Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Stay in a spectacular monastery in Venice for what you can afford
The author's sketch from his balcony overlooking Piazza San Marco, Venice
DAVID GILLETT, VENICE     —     Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published in print  Saturday January 30, 2016   On line Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:16PM EST

                       The curious instruction that bookings could only be made by fax should have been our first clue.
                       Our stay at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice would be one to remember, akin to sleeping in the quiet eye of a tourism hurricane. And when I asked Dom Paulo, who met us at the thick oaken door in his brown monk’s habit, how much they might expect us to pay for a night’s stay, he bowed ever so slightly and replied: “As you wish.”
                       San Giorgio is one of the world’s longest continually operating Benedictine abbey, offering hospitality in this location since 982. It sits on a tiny island of its own directly across the Giudecca Canal from the famous square Napoleon is said to have dubbed Europe’s drawing room, the iconic Piazza San Marco. It has unparalleled views of this mother-of-all tourist draws, one it shares with the exclusive Belmond Hotel Cipriani on an island next door, scene of George and Amal Clooney’s wedding party. But rooms with a view at the Cip start at an eye-watering €1,650 (more than $2,500) a night. Our room? About €1,600 less, plus we had a hands-down better view from our first-floor balcony. And no zoom-lens paparazzi.
                        That master of Renaissance architecture, Andrea Palladio, designed what would become arguably his finest church in 1565. It is a cool, neo-classical dream in this very un-Italian city where ancient Oriental and Gothic architectures collide in a tumbling cascade of competing styles. Like a marble escarpment of pediments and pilasters, the church is the prow of a much larger ship that is the Monastery of San Giorgio, occupying most of the island with its cloistered mystery. Our private room, one of only five in the monastery’s hostel, was suitably spartan, with two single beds, a crucifix, a desk and a book for our reading pleasure: The Rule of St. Benedict. The floors were terrazzo, the ensuite bathroom was well equipped with shower and bidet and a large antique armoire served as a closet. This was not Cipriani luxe by any means, but spacious enough, cool and quiet; a room for contemplation and rest. It is also an undiscovered gem: During our five-night stay, we met only two other guests, and the hallways echoed with an eerie silence late at night, broken only by the sound of lapping waves and the occasional passing boat. It felt like a world apart – dreamlike. One morning, we flung back our wooden shutters and strolled out onto the balcony to find our building the subject for a group of painters from Florence – that is an experience not to be missed.
But this oasis of calm sits uneasily in a city that is a victim of its own success, a place literally sinking under the weight of an estimated 22 million yearly visitors. Massive cruise ships deposit as many 30,000 tourists daily at the height of the season, causing Silvio Testa, spokesman for Venice’s anti-cruise ship campaign to say a few years ago, “The beauty of Venice is undoubted, but the city pays for it like a prostitute that is too beautiful.”
                        Tourists outnumber Venetians by a ratio of 20-1 in high season, and the locals (an ever-dwindling population), grumble. But this is Venice, the Serene Republic, a city thick with art treasures; a city without cars, floating like a vision upon the Venetian Lagoon, supported by wooden piles made from millions of dead trees, pounded deep into the silt. So to discover this quiet place, one designed for contemplation and yet so close to the centre of action, is extraordinary. I spent an afternoon just sketching, drinking in the atmosphere and the surreal watery light of Venice. In the hushed nave of the church itself, a contemporary sculpture exhibition (part of the Venice Art Biennale) brought the ultramodern into the womb of the sacred and serene. Outside, attached to the church, is a bell tower that seems yet to have been discovered by tour guides, strikingly devoid of lineups for the quick elevator ride to its top. It offers breathtaking views out over Venice, the Lido and the Dolomite mountains that loom in the mainland distance. Unreal.

