Boundary: imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
I decided to go for a walk. To mark the end of the academic year and the start of my summer holidays and as a kind of detox from teaching, technology and the ‘unbearable shiteness of being’ (in 21st Century little Britain), I have, over the last three years, cultivated the habit of going for a long distance walk. In 2014 it was Hadrian’s Wall (84 miles); last year the West Highland Way (96 miles); and this year, to go one better, I decided to tackle the Offa’s Dyke Path (177 miles, or 168 or 182, depending on which sign you read!). I was drawn to this route for a number of reasons: I’m fascinated by borders and how cultures cross-fertilise across them; I was going to be in the north, giving a paper at a conference at Lancaster University (on ‘Loving the Alien’), so could travel from there to the start (or, for many, the end) of the walk in Prestatyn; and also I liked the idea of walking homewards, towards Gloucestershire, and being joined by my partner for the last couple of days at Hay-on-Wye. Also, in the light of the EU Referendum the notion of borders (and the fallacy of trying to keep the ‘other’ out) seemed very resonant. And so I packed my rucksack and off I loped.
When I would create myself, I seek the darkest woods.
Henry David Thoreau
Offa’s Dyke is an earthwork consisting of a ditch (up to six feet deep) and a rampart (up to twenty five feet high) stretching from north to south, from the Irish Sea to the Severn Estuary. It was constructed around 757-796 CE at the instigation (and probably brute force) of Offa, an 8th Century Mercian king, of whom it was said approximately a century afterwards:
There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea. (from Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred of Wessex, 893 CE)
Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), somewhat later (1145-1223) said of him: ‘King Offa shut the Welsh off from the English with his long dyke on the frontier’. Offa feels like a very topical figure, a Johnsonish, Faragesque, or Trumpist Cnut-type, trying to shut out the inevitable tide of alterity. If the dyke was designed to ‘shut the Welsh off’, it an ironic and ultimately futile endeavour. The Welsh, the Waleas, the ‘strangers’, were the original British, and it was the latest wave of incomers, the Saxons, who were evicting them from their own land. The other was scapegoated, seen as the root of all evil. Plus ça change. Whether the dyke was intended to be defensive (although it was lined by a palisade and the rampart on the English side gave them some advantage, to defend 177 miles of line 24/7 for years seems an unrealistic proposition in what would have been a very underpopulated Britain at the time); designed to control trade; a power statement, or, more likely, a bit of all three, nobody knows for certain. The fact that it often follows the ridge of high places, giving it maximum visibility to the west, suggest it was designed partly to be seen by the surly Welsh as a constant reminder of Mercia’s might. One idea, however, suggests Offa simply took the line of least resistance and augmented existing earthworks, joining up the many hill-forts, and possibly existing routes, along the way. Certainly walking it over 11 days what really came across to me was how it made travel between such sites swifter and more discreet, for it allows you to move across high country without being seen, if you follow the ditch (although today that would be almost impossible unless you wanted to run the gauntlet of miles of nettles and thistles and brambles, for much of it is overgrown). Though it might have originally demarcated the line between England and Wales, now Offa’s Dyke weaves back and forth between the countries somewhat slyly. It slips between worlds. Without knowing it sometimes, you’ve crossed the border. It is only when you come to a gate or sign do you find out which country or county you are in. For much of the route it feels like a place between worlds and outside time. I often walked for hours without seeing a soul. Most hikers traverse the ODP from south to north. I met only one other hiker going southwards. I often seemed to walking faster than most I met, so I would have overtaken any going in my direction at some point. When walking the West Highland Way last year, and Hadrian’s Wall the year before that, you kept overlapping fellow hikers, or vice versa. Some become familiar figures on the trail over several days. But that didn’t happen this time, and that was fine with me as I enjoyed the solitude. After a year of teaching and being responsible for several groups of students, it was soothing to be in a non-verbal, non-technological space. One focused on the daily goal – the next campsite –and core needs – water, food, shelter, warmth, safety. One’s daily effort was reciprocated by the view achieved, the progress made. Life becomes simpler, less cluttered, more focused. Going south. One foot step after another. Breath and sweat. The wind and rain. Sunlight and birdsong. As Gary Snyder said (I took his classic work, The Practice of the Wild, with me, so apologies if I cite him a lot):
The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy.
I have to ‘fess up at this point, I didn’t lug all of my campsite with me as I saw some poor souls doing, but used local taxi firms to take my main enormous rucksack from pitch to pitch, leaving me with a 25 litre daysac to carry, more than adequate for me needs. I took this approach last year (although then I was able to use a single firm which covered the whole trail) and it makes such a qualitative difference. Instead of it being a masochistic slog, one can actually enjoy the walk. A member of staff at Mellington Hall said ‘That’s cheating!’ but I disagree – there is no rule saying you have to take your house with you like a human snail when walking a long-distance footpath. I was walking the trail, the same as everyone else. Just using my smarts, is all. As Thoreau said:
The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
For me it’s about savouring each step, standing and staring now and then, enjoying the view, a pause for a cuppa, to feel the sun on your face, or savour the peace and solitude, not proving anything to anyone else. Some seem to tackle it like a race – I met one man doing it in 10 days – but I wasn’t doing it to break any records. If I made the campsite at a decent time of day, e.g. 4-or-5-ish, then that allowed me time to set up, for my usually wet tent to dry out, to have a shower, fix some food, write some journal, read a little, before nodding off ridiculously early. When one camps one usually starts to synchronise with the rhythm of nature, going to sleep when it gets dark and waking up at dawn. It’s hard to do otherwise, especially after a long and tiring day’s walk. I slept like a log every night.
Pick up your stick, put on your hat, and strike out with a pilgrim heart from your front door. Kevan Manwaring
A 161 miles later… Finishing the walk on Wye Bridge, Monmouth (I’d done the final section between there & Chepstow before). But there’s more to share before then! Photograph by Chantelle Smith, 2016.
In my next blog I write about the ballads I sung every day along the Offa’s Dyke Path…