Offa's Dyke Leads Home
'Yes' That’s how it all starts… A breathtakingly simple answer to a pretty direct statement: “We should get out and do something”… “Hmm,.. Yes”.
But where it will lead to is anyone’s guess…
Jake and I met at an adventure festival over the summer, both of us there to promote our respective businesses; Jake’s Cured Meats and Adventure Pedlars. A conversation sparks up about generating some bikepacking-based promotional material. Cue the aforementioned exchange and we’re off… A date set. Adventure in the making!
As busy summer months roll on by there wasn't much further thought given to the matter. The irony of working to set others off on their own adventures is that it leaves little time for planning one’s own. Eventually, though, we come up with a loose plan. It turns out that Jake’s Farm (the staging post for all manner of free-range porky goodness) sits nestled up against the Welsh ‘Black Mountains’ and a glance at the map showed that just past it runs the ancient route of ‘Offa’s Dyke’…
Offa, King of the Mercians, thought to himself, around the 1st Century AD, that he’d rather not have any pesky Welsh folk marauding into his lands and as such he ordered the construction of one of the largest earthworks the world had ever known. Stretching an astonishing 176 miles from Liverpool Bay in the north all the way down to the Severn Estuary in the south, the route of this ancient defence system still pretty much follows the current Wales-England border. Despite Offa’s best efforts though, these days his defences are largely ineffective. For the most part the dyke now consists of a faint, grassy mound and ditch snaking it’s way across the landscape and I for one spotted several Welsh people crossing it with little or no trouble at all…
It does, however provide a rather nice linear feature to follow across this beautiful, rolling portion of the British Isles and what’s more tempting for an adventurer than a line disappearing off over the horizon? So we decided we’d trace it down towards Jake’s place from the North coast. However, with the official ‘Offa’s Dyke Trail’ being mostly ‘footpath’ it’s a no-go for mountain bikers so my mind jumped to a route I’d seen in Lawrence McJannet’s book: ‘Bikepacking: Mountain bike camping adventures on the wild trails of Britain’ which followed Offa’s Dyke in it’s entirety from Prestatyn to Chepstow along ancient byways and bike friendly trails. A quick and lazy fix to route finding, maybe, but this gave us both a starting point and a line on the map to follow and there was something quite refreshing and intoxicating about the fact that I didn’t really know where it led…
The point of the journey was twofold. First we wanted to prove to ourselves and others that adventures don’t have to be too complicated or difficult, that you can just set off with minimal planning and preparation and that an element of uncertainty and the unknown is in-fact part of what makes it an adventure. Secondly, with Jake - a trained chef, we wanted a way to showcase ‘wild camping cuisine’, dispelling the popular myth that just because you’re roughing it under the stars you have to throw out all taste and objectivity regarding what you eat. Proving that ‘adventure food’ needn't be highly processed, prepackaged, unethical ‘fuel’ and that cooking it can itself be an enjoyable and rewarding aspect of a trip.
To get these points across we felt it would be a good idea to film the journey but, as anyone who’s ever tried filming an adventure will know, the act of filming a trip has a nasty habit of taking over from what you actually set out to do in the first place. What we needed was someone who’d take care of it all for us and, as life has a funny way of providing what you’re after exactly when you’re after it, an e-mail dropped into my inbox from Brad, a local photographer looking to get some experience of adventure filmmaking. Perfect. The scene was set as the three of us met up in a chilly Prestatyn train station car park one morning in early November.
Adventure Pedlars provided all of the bikepacking luggage and equipment from their hire fleet, the friendly folk at Alpkit kindly sorted us with a couple of their new Sonder ‘Broken Road’ titanium 27.5+ bikepacking bikes and Jake’s Cured Meats sourced all manner tasty wholesome food for the trip (including countless ‘Summit Salamis’). Whilst splitting it all down between us, Jake and I couldn’t help but feel at a slight advantage as Brad heaved the second of his SLR lenses onto his setup... Soon enough though we were all packed up and following that enticing line on the map as it beckoned us over the dunes of the North Wales coastline.
The pleasantries were, however, somewhat short-lived as we swung to the South and up into what was a brutal series of height gains that served to blow away any festering cobwebs. The weather had the ethereal air of a British autumn. Billowing clouds with dark, menacing underbellies were broken by piercing beams of golden sunlight that scattered their shifting patterns across the landscape below. Scents of mud and decomposing leaf mulch joined in with a brisk chill as we gulped the air greedily into our lungs, urging ourselves onwards. Offa had clearly done his homework when he routed his embattlements seemingly over all of the highest points the landscape had to offer. If there was a hill, chances were we’d be going over it and more demoralising was the ever present view of the wind turbines off the Prestatyn coastline well into the latter stages of the day reminding us that progress was slow… Or was it? What in fact was ‘progress’ in the context of chasing this line along the map? Did it matter where we got to? How far we went? Was the point not just to set off with the uncertainty of not knowing where we’d end up? We were outside, away from the normality of life, surrounded by an unfamiliar landscape doing exactly what we’d set out to do. In a world where success is so often measured and quantified by numbers and figures it takes a leap of understanding to comprehend that success may just dwell in the act rather than the objective… I think it occurred to us all around the same time, sat down by our bikes on a Welsh hillside in the golden afternoon light sharing around a packet of Starmix and grappling with an unspoken guilty feeling that we should have been riding… Why? The question arose without pretence and the answer lifted a weight from all of our shoulders. Right then, right there, there was nowhere else we had to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m up for a bit of self inflicted pain as much as the next ‘rugged adventurer’ but there’s a time and a place for all things and with an industry that’s already littered with the inspiring tales of challenges and ‘daring-do’, here we were out to present a different side. Where sitting at the side of the trail, eating tasty food and taking it all in with new friends becomes just as important punishing yourself against the ‘hero-making’ climbs. So we held our heads high as we dawdled our way across the hillside in the glowing pink of an early sunset, our trail snaking us around the iron age hill fort of ‘Moel Arthur’ (500BC), testament to the vast depth of history this landscape holds, and it all felt like it was well worth taking in...
