Martin Appleyard was this tour's victim and frankly he should have known better.
As an old friend and colleague he'd been saturated and subjected to steep hills on a 2008 cycle adventure between York and Edinburgh and in a further deep loss of reason he'd signed up and had more of the same on a 2010 bike ride from Toulouse over the Pyrenees into Spain and back again by the coast. It appears that after a further seven years he’d forgotten the misery. On mature reflection he must have known that 2017 wouldn't be a better experience. In fact this tour rolled all the biggest challenges of previous expeditions into one and even I was frightened at one point that I'd pushed my luck too far as regards safety.
Sometime after the ride finished; I'm still feeling sorry for doing this to him. Read on.
A long train ride brought me from York to Swansea and Martin from Abingdon. On one of those trains that stop everywhere I'd noted the development of light rain into something less pleasing as we penetrated into deepest South Wales. Meeting at the station exit we pedalled the short and wet distance to our first hotel, Ibis, to discuss the maps, wind and hills.
(Along the cycle path we came across a prostrate cyclist being attended to by an ambulance. He'd hit a lamppost at speed! Not a good omen for what lay ahead).
I've cycled in lots of places in the UK and spent time in South and North Wales but I'd never been to the west coast or seen the interior. Martin had mentioned about fancying a cycle tour in a random conversation a couple of months earlier and so I'd scoped a journey from south to north.
We were evenly matched as regards fitness and so after packing a selection of kit to cope with heat or cold then what could possibly go wrong?
Leaving Swansea was on Sustrans National Route 4. This is a cycle route which broadly follows the south coast, to start, and is signposted (most of the time). It is serviced by maps that miss out the distressing details such as distances or hill gradients: after all why would you want such detail to ruin your bike ride?
As a marker for how things would continue we pedalled out in heavy rain noting the choppy sea on our left and rush hour traffic on our right. Not all bad however as we proceeded down the cycle path broadly 'sealed' from the rain with our clothing whilst other commuters, on push bikes, came into view not wearing any waterproofs and with one student still brandishing their heavy, now sodden, headphones around their neck.
This ride out was nearly the flattest of the trip and when eventually the sun came out it was a sensational ride. Note the smiles and posing in the photos! On the route we came across joggers, dog walkers, hikers but no other cyclists. Maybe they knew something we didn't? I love history and the plaque to Amelia Earhart was interesting. Can you imagine that long, cold, lonely and dangerous flight in an aircraft with the reliability of an Austin Allegro?
Llanelli was very wet and windy. We cycled past the impressive new rugby stadium. The Welsh love their Rugby Union and for a small nation then you have to acknowledge their talent. Our ride passed many pitches and clubs. On the Saturday you could hear the spectators bellowing as they huddled on the touchline.
The rest of the town looked old and a little past its best and sadly as heavy industry declined it took away much of the prosperity. It was telling in a chat with one waitress later in the day, that when we mentioned the local economy she identified the large supermarkets as major employers. And so it was with Llanelli, which boasted a large Asda in its centre.
If there was any reason to be glum about the increasing wind then, thinking on the bright side, we'd be entering Pembroke Dock long after the BBC's forecast of thunder and lightning there!
Eventually as we got further west the road suddenly went skywards. It was my fault! I suspected Route 4 was taking us on a long detour and opted to take the B road from Kidwelly to Ferryside. Wow, what a hill! For half a mile we edge closer to the firmament and around each corner we discovered another additional climb and never the summit. It would be fair to say that I was the first to decide that what remained of my knees was best served by dismounting and pushing up this 12% incline. Yes, to coin a phrase, weak and increasingly wobbly.
From here we plummeted into Ferryside and after re-grouping I promised Martin to stop for lunch in Carmarthen. This was quite an easy ride but the sun was gone and rain was falling. No problem then with lunch in sight?
Martin got a puncture! This was made worse by elderly tires and one of which, when inspected by turning inside out, decided to refuse to return to its original shape. So Plan B was agreed to push the bikes the next 2 miles into Carmarthen where we'd find a bike shop and a new tyre.
Half a mile later, probably in response to Martin's silent praying, a McDonalds came into view. This would be our second visit of the day! However, an apparition greater than any religious icon also appeared through some trees... Halfords. I disappeared to MaccieDee's to dry out and devour deeply unhealthy fried and processed food (yum) and Martin went to the store to invest in new tyres and mudguards (who tours in the UK without mudguards?)
Well despite the pleasure at finding Halfords then the bike fixing took some time. From getting the puncture to getting back on the route took 3 hours to complete. Martin after having created a useful time gap to hold the Yellow Jersey was soundly disqualified and put on notice by the commissionaire (me) that any other delays would be reported in my subsequent blog. Always a man of my word (not) then I decided that this would appear in a blog in any case!
Well from here Martin led me along the horrifically busy A40 before we returned to Route 4 and a hoped for gentle amble to Saundersfoot. Sadly the road went up and up. There was no difficulty in the ascent but the cycling was slow and time was passing quickly. At this time of year the light starts to fall off after 7pm and it is no fun to ride in darkness even with lights.
