NORTH WALES RIVIERA
A long weekend in support of a challenge ride, took in the length of the north coast of Wales, where the Natioanl Cycle Network is often at its best ... Steve Dyster found time to taste the salt on the breeze and sample some of the best of the National Cycle Network.
Cycling at dawn and at sunset; cycling where the mountains meet the sea; things could be better, but not by much. Any excuse for a ride along the North Wales Riviera is good enough. Even so, best to build up anticipation, so the ride started close to the Cheshire-Staffordshire border.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Cheshire. Skirting Crewe, with but a passing acquaintance with the northern edge and the country lanes run on toward Chester through Church Minshull, Wettenhall, Eaton and Tarporley. A change of view comes with each gentle ascent; the isolated Little Man pub was not yet open; woods spot the landscape; the miles roll by with ease. Tarporley has a cafe and shops, but too early for a stop, so we swung to a more northerly route - for a change.
Keeping to the south of Little Budworth and Oulton Park, the roar of engines powering round practice laps interrupted the rural peace for a few minutes. White arrows on a red background heralded a “cycling event” the following weekend. Eventually they gave out around Utkinton - reached along a wonderful country road of high hedges.
Picking up NCR45 before Waverton makes for an easy way into the heart of Chester. Grouped around the parish church are some Victorian estate houses and the “Waverton Institute.” looking very nineteenth century, the church has work predating that by three centuries. Most of the modern settlement is modern and lies on NCR45 to the west.
Idling in Chester
A little wiggle beyond is Christleton, almost a suburb of Chester, but with a very distinct - and distinctive - village centre. NCR45 picks up the towpath of the Shropshire Union Canal, though you could bee-line for the city centre along the main road.
I like canals, though the surface of the towpath is far from smooth - suffering wear and tear from lots of use - one curses over the corrugations. Numerous cycle route signs direct riders to different parts of the city. Keeping ahead until a cafe or two appear and a turn beside the side-walls of a hotel, across a pedestrian/cyclist crossing point and one is down to the riverside at The Groves, with the signs of the medieval city all around.
This is a glorious spot - many other cyclists seem to agree. Refuelling facilities to suit the depth of most pockets are there; benches by the river beg to provide a spell of recovery; trees provide shady places whilst the river boats - even the occasional busker - provide some additional entertainment.
Further idling further on
From the The Groves it is easy to follow a well-made and continuos cycle route past the racecourse and out along the river, channelled as it is between man-made banks, all the way to Hawarden Railway Bridge. A few pesky barriers intervene, but, with the exception of a short road stretch, this is traffic-free continuity for eight or so miles.
A group of volunteers - Sustrans’ North East Wales volunteers - were taking part in Clean-the-Dee-Day. Stopping for a chat and to admire some of the bits and bobs they’d pulled from the water or dragged up the bank. Amongst the garbage was a half-decent BMX bike, minus its handlebars. Fortunately one of the guys worked on a bike recycling project, so the poor old machine would have a nice warm home before too long.
We chatted with the group about their work, at which we expressed appreciation, and they warned us about the Bagillt climb. A lower level route is proposed, they said, and the coast road was not too bad for people with some experience.
Conversation then moved on to the magnificent-though-dilapidated building by which we stood. A tribute to the greatness of steel, John Summers and Sons Ltd had moved here after growing too big for their Stalybridge site. Shotton steelworks was massive and Summers’ business took over plants as far away as Stoke-on-Trent, eventually being nationalised and privatised in the tough world of modern steel production. This had, presumably, been head office. Isolated as a building in a rural-industrial landscape and glowing in the lunchtime sun, it deserves better care.
Following NCR5 onward from the railway bridge brings a mix of industry and housing along a winding way, along the remains of a an obsolete main road and into Flint. This ancient town, with its historic riverside castle, is a busy place and the traffic reflects this. We followed an impatient lorry - which had overtaken aggressively - the length of the town and beyond.
Eventually one arrives at Bagillt. This is decision point. Follow the low-road along the coast with much more and much faster traffic and fewer views, or head up one of the most challenging climbs on the National Cycle Network. Only one choice, engage granny-gear and up we twiddle. Up a total of 252 metres in around four kilometres, there are some fine views to photograph if you really want to stop.
When atop, NCR5 breezes along gorsey lanes, sweeps through pastures and generally makes the whole effort well worthwhile. Generally keeping height through Brynford, Gorsedd, Whitford and Llanasa. Short sharp climbs mix with joyful rolling through attractive countryside. This seems to carry on for a good long time, coming to an end with a rapid plummet to cross the coast road a little to the east of Prestatyn.