The writer's wife approaches the Monastery beside Palladio's Church
                     Food in the monastery is strictly DIY. (The monks keep to themselves and eat elsewhere.) A tiny refectory kitchen, stocked with basics such as dried pasta and olive oil, is available 24/7 if you are attempting Europe on €10 a day. The guest book tells of visitors from all corners of the globe who have cooked up their own Italian feasts, which can be eaten in an adjoining barrel-vaulted dining room, hung with portraits of eminent Benedictines. But the Venice of restaurants and cafés is temptingly close, so when it beckoned, we waited at the Giorgio vaporetto (waterbus) stop at the monastery steps for a quick ride to the action. We could take the No. 2 water taxi in one direction to the James Bond-movie set world of San Marco with its inflated prices, Prada shops and trinket hawkers, or in the other direction to the Zattere promenade and the much more interesting and less crowded Dorsoduro precinct with its crooked calli (alleyways) and hidden campis (squares).
In the maze of Dorsoduro, cozy restaurants, often with canal-side tables, abound. Fresh seafood is never hard to find. Al Casin dei Nobili, a lovely trattoria just off Campo San Barnaba, serves a mouth-watering tagliatelle with Adriatic shrimp in a nonna-friendly setting. Or just across the campi, beside the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) and next to one of the last fresh produce barges in Venice, which serves as a floating open-air fresh food market, is Pasta & Sugo. This restaurant is a welcome departure from touristy and overpriced “Olde Worlde” eateries with its bright, contemporary interior and menu of Italian street food. Mix and match the pasta of your choice with one of the mouth-watering ragus prepared at the open kitchen counter. A plate of pasta and glass of wine for a mere €8 ($12)? The city that invented inflated prices still has its bargains.
                             In the 1972 novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, describes the many cities he has seen to a mesmerized Kublai Khan. But in fact, every city he described was actually Venice. It is still like that, a city that is the compact culmination of a thousand years of explosive creativity, a city with a thousand faces. And, in one quiet corner, still available to contemplative visitors, a city of dreamlike peace.
                             Our no-strings-attached monastery stay was refreshing and inexpensive. One does not have to be devout, or even male, to stay in one of the high-ceilinged rooms, or sit quietly in the shadowed church and drink in the ancient music of echoing chants. But a hunger for peace and quiet in the eye of the Venetian storm is a must. That, and a fax machine.
If you go 

   Venice is always busy, but the summer months of July and August are the worst and best avoided if possible. We went in October and had nice weather, fewer crowds and plenty of restaurant choice. If you avoid the crowds at the Rialto Bridge and Piazza san Marco, you can even find some deserted squares and quiet alleyways.
Getting there
   Fly into Frankfurt and then to the compact Marco Polo Airport. From there it’s a quick bus ride out to the main island of Venice via the causeway, but take the Alilaguna water bus if you’ve never been. Arriving by water is the only way to approach the city for the first time. E-mail
Getting around
   Since Venice is made up of more than 100 islands, ACTV, the public-transportation authority, operates vaporetti and other water buses around the clock, with routes that extend out to many of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. A single trip is expensive at €7.50 ($11.50), but a three-day travel card for €40 is a great deal, and you’ll use it a lot.
The monastery
   Inquire about a room by sending a fax to 39-041-520-6579. Or try calling calling 39-041-241-4717. The monastery has no e-mail or website. The monks offer rooms as part of their mission, so make a cash offerta of what you can afford upon leaving.
When you arrive on the main island of Venice, take vaporetto No. 2 along the Grand Canal to the San Giorgio stop (one past St. Mark’s Square). When you arrive, ring a buzzer marked Monaci Benedittine (Benedictine monks) on the heavy door to the right of Palladio’s church. There’s no checking in; you will simply be led by a monk up some worn stone steps to your quiet room. Rooms have no telephones, TVs or WiFi.

