The cocker spaniel with a woolly hat phobia

As we needed to stock up on food, we parked up in Monmouth’s Cattle Market car park. In times gone by the cattle market did indeed used to be held here, and on weekends it still holds a general market selling fruit and veg, odds and ends.

Monmouth residents are fortunate to have great walks on their doorstep. The small town is surrounded by open common land and footpaths. Starting at the Drybridge Nature Park, close to the famous Minnow Bridge, we headed up to Vauxhall Fields – now a large expanse of much needed new housing, up Ancrehill Lane – where Ancre Hill Vineyard can be found, across Rockfield Road, past Croft-y-Bwla, then on to the Offa’s Dyke Trail through King’s Wood where 3 cocker spaniels saw us as walking cuddles and threw themselves at us. Unfortunately one then started growling at me, as the owner ran up waving her arms shouting “Don’t worry, it’s just your hat!” It turned out that this particular spaniel had a phobia about woolly hats, and as mine is a particularly fine specimen, the dog wasn’t happy, despite the desperate urge for cuddles.

The walk through King’s Wood was especially pretty, and the path well maintained, possibly because the bridleway has been diverted and there’s now less mud underfoot. We dropped down to Whitehill and Long Hill Woods before cutting east through Lady Grove, and emerging at Wonastow where unfortunately the path became a mud sludge again, and we had to clamber over a gate that a not very accommodating landowner had padlocked shut. I do love cows, but they can’t half make a mess, especially when their owners aren’t very aesthetically minded, and hate walkers. We also started to encounter a lot of dog poo, so much so that the path stank of it. I have a real issue with lazy dog owners not cleaning up after their pets. Not the finest end to a lovely few hours of fresh air and beautiful scenery.

IMG_1533

Back at the car park I attempted to look less like a walker by changing into my jeans and trainers in the public loos, before braving Waitrose. Fortunately it wasn’t as posh as the one back home, and we didn’t feel so out of place. Not the cheapest place to buy food admittedly, but there’s not much choice in Monmouth, and it’s still a lot cheaper than eating out every day. Not that we’re tight. We just really enjoy cooking.

Llanvetherine

We had a bit of excitement this morning. The bottom literally fell out of Rich’s tea mug. Fortunately it was still on the counter rather than his lap. Still – neither of us have seen it happen before. Perhaps we lead a sheltered life.

IMG_1506

Having got over said excitement, we drove for 9 miles and parked in the large layby at Llanvetherine. We then walked up a very muddy Caggle Street – a sunken lane which lived up to its name as we ended up having to backtrack and trespass through the adjacent fields, rather than wade through knee deep mud.

Passing by Whitehouse and the Old Cyder Mill to Trump, we had wonderful views of a snow dusted Skirrid.

IMG_1511

At Llangattock Lingoed Rich decided that he wanted to buy this house on the spot, solely because that river bed there, is the drive. And yes he really would spend hours driving up and down it. Fortunately it’s not for sale.

IMG_1520

Back down to Old Court to pick up the Offa’s Dyke Trail to Little Pool Hall, from where we re-joined Caggle Street, Skyra and Dervla – the dastardly duo. Dervla has recently developed a habit of insisting that I turn right, when what she really means is that I should continue following the road round to the right, because it bends. She doesn’t seem to understand bends. Or the difference between railway lines and roads.

Llangattock-vibon-Avel

After the obligatory bacon butties, we decided to leave Skyra (our car) and Dervla (the renowned satnav) at home and explore locally on foot.

Taking advantage of the footpaths leading directly from the Hayshed, we headed through the local woods and over the fields to Llangattock-vibon-Avel and it’s very pretty church. From here we headed down to The Hendre, across the B4233 to Avenue Cottage, west until we hit the Offa’s Dyke Path, and then followed this to Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern. Don’t worry about the Welsh place names. I can’t pronounce them either, and I was born and bred in Cymru. The important thing to note is that the views towards the snow clad Black Mountains were stunning, and the walk provided enough up and down to help us start getting our hill fitness back – something which we hate losing between walking holidays, but which is unavoidable at the moment.

As expected, we didn’t see any other walkers, not even one with a dog. Admittedly this might be because the routes usually involve trudging through mud baths, but mud is good for your skin. Still we crave peace and quiet such as this, and it’s to be found in spades in Monmouthshire. I’m sure that many find our sort of holiday boring, but slow travel and in depth exploration allows us to really get beneath the surface, and we’d rather go back to a place than see only the tourist traps on a whistle stop tour. Plus you have to be surprisingly fit to enjoy hillwalking, and whilst I might not look like an athlete, my physio once described me as one. So there.

Musing in Monmouthshire

We needed a break from all things chemo and career change, and so headed over the border into the Monmouthshire hills for a week. Despite being on our doorstep, it really does feel like a world apart. Whereas I often worry that I’m spoiling the view in manicured places such as the Cotswolds, in Wales we can enjoy the wildness. And I’m sure I don’t feel this way just because I’m Welsh.

Dervla panicked a little when she realised that she didn’t know some of the new roads leading out of Monmouth, but all in all she did well, and got us safely to our haven for the week – The Hayshed. It’s a newly built barn sited where, you guessed it, the old hayshed used to stand, and it’s gorgeous. Deceptively large inside, toasty warm thanks to underfloor heating, very well equipped, and with this view:

IMG_1498

Before we’d even unpacked we knew that we didn’t want to go home. The trouble with staying in holiday homes as beautiful as this, is that you realise that you really need to up your game and tidy your own house up a little, which we’re in the process of doing. But now we want to live in a barn, in the middle of nowhere.

Walking in Woodstock

With Rich having to attend hospital appointments in Oxford for two days running recently, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally make that visit to Blenheim Palace Gardens, and to stay overnight in Woodstock.

