WAYFARER, WYE, AND OTHER BEAUTIES: MORE MID-WALES CYCLING
Steve Dyster’s first tour with Covid restrictions relaxed. Could he take the mileage? Would he power over the mountains of Wales? Would he find suitable refreshment? In brief, yes, no, yes, sort of, at times, a little.
On my bucket list for a number of years, the Wayfarer Track and its summit memorial have been unfulfilled. Plans to cycle it were stymied by travel restrictions during Covid lockdown, so when those disappeared there was no excuse. I’d added in some other ambitions, too, with a route running from Stafford to Glyn Ceiriog, then over the Wayfarer, to swing south after Bala, to run down the Dyfi Valley to Machynlleth, over to Caersws, thence to Builth Wells, and over to Presteigne, before heading back to Stafford. To be honest, on the second day, I felt I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but even days of cloudy drizzle, with only short glimpses of the sun, could not detract from the sheer relief of being back on the road for multi-day tour – even if a short one.
You’ll know how it is. You cycle out from home along roads that you know ever so well; a few mils out they become less familiar; then comes a point where they have been ridden every now and again, eventually becoming vaguely remembered. Then come some new roads. Well, the new roads arrived after Wem, a small market town in Shropshire. Not hill-filled south Shropshire, but the gentle landscape, if one ignores the odd rocky outcrop, that lays itself open to the north of Shrewsbury.
I’d, rightly, thought that I ’d get my legs back into the touring spirit, ready for a dose of stronger medicine once into Wales. Even when the country rolled it was easy going, with prize for ‘first steep ascent’ going t the short rise over a cala bridge near Lower Frankton. Short, but serous; honest. I’d slowed the point of falling embarrassingly to one side before a final herculean grunt too me the summit. Striations in the surface, gouged by the chassis many passing vehicles, were enhanced by a flat-bed truck that scraped its bottom a few minutes later, as I admired the scenery from the towpath.
A little further on, past Frankton Junction (Montgomery Canal and Llangollen Canal), there seemed to be a major climb to Welsh Frankton. That was delusional, conned into a false sese of security y the preceding easy-going terrain. Still, it was a relief to crest the hill and head along sand and mud surfaced lanes int what feels like the back-end of Hicksville, and is all the better cycling country for it.
I was trying to find a long way round to Chirk. Why? Not sure, rally, just a fancy to stick to minor roads, to see somewhere different. Chirk stands on a hill with the River Ceiriog sweeping around the south ad east sides. So, it was int the deep valley that I eventually fell, to rise up again at Pont-y-blew. A long way round, but a cameo of scenery that van make the slow way the best way. That left no more than a delightful amble by the River Ceiriog, along Glyn Ceiriog, to, well, Glyn Ceiriog.
Even if I’d not planned to stay the night there – and there’s plenty of choice – this would be a good place to top up with supplies, if heading over the Wayfarer Track. Beyond Glyn Ceiriog village, the hills start to rise higher all around. At Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog it would be entirely possible to keep on the asphalt all the way to Llanrhaedr-ym-Mochnant, before picking up the B4396 to get over to the valley of the river Dee. Yet the Wayfarer Track is iconic and has to be done, even when the low cloud gives no prospect of a view. It is also worth remembering that this can be a long lonely way, crossing moorland; the way is clear enough, but you should be properly equipped to deal with emergencies ad deteriorating weather.
At Pentre here’s a dilapidated chapel, no doubt once at the heart of a livelier landscape. A sad sight to my eye. Beyond it, follow the asphalt road until it gives way to a track. There’s a signpost pointing the way along the Nant Rhydwilym. The eastern end had been ‘repaired’ with a covering of loose stone. Not bicycle friendly, it eventually gives way to a mixed stone and mud surface, with occasional dips deep in peaty moorland water. At times it felt like a struggle, although the gradient is fundamentally moderate.
Dull, wet sedge, peat, cloud, squalls; we all love the hills. Arriving at the memorial, I sought shelter in vain as the rain gyrated into every nook. To keep warm, I decided to pick up litter, managing a carrier bag full, before deciding that good old Wayfarer had been visited and it was about time to head for the fleshpots of Llandrillo.