(Online see:  ) or Google David Gillett Venice

Domini Clark - Travel Editor

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


The little Wiltshire town of Bradford On Avon is considered by some to be the most picturesque in England.
Maybe.  But the day we visited was cool and weta darkening sky rendering the narrow streets lanes of despair, relieved only by the ubiquitous tea rooms awaiting the bus tours that , on this particular October day, stayed away in droves.
                Undaunted, my Medievalist wife, Katy, had somehow convinced her husband and three young children to forgo the crescents of Bath for an afternoon and search instead for the tiny Saxon church of St.Laurence built by St.Aldhelm at the turn of the 8th century. Lost for centuries, the small church served as a school, a house and then a warehouse before its resurrection in 1856 by a local curate.
                Sheltering from the rain, we found it permeated by gloom, cave-like. It exuded age, the most thoroughly ancient building we’d encountered so far on a month’s sojourn in England.
                My four year old daughter, Molly Claire, her eyes adjusting to the dim light, responded to the architecture of the tiny chancel by singing, her plaid skirt swinging as see twirled, lost in the mystery of the place. She was alone in a circle of sound that reverberated off the aged stone walls.
                Maybe it was a good thing St.Laurence was lost for a thousand years, consumed by the organic  build up of the town around it. It survived with its soul intact never having suffered alteration, its spare interior imbued with atmosphere, “whispering”, as Mathew Arnold said of nearby Oxford  “the last enchantments of the Middle Age” .
                Carved angels above us on a striking Saxon arch, we watched silently from the side stalls as Molly Claire’s voice rose and lost itself in the echoing shadows amongst the ancient oak black with years.
                No one had told her to sing, but the building suggested it and she heeded. She sang the only song that somehow seem appropriate, an old Victorian hymn her grandmother had used to lull her to sleep:  “This Is My Father’s World”.
                “All nature sings
                And round me rings
                The music of the spheres”

                I kind of doubt she grasped the meaning of the words, if indeed that even mattered. But I’m certain she did sense that some magic was happening,  that the architecture had elicited something from her that was real, and spiritual and beautiful.  The notes she sang rose and joined the myriad others, notes from 8th century voices and a million songs and latin chants since then.
                She joined in and became part of something that day, like a part of the building’s very architectural  fabric.  Her response to the spirit of the place and the built form of the room were nothing short of exactly right. And really, she had such a cute little voice.
-David Gillett
(First published in PERSPECTIVES magazine, Fall 2015)


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Letters to An Aspiring Architect

