In September we set off to walk Offa’s Dyke National Trail which begins just across from Bristol, on the banks of the River Severn.
The first thing we had to decide was how long to do it over. From my research, it seemed like 8 days was the very minimum (although that option would best suit those who wear their underpants outside their trousers and have a large letter ‘S’ emblazoned across their chest). For mere mortals like us, the recommended options seemed to be from 12 to 16 days.
Offa’s Dyke National Trail
The National Trail runs for 177 miles (285km) between Sedbury, south of Chepstow on the banks of the River Severn and Prestatyn in North Wales. Highlights include the Brecon Beacons, the Wye Valley (above), the Shropshire Hills and the Dee Valley. Of course, where there are highlights, there are usually ascents, and some sections of the trail are known to be ‘challenging’.
A quick calculation gave us average distances per day which ranged from 35.6km (22 miles) for Marvel characters, to 17.8km (11 miles) for easy walking. Some days were likely to be much longer than the average, others would be shorter.
As seasoned walkers who are reasonably fit, walking 18 to 20km (11-12 miles) a day seemed a reasonable expectation, so pushing that to around 23/24km (14/15 miles) didn’t seem like too much of a stretch. Assuming we would be setting off each day straight after breakfast (8.30-9am) and walking an average of 3-4km per hour, we could comfortably do the distance, take breaks of up to an hour in total, and still be done by 6pm.
So we opted to walk Offa’s Dyke over 12 days.
Three days into the route, I concluded we had made an error of judgement in our fitness levels, and I was seriously considering giving up.
So what went wrong?
Factors to consider when deciding how many days you need to walk Offa’s Dyke
We opted to use a specialist walking company to arrange our accommodation and luggage transfers for us. Working with Inntravel over the past 12 years, we expected the same, or a similar level of support documentation for the route but instead of receiving personalised notes, we were sent a copy of the Cicerone guide to walking Offa’s Dyke, along with a daily itinerary of route distances, and directions to our accommodation. If the accommodation was more than a mile from the trail, a taxi would be provided to pick us up, and drop us back at the trail the following day.
The daily route distances were taken from the Cicerone guide, and we soon discovered that they weren’t always accurate, nor did they always include the distance from the route to our accommodation. Sometimes that could be a mile or more added on at the end of a very long day.
It’s important to factor in the extra distance to, and from, your accommodation, particularly on days that nudge the 30km/18 miles mark.
Elevation & Gradients
Our itinerary only gave daily distances, it didn’t include ascents and descents for each day’s route. Using the Cicerone guide, we knew in advance when days were likely to include tough ascents but once our itinerary varied from the Cicerone, we were guessing at elevations.
But the factor that wasn’t clear at the planning stage was the gradients of the ascents and descents. After the half way point (above), some of the ascents were beyond belief and I found myself leaning heavily into some climbs to avoid toppling backwards with the weight of my rucksack. One guide book refers to some stages of the walk as ‘unreasonably steep’; I prefer the term ridiculously steep.
Booking for early September, we thought the weather was likely to be still pleasantly warm, with a high possibility of rain (this is Wales after all) and hopefully, a good amount of sunshine. What we did not expect was to be hit with an Indian summer which sent temperatures soaring to 28-30°C over our first four days.
Unfortunately, that coincided with three very long days – 28.5km, 27km & 28km respectively – the last of which was through the Black Mountains (above) where we had zero shade for most of the walk. The combination of distance, effort and heat made for an exhausting few days.
When the heatwave broke, we found the distances much easier to cope with and had 5 or so beautiful walking days. But this being the UK, the meteorological needle then swung completely the other way. By the time we got to day 9, we were being battered by high winds and lashing rain with poor visibility.
Is 12 days long enough to walk Offa’s Dyke?
The quick answer is yes, absolutely. It’s challenging, but isn’t that the point? We found (after the heatwave broke) that we got fitter and stronger with each day’s walk and that we needed fewer breaks and less food along the way. By the latter stages of the trail, we were comfortably arriving at our accommodation by mid-afternoon.
The more considered response would be yes, it is enough, but with hindsight, it would have been better to take longer.
Our itinerary did not allow us time to veer from the route to explore places nearby such as Tintern Abbey (above) and the castles at Monmouth, Montgomery and Chirk. Even if we’d had time, the additional distances to and from the trail were prohibitive on already-long routes.
There were days, particularly near the start, when we had to rush to get to our accommodation in time to have dinner. In Monmouth for example, we arrived at our accommodation – exhausted – at 6.45pm with dinner booked at a local restaurant, a 15min walk away, for 7pm. It was a mad rush to shower, get a change of clothes, and hurry back out to walk into town while calling ahead to warn the restaurant we would be late. On several other days, we had to call and postpone pre-booked meals to give us time to shower and change.
Be realistic about your own fitness and the time it will take you to walk long distances over challenging terrain. Ensure you’re properly equipped for whatever the weather throws at you and give yourself time to enjoy the trail. The landscapes are breathtakingly spectacular and deserve to be savoured.
Footnote… when we finished in Prestatyn (above), we met a Norwegian couple at the hotel who had just walked the trail in 10 days, frequently running to make the distances before darkness fell. Massive kudos to them, personally I think they were a little bit crazy.