There’s a choice of tracks down to the Dee Valley. I kept to the right, passing thell farm of Rhos-y-maerdy. There followed a belt to Bala, legs renewed by the joy of almost smooth asphalt. A brief pause in Llandrillo served to lighten my load by the weight of one carrier bag of assorted litter, but as the café was closed, it was Bala for a brew. So much for fleshpots.
Whatever the season Bala high street seems to be full of cars being parked at odd angles. A touch of slaloming saw me safely to one of the many cafes, and then away around Llyn Tegid. There’s a cycle path, which was not too bad, but would be woefully narrow with the tourist season in full-swing. As ever, it gave out just when it was really needed. Even so, the next climb was now in the offing.
The Bwlch-y-Groes is the second highest road pass in Wales, being pipped for the title by the Gospel Pass, near Hay-on-Wye. Both have a long valley-side ascent one side and a jaw-dropping, knuckle-clenching descent on the other. I accomplished the former with one stop, to admire the view, obviously, and a second to shelter by some crags whilst opening a packet of jelly beans.
The descent out of the cloud soon brought a view of what appeared to be a dirty black pit several hundred feet dep into which one was expected to plummet. The map had shown a narrow road that had been marked with more gradient arrows than Robin Hood, his Merry Men, not to mention all the other denizens of the greenwood might carry for an assault on Nottingham Castle: actually, only eleven in two kilometres. A closer look at the real thing and I could only assume that Ordnance Survey had run out of space for a genuine representation.
Wayfarer, the pen name of Walter MacGregor Robinson, was renowned as a cycling writer and as a pioneer of rough stuff cycling. With a devoted following in the years after the Great War, he inspired uncountable cyclists to head for wild country. The likes of Charlie Chadwick, would, doubtless had been amongst them. Wayfarer died in 1956, and if you want to ‘visit’ him, there’s a memorial on the green at Meriden, or his burial place in Witton Cemetery, Birmingham. If you want to follow in the spirit, head for the Berwyn Hills – and use a single-speed, for that was always his choice.
Clinging to the brake levers, I dropped to the high junction with the road to Lake Vyrnwy, halting for a photo. A transit van was parked there. Rear door away from the wind, and three figures could be made out in the murk. Closer inspection showed that they were preparing hot drinks and food, much more than they cold possibly eat.
About to try my luck, I suddenly caught sight of a couple of lights coming towards us, very slowly, up the step side of the pass. Well, they’d need of something when they arrived- and food would be it, although counselling may have helped, too. Yes, there was an event! I passed a number of other cyclists either grinding in granny gear or on foot battling against gravity. I called out encouragement, not daring to take my hands away from the brake levers to wave for even a split second.
After the descent, one finds oneself in a long, delightful valley, cycling alongside the adolescent Afon Dyfi (or Dovey). I encountered cyclists in small groups or solo as far as Dinas Mawddwy. They were smiling. Either unaware of what lay a few miles up the valley, or because of it. I was once like the latter.
Dinas Mawddwy, once notorious as a base for outlaw bands, occupies a hillside position past which traffic speeds by on the main road. As with so many small settlements in this part of the world, it has a much greater past than meets the present eye. Apart from the highway robber, the village was the centre of the Mawddwy district. The ancient “Court Leet Court Baron and View of Frankpledge” was held there until 1914, by which time the aera was busy with quarries and Dinas served as a railway terminus for the Cambrian Railway. Now it is popular with walkers and tourists, who go about their business without fear of ambush in the wild hills that make this such a spectacular spot.
I’ll admit to looking forward to the ride to Machynlleth, keeping company with the ever maturing Afon Dyfi. Fortunately, there’s a minor road on the western side of the valley, so the rapid and busy A470 can be ignored from a suitable distance.
Below Aberangell the Dyfi commences to meander as the floodplain broadens and views open up to the Mynydd Cemmaes to the east; to the south the hills for the last climb of the day.
