I lay in my tent waiting for a break in the rain. When it came, it was with little enthusiasm that I packed up my things. I went downhill, soon leaving the forest behind me and coming out into fields. I would still be following the Hiraethog trail, for which I now had little affection, for most of the day. After a couple of kilometres, it let me down again by leading me into a thicket of gorse. I tried to grit my teeth against the prickling and force my way through, but gave up when I could see no end of it, and had to grit my teeth again and force my way back out.
I came down a farm track instead, and bumped into a farmer on a quadbike. I couldn’t guess what people would assume I was up to when they came across me like that, but I knew I must look a bit odd. My most consistent worry throughout the challenge was that I would at some point be confronted by an angry landowner. For that reason, I was quick to get my explanation out. Fortunately, if small talk is a game of poker, saying you are walking to Scotland for charity, when you are currently standing in Wales, is like revealing a straight flush. Eyes widen. Dispositions soften. Jolly accusations of madness hover about lips. This farmer gave me directions to get down to the village in the valley, where I could rejoin the trail. He was chuckling to himself as I left. I like to imagine him at the pub, saying “you’ll never guess what I came across today…” Maybe I would ghost through villages across the whole country, disturbing nothing but leaving a ripple of conversations in my wake.
I needed to refill my water bottle, and saw that there was a pub marked on the map in the village of Cyffylliog. However, it is a fairly reliable rule that the pubs you find marked along your route are not open when you need them. The greater your need, the less hope there is (to be fair, it was only late morning at this point). Instead I went along the street trying discreetly to peer into windows to find a house where someone was home. I found one, and knocked on the door to trouble the man for some water. He gave me not only water, but a donation too, which was very nice.
The next few miles did not have a lot to say for themselves. I went north, up the other side of the valley and over hills covered in sheep pasture. Drizzle clouds drifted over. I took the wrong path for a while, causing me to waste precious energy skewing off in the wrong direction then correcting myself. Eventually I sat down for a snack under a hawthorn tree, and noticed my right leg felt funny. I had put on knee braces for my ascent and descent of Snowdon and, finding that they not only gave me support, but also kept my knees nice and warm, I had worn them all day every day since. Now my right leg had gone numb, so I took them off and tried to massage some feeling back. I didn’t succeed in this, but the leg still worked fine. I would just keep an eye on it. As it turned out, that numbness lasted well over a week.
The Hiraethog Trail ended in Llanrhaedr. There was a pub marked on the map there, and against my better judgement, I kept myself going with the hope that I could reward myself with some good hot food. What a fool I was. Of course it was closed. I decided to take fate into my own hands and use the power of the internet to find a pub that would give me my heart’s desire. I found one a few villages further on that would open at 5, which meant I had plenty of time to waste.
A footpath followed the bank of the River Clywedog as it meandered through fields. As I reached the riverside, the sun came out from the clouds, and I found some blackberries, so I sat down, took off my damp boots and socks and laid them out to dry for a while. I closed my eyes and let the sun warm my face. I had come down out of the hills into the Vale of Clwyd. Unlike the steep-sided river valleys I had been up and down, this had a flood plain a mile or more broad to cross before the land sloped up again to the undulating eastern horizon of the Clwydian range, where I hoped to camp. Going on foot gives you a much greater awareness of the features of the landscape than you ever get from a car, and helps you to appreciate how our structures are overlaid onto them, but still dictated by them. I had followed the line of a valley out of the mountains of Snowdonia, in the same way that the roads followed the line of weakness into them and the rivers flowed out. The main road, the A5, then skirted southeast round the hills which I had gone up and over, meeting the A roads that ran north along the wide vale that I was now sitting in. I had seen the density of inhabitants rise and fall with height, the towns in the valley floor being several times larger than those little villages up in the hills. These things are obvious, of course, but in our perceived mastery over nature, I know I sometimes take them for granted.
When I carried on, I rejoiced in the flatness of the path. I knew that once I was over the Clwydian hills, the going should generally be much easier for most of the way north to the Lake District. After about an hour, I reached the pub, just after four o’clock. I dumped my bag, settled into an outdoor chair, and read my book. At some point I checked my phone more carefully, and saw that the kitchen wouldn’t open until six. Never mind, I was here now, I knew what I wanted (chips, lots of them), and was quite prepared to wait. Just after five, I went in, ordered a pint, and went out to sit for another hour. By six, a handful of locals had filtered in and were chatting with the landlord. I was quite worried that I smelled, so I tried not to get too close as I shuffled up to the bar in a dishevelled fashion and asked if the kitchen had opened. The landlord said no, it was just him today. My crest fell and hope died in my eyes, and he must have seen it and taken pity. “What was it you were after? I might be able to do something.”
“I just really want some chips. I’ve been walking for four days.” He said he could do that, and everything was better.
The man next to me asked me about my walk, and we got talking. He asked what places I had come through, and it turned out I was completely incapable of pronouncing any of them. He bought me a drink and shared his food, telling me to eat up, it sounded like I needed it. He asked where I was thinking about camping, and when I said over in the hills, he said, if I liked, he had a shed I could stay in. Now, in the moment, when you get an offer like that as a lone traveller, you have to make an assessment about risk and safety, and my initial thought was to stick to my original plan. In hindsight, the thought of even hesitating about it makes me feel quite uncharitable because, as it turned out, this man was one of the kindest people I have ever met. His name was Paul.
He said it was a cosy shed, not like a tool shed or anything. He had recently had a French guy staying in it for several months. Maybe that persuaded me. I accepted, and before we left he paid for my chips as well. My bag went into the back of his car and he gave me directions to his house down the road (the nature of my challenge meant I couldn’t accept a lift). When I arrived, he introduced me to his family and showed me the shed that he had prepared for me. More of a detached spare room, its warm lights beckoned me in to find a big, soft sofa-bed, a desk, and a gentle murmur of Welsh voices coming from the little radio. Paul showed me where I could shower, checked several times if there was anything he could get me, and let me settle in. I had an excellent night’s sleep, brought about by cleanness, comfort, and, above all, kindness.