South Wales: Barry – Chepstow

4th -7th February 2022

Image from the Hiiker app

Day 66

Barry – Cardiff

12 miles/821 ft total ascent

Saint Cadoc, the sixth century Abbot of Llancarfan, was a notable and highly respected man of God with an entourage of keenly pious men. Whilst these men might have shared the devotions of faith, some were more competent than others.

Saint Baruc, whose sainthood appears to be granted purely for his proximity to the Abbot, was not one of the more organised ones. Joining Saint Cadoc on a pilgrimage from the island of Flat Holm, it turned out he had forgotten to pack his boss’s reading material. Baruc was sent back to retrieve it and ended up drowning in the Bristol Channel, which seems like a high price to pay for some manuscripts (or porn; the nature of the material is never really specified). As it was it doesn’t seem like anyone thought his body was worth transporting to a more consecrated place of rest, so he was buried on the island that he washed up on. This island became Barry Island, and Baruc’s name lives on today in the whir of arcade games and a mid 2000s sitcom with running jokes about omelettes.

Barry wasn’t always known for being a place of good old fashioned fun (and plenty of heroin). It had absolutely shot to prominence in the Industrial Revolution as a massive coal port, and by 1913 had become the largest coal exporting port in the world. The large tidal island had been linked to the town by the railway, which also brought in visitors looking for some of that seaside charm, and as the coal industry died, the bright flashing lights of the island would overtake the reputation of the docklands.

The walk out of Barry was a lengthy haul on tarmac, beside the roads, crossing roundabouts through Cadoxton. I stopped briefly at a McDonalds for breakfast and carried on the roadwalking until a footpath suddenly veered off to the left, taking me up into woodland and away from the cars.

I sloshed my way across muddy fields, the slight slope and the slipperiness threatening to see me fall forward at any given misstep. Whilst I made it across the fields in one piece without disgracing myself, a brief lost footing on slope the other side caused me to wildly dance to stay upright. Of course, it was this that was observed by a middle aged man with nothing useful to say, who decided to talk anyway and tell me “you have to be careful, it’s muddy there”.

How did I survive over eight hundred miles without such sage advice?

I was not in the friendliest mood. I was starting to click into the mindset of just counting down miles, pretty sure that all the best parts of the path were far behind me now. My memories of the very start of the path, all the way back in North Wales, are far more clear than my recollections of these last few days; my brain was beginning to become one-track and I had an earbud in constantly as I walked now, to keep me moving and not thinking as much as anything else.

Up on a cliff edge. covered in thorns and bushes were the remnants of a former military site. Scattered brick and rubble amongst the shrubs all along the path that ran down to the road, and then the cyclepath, and then a concrete footpath between houses to the coast again looking ahead towards the pier at Penarth. A long white finger pointing out to sea with the shadowed, high cliffs rising the other side.

A steep climb up the pavement took me up to the top of Penarth Head, and a squiggled route through the streets saw me back down. The Cardiff Bay Barrage was ahead; a lifting bridge followed by a walkway that held a large lake in place. Here I really felt the wind; like it was going to slam me up into the air and into the water from this exposed wall walk into the city. It blasted straight in from the sea. I couldn’t hold the pole straight and started to worry I would lose it; that it would be ripped from my hands and spun up and over the water like a wayward plastic bag.

Wind does many things. Of course, it breaks tents. It also makes any exposed walking extremely perilous. But it also somehow separates your hair strand by strand from whatever defences you have holding it at such a rate that you do not even notice until there is a full mane spinning and flying wildly around your face. Somehow that is just enduringly irritating. No matter how you fluster and scrape and wring the strands away, the wind is relentless in methodically setting it free again.

The buildings of Cardiff welcomed me in when I’d finally fought my way across the Barrage. The redbrick pierhead leading on to the Norwegian Church and the National Assembly Buildings. The city feels so seamless, and its aesthetics so charming, it is odd to think it has only been deemed a city for just over a century. It feels like it was always large and welcoming and never the small town it was for so long until the Industrial Revolution filled it with ambition and promise.

