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Downstream and up hill

Mary Cruickshank admires the scenery and wildlife along the River Wye. There's something compulsive about following a river downstream: the urge to see what lies beyond the next bend and the ease with which you simply go with the flow. The River Wye rises in mid-Wales on the slopes of Plynlimon, and emerges - some 130 miles later - into the Severn estuary near Chepstow. In between there are fine stretches of walking country, many of them covered by the Wye Valley Path, which now extends as far as Rhayader.

This circular route joins the Wye as it meanders across its lush flood plain between Hereford and Ross. It starts in Fownhope, a village about eight miles south-east of Hereford, follows a wide loop in the river, climbs to the iron age fort on Capler Hill, and returns to Fownhope on the Wye Valley Path through Paget's Wood.

Leave Fownhope on the B4224 towards Hereford and take the road to the left that passes the Forge and Ferry Hotel. This turns into a footpath and soon meets a wide bend in the river and a scene of such rural tranquillity that you think you have wandered into a painting by Constable. The water is calm and clear, gently flowing through fertile meadows. Look upstream to the village of Mordiford with its church tower rising above the trees; and back across the fields to the shingled spire of Fownhope's parish church.

This first stretch of the walk along the river bank should be taken slowly. In June there were the added attractions of burgeoning river life: the alders and willows overhanging the water were alive with chaffinches and bluetits and we were willingly sidetracked by the sight of sandmartins feeding their young in nests burrowed out of the river bank opposite. There were mallards with their chicks for company most of the way, and mute swans - gliding effortlessly by or suddenly breaking the silence with a thunderous fly past.

The path leads downstream past a fishing hut and cottage and climbs for a short way above the wooded river bank into fields, soon rejoining the river for one of its loveliest reaches where swifts skim the water and greylag and gooseander potter in and out of the reeds.

As the river loops round, look out for buzzards wheeling above the wooded slopes of Capler Hill and listen for herons squabbling in the trees. We saw our first kingfisher here - a brilliant flash of blue that leaves you longing for more.

In places, the river shallows and runs into gentle rapids before it widens and deepens again past an old ferry cottage. Here the original path has collapsed into the river and the owners helpfully point out the new route through their back garden and on to Capler Wood.

Once in the cool, dappled shade, the path forks and you can either take a narrow brambly track emerging on to flat rocks above swiftly flowing water, or follow an easier route through the woods.

The two paths soon converge in a broad grassy track that passes another of the many fishing huts along the Wye, with views across the river to the spire of Ballingham Church. When the path forks again, turn away from the river, up through trees to a lane which leads to Brinkley Hill picnic site and car park and left past rose-covered cottages with perfectly ordered vegetable plots. Join the Wye Valley Path (waymarked with its leaping salmon logo) up to Capler Camp, a well-preserved iron age fort nearly 600 feet above the river with magnificent views across the valley. As you walk round the wooded ramparts of this magical place, look across to the Sugar Loaf and Black Mountains in the far distance.

The Wye Valley Path, waymarked to the left of the trig point, descends steep slatted steps through woods, past Capler Farm and across the B4224. It continues along a ridgeway into Paget's Wood, a Herefordshire Nature Trust reserve, renowned for its drifts of wood anemones in spring and early purple orchids. There's a nature trail for children which you can find in a mail box by the path as you enter the wood.

At Common Hill, the footpath continues north through orchards to Mordiford and on to Hereford, but we turn down into Fownhope and complete the circle at the Green Man, a welcoming inn with a high reputation among Wye Valley walkers.

A Wye Valley Walk Map Pack covering the route from Chepstow to Rhayader will be available next month from the Countryside and Conservation Service, Herefordshire Office, Queenswood Arboretum and Country Park, Dinmore Hill, Leominster, Herefordshire HR6 OPY. Tel 01568 797052, price approximately Pounds 5.

Accommodation guides and bus timetables are also available from this address and from tourist offices at 20 Broad Street, Ross on Wye, Herefordshire Tel 01989 62768 and The Town Hall, Hereford Tel 013432 268430.

A circular walk from Fownhope

Distance 9 miles

OS Map Landranger 149: Hereford, Leominster and surrounding area

Tourist information office 01989 62768.

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