I woke early in anticipation of a long day, though it was with regret that I left my comfy bed. Paul continued to be an incredibly generous and gracious host, cooking me a solid breakfast to fuel my day. I couldn’t thank him enough as I said goodbye, particularly as, on top of everything else, he slipped a donation into my pot as I was leaving. My first misty couple of miles took me directly uphill into the Clwydian range. This line of hills runs north-south through northeast Wales, its western edge rising neatly and abruptly from the wide valley floor.
I reached my highest point of the day at the saddle below the pleasingly round summit of Moel Arthur. From there I would be descending all the way to sea level. I turned to look back at the hills of Denbighshire. This place felt old. An obvious crossing point through the hills, it had the footsteps of thousands of years folded into its contours. A place where the bedrock of history thrusts up through the topsoil, only lightly eroded by the passage of time and development. A ring of earthworks surrounds Moel Arthur’s summit, the remnants of an ancient hillfort where generation after generation of Bronze and Iron Age people took shelter from monsters and marauders.
I crossed the line of the Offa’s Dyke Path, running all the way from the Severn Estuary to Liverpool Bay, roughly following the England-Wales border for most of the way but veering off here to go up and over the hilltops. Offa was a mighty king of Mercia in that tantalising period of history between the departure of the Romans and the Norman invasion. In school it is more or less covered by: “The Romans went home… mumble mumble… Angles and Saxons invaded… *cough*… Viking raids… Let’s talk about the Battle of Hastings.” It must have been fascinating though, a period lasting hundreds of years when England was carved up between the rival kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, and East Anglia, and the whole of Britain was dotted with countless petty kingdoms the size of a modern-day county or smaller. It was a time that would be familiar to fans of Game of Thrones, with kings and dynasties competing to be on top, and sometimes coming together to fight foreign adversaries. While to our modern eyes these events may have looked like minor regional squabbles, the world is much bigger when you are limited to the speed of a man walking or riding, as I was finding out. My walking was helping me feel a connection to the past.
I crossed over the saddle and into my last Welsh County, Flintshire. According to Paul, people from Denbighshire would tease those east of the hills for being not really Welsh, and then again, people from Conwy might say the same about those in Denbighshire. Maybe those petty kingdoms aren’t as deeply buried in the past as we might think.
A tree-shaded track took me gradually down between fields until I reached a country lane. I passed a bored-looking young man in a high-vis jacket sitting on an incongruous chair. A little further on I stood aside to let a car pass. The driver surprised me by rolling down his window and saying “They’re waiting for you up ahead.” Sorry? “They’re waiting for you, just round the corner.” I don’t think they are. “They are, they are!” he nodded, as he drove off. Perhaps I was getting a bit lonely, because part of me hoped they were waiting for me, whoever they were.
After a few hundred yards I found them. A group of boys, aged fourteen or so, resting on their rucksacks on the bank of the lane, clearly a DofE group. I asked them how long they had been walking and how far they had to go. They were on day two of a three or four-day walk, as far as I can remember. I let them chatter away a bit, savouring the anticipation that I was about to blow their minds.
“I’m walking to Scotland.” If it seems repetitive that this is what I said to everyone I met, then you are correct, it was, but it did give me joy. The shock was instant. Some of them didn’t believe me. How long was it going to take? “The whole thing will take about a month,” I said nonchalantly. “Bloody hell.” They fired questions at me, talking over each other so I could barely keep up. I soon decided that I had had my fun impressing the teenagers. I said good luck and walked on. Practically everyone my age I know has a DofE story. I hoped I would feature in theirs.
The sections of footpath that I had tried to link up became more scarce as I wormed into a more densely populated area, so I had to spend more and more time on the roadside. From a sunny hilltop lane I got my first glimpses of the built-up area I was heading into. I passed through the town of Northop and joined a busier road. This seemed to vindicate my decision to avoid roads wherever possible. I was constantly having to stop and press myself into a hedge to let cars rush past. My feet were taking a pounding on the tarmac too. This was my longest day yet, the first time I broke 30 km, and it did seem to go on and on.
With relief, I reached the outskirts of Connah’s Quay, where the pavements meant I was no longer in danger of being clipped by a driver. This town slopes gently down to the mouth of the River Dee, to an area littered with heavy industry. In one day I had walked through thousands of years, from the Bronze Age into the Age of Steel. Across Hawarden Bridge, a classic piece of Victorian civil engineering, I came to the Deeside Industrial Estate, site of a steelworks, power plant, and the UK’s largest solar park. The sky welcomed me to my new surroundings by greying over and spitting on me. An acrid tang hung in the air.
Two rays of sunshine remained to me, The first was that I really had left the Welsh hills behind now, and would face nothing more than the odd gentle rise for several days. The second was that my friend and former housemate Ashley had family in the Wirral with whom I could stay that night. I stopped to give my crying feet a break and rang Tina, Ashley’s mum. She said she would start walking to meet me.
I followed a cycle route which emerged onto a boardwalk alongside the estuary, which my OS map had ominously plastered with the words “DANGER AREA”. There was one last spiteful burst of heavy rain before I met up with Tina and Piper the collie. We chatted about her family as we made our way to her mother’s house. Helen welcomed me in and they both made me as comfortable as possible. Here’s your room, now you just make a pile of clothes you want me to wash, then go and have a nice bath. Do you want to hang your tent out to dry? We’ll have dinner in an hour or so…
I relaxed into the bath. I had made it through Wales and into England, and would have an easy day tomorrow crossing the Wirral. I was being well looked after, once again on the receiving end of warm generosity. By the time I was in the mountains again I would be fitter, and ready. Maybe the hardest part was done…