Following our adventure north of the border last year my son Sam (now 20) and I decided to keep the Celtic theme going this summer by taking on the legendary Lon Las Cymru, following National Cycle Route 8 from Holyhead to Cardiff.
‘Well, Holyhead’s right at the top and Cardiff’s right at the bottom so I think you’ll find it’s pretty much downhill most of the way’, said a friend who is Welsh so clearly ought to know. The Lon Las Cymru, 250 miles long, covers the entire length of the country, crossing Snowdonia, mid-Wales, and the Brecon Beacons, and has the reputation of being one of the toughest routes on the UK National Cycle Network. But that must be if you start at the bottom of the map and work your way upwards. Luckily we’re going north to south, so it sounds as easy as an afternoon spin round the park.
We begin the ride after a long train journey from London up to Crewe, and then along the north Wales coastline to the tip of Anglesey. After a showery start the afternoon clears up nicely. In contrast to the dramatic landscape of Snowdonia, visible on the horizon just across the Menai Straits, Anglesey offers flat cycling on peaceful country lanes and an atmosphere of pastoral tranquillity.
The route passes the Bodowyr Burial Chamber, a Neolithic site and one of over 120 ancient monuments on the island. Later we cycle through the village sensibly described on the map as Llanfair PG, whose famous railway station sign proclaims it’s full name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillismtysillogogogoch (that’s pronounced Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillismtysillogogogoch).
According to the excellent and oddly compulsive Dictionary of British Place Names by AD Mills – my bible on bike trips – the ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyll’ bit dates from 1536 and means ‘Church of St Mary in the pool of the white hazels’. The rest of the name was added just for a laugh in the mid-19th century, and the whole thing now means ‘Church of St Mary in the pool of the white hazels fairly near the rapid whirlpool by the church of St Tysilio at the red place’.
By early evening we’ve covered 30 miles to our first night stop at the Anglesey Arms just before the Menai Bridge, where some very decent pub grub (pork & leek sausages & mash/steak & ale pie), and a few jars of JW Lees Tackler’s Gold, sets the gastronomic bar high for the week ahead.
Next morning we’re bracing ourselves for an expected deluge. We get away early while it’s still dry, but the rain kicks in about 10.30 and it’s obvious from the thick grey sky that it’s already set in for the rest of the day. We’re probably cycling through some of the finest scenery in Britain but it’s hard to be sure as visibility is soon down to about 50 yards.
It’s time to don my ‘Emergency Poncho’, a bright yellow plastic cape bought for £1 from Halfords prior to the trip. In fact because I was going cycling in Wales I decided to invest in five ‘Emergency Ponchos’. Unfortunately the garment fails on every level, not only letting all the rain in but also turning me into a sort of windsock on wheels, the whole thing ballooning full of air so that I fear I might take off and float away over the mountains of Snowdonia. To make it worse a group of teenagers out on a school trip point and laugh as we go past. Fortunately they are talking in Welsh so I don’t know what they’re saying.
If you’ve never been to North Wales (most people haven’t; even people I know from South Wales never go to North Wales), nothing prepares you for the weirdness of hearing everyone speaking Welsh, ‘the soft consonants strange to the ear’ in the words of the poet RS Thomas. To the outsider it sounds as otherworldly as Elvish or Dothraki, with the occasional English-sounding word thrown in to fool you into thinking you know what’s going on.
I’m immediately fascinated and decide to enrol for a course in the history of Welsh at the University of Wikipedia. The language emerged in the 6th century from Common Brittonic, the ancestor not only of Welsh but also Cornish, Breton and Cumbric (now extinct but once spoken in my home county Cumberland).
Welsh is characterised by a number of strange sounds that occur in hardly any other European language such as the ‘voiceless alveolar lateral fricative’ (apparently also found among Zulu and Navajo speakers). This is the thing that enables Welsh people to manage all those ‘LL’ sounds, and involves constricting the passage of air through the throat as well as some quite strange use of the tongue.
