Wye Valley Walk
Hiking in the Wye Valley in Wales
Hiking upstream along the Wye river in Wales, surrounded by green and with great views; without straining climbs, passing through the occasional nice village, sometimes even without a store. There are few other hikers, but lots of sheep. You cross beautiful and sometimes quirky bridges over the Wye, again and again, while the river gets narrower and the hills higher, until you reach the Cambrian Mountains.
Travelogue & photos: Kees van Tol
The Wye river empties into the Severn river at Chepstow, across from Bristol. Six miles before the estuary are the magnificent ruins of Tintern Abbey; in English territory, but on the Wye. The Wye Valley Walk begins in Chepstow and ends 230 km upstream at Llangurig in Wales.
We take a week just to walk along the upstream stretch of the Wye. We start on Monday morning in Hay-on-Wye and on Friday we arrive in Llangurig, 80 km upstream and the last village before the source of the river in the Cambrian Mountains.
A town with dozens of second-hand bookstores
Hay-on-Wye is world famous for its large number of bookstores; ample reason to explore the well-organized town with its less than 2000 inhabitants before we go hiking.
Hay sits right on the border with England, not far from Hereford, downstream on the Wye. If you're hiking on the well-known long-distance trail Offa's Dyke, which originally was constructed as a border between the two kingdoms, you also pass Hay-on-Wye.
The town is located on the river and partly on a hill, on which an impressive building sits which is a cross between castle ruins and a delapidated mansion. Inside and in the yard, thousands, if not tens of thousands of books are for sale.
There are wonderful stories about Richard Booth, the excentric founder of Hay as a book town. The simplest version is: he went to America, bought containers full of books for a song, shipped them to Wales and sold them.
An entertaining story tells that he proclaimed Hay an independant kingdom in 1977, under the reign of King Richard Coeur de Livre (King Richard Book Heart).
Whatever the case, nowadays there are around forty bookstores. They are very diverse: there are well-organized ones with sections (art, music, geography, poetry) and there are others where browsers have to find their way through a charming chaos.
I love the field with the metal, slightly rusty bookcases at the foot of the castle. There are price tags on the books, but when you buy one, no one in this open-air store will check if you deposit the right amount of money in a box that sits there for that purpose.
I find a wonderful guide about Snowdonia in Hay for £ 3.50, with useful text, beautiful black-and-white pictures and maps of the area. When it was published in 1958, it cost only 5 shillings.
Hay-on-Wye has several hotels and B&Bs. In one of those we spend two days and two nights. They allow us to leave our car in their parking lot during our week of hiking.
Hay-on-Wye - Trericket Mill
Village after village appears
We leave on Monday morning. We only carry light day packs: every day our luggage will be taken to where we'll spend the night and in some cases will also have dinner. Sometimes the valley is wide and green, at other times the river pushes itself along and over sand and limestone.
After a few minutes we stop on the bridge over the Wye. The river is so beautiful here. I am curious how much narrower it will be at our final destination.
For a while we walk along a busy road with no sidewalks. Fortunately, a sign soon directs us to a field. It uses the pictogram of a salmon jumping out of the water. We will see this kind of sign more often, indicating the Wye Valley Walk.
The official guidebook for the trail is useful and has (mostly) clear route descriptions, good pictures and the necessary tourist information about sights along the way.
A few minutes later we walk through Wyecliffe Woods in the rain. We put on our rain wear. Fortunately it's only a short drizzly shower.
Onward to Llowes, three miles upstream from Hay-on-Wye. The last part of the trail takes us along a busy road again. It isn't great, but luckily this is one of the few instances.
Llowes has a nice, simple church, which can be visited. It also has a pub with outside seating. The weather has improved enough in the mean time to make it possible for us to sit outside.
Through the fields and sometimes on roads we walk from Llowes to Glasbury, a friendly village. The river is never far away. All of this gets me into a "hiking mood": leisurely walking on a kilometers-long path, sometimes on grass, sometimes on asphalt. Here and there is a farmhouse, even a phone booth and for the rest peace and quiet; just natural sounds and every now and then a farmer.
We approach another settlement. During this part of the hike, it's one village after another. Over the next few days that will change.
Just for a short while, we ignore our route guide and map and clamber over some rocks near a former parsonage. It's fun to know that even here you can get lost. The houses belong to the hamlet of Boughrood. It even has two pubs, each on one side of the bridge over the Wye.
We choose the second one, which is on Llyswen territory. The middle-aged woman who owns the pub scuttles quickly between us, a group of young motor-bike riders sitting outside and a company of very old locals.
The bridge is the second and last river crossing we'll take today, but many more will follow over the coming week. So many beautiful and quirky ones, that I find myself dreaming of a coffee-table photobook: Across and Across the Wye, by Kees van Tol.
