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 café
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
UBES

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