North Wales 2019
After a stunning few days this time last year (end of June) in the Isle of Man, organised by Stuart, the pressure was on me to deliver a similar feast of trail riding this year in North Wales. So the quest was on. I booked a lovely looking Airbnb farmhouse just outside Machynlleth (abbreviated from now on to “Mach”) which gave us access to lanes north and south, all new to me. With the help from Matt whose details were provided by Chris Cole, some electronic Anquet maps and a roll of sticky back plastic, I had electronic routes and a marked up laminated map before you could say Blue Peter. I did not even need an adult to supervise me with the scissors. Matt noted the northern route north of Mach would be a little technical but do’able and that the southern loop would be scenic. I was confident we were going to have a fantastic weekend.
The plan was to convene in Mach on Thursday lunchtime ahead of getting in the house at 3pm, the allotted time. After dumping our stuff, it would leave time for a cheeky few miles before a late tea. Now, one thing I’ve learnt from Stuart last year and what was driven home to me taking folk out the other weekend is making plans only leads to disappointment when you do not achieve the set route. So, the driver was simply take each lane as it comes, simply enjoy the best of the smorgasbord of lanes North Wales has to offer, it was not necessary to eat the whole smorg…. Besides I was given the remit of designing the ride around coffee and cake which was actually harder than plotting green lane routes….
Come the day, the first part of the masterplan had come off – the weather was set fair, a large blanket of high pressure gently caressed us with fine sunny days and light winds the week before. There was even a ‘tongue of fire’ of Saharan heat forecast for the weekend leading to frazzled Friday and Scorching Saturday as the media whipped themselves into a frenzy predicting the hottest day of the year and temperatures exceeding those in Hawaii, California etc etc, insert any place on Earth where it is normally hellish hot…. Just after 8am with the TTR325 already loaded, we popped Paul’s WR400 into the back of the Scud and we were ready for a steady drive north. I decided on the TTR as it is the ‘go to’ bike I have for piling on miles over a long weekend. The CRMs rear wheel bearings were out awaiting new ones to arrive and hammering the venerable XR200 for 3 relentless days just seemed cruel. My only concern was the fact that there was a nasty clacking noise on switching off the engine and also during starting sometimes, which sounded both mechanical and potentially terminal. Chatting to the lads and ferreting around the ever brilliant TTR forum narrowed it down to the sprag clutch being on the way out or in fact all the way out…... I had become alarmed when a video of a TTR’s engine being killed and an audible clunk was deemed ‘fix it before your engine blows up’ urgency. That sounded tame to the noise of a what sounded like a loose bolt being thrown around the starter side of my engine when I turned the old girl over. Gulp… I decided to kick start it as often as possible and pray to local Druid gods whilst in Wales. I’m sure given the length of time it sounded like that it did not seemed to be getting particularly worse at any great rate.
The run up was painless, M5 to M49, scuttle over the ‘new’ bridge, no toll booths any more, then up through Abergavenny, Crickhowell, Talgarth, Builth Wells, Rhayader, Llangurig, Llanidloes and over the mountains to Mach. Around 180 miles all up. As soon as you cross the angry looking Severn Estuary, all muddy brown turbidity, fierce currents forging between snaggle toothed rocks at low tide; you are transported into what is at first, verdant rolling countryside, the rain helps with the greenery I guess…. Turning up the Usk valley at the in your face Celtic Manor resort, we tracked north and the landscape slowly changed. The roads typically follow the rivers, so in South Wales it is the Usk and Wye that dominate and you meander along the river through steep wooded valleys, often a mix of old broad leafed forests and new managed coniferous plantations.
At Raglan you pass the old ruined castle dating back to the 15th century and was fought over during the civil war. Eventually you hit the Black Mountains starting at Abergavenny and the terrain becomes much more interesting. You can’t miss Sugar Loaf mountain as to stands apart from other hills and is an iconic peak. Peering between the ridges of the Llanwenarth, Deri and Rholben hills, the Sugar Loaf is one of the highest peaks in the heart of the Black Mountains. It stands at 596m high and offers glorious panoramic views across South Wales, the Brecon Beacons, and into south-west England. Its conical shape is reminiscent of a volcano, but the mountain is made of the same old red sandstone as the rest of the Black Mountains. Here we turned off the famous ‘heads of the valleys road’ which kind of runs east-west across the old coal valleys of the Rhondda, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr Tydfil etc all names etched deep into the black carbon they used to mine to drive the Industrial Revolution. But we turned north heading into mid-wales, through the low parts of the Beacons to Builth, skirting the Elan Valley at Rhayader, where I camped around 5 years ago when Richard showed us the mid Wales highlights of Strata Florida, Claerwen etc. A trip that has lasted long in the memory and which included the usual combination of sun, wind, rain and stunning views I’ve always had when camping in Wales. At Llanidloes we chose the scenic route of the mountain road and were treated to Alpine-like vistas across the mountains and the Llyn Clywedog reservoir, sparkling in the sunlight, trout fishermen casting a fly after enormous rainbows or impossibly pretty brownies. The views were worth the synchromesh bursting second gear climbs in the van.
