On a Northerly Heading

A ride on tracks and trails through the empty heart of Wales.

A journey by bike is always given a unique flavour by the country through which one is travelling, sometimes it’s food, sometimes it’s the people, and sometimes it’s just those funny little moments that sum up the experience perfectly. It had been a while since I did any touring here in the UK so it was reassuring to find that nothing has changed; it is still an experience partly defined by such things as finding refuge from the drizzle in a village bus shelter while lunching on limp petrol-station cheese sandwiches simply because nothing else is available, or standing out of the rain under the awning of a roadside catering trailer with a bacon butty, loaded with brown sauce, and mug of instant coffee while a lovely old chap called Phil tells you all about the arthritis in his knees. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Another such moment that goes with bicycle travel in this part of the world being the look of instant regret on the face of a friendly cafe owner when he offers to fill your water bottle and you hand over a filthy mud and sheep shit encrusted receptacle.

After the confines of Covid followed by an abominable summer here in Cornwall there was a strong imperative to just go and find some empty space for a while, and spend time with friends not seen for a long time. I pointed my wheels north in a general direction of “as far away from cars as possible” – I still flinch every time a car comes near or looks as though it might be headed in my direction, so a journey through the empty heart of Wales, using tracks and trails as much as possible, with a view to visiting friends in the northwest seemed a good idea. The second part of the journey, returning south down the Welsh borders, catching up with more friends, had to be scrapped in favour of a train ride – my ankles were injured when the car hit me back in July, and multiple long days riding really aggravated the injury to a point beyond which simply relying on ibuprofen seemed unwise. Despite that it was still a super mini-escape with about 550km of really lovely riding featuring a great deal of weather, and a delightful absence of cars and crowds. With continued physiotherapy I’m hopeful that my injuries will be fully resolved in time for spring, in the meantime however, as usual, I may as well tell a little of the story with pictures. For reasons of really not wanting to be encumbered I took just my Fuji x100f, finding a simple fixed lens camera quite ‘liberating’.

With a strong desire to eat fish and chips I stopped in Usk, pitching my tent in the grounds of the ruined castle which features a lovely little wooded camping area. The fish and chip shop turned out to be closed on Mondays so I had to settle for a curry as fuel for the following day as my route took me into the Brecon Beacons with a terrific long stretch of highland singletrack.

Most days I was on the road by 9am, having brewed myself multiple coffees – it was holidays after all – and riding until the light began to fade, pitching my tent based on whatever opportunities presented themselves. Sometimes it was, for example, a deserted farm camping meadow by a stream, eating dinner while watching a kingfisher hunt in the fading light, and sometimes a hidden patch of woodland. Arriving in the hamlet of Pontrhydfendigaid one damp evening in search of water and sustenance the friendly lady in the village shop said “just ride up to the top of the hill, the couple that live opposite the pub have a little meadow, they’re lovely and will be happy to see you”. They were. An old boy in the shop said “if you can wait a bit while I get my car I can give you a lift up there, it’s quite a hill…”. I declined but it was another one of those little moments that can define a journey, no matter how brief. Another such moment that goes with bicycle travel in this part of the world being the look of instant regret on the face of a friendly cafe owner when he offers to fill your water bottle and you hand over a filthy mud and sheep shit encrusted receptacle.

