On To Wales

This post is long overdue. About two years late. And I no longer have the notes I made at the time so this post is mainly a few pictures and some vague memories. (I will be repeating this route, then continuing further, starting in late July 2019. This time I will have my wife for company :) )

After a wonderful night sleeping out, I proceeded (breakfast-less) through more beautifully gentle British countryside. For such a populous isle, there is plenty of crowd-free space.

The stone circle at Avebury is a less-known alternative to that most over-visited and over-rated of English attractions: Stonehenge. I arrived just before lunchtime and stopped to eat in the pub before ‘doing the sites’. The sites didn’t overly impress me here, either, but number of visitors was much less.

A pleasant afternoon of quiet road took me through more lovely countryside

Alton Barnes White Horse on Milk Hill, Wiltshire’s highest point.

In the early evening sunshine, I had a nice downhill towpath cruise beside the Caen Hill series of locks. 29 locks in about 3 km, a drop of around 70 m and an impressive feat of engineering. A few minutes on the bike (at least in the direction I was going!) but a steady five hours of labour for those in narrow boats.

It was a great location to relax but the sun was dropping quickly. I have no recollection of where I spent that night; I vaguely remember a campsite with Portakabin showers (!) and an adjoining pleasant (if a little snooty) pub for dinner.

The Avoncliff and Dundas aquaducts (1801, restored from dry canal bed in 1954) carry the Kennet Avon Canal over the River Avon. This one is (I think) the Avoncliff.

Continuing along the tranquil canal towards Bath.

Many opportunities to rehydrate along the way. Not all of them called The George. In fact, I think there were more Swans than Georges since London.

Then, suddenly, into Bath. A splendid city, worthy of a day or twos exploration. Not on my agenda for today, though. Next time?

There is a dedicated cycle path, on an abandoned rail track, between Bath and Bristol. Incongruously, this was the least attractive section of my whole ride. The path is well-utilized commute between the two cities and, in the late afternoon at the end of the work day, there was a steady flow of quick-moving cyclists on lightweight road bikes zipping by in both directions. Converted rail tracks are often cut into the surrounding landscape, hiding the cyclist from the countryside views; all pavement and warning calls of ‘On yer right’.

It was nice to be back in Bristol after many years. Or decades, really. Bristol had been a regular haunt of mine while at grammar school in London. I would hitch-hike down on Saturday afternoons after my morning work shift selling climbing equipment. If the hitch-hiking was good, I would be in time to climb in the afternoon before spending the evening with my group of climbing friends.

Bristol still seems to be a ‘happening’ place with plenty of late night activity around the area where my hotel was. Although probably twice the average age of the clientele, I still felt comfortable, sitting out on a warm evening, at the bar attached to the hotel.

In the morning, with a couple of hours to kill until my brother arrived for a couple of days away from ‘The Smoke’ (as we used to call London, before we moved there in ’63), I rode to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, over the River Avon.

In the ’60s, I had regularly climbed on the rocky buttress that lead directly up to the bridge foundation; the view back down to the busy A4 road below was familiar. The turnoff that climbs out of the gorge on the right was particularly special. Just by that turnoff, through a gap in the railings, a faint track led to an entrance obscured by bushes and supposedly secured by two sheets of corrugated-iron. But, back then, these sheets could be easily pulled back, affording entrance to a long brick-lined tunnel. This tunnel had been used during the Second World War to store art treasures, deep underground, safe from German bombs – or so legend claimed. We climbers used it for after pub-closing parties and for somewhere dry to sleep.

The Main Wall climbing area is a few hundred metres downstream, the old parking lot derelict and barricaded. The old toilet building had been taken over by a squatter who protested when I poked my head through the entrance: “Hey, that’s my home you’re entering.” Well, I explained, it had been my home, too, on many occasions almost 50 years earlier. The squatter relaxed and became quite friendly, inviting me in to have a look around. He had a wood-burning stove and an old couch inside, making it relatively cosy on those damp drizzly days that are all too common in the Bristol winter.

Chris and I met up, put my bike in the back of his car, and drove off in search of a bikeshop, open on the Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. My bike had developed a creak from the bottom bracket and it either needed servicing or renewing. We went from shop to shop; no-one had time available until after the long weekend. Until, one overworked mechanic suggested a place over a bicycle cafe. Where we struck gold. An excellent mechanic happily swapped my bottom bracket for a more durable classic square-taper style. Chatting away he cleaned my chain, adjusted my brakes, replaced the bottom-bracket and we were on our way.