After crossing the bridge we keep following the river. Pretty mushrooms (it's the end of August) and a standing stone from ancient times. In the distance we see the impressive Llangoed Hall where - judging from their looks - a group of wedding guests are just entering.
It is said about this hall that it was the first White Palace, the place where at the beginning of Wales' history the first parliament gathered. In 560 Prince Iddon is assumed to have donated the building to the Church to atone for his sins.
It's late in the afternoon when we pass a former watermill, Trericket Mill, just before we reach the next bridge. It houses our destination for today, a vegetarian guesthouse. Our room is big, our dinner super-healthy, there are good magazines in the heated lounge and, finally, our beds are great.
Trericket Mill - Builth Wells
The fern jungle is chest high
The next day we cross the river after a few minutes of walking, via the Llanstephan Bridge. For the next few hours we walk through an uninhabited world to Erwood Station Craft Centre which, according to the guidebook, has refreshments.
It's one of those secluded spots that you hope will be open on a Tuesday morning. The last part of the walk to it leads over rail tracks that are no longer in use.
They are open indeed and serve coffee with tasty pastries, served for a song by an incredibly friendly Welshman .
An amiable cat keeps an eye on everything. The crafts vary from art to kitsch. They are not for us hikers, who would have to drag it along. The Bridge Cottage a little farther along the trail indicates another crossing of the Wye.
A taxing climb begins here, dispelling our fear that hiking along a river might not be challenging enough for us. Panting, we see the Wye from ever higher points of view.
We enjoy the panoramic views and almost get lost in the jungle of ferns and other overgrowth, which are sometimes chest high. The path is wide enough and, well, getting lost is actually impossible, because our next destination, Builth Wells, is also by the river.
The signs with jumping fish lead us back down after hours of climbing. In the distance we see Builth Wells, but it still takes a long time to arrive in this nice market town. Nice, because there's an ice-cream vendor in a van, a shopping street, a tourist office with many good books and the spot where the castle used to be. Apart from this, it's not very interesting.
Builth Wells refers to the medicinal sources which made the town a tourist attraction in the past, which could be reached by the railway that was constructed in 1860.
As the days go by and we have spoken with several people, we look up hopefully more often, to see if we can spot the red kite. It is not a red kite, but a rare bird of prey which lives here. The red kite (milvus milvus) was proclaimed Wales' favorite bird in 2007. There is a red kite feeding station, not far from the town of Rhayader.
The birds are recognizable by their fan-shaped tails and mostly chestnut color with white spots under their wings and pale, grey heads. Their wingspread is almost two meters. They can float in the sky for hours, almost without moving their wings. Every now and then we see birds that seem to match this description.
Builth Wells - Newbridge-on-Wye
Here and there are rapids
We follow the right bank of the river to Newbridge-on-Wye, seven miles upstream on the other side of the river. During the first few kilometers we walk close to the river; there are benches and every now and then we encounter people with children or dogs.
In some places the river is narrow and deep; there are some rapids and on both sides the landscape is hilly and green.
On the way we see a sheep standing on a rock in the middle of the river, which is wide again here, so also shallow. The animal seems afraid to move either forward or backward. According to what I can see from the river bank, the animal should turn and walk toward me, because that way are shallow parts. That's probably how the poor sheep ended up in these dire straits to begin with.
But how to make this clear to the animal? I'm afraid that if I wade toward it, I will scare it and it might flee from me, farther into the river. In my mind's eye I see everything happening: its fur soaking up water, making the sheep heavier and more scared and how it finally gives up, exhausted, and lets itself be taken away in the cold stream of that horrible river.
There is no one around who I could ask for advice. Even days later, we still wonder what happened to the sheep after we left.
Newbrigde is an unremarkable town; a church, a cheerless bar cum restaurant and fortunately also a grocery store with large and varied stock.
Newbrigde-on-Wye - Rhayader
Crossing the Elan river over a wobbly bridge
Today we walk from Newbrigde to Rhayader; a distance of around 16 kilometers. We take an asphalted road and forget to make a right on to a path between trees and fields. No problem, the next right turn takes us back to the trail. We walk between fields, pass fences via stiles and see farmhouses and farmers every now and then.
We watch breathlessly as a man drives his sheep to another field using his 4x4 and dogs. It kind of ruins our romantic image of the shepherd of old, who would do this on foot.
The road straightens out, but is still long. We walk between the river and Trembud Hill (475 m). The road is almost level and seems endless. We look forward to taking a break in Llanwrthwl. Try and pronounce that!
