Less than fifty miles of coastline were left to walk when I returned to Wales in early May. I felt both excited and sad at the prospect of completing a project begun almost five years earlier. I’d decided to complete the distance over two days; it felt appropriate to add endurance to this final stretch to mark the effort that had gone before.
The light was flat and grey as I set out from Cardiff, leaching the colour from the world leaving it dull and listless. The trail led out of the city along streets, cycle paths and main roads, passing the waters of Atlantic Wharf. Once this was the noisy bustling Bute East Dock, but now it is a quiet expanse of water surrounded by housing developments where a cormorant perched on a wooden post drying its wings. The water appeared clean but I was soon following cycle paths close to canals choked with litter where coots created nests from twigs and waste and where their chicks scrambled over human detritus. Pollution and litter would become a theme for the day.
After more road walking through an industrial estate I eventually regained the coast beside the largest sewage works of the whole coastal path. Yes, waste was definitely the theme of the day. On wasteland beyond the sewage works wild plants pushed their way through the rubble to flower in patches of blue, yellow and white but it was only a brief respite as shortly beyond this were the low caravans and prefab dwellings of a static Travellers Site surrounded by heaps of rubbish. The track was littered on both sides with trash spilling out onto the stony beach and mudflats beyond, and beside the busy Rovers Way at Pengam Moors fly-tippers had dumped heaps of rubbish on the broad green verge between the road and the shore. It was an unpleasant landscape to walk though and I felt quite vulnerable: people with so little concern for the environment would have a similar disdain for a solo walker. The hooting horns of passing lorry drivers confirmed this concern.
The unpleasantness of this urban coast was finally left behind when I crossed the River Rhymney and turned off the tarmac into an area of salt marshes with high reed beds. The channelled river led to the sea defences of Rumney Great Wharf, a huge dyke built to protect the low-lying reclaimed land. Angular ditches, known locally as ‘reens’ drained the fields into waterways which breached the dyke to eventually drain out into the Bristol Channel. The Monmouthshire Levels is an area of low-lying estuarine alluvial wetlands formed over the centuries by the silt washed into the Bristol Channel by the River Severn. There is evidence of settlement from the Mesolithic period onwards but since the 1500s most of the salt marshes have been drained. Recently the reens have been reversed to allow the creation of the Newport Wetlands Reserve which has become an important location for wildlife, particularly migrating birds.
Rumney Great Wharf became Peterstone Great Wharf after Peterstone Gout, a reservoir with a tidal flap which controls the outfall from Broadway Reen, and is the main drainage point from the Wentloog Levels. The increasingly strong headwind buffeted me as I strode along the top of the dyke. Inland on my left the flat green fields were dotted with rough dwellings and to my right beyond the remaining salt marshes the mud glistened silver, bisected by the rotting wooden fingers of old breakwaters. I sat below the Wharf on a huge driftwood tree stump to eat a meagre lunch, sheltered from the wind and listening to the cries of curlews and oystercatchers. Cattle and horses grazed the sweet salt grasses between the fields and the sea.
After lunch I passed a recently abandoned, and probably stolen car, perched precariously on a fence beside a kissing gate on top of the dyke, its tyre tracks and wheel spins a reminder of the somewhat lawless area I seemed to the passing through. A short while later I reached a pub where I had thought to stop and rest but one look at its dilapidated state persuaded me to walk on by.
The entrance to the Usk estuary was guarded by the attractive West Usk Lighthouse (now an B&B), and here the path turned inland towards Newport. Soon I was away from the sea and back in an urban landscape passing massive cathedrals to the power of Mammon in the form of an out-of-town shopping centre. It was depressing to think that many of the almost disposable items sold in such places would one day contribute to the litter and waste I’d seen discarded along my path.
My spirits lifted, however, when I reached the soaring pillars of the Newport Transporter Bridge. This Grade One listed building was erected in 1906 to carry goods across the River Usk whilst allowing masted ships to pass easily beneath. It’s one of ten such bridges still standing, and one of only two in the UK. It’s no longer in commercial use but enthusiasts have restored it and occasionally open it to the public. Today was suddenly my lucky day: not only was it open to the public but a burly chap with a fine twirly moustache and impressive beard rang the chap on the other side to unlock the gate and allow me all the way over the top. I handed over a £2 coin and climbed the two hundred and fifty or so metal steps up one of the pillars. The crossing was on an open metalwork walkway giving vertiginous glimpses of the muddy waters far below. This stroke of luck shortened my walk but doubled the amount of ascent.
Once safely on the other side I fairly galloped along a narrow field path past more factories and on through more fields towards the small village of Nash. Barry was on taxi duty again and returned me to our rather basic self-catering accommodation at Sedbury Farm near Chepstow. I’d walked 21.5 miles (34.6km) and climbed a mere 460’ (140m).
My last day of walking round mainland Wales dawned with brilliant sunshine and a bitterly cold northerly wind. Back at Nash I walked through lush dew-laden meadows that soaked my trainers and numbed my feet. I was heading towards the restored salt marshes of the Newport Wetlands and Uskmouth Reedbeds, haunt of naturalists and birdwatchers who lurked in hides amongst the reeds. The diminutive East Usk lighthouse looked back to its sister light on the opposite side of the river, and pylons marched across the meadows from nearby power stations. Out to sea Flatholm and Steepholm sat on the horizon diminishing and fading as I headed towards the Severn estuary.
I wasn’t on the coast for long as the trail diverted inland to avoid an important area of restored wetlands before returning to the coast at Gold Cliff. Here the sea defences rear up again, backed now by a concrete wall. The main settlement of Goldcliff is inland beside Goldcliff Pill but there is an excellent outdoor tea room at the end of the lane down to the sea. The shabby bungalow that houses this has been extended haphazardly by someone with more DIY enthusiasm than skill, and hosts more gnomes and garden kitsch than I’ve seen in some considerable time. Cyclists thronged the tables, which is always a sign that the cakes will be good.