In Taunton, not too far from Bristol, is a bike shop that specialises in Rohloff-equipped bikes; I wanted to have a look. We drove off but quickly bogged down in long weekend traffic. We wouldn’t get there before they closed so it was time to find somewhere to stay. Another Swan Inn, if I remember correctly. A very pleasant day with my brother wandering around Bristol.

Bristol has a cycle-share system. With a phone app, you can find a bike near to you, ride it to where you want to go, and then leave it for the next rider. I doubt this is what Bristol Council had in mind, though. This was taken on a Saturday afternoon so Friday night revelry may have played a part.

With Chris heading back to London, and the weather settled, I decided sleep out under Main Wall climbing area. It brought back many memories from many, many years ago.

You cross the River Severn into Wales. There is a ‘new’ bridge but not for cyclists.

The ‘old’ Severn Bridge looked a little shabby but was up to the task. It even had a pedestrian/cycle lane. And then I was in Wales.

My first time in south Wales. Quiet roads, no traffic to speak of.

It’s a good thing there’s no traffic. Not a clear passing lane…

Somewhere between Chepstow and Newport, a nice little village with a church and mill (and a pub, of course, where I had a meal).

It was dusk by the time I arrived in Newport. The transporter (a suspended carriage crossing the river) was closed (closed on Mondays and Tuesday, and after 4:30, so being Monday evening I missed it on two counts) so I had to detour over a bridge. I don’t remember where I spent the night but I suspect I found a hotel in Newport.

Overcast and damp but reasonable cycling weather.

I detoured from the National Cycle Network (NCN) route 4, that I had followed since London, on to NCN47, known as the ‘High-Level Route’ A track led me uphill into fine drizzle and clouds. Too steep for me to ride. It was getting late so, when I saw a picnic table beside the trail, I decided to halt for the night.

A pleasant night with the soothing sound of light rain on the tent. Still wet in the morning so I waited for it to clear up. I heard voices, two runners, chatting by a gate on the trail. There was nothing stealthy about the location of my tent; they saw me when I sat up in the tent and, with a Welsh wit far dryer than the weather, commented “We didn’t wake you, did we?”

Shamed into action, I carried on uphill and along nice wooded trails.

For a designated cycleway, the gates were not very friendly, necessitating unloading of bike and a couple of grunts.

The climbing, frequent hike-a-bike on my part, continued, through the large, dispersed, Pen y Cymoedd Wind Farm. At a sign, I learned that a single rotation of the blades on each tower generated enough electricity for a single household for a day. The towers are huge: 90m (approx 300′) to the top of the tower and another 55m for each blade.

Some fun downhill trail was brought to a sudden halt by this monstrosity. The gate to the left would not fit a hiker with even a moderately-sized backpack. The grid on the main gate seemed a deliberate obstruction for cyclists. It’s the NCN47, FFS!

A relatively easy end to a tiring day brought me back to rejoin the NCN4 and then the coast at Swansea.

In the morning, I continued my westerly trek. A few more of my short days would see me at Fishguard, the end of the route.

I stopped at a small pub for a couple of shandies (beer and lemonade/sprite) mix, but the barman talked me out of them. You should drink a pint of water to rehydrate and then enjoy a real pint, he sail. Why not? Less sugar this way. We talked football for a while; Gareth (Bale) is much-loved in Wales (and elsewhere!). And he recommended a biography of Brian Clough (a fiery team manager of old) for me to read.

I had been making regular phone-calls to my mother in London. Now she asked when I’d be home; my cousin Pierre and his wife Romy were visiting from Switzerland and would be leaving in a couple of days. I said that I’d like to get to the end of my route so I wouldn’t be back in time to see them.

But I had time to think as I rode on towards Llanelli. I’d had a good ride, my mother would appreciate me coming home to visit Pierre and Romy. Maybe I didn’t need to be quite so selfish…

I went to the railway station in Llanelli; I could be back in London in a few hours. The destination, Fishguard, was somewhat arbitrary. I’d had a good couple of weeks of gentle exploring of the English and Welsh countryside. Whetted my appetite for more. OK, trip done.

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