After a second climb we dropped down into Mach on the mighty Dyfi river after just over 4 hours with a coffee stop. As we parked in the carpark Stuart arrived almost immediately with Simon Whatsapping that they were not far behind, coming via Welshpool as Pete tends to navigate via old Tinder encounters…. David who was the Airbnb host texted me asking when we’d be arriving and I rang to find the house would be available as and when we wanted so we immediately drove the couple of miles down the south side of the estuary to Derwenlas and pitched up at the stunning location. After meeting David’s wife Chris to get a brief tour, Stuart and I set off to get provisions and fillings to stuff some buns for lunch, just as Simon and Pete pitched up. Half an hour later and with a shopping trolley overflowing with goodies from the Coop we were back unloading, snaffling a sarnie and some yummy bara brith cake left by the owners for our arrival. Bara brith, sometimes known as "speckled bread" (the literal meaning of the original Welsh-language name), is a yeast bread either enriched with dried fruit or made with self-raising flour (no yeast). It is traditionally flavoured with tea, dried fruits and mixed spices, and is served sliced and buttered – which always goes down with me, I don’t need much of an excuse to butter anything, although the others were appalled – philistines…… We saddled up for an afternoon ride to shake off the trail riding cobwebs dangling from our Loddon Vale compadres riding gear and trail bikes, several having not ridden since being in Devon in March – shocking! I reckoned we could get to Barmouth for a coffee and cake without too much stress and that would allow us to take in the enticing and enchanting in equal measures “Happy Valley” which I’ve read about so often I’ve been aching to ride it. I was not disappointed. The mercury was still hovering around the mid 20’s and the sky a cloudless cobalt blue as we crossed the Dyfi and rode down to Cwrt and up the byway that is Happy Valley. It rises steadily out of the Dyfi valley through a corridor of stone walled cart track up onto more open terrain, the dry stone walls giving way to bracken and close cropped grass verges as we climbed over hard grey shale to just over 300 metres. The benefit of the broiling heat was that the rock was dry as a bone and we were not short of grip. There was still, however, the odd water splash even on the high ground which caught us out several times when an innocent water splash came up to the wheel axle or higher. The loose stone and occasional slabs commanded our attention and meant there were limited opportunities to enjoy the view without stopping and drinking it in. Still the photo opportunities were just too good to miss so I kept stopping for yet another scenic panorama of stark hillsides and blue sky framing a sweating trail bike. As we climbed ever higher the hard ground was very much felt through the handlebars as the suspension worked hard to soak up the boulders and small steps. This necessitated trying not to smack the rims and end up with ‘snake bite’ punctures. After Pete’s puncture episodes in the IoM over not too different going, he’d upped the pressures ion the PE250 to a grip un-inducing 20 or so psi. His back brake however had let go, but rear drums always seem a bit of an afterthought and he relied on a neat decompressor fitted by the previous owner to provide retardation. When behind me on descents, with the decompressor applied, it sounded like I was being pursued by a demented cicada chirping away behind me like they do in tress in the Med. Mind you brakes were a bit of a theme as Paul lost his front brake after he blew a fork seal and oil dripped onto his disk, although once back at the ranch he cable tied on a rag to soak up any residual oil and it worked well. Simon the flew past us at yet another gate and almost rode into it shaking his head confused about his loss of back brake. It was, however, simply him not pushing hard enough through the stiff MX boots we was wearing….
At its highest point we rounded the corner and were presented with a fabulous view down the valley to Aberdyfi, and out beyond to Cardigan Bay. It was truly breath-taking and so hard to put into words. This high up, there was a cooling breeze which we appreciated as we gawped at the view. The wind did not help the teetering position I left the TTR in and it toppled over banging the throttle side handguard, which was not fully home into the grip preventing the twistgrip working. Simon whipped out a hex drive from his neat kit and we slackened it off and were soon on our way. After summiting we gently descended down the course of Nant Braich -y-Rhiw occasionally crossing the little stream being careful to avoid any potentially slimy rocks, but up here in the nutrient poor soils, the dreaded algae we get down in the phosphorus saturated lowlands feeding a frenzy of growth, was mercifully absent. Popping out onto the tarmac as I busily consulted the gps, I forgot we might expect traffic and almost hit a pickup truck coming the way – doh! After remonstrating with me for not paying attention the driver then attempted to squish everyone else into the hedge…. Bless him… We crossed the Afon Dysynni and headed up towards the Cadair Idris massif – another long and magnificent moorland trail. I chose a red dot-black line ORPA route which normally means a narrow lane in Devon and indeed was exactly the same case in Wales. Ducking through a gate – so many gates… I was met with boulders and a very low tree trunk to duck under then a steep and challenging V-shaped lane bouncing up over boulders. The TTR chugged up as always using a combination of big bore 325 grunt on now lowered gearing and my talent. Well mostly the former actually….. I video’d the others battling up, Simon on the trusty Serow picking its way over the stones like the surefooted mountain goat it is named after, Paul forging the WR400 up on a combination of brawn and stump pulling torque; Pete slowly losing the PE250’s clutch as the 1970’s vintage 2 stroke was forced against its will to grunt away up the incline and finally Stuart coaxing the XR400, sitting on the back of the seat owing to his height, the front wheel pawing the air as it bounced stone to stone. It took a bit out of us in the heat, but we burst out onto open country with expansive views.