After the Norman Invasion, the town had grown around the castle to a population of around 1,500. When Owain Glyndŵr came through in 1404, he took possession of the castle but burned the timber town. It was eventually rebuilt to the same street plan which, it seems, was seen as very attractive even back then as Pembrokeshire historian George Owen described it as “the fayrest towne in Wales” in 1602.

The large, historic docks at Cardiff became the centre of its economic growth. In 1801, it still had a population under 2,000, but in 1905 was granted city status and had a population of just under 200,000,

I liked Cardiff. It was a warm and buzzy and loud and happy city. Not that I feel I fully appreciated it at all; by now I was just exhausted constantly, trying to alleviate the ramifications of one neglected basic need after another. My ankles and knees were just stinging in a stretched out, overused pain so constantly it would keep me awake and I could barely summon the energy to even heat up noodles when I stopped.

It was only going to be three more days, but somehow the prospect of those three more days felt like so much longer. This winter walking had me never quite feeling warm, and the transiency never let my brain just rest as it assessed over and over again the potential plans for onwards hiking. My mind was busy all the time, but hyperfocused on just this task. If I had a conversation, I wouldn’t be able to speak about anything else, I had lost concept of anything else. Just this trail, and finishing it.

Day 67

Cardiff – Newport

15 miles/300 ft total ascent

This was the point when I really stopped taking pictures, so when I look back in my gallery at what I snapped in order to jog memories, all I find is this snap of the sewage works on my way out of Cardiff which, honestly, is probably not a fair sole representation of the walk to Newport.

I’m still not exactly sure whether it was even part of the walk to Newport. The waymarks had switched from being on signs to being discs stuck in the ground which became more confusing than it sounds. After looking upwards for over eight hundred miles to see if my path was confirmed, I now had to look down. These waymarks petered out as I approached the main road, and the map indicated a path along the main road and then across and down at a space that didn’t feel or look at all correct with no indication it was a right of way at all. In fact it felt incredibly strongly like very private property. However, continuing down the main road to the point where the mapped path was meant to meet up again was a fool’s errand also as the pavement ran out and then the track beside the road just lead to a ditch full of flytipped rubbish.

The Cicerone guide offered an entirely different route, with a footpath leaving the other side of the main road far earlier than map suggested. This was likely the correct path, but by this point I was fed up, so just found my way back into town and looped round a different way to the place at Pengam Green where all proposed variations converged.

I was soon on the muddy path by the tidal channel that ventured through a park and by a lake and onto a canal path which sounds far more lovely that it was, being so close to traffic the whole time with not an awful lot to see, but was definitely better than the sewage works.

I was suddenly spilled out onto a great, green, gassy embankment, rising above the marshes that dribbled unremarkably into the mouth of the Severn.

With its source as a tiny trickle up in the Cambrian Mountains, the Severn winds its way dramatically over 220 miles through England and Wales until it spills out into the Bristol Channel. It is the longest river in the UK and its journey takes it through many historically different cultures; thus is has many different pieces of folklore and legend attached to it.

Arguably the most well known is the story of Sabrina. It has a lengthy and perhaps unnecessary preamble discussing the Trojan war and various spoils before eventually coming to Britain and turning into another simple tale of forbidden love, infidelity, and a woman scorned. King Locrinus was married to Guendolen, but secretly in love with Estrildis who he kept nearby, hidden away, for his eyes only. At this point you can always tell that the story was written by a man; no woman is going to write a story that sees a girl kept hidden in an underground bunker purely for some dude’s pleasure and dare to call it ‘love’; that’s literally the basis of a horror story.

He had a son by Guendolen; Madan, and a daughter by Estrildis; Sabrina. Following the death of Guendolen’s scary dad, Locrinus finally divorces his wife to be with Estrildis. Having none of it, Guendolen raises an entire army just to kill her cheating ex, and then has his daughter thrown alive into the river to drown. She named the river for the daughter, to remind the world of her husband’s infidelity.

Seeing as in all of this, Sabrina has no real tale of her own, nor description to her own personality, it is kind of redemptive that in following centuries she was given a Goddess type role as a guardian of the river, riding her ghostly chariot up and down its courses to ensure that all remains safe and well along her banks.

