Our walking therefore started in stony silence. Even the sheep seemed to sense the disquiet. The first nine miles were indeed flat, initially following Offa over pasture land towards the River Severn.
The Path mounted the Tir-y-mynach Embankment at The Severn. I’m not sure when this was built, but presumably it was created to prevent flooding. The water meadows, for the most part, were occupied by cattle. They had made a quagmire of the embankment, so progress was slow and muddy for the next four miles. The ground around the gates and stiles was particularly challenging. The day remained grey, and the terrain was rather bleak despite the presence of The Breidden Hills on the other side of the river.
We reached Pool Quay before noon, and therefore felt that we couldn’t justify a visit to The Powys Arms. Old habits die hard. At least we enjoyed a change of scenery, as we briefly rejoined the towpath of The Montgomery Canal. We passed a cantilever bridge, and as there were no barges or road traffic in sight and there wasn’t a threatening sign outlawing such frivolity, we gave in to temptation and tugged on the chain to open the bridge. The mechanism was beautifully balanced, and the bridge rose with the minimum of effort.
We ate our packed lunches on the steps down from the road, having crossed to the east bank of The Severn on the A458 at Buttington. The village pub was shut! We watched the fast flowing Severn and discussed the walk ahead. The afternoon started by crossing a single-track railway to a field with seedlings just showing above the earth.
On the path, about halfway across, our feet started to sink alarmingly into the grey, waterlogged soil. Our response was to run, in the belief that the less time our boots were earthbound, the less they would sink! We did not submerge or get stuck, but we reached the next stile even more muddy than we had been before.
All this was a prequel to a steep climb through meadows and common land to Beacon Ring, the site of an iron-age hill fort. Looking back, Welshpool looked dark and uninviting; the day remained determinedly dull. Little remained of the hill fort, although one could appreciate that it lies in a good defensive position – any potential marauder wouldn’t be fit for rape and pillage after such an exacting ascent.
We met several Dykers going the other way. On the descent from Beacon Ring, a young man from Skelmersdale was walking north. He was attempting to complete The Dyke in ten days. He was accompanied by a rescue dog; they were doing the walk together to raise money for the rescue centre. They both seemed extremely fit despite having walked twenty-four miles on the previous day! About half-an-hour further on we met Ian, a moustachioed Irishman. It had started to drizzle, and Ian was disconsolately repacking his rucksack having discovered that he had mislaid his wet weather over-trousers. He said that he was on course to complete The Path in nine days! We consoled him by saying that the rain was falling in a most vertical and desultory fashion, allowing his upper body to keep his trousers dry!
We were met by John, with cake (lemon drizzle and date) and tea. He seemed reassuringly unconcerned about our muddy habitus. Heath Cottage produces a rural tranquility beyond our everyday experience in The Potteries and we savoured the moment. Our room was quaint and comfortable.
Mary and John were fastidious hosts. The only blot on our landscape was the fact that the village pub was not serving meals that evening. No matter! Our hosts booked us a table at The Sun in the nearby village of Marton, delivered us there by car, and picked us up when the evening was done! Once again, we enjoyed fantastic food (toasted goats’ cheese on a ginger oatcake with red onion marmalade; tea-smoked chicken on a crisp salad dressed with walnut oil; we both had hake as main; meringue and raspberries, and pear & almond tart; wine from La Mancha – Costa Azul tempranillo-grenache). Talking to the proprietor and chef, it was clear that he took great pride in what he set before his customers. This was a trait that we were to note many times on our journey south. The evening ended with John and ourselves watching Question Time. We drowsily took to our bed having failed miserably in trying to put the world to rights.