Dropping a few tens of metres we breezed past gorse, ever present bracken and foxgloves, their bright pink flowers breaking up the green backdrop. Touching on a few metres of tarmac led to an immediate right turn on a long slow ascent up the hillside. Stuart contrived to drop the XR4 on its ‘wrong’ side, necessitating a laborious restarting procedure which does eventually work but again, requires precious energy in the sapping heat. As we gained altitude the coast came into view and the sight of the deep azure waters, clear of sediment after a week’s calm and dry weather, perked us up no end. We paused for jelly babies and water in that order and admired the views across to the Lleyn Peninsula at the very top of Wales, with only Anglesey before the expanse of the Irish Sea. Bardsey Island stood out just off the coast, the island of 20,000 saints no less, or that of a Viking chieftain, or island of currents….. names seem always to be derived from 3 parts myth, 1 part fast and a couple parts tourism bullshit… The Lleyn is a fantastic place and I spent many an hour fishing off the rocks down its length many moons ago when I should have been studying when at Bangor.
Skirting Esgair Berfa, esgair meaning ridge in Welsh we ran down around the edge of a plantation and had to stop as Barmouth and the Mawddach Estuary hoved into view. Wow – what a view! We were so lucky to be able to enjoy such sights in brilliant sunshine, the landscape colouring up nicely as we drifted past 5 o’clock. In front of us sat the isolated peak of Bryn Brith, with Cadair Idris at almost 3,000 feet, looming off to our right. Running down to the coast the next ‘lane’ was Barmouth Bridge, the slightly rickety long wooden structure across the estuary which has motorcycle rights of way on the basis of a bike toll on the now defunct booth. The strong breeze was now whipping down the estuary and competing with the tide meant there were wavelets of white spray and froth across the shallower parts of the estuary. We passed some incredulous but benign walkers with care, particularly at the narrow part on the northern side and rode into the coastal resort of Barmouth looking for a coffee stop at the Bath House, mercifully still open given it was closing in on 6pm in the evening. We sat out in the sun sipping beverages and munching on some sustenance as the sand was whipped across the beach. We pealed off riding gear and used the strong wind to provide a bit of an airing. We decided to ride back along the coast as we were running out of time and energy. So we reluctantly stuck our heads into horribly sweaty lids and set off back across the bridge and down the coast road to Twyyn and Aberdyfi and back to Mach, which should have been delightful, but was actually a bit of a trial as we were buffeted by the wind which required full concentration to avoid being blown across the road. That and the views were pretty dull. Anyway, back at Llety Morben we were soon out of sweaty kit and supping on cold beers and white wine, the BBQ nicely cooking a variety of meats with Pete whipping up a token salad. I always remember my eldest Danny’s chant when a salad came out at a BBQ “you don’t make friends with salad….. repeat….” As the sun sank down past the 9 acres of land associated with the property, I flopped into the hot tub to recuperate.