                I was where you were once, on the cusp of something really exciting, really big, really intimidating.  I had my own preconceptions and misconceptions, hopes, dreams and fears, and maybe I still do. There are a hundred things I’d tell my younger self, but I’ll begin with just three:
                Put that joy to work.
                Get your hands dirty.
                Look, look, look.
                You are heading this way not because you see architecture as a path to riches. You’re smarter than that. But you think you can make a living doing something you love; creating space, shaping community, building beautiful places.
                To begin with, design excites you and the prospect of dreaming it, planning it and seeing it built brings you a deep kind of joy. Hold onto that – keep that alive as you study the art form, as you learn the business, as you collaborate with others who may (or may not) have that spark in them.
                Nurture your joy by living a life, not just doing a job. Get involved in the community. Get to know and care about those clients and learn about their life. Study the ways of the city you live in. Truly become a citizen. And then the good design you produce will bring joy to you, just as it does to those who commissioned it. Design for fun. Draw for pleasure. Don’t let deadlines and building codes deaden your curiosity and  smother your enthusiasm.
                Secondly, always have a bit of dirt under your finger nails.
                Despite the comforting illusion that buildings are isolated forms on a screen in front of you, the reality is very much about weather, concrete strength, square corners and good drainage. There is nothing that can replace or replicate time spent on a construction site. And once on that site, there is nothing more instructive than climbing a ladder, nailing down shingles, cutting rafter angles, towelling concrete ...doing the coffee run for a bunch of fellow builders.
                It will pay off in the way you detail your buildings, in your understanding of the sequence of construction.  Perhaps even more importantly you’ll have empathy for the people who construct your designs and an understanding of what is most important to them (and it likely won’t be your design theory but rather the accuracy of your dimensions).  And when you eventually arrive on site as the designer, smack in the middle of the noise and mayhem of construction, you’ll be at home and  have some real credibility. Maybe even respect.  And you’ll have a chance to wear that ancient mantle of Master Builder and deserve it.
                  Lastly, look around you. Look at the pavement you walk on, the alleyways and broad avenues of the city you live in. Look at the ancient world where it all started and those places where great architecture has transformed lives, brought joy and created a culture.
                Don’t just see, but truly observe, as Sherlock Holmes would say. Pick apart the proportions of that temple. Think about why that great room feels  so right to you. Is it the light? The height of the ceiling? The sound of your feet as you walk through it?
Travel as much as you can. Around the block, across the city, across the country and  around the world if you can. There is so much to see, so much to absorb. And take a sketch book with you. Make that hand-eye-brain connection and stretch lines out across the page. Document the things that seem to work, feel those superb proportions through your fingertips. I had a professor who always carried a tiny 10’ tape measure in his pocket and wasn’t shy about pulling it out to measure the ideal doorway, the perfect chair or the magnificent proportions of a lovely archway. He had a whole notebook full of little dimensioned sketches, and he used them everyday while designing.
                Don’t worry that your first job might have you reading Building Codes and detailing stairways in hospitals. The Parthenon can teach you, an ancient cottage can speak to something deeper than those things, the width of a perfect street will stay with you ...and you’ll use all this knowledge someday. You will.
                To be a good architect you need to be a great observer, a competent builder, a person who thrills to good design.  But the tyranny of the urgent will try to subvert all this and soon you’ll only see balance sheets, deadlines and the wolf at the door. That’s reality.
                But the reality is also that you have chosen the path of design, of creation. Use that creative spark to keep the main things the main things. Stick with your gut instincts, push for that excellent design, stay true to the things that attracted you to this life in the first place.

 David Gillett    Published in PERSPECTIVES MAGAZINE Spring 2015

Friday, April 25, 2014


A story of Venice and the New Georgian Era

First published in Perspectives Magazine Spring 2014 edition and in the new Perspectives Anthology book


The sirens had sounded early in the morning signalling the impending aqua alta, and he’d put his wellies on just in case. He’d been on Accedemia Bridge when the Vaporetto loudspeakers gave the general evacuation order in four languages. A group of giddy art students from Prague left the dry arch of the bridge onboard a garbage scow, plastic bags taped over their shoes. They’d implored him to join them. He declined, waved, and smiled.

The water was now almost a metre high on the palazzo walls, and rising as twilight fell. Fish from the Adriatic were already exploring new avenues through the cafes of Piazza San Marco, coursing through emptied jewelry cases, hovering above upturned chairs in the squares of Venice.

The sky was growing angry again and it would soon start raining. It was only going to get worse: the confluence of extreme high tide and record rainfall. Was this how it ended? Not with a bang but a splutter? George flipped the page in his journal and started another sketch.

Like many men his age, George, had been born the same year as the British prince and then named after him. He’d hated his name as a child; it mocked him from check-out line tabloids and celebrity hoopla. But it grew on him and he grew into it: a solid, old-fashioned name. There were three Georges in his final year at architecture school. The other two were more serious than he was, and maybe more talented, but they became a brotherhood of sorts and eventually formed a partnership: George3 Architecture.

George3  made a name for itself landing a plum commission as the designers of Ikea’s new line of flat-pack houses. They were the go-to firm for plug-and-play country houses and George would sometimes even co-pilot the helicopters that delivered the injection-moulded creations to sites in the hills north of the city. It all had an envigorating Brave New World feel to it and the partners of George3 were riding the wave of success. They drank Manitoba Merlot and joked about the coming of the New Georgian Era.

More suddenly than anyone had predicted, the downturn morphed into the biggest recession in decades. The plastics disappeared with the oil and work dried up overnight. Despite their efforts to save it, George3 dissolved and, as the three Georges raised a farewell glass, the tractors carted off their mobile office. The property was quickly put under the plow for a new urban field of engineered canola.

