RING CYCLE: RIDING THE RADNOR RING
Hidden away in Powys, bordering on England, lies Radnorshire, once described as “neither England or Wales, just Radnorshire.” The mundanely numbered NCR825 circuits the quiet heart of the old county, linking its small towns. The Radnor Ring cycle route is one of the very best; perhaps the best lesser-known route. Not as long as the C2C routes; without such defined termini, you end where you started; but in between you’ll find 84 miles of spectacular scenery fit for a challenge or a more leisurely long weekend. Steve Dyster’s been for a ride around Radnorshire.
I set out at lunchtime from Knighton Station. The town is mainly in Wales and partly in England. The Radnor Ring runs for a few miles on the English side of the border, hereabouts marked by the River Teme. Of course, as a circular route, you could start anywhere - the official start is at Newbridge-on-Wye. Being a convinced bike and train tourer, other stations on the beautiful Heart of Wales line could have made for a start at Llangunllo, Llanbister Road or Llandrindod Wells.
The first fellow cyclist was encountered beneath the dark slopes of Panpunton Hill, on a deceptively flat stretch of road. No, he was on his way back to Tenbury Wells, Worcrstershire, after a morning ride out, not on the Radnor Ring. It was to be a long time before I met the next cyclist.
Flat riding amidst hills; what could be easier and pleasanter? The great Knucklas Viaduct, castellated at the demand of a landowner who, in return, allowed the builders to plunder the stone from the ruins of Knucklas Castle. Then the hill start to add to the pleasure; wooded hilltops like icing on buns of sheep pasture. These are not the nice regular mountains with distinct, predictable valleys. Steeply-sided hills, some seeming to stand alone, others forming ridges or broad moors, but rarely do you climb over at the head of the valley you expect.
If you want a real challenge, then this would do. The hills are not alpine pass, but they become frequent; between Llanbister Road and Llananno the roller-coaster charges manically across deep, lonely valleys, with a brief high level moorland stretch to allow respite to brakes and lungs. Getting momentum is not easy on twisting descents, some with none too reliable surfaces, so be ready for a good honk or a short walk.
Crossing main A483 the road at Llananno, the theme continues more gently, as a valley route takes you to the hamlet pf Abbey Cwmhir. Passing through a farm, narrow, pot-holed; the valley unexpectedly widens out to reach an iconic spot in Radnorshire history. Radnorshire, despite its spectacular scenery does not have the highest hills in Wales, or the widest rivers or the biggest towns; but it did have the largest Abbey. Unfinished though it was, when the Cistercian monks came here they embarked on building a monastery that was dwarf others in Wales. The church nave alone was longer than St. David’s Cathedral. It was burned down in 1401 by Owain Glyndwr. Bizarrely, there were only three monks rattling around at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Little remains.
As happened elsewhere, the land was sold off and taken on by gentry. The current Abbey Cwmhir Hall was built in the nineteenth century, replacing an earlier Tudor building. In the seventeenth century it was cited in a doggerel verse exemplifying Radnorshire’s legendary poverty and remoteness;
Radnorshire, poor Radnorshire,
Never a park and never a deer,
Never a man worth £500 a year,
Except Robert Fowler of Abbeycwmhir.
A very charming spot to have a bit of a break. There is a lovely looking pub, but it opens in the evenings.
The climb out of Cwmhir is long. The hairpins on the other side of the hill lead quickly to a superb, mainly straight …. ish …. run down to Rhayader. I was ready for a sugary cuppa and a cake, partly to deal with the shock of not having used granny gear for three and a half-miles.
Using mostly quiet lanes, there’s little cycle specific infrastructure; it is not needed. However, after crossing the River Wye, the signed route joins with NCR8 and NCR81 to follow a gated, well-surfaced path over the top of a tunnel on the old Mid-Wales Railway line. This avoids a short distance on the B4518, so is easily avoided if you are bent on a personal best.
