On- and Off-road in Wales

Click here for the daily diary entries for my trip around Wales. The diary version is far longer than this, and includes more pictures.

Week 1

She's leaving home. Bye, bye...

It was Sunday, July 9th, 2000. I loaded the last bits into my BOB trailer, hitched it to my old Trek 950 mountain bike, kissed Simon goodbye, and rolled off down the road. I didn't return to Cambridge until the 4th of August. In the intervening time I rode 715 miles, both on and off-road, and met some wonderful people.

The plan was to tour Wales, checking out the good areas for MTBing, getting between them via bike. I had slick tires for road riding and knobblies for off-road, and the BOB to carry my stuff. My schedule for the first week was determined by the need to be in Llanwrtyd Wells, mid-Wales, on the afternoon of Saturday the 15th. That was the day of the MTB Bog Snorkelling World Championships, and also the day I began my week-long stay in the Neuadd Arms Hotel. I wanted to check out the off-road riding in the Forest of Dean on the way, and also spend a day in Cardiff.

So this was my schedule:

Sunday & Monday: cycle to Forest of Dean
Tuesday: cycle in the Forest of Dean
Wednesday: cycle to Cardiff
Thursday: cycle in Cardiff
Friday and Saturday morning: cycle to Llanwrtyd Wells

The Forest of Dean is roughly 160 miles from Cambridge. I wanted to stay in Youth Hostels, and the nearest one to the halfway point was in Charlbury, which I estimated to be about 100 miles from Cambridge! Hmmm, not ideal, doing a century on the first day of a tour. But I did it. It was a long haul. Nothing really interesting happened, aside from seeing a collection of stags, all with very impressive antlers, at the Woburn Safari Park. I pulled up the the Charlbury youth hostel about 9:15pm, having ridden 95 miles. They had plenty of rooms available for that night, but they were fully booked with school groups both the previous and next nights. I began to wonder if I was going to be able to use youth hostels that much on this trip. I had the youth hostel guy ring up the hostels near the Forest of Dean. They were fully booked the next night, so it looked like I'd be staying in a B&B.

deer at Woburn

The next day (Monday July 10th) I cycled through the Cotswalds, getting thoroughly drenched by some very heavy rain. In Stow-on-the-Wold I visited the tourist infomation center and got them to book me a B&B on the edge of the Forest of Dean. Unfortunately it was the west edge of the forest, so I had to cycle through it to get there. The B&B was run by a lady who had an enthusiatic and friendly dog named Charlie.

On Tuesday (July 11th), despite my desire to see the Forest of Dean, I was beat, I had a very sore bum, and it was raining. I was decidedly lacking in ehthusiasm. So I played tourist, visiting the local iron mine and a little patch of primeval-looking trees called Puzzle Wood. Then finally the sun came out and I was inspired to put knobblies on the bike and check out the forest. So I rode around the woods, finding a scary downhill that was just on the edge of my abilities, a skills area with lots of little slopes and twisty tracks, some very wide smooth family cycling tracks, and one very nice singletrack. Satisfied, I went back to the B&B and spent some time talking to the B&B owner and trying to stop Charlie from jumping on me.

On Wednesday (July 12th) I put the slicks back on the bike and cycled to Cardiff. The highlight of this leg was the Newport Transporter bridge. Basically it's a very tall girdered structure stretched over the River Usk. Underneath this, hanging from some cables, is a small platform that carries cars and pedestrians back and forth across the river. I'd never seen anything like this. I came into Cardiff and bought a map so I could find the house of David Owens, my host for the next couple of days. I met David through a newsgroup, when I'd sold him my Thudbuster (a suspension seatpost). I mentioned that I was going to Wales, and he very kindly invited me to stay with him and his family. I negociated the Cardiff streets and found the Owens residence, and was very rapidly made to feel welcome.

On Thursday (July 13th) I went for a ride with Danny and Roger, friends of David. We took the train to Treherbert, then rode back to Cardiff on Sustans route 47 and the Taff trail. There was some nice scenery, and we had the pleasure of eating lunch in a tiny village consisting of one pub and one church - no houses! The only downer of the day was that I managed to get two punctures riding on the rocky dirt roads that route 47 followed. The first was a pinch flat, and the second was due to sidewall damage of the tire. That's what I get for using slick tires off-road, I thought. (Hmmm, Danny and Roger were using slick tires too and they didn't get any punctures. Maybe it was just bad luck!) That evening I went to see the movie Chicken Run with the Owens family.

en route to Llanwrtyd Wells

On Friday (July 14th) I left Cardiff, sad to be leaving a place where I'd felt so at home, and headed to Brecon. Or to be more exact, I went to a B&B in a small village outside of Brecon. This involved a fair bit of up and down. The nicest bit was a long, slightly-downhill bit of the Taff trail along the edge of the Talybont reservoir. This part offered some nice views and good speeds.

