Walking out in Wales

by Cedric Lumsdon



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28 years ago, a successful English village cricket team was losing many of its players as they moved to take jobs elsewhere. A suggestion that they might meet in the autumn for a weekends walking was met with enthusiasm. So was born the Wharley End walk (WEW). That October 3rd people met and walked a 20-mile stretch of the North Devon coastal path, staying in cheap bed and breakfasts and eating in the best restaurants available. The group has enlarged to 7/8 as friends liked the idea, and it became a walk that alternated its scope, one year in the UK and the next on the Continent, usually Northern France, but once in Spain. The formula has not changed much, though the accommodation has mainly moved to hotels and the quality of the wine has significantly improved. But about 10-12 miles a day in very attractive rugged countryside, a lunch in a pub, then a bath or a shower and a good meal in the best restaurant we can find.

The conversations range widely reflecting both the interest of the day and the backrounds of the individuals. This year it was: Clive, CEO of a communications company and ex- international lacrosse player; Alun, ex-investment banker and Welsh rugby player and singer; Howell, also a very good rugby player and ex-HR director; Steve, management consultant, international squash referee and first-class cricket umpire; Alan ex-insurance executive and sports enthusiast; and me, ex-academic and management consultant, decent rugby player and cricketer, now retired and living in the USA.

Recent walks

2006, Shopshire, UK. Based in Bishops Castle Hotel in the small town of Bishops Castle. A very pleasant place with not just the splendid pub with rooms that is the Bishops Castle Hotel, log fires, excellent food (think moules mariniere, and roast partridge) and decent wine. But it also has 2 more pubs that brew their own beer! Shropshire is the least urban of all the UK counties and the walking and the views are as good as anywhere. We walked the Long Mynd, which is covered with relics of previous civilizations. Stone age settlements, Roman forts old tin mines etc and everywhere sheep! Most of us got there by train. Me, a long journey from Scotland (my sister’s place) an interesting journey of about 6 hours for the princely sum of $40. Whilst there we used the local walkers bus to take us the beginning of our walks.

It is a beautiful part of the world and really empty and in the words of one of the walkers full of “whydontIlivethere” villages and small towns.

2007, Ypres, France. I could not make this trip, but they enjoyed good Northern French food (hare stew, etc.). Alun in particular enjoyed the presence of many Australian and New Zealand rugby supporters in France for the rugby world cup who come to Ypres for a special Anzac ceremony at the Menin Gate, where the last post is played every night by the buglers of the Ypres fire brigade, and has been since the memorial was opened in 1928. Alun’s enjoyment can be gauged by the 9-hours sleep it was estimated he got over 3 nights!

2008, Wales, UK. Again we mostly traveled by train to Abergavenny. I with Howell from his home in Reading, which I reached on the excellent coach service from Heathrow airport. We changed trains at Newport and had time for a splendid baguette and a glass of wine from “the Upper Crust” at the station. At Abergavenny to the remodeled Angel Hotel an old coaching inn now owned and refurbished by a local developer. What a fine job they are doing on it. Our twin room was one of the old not yet refurbished ones, but it had clean and excellent linen and a very good shower. We ate that night in the hotel’s dining room. Good Welsh lamb, friendly service good wines. Good as it was the piece de resistance came with breakfast in the morning. Certainly the best breakfasts I have ever had, served by a mix of east European and Welsh waitresses. All the usual suspects beautifully cooked, not a trace of grease, but also a choice of smoked haddock and poached egg or kippers! This plus proper tea, no bags here! We were in heaven!

Eventually after a stroll to Abergavenny’s indoor market we caught a taxi to the Sugar Loaf (y fal) car park. From there we climbed to the summit about a thousand feet of ascent, taking about 2 hours. As we climb we talk as ever, reminiscences, what has happened during the last year, family (after all we have “known” them for 20 odd years), and life stages—inevitably, given the ages of the group, retirement looms large. My conversation got less and less as the climb steepened and I sought shelter behind a rock. After some short debate the group moved off, with my promise to join them on  the descent. After a few minutes, a combination of ignominy, self-esteem and shame overcame me and I made it to the top to ironic cheers from my “friends.” Very windy at the top but wonderful views down to the Bristol Channel, and over bucolic south Wales. Downhill is definitely easier! But couldn’t get a taxi so we walked a couple of miles until we found a pub for lunch. Local Brains bitter and a crab cake for me. Then to the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal for a “flat” walk. Well, it was quite an ascent to get to the canal as it winds its way around the hillsides. Being repaired so drained which took away some of the beauty but a pleasant 5 or 6 miles

That evening we took the taxi to an old inn out in the Welsh countryside. Quite a famous place in Welsh gastronomy. The Walnut Tree Inn. It was started in 1966 by an Italian Franco Taruschio and his Welsh wife. When he retired in 2001 it was one of the best eating establishments in the UK. Since then it fell on hard times. But in 2008 it was bought in a joint venture by William Griffiths, who runs the Angel in Abergavenny and Shaun Hill, one of my favorite cooks, who single handedly ran the Merchant House, a Michelin starred restaurant in Ludlow. Hill is a modest man who hates fuss and pomposity, and tries to give great food at a good price. It’s a warm unpretentious space: nice bar, big fire, good space between tables, calm but professional service—and the food! We all agreed the best we’d had all year. For the record I had calves brains in brown butter followed by wild duck and morels, then the cheese board. Delicious! About 28 pounds, or $56, but was so good. For those more easily startled there are plenty of other choices, like rib of beef or grilled halibut. We do drink a lot of wine which nearly exceeds the food cost, so it is not a cheap night, but a thoroughly satisfying one. Thence to the bar at the Angel where we ended with a traditional calvados—well, Alun and I did!

Next day we took the local small bus about 23 seats to Monmouth. This was an adventure in itself as it hurtled through the narrow lanes at 50 mph with both sides rubbing the hedges. The ladies it was transporting to Monmouth shopping were oblivious. We were terrified until we realized the driver knew exactly what he was doing. However, on the return we avoided the front seats!

We walked a few miles round Monmouth before the heavens opened and we fled to the sanctuary of a pub in the little square at the top of Monmouth. Had lunch, watched Rugby on television, drank beer

That evening we went to The Hardwick, a much-lauded gastro pub. This was just the opposite of the Walnut Tree. A very busy menu—never use one ingredient when you can use three. Tables very close together, service that was matey rather than professional. A serious disappointment, including the food. Back to the Angel and some wine in the bar, wWhere I found myself in conversation with someone who turned to be an old friend of my wife’s! Small world! Time to go home!

 

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