George called in some favours and finally found a position with a skyscraper demolition firm in Toronto. He read and interpreted the old plans and charted strategies for pulling down crumbling 50-storey liabilities, relics of the heyday of the high-rise. Faded paper drawings cluttered his desk. He loved the line work, the cross-hatching, the deft hand of the twentieth century architects. It was all hieroglyphics to the technicians, adept as they were at animated hologram presentations and 3D printing suites, but to George the drawings were a link to a golden age.

He papered the galley of his wedge-plan condo with old vellums of foundation details and side elevations. He became a minor authority on traditional drafting techniques of the late twentieth century, amassing a collection that read like the DNA of Canadian Architecture. His drawn records were often all that remained of buildings that were largely forgotten. An exhibition at the AGO followed. And then, as he entered his fiftieth year, he was asked to curate the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.


Borrowing from Vitruvius, he’d named the show “Firmness, Commodity and Delight: The Legacy of Architectural Drawing in Canada.” Archives had opened for him, rare drawings arrived by courier, foam-core models in crates. Old architects who had practised back in the 2020s and even earlier sent him hard-copy gems from their files. Using these curious old tools – models and drawings – George and his team put the raw seeds of his country’s built legacy on display for the world.

The newly crowned King, just turned fifty himself, was slated to open the British Pavilion and tour Canada’s show. George would meet George.

The king was architecture savvy as his grandfather Charles had been. He’d studied under Zaha Hadid’s daughter at Cambridge, campaigned for brownfield development, given lectures at the RIBA.

After the coronation, Neo-Georgian Architecture became the style-du-jour. Columns and pediments adorned re-charge stations along the Western Ontario Beltway. There was the usual righteous backlash by architects, but at least architecture was in the press.

King George was slated to visit the Canadian pavilion and review the legacy exhibition. As curator, George hoped he’d have a chance for a bit of royal small talk, maybe compare notes on their common first name. Could you ask a king for an autograph?

But that was before the most relentless scirocco in history started to pound the Venetian lagoon from the southeast. The Moses flood defense system, which had worked for the first half of the century, was overwhelmed. No one had predicted this.

The Biennale district was flooded and evacuated before the exhibition could be dismantled. There would be no opening ceremonies, no king, no autographs.


George stood on Accademia Bridge, looking east along the Grand Canal. An exodus of boats and barges streamed below him, a parade no one had ever wanted, heading for higher ground on mainland. The water rose so fast he could follow its progress up the facades of the ancient palazzi, drowning pilasters and pediments. George ignored orders from a passing fireboat to leave the bridge. He waved them on and they yelled something frantic in Italian, leaving him alone in the centre of the arch which now sprang from a turbulent urban sea.

The invading waters now lapped the tops of the ground floor windows, still rising. The twinkling lights of the Jewel of Adriatic went dark as the power grid finally gave out, sparking and fizzling into oblivion. George gripped his pencil tightly in a shaky hand. In the dim twilight he kept drawing, as if he could somehow hold back the water by recording things as they had always been: architecture as frozen music: firm, commodious, delightful – and immovable. But the Venice he’d known, the architecture the world had treasured, died quickly into darkness, wrapped in a mist of hissing rain and wind.

In the Arsenalle district, the old boatbuilding precinct where the architecture biennale was held, a new sort of procession was setting out to sea. Curled vellum drawings inscribed with the patterns of a thousand buildings spun slowly in the swirling eddies, taking a whole world to the bottom of the lagoon. Flotillas of white models drifted past, upturned modern villas, capsized works in progress, unbuilt cities of the future now destined for sodden graves. Venice had finally sunk below the waves – The Serene Republic, home to the last Architecture Biennale, submerged for the final time.

It was a show no one would ever see, not even the King, whose schedule was once again thrown into disarray by a wild world of extreme weather. And thus began the new Georgian Era.