The light was amazing today and the colours of the landscape magnificent. Inland all was lush Spring green and below the sea wall the beige and egg-yolk yellow lichens gave way to blackened rocks and bladder wrack before the mudflats stretched out silver towards low tide. The sea glistened a bright burnt sienna muddied by the silt washed down by the Severn. All along the coast were the ancient remains of yet more breakwaters recording how long the hand of man has interfered with the flow of water. Drainage channels carved deep runnels in the glutinous mud. Close to Portland Grounds, where another breakwater stretched its skeleton out into the channel I scrambled down the concrete wall to sit on the rocks to eat my lunch. I felt blessed by the weather on this final day of walking: I didn’t want it to end.
When I set out again the new Severn Bridge was very clear and drawing closer. I passed Magor Pill, and yet another sewage works, continuing along the level sea wall. Sheep grazed the salty grasses below. Close to Rogiet I had to leave the coast again to avoid a shooting range. I would have risked crossing this half a kilometre of coast as it was so close to the bridge had it not been for the red flag and the rapid stutter of what sounded like a hammer but was actually gunfire. Once past Rogiet and Caldicot I was returned to a concrete track beside the coast alongside the motorway. Traffic roared above me into Wales. The bridge is a masterpiece of human endeavour: it sweeps in an elegant double curve on pillars across the estuary, with the wings of the suspension bridge fanning skywards in the centre.
Once I’d crossed under the bridge I passed a huge new housing development close to Sudbrook and walked through the three giant ramparts of the Iron Age fort that guards Sudbrook Point. This has been an important defensive site for millennia. Shortly beyond the fort stands a solitary ruined wall, all that remains of Holy Trinity church. Behind the ruin is an enormous red brick pumping station serving the railway that enters a tunnel under the Severn a short distance away.
It was a sunny Bank Holiday Saturday and people started to appear along the gravel cycle path that led out of the village. Three young lads skidded old bikes in circles close to me but were very polite when they passed by. Solar panels glinted in the fields. At Black Rock families picnicked and fired up barbecues on a grassy area with wooden tables. Out in the channel a shipping light perched on Charleston Rock, exposed now but submerged and hidden at high tide. The Severn estuary is a maze of hidden rocks and treacherous mudbanks. On the path leading inland along the riverbank I met a retired couple on bikes who had passed me earlier and they warned me to look out for a path turning inland telling me it would be my last sight of the Severn. I couldn’t help telling them of how momentous this moment was: excitement and emotion were bubbling up inside me and spilling over in words.
I could now see the old Severn Bridge ahead, still elegant despite its age. At Mathern, a tiny well tended hamlet close to the M48, there was an ancient church, very large for the size of the settlement. Close by was a recently carved wooden sculpture of King Tewdrig, once a Celtic King of Gwent who died at this spot whilst being carried to Ynys Echni (Flatholm) after being mortally wounded in a battle. He was buried where he died and the church was erected over the spot. A bishop’s Palace was built nearby as King Tewdrig was beatified shortly after his death. Mathern Palace ruins were restored in the late 1800s and are now a guesthouse. It was a peaceful place despite its proximity to the M48.
Unsurprisingly my path now led me into a massive industrial estate filled with enormous warehouses then under the M48 via a graffiti covered underpass. In this case the graffiti had been commissioned by the tourist authority and was brilliant. I particularly liked the rucksack-toting woman walker at the far end.
I was nearly at my destination. The underpass led into a housing estate on the outskirts of Chepstow. I emerged from the houses into the fern filled woodlands of Park Redding and Warren Slade high above the River Wye. All the ascent of the day seemed to be concentrated in this final short stage and the path climbed steeply up and down passing Bulwark Fort, yet another Iron Age fort defended by the Silures people against the Roman invasion until it fell in AD52. I crossed the remains of Port Wall, the Medieval defences, built by Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk around 1272. In the distance I could see the impressive walls and towers of Chepstow Castle on its cliff above the river, which was lost to view as I descended towards the rather brutalist Priory Church where Barry was waiting.
Embedded in a path beside the river, close to an old wrought iron bridge, is a large plaque of ceramic tiles marking the spot where the Offa’s Dyke Path and the Wales Coast Path meet: the starting point for my walk along Offa’s Dyke with my daughter in July 2014, and the completion of my circumnavigation of Wales in May 2019. I was bubbling with happiness as I stood in its centre remembering standing there so many years earlier with my daughter, then returning to Prestatyn in 2016 to set out on my first solo backpacking trip along the coast as far as Pembroke, and returning again in 2018 to continue the trail from Pembroke as far as Swansea before this final push to complete the circle. I’d walked a full marathon today: over 26 miles (42km) with 549’ (167m) ascent – a fitting end to my project.
A few notes about the route:
Offa’s Dyke Path: 177 miles (285 km) / 30,436’ (9277m) ascent
Wales Coast Path: full distance (including Anglesey) 870 miles (1,400 km) / total ascent unknown
I have yet to walk around Anglesey – I have only walked on the mainland of Wales.
Disclosure: I have only walked 660 miles (1063 km) plus 67,331’ (20,522m) ascent of the coast. I missed out the coastal stages from its northern start point at Chester Cathedral, choosing to set out from the end of Offa’s Dyke at Prestatyn. Nor did I walk every step of the route – there were a few occasions where I missed out a couple of miles or so of busy main road walking. Unfortunately there are too many miles spent walking on tarmac due to the nature of the coast and its network of roads. My total mileage is approximately 837 miles (1374 km) plus 97,767′ (29,799m) ascent