I own four books about Welsh town names, but unfortunately Llanwrthwl isn't in them. Llan means church, that I know, but does wrthwl refer to a saint or to a quality of the landscape? I don't know, but later at home I will find the answer in an 1891 town map: St. Gwrthwl's Church. These weird, often unpronounceable town names in Wales are an attraction in and of themselves.
Just before the village a grey single-naved church stands directly next to the road. Behind it is a cemetary with old tombstones and a bench by a stream: a wonderfully quiet spot for lunch. Unfortunately the church or chapel is locked. That also goes for the public convenience a little farther down the road.
However, the equally simple church in the center of the village is open. Next to it stands a bell tower not much taller than a person, and a stone which might have been there since the Stone Age.
Refreshed we begin our afternoon walk, which leads through hilly terrain with many beautiful views of hills and valleys. We often find ourselves in the company of sheep.
We are suprised that there seem to be two kinds of sheep: the imperturbable grazers and others, who flee on their thin legs as if we were hungry wolves.
We take another long break at the spot where the Elan flows into the Wye. The river and its tributary are almost equally wide. There is a wobbly bridge over the Elan.
A little later we cross the old railroad tracks, which were constructed along the Wye a long time ago. In some places the trackbed remains, in others only bridges. Elsewhere little or nothing remains, which makes for a nice treasure hunt, but the old tracks are not an official hiking trail.
After a long day of hiking, Rhayader with its rapids under the bridge is a nice town. It has a tea room, pubs and there is a bed waiting for us. We are too tired to explore the town for interesting sights.
Our guidebook doesn't have a lot to say, either: the town used to be an important trade hub; times were turbulent in 1843, but Rhayader is a friendly town nowadays. The street names in the centre are of a touching simplicity: North Street, South Street, East Street and West Street.
Rhayader - Llangurig
For 20 km there's not a town in sight
Our fifth day of hiking is our last but definitely not the least: we have to walk twelve miles, almost 20 kilometers, and on the way we don't see any towns. First we leave Rhayader, ascending a rolling hill, followed by a somewhat steeper descent into a sea of green.
Here, in the middle of nowhere, we find a pair of hiking boots. Someone has tied them to the wire mesh of a fence by their shoelaces, as if to provide a dignified last resting place for them.
It's as if we're being pushed forward. In the valley is the Gilfach Visitors Centre, which serves coffee. After that, it's nice to visit the "unique Welsh longhouse" next to the centre, to see how farmers lived in the past. We don't stay long, our destination is still far away.
From here we follow a nature trail which fully deserves that name. It winds along a stream called Marteg. Unfortunately, a parking lot with a picnic table brings us back into western civilization after an hour or so.
Once again we follow the Wye Valley's course; on both sides 500 meter-high hills rise up. We walk on level ground for a few kilometers, but then the route takes us to the left, on an asphalt road with an almost imperceptible incline, where a lone driver asks us for directions and finally we reach a nasty climb.
The sky looks ominous, but also fascinating. We won't stay dry today, but so far we've only had a few minor showers. A breathtaking view from the hill is the well-earned reward for all our trouble.
Llangurig lures us from afar, with a slender spire, which rather amazingly rises from a crude, crenellated square church tower. The road to it seems to descend for kilometers. That changes when we reach a brook with a wonderful name: Nant y Clochfaen, or: the stream that sounds like a clock.
Llangurig's skyline has disappeared behind a treacherous little hill but regardless, we have to cross it to reach Llangurig, the first village on the Wye, counting from its source.
This place of worship with its curious tower was founded before 550 and its subtle wood carvings and stained-glass windows are highly praised everywhere. But right now we don't care, because a cloudburst gets us wet through and through within a few minutes.
Fortunately the B&B hostess is sympathetic and a little later we are lying on our soft bed, showered, dried and supplied with refreshing tea with biscuits, waiting for the dinner she will prepare for us.
Back to Hay-on-Wye
As if we get catapulted back in time
It's Saturday morning. It's all over. From here we could walk another 12.5 miles to the official end of the Wye Valley Walk: the Rhyd-y-Benwech parking lot on the slope of the Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains. But we're not going to do that.
Next to this parking lot is a large boulder from Chepstow, where the river merges with the Severn River. Its source is also nearby. Also close by is the beginning of the 350 km long Severn Way, but that's a different story for another vacation.
We return to Hay-on-Wye. We could take the bus, but that would mean we'd have to wait for a few hours until the first one leaves and then we'd also have to change buses. We don't feel like doing that.
So, at the appointed time a taxi stops in front of our B&B and the taciturn driver takes us back to Hay-on-Wye where we started last Monday in about an hour. During the drive we recognize many places we've visited over the last couple of days: as if we were cataputed back in time.