Meanwhile the rain is getting heavier. We shelter for a while in Caernarvon in the ramparts of the impressive 13th century Castle, but standing still just makes us feel colder. I may have written elsewhere on this blog about the joys of cycling in all the elements, the wind in the hair, the sweet solace of summer raindrops or something or other. I’d now like to withdraw those remarks, especially that bit about the sweet solace of summer raindrops, and make it clear that cycling in all the elements is definitely over-rated. In fact it’s often pretty shit.
Around lunchtime in the middle of nowhere we find brief sanctuary in a roadside portakabin which houses a greasy spoon for passing lorry drivers. We clutch our tea mugs with both hands trying to extract whatever heat is available, but by the time food arrives Sam is shivering all over, and even a double cheese burger and chips fails to work its customary magic.
Studying the map I suddenly realise we can cut off a 12 mile loop around Criccieth by taking a short detour along the main road, which would leave just a few miles to our night stop in Porthmadog. But I hate missing out bits of a route even when the weather’s miserable, a grim stoicism I put down to a northern childhood of trudging through rain and wind on country walks with my father. And I was really looking forward to seeing Criccieth Castle.
For about fifteen minutes (I’m not proud of this) I consider just not telling Sam about the short cut. But his teeth are now chattering quite alarmingly. If he checks the map later he’s not going to be pleased. I offer the detour and he grabs it with desperate gratitude. Actually if truth be told I don’t really mind too much. I’m normally pretty gung-ho about these things, but even my ho is not feeling quite as gunged as usual today.
We take the main road for a couple of miles and re-join the cycle route further on. Through the blanket of cloud we can just make out the dark shapes of hills towering above us. We pass through villages whose grey stone houses and slate roofs as black as bibles add to the austere atmosphere of the Snowdonia landscape in teeming rain. Eventually we arrive in Porthmadog. It’s a bustling market town even on such a dismal day, with a great variety of small shops all lit up and cosy-looking, feeling more like mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve than early July.
Our accommodation, the Bluebird B&B, is tucked away down the back streets of town. I hammer on the front door, tempted to shout like Richard E Grant in Withnail and I, ‘We’ve come on holiday by mistake…I demand to have some booze!’ The landlady, a plumpish woman of mature years with the unlikely name of Mrs Lightfoot, seems shocked by our appearance. But once we have wheeled our bikes into the backyard she ushers us inside with a show of fuss and welcome talk of steaming baths and piping hot mugs of tea.
Up in our room we peel off our wet things as rain continues to lash against the window panes. Wimbledon is on the telly, and annoyingly Centre Court is baking in hot sunshine. It’s Kings Landing down there and North of the pissing Wall up here. But things soon get better as I thaw out in one of the most sumptuous baths I’ve ever had. It’s unusually deep and wide with a useful handrail for climbing in and out, and is presumably designed for the elderly and infirm. As I lie soaking I wonder about getting one of these installed at home, but that might feel a bit macabre.
Everything in our panniers is saturated but Mrs L kindly offers to put all our clothes through the tumble drier. Sam, meanwhile, hits on the clever wheeze of drying his sodden trainers using the hair dryer in the bedroom. I have a go on mine too, shoving it down into the toes and waggling it about to blow the hot air around. This seems to be working well until there’s a loud pop from the hair dryer and a stink of burning. I’ve had some low moments on bike trips but I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’ve set fire to my shoes.
Later in the evening, in between showers, we venture out to eat. It’s time for something traditionally Welsh so we head for the Sima Tandoori for a kickass curry. This seems like a good moment to call home and share the news of our heroic battle against the biblical elements. But as I’m waiting for someone to pick up the phone at home the waiter comes over to take our drinks order, so when my wife eventually answers the first thing she hears is me saying, ‘Two large Cobras and some poppadoms please.’
