Wednesday, 2 November 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: Offa's Dyke to South West Coast Path

M4 road bridge

The stretch between Chepstow at the end of Offa's Dyke and Bristol is pretty much a hiker's nightmare. First of all you have to cross the Severn River and the only way to day that beside swimming is the M4 motorway bridge. This bridge is 4 km long, is fully exposed to the elements and has 4 lanes of fast traffic on it. The only good news is that there is a separate bike lane that can be used for hiking and that I had exceptionally good weather on that day meaning that I did not get blown off. Once off the motorway bridge you meander around pastures and fields until you hit the suburbs of Bristol.

It would have been a very long day without any good camping options if I had not planned a couchsurfing rest day in Bristol to break up this long stretch through urban areas. It came as a very positive surprise that my couchsurfing hosts almost lived on my route through the outskirts of Bristol! Phil and Sheila are very experienced couchsurfing hosts and guests and had a lot of interesting couchsurfing stories to tell. They have even couchsurfed in India - which has put some interesting ideas into my mind. As usual time was too short: So many stories to share and a lot of sightseeing to do. Bristol came as a very positive surprise, too: I had expected a rather ugly city with no sights and was surprised to find a vibrant city with plenty to see - I spent half a day in the newly opened Bristol Museum.

Then I set off to tackle the second stretch of urban hiking through the outskirts of Bristol this time crossing the River Avon on the M5 motorway bridge. When I finally reached more rural areas I had to  mostly hike along dykes. This was all very low-lying country and instead of using fences pastures were divided by dykes. I had found a nice patch of forest on the map for camping but when I got there I had to realise that it was completely surrounded by a dyke - no way whatsoever to get in. It was totally overgrown anyways. What now? I did not really want to camp with all those curious cows... but luckily I found a nice patch next to a footpath - separated from the cows only by a dyke. 

Sunrise over Exmoor
Things got really bad when I reached Exmoor National Park. I have had decent weather for over 2 weeks by then but of course the one day I had to hike across moorland the weather turned bad. It rained the whole day and I was soaking wet. My morale reached a very low point when I met 2 farmers tending to their sheep and they told me: "We wondered wether we should go and work in this miserable weather, but you are even hiking in it?...." I should have just taken the next possible campsite then and had a half rest day. Instead I hiked on trusting my guidebook that promised campsites further along the River Exe. 2 hours later and even wetter than before I had reached Exe Head with not a single feasible campsite in sight. I looked around for almost an hour I could not find the tiniest piece of ground that would not bubble up water as soon as I stepped onto it. As light was fading I started to get desperate. I saw a tiny bit of forest but that was very close to a farm house. I did not dare to camp there without asking for permission - and usually I do not camp that close to civilisation. But this was one of the rare cases when I did not have a choice. I walked up to the farmhouse, knocked and yelled but nobody answered. I tried the door and it was open. I could have stolen the whole household as nobody was there but the house was clearly inhabited. So what to do now? I walked around a bit and then luckily the farmers showed up clearly surprised to find a totally drenched, slightly incoherent hiker at their doorstep - but they did not have any objections to my camping plans. And this being the UK I was immediately invited to a cup of tea. 2 hours later I emerged back into my tent after several cups of tea, half a dozen eggs, my clothes dried in their boiler room and loads of knowledge about farming in the UK. I had quizzed them with hundreds of questions and it had been especially interesting for me to compare my Australian agricultural  knowledge with the UK.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A shame you did not have time to tell us about those agricultural comparisons.