Singing the song of the Dee to the Wye


Songwriter Janie Mitchell walks from Chester to Hereford through one of the wettest months ever recorded, and records her own song for the hidden histories and ever-present water

This story is the second of our Trails series. We invited people to apply to assemble a group of friends and walk a multi-day trail of Slow Ways. They could submit the story of their adventure in whatever form they liked.

The walk from Chester to Hereford was quite a big undertaking for us two mum teachers and a dad in the soggy month of March 2024; it took every free day, when we were not working or looking after people, to walk 12 to 20 miles a day through one of the wettest months ever in the UK.

Dee to Wye by Janie Mitchell

The countryside was as muddy as it was beautiful, although we navigated in bleak weather the alleys and gullies of parts less beautiful. The edges of towns where felled trees and blocked paths were the casualties of new building developments, the sites of historic importance (boundary streams, mottes and baileys, the centre of Oswestry Hill Fort) buried under litter or off-limits behind barbed wire.

The basis of our story project was to collect words from the hinterlands of Welsh border towns and villages. As predicted, place names were often in both Welsh and English and fun was had, pre- and post-walk, researching their etymologies. The name of the village of Rhosllanerchrugog (known as Rhos), between Wrexham and Chirk, is a translation of ‘heathery glades’. A sizeable community of red-brick mining cottages, with a noticeable abundance of barbers and hair salons, it has less heather these days than hairdressers. But the outlying road and housing estate named Cristionydd suggests a pilgrim route or settlement, and a span of common land/fields with ruins towards Acrefair had an atmosphere of an earlier time.

We started our walk at Chester Cathedral – where we got an inadvertent blessing during a service we walked into – and ended it at Hereford Cathedral, where we asked for one from a wandering vicar. None of us are religious but it felt a fitting way to end a long and impactful walk.

Waist-deep in water

Whilst we had an idea about what we would write about it was the actual walking of the route that gave us our story. Imagining and plotting a route is one thing, travelling it on foot is another. We looked out for words but what was inescapable and flavoured every conversation was the presence of water. It had rained for months. Every river, brook, stream we crossed or walked along was brown and in spate. No field was dry and nearly every field was flooded. Ponds and rills happened where on the map they did not exist. The footpath between quarried lakes near Wellington in Herefordshire was waist-deep in water. As one reviewer on Slow Ways comments, the flooding is a result of anthropogenic climate change.

For my song, I decided to try to capture a sense of how water is everywhere in this part of the country and how the old industrial past and new building developments sit within a watery landscape, both leaking into each other. I have named a few of the rivers and streams we crossed and the song’s title is ‘Dee to Wye’.

In a park at the edge of a housing estate in Chester, which we walked through on our first day, we saw a Roman carving of Minerva, in a rock, an owl on her shoulder representing wisdom. In Roman times, quarrymen asked for her blessing for safe passage across the wide holy Dee river, to quarry and carry stones for building. May such wisdom guide developers now, so that the curlew and skylark continue to have land and so the rivers carry only their stories out to the sea.

Dee to Wye by Janie Mitchell

Owl on her shoulder, Goddess Minerva
Looks from a housing estate to the Dee
Quarrymen asked her for a safe crossing
Stones to carry

Behind the bus stop a motte and bailey
Battles now hidden under a hotel
Grey boundary river beneath the bypass
Lost history

Old Woods long taken by road and car park
Gone are the heathery glades of Rhos
Oswald’s old hill fort has barbed wire ramparts
No way to cross

Severn and Quinny, Morda and Onny
Arrow, Lugg, Weir, War, Perry and Teme
No field or drain that does not run into
River, brook or stream

Out on the common the sky’s wide open
Skylark and curlew flying and free
Deer hide in bracken edging the wheat fields
Rare sight to see

There are three in our group. I’m Janie Mitchell, a professional folk singer, songwriter and English Language teacher. I have previously completed long distance walks and written songs about them for performance and broadcast. Claire Hanson has taught English for many years and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. She is currently working on a novel set in the borderlands and has brought her research and story-telling skills to the project. John Hanson is an artist and enthusiastic rambler. We all live in the Clun Valley in Shropshire, through which some of the route travels. We are interested in making new stories from old landscapes.