It is evident, looking at these banks, the amount of work that has gone into making them stand and stay against the erosion that the water imparts on the low lying land. The embankments I walked along were high, allowing for deep tidal variances. It crossed a couple sluices and went by an optimistic bird hide where I took a short break.

On and on through this repetitive landscape until a giant field of overbearing, buzzing pylons interrupted the straight trudges of the embankments. and turned me round a corner up the Usk. Kissing gates lead onto tarmac, lead onto roads again, dancing around backstreets and then back onto the main thoroughfare. An overpass loomed, cars sped both above and beside me, and the odd flat roofed café sat pumping out the smell of grease. A drunk wolf-whistled and I couldn’t help but laugh, considering the state of me, his beer goggles must’ve been very thick by now.

The famous transporter bridge appeared to come out of nowhere with its strange angular structure and moveable gondola. Odd simply because these bridges are rarely seen; there are only ten in operation worldwide, and only two others in the UK. It was built here because the low banks would otherwise require a very long ramp to get traffic up to the level that would be needed to also allow ships under. The gondola can be winched at 3 metres per second which certainly sounds pretty speedy.

It had somehow felt like an incredibly long day; the endless embankments had often made it seem like I had been going around in circles. I wonder what those that start at Chepstow feel when they get to North Wales and the initial buoyancy and enthusiasm is long gone and they get to those endless static caravans and the miles and miles beside the motorway? Is it the same sense of frustration at something unchanging with no sense of how much distance has been travelled? Like you’re just buffering at a pivotal moment.

Wales went on to lose a rugby game tonight. I wasn’t following the rugby, I was alerted to this by the sounds of outrage from outside as fans consoled each other after a few too many drinks. The wind buffeted the buildings long after the rugby crowd had dispersed, scattering whatever debris lay on the roof below the window of my room and howling, screaming, keening long into the night.

Day 68

Newport – Caldicot

21 miles/369 ft total ascent

It took a long time to feel like I was out of Newport. Even as the streets faded to a cyclepath and a meadow, a new crop of houses or industrial features would crop up between copses and fields. A small village was then followed by a behemoth of a power station and only then was I finally able to leave the Usk estuary and follow the coast again.

The path started through the Newport Wetlands. When the Cardiff Bay Barrage was built to create the lagoon covering the mudflats of Cardiff, it had an instant negative effect on the bay’s ecology, and these wetlands were purposefully built to mitigate that. In flooding the former ash disposal sites of the power station and disused fields, an environment was then carefully created to grow back the plant life of the mudflats and attract the migratory birds that had had their habitats destroyed.

Reedbeds flounced and pulled in the wind on one side of me, while the marshes and mudflats soared out on the other. I passed the little East Usk lighthouse; a round white dimple to its partner I had seen the previous day on the other side of the river.

Tracks inland interrupted the wetland walk and took me on and off the road for a while before sending me back, but once back at the coast, I would stay there. It was a slightly more interesting walk that yesterday’s challenge of repetitive visual endurance. There were more bird hides, actually appropriately placed, and the mudflats would interrupt the marshes and glisten in whatever light caught them. I saw many birds elegantly manoeuvre long legs over the mud, or swooping in with a flutter of wings, making quick, dancing, pecks at the mud to swallow a mollusc, and move on.

These tidal plains have been subject to various manmade variations since settlers first arrived. Sometimes in order to reclaim them for agriculture, sometimes to encourage drainage. The criss crossed channels made for drainage are called ‘reens’, the embankments they cross are the ‘levels’. Through a system of both, they hold water both to prevent the inland areas from flooding, and to prevent the tidal area from drying out and has been in play since the Romans. The more upscale version we see more evidence of today was built after the Norman invasion by Flemish planners; used to the low lying land of the Netherlands and how best to preserve and utilise them, whilst also protecting the population.