Flaming Friday dawned already hot and I was pleased to have chosen to sleep only under a sheet with all sash windows wedged open. I was drawn downstairs by the overwhelming scent of frying bacon, with overtones of Moto GP qualifying on Pete’s tablet. The “no tech at the table” rule out the window for a blokes weekend… Fully replete with fried food and a tomato – fried… we were set for a long day in the saddle. At least until we reached a café anyway. We were off north into the forest and thence to Dolgellau. Just over the bridge out of Mach and we were into the Forestry Commission plantation common to these parts of Wales where growing straight up and down pines is very popular. There are about 106,000 hectares of Forestry Commission plantations in Wales. Large scale conifer planting ‘took off’ soon after the First World War. At about this time, the woodland cover had fallen to 5% (in Britain) so the Forestry Commission was established. This had the aim of ensuring that there would be a strategic reserve of timber. Vast areas of ‘low grade’ land were pressed into service. Coniferous plantations may form dark, regular, ‘rectangular; blocks of almost uniform colour – as natural as any other monoculture! (such as a sugar cane or palm oil plantations). Whilst Scots Pine, Yew and Juniper are conifers native to the U.K, the majority of trees in coniferous plantations are introduced species – such as Douglas Fir, Corsican Pine, Sitka Spruce and Larch (though this is deciduous). They are dark and foreboding places, almost devoid of bird song and the tight canopy means the lanes never dry out and any logging machinery chews up the typically peaty surface into heavily rutted bogs. After some pleasant riding up a hillside in a sunny lane we plunged into the dark woods. Immediately I was surprised by a wheel deep water splash and made a mental note to be wary next time. Around a few corners the track split and I thought we’d had to go right but there was a large expanse of water and I was nervous. Deciding to be cautious I prodded around with a stick and lo and behold it was an inch deep! Typical. We forged on and over some very rocky cambers, the bash plate on the TTR earning its keep as I clanged over some jagged outcrops of rock in the lane. Finally we happened upon a very steep drop of about 8 feet down a near vertical face. Pete had already muddled his way down and Simon chose the same route and nervously dropped the Serow over the edge and struggled to control the front wheel across the wet rock. He made it though and Paul ran down a slightly steeper but less complicated drop, giving the WR400 its head, keeping the weight back and not touching the brakes it ran down extreme enduro stylee. Stuart followed, the rear wheel barely touching the ground as the XR4 was stood on its nose. I disengaged my brain and just rode down in a drama free drop. There is some Youtube video of 4x4s climbing up in the wet which was a major struggle.
We took a break to re-hydrate and chat before rejoining the A487 tracking north. We branched off the main road at Corris, which means female dwarf in Welsh which helps fire the myths surrounding the principality, a land of trolls, dragons and dwarves. Being half Welsh myself, I certainly felt an affinity with the latter of that mythical trio……The village is pretty and sits amongst an established slate mining area and many of the neat terraced houses are obviously old miner’s cottages. A cavernous mine entrance loomed above the village and as we rode passed the workings there was evidence of the use of slate everywhere, in the construction of houses, rooves of houses, even as fencing alongside the road. Forking left we ran out of wide tarmac high up the valley and passed an ‘unsuitable for caravans’ sign which lead onto an unmetalled road which was actually pretty much tarmac’d but narrow. Pete declared it his favourite lane…….. Purple foxgloves and heather sprouted out of the roadside verges. The lane was worthwhile because as we crested the brow of the conifer forested slopes we were afforded a gorgeous view down into the Afon Wnion valley, nothing dramatic but a simple expansive landscape of rolling hills giving way to mountainous horizons of Snowdonia. Dropping onto the A487 we had a look at a dotted lanes looping by the Clywedog river but it looked unused and hopelessly overgrown so rode on to the A470 and off down a lovely green lane at Braich-y-ceunant having given way to a farmer herding cattle into his farmyard. From there we ran down the valley to Dolgellau, which was bigger than I supposed. I half planned a coffee stop here, as I’d google earthed it to death for quality cafes and found one by the bridge, but got confused about which side on the river to be and we suddenly found ourselves out of the town. I had marked up a number of little lanes around Dolgellau, but was already acutely aware that time was slipping and we wanted to get in a couple of iconic N Wales lanes at least before we were pooped. I should have asked Pete for directions as one of his lady friends was a Dolgellauian and he therefore knew the area. Instead we crossed the river at the A493 and cruised down the A496 to Barmouth, around 8 miles for a coffee and cake stop on the front. The wind was still blowing like the day before but we were set back from the beach and therefore a little more sheltered.
As we tucked into some cake and coffees, we enjoyed the sea views across to the Lleyn Peninsular with early season heavily tattooed holidaymakers making the most of the hot sun. And we were sweating, even though I felt we’d had yet to start trail riding, peeling off the riding gear and pulling off our horribly sweaty crash helmets was a massive relief. I goaded Simon about the next lane – “Bastard Hell” lane, all rocky slabs and technical going. Stuart had ridden the area before and so was mentally prepped. Our loins suitably girded, we set off north up the coast road to Llanaber and immediately into a steep narrow climb between stone hedges, fist sized boulders or bigger smashing into our front wheels and we tried to navigate up the lane using the least path of resistance. I got to the gate at the top and video’d, photographed and just absorbed the fantastic views along the coast north and south across the twinkling and still waters of the bay and out into the Irish Sea. We waited a while for Stuart to catch us up, having stopped for photo opportunities, which involved lying the XR4 once more onto its wrong side…. Propping the TTR up on its stand in the wind resulted in it falling over again and in yoinking it upright I ripped my arm a bit, which was annoying but not too debilitating. We slowly made our way up the hillside, sometimes between dry stone hedges and other times across open close cropped grass, passed tumble down old stone barns or crofts. We skirted the edge of Snowdonia National Park, which for some reason excludes Barmouth …. Too many folk with tattoos may be… and followed the contour of the hill past an old fort, not really visible to the naked eye and finally began to descend through rocky outcrops back towards the Mawddach Estuary with equally stunning views, vying with the rock slabs and boulders for our attention. At the bottom we passed a school party climbing on a slate cliff at Garn with Barmouth Bridge in the background, before we popped into a lovely wooded lane down along “Panorama Walk”. It is a sunken lane, cart wide, high stone walls and dappled light piercing the green leafed canopy and illuminating large emerald ferns, a lovely contrast to the high moor lanes we’d been riding.