See the published article in Perspectives digital edition:

Monday, January 27, 2014

London,Oxford,Sam & Me

Travelling with an architects' eye (and a baby)

We knew not what to expect, my wife and I, when we set off for six long weeks of trekking around England. We'd been there before, but then it was just the two of us, a bit of loose change and an architecture guide book. This time, it would be an autumn trip with three children in tow, all under 9, (which meant six extra backpacks, a baby seat, a stroller, and enough gummy bears to drive toothpaste shares through the roof.) And as with the English weather, we had no way of predicting if things would be fair or foul, stormy or calm.
Yet we were fairly certain of one thing at least: Samuel would make life difficult for us. Sam is 2.

Nothing wrong with 2, of course; some of our nicest friends had once been 2. But Sam, being 2 and proud of it, was out to undo what he could of our adventure. He had just learned to run (sideways), was long overdue for some sort of life-threatening sickness (probably Ebola), and was developing an alarming fondness for anything edible (and sugar-coated) or toylike (and plastic-coated).

Well-meaning but heartless friends had smiled weakly and suggested meekly that perhaps we should consider leaving Sam at home. Rumour had it that we were taking nannies in sufficient numbers to post a round-the-clock watch on him and his habits of mass destruction. Yet in the end, we went it alone, ready to take whatever he could throw at us.

What he did throw at us (apart from masticated gummy bears and half-empty bottles of HP sauce) was the chance to take stock and ask some slow-motion questions of ourselves. Did we really need to travel at that old hectic pace, cameras blazing? Did two cities in one day mean as much as one city in two weeks? Were frantic flybys as rewarding as measured contemplation?

Sam was a bear without his afternoon nap, and it soon became painfully apparent that we'd either have to sit inside every afternoon, losing the best part of a day’s exploration, or he'd have to sleep while we explored. The choice was between Simmering Frustration (and British soap operas) or Travels With The Amazing Sleeping Baby. We opted for the latter.

We went on tour, baby Sam and I, during the afternoons. While Katy took Harry and Molly on adventures in search of dragons and elves, I pushed him in a peaceful sleep-walk through the landscapes of my own Grand Tour.

I'd been to Bath before and marched through its crescents and squares like any duty-bound student of architecture, but this time it was different. My pace was slow and the rhythm of my walking was measured, thoughtful. Sam slept in tranquil oblivion beneath his horsey-blanket, Curious George next to his blushed cheek. At such a pace, the nuance of the honey-coloured stone wasn't lost on me, and hardly a doorway in John Wood's Royal Crescent escaped detailed analysis.

I studied the serene Georgian proportion in complete silence under the October sky, walked the leaf-strewn side streets, chatted in hushed tones with doormen, followed the movements of the clouds as they hurried towards winter.

It soon became a habit, these afternoon strolls; quiet, thoughtful, introspective. Strolls that would once have been frustrated aggravation became walks of discovery. I began to see just how much I'd been missing. The tour books had lied: a city a day? Walking tours that cover the centre of Oxford in just two hours? Sam and I spent as much time just crunching through the russet leaves of a deserted  Botanical Garden, the shadows of Magdalen College growing long beside us. Nothing could give one the sense of quiet contemplation that can be achieved at the controls of a stroller filled with a sleeping two year old.

With time to observe, my pencil and sketchbook came back into play. On the banks of the Cherwell, punters passed silently as under the blankets, Sam sailed on plush waves to the land of nod, sung to sleep by the ancient stones around him that "whispered" as Matthew Arnold put it, "the last enchantments of the Middle Ages."

Weeks of such afternoons passed, the stroller wheels showing their age, axles squeaking. We passed through villages and small towns, ruined abbeys and walled gardens and arrived finally in the hectic bulls-eye of action: London.