Riding in Wales….
I used my old Surly Cross Check; ideal for this sort of thing involving a mix of tracks, trails, and road. I hung a pair of mini-panniers off a Tubus Fly rack rather than rely on a big seatpack. Weighing very little and keeping the centre of gravity nice and low, I had plenty of capacity for camping gear, a few days worth of of food and coffee as well as my habitual “security blankets” of water filter and first aid kit. No clearance issues on tight singletrack with these either. The whole package remained easily light and handy enough for lifting as one over a number of locked gates (locked to deter motor vehicles, I abused no rights of way) and other obstacles.
This stretch not too far from the world heritage industrial town of Blaenavon looked to be heavily quarried.
Trails were steep in spots…
..but always with fine views. The climbing was expectedly relentless in fact, in a total of 550km I climbed some 8500m.
The rocky trail to the pass between Fan y Big (719m) and Cribyn (795m).
The pass itself, affectionately known as “The Gap”.
It is followed by a long and rather fabulous descent. This route is a mountain biking classic.
I was up here in the warm, hazy sun of late afternoon. Temperatures were balmy and the winds light… for the last time, as it happened.
Water stop. They’re not particularly light but I do like stainless steel bottles for their longevity and lack of taste. These MSR ones have caps that interface directly with my water filter. It’s not necessary but is a nice touch and does make filtering easier.
The last vestiges of summer in the lanes, heading northwest, deeper into Wales. To describe the countryside as “rolling” would not do justice to the relentless, and relentlessly steep climbs.
Many km of drizzly, misty forest tracks with just the occasional logging truck. Living in Cornwall I hadn’t really appreciated the degree to which trees are a managed crop in Wales, some of the forestry sections felt interminable at times.
One could be forgiven for thinking that these forests are damp….
There is an unwritten rule of this sort of cycling that says bicycles must be photographed with log piles. So here is my contribution.
Deeper and deeper… into the Cambrian Mountains on a terrific network of gravel tracks with not a soul around. Somehow the less than clement weather felt “right”.
Mailbox near Pontrhydfendigaid.
I enjoyed a number of wonderfully close encounters with Red Kites along this stretch, soaring alongside, almost within arms reach. Such a beautiful bird.
The Nant-y-moch reservoir. Created in 1964 as part of a wider hydro-electric scheme.
I absolutely loved this wild and remote stretch.
The trails were very wet, of course, with water over my axles (and feet – hurrah for Sealskinz socks) on a number of occasions, and a proper river crossing to negotiate. A little bit of wilderness to keep me happy.
Now that I have a better feel for this area I’m excited to head back here for a more intimate exploration. It was brilliant.
Nights and mornings were mostly very wet with afternoons turning bright and blustery – perfect for drying a tent quickly in the wind while munching on some bread and cheese by the side of the trail.
I was riding 45c tyres which coped with the rocks fine, but there is a case for perhaps coming this way with something a little wider.
Not all open tracks, some more intimate forested singletrack. Good fun.
Finding myself in a steep, farmed valley as the light began to fade options for the night looked a bit slim. I spotted this likely-looking and clearly long disused track leading steeply up into an old-growth woodland…
.. so hopped over the rusty gate and headed up. About a km or so in there was a lovely, not quite level but good enough, spot for the night in the shelter of a big old hazel tree. Perfect and kept me dry for an easier morning cooking breakfast and packing when the heavens opened again.
Near Lake Vyrnwy.
Into Snowdonia… I didn’t take many pics along this stretch… conditions were ‘wet’.
.. but by later afternoon were wonderfully bright and blustery. I pitched my tent at a farm above Llangollen so that I could go and enjoy the long-awaited fish and chips for tea.
Llangollen was my last stop on my way north before arriving into Chester. I descended off the “Welsh Altiplano” at Worlds End – in the rain and mist (hence no pics), out onto the Cheshire plains, arriving in time for an open air beer festival in town with friends before spending the next couple of days exploring afresh on two wheels in good company. Having been confined, first by Covid and then by the awful summer in Cornwall, it felt genuinely wonderful to be able to spend quality time with friends.
We spent a day tootling around the Cheshire lanes and bridlepaths – dotted with Roman bridges such as this one unexpectedly hiding away in the countryside.
Before heading back into North Wales for some “grass up the middle” exploration.
So very green…
I love the grey stone that characterises the area.
Following lines on a map… it could have been an unrideable bog, or fizzled out into nothing…
…but after a short hike instead turned into a wonderful highland track…
..with fabulous views of the Snowdon range to the north.
Lunch with a freshly brewed pot of tea while sat out of the wind in the lee of an old stone wall formed the prelude to a fabulous afternoon of riding. Definitely the best single-day ride I’ve enjoyed for a long time and a fine way to wrap things up.
As a footnote, and an accompaniment to the “bicycle with log pile” picture.. it is also the law that bicycles be photographed with graffiti. This fine display being near Chepstow having just crossed the Severn river into Wales.

16 thoughts on “On a Northerly Heading

  • Great stuff, Mike!

    Good to see you out there and lovely to see what the little x100 can do in such capable hands.

    Glad you got to see ‘other Mike’ too!

  • Nice. I dig the photos. What focal length is that lens on the Fuji?

    I’m also with you on the steel water bottles, though this year I’ve also been using a lined Polar bottle. It’s got more capacity and is easier to drink out of (especially while riding). But I still like the steel better.

    • hey, thanks for the kind feedback! The lens is a 23mm (35mm full frame equivalent). It doesn’t perform quite as well as the little Fuji 23mm f2WR prime I use with my x-pro 2 but the overall package is more compact, and it’s just a lovely little camera.

      Yeah the steel bottles aren’t ideal for drinking while riding, but on the other hand when touring I decided it’s never a bad thing to have to stop for a moment and look around. I’ve never heard of the Polar bottle so I’ll go and have a look!

  • Hi Mike, great to read that you found a little space and time for yourself.

    As someone who is lucky enough to live in a very sunny place I don’t ride in the rain(unless going to work) . And having grown up reading all the English photography magazines these images are familiar and yet foreign to me. I might one day get to ride these lanes and byways, until then riding along with you is the next best.

    Thanks again for writing and illustrating you wonderful blog.

    Stephen.

    • hehe, I confess I am not a huge fan of the rain… lying in my tent on this trip while listening to the rain battering the fly gave me cause to reflect on why the majority of my overseas riding has gravitated towards deserts…Still, needs must and all that!
      Cheers for the kind feedback, that’s brightened a drizzly morning.

  • Mike,
    I had to leave a comment on this post. It’s my favourite post in a long time. Not that your prior recent posts are are not great and compelling. This one made me feel that I was riding with you on this amazing trip (as if I can). Your written description and captions were full of beautiful imagery. Pictures are fabulous as usual. Your enjoyment of this trek and ride came through clearly and beautifully. Good call on taking the train back. Cheers

    • hey Jean, well that’s awfully kind of you to say so, cheers! I’m happy that you enjoyed the ride. It’s been hard to find anything at all meaningful to write about over the last year and half, hopefully that can start to change…

  • A very welcome and timely antidote to the incessant news of “fuel shortages” endless queues at filling stations.

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