We were lane intensive now, and a mile of tarmac brought us back up the hill and onto rocky terrain and through a cleared forestry section which had been chewed up by the monstrous machines used for logging nowadays. Rough sawn stumps and stripped tree trunks littered the slopes of what was left of the 40 year old lumber now being carted off for planking, telegraph poles or furniture. What was left behind was a swampy looking track with an ominous looking bombhole full of brown goo. I loitered, wondering about probing the depths with a stick, but you end up filling your boots either way, so I engaged my ‘don’t think do’ mode and plunged in. It was deep but not alarmingly so, the TTR churned through and the others followed without any dramas. We soon cleared the tree line and were once more out into the open moorland and along a 90 degree single track beside a hedge and down across a pretty stream before taking another lane off to the left which would go on and on and on. Paul was in front of me and careered past the turn, bouncing down the hill, meaning I had to ride to the top of the hill and when eventually he looked up to wonder where we were, gesticulate for him to return. The start of the new lane had a big slab of rock which would have been very interesting in the wet, but under dry conditions proved easy and then we squeezed through an impossibly tiny gate and up onto open hillside and climbed. The Mawddach estuary came into view as we gained altitude and I carefully followed the dotted line of the lane on the gps to ensure we stayed the correct side of dry stone walls. The lane tops out at an imperious 572 metres, almost 1900 feet. We pulled over and took a rest whilst admiring the view. The hard rock and boulders meant the riding was relentless. That combined with the heat meant we were never quite replacing our fluids and our arms were feeling pretty beaten up. I seem to have been suffering from some kind of low level bug recently and felt distinctively weak. We gorged on jelly babies and any other goodies in our bags and I was already regretting not eating cake back in Barmouth… The views though, wow it was all worth it, we were on top of the world!
Now started the long slow descent down the hill, more rock, boulders and arm pump. Pete managed to bounce off the path into the heather, and the rest of us picked our way down steadily, thankful we did not ride the lane the other way around. Cols, or Llyns as they are called in Wales dotted the landscape, small lakes, hewn from the landscape during the last ice age as we finally reached flatter ground. Except under less dry conditions this ground is bog, so to traverse it, massive slabs have been laid down, some, no doubt were old standing stones used in ancient rituals. Now, the only sacrifice is trail riders. The going was no easier as we were now having to bounce across the gaps in these massive slabs, keeping up enough momentum not to slip off the side whilst riding the tightrope. Pete picked the wrong line and lay the PE down on a large rock and having filmed him for long enough time to start feeling guilty and slightly voyeuristic, hopped off the TTR to help him. Simon, sitting there I guess being thankfully it was not him pinned under his bike….. Further on through the tussocks bisected by the slabs Paul had missed the single slab crossing of a small stream and was hauling the WR out as we caught him up. He was fine so Simon then I looked far ahead rather than down and rode across the slab traversing the ravine, only for Simon to stop dead in the tracks, on account of wanting to help Paul. Bearing in mind my little legs and there being nowhere to plant them either side of these nature-derived slabs, I balled at Simon to keep going and the intensity of my voice prompted him to get a wiggle on before I toppled into the long tussocks of grass. We crossed the Afon Ysgethin at Pont (bridge) Scethin, a lovely little stone bridge which must have been worth constructing many moons ago, showing this lane to be an ancient thoroughfare. It was here that the difference between a 40 something trail rider and a 50 something trail rider became apparent. Paul saw the little packhorse bridge as an opportunity to waggle the front wheel of the WR in the air as he created it and Stuart saw it as a photo opportunity… I saw it as an opportunity to scramble down the bank and plunge my dehydrated head into the cool clear waters. Pete joined me and we repeatedly splashed the cool mountain water on our parched faces. Pete then noted when he drank from ‘fresh’ stream water once, only to notice the dead sheep a 100 yards upstream, he then had the shits for days – But Bear Comber is not so naive and did not fall for such a rooky error…
The final descent from the 6 mile or so lane was across rutted peat land which would be interesting in the wet, past kids doing Duke of Edinburgh stuff by the looks of it and eventually we were past a burial chamber and weaving down back to the coast road. We re-fuelled at Coed Ystumgwern where their fridge was out of order (noooooo) so I supped on a luke warm Tango… We decided to ride back into Barmouth for an ice cream. Stuart had already spotted Knickerbocker Ice Cream Parlour so we rode the few miles down the coast and indulged. I was quite reserved tucking into a Malteser one, but Stuart went all in. Fudge stick, 99 chocolate, drizzled chocolate sauce, extra cream, pink cocktail stick – you name it was crammed in on top of what ever actual ice cream he’d chosen lurking in the bottom of the bucket he’d ordered. Plan A was to ride back along a lower level lane almost as long, which in fact was the ‘Bastard Hell’ Lane (Bwlch-y-Rhiwgry) back down to the Mawddach, but we were knackered. Pete had already decided to ride back on the road, but the rest of use did not fancy all tarmac, so plumped for crossing the Barmouth Bridge again – any excuse, which was very busy as it was almost the weekend and very very sunny, but we escaped any grief. We then cut the corner of Tywyn and took the low road compared with yesterday, running out along the coast at a couple of hundred metres altitude which was actually tarmac for a long way – Pete would have loved it…. Then eventually ran into grass and rock and at Llwyngwrill turned straight up the hill across ill defined moorland to bisect the lane we rode the previous day. At Llwyngwrill on the bridge lurks a massive knitted troll leering at the traffic as it passes. The whole village seemed to be populated with knitted creatures, mind you they are not short of wool I guess.