‘Well it certainly sounds like you two are having a good time’, she says. ‘Yes, all is well now’, I say, ‘But you should have seen us earlier – it was hell! ‘Really?’ she says, clearly unconvinced. She has had a long and tiring day at work (school parents evening), has a pasta ready-meal to look forward to, and it’s only Monday; sympathy is in short supply.
Back at the Bluebird we manage to sleep well despite the rain drumming on the windows through the night and seagulls shrieking in the yard. But next morning, although the skies are still leaden, the rain has at least stopped. We eat breakfast in Mrs Lightfoot’s parlour, surrounded by family photographs, many showing young men in army uniform. The shelves are stuffed with ornaments and evidence of a collector’s zeal with numerous chess sets designed on a military history theme: Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, The Charge of the Light Brigade…
We are joined by four fellow guests at breakfast, all of retirement age, here on classic British holidays: walking, bird watching and riding around on heritage railways in the rain. They seem a bit glum but cheer up when Mrs Lightfoot tells them the weather prospects for the rest of the week are looking up. She turns to us, and says, ‘And I’d like to say the same to you two, but I’m afraid it’s going to get worse where you’re going…probably much worse…’
This is a bit of a downer and completely at odds with my own reading of the forecast. According to the BBC things should be brightening up as we move further south. Is Mrs Lightfoot privy to some infallible local intelligence on such matters? Or maybe she just thinks we carry our own personal weather around with us – a relentless drizzle – wherever we go.
Leaving Porthmadog we reach the town of Penrhyndeudraeth (‘The promontory between two beaches’). At this rate I might be able to fill an entire blog post with unpronounceable place names. The route continues on a viaduct across the estuary but unfortunately it’s closed for repairs and is not due to re-open until next week.
The only alternative is a ten mile detour on a very busy A-road. I can tell this is not going to be one of those bike trips where everything goes smoothly according to plan. Luckily there’s a railway station in town and the next train leaves in an hour which gives us time for a second breakfast of two pots of tea, a plate of Caerphilly Welsh Rarebit and the Independent crossword.
We take the train a few stops down the line past Harlech Castle to the village of Pensarn where we re-join NCN 8. The sun is shining weakly by now, and I’m pleased to say that Mrs Lightfoot’s Cassandra-like prophesies are proving wide of the mark. The rest of the day is one of my favourite sections of the Lon Las Cymru. The route cuts inland over the hills then follows the coast road down to Barmouth, a seaside resort long past its glory days but retaining a faded windswept elegance. We cycle along the front, sandblasted and showered by spray from the waves crashing in over the Irish Sea, stopping for a late lunch of chip butties and beer.
The route continues along the Mawddach Trail, a lovely ten mile stretch which crosses the River Mawddach via a 700 metre long wooden viaduct built in 1867, and then follows the estuary inland to Dolgellau. There are stunning views of the southern Snowdonia mountains. The Trail uses part of the old Great Western Railway route which used to ferry visitors from northwest England to Barmouth from Victorian times into the early decades of the 20th century. The line fell victim to the Beeching axe in 1965 but, like so many others in Britain, has been happily reincarnated for cyclists and walkers.
From Dolgellau the road gradually snakes upwards 400 metres, reaching high into the clouds, bleak and beautiful up here on these lonely fells, the sky dark and brooding and pierced by occasional shafts of sunlight. Panting heavily to the top I suspect my Welsh friend’s topographical reading of the landscape was not entirely correct.
As we cycle over the brow of the last hill and reach the summit a middle-aged couple climb out of the back seat of a car, grin sheepishly, and get into the front. You could probably be up here all day normally and not see a soul. From the top we swoop ten miles down through the forests of the Dulas Valley to our night stop at Machynlleth, a place described by Mike Carter in One Man and His Bike (a wonderful book about his cycle trip around the British coastline) as ‘a place light on vowels but, if pronounced properly, heavy on expectoration’. The White Lion in the main street provides us with fish & chips, Banks’s Bitter and a comfortable bed.