Apparently the Welsh also have another use for sheep, but as my Favourite Eldest Daughter remarked - ‘how can you tell who’s won?'
Along this coast some delightful places came into view. Not least Amroth where along the sea wall a couple of ladies were perched looking out to sea on a warm sunny evening clutching some champagne flutes and polishing off a bottle of something delicious and fizzy. However, we had to push on and after a lovely run down a cliff path we got to Saundersfoot. This seemed a lively and attractive place with diners and drinkers perambulating along the front.
Despite time passing for us we rang the hotel and confirmed that we were coming but not until maybe well past 7pm. At least we now had a guaranteed room for the night.
Agreement was reached to abandon Route 4 and its evil and wickedly hilly ways for a quick dash down the A477 to Pembroke Dock. This we did and bowled into The Dolphin Hotel, just before another deluge. The hotel was a pub with rooms above. The staff seemed nice and the room basic but adequate. A considerable downside was the buoyant and noisy bar beneath our room. I can cope with loud music but for heaven's sake, Coldplay?
Before retiring we scoured the streets for a restaurant and as we were pushing 9pm and the fact that our part of town was away from any shops etc. we settled for an Indian. It was the second worst Indian I have ever had in my life. Yet again my fault. I'd chosen the town and accommodation. I'd like to think that it was in some ways fitting retribution for the puncture delays and I was proud to even the score with Martin.
DAY 1 - 79.3 miles, 7 hours & 14 minutes cycling & 1,403m climbed
Our breakfast was a cooked one and the first in a succession of depleting the eggs and bacon reserves in Wales. The food was served in the pub where at 8am one of the locals was on a bar stool cradling a glass of cider. Sadly that was my lasting impression of Pembroke Dock. A town that probably had a thriving dock and workforce maybe 60 years ago but was now looking steadily abandoned and tatty.
The plan was a brisk ride to Haverfordwest. This was on the route and looked a large settlement that might produce carbohydrate options to go with the cholesterol special back in Pembroke Dock. Cycling does allow you to consume a ridiculous amount of food but you do need to eat food that is fuel and if you try and cycle for seven plus hours on an inadequate diet then your endurance and condition will fail you.
Haverfordwest was unsurprisingly built on a hill and at the top of the steep climb was the Tesco cafeteria. Martin was now starting to understand that fine dining would be a hallmark of his short adventure in the Principality. Porridge was consumed and a few extra gel bars bought.
So Broad Haven next, on the coast. Quite a nice small settlement on a cove. Up above it the rows of static caravans were stationed looking out onto a very rough sea. Middle aged couples, in garish anoraks, with wind swept hounds at the end of leads battled against the gale on the beach. We had little reason to stay and headed north. This led us along narrow roads with 3m high hedges and face offs with occasional pick up trucks driven by impatient farmers. The route would drop you down to beaches along the coast but that fearful dread on the descent would consume you, as eventually you knew that a bill had to be settled by a 15% gradient climb to escape the beach. The sun shone but the wind blew.
Newgale (a clue in the name) was the end of this northerly coastal ride before we headed west to St Davids. The wind at the resort and resulting climb up out of it were demanding. Not as much as the westerly wind that prevented our easy progress to St Davids. Solva looked idyllic and was a foretaste of how superb St Davids was with its cathedral. The building in the photograph is mainly a 19th century construction but this site has housed a cathedral and abbey from the 6th century.
Here Scandinavian and French tourist voices could be heard milling about in the sheltered sunshine. In fact such was the international ambience that we fell into conversation with two ladies from Vancouver in a cafe over a panini. I usually forget the detail of my travel but having only just been in western Canada two weeks ago I could compare their experiences and also got to berate them for pronouncing aluminium as 'aloominum'. A simple pleasure I know.
With a tailwind we set off for Fishguard with a mere 40 miles (!) to go before our night's stop. Fishguard was reached quite easily but there was a major hill climbing project to get in and then out of it. It was here that Martin suffered from 'kind motorist syndrome' as he ascended from the harbour.
'KMS' is where somebody doesn't overtake you and therefore doesn't leaves you in peace and solitude but hovers behind you for about a lifetime. They think they are kind, as you move up a hill at the pace of a glacier. The reality is that you feel under pressure and have to expend precious energy riding as quickly as you can steering a straight line up a horrid hill. Another unpleasant side effect is a long queue of less tolerant motorists behind who when liberated from this slow moving traffic jam nearly graze your hip to make up for the 3 minute delay they have suffered.
To add to this incident Martin then witnessed a motorbike surge past a car so closely that it clipped and destroyed its wing mirror. The unlucky car had been giving Martin space as he resolved a slipped chain at the side of the road. The motorcyclist was in a hurry. Further up the road I then saw the chase as both went past me at Mach 5. The motorist was no doubt anxious to discuss the damage and the motorcyclist less so. Oh these crazy Welsh folk, how we laughed.
The road to Cardigan was very up and down. If the road was not necessarily brutal then the rain was. Hell, it chucked it down. Proper cold and vertical stuff. We weren't just damp but completely sodden. Cirgerran was eventually reached but our lodgings were hard to find. I only had a post code and the house we sought wasn't visible.