We studied the vanguard of modern London’s construction boom, circled the Great Court of the  British Museum for an hour, studying details, soaking in the freedom of a slowed pace. We walked the paths of Regent's Park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, avoiding impromptu football games by a safe margin, lightly crossing the cobbles, greatly enjoying tranquility in the centre of the metropolis.

It would never have been like this without Sam and his annoying  need for an afternoon nap. I would never have slowed to this pace without the pace of a slumbering child to slow me. I wouldn't have noticed the frozen angels in the cathedral close in Salisbury without him, or had time to solve the maze at Hampton Court (twice). Instead, I would have rushed headlong, striking names from the list I had mentally prepared back in architecture school. Shooting photos, marching through history, missing the minute details, the quiet lanes, the glories of an architecture that took time to absorb.

“Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe”,  said Heraclitus in 500 BC. Heraclitus knew his babies, I'd say.

Katy and I had given our family a six-week trek through the heart of an autumnal England. Sam, his little blonde head oblivious to it all, had given the subtle shading of the ancient stones back to me.

Originally published in the Globe & Mail and in PERSPECTIVES mag.
David Gillett

Monday, November 11, 2013

Walking The Wild Lands

Ominous storm clouds framing her jolly face, Mary Whistance offered us some pre-walk advice in her cheery Welsh lilt: “Tomorrow is the best day of the whole trail. Hergest Ridge is a right lovely walk. Steep though. And if a storm comes on, you’re in for it. A walker died up there last month, so he did. Poor lad, a boy and a half he was! Three days before they found him.” Her smile fizzled when she stole a furtive glance at the brooding sky.
It was the third day of our 136-kilometre walk north along the Offa's Dyke Path, which loosely follows the Welsh/English border.   While we ate our Welsh fry-up breakfast ("Job done tidy! You slaughtered those sausages , you did!") Mary's warning added fuel to the theory forming in my mind: Nothing on this long-distance path is as it first appears. This is a land of mist and magic.
The Offa’s Dyke Path is named after King Offa of Mercia who, in the 8th century, built the dyke as a sort of poor man’s Hadrian Wall to keep the marauding Welsh mountain men at bay. Zig-zagging from Chepstow in the south on the Bristol Channel, north to Prestatyn on the Irish Sea, it is sometimes a great bank up to almost eight metres high with a deep ditch to the westerly Welsh side. It is a fascinating raison d’être for a National Trail: a route that follows a engineered landscape rather than a geographic feature such as mountains or a coast line.
That does not mean the path, Llwydr Clawdd Offa in Welsh is an easy stroll through a bucolic British postcard. To be sure, it has its moments of breathtaking views across lush green valleys dotted with remote villages, hills rolling off into the distance. But once up close and personal, the green hills are two-hour uphill slogs littered with climbs over countless styles,//what do you mean by this?/// the path itself strewn with ankle-twisting rocks or mud the consistency of sticky-toffee pudding. It is wild country, this border land known as the Welsh marches, home to centuries of raids, skirmishes and midnight sheep-stealing. Fortunately, the wild is tempered by the homey pubs and friendly B&Bs spaced at walkable intervals.
My wife and I had chosen to do the southern portion of the path – considered by many to be the best half – from Chepstow to Knighton, a doable six-day walk. (Those wishing to do the whole 285 kilometres should allow at least 12 days with rest time added.)
Since it was mid-September, we’d prepared well for rain but soon learned that British weather reports are notoriously pessimistic and usually wrong. Every night we’d hear rumblings at the pub and earnest predictions on the BBC: tomorrow will be wet, windy and turning cold.
But our heavy rain pants and ponchos stayed in our packs and we went digging for sunblock instead.
As Mary had warned, it was just as well. Several sections of the path are well above 500 metres, and what can be an annoying breezy rain in town can be deadly on the heights of the lonely Black Mountain Moors.