Rain is falling again when we awake but is expected to stop by mid-morning so we opt for a late breakfast and a delayed start. After cycling hundreds of miles around Britain over recent years, failing to spot any interesting wildlife apart from sheep, today brings a rare success. Outside the White Lion the manager of the pub points out a red kite flying high above the town.
Over the next few days we spot more examples of this supremely graceful bird of prey, now thriving in the UK after once being on the brink of extinction. Once identified it’s easy to spot, even for me, with a wingspan over five feet, forked tail, brown and white colouring with streaks of red-rust, and has such economy of movement that it barely seems to fly at all, gliding effortlessly on pillows of air.
Machynlleth nestles in a valley between the mountains, and the road out of town is almost a mirror image of yesterday afternoon’s climb but this time reaching 509 metres, the highest point on the Lon Las Cymru. At the top we catch up with a man and woman aged about 60 who we saw earlier this morning at breakfast in the White Lion. Both look to be seasoned cycle tourers, whippet-thin and weather beaten, their bikes heavily loaded with luggage. We stop for a chat. One of the great joys of a bike trip, I say, is spotting interesting wildlife. They agree enthusiastically. Indeed only yesterday they saw ospreys, one of the rarest, most elusive and majestic of all British birds! I was about to mention red kites but decide not to bother.
The route continues along the upper course of the River Severn dropping through Hafren Forest and down to our lunch stop in the town of Llanidloes. The name just trips off my tongue like a native, and, mysteriously, I think I may now be acquiring a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. The sun comes out and we sit outside the Crown & Anchor in the town centre with a pint of Hancocks (served by Ruby, landlady here for the past 50 years), munching pastries from the Talerdigg Bakery next door.
For lunchtime entertainment there’s a procession of brightly coloured and decrepit looking estate cars, 500 in total, streaming through town with klaxons blaring and a cargo of Dutch passengers in very high spirits. It turns out this is the Carbage Run, an annual car rally in which competitors from the Netherlands have to buy and customise their own vehicles which must cost under 500 euros and have been built before 1998.
There’s a different route every year and this time it goes from Holland to Aberdeen, on back roads via London, Swansea, the Peak District and Glasgow. It’s like a cross between the Wacky Races and Jeux Sans Frontieres, with competitors given daily tasks to earn extra points. Today’s challenge is to find someone called Ben and persuade him to travel the rest of the way to Aberdeen with hundreds of crazy Dutch people.
After lunch we enjoy a peaceful and undemanding afternoon on undulating minor roads down into the Wye Valley. At one point the way ahead is blocked by a group of sheep who have wandered from a neighbouring field. Startled by our arrival they hurtle down the lane with a great chorus of baaing as Sam chases after them laughing and ringing his bell for about half a mile until they manage to escape through a gap in the hedge.
Arriving at the Horseshoe Guesthouse in Rhayader, we shower and watch Andy Murray win his Wimbledon quarter final before heading out to The Eagles, a fine old pub which dates from 1579. The menu features locally sourced Welsh black beef and a wide range of game dishes, as well as kangaroo, crocodile and ostrich. We plump for a couple of rich, dark casseroles, mutton (Sam) and pheasant (me). The evening concludes with a fiercely fought game of darts at the Cornhill Inn round the corner from the Horseshoes. Turning in for the night I wonder how Ben is getting on.
Next morning, we’re cycling beneath deep blue skies at last as the route meanders along the course of the River Wye, passing through Newbridge and on to a lunch stop in Builth Wells. There’s more of a sprinkling of English-sounding place names down here, particularly as we get closer to the border. It’s been a couple of days now since we’ve heard any Dothraki and everyone now speaks with a proper Welsh accent like on Gavin & Stacey.
