CYCLING CLOSE TO SOME WELSH RIVERS:
A BIT OF THE GWY (WYE), THE ELAN, THE TEIFI, THE YSTWYTH, AND A TOUCH OF THE TYWI
In the mist-moistened morning, with frost on gloves; in the piercing sunshine of an early spring day, ice on the lake and blue sky ascending to the Heavens; the lengthy winter took a break and Steve Dyster headed for the hills, and especially the rivers of mid-Wales.
The Heart of Wales Railway rumbled me through wooded Shropshire hills, across the border and down to Llandrindod Wells. The National Cycle Collection was closed and it was hard to believe that this was a busy spa town, despite the hotels and public gardens. There was barely a shopper to be seen. Almost no cars on the roads either.
On a shivering, bright Sunday morning I set off for the Wye Valley. Distant views across placid pastures to silhouettes of hills took attention away from the steady climbing, until my breath caught my glasses bringing sudden realisation that I was puffing like a steam engine. With perfect timing the descent came.
This brought me to the potentially busy A470. NCR8 runs along the opposite bank of the river, but it would have required a trip to Newbridge-on-Wye to access it. Were it another day I would have done the extra miles. As it was the traffic was fast but infrequent. So, the main road was left, and the Wye crossed, at Llanwrthwl after a very lovely stretch of Cambrian super-highway.
NCR8 took me past the Wye’s confluence with the Elan. So, my third river was reached. To ride over the mountain road from the Elan valley towards the west had been something I had wanted to do for a long time. That it was on such a morning as this … well, we all take the smooth with the rough. There was no rush to get over the hills. The lakes were blinding sheets of light, the mountain silhouettes climbed into the razor blue sky.
Topping the last of the reservoirs the open moorland lay ahead. No more lakes, half-covered in ice, no more bracken-clad rocks, but endless tussocks of green. Striking away towards Cwmystwyth, drawn on by the race of the breeze on my face, sun warming me, I wondered how it could be that there are some people who prefer to be in a car. That was until the steep pull up to the Cwmystwyth road. Apostacy didn’t last long.
Passing the upland bog of Gors Lwyd, with road signs warning of ice, the long declivity began. Upland beck became splashing brook, then rocky stream; pastureland river, as the hills pulled back, changed to discoloured outlet of industrial dereliction as the hills crowded in around the old mine workings. I’d have stopped to talk to the cyclist on the bridge, but this was such a sense-filling descent that I barely noticed him. Then came little Cwmystwyth village.
Eventually, I emerged from the wooded valley in Pont-rhyd-a-groes and began the climb, via Ysbyty Ystwyth, to the River Teifi. This is corrugated hill country, with streams and valleys seemingly running in all directions. The sky had clouded over, darkening the wooded roads on their sinuous course. The raptures of the morning seemed likely to give way to afternoon ruptures.
On the road from Ystard Meurig to Pontrhyfendigaid was a turning to the old railway track across the Gors Tregaron (Bog of Tregaron). This is part of the NCR82. I joined it near the site of the defunct Strata Florida Railway Station and headed off across the nature reserve.
The day was drawing on and the weather was no longer conducive to securing the bike and exploring the paths and boardwalks open only to pedestrians. At the far end of the track, I turned back north, so as to visit Strata Florida Abbey. This is reached from Pontrhydfendigaid, whose coloured houses did a fair imitation of a land-locked Tobermory Or could it be the other way round?). The ruins of the abbey are small, though beautifully situated amongst the hills. At its height this was one of the wealthiest landowners in Wales and its abbot a powerful man; now it is less than a shell.
The River Teifi is one of the great rivers of Wales. Rising at Llyn Teifi in the Cambrian Mountains, reaching the sea just beyond Aberteifi (Cardigan), accompanied by beautiful scenery through its journey, dotted with little towns and hamlets, and full of wildlife. After a short break in Tregaron, the gathering clouds brought rain and the much-anticipated trip down the Teifi was replaced by a heads down slog to Llanybydder. I had hoped to stop for a little at Llandewi Brefi and Lampeter, but cafes were shut and a chill was in the air.
Llanybydder is one of those places that has almost everything. My host at the B&B introduced himself in a strong Brummie brogue. I suggested that he was probably in a minority in terms of language. He replied that the Welsh speakers were, too. Polish butchers and their families formed one of the largest linguistic group in the little town. Working at the abattoir, filling a shortage of skilled butchers, they had settled in and their money boosted the local economy. Polish food was available. Suited me; I fed well on a Polish banquet in the heart of Wales, in a café run by a Turk. The rain poured down all night.
In the morning, the Teifi was fuller and the sun made the pastures twinkle. The road to Llandysul was wonderfully gentle, with progress marked by attractive cottages and herds of cattle. This was a section of NCR82.
Llandysul is a bustling town, with a one-way system around the narrow streets that run along the hillside. A good place to admire the river, refuel and take in the happy feeling of being in a town where small shops brought people together in the town centre.