Change of terrain
The change is almost immediate. Following the road toward a holiday park to pick up a cycle track across the marsh and through the golf course and down to the sea-front. The route is now almost flat all the way to Rhos-on-Sea. This is the NCN at its best. The way is generally wide enough for all users and there is something special about riding traffic-free for mile after mile with the salt-sea alongside. There are occasional problems with sand - treacherous for cyclists - blowing off the beach and dunes. Where this reaches more than a thin layer, it is a real hazard. However, in my experience it is not as bad as it was in some places. Despite this, as anyone who has tried to eat a picnic on the beach knows, if sand wants to go somewhere it has the determination and ability to get there.
Close views to landward are often of static caravan parks, but beyond these are hills, becoming higher and craggier as one heads west. Not stopping too often for ice-creams or tea takes a bit of self-discipline. There are plenty of opportunities to partake of all sorts of sea-side fare.
Regeneration has been the order of the day in Rhyl and Colwyn Bay - with a lot of success, in my opinion - and there’s plenty of accommodation to be had. A desire to provide continuous cycling infrastructure for as long a distance as possible has been a big part of the regeneration scheme, the most impressive feature being the Dragon Bridge over Rhyl Harbour - complete with cafe and bike shop. Actually a really important way of avoiding the narrow and busy road bridge, the “Dragon” is imaginatively designed to combine space for walking, cycling and slacking.
Cutting off a corner from Colwyn Bay to Llandudno Junction via Mochdre, we encountered little traffic in the early morning. The back lanes are beautiful whilst useful infrastructure takes one swiftly across the famous bridge towards Conwy Castle and Town - a World Heritage Site - and great obstruction to motor traffic. Founded by Edward I of England to increase his grip on his new conquest, the town layout is still that of the thirteenth century. Much traffic now uses the tunnel under the river, but, unless here early, expect crowds.
NCR5 runs along the old quay past the Liverpool Arms and the Smallest House, disappearing along an unpromising tarmac track that soon emerges again by the estuary and winds its way - shared with pedestrians - onward.
What follows is a peculiar mix of old and new. Eventually the cycle route sticks to the narrow way between the sea and the rocky headlands. In many places a few yards are shared by the A55 dual carriageway, the railway line and the needs of cyclists and pedestrians. Ingeniously a convoluted mix of bridges and twists and turns and ups and downs with the sea on one side and precipitous rocks on the other takes one into pretty Llanfairfechan.
The narrow and winding road
The old main road gives access to one of the narrowest country lanes I have come across, a delight amidst high hedges with sporadic views and stone-built farmhouses. Larger roads on the approach to Penrhyn Castle are given up for the old railway line that brought down the slate to the historic quay and paid for the Castle. The old line is now NCR82 and NCR5. One of the oldest narrow gauge railways, the rails were sold to the Ffestiniog Railway in the nineteen-sixties. The dock is well-worth a little of your time.
Incidentally, NCR82 runs from Bangor to Llyn Ogwen, via the old slate quarrying town of Bethesda, amidst splendid the mountain scenery of the Carneddau and Glyder ranges.
There’s a cafe at the end of Bangor Pier. The coffee was instant but the range of home-baked cakes caused a good deal of deliberation. A spectacular spot with fine views all around; to the south the Menai Sraits, the sea to the north and away to the east Penrhyn harbour and beyond.
And so onto Anglesey and Holyhead.
We returned that evening along the same route, all the way to Abergele. Amidst the glory of a setting sun, a silhouette of the Great Orme bathed in the last glow of the day. Thence, on a quiet Sunday, back through Cheshire, along much the same route. Interesting how things look when reversing a route; familiar, yet sufficiently different. Just as the hills of Denbighshire and of Snowdonia had beckoned us on, there came a point when The Cloud and Mow Cop with the Peak District behind signalled proximity to the end of the ride.
Wot, no Anglesey?
What About Anglesey? Well, we were bee-lining for a challenge on behalf of my cycling companion - raising money for the local Douglas Macmillan Hospice. We dashed - or the nearest thing to it without racing - along the A5. A sample of Anglesey? Yep, bit one that misses out many of the best bits. So more on Anglesey another time.
For now, riding back and forth along the North Wales Coast will have to do …. and there’s lots to be said for it!
There is a very good rail service along the coast www.nationalrail.co.uk
Conwy is the only YHA Hostel on the route www.yha.org.uk
Other budget accommodation on the route is a bunkhouse at Llanfairfechan www.independenthostels.co.uk/members/plattsfarmbunkhouse/