First came time for tea and cake in Machynlleth. As I refreshed myself, I spotted a couple of other cycle tourists. They seemed to be umhing-and-ahing over which way to go. I did not get to talk to them, but discovered later that they were heading to the railway station for a train to Caersws. It was something I was contemplating. For better or worse, I opted to ride the “Mountain Road” via Dylife, to the Clywedog valley. This starts beautifully by the Afon Dulas, passing glorious open hillsides before climbing between high hedges. The road eventually hits open moorland and has some steep sections, several of which I walked. I’d like to say that was to enjoy the view, but there was not one; I’d like to say it was purely down to exertion on earlier climbs, but it was not. It was here, amongst the wet sheep, that I began to wish that I’d been less ambitious. Why had I not booked a room at the Red Lion, Dylife, or got the train to Caersws? Vanity!
Dylife is remote by Briitsh standards. Once the scene of extensive mining operations, it has the macabre reputation as the scene of the last gibbeting of a corpse, post execution. The village blacksmith made the cage, which was hung prominently on this wild mountain crossing. It was his last commission, and his last home on this earth.
As one descends, the Pennant valley is so perfectly v-shaped as to provide an excellent viewpoint for the tourist – even on a gloomy day – and have a geography teacher speaking in ecstatic tongues. Beyond a short climb and a twisting descent on narrow roads took me to Trefeglwys, and a surprisingly rapid ride to Caersws. The rapidity was halted at the level crossing by the station on edge of the village. Two cyclists got off the train from Machynlleth that had just arrived. It was the two tourers. It was a draw. They cycled past me, as I parked up outside the Unicorn Hotel, at the end of my day.
Presteigne was my next objective. I contemplated a shorter route, but I had planned to cycle to the River Wye at Llangurig and keep along it to Builth Wells, before heading int the Radnorshire Hills circuiting northward to Presteigne.
The moderate climbs near the start and the struggle they presented for my out of condition legs should have persuaded me to cut the corner. Needless to say, a sort of stubborn determination kicked in. No surrender!
Llanidloes and Llangurig we were reached along remote lanes in lumpy country. Pasture and copse with isolated cottages and farms wee pleasant enough, battling to keep my mind off aches and pains. After Llangurig, the Wye was a welcome companion! This section is pretty easy going, with gentle scenery all the way to Rhayader.
Between Rhayader and Newbridge-on-Wye I was on familiar territory. Things get stiffer as one heads south along NCR8, culminating in a rough section of track before climbing upward on road, only to descend to Wye and climb again into Newbridge. Mind you, there are some superb views on the way, and the alternative route is the potentially busy A470.
I’d not cycled NCR8 south of Newbridge before. It is on country lanes and takes in some pretty scenery and ends with a descent to Builth that seemed to me to be much longer than the ascent anticipated. Builth has plenty of cafes, and the next section of y route promised to be pretty remote, with a single pub at Aberedw on the way to Gladestry.
The little Edw valley is beautiful, and largely unspoiled, as it penetrates the oft ignored Radnorshire Hils. This was a new route to familiar places, for me. Why had I not come this way before, I wondered, as the little river formed pools and torrents hemmed by rocks or running through picnic-perfect shady riverside greens. Eventually the narrow lanes become grindingly steep. Have a break at one of the isolated white churches – or more. Gems of rural devotion hidden behind ancient yews. Coincidentally, you’ll also have the chance to catch your breath, shod you need to do so.
The little village of Glascwm has often been a way-maker on my way from Mid-Wales into England. I took the traditional photo with my bike leaning against the gravel bin at the top of the climb that, falsely, seem to signal a return to softer English cycling.
I still find the Marches a magical place. Criss-crossing a border that artificially divides peoples who have warred, traded, inter-married amongst villages and market towns dotted amongst the hills and by the rivers.
Presteigne, came along surprisingly quickly as legs fatigued by hills rediscovered their youth over the hill of Old Radnor and raced in the evening sun all the way to the timber-framed Radnorshire Hotel, at the top of the high street. Speed inspired by the outbreak of level road, the dog barking as it ran behind me, or the abandoned prefabricated chapel at Dolyhir? (Yes, I know there are not many of us that would be inspired by a rusting shack, but we do exist.) Could have been the prospect of a couple of pins of excellent cider bursting with the russet and gold glory of late summer.
See, there’s more to cycling than old chapels, mountain passes, and, of course, riding a bike.