We were staying down near Hereford between Christmas and New Year, and this looked like a fun walk in the Crimson Short Walks book, which would set us up nicely for a harder climb on New Year’s Eve.
I was treating this walk as part of my training programme towards a number of events I would be taking part in through 2016 and 2017, culminating in The 100 Peaks Challenge. Those of you who read my blog should know by now that I have got into ‘tabbing’ in a big way. Just to remind you, ‘tabbing’ is a military term (‘tactical advance to battle’) which essentially means moving quickly while carrying weight. Of course, I do not travel as quickly or with as much weight as the military, but the events I am currently drawn to are worked on this basis. So I decided to go out today with my Karrimor SF Sabre 45 bergen carrying my essential safety kit, which consisted of my sleeping bag inside my bivi bag and stuffed to the bottom of the bergen; a headtorch, spare laces, paracord, gaffer tape and a couple of utility tools in one waterproof bag; wooly hat, ruff, and a pair of gloves in another; mountain first aid kit, and a towel and talcum powder in their own bags; a hexamine stove with a Zippo lighter, spork, tea bags and bags of porridge inside a metal pot and cup, all bagged and secured so it would not rattle; a cut down rollmat, and in another waterproof bag my change of clothing, being a short-sleeved zipped base layer, a fleece, a pair of hiking trousers, and socks, and once all that had been gathered together my bergen was weighing 25lbs. I had a couple of sausage rolls in the top of my bergen, and I also had 2 litres of water in bottles. My pacing beads were attached to one of the shoulder straps on the bergen. I was wearing long North Face hiking trousers, Paramo boxer shorts, Bridgedale socks, a Rab long-sleeved base layer, my The 100 Peaks Challenge technical tshirt, with my Mountain Equipment Fitzroy jacket on top, and my AKU Pilgrim GTX boots. I had my compass attached to one of the outside pockets of the Fitzroy jacket, and my notebook and pencil in the other, and a couple of Chia Charge bars in my trouser pockets. I was also wearing my Garmin Fenix 2 watch, so I had absolutely everything I could ever need to survive on the wilds of Merbach Hill.
Two things had attracted me to this walk : the potential views from the top of Merbach Hill, and Arthur’s Stone at the start. It was good to have such a start point because it was signposted on the brown tourist road signs, but be warned, there are only about 3 parking spaces and the road is too narrow to allow parking away from those spaces. Arthur’s Stone is the remains of a communal burial chamber dating back to the Neolithic era, and I love stuff like that. The huge capstone weighs even more than my bergen, coming in at 25 tons. With the burial chamber on our left we walked along the lane, making sure to stay ahead of the pensioners who had started their walk at the same time as us. The long, straight, undulating road follows the Herefordshire Trail and provided a very good surface for walking, as well as some excellent views, including some of the Black Mountains, which had become a real feature of our stay down here.
At a sharp right-hand bend by a remote house we left the road and carried straight on through a gate, staying on the Herefordshire Trail and continuing along a gravel track. We kept straight on along an old hedge line as the gravel track disappeared, and went uphill into fields of sheep, who did their very best to ignore us. At the top of the slope, after we had passed two rises on our right, we saw a gate which led into Merbach Hill Common. You need to be careful from here because not all routes lead to the Trig Point (and if you have read my blog about Hergest Ridge (which you can find here) then you will know how highly I prize Trig Points) – Debbie decided we would race to the Trig Point and headed off to the right. I could see there was a substantial dip in the ground straight ahead and decided to skirt round that to the left, where I thought I could see a route through on the other side. Suddenly Debbie was stuck, with no route through on the right as the hedges closed in and the ground disappeared into that dip, while I was able to walk along a good enough track through a gap in the bushes and reach the goal. It is all about route selection. I took a few photographs of the stunning views while I waited for Debbie to join me, and marvelled at just how much you can see from only 318m on a clear day like this.
Below me, I could not have asked for a better view of the wide loops of the River Wye; off to the north were Hergest Ridge and Radnor Forest; I have already mentioned the Black Mountains, and the Brecon Beacons were beyond them – I also took the chance to take a bearing from this Trig Point to Sugar Loaf on the map, then used it on the ground to show Debbie where we would be going on New Year’s Eve (which you can read about here); we also had the Cotswolds and the Malvern Hills in our sights. All in all, it was a quite remarkable vantage point. We were now leaving the Herefordshire Trail and joining the Wye Valley Walk, heading off with the plaque of the Trig Point to our backs by a path bending half left into an area of thorns and bracken, but far worse was to come as we cleared that and tried to go down to the path below, the track obviously being one which was used by animals, and which had been reduced to nothing more than a sodden, muddy mess. The guidebook talked about turning right along the Wye Valley Walk, but there was another path to the right once we had reached the base of the hill, so I would say we actually carried straight on, which is the direction the waymark post was pointing, along another very wet and muddy path. A theme had been set for the rest of this walk.
We continued through birch woods and past sheep who appeared to care little about our presence, before we left Merbach Hill Common while staying on the Wye Valley Walk. Our path was straight and too well trodden as the muddy theme showed no signs of relenting, and soon we went past a barn and prepared to drop down, crossing a field track to join a steep field road down towards Woola Farm. But first there was yet another spectacular view to be enjoyed, of open fields, standing water, distant hills, and an almost cloudless blue sky.
Immediately above the farm we followed the Wye Valley Walk into the woods, seemingly only to avoid the farm’s driveway because we very quickly came out on the driveway the other side of the farm. We stayed on this over a couple of cattle grids until we reached Benfield Farm, then stayed on the road until we saw two gates to the right of us, and we took the one on the left. I have to say I was very disappointed to find the track on the other side of the gate covered with litter. There really is absolutely no need for that.
The guidebook instructions told us to bend gradually right around the shoulder of a sloping field to a waymarked gate near a cottage, and to then turn right along the lane. I thought we did that. I even took a bearing to make sure that the lane we were about to follow was the correct one, because it was going straight ahead and there was another which the guidebook would usually refer to as ‘hard right’. Unfortunately, the lane we were now going to follow was on the same bearing as the one we should have been following, but we were heading off from the wrong starting point. More micro-navigation practice is required ! With the benefit of Strava I can see that we should have stayed in the sloping field for longer, and carried that right around the shoulder on for longer until we found another cottage.
As it was, we now headed off down the wrong lane towards Bredwardine. I kept looking at the map because something did not feel right. We should have been approaching our destination from the north but the way we were going we would be approaching from the south. There was a footpath heading back to where we had come from so we took it, completing a totally unnecessary circle, and from there we took the lane to the hard right, which eventually brought us back on course, right at the end of the lane. However, that detour had not been good for morale, and the terrain was just about to give that another hit. We turned left along the waymarked track, then left again at a stile at the end of the track, and began to climb up a slope through a stream of water which had been produced by the recent rainfall, before climbing again over the field before we reached a line of old thorn trees to go to another stile through a hedge. It was a long hard slog and we stopped at the stile. It was not to get any better from there. We headed to the pines on the low ridge top, to be confronted by a muddy pool of muddy mud right across the gate in the corner we needed to use to join a bridlepath. This is what happens when cows inhabit the fields on the route.
I saw a stile we could use instead, but the farmer had put a water trough on the other side and barbed wire along the top. So we stayed as close to the gate as we could, then steered around the biggest patches of water on the other side as we crossed that field, and then finally, after what seemed like an eternity from the time we were stood at the top of Merbach Hill, we were back on the lane which led to Arthur’s Stone. In the end we had covered 5.4 miles and it had taken us just under 3 hours. We were glad to be back at the car.
You can see more of my photographs from the walk here.