Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Dragons Back: On two wheels.

Duncan looking out at the rain
So there we were, in our bivvies in a little stone built shelter beside a narrow gauge railway in the heart of Snowdonia. The morning chorus awakening the redwoods and maples of the arboretum and not being entirely drowned out by the fat drops of spring rain soaking the woodland floor. It wasn’t cold, far from it, but at just gone seven in the morning the rain was not a good omen. We had arrived in the dry late the previous evening, the result of an evening spent in a craft-beer house in Bath a few weeks previously.

Duncan had booked the trains to Bangor for the Friday afternoon. As we had battled the lack of space for our bicycles and sometimes for us on the four hour journey North through the Welsh Marches, we both knew that this weekend had a lot in store for us. We also knew that we were being fairly ambitious thinking that we could cover the entire length of Wales on the sleep we were likely to get in what would surely be rain-soaked bivvies on the journey.

Still on the Friday evening we had set off southwards from Bangor into the hills at about 6pm, giving us about 2 hours of daylight. We thought we might get dinner at the famous climbers inn at Pen y Gwyrd, and as we climbed the long almost alpine style col of the Llanberis pass the fading light fell on dry roads and lit up the lakes and slate tips at Dinorwig to perfection. The headwind was light and warm but we knew that the weather was set to deteriorate by the morning.

Duncan reaching the top of the Llanberis Pass
In Beddgelert

In light of this we pushed on to Beddgelert that evening before looking for food, sweeping down the winding mountain road through Plas Gwynant as the very last of the light drained from the sky, leaving occasional patches of weak blue light between soft clouds. The dinner stop turned into something of a pub-crawl since outside of the high tourist season the hostelries had stopped serving food by the time we arrived at quarter past eight in the evening. The proprietor of the Prince Llewellyn was persuaded to re-open his kitchens for his fourth and fifth customers that day and we ate extremely well before retrieving our bikes and heading South again into the night; down through the pass of Aberglaslyn and left over the narrow stone bridge on to the road that skirts the coastal plain to Garreg and from there up and over the hill to the tiny railway station that now provided us with shelter as we peered out into the morning rain.

The Shelter at Night
The weather abated somewhat as the clock approached nine in the morning and we took advantage, dragging our laden racing bikes back through the wood onto the road and winding through sodden, mossy green lanes and rain-lashed highways to Trawsfynydd. Still it was wet rather than cold and the humidity hung about the woods and hills in great low-lying clouds of mist, giving the little cottages and village streets the gloomy atmosphere captured so well by the great Kyffin Williams. As we huddled in the porch of the closed hostel at  Trawsfynydd, drinking coffee bought from the post office in a polystyrene cup, we contemplated the journey southwards. First it would carry us East over remote moorland, then South over the Berwyns via the notorious Bwlch y Groes, of which we should have to descend the steeper side. Then South through mile after mile of Cambrian mountains to, we hoped somewhere near to Builth Wells where we should make an overnight stop.

Once again we waited, perhaps too long, for a gap in the rain. The first little mountain road traversed very remote, open hills inland from the Rhinogs, themselves hardly overpopulated, winding its way up remote river valleys, over greasy cattle grids and finally up to a pass over the shoulder of Foel Boeth at 531m. The country here is as empty and distant from civilisation as any in the UK and for miles the little strip of tarmac was ours alone, with no junctions or buildings in sight. As we dropped out of the clouds to the south of the pass we came back into the country of hill farmers, a roller coaster little road, with a surprisingly good surface crossing boggy fields between gates and winding between dark slate walls and ramshackle buildings.

The Road Ahead
Another Platform Shelter

The river we were following led us down to the Southern end of Llyn Tegid where we tried to dry our soaking clothes in the poorly heated cafĂ© on the terminus of the Bala lake Railway, one of the tiniest of the many tiny railways in the welsh hills. Another prolonged and shivering pause later we pushed on for the less steep side of the Bwlch y Groes, climbing steeply out of Llanuwchllyn and making the tight right turn on to the mountain road. At first the road winds gently up the side of the Afon Twrch, climbing all the while until after some miles it begins to climb more steeply up the precipitous hillside of Cwm Cynllwyd, seeming to cut across the crags and steep heather on a narrow ledge before swinging round to the left over the open moor to the summit at 545m. From here the descent (the side normally climbed) contains no fewer than eleven warning arrows on the ordnance map before turning a tight hairpin through a wood and winding through more farmland out to the main road at Dinas Mawddwy. I don’t remember much about the descent, save that it was very wet and the cloud seemed to sit low in the valley so we were never able to see far around us. We both found ourselves concentrating hard to control machines not intended for carrying luggage and on regaining terra firma, both bikes were streaked with black smears of wet brake-dust.

The Bwlch y Groes

From here another lower, but still atmospheric and rather beautiful little pass followed, on a very minor road linking across a watershed in farmland in Cwm Tafolog, which brought us along a daffodil-lined lane and under a sturdy, stone-arched railway bridge to Llanbrynmair and the B-road that would carry us South over mid-Wales.

The showers were more intermittent now and after leaving Llanbrynmair we were rolling along the undulating sides of a valley of deep green fields and farms on another daffodil lined road. In spite of being a more major road there were still very few cars as we began to climb once more into the hills. At first it was unclear which way the road would turn to escape the hills that seemed to hold it trapped on all sides as we approached the valley head, but escape it did, climbing ever higher on to the high ground East of Plynlimon, source of both the Wye and the Severn. Even on the high ground we were still not free of the relentless ascent, swooping down into a village or across a dam only to be confronted by the road rearing up again in front of us. This is big open country, with a similar feeling of remoteness to the Cheviot in Northumberland and is dotted with little hill farming communities. In the winter this place must be very bleak.