Following the dots on the map we found a gate and crossed yesterday’s track and ran down to Bryncrug and back up Happy Valley which was as lovely riding in the opposite direction as it was the day before. A group of 6 riders passed us and as Stuart noted, keen riders on proper enduro bikes out front, and a fat bastard on a trial bike at the back…… He made this observation being the tail end Charlie of our group……. Further on, there were a couple of intrepid explorers on big KTMs, full soft baggage picking their way along the gorgeous trail with a massive smile on their faces. We refuelled in Mach and arrived back to find Pete in the hot tub, relaxing. Having ricked my shoulder Stuart freaked me out by noting one shoulder was significantly higher than the other. I did not believe him, but looking in the mirror it was true. I think a combination of pulling something in my shoulder/neck on the right hand side heaving my bike up after it fell over, meant I was somehow compensating for it with a weird posture. A decent hump on my back and I’d have been full Quasimodo…. Stuart suggested I visit my chiropractor in the week…. Riigghht, like I have a personal quack on tap to straighten my battered body each Monday as they do in the Thames Valley obviously…. Or I could wait 8 weeks for an appointment on the NHS as we do down here in the Southwest…. Anyway I’d be as right as rain the next day, I was sure.
We all had an oh so refreshing cold beer and a dip in the tub to massage aching limbs. I’d specifically defined a dress code of no budgie smugglers, thankfully upheld by the lads and we passed the time chatting breeze. Simon confessing a hatred of squirrels only matched by Bill Murray’s malevolence for gophers in Caddyshack. He described with relish how he’d dispatched dozens in his garden with varying brands of 0.22 airgun rounds of varying designs to inflict maximum damage… he even bemoaned the fact the trees out the back had been logged meaning his sport had been curtailed…. All just a little bit creepy when sat in a hot tub in the middle of nowhere….. 😊 😊. Still we are never short of entertainment and stories with Simon around and as someone with a pathological fear of awkward silences, I’m always happy to sit back and listen to him nattering all day long. We hauled ourselves out of the tub and had just enough energy to enjoy a meal at the Black Lion down the road before a hot chocolate and bed, knackered….. I think in reality we were seriously dehydrated. I felt distinctly weird and Paul threw up in the night and even though we were carrying as much water as physically possible, it just was not enough. However, as I’ve already said, mustn’t grumble about getting heat stroke in Wales!
Saturday dawned a little more cloudy (yayyy!) and cooler. And getting out of bed my neck had eased and my shoulder/back straightened a bit, allowing me to once more stand tall, well 5 foot 4 ish tall anyway. … so may be I’d not need my chiropractor after all…. Stuart once more prepared a gut-busting fry up with token fruit and yogurt on the side, but after the sausage and bacon, there just was not any room left for anything healthy….. Matt noted the southern route would be more scenic and I reckoned we’d not struggle completing most of the lanes I had pre-planned. We kicked off down the road past the osprey centre which is celebrating 10 years of nurturing the local population from 1 pair in the whole of Wales to now a total of 74 chicks fledged and 6 nests being occupied. Just down the road I had to stop to photograph a big water wheel. The furnace was originally constructed around 1755 for smelting iron ore, with fuel obtained from local woods and stored upstairs in the building. At that time, the waterwheel would have powered a huge pair of bellows which supplied compressed air vital for the blast furnace's operation. Most of the pig iron would have found its way to forges in the Midlands. Apparently, the furnace only lasted for about 50 years before being abandoned. Some years later it was turned into a sawmill and a new waterwheel was installed to drive the machinery. This later waterwheel is the one that has been restored and is viewable today. Well worth a brief stop to look around.
