I thought that this inland bit would be easy. 360 whole degrees of route-planning options rather than the 180 that you get on the coast (unless you fancy getting wet), no particular requirements except to head south as fast as possible, green and pleasant lands to camp in, kind affluent been-here-for-generations people to wish us well and wave us on. But it’s been surprisingly tough.
There are certainly kind people, we’ve met them all, and the average campsite cost went back down to £5 per person, which was nice. The land is very green and very pleasant, and there are daily breathtaking vistas. But I think I’m drowning in them. They’ve totally taken my breath. I pushed off from Chester at the northern edge weeks and weeks ago and I’m doggy-paddling increasingly frantically towards Chepstow, but it still looks a long way off. The land beneath us rises and falls all day long from under 100 to over 400 metres, sometimes we’re deep below the high green hedgerows, winding along in valley backroads, then snorkelling suddenly upwards through steep mulchy bridleways so totally overgrown as to be gloomy, covered tunnels, wriggling through the roots of the ancient old-world trees, clutched at by cat-toothed brambles, spanked in the shins by nettles, sweating from the inside, drizzled on from the outside, pursued by flies excited by a change from bothering cattle.
Then we break the surface, Chico and I as relieved as each other, gulping in the view on the crest of some ridge or common, scudding along a farm’s top field between the floating hay bales, sailing for a few miles between fields of billowing tufted barley, edged in pink froth of Rosebay Willowherb. The distance is often misty or hazy, grumbling low dark clouds with ragged stripes of sudden brightness or post-rain pearliness at the far horizon. And all around us are fields of different greens, and the odd gold or ploughed chocolate, edged by wise old trees, lit up like an empty dancefloor by momentary breaks in distant cloud.
There’s little to tell me what is what in the surrounding panorama; occasionally a quarry or distinctive shaped ridge seems to be a clue, but by the next breath it has all moved about. To make sense of it I need a map that shows dozens of miles in every direction, but I’m clinging to my 8km square of map, charting my floundering way through the choppy contour lines. I miss having the sea always on my left, seeing a headland in the far distance, then camping or picnicking on it, then seeing it get folded away behind the next one.
On Hergest Ridge near Kington we found ourselves amongst forty or more wild horses, but they wouldn’t lower themselves to getting het up by some passing strangers. Several fields of cows have been the same, much too well bred to make a fuss. The people too – it’s a long time since anyone shouted ‘Donkey!’ from a car window. Some people pretend they don’t see us at all, rather than risk being uncouth in bothering a passerby.
We’ve picked up our own hitchhikers though – Chico has lice, so our travelling carnival boasts a flea circus too. Chico is itchy and tired, surprised to be walking alone with me after weeks of different visitors. Elevated to fifty percent of the gang, he’s now liable to stop when he feels like it – sometimes just to have a bit of a think, sometimes with real mutinous intent in the set of his great jaw. He’s not convinced of the wisdom of labouring up just to come down again; he can tell that my encouragement is hollow – I can’t see the shore either.
But I do have the charts, and tomorrow morning we should be fresh from a few days’ rest, repairs and louse powder in Hay-on-Wye. A few more days of walking and we’ll join the great dignified Wye river at Monmouth, which will carve us a path through the landscape and down to the sea cliffs. I know we have an unlovely stretch of industrial coast ahead, but I can’t wait. I’m holding my breath in the green.