Spots of rain appeared as we refilled our water bottles in the kitchen of Cilcain village hall aided by friendly but bemused members of a WI meeting that were wholly unused to any bearded, muddy cycling interlopers… The warm glow of a village shop-cum-cafe beckoned us in and we watched, clutching treasured mugs of steaming hot chocolate, as the rain intensified against a blackening windowpane. All of us quietly contemplated the unpleasant prospect of heading back outside to find somewhere to sleep. An OS map on the wall showed a nearby woodland that looked as though it may provide some shelter for our night bivi and, as fortune would have it, by the time we drummed up the courage to venture back out into the darkness the rain had passed.
‘Devil’s Gorge!’ read the less than inviting sign as we pushed our bikes off the road and onto the trail through Loggerheads Park. It’s meaning quickly became apparent as we found ourselves precariously perched with laden bikes high up on a cliffside ledge looking vainly into the bottomless darkness below for a place to sleep… When you’re looking for a suitable bivi spot invariably there’s a small voice in the back of your head that tells you the perfect place is actually just around the next corner… In this particular case I was glad we listened as we pushed on and the track eventually widened enabling us to select a nice sheltered, leafy hollow in the trees to set up the tarp.
Knowing that this was British November and that we were planning to spend time in the evenings cooking up our meals, I’d opted to bring along a massive Alpkit ‘Rig 21’ tarp (suitable for up to 8 people…). A touch overkill for most bikepacking exploits but in this case it proved it’s worth, allowing us to set up, cook, lay out our kit and sleep undercover without fearing the rain. Once we were warm and dry Jake set to work prepping the evening meal, a Spanish inspired bulgar wheat and quinoa with chorizo and veggies dish. Using free-range pig lard to fry off his homemade chorizo and pre-prepared spice blend. All unusual additions to the bikepacker’s kit list but as we looked on with rumbling bellies, tempting scents drifted back towards our nostrils. Jake explained that despite lard getting a bad wrap in modern cooking, at high temperatures it is often healthier than frying with vegetable oils. As with all animal products, the healthier and happier the life of the animal, the better it is to put in your body. The fat from his free range pigs rummaging in their woodland is high in omega-3s and oleic acid (all apparently good stuff) and their dried, cured meats are rich in complete - muscle building - proteins. Easy to store and transport it’s no wonder they’ve been a fuel of choice for mountain folk and adventurers for thousands of years. From Native Americans to Incans and Romans, cured meats were used long before ‘energy food’ was ever a marketable thing. Needless to say though, the main issue for us was that it all tasted awesome and once hunkered down with full, warm bellies sleep was not slow to come down in the leaves.
Morning came with a start.. “BARNEY!!”… “BAAARNEEEEEY!!!”… Barney, an excitable cocker spaniel on a mission, came snuffling through our camp before rushing back towards his bemused owner on the track above. Time to get up… Cold bones creaked as we whipped down the tarp and set about making breakfast. Freshly brewed coffee and Israeli inspired Shakshuka of all things... We were indeed living the high life and who said wild camping couldn’t be five star!
On the road again we all seemed to feel a fresh perspective about the trip. “Let’s just go…, we’re not sure where or how long it might take us but don’t worry about it and just GO”… It’s a lovely concept, real idealistic freedom as we sauntered our way through woodland, across streams and around muddy fields. The route seemed to avoid all settlements and although we were aware of them it often seemed as though we could have been the only ones in that ancient landscape. That blissful, destination-less ideal does, however, all come crashing down around you right about the time you start to get hungry… “hmm, maybe they’ll be a shop soon”.., “if we see a shop in the next village let’s stop of lunch”.., “really! another hill!!”.., “aaargh!…when will we ever find food!?!”
Mid afternoon and Llandegla village answered all our prayers: ‘Community Village Shop & Cafe’ read the welcome and well overdue sign outside the old village school house just as the rain started. Bundling inside, we were warmly accommodated (despite ongoing renovation work) as we stocked up on freshly brewed coffee, pies and cakes. The community of Llandegla took ownership of their own village shop after it’s closure in 2015 and it now uses the project to overcome many of the issues facing modern rural life - ranging from isolation and loneliness to poverty. It serves as a welcome reminder that, even in these days, communities are able to effectively take matters into their own hands when let down by the system. A wonderful aspect of bicycle travel - especially when there are no deadlines - is the stories you uncover in forgotten places you’d never otherwise stop in. The necessity for stocking up on food and water leads us to dwell in the places in-between destinations. This particular encounter reminded me that you don’t have to be at a roadside on the other side of the planet to find encouraging stories of human endeavour. All around us there’s signs that the world’s not actually all that bad. You only have to find the perspective to look for them.
With rain falling and light fading we pressed on into Llandegla forest, an ethereal mist spilling through the conifer trees as we climbed a never-ending hill past the swooping mountain bike trails in the popular forest park. Emerging from the tree line onto a wet, misty moorland we were faced with one of those decisions… The kind that can make or break an ‘epic’. With the light of the day almost gone and finding ourselves in the most wild and exposed bit of landscape we’d yet passed, do we press on with the route further up into the unknown or do we instead retreat down to find a sheltered place to camp in the woods? A brief discussion on the wind-battered hillside and we decide to head on. An ‘epic’ in the making? Well, possibly… But then these are the story-makers. Those moments when