We turned left immediately off the busy A487 and down an easy ride through the woods, for a mile or so, a simple gravel track with pleasant views down the shallow valley, a mix of trees with a small stream gurgling through the grassy glades. Half way down the lane we randomly came across a couple of abandoned plastic sit on kiddie tractor and digger. We stopped for a photo of what although amusing, is basically fly-tipping…. We returned to the tarmac, but unbelievably were still opening and closing gates. It now made sense how the folk who came down to Devon last week and who ride a lot in Wales were obsessed about gate opening procedures and second man drop off. I told them to chill – there’d only be 3 gates to open all day I told them. Two days in Wales and I was heartily sick of gates and not being able to find neutral very easy on the TTR for whatever reason meant I was stalling it a lot deliberately and therefore pouring yet more pain onto the sprag clutch and starter motor which at times sounded quite pained…. My keenness of kick starting it evaporating quite early on each day… Another day and I’d be implementing a gate opening regime myself I thought…. A couple of miles down the road and we cruised along a similarly non-threatening lane then found a slightly more interesting one which involved riding through a gate into a field gently rising across moorland on a dotted route, past the usual Kamikaze sheep, the sun now occluded by low cloud draped over the rolling hillsides. It was still close but temperatures were much more comfortable. As we crested the brow of the hill we picked up a more distinctive lane on the edge of some woods, with loose stones rolling down the hill as we dislodged them from the path of the bikes. At the bottom we came upon a ramshackle group of farm buildings with a couple of options regarding the correct route. I pondered the map, not wanting to upset any locals by blundering into a farmyard. I guessed right and we proceeded down the track. A couple more miles and we entered an area littered with trails to the west of Nant-y-Moch reservoir. The area was at a higher altitude to what we’d ridden so far, a 1,000 or so feet, hard packed wide stone tracks, across open moorland, reminiscent of the lanes high on the Isle of Man, the odd water filled whoop to keep things interesting. This part of Wales has a real Lord of the Rings vibe and provided Tolkein with much inspiration. He holidayed in Llanbedrog on the Lleyn Peninsula we’d seen the day before from Barmouth and used Welsh for the basis of his Elvish language. He also spent time in the Brecon Beacons which inspired ‘the Shire’. Nant-y-Moch reservoir was created in 1964 and forms the headwaters of the Rheidol river and the valley shows evidence of old zinc, lead mines which were worked into the early 20th century. The lanes were lovely, long views across bleak moorland, wispy low misty cloud drifting across the landscape in an ethereal way.
There were a couple of deepish water splashes and dry rock climbs which made the ride interesting rather than terrifying. Stuart’s method of feet outstretched in front of him as he splashed through the water had the effect of spraying water up his leg rather than actually staying dry, but did provide a cooling effect. I was particularly pleased with one little trials section, a bit of a step where I chose the most challenging section and with a combination of throttle control and momentum cleared it feet up Dougie Lampkin stylee. I was most pleased with myself…. This was another excuse for Simon to moan about his gearing, saying 2nd was too high and 1st way too low. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of nowhere so moaning about it was not really very effective, though it did not stop him mithering every time we stopped 😊. Of course then he left himself open to banter (or verbal bullying as others consider it…) every time he ferreted in his bag for a Tunnocks or something he was ragged for looking for a mythical 13 tooth front sprocket or the like. As we say, its all banter till someone cries…..
We rode down to the Bwlch Nant yr Arian Visitor Centre which is a hub for mountain biking and red kite viewing – which would be impressive but there are now so many in the Reading area where we moved away from 7 years ago, Their distinct colour, massive wingspan and forked tails were a bit humdrum for me at least. After coffee, sarnies and cake overlooking Pond Llywernog we ran down the valley to Goginan to do a pleasant loop of lanes involving open field tracks winding up the hillside where the sun finally burnt off sufficient cloud temporarily to bathe us in its hot rays once more. Another stony descent across a small stream brought us back full circle and we continued down the A44 to Capel Bangor before doubling back on ourselves for a lovely lane across slate high up on a steep hillside overlooking another dilapidated farm where Pete and I recounted the Deliverance story, which a couple of the others had not actually watched before much to our surprise. They’ve obviously never been down Hartland way riding… Any way we pointed out that if we were to come across any toothless banjo players, it would be Simon squealing like a little piggy…. We’d seen the best of the day now, a dragon’s breath mist swirled around us and for the first time I felt a little chill in my jacket, with just a T shirt beneath it. We looped around what appeared to be a TRO and rode past the first evidence of a mine – a chimney, even though mines were labelled all over the map, any evidence was buried in the foliage, but the imposing chimney was clear evidence of the past riches clawed form the ground beneath our feet. We skittered up a loose gravel lane and back down to the lakes we’d passed earlier.