Woodstock is very chocolate-boxy, and despite it being a foggy mid-November day we had to queue to get into the long stay car park. I love quirky towns and villages, but as we’re both quite averse to large crowds, the busy-ness always detracts from the overall appeal. It reminded me a lot of Stow-on-the-Wold in this respect. Pretty n’all, but give me rough around the edges any day.

Fortunately you don’t have to walk far to lose the crowds – in this case just 100 metres or so from the entrance to the gardens. And yet with the trees just starting to change colour, now was the perfect time to walk here.

IMG_1239

The walking is easy – either on paved roads or flat, well-marked footpaths, but you do unfortunately have to watch out for dog poo – one of my bugbears, and yes you guessed it, I stepped in some towards the end of the walk despite always being careful about such things. I have no time for selfish dog walkers – pick it up!

After a very pleasant 5 miles – the longest Rich had walked in one go since our trip to Barra in October, we drove a few miles to our Bed and Breakfast for the night in Bladon. Park House is run by the lovely Sharon, and is full of character. We’d booked the Amethyst room complete with an extremely comfortable super-king sized bed – so big in fact that when Rich woke up from his nap he couldn’t see me on the other side. Whilst the house is on an A-road, the traffic noise does ease off eventually, and with ear plugs I couldn’t really hear much until the morning commute started.

We’d reserved a table at the Star Inn, Woodstock for dinner, and were seated right next to the magnificent inglenook fireplace. They even presented a gluten free menu, allowing me to eat fish and chips without having to first cut away all the batter. Rich worked his way through the biggest steak and kidney pie we’d ever seen, followed by tiramisu for pudding. This apparently was a revelation as he’d only ever eaten supermarket versions. After coffee, which was again of excellent quality, we walked back to the by now almost empty car park, enjoying Woodstock without the crowds, albeit in the dark.

Ignoring the aggressive driver who insisted on sitting on my bumper right to the door, we headed back to Park House to watch ‘Speed’ with Guy Martin, and to chuckle over Sharon’s stories about some of the things that certain B&B guests get up to! The nerve of some people!

The following morning we were treated to a full English in the breakfast room. Before being run as a B&B this used to be a tea shop, and before that an antiques shop, and so the room is filled with curios – Hayley heaven.

After checking out and loading the car we headed over the road to St Martin’s Church to look at Sir Winston Churchill’s burial place. Apparently it attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, but we had the graveyard to ourselves. I’m pretty sure that Winston chose this as a resting place for the same reason – a bit of peace and quiet, close to his family.

Bye bye Barra

On ‘National sleep-in day’ it would have been rude not to. In fact as the weather had closed in, just like the nice Co-op lady had promised, we decided to go the full hog and have a largely stay at home rest day. The wind howled all through the night, the village was shrouded in mist, and waves ran across the harbour.

After our version of a Scottish breakfast, complete with toffee apple flavour sausages, we braved the 60mph gusts together one last time to buy dinner supplies in Castlebay, loving the fact that even going to the local shop felt like a proper expedition. Leaving Rich to recover I then attempted to visit the archaeological site on the hill above the road to Vatersay, but had to turn back after 20 mins because the wind was literally tearing my woolly hat off and making it very difficult to stay upright – not ideal conditions for walking up a hill in the mist. So I came home to a cup of tea and a chocolate brownie instead.

The following day the mist cleared, but the wind didn’t. Did this stop the twin otter plane taking off from the beach for Glasgow though? Did it bugger! Sorry Air Iceland, but this flybe (Logan Air) return flight trumped yours from Isafjordur to Reykavik in Winter for scariness! Rich’s leg still has the claw marks in from where I held on so tightly out of fear. For the whole 45 minutes the wind buffeted the plane, causing it to shuffle and shake, fall and climb. No one spoke, and I just looked down at the floor rather than at anyone else’s face for their reaction. When we landed in Glasgow, despite being an atheist, I prayed. And the whole plane drew a collective breath. Exciting? I’d say so. Rich is desperate to do it again!

As anticipated, the week on Barra did us the world of good. Walking in wild places helps keep us sane whilst living with chemo and NF2 tumours. I don’t want to moan, as I know that life can be stressful for all of us. But, and yes there is a but, major health issues do change your perspective. They have to really. I’m not the same person I was before I met Rich, and for that I am grateful. Being a part of his life whilst he contends with pain and discomfort is always a humbling experience. And I know that it humbles other people whom we meet on our travels. Travel allows us to forget hospitals and whatnot for a little while, and in many respects seems to make pain more bearable. It also makes us more rounded people, and we never fail to learn from the people we meet and the places we visit. We’ve always had a soft spot for Scotland, and are already planning at least one return trip this year. In the meantime, bi s├ábhailte – be safe.

Northbay Junction

We caught the 10.30am bus as far as Northbay Junction – in the north (not suprisingly) of Barra. From there we walked a circular route westwards to Loch an Duin’, south east along the old lakeside track, before emerging onto the road again by Loch Na Obe Cottage. We lost sight of the footpath markers just before the cottage, but fortunately have become dab hands at scrambling over fences. Today this felt like more of a feat than usual though as we were starting to get tired after 6 days of walking.

One advantage of visiting such beauty spots as the Outer Hebrides out of season, is that when you’re desperate for the toilet and are in an urban area so can’t really go out in the open, the nice caretaker of Northbay’s community hall gives you the keys so that you can use the facilities. Sadly the community cafe and garden is only open on Thursday’s, but looks well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

We’d deliberately chosen this walk so that we could catch a bus back along the east coast of the island. As it’s more sheltered there are more houses on this side, but it still feels very rugged.The roads are good though, and we’d happily bring Skyra (our lil car) and Dervla (the satnav) back for a longer trip.