Soon back on country lane tarmac along the Wye, your legs may wonder what has happened. However, there is a decision to be made. At Llanwrthwl cyclists are told that the tarmac of the lane will soon give way to an old coach road which is rough and can be muddy. The alternative is to cross the river and use the A470. This can be busy, but these things are relative. It is a bit of a shame that a busy road or a rough track are the options on offer, especially for newcomers to cycling.
The coach road was not muddy as it crosses the National Trust owned Trembyd. Rough it was. In some places it was too stoney and loose to ride. In other places it was just rough. The old steel tourer did almost all on 28mm tyres, but a hybrid or MTB would have done it better.
Returning to tarmac, an ascent and along descent bring you over the Wye to Newbridge-on-Wye. Though only short distance from cake in Rhayader, the sun came out and I opted to take advantage of the town’s fleshpots; dinner at the New Inn was tasty, filling and competitively priced.
This left a charming ride to the Glen Usk Hotel in Llandrindod Wells, a mere five miles, but mainly, to keep the theme of the day, uphill. There’s a shared cycle path between Llanyre and the high school in Llandrindod, I ignored most of it - there was no traffic. However, let’s hope it encourages parents to let their children cycle to school.
Llandrindod is the largest town in Radnorshire, as well as being home to the National Cycle Museum. It retains many of the features of a Victorian Spa. A good place to wander round for a while.
Beyond the urban centre, a rapid return is made to the undulations of rural lanes. At Shaky Bridge the winding road crosses the River Ithon and crosses a hillside opposite the magnificent earthworks of Cefnllys Castle. Though the town has only just been left, it feels wonderfully remote. A further nine miles winding and rolling with panoramic views alternating with close-ups of pastoral hillsides, brings the rider to Hundred House on the A481.
Nest comes a mix of workout and wonder as you ride up to Glascwm - here there was once one of those moderately primitive Youth Hostels that are so much missed by some. If you fancy a breather - and you may well - the Church is a fine mixture of squat strength and decorative windows, or there are fine views back from the summit of the road just beyond the village.
The general theme of lumpiness returns, though not as vigorous as some earlier sections. Eventually, Gladestry and its pub, under the fine curve of Hergest Ridge, are reached. Still in Wales, this feels a bit more gentle, and soon one crosses over into England, pass Hergest Court and arrive in Kington (the one YHA Hostel on the route is here.
Kington and Presteigne are both attractive border towns. Follow the B4355 between them. Your legs will appreciate this seven mile lull in hostilities. Either is a good place to stop for a night, refresh, replenish and take a look. the Judge’s Lodgings, in Presteigne, is a highly-rated attraction based in the home of the old Radnorshire Assizes.
In Presteigne a tempting sign points to Knighton along the B4356. Following a chat with a local cyclist - largely about rear wheels - he said that Stonewall Hill, the route of the Radnor Ring, emphasises the “wall” and that i might want to take my jacket off. He was correct on all counts. Stonewall Hill lived up to its name, but lead to vast panoramas to the left and right and then all around. I felt a real sense of disappointment when the freewheel picked up speed and Knighton, a few dots in the valley became a town in but a few turns of the pedal.
I had completed the cycle of the Radnor Ring and what a tremendous time I’d had. Gird up your loins, service your brakes and get ready to enjoy all this gem has to offer; go for a challenge or go for an amble; just go!
The Glen Usk Hotel stands in the heart of Llandrindod Wells. For a forty pounds I got a single room for a single night - neither of which are always easy to find at weekends - and secure storage overnight for the important element of the partnership. Even better after a strenuous ride, there was an en suite bath to relax in.
Signage was good throughout. Maps are available from https://shop.sustrans.org.uk/maps
For more general tourist information http://www.visitmidwales.co.uk
The Heart of Wales line links Shrewsbury and Swansea, a spectacular ride in itself. Trains will carry bikes, but be aware that they usually only a single unit and run infrequently. there are five trains a day between Llandrindod and Shrewsbury on weekdays, four on Saturdays and two on Sundays. http://www.nationalrail.co.uk
PUBLISHED MAY 2017