At Llyn Pendam, which I guessed was natural we turned west and ran out of the conifer plantation and out across open sheep country heading towards the coast. Given the need for coffee/cake stops I’d banked on amenities and views at Borth, which was advertised on a picture in the kitchen of the Airbnb. One of those old early 20th century stylised adverts like “visit Skegness, it’s so shit, no sorry ‘bracing’.” Never believe advertising they say… Anyway we had some ‘lowland’ lanes to ride which Matt said he’d not ridden but were on the list of streets so we passed through a gate and up an obvious track at Broginin and along a field through grassy ruts with views into the shallow valley. The lane looked unused and Simon remarked it looked a bit like Berkshire, and may be that was the thing. Folk come to Wales to ride mountain passes not lanes that look a bit like Berkshire…. Being a bit nervous about local rights of way and a farm at the end of the lane I was keen to pass through unannounced, but having ducked under a hazel branch and waited at the end of the lane, a dog (rabid?) barking from a tumble down farm building, I knew exactly what Stuart was doing - cutting down the overhanging branch so he could fit his lanky physique through unencumbered…. That or what happens in any slightly dubious lane, Simon stops in the middle for a pee…. Eventually they joined us – Stuart was grinning and Simon was not looking relieved, so I knew the answer. But having encouraged Stuart to commit voluntary decapitation in Somerset in the spring down with me, I felt I owed him his moment to cut down an overhanging branch…
A simple farm track brought us into Bow Street, £180 in Monopoly money… and up a very quiet lane to Ruel. It ran up through a copse then into ruts completely obscured with deep grass, necessitating using ‘the force’ to make progress, trust the front wheel to makes its way, keep up a reasonable pace for stability and away you go. This lane ended also at a ramshackle farmstead which involved riding through the farmyard, devoid of dogs or rocking chairs and I was through and up the road without hassle. Bugger the rest I thought…. In more ways than one… They all joined me down the road and we pootled into Llandre and into a gentle rising lane which on a clear day would provide sweeping vistas of Borth, population 1,399. I expected a quaint seaside resort, but was mildly underwhelmed. The problem with seaside towns is that (a) they are all past their heyday and (b) they are fighting the onslaught of the ocean and rising sea level. Hence the answer in Borth is to build a huge sea defence in front of the town totally blocking out any sea view. However, Wikipedia assures us that Borth has a sandy beach and is a holiday seaside resort. There is a youth hostel in the village and caravan and camping sites nearby. More interestingly, there is an ancient submerged forest is visible at low tide along the beach, where stumps of oak, pine, birch, willow and hazel (preserved by the acid anaerobic conditions in the peat) can be seen. Radiocarbon dating suggests these trees died about 1500 BC. This submerged forest is also associated with the legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod (English: The Lowland Hundred), which is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land lying between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales. It has been described as a "Welsh Atlantis" and has featured in folklore, literature and song.. The stumps were exposed for a time by Storm Hannah in 2019. But then again everything in Wales is based on myth…. Also present is Cors Fochno, a raised peat mire, part of the Dyfi Biosphere, the only UNESCO Biosphere reserve in Wales, is located next to the village together with the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and visitors' centre at Ynyslas. Another bizarre fact is that on 4 April 1876, the entire Uppingham School in Rutland, England, consisting of 300 boys, 30 masters and their families, moved to Borth for a period of 14 months, taking over the disused Cambrian Hotel and a large number of boarding houses, to avoid a typhoid epidemic. They all died of gonorrhoea….. I made that last bit up…..
We therefore did not stop for a coffee in Borth, but instead passed through admiring the sea defence to Ynylas, where we imagined getting coffee and cake at a rustic shack on the aforementioned reserve, but after slewing through sand on the tarmac, Dakar style to the car park. The lovely attendant said there was actually no café, so instead of paying to park we spun around, took photos overlooking the Dyfi estuary across to Aberdyfi and rode back a few hundred yards to the caravan park for a coffee in their welcoming café. After banter with the Jonny Vegas lookilikee chef most of us tucked into Ynyslas cakes, which the northern folk among us said were rip off Eccles cakes but satisfying all the same. And that was that. We were done. All in good time for a run back up the first lane we’d rode in the morning then back to camp. We had to be out of the house for 10am so decided to pack the bikes into the vans whilst sweaty and grubby then showered ahead of tea. Stuart replenished our BBQ stock and I added Coop’s own napalm to the BBQ lumpwood to get things going. The mist had dropped into the Dyfi valley and it sat under the umbrella as dampness enveloped us. To make the point Stuart got the wood burner going in the lounge and we reviewed a bit of video from the day. We hit the hay and rose to more dry weather – 4 dry days in a row in Wales – always a cause for celebration. Yet another fry up with sour dough toast just left us to sort out the house and throw our gear in the trucks to head south. We scattered in different directions. Stuart was going to look in the antique shops of Mach, but earlyish on a Sunday he was reduced to window shopping, Pete and Simon headed back along the Tinder women strewn byways of mid wales and we trucked due south back over the mountains.
What a fantastic time was had by all. No breakdowns, no injuries, no punctures, no rain and with enough lanes still not explored, an excuse to return!