On Saturday (July 15th), after a slight navigational error (confusing west with east) I was on my way through Brecon. I went over a big MOD firing range, down a long steep hill, and showed up in Llanwrtyd Wells in plenty of time to make it to the bog snorkelling competition. Afterwards I went back to town and checked into the hotel, where I'd be spending the next week.

Week 2

The entire week I spent in Llanwrtyd Wells was sunny and hot. Many people think of Wales as being unrelentingly wet and cold, but I've had pretty good luck in my visits there. Every day I spent at Llanwrtyd Wells I went out MTBing, usually riding 20 to 30 miles. Some of the routes were from the Llanwrtyd Wells Cycle Guide, which is sponsored by the CTC. One was a published route from a magazine, and one I made up on my own, although it covered some of the tracks from the Cycle Guide.

picture by Tom Hutton

On my first full day there (Sunday the 16th) I went out riding with some magazine routemeisters whom I'd met in the bar the previous evning: Tom Hutton, Mountain Bike Rider routes editor, and his riding buddy Tim Salveson. We did a nice route in the forests south of Llanwrtyd Wells. The next couple of days (Monday July 17and Tuesday July 18th) I did CTC routes 4 (Irfon Forest) and 5 (Mynydd Trawsnant). Route 4 I did on my own. It was really tops, except for the boring fire road climb at the beginning. There were some great bits of singletrack and some tricky descents. Route 5 I rode with Pete, a fellow I'd see hanging around the hotel with a mountain bike the previous evening. It had some nice tracks, but overall it wasn't as good.

Doethie Valley

On Wednesday (July 20th) I did a really great route. I had found it as an MBR route on the wall of the bar and contemplated doing it, and independently one of the guys at the bar recommended it to me. It was a 30 mile route through forests, around Llyn Briane, and through the amazingly scenic Doethie Valley. The track through the valley was worth it all: it was narrow and contoured along the side of the valley.

Over the next couple of days (Thursday July 20th and Friday July 21st) I worked out a route for GoFar (www.gofar-mtb.com), a Web-based magazine I regularly contribute to. Then finally, it was time to go. I didn't have any idea of where to go from there, so I asked Gordon Green for advice. He suggested that I follow the Lon Las Cymru, the Welsh National Cycle Route and Sustrans Route 8, to the north. There are two versions of it in several places. The more difficult, more off-road, and unsigned posted bit of it headed north from Llanwrtyd Wells.

So that's what I did for the next three days (Saturday July 22nd though Monday July 24th). The route proved to be quite challenging. Sustrans tried very hard to avoid roads larger than small lanes, resulting in some very hilly roads and some quite rough off-road bits. I'd left the knobbly tires on my bike, and I was glad of it. The good weather held out, keeping me warm as I rode between B&Bs and youth hostels. I was treated to some spectacular scenery, some long difficult climbs, steep pushes, and some hairy decents with the trailer.

On Saturday (July 22nd) I managed to miss a turn on the Lon Las Cymru and ended up riding on this rutted track that forded a small stream a few dozen times. At first I was being careful and pushing the bike through the edge of the fords where they were shallower. Eventually I gave up and just put the bike in a low gear and rode right through. Still, when puddles of unknown depth covered the byway, I preferred to push the bike around rather than ride through. Since the grass beside the byway was generally quite damp this often involved hauling the bike and trailer through sticky mud. This was real work, and I was going very slowly. My OS map told me that the path I was on crossed the official path, so when I came to an intersection with a wide, smooth forest track, I verified (comparing real life to the map) that this was the right way, and I took it. Finally the miles began to accumulate again even if slowly, and they went even faster on the tarmac bits that I eventually got to. On one of these tarmac bits I met another biker who was doing the same route as I was, and we compared notes on the route. By 5:30pm I'd only gone about 33 miles, but I was tired so I checked into a B&B for the night.

