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Hiking in Wales was no walk in the park

Even though I played a year of college baseball, I don't really feel I am in the best of physical shape. I stopped playing basketball about 20 years ago after breaking a bone in my left ankle while playing with some sportswriter friends in Annapolis.

Since then my athletic pursuits have mostly been confined to swimming, including the use of the slow lanes at the Fairland Aquatic Center in West Laurel, and tackling some of the hills with my bike around our home.

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So you can imagine my hesitancy when my wife suggested earlier this year that we consider a long distance hike to celebrate a major, big number anniversary this summer.

And she wasn't talking about some weekend excursion on the Appalachian Trail in Western Maryland. About 10 years ago she did a week-long hike with two female friends in England that followed Hadrian's Wall, and it took them about a week to cover roughly 84 miles.

With that as a guide, we decided to tackle the Offa's Dyke hike, which roughly traces the path of King Offa's eighth-century earthwork that was built as a border between England and Wales.

We began the hike in the northern Wales town of Prestatyn and walked south and ended up in the small Welsh city of Chepstow, about 110 miles west of London, in mid-July, with very rainy days along the way.

It took us 16 days of hiking – and two rest days – to complete the hike of 177 miles. That averages out to about 11 miles a day. While that may seem daunting, we took our time along the trail, and stopped in villages for lunch when possible, and took a lot of photographs. An average day meant leaving our bed and breakfast at about 9:30 a.m. and getting to our next bed and breakfast about eight hours later.

The scenery was breathtaking and reminded me at times of where I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with its green rolling pastures and mole hills that dot the landscape among the many farms.

While I grew up in a rural area with a lot of cows, our hike in Wales (and some in England) meant walking among hundreds of sheep every day. There are millions of sheep in Wales – or about two for every human.

I was also reminded of Laurel one day on our hike as we came across the old Oswestry Racecourse, which was a grand place for the upper class to enjoy a day of horse racing on the hillside of Cyrn y Bwch, or Horns of the Buck in English.

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While Laurel Park opened in 1911, the first record of racing at Oswestry near the England-Wales border was in 1719. But it was not to last.

"By the mid-1840s the increased use of the railways provided new opportunities for punters and horses to travel greater distances than had previously been possible," according to www.greyhoundderby.com. "Oswestry suffered as a consequence because punters and owners chose to travel on the railway to Shrewsbury or Chester, when the line opened in 1848. It also meant that winners at Oswestry were no longer contained to the landed gentry and rich owners."

Regular racing days ended in 1848. Today there are still horse farms nearby while the track has been overrun by trees.

A few days later our hike took us to the Welsh town of Monmouth, which has a nice museum with a lot of memorabilia from World War II. The Normans built a castle in Monmouth in 1067 and King Henry V was born there in 1387.

Our hike ended three days later in Chepstow, a Welsh town of about 10,000 people. Along the way we met hikers from Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, a woman from Colorado and a family of four from Missouri, among others.

I have been telling friends that ask that we certainly didn't complete an Ironman Triathlon or take part in the reality television show "Survivor." But it was a good feeling to complete what we set out to do — plus see some beautiful green hills and hundreds of sheep along the way.

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David Driver is a former Laurel Leader sports editor.

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