We learned quickly that the path is a smorgasbord of variety. One moment, it traverses a cool, wooded ridge high above the Wye Valley. The next it drops down and passes the magnificent ruins of Tintern Abbey, founded by hardy Cistercian monks in 1131. A few miles later, it crosses a cast-iron bridge, built at the smokey heights of the Industrial Revolution, when the Welsh Hills were ravaged for coal and slate. Then it’s through a lonely windswept moor with distant views west to Brecon Beacons and east to the Malvern Hills, mountain sheep our only company.
Some days we’d never meet another soul for hours, leading to suspicions that the Offa’s Dyke is Britain’s best-kept long-distance hiking secret. But just as the changeable weather was never predictable, suddenly a bustling town would unfold in front of us.
Two hours after a knee-popping descent from the desolate heights of Hay Bluff in the Black Mountains, where on a clear day one is treated to a good view of magnificent Lord Hereford’s Knob, the path bisects the town of Hay-on-Wye. We made straight for the Granary Cafe for two bowls of organic Gooseberry crumble and coffee.
“Something really smells in here,” said Katy, tactfully surveying the room.
“Yea. Us.”
But sheep dung and mud is a ho-hum reality in Hay, famous for its 30 bookshops – including the Murder and Mayhem Bookshop, the Poetry Bookshop and the Sensible Bookshop – the popular Hay Festival and Richard Booth, the self-styled king of Hay, who lives in the castle surrounded by groaning shelves of ancient books and notices brashly proclaiming political independence from Britain. We’d scheduled a rest day here and it was worth it. For a couple of Canadian bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye, the world’s first self-proclaimed “book town,” was bittersweet: So many books, but no way to carry them.
It was good we didn’t try, since the next day, our second last, was a gruelling 27 kilometres up and down over some of the most heart-stoppingly picturesque A.E. Housman countryside imaginable, liberally strafed with more than fifty stiles, a few questioning bulls, a fierce (but muzzled!) Rottweiler and hundreds of sheep.
The last night, tired but unbowed, we reached the comfy, isolated hill town of Knighton, the official end of the south half, start point for the wilder northern section and home to the Offa Dyke Centre with T-shirts, books and strange King Offa mannequins.
Staying with the Sharatts, who had a cozy sitting room well-stocked with maps and trail guides, was a fitting end to our trek. Not only did Pat tackle our long overdue laundry, but Geoff was a fount of helpful advice and knowledgeable comment.
“Too bad you’re ending it here,” he said in an enthusiastic lilt. “Because tomorrow’s stretch is the best part of the walk: most variety, best scenery … and toughest. Steep too. If the weather comes, you’re in for it.”
Now, where had we heard that before?
The Offa’s Dyke Path is rated “hard,” and is best suited to experienced hikers with proper gear. It can be walked in either direction, but is usually done south to north, so the sun and wind will be mostly at your back. The trail is generally well marked, with white acorn symbols indicating the route. But in many places, especially in rain and fog, it is easy to lose your way. Carry a good set of maps and a compass.
Getting there: Buses run daily to Chepstow, the southern start point, from London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports. Train service to Chepstow is also good, typically running through Newport.
When to go: The trail can be walked any time, but prime season is April to October. (In the off season, accommodations will be harder to find.) In spring, the days are longer and sometimes a bit wetter. The fall is a beautiful time to walk, but days are much shorter.
Where to stay: The Bear Inn is an atmospheric 16th-century coaching inn. Located in the middle of Hay-On-Wye, close to all the bookshops, restaurants and pubs. Inventive local cuisine and snug, well-decorated rooms make it a memorable stopover. Double rooms from £70 ($118) a night;
Geoff and Pat Sharratt have been hosting walkers since 1999 in their spacious Victorian house, now known as Westwood**, a B&B in Knighton. They have lots of maps and guides and are well-versed on the trail and the weather. From £25 ($42) a person a night; 1-54-752-0317
For more information, visit the Offa’s Dyke Assocation for planning tips, accommodation ideas and to order guides and maps.
 **PS: Geoff Sharratt wrote to tell me their  B&B is now closed. So sad. But he added that the story has been passed around Knighton, which is not so sad.