (picture 26).
As the path rises, partly assisted by a flight of 122 steps, the trees gradually thin out, offering glimpses of the hills to the left, including the grassy Skelton's Bank (picture 27).
A little further on, the Path crosses a bend in a lane that passes about fifty metres below the summit of Hergan. A few paces along a farm track, Offa's Dyke Path meets the Shropshire Way and the two bear left off the farm track and soon left again to follow the Dyke northward between meadows. In the second meadow the Path swaps to the left side of the Dyke then stays by that side as the Dyke crosses more meadows and dips down across a combe before climbing steeply up to the farmhouse of Middle Knuck (picture 28).
The path skirts around the left side of Middle Knuck then turns across the farm drive to follow the Dyke across another combe and up a steep pasture (picture 29) to cross a minor road via a pair of wooden kissing gates. The Dyke now skirts the right side of a field to another gate then descends through Churchtown Wood (picture 30). At the bottom of the wood, the Shropshire Way peels off to the right, while Offa's Dyke Path continues ahead down a long flight of steps and across a stream to the sheltered hamlet of Churchtown.
The church, adjacent to where the path crosses the quiet valley road, is dedicated to St John the Baptist (picture 31). After stopping for a quick look inside, I rejoined the path, which climbs steeply up Edenhope Hill, mostly atop the Dyke (picture 32).
Looking back across the valley, it was apparent that the path down through Churchtown Wood had traversed a belt of natural woodland with large tracts of plantation conifers on both sides. When I returned three months later on my southbound walk, the entire eastern plantation had been felled, leaving a conspicuously bare hillside next to the path.
At the top of the rather strenuous climb, Offa's Dyke Path crosses another quiet country lane (picture 33) then drops steeply with the Dyke beside a fence into the next valley to cross the tiny River Unk (a tributary of the Clun) at the foot of Nut Wood (picture 34). After briefly climbing a farm track, the Path crosses a stile and climbs through Nut Wood beside the Dyke. The path soon emerges on the top side of the wood to continue atop the Dyke along the edge of a field just outside a recently cleared section of the wood.
Through the next gate, the Dyke is fenced-off from the fields on both sides and its bank and ditch are much better preserved (picture 35) as it crests the hill to reach the quiet road of the Kerry Ridgeway, where the Path passes from Shropshire back into Powys.
The Kerry Ridgeway is an ancient drovers' route running for twenty-four kilometres along the east-west ridge between the town of Bishop's Castle in Shropshire and the village of Kerry in Powys. About half of the Kerry Ridgeway is on the border between the two counties.
Across the road, the Path continues northward on a farm drive alongside a heavily-wooded stretch of the Dyke, heading downhill to the gate of Crowsnest then keeping ahead over a stile to run down the edge of a field to a second stile where the Path gets back on top of the Dyke. This spot offers a splendid view north-eastward across the fertile Vale of Montgomery to Corndon Hill (picture 36).
The Dyke drops steeply into the valley and the path requires a little care to descend safely until the Path drops off the Dyke to join a narrow sunken lane. For the next kilometre, the Dyke provides one of the banks of the lane. For the first half, the lane keep descending steeply, only levelling out as it passes through the small village of Cwm (picture 37).
When the lane ends at a lonely junction, Offa's Dyke Path goes ahead up steps onto the next wooded section of the Dyke, passing to the left of Lower Cwm Farm (picture 38). Ahead, the Dyke enters Mellington Wood (picture 39) and runs along the edge of the large Mellington Hall caravan and camping site.
Beyond the last of the static caravans, a track cuts across the Dyke and heads into the park. I left Offa's Dyke Path here, having covered another 23.3 kilometres of the National Trail. I had been fairly slow on this stage, particularly after Churchtown. The day's walk had taken me a little over ten hours, despite not making any lengthy stops along the way. After eight steep climbs and descents, I could understand why many walkers cite this as the most challenging stage of the entire trail. With parts of the path still quite waterlogged, the degree of difficulty had probably been a little higher than usual.
The caravan park surrounds the Victorian Gothic mansion of Mellington Hall (picture 40), built in 1876 and converted to a hotel after World War II. After dinner in the hotel, I was directed to a camping field by a small lake. The grass here was so lush that I didn't even bother to deploy my inflatable mattress and I was sound asleep shortly after sunset.
Addendum: Bishop's Castle, Thursday, September 19, 2019
On my southbound walk, I left Offa's Dyke Path at Crowsnest and walked seven kilometres along the Kerry Ridgeway (picture 41) to the Shropshire market town of Bishop's Castle. This was an easy walk with little traffic and is quite level until the final gentle descent off the ridge down Kerry Lane, which runs to the foot of the main street, Church Street.
The Church of St John the Baptist (picture 42) stands by the south side of the junction. Opposite the church, I found a steam traction engine named Nero parked outside the Six Bells Freehouse and Brewery Tap (picture 43). After stopping off for a pint of excellent locally-brewed ale and a chat with the engine's driver, I headed off up Church Street, which becomes High Street about halfway up (picture 44). There are a number of colourful buildings along the street, including a house painted to look as if the brightly-coloured sections are joined by jigsaw pieces on one side and a zipper on the other.
The top end of High Street climbs steeply past the Town Hall (picture 45) to a crossroads with Salop Street. To the right along Salop Street, past some more colourfully decorated buildings, is the Three Tuns Inn and its adjoining brewery (picture 46). A plaque states that there has been a brewery on this site since 1642, making this England's oldest continuously operating brewery, though the current facility is mostly late-Victorian.
The other half of Salop Street marks the edge of the site of the Nroman castle from which the town of Bishop's Castle takes its name. In 1087, a timber motte-and-bailey castle was built here for the Bishop of Hereford to defend the south-western corner of Shropshire from Welsh raiders. The castle was rebuilt in stone eighty years later and survived into the early 1600s before falling into ruin. Most of the castle site has since been built over with houses, a hotel and a bowling green. Just the western edge of the castle site, on the corner of Salop Street and Castle Street, remains accessible to the public as the grassy little park of Old Castle Land (picture 47). A small fragment of the castle's stone curtain wall is the only obvious evidence of the castle that survives above ground.
From the top of Castle Street, a stretch of the Shropshire Way goes between houses and across a couple of fields to the Foxholes campsite, where I pitched my tent in a corner of a grassy field with a great view south and west over the Shropshire Hills.
I made an early start the next morning, and as I walked back along the Kerry Ridgeway the early morning sun lit up the misty valleys to the south of the ridge.