Reservoir on Plynlimon

The descent into Llandiloes once we had finally reached the end of the high ground was fast and open, and we took the opportunity to rehydrate in the Mount Inn, a chilly establishment, serviceable enough but somewhat tatty in keeping with the town it served. We were, however, finally beginning to dry out and after forcing ourselves to eat multiple packets of ready salted crisps we set out from Llandiloes knowing that we had but two hours of daylight left and unsure of what we would find at Rhyader and Builth – we did not want to be left to sleep out in the open with no food after this day for it probably would have finished us.

The top of the final climb of Saturday
Up out of Llandiloes we climbed and over yet another high moor, albeit a less undulating one, under skies that were trying to show us little patches of blue. The dafodils in the roadside now replaced with celandine, who in turn began to nod their heads and close up for the night. The temperature was dropping as Kites from the feeding scheme at Rhyader circled over the hills. It seemed like a long while before we at last stood on a hilltop gazing down at the interlocking spurs of the Wye valley South of Rhyader and knowing that after this last descent of the day we should be on level roads and racing the clock to Builth, knowing that having come this way we would be making it in time to find food and shelter and dried out at long last it was most uplifting to gaze over the wide open hills of mid-wales for the last time before descending to the river.

We proceeded though, not without trepidation, for the valley of the Wye seemed to recede into fog and gloom, indicating that yet more threatening weather was in store for us. We barely stopped in Rhyader, riding close together and fast down an almost empty A470 to Builth Wells. I took in very little of the thirteen indicated miles of increasingly wet A road, concentrating solely on not losing the tow from Duncan’s rear wheel, while at the same time wincing every time the road surface changed to harbour more standing water that would inevitably shower me – a small price to pay. We were both stiff and sore from the day’s riding and frequently standing to stretch backs, limbs and seats as we closed in on the tangible goal of reaching our desired overnight halt.

Warm in Builth Wells
In Builth, the hospitality of the Welsh did not fail us, we found two meals for £10 (each – 4 in total) at the Fountain Inn, live music and the barman pointed us to one of his regulars, the proprietor of the Cedars Guesthouse, a short walk away, for which we were very grateful as it was now pouring with rain again and we would have had a very sorry time trying to find any suitable place to sleep rough in a town the size of Builth – neither of us was in the mood to continue cycling that night.

On that Saturday we covered about 135km and over 2900m of ascent.

Sunday dawned rainy and grey, and after a good breakfast prepared for us by Vic, we re-packed all of our newly dried things on to the bikes and set off towards Hay on Wye and territory that almost felt like a home stomping ground. As we spun along the relatively level roads of the wye valley and began to loosen up, the weather also began to smile on us, at least for the time being and as we left Erwood following a refreshment stop, things seemed to be improving.

We approached Hay on the banks of a much broader river wye than the one we had followed out of the mountains the night before and the fields and spring leaves glowed in the sunshine before a deep charcoal grey sky. Once again there were daffodils by the roadside and we were looking forward to our final high pass of the trip, at 549m the Gospel Pass is the highest paved road in Wales and we had climbed it together in the past on the way back from a UBES Brecon Beacons trip. The road climbs between Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob and then descends a beautiful valley all the way to Abergavenny, from where it was both misleading and satisfying to believe we were on the home stretch.

Roadside Daffodils
Approaching the Gospel Pass

However the mountains had one more trick in store for us. This might be on the border with Engand, but the pass was not prepared to suffer fools gladly and fools we were as we began to climb in glorious sunshine with a light breeze towards the hills.

Through the woods the breeze stiffened until forwards progress was tortuous and staying on the road required as much concentration as the climbing itself. Once out of the shelter of the trees and the cwm they lined, the upland moors unleashed on us driving hail and conditions as bad as any I’ve experienced in the beacons. Still we pushed on, cowering behind banks to add layers and breathing a sigh of relief every time a car passed without incident induced by a sudden gust of wind. We arrived at the summit soaked through once again and cold, and stayed that way for the whole of the streaming, muddy descent to Abergavenney, barely admiring the still-skeletal larch trees that overhung the road or noticing the D of E groups from Burnley that we stormed past in a single minded pursuit of warmth, dryness and sustenance.

Gospel Pass

We pushed through Abergavenny and followed another of Wale’s great rivers, the Usk, to the town that bears its name. Through rolling fields that could easily belong in the home counties and past the old windmill outlined in white against the green and yellow fields. Over the dramatic iron bridge and beneath still wintery trees on the steeper bank to roll into the centre of Usk in the middle of the afternoon for our first proper break since just after breakfast.

Between Usk and Chepstow there is one particular hill that we remembered from our last encounter with it about eighteen months ago. It is long and steep and climbs through a beautiful wood rather like a south downs beech hangar. It hurt us then and as it continued in steepness and savagery around every corner it hurt us now, but that did not seem to matter. We were going home, along the ridge that follows the Severn estuary between the outflows of the Usk and the Wye, with wide views down the Bristol Channel to Barry Island and across to the two Severn crossings, we knew as we traversed this that but for a race back across the levels on the English side of the river in the gathering darkness we had succeeded.

The Severn Estuary

So as we parted ways at the top of Parry’s Lane on the edge of Stoke Bishop it dawned on me that we had ridden home to Bristol from the furthest North West corner of mainland Wales through all the hills that I have loved to walk over for years (and many I’ve not yet ventured to) and for the introduction to those hills I can only thank UBES.

The Bridge
Home Again

Over the course of the weekend, we crossed three major passes at over 500m and climbed any number of smaller hills adding up to a total of 326km and roughly 5700m of ascent.

Write-up by Robert Wragge-Morley