I was covering a lot of ground today to make it safely inside before the wind picked up again at night. I wouldn’t have felt the need to quickmarch had I been able to stay in the tent, but I wasn’t chancing another breakage. Sometimes it would seem like all the wind had disappeared for good, and then it would appear again out of nowhere and I’d fight to stay balanced.

I didn’t allow myself a break, in part because I knew I had twenty odd miles to cover, in part because it was a Sunday and I knew there was a pub that had a Sunday Lunch going on in Caldicot and I absolutely had to reach it. As always, it was the final few miles that felt like they sucked up 90% of the time after I turned off the levels and headed inland to cross the roaring motorway and plodded on down the road towards Caldicot.

I was extremely weary by the time I flopped my bedraggled self through the door of the pub, and my elation at making it in time for the roast was purely mental as I barely had the energy to raise a smile. I must have appeared incredibly rude. Once down to a hot plate of potatoes, vegetables, a cracking big Yorkshire pud, slivers of lamb and a whole pond of gravy, I was much more at one with the world again. A sticky toffee pudding finished off the whole shebang, and I waddled off to check in to the B&B quite content, and very ready to sleep like the dead.

Day 69

Caldicot – Chepstow

11 miles/708 ft total ascent

Eleven miles. That was all that was left. Just a short day of a short eleven miles. Tonight I would be home again, and that was a very strange thought.

The first streams of the sunrise split the sky above the trees as I rounded Caldicot Castle, and carried on down the paths to the base of the Severn Bridge which soared high above me as I turned away from it onto the embankment. A football pitch was drawn out in the former grassy ramparts of an old fort, and a grit path continued on the other side of a village. It turned to grass again and the sides dropped away to be a raised platform of grass once more.

Onwards, onward, onwards. The embankment stretched on again. Occasionally sending me off to the side to go across meadows instead and cross gates and sludge through mud, until I turned up over the level crossing at St. Pierre Pill keeping eyes out constantly, automatically, for the next flash of yellow. The posts took me round a golf course, I was going in land now, past my last field now, through the graffitied eerie white arch of the tunnel under the motorway now.

Woods went uphill, by the side of Chepstow, and through the gaps between their trunks I could see down to the River Wye and the curve of it behind which the bridge sat that would see me at the end.

Chester was almost 870 miles and 69 days back in the past, that cycleway passing between those two bluestones that had unceremoniously marked the start of this endeavour connected all the way down eventually, ten weeks later, to where I was now.

New, amazing accomplishments had happened in outdoors spaces even since I had left; back on the 3rd January, Preet Chandi had completed her 700 mile Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. She had dragged along 90kg of supplies behind her on a sled, enduring temperatures of -50C on her 40 day journey and become the first woman of colour to do so. Whilst I bumbled and whined my way around a route that was a little bit hilly and a little bit cold.

Between fences, round the back of industrial buildings, here and there on quiet residential streets. Past the wall, down the hill, cross the road through the subway. It was busy now, there were many people now, their routine was their own and I was inconsequential, and we passed each other, they towards their daily goals, and me towards mine.

Through the churchyard, down again, to the railings on the edge of the water, past the inn. There, there on the ground by the Old Wye Bridge and all its lanterns, was the circular disc that marked the end of the miles.

It was a moment of loss standing on it. Suddenly the day after day planning, the counting; of miles, of steps, of ascent, of descent and daylight hours, of food remaining, of water left, of hours still held in the power banks, of time until the next launderette, pharmacy, shop, hill, valley, fort, lake, camp, sunset, sunrise; the senses that watched for every change in wind direction, speed, air pressure, cloud formation, bird calls; there was no need for it any more. Those cogs could slow, they could stop. They did not need to turn anymore. And, for that moment, I felt like a machine without a use anymore. The cogs had stopped, they were no longer needed.

I may well have just been a girl on a long walk somewhere a bit hilly and a bit cold, but somewhere between the agony and the elation is the place that anyone who loves the outdoor spaces recognises; the part that breathes more freely the wilder they sleep, that thinks more clearly the more rugged their path, and the part that feels most alive when surrounded by the whispering voices, the changing shadows, and the following winds of the world’s lonely and liminal spaces.

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