Further on the Teifi runs through a small rocky gorge, before returning to its pastoral ramble through a landscape of rolling green hills and farmsteads. It formed the county boundary between Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire (shows the age of my maps), all the way to Newcastle Emlyn. This is another busy town and is ideal for filling up panniers and stomach. There is little left of the castle that stands above the river which loops around it, but there are more cafes than seem economically viable and the town is well-worth a wander.
To avoid too many miles on the A484, not absurdly busy but with some pulses of heavy, rapidly moving traffic, I headed out via Cwm-cou and some delectable back roads to Cenarth, where a brake-squealing descent brought me down to the Teifi once again. This is now tourist territory, though I was well out of season; picnic benches by the river, a large car park, the Coracle Centre. I sat and ate by the rock-cut river bank and read about fishing rights and commercial salmon fishing, saints and warriors. Saint Llawddog’s well was nearby. Surely, he deserved better than this, but, I suppose, sanctity doesn’t require great show. The journey on, via Abersych, Manordeifi and Llechryd, certainly had a remote and ancient feel to it. Hilly, very, in places, a riverside bimble in others, ancient woodland and riverside meadow in turns, with the isolated church at Manordeifi as peaceful a spot as cyclist ever sat down in.
The last section of the A484 into Cardigan justified my decision to avoid it earlier on. I don’t know what was going on in West Wales that morning, but it was obviously about to finish, as so many motorists were rushing to get there. I was saddened when I reflected that the life of a fellow human could be risked to save a few seconds. Mind you, I didn’t do that until I was ensconced in the café in the visitors centre at Llandudoch or St. Dogmael’s Abbey. Jolly tasty cream tea.
Strangely, you might think, I headed back towards Newcastle Emlyn, where I thought I’d spend the night. A traffic free route ran along the Teifi and then through a nature reserve to Cilgerran. I remembered the spectacularly situated castle, reminiscent of those along the Rhine, though on a bijoux scale. This time the visit was a short one as the tea shop in the village was closed. The lanes back to Newcastle Emlyn provided a vigorous work out. Getting off the main roads, which often follow the valleys usually means accepting that you’ll be honking or walking at times.
The strange thing was that I arrived in Newcastle much earlier than expected. Partaking of tea, I decided that I’d head for Carmarthen. It was not that far, couple of hours? I vaguely remembered the country around. Very vaguely, it turned out. I had forgotten how hilly this part of Carmarthenshire was. By the time I had reached the top of the first long climb, some five miles of steady ascent, the sun was stretching the shadows of the hedges across the fields and showing the sunken lanes as black hollows between sun-topped banks. Time was pressing on. Sunset amongst the woods and twisted valleys of this lovely county was a treat; so peaceful with hidden corners and farmhouse lights beginning to show amidst the dark fields or sparkling through the trees. As darkness fell, the lights of Carmarthen appeared, and the search for a bed began.
The third of my ride had a dirty, grey dawn. Cold, with shower-curtains of damp mist weighed down the heavy-headed daffodils. I rode along the minor road on the south side of the River Tywi. Part of NCR 47, this is preferable to the busy main road to Llandeilo. There are patches of roadside woodland and glimpses of pasture and meadow. Occasional crags were revealed above as the mist lifted and fell. The sudden appearance of snow-capped mountains to the East, strange layers of mist and the appearance of Dryslwyn Castle sitting on an obscured hill, transformed the ominous dawn into a magical morning.
Llandeilo is a fine little town, another that has the Balamory-Tobermory factor in the brightly coloured houses that line the climb from the river. Everything is here, with pride of place, in my opinion, going to Dynevor Park. Medieval stronghold of Lord Rhys, site of two small towns that predated Llandeilo, stately home in the care of the National Trust – with the useful corollary of a tea room – and beautifully landscaped views across the valley of the Tywi and away to the north.
Sadly, the exhibition on the medieval Llandeilo Gospels was closed. Distracted by this, I decided to catch the early afternoon train and so had time for a little ride back to Dryslwyn Castle and around some charming lanes through Llangathen and Court Henry. At the second, I stopped in the village shop, which has been taken over by the local community and is doing well.
At one point I paused briefly by a tumbling stream lined by ash trees. As I looked at the map, a gentleman in the garden of a corner cottage asked me if I was lost. I wasn’t, but for some reason he did not believe me and proceeded to give me directions to all destinations in the locale; very kind. However, he did shout after me as I rode off. Apparently, after all that I had gone the wrong way anyway.
On return to Llandeilo, it was time for the train. There are bike spaces on the single carriage, but it can be busy with cyclists and walkers alongside the other travellers. The railway journey back to Shrewsbury was scarcely less beautiful than the cycling I had done. For once, I didn’t fall asleep. Well, not until boarding the train to the Black Country and then it was with happy thoughts of rushing rivers, green pastures, and misty mountains.
REWORKED AND PUBLISHED JUNE 2020