Scrambling down the banks of the River Wye, contemplating the sudden drop into the murky water below – which looks an awful lot deeper now that we’re closer to it – I find myself questioning our idea of “just wading across” in lieu of an actual bridge. And as my partner starts to remove his shoes and socks, I reflect that we may have been just a bit cocky in thinking we wouldn’t have to do any preparation for our first ever walking holiday.
Other than packing our boots and waterproofs, Oli and I, both in our early thirties, didn’t think further ahead than catching the train from London to Chepstow to begin three days of hiking the Wye Valley Walk.
And, up until a few hours ago, it had all gone swimmingly.
We’d arrived into the Welsh town at midday on Saturday, eager to get going once our taxi had dropped us at Chepstow Castle. Off we stomped, me delighting in being in charge of the guidebook, Oli delighting in not being in charge of the guidebook. Despite the autumn drizzle, the world felt full of possibility – we were going to walk all the way to our bed for the night! Nothing but our own legs to get us there!
Part of the excitement was the novelty. Walking, though definitely on the up as a pastime for the younger generation, is not often the holiday of choice for millennials. We’d dabbled – a little Lake District exploring here, a modest Yorkshire Dales jaunt there – but this was our first foray into a full-on holiday, getting from hotel to hotel under our own steam.
For this inaugural toe-dip into a whole new world, specialist walking holiday company Celtic Trails was of particular help. For starters, we weren’t required to lug our luggage around – they’d hired taxis to do that for us – and for seconds, they’d organised the entire itinerary, from routes to B&Bs. All we had to do was show up and put one foot in front of the other – at least in theory.
“Listen to that,” said Oli. We’d been going for over an hour, clambering up steep paths, catching tantalising glimpses of the sublime river Wye sparkling below as we ascended the valley wall.
I stopped and listened.
“What? I can’t hear anything.”
There wasn’t the faintest stirring to break the silence. Coming from London, such an experience seemed remarkable, preposterous even.
Trees transitioning from summer to autumn gave way to fields, impossibly green in the sun that was starting to break through the clouds. By the time we reached Tintern, a so-cute-it-doesn’t-feel-quite-real village on the west bank of the river, lunchtime’s overcast skies were long gone. The haunting 12th century ruins of Tintern Abbey looked particularly handsome in the late afternoon light, with beams slanting through the empty windows.
We tripped eagerly down the hill towards it – but found ourselves swerving, as if magnetically pulled, towards the neighbouring pub instead. A pint and a half later, we rocked up at our digs for the evening, the unassuming Wye Valley Hotel, where a gratifyingly spacious and comfortable room awaited.
Dinner in the downstairs restaurant impressed – we tucked into one of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten – while the modest sized bar had a gin selection so extensive it prompted an on-the-spot jig.
Emboldened by the first day’s success, we had no fear by day two. I’d even asked Celtic Trails, in my infinite wisdom, to up the mileage from their original suggestion – nine miles – to a rather more ambitious (read foolhardy) 15.75 miles.
Several hours in, all was well. The Wye changed its character depending on our proximity to it: coolly aloof when viewed from up high, inviting and approachable when we drew level, the water peppered with a bevy of swans and a troupe of young Welsh lads on kayaks.
I felt I’d really got the hang of this walking thing – heck, I wasn’t even using the map, relying instead on the guidebook’s step-by-step instructions. Which may, just possibly, have been our downfall.
Passing a pub, Oli commented that we should pause for a pint. No, no! We were on a roll, and I wasn’t stopping for nothing or nobody, not even a local cider. Moods turned increasingly sour as, over the course of the next 60 minutes, it became abundantly clear that maybe we should have stopped at that pub after all. If we had, we might have noticed a crucial feature – the whacking great bridge opposite.
And so it was that we found ourselves scrambling down the riverbank, considering wading across while carrying phones, keys, maps and an expensive camera, even though we couldn’t see the bottom.
But I got cold feet before we had the chance to get cold feet.
“It’s not worth it,” I decided. And with that we trudged all the way back to the bridge in grumpy silence. I started to do the mental arithmetic of miles left to go divided by hours left in the day; it didn’t add up.
Unfortunately for us, this is the countryside – which meant a taxi wasn’t available to pick us up for oh, about 17 years.
Fortunately for us, this is the countryside – which meant a couple of locals at the pub, overhearing our plight, offered to drop us at Monmouth. From there it was a doable five miles to our bed for the night, the Saracens Head Inn at Symond’s Yat.
There’s nothing like overcoming a little mild peril to put a spring in your step. The next couple of hours passed swiftly, both of us cheering every time we saw a post with the distinctive leaping fish sign that signified we were definitely on the official Wye Valley trail. At last, we saw lights twinkling prettily through the gloaming; it’s the most welcome sight in the world to a walker who’s been lost in the woods.
Full and footsore after a marvellous gastro affair of Hereford mussels, hake with crushed Cornish potatoes and lemon parfait, we turned in early to our modern, understated room and sleep the sleep of the dead.
After Sunday’s dramas, Monday was all about getting down to business. We hit the trail at a gallop, the first section of which turned out to be beautifully wild and unkempt. The ramshackle path showed us snapshots of chlorophyll-green fields below through long, hanging branches; it was like being plunged into a Jurassic Park-style adventure, with ferns dancing in the wind and whole trees uprooted along the way.
Once we reached open ground, we made our way along the west side of the river with purposeful strides, pausing every so often to sigh with pleasure at the majesty of the landscape. We had a date with a taxi at 1.30pm that would carry us to the station to catch our train home to London – and I wasn’t about to rely on the kindness of strangers two days running. We whizzed by auburn-patched cows, scattered groups of pheasants and thickly growing forest on the opposite side of the valley, done up in every shade of green imaginable, in a blur.
Finally, one more curve around the voluptuous Wye brought us to Kerne Bridge, our rendezvous point. Time check: 30 seconds to spare. Settling into the back of the cab, our aching legs and pounding hearts something of a badge of honour, we looked at each other and grin with a heady mix of achievement and relief.
Something tells me this won’t be our last walking holiday – though it may be the last time I’m trusted with the guidebook.
Helen Coffey walked a section of the Wye Valley Walk between Chepstow and Kearne Bridge. Celtic Trails offers a seven-night itinerary (Chepstow-Hereford) from £585pp based on two sharing, B&B, including luggage transfers, pre-travel route planning and a Walk Pack featuring an itinerary, trail guide and local interest leaflets.