Week 3

polytunnel bike shed at Corris YH

On Sunday (July 23nd) I continued along the Lon Las Cymru. There were two really difficult bits on the route. First was that in the middle of a not-very steep off-road climb there was a locked gate. I waited a bit in hopes that someone would come along and give me a hand, but of course I hadn't seen anyone on the route the entire day long, so I resigned myself to doing it myself. I unhooked the trailer from the bike and lifted the bike over the gate, no problem there. But I couldn't just lift the trailer over the fence then let it fall to the ground; I'd probably bend it. I lifted it up, somehow managed to balance it on top of the metal fence while I climbed over, then let it down on the ther side. Arrggghhh. The second difficult bit was a stretch of quite loose, rocky descents. I went slowly but stil crashed several times. Each time I picked myself up, got back on, and headed down again... At the bottom of this I came across the biker (Steve) I'd met the previous day. We spent the rest of the day together. We said he was going to the Centre for Alternative Technology. I didn't have any plans, so I figured I'd go along as well. The CAT is meant to inspire people to live more sustainable by cycling and taking public transport, recycling, putting more insulation in their houses, etc. After that we went to the Corris Youth Hostel, where he had booked a bed. There were very few women, so I got a women's bunk room all to myself.

On Monday (July 24th) I parted company with Steve: he was heading west and I north. After another difficult off-road bit I rolled into Dolgellau and decided to see what sort of riding was on offer besides the obvious Coed-Y-Brenin just to the north. I enquired at a local bike shop and got my map suitably highlighted. I checked into a B&B, asking for a room for the next three nights, leaving me two full days in Dolgellau.

On Tuesday (July 25th) I did a very nice ride that started out along the Mawddach Estuary, went through Barmouth, then over a very big hill, then back to Dolgellau. The first part was easy and flat, and I stopped for a bit in Barmouth to watch people fishing for crabs from the docks and building sand castles on the beach. When I finally hauled myself away from this, the ride over the top was worth it. The track was good and challenging and the views top-notch. Coming off the big hill I had 3.5 miles of off-road then on-road descent, before a short flat road bit back to Dolgellau.

On Wednesday (July 26th) it rained in the morning, and I was feeling a bit lazy, so I went for a walk in the afternoon.

On Thursday (July 27th) I headed north along the Lon Las Cymru through Coed-Y-Brenin, where I saw lots of mountain bikers. I left the Lon Las Cymru just north of Llyn Trawsfyndd, where I headed northeast towards Betws-Y-Coed, and the LLC heads northwest towards Anglesey. Arriving in Betws-Y-Coed after a few more hills, I found a B&B. Simon would be joining me the next day, so I got a double room. I told him where it was via the wonders of mobile phones.

heading back from Llyn Crafnant

On Friday (July 28th) I did my last MTB ride in Wales for this trip. I started in the Gwydyr Forest northeast of Betws-Y-Coed, exploring quite a variety of tracks. Eventually I emerged from the forest at Llyn Crafnant. From here I tried to take a track that headed south from the lake. I followed this for awhile, as it climbed and climbed, but eventually it deteriorated into a barely discernible, very rocky, completly unridable and barely walkable track that clung to a hillside. If the track continues some other way, I couldn't find it. Eventually I gave up. There was another track that headed south from the lake, and rather than going all the way back to the lake to pick that up, I tried cutting across. I succeeded, but it involved carrying the bike down a rather steep and loose patch of slate, and walking through a through a sheep field. Finally I was on the right track: this one was mostly ridable. However, it was getting quite late, well after 5pm, and I expected Simon at the B&B at about that time. I thought Simon would be worried, wondering where I was. Since I was tired I was being conservative in what I would try, so it was taking even longer to get over the big hill that lay between me and civilization. Finally, I heard the roar of cars along the A5, and soon I was zooming along it with them towards Betws-Y-Coed. I arrived at the B&B just as Simon was parking the car! Evidently he'd been concerned that I'd be angry at him for being late, just as I was concerned that he'd be worrying about me because I was late. We both laughed and kissed our hellos, after not seeing each other for almost three weeks.

Week 4

The next couple of days (Saturday July 29th and Sunday July 30th) we did some sightseeing and went for walks. On Monday (July 31st) we drove to Scotland for a wedding which was on Tuesday. On Wednesday (August 2nd) we drove to the North York Moors, where Simon left me at the house of a MTBing friend, John, who lives near Danby. Simon went back to Cambridge, and soon three other MTBers showed up. Many beers and a couple of bottles of wine were consumed as we talked the gears and tracks of mountain biker geek talk.

On Thursday (August 3rd) we went for a tour of the Moors, as John called it. It was a 41 mile ride designed to take in nice tracks and good scenery, and to avoid the nasty climbs that you can find on the edges of the valleys. We had lunch at the Lion Inn, rode lots of great twisty, heathery, occasionally rocky singletrack. After the ride, two of the guests went home, leaving only Arthur and me.

On Friday (August 4rd) Arthur rode to Malton, the nearest train station that has trains directly to York. I went for a short ride with John in the morning. We hit some of his favorite bridleways, including a very good rocky one right behind his house. That afternoon John and his wife drove me to Malton (yeah, OK, I'm lazy), and from there I took the train back to Cambridge, ending my holiday.

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