After a couple of pints of Hereford Pale Ale we enjoy some more afternoon cruising along flat quiet roads in glorious sunshine. But everything is going too well. Just as we are approaching the town of Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, my back tyre explodes with a frighteningly loud bang.
I’ve not had a puncture in years so I’ve been dodging this bullet for a while. I’ve got a spare inner tube and have even practiced changing it at home so although it’s annoying I’m not too worried. But then I realise the full extent of the damage – it’s not just the tube that’s punctured, there’s a large gash in the tyre itself. There’s no way I can mend this and we’re still 15 miles from our night stop in Brecon, and that’s via the most direct route on the dual carriageway of death.
Luckily for circumstances like these I have a contingency plan up my sleeve which is to Throw Myself Upon The Beneficence Of The Universe. We suddenly notice a bus stop 30 yards down the street and, ten minutes later, the last bus to Brecon pulls up. The driver looks at the bikes and shakes his head. It’s strictly against the rules. I pull my most desperate face and he softens. He’s a mountain biker himself and will not leave us stranded. Top man. Like most bike trips – I think even more than most – the kindness of strangers has been striking throughout the whole week.
He drops us in Brecon town centre and we wheel our bikes to our accommodation at the Bridge Café. This is a wonderfully quirky place run by Carole and Jon, an agreeable pair of rat race escapees who have poured their dreams into this charming and higgledy-piggledy 16th century house, full of nooks and crannies and chickens clucking around in the yard outside. The sloping floors upstairs are strangely disorientating. ‘You don’t need to go the pub’, says Jon. ‘You feel a bit pissed just being in the house.’
I tell Jon about my gashed tyre. ‘You can sometimes do a temporary fix by wodging a bit of cardboard into the hole’, he says, hinting at a level of technical competence I can only dream about. The Bridge Café doubles as a bistro at the weekends and the menu looks enticing but unfortunately this is a Thursday night. We make do with takeaway pizza in the main square and a visit to The George Hotel where we drink fine ale brewed by a local company with the Welshest of names, Evan Evans.
Next morning the Bridge Café wins the coveted Worthington Top Breakfast Of The Trip award: eggs with intensely yellow yolks, local organic sausage and bacon, field mushrooms, artisan bread and excellent coffee. It’s all very much to my liking although Sam, who has developed gritty northern tastes since studying in Hull, would prefer something more authentically proletarian and bemoans the lack of sliced white Sunblest and Nescafe.
After popping into the local bike shop to get a new tyre fitted we set off on the last leg of the Lon Las Cymru, which follows the Taff Trail mostly off-road for 50 miles from Brecon to Cardiff. The first section is one of the most scenic and remotest sections on the whole route, following quiet roads to the Talybont reservoir, and a long hike up through Taf Fechan forest on the western edge of the Black Mountains, pools of warm sunshine pouring through the trees.
We are alone save for a troupe of scouts on an orienteering exercise and the occasional red kite hanging on the breeze. The Brecon Beacons National Park is a pussycat this morning and it’s hard to believe only four days ago a couple of walkers were tragically struck by lightning in separate incidents up on those high peaks. From 450 metres at the top we plunge ten miles downhill (the surface loose and treacherous in places) to a last lunch of omelettes at a pub on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil in the one-time heartland of industrial Wales.
The final 30 miles follows the River Taff on flat cycle tracks and B roads through Pontypridd and on to the centre of Cardiff where we end the trip in The Cambrian Tap, Brains Brewery’s newly opened craft ale bar. The city centre is lively and buzzing with the collective relief of another Friday night, heightened on this occasion by the joy of cricket fans pouring out of the Sophia Gardens down the road where England are slaughtering Australia in the first Ashes Test of the summer. And as we toast the successful completion of the Lon Las Cymru, I’m not sure life needs to get much better. It’s been a great trip. Glad we don’t have to cycle all the way back up to the top though.
I hope this encourages someone to try this wonderful ride. If so please do let me know in the comments below, or also if you have any recommendations for other trips.