How Welsh towns thrive on walking holidays
Our smaller Minnesota towns often struggle for livelihoods and commerce. In July, I walked with friends the 125 miles in Wales from Chepstow to Llangollen. If we'd just driven the motorways, we wouldn't have a clue about the sights, delights, hosts we met and lovely food at small pubs and bed-and-breakfasts.
Couldn't we, over time, develop trail-friendly hospitality here, too?
We were walking the spine of Wales, many of its highest mountains, along the border with England. It's called the Offa's Dyke Path, a ditch alongside a raised mound snaking south to north. The 11th century English King Offa built it to keep the Welsh from crossing, west to east.
The Path is graded "demanding." We walked 9-15 miles a day, up and down hills. Across sheep, horse, cattle farms, hay fields and woodlands. Once, waist-high through a corn crop. Sometimes, along a river or canal.
Wayfinding was challenging, especially on farmland. We'd peer far across a field for the acorn signs on sturdy gate posts. One day, almost expired from exhaustion, we came upon a small covered plate of date bars, with a sign that said "1 pound each." We ate one, and promptly bought the other. We shouted "thanks" down to the baker in his garden below.
Most day's ends, we drank a cold brew in a pub or our hosts' home. Untying the boots, moaning over blisters, recounting our day to our hosts. Hearing their stories.
The encounters with people made the trip for us. On the trail, we'd meet hikers from Australia, Europe, Ireland. One day, we hiked alongside two young Englishmen backpacking and an older couple from Zurich. We all ended up at the same Buttington pub — a campsite for the men — and drank beer at a picnic table while four of us waited for our bed-and-breakfast host to pick us up.
Often, our hosts cooked for us. We'd sit in their lovely dining room, or on a porch overlooking gorgeous flowers, and dine on fresh and tasty food. At Bron-y-garth, our hostess placed a magnificent "summer pudding" on the table, piles of deep red fruits like raspberries and currants covered with bread slices left to sit overnight and soak up the colors.
On our layover day in Hay on Wye, we walked the town: its meandering river, bookstores and a restaurant, the Swan, so wonderful that we returned both evenings for a drink in the garden and dinner.
In Kington, we spent a morning at the Owl Farm, hitching a ride from a Royal Mail guy (we got lost on the way) and later driven to the trailhead by Jay, Owl Farm entrepreneur. He's collected damaged birds and animals, healed and bred them, creating a place people of all ages loved to wander and touch the animals.
In Welshpool, we spent a morning walking Powys Castle's tree plantations and gazing at lush flowers before hitting the trail. Another day, we walked across Pontcysyllte, the world's highest working aqueduct, 128 feet above the river Dee. Once a coal corridor, it now transports tour boats from one side of the valley to the other.
The Offa's Dyke trail brings a good dose of vibrancy and income to these small towns. Several companies offer to tailor an itinerary, lodging and maps for you, fit for your abilities and your budget. We used Celtic Trails.
I'm wondering if we couldn't, in our northern Minnesota region, create a network of eateries and bed-and-breakfasts that would welcome visitors to walk, bike, motorcycle, ski and snowmobile from one point to another.
We already have the Superior Hiking Trail, from Jay Cooke to the Canadian border. Last year, I met a man and his wife hiking the whole of it, but they were disappointed that there were no campsites between the southern start at Jay Cooke and all of Duluth. I've hiked that stretch, too — not even a cup of coffee trailside.
How about the Munger Trail? The Soo Line and our other snowmobile and four-wheeler trails? Wouldn't it be nice to stop off for a hearty meal and overnight somewhere along the way? Where the encounter encourages conversation with your hosts?
Area bars and restaurants offer food and drink, but not lodging. Last winter, I was delighted to find two vehicles, one each from Wisconsin and Minnesota, in our Fond du Lac Ski Trail parking lot. Their occupants had come to stay in a Cromwell bed-and-breakfast and ski the trail.
Close to Jay Cooke and the Munger Trail, the restored Oldenburg House offers rooms, breakfast and sometimes, wonderful music, too. It's already a favorite of cyclists.
Bit by bit, we could do it!