So down a street as I'm walking around looking for a property called 'Y Allt Rheini' Martin befriended a dog owner to ask where we were and where our accommodation might be. She was not a lot of help until we dialled the establishment's number, handed her the mobile and requested that she liaise with the proprietor to get directions. I shall always treasure the immortal words that she uttered to let the proprietor know where we were as she spoke "we're on the street off the main road. You know, opposite Dog Food Dave's".
With some ropey directions we eventually went down a long slippy track to find the mansion and dripping wet we were shown to a lovely room that quickly became a steamy laundry as various layers were peeled off to dry either with or without washing. Then back onto the bikes and back into Cirgerran for a pub dinner.
DAY 2 - 71.6 miles, 7 hours and 4 minutes cycling & 1,758m climbed
Martin dry and rested seemed chipper at breakfast.
After yesterday's arduous ride I suggested that today would be easier. This was a despicable lie because today was a similar amount of climbing and distance, as Martin pointed out (cough).
Nevertheless, we set forth and on a sleepy Sunday and wended our way to Lampeter. This was really back roads riding with lots of small farming settlements and sheep!
It was difficult to quickly cycle the 30 miles to lunch but there were a few interesting discoveries on the way. I love the 1960’s era of British cars and this was a complete treasure trove with other cars under tarpaulins here hidden in the forest at Pencader.
Lunch turned out to be epic and winner of 'The Tony Ives Meal Of The Tour Award'. Sunday lunch at Granny's Kitchen in Lampeter. The photo reveals the artist's joy at the roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding etc. (The expression may suggest doping was involved).
Next three unhappy events came to pass. The first was biblical rain.
The second was a text from a very good friend, Robert, advising that his mother had passed away after a long illness. I had known the lady since I was a very small child and whilst she had been unwell for a considerable time it was a sad day and in the scheme of things then I would want to attend the funeral.
The last event was the failure of my iPhone to receive any consistent reception. Over the last couple of days the texts were delayed and telephone calls nigh on impossible as the signal was so weak that it read 'No Service' or calls were cut off. This issue had led to my not receiving the message of the death promptly.
With only 45 miles to go (!) we enjoyed an initially flat run before we got into the real hill farming countryside and ground away endlessly on granny gears that silenced the banter as the weariness kicked in. We were heading for Llanidloes in mid Wales.
So you haven't mentioned the Welsh language yet Tony? True, I was about to come to that... Being a recidivist Englishmen then I am bemused at a language that can best be described as sounding like a heavy cold with a surplus of phlegm and spelling that would win any game of Scrabble. Also every person in the Principality speaks English.
However, there are two other revelations that I can share - one is that every other settlement starts 'Llan' What does this mean? I don't know but then endless typing of destinations into my Sat Nav of new towns or villages to head for started with this. The second revelation is that people actually speak it!
This is taught in school and so maybe all the duplication of language on road and public building signage isn't a waste of money. One thing they could teach the children of Wales is that after getting into a car it is not mandatory to buy a sweet fizzy drink in a plastic bottle, to consume it and then with scant concern to lob it from your car window into the beautiful countryside. Plastic waste is killing wildlife in the oceans and there is a focus on reducing it. I think the Welsh Government could well use some dosh to educate people to use a bin, preferably a recycling one. Seriously the countryside is being used as a waste tip. Shame on you Taffy, not ‘tidy’, as you are oft prone to say.
In our usually sopping state we reached a very nice hotel in the centre of the town, showered and found a pub for dinner and a pint.
DAY 3 - 79.9 miles, 7 hours and 33 minutes & 1,914 m climbed
Well of course rain fell as we watched the hotel proprietor's partner use a blower to move the petals that were on the pavement in front of the hotel. These had fallen from the hotel's hanging basket in the rain. He blew 'his' petals to be in front of next door's pub! Neighbours eh?
Overnight I had spoken to Robert and established that the funeral was the day after next. This was a day when we were still touring. If matters were a little challenging given that we were in deepest Wales with poor transport links then abandoning Martin to the next day with its mountain climbing and weather was not kindly. What was I to do? Should I ride with him until the worst of the climbing was completed? I have no doubt Martin would have coped but read on.
We abandoned National Route 82 to stay on the main road to Machynlleth, oh what an error! The road was vertical in places and as we ascended to over 500m the weather became horrific. A steady fall of cold rain took the temperature down to just over 8° C and the wind picked up. In fact it nearly picked both of us 'up' as we crawled along at an average speed of 6mph. The descents were possible squeezing the brakes every inch of the way down to maintain control. The ascents, against buffeting wind and through a stream of water (coming down the road) were dangerous and pushing the steed became the order of the day. A few cars and trucks passed by to make our passage more difficult as they came around sharp turns quickly. I wondered what the drivers were thinking about these two fools battling the elements.
It has to be said that even the sheep and cattle took shelter by copses or walls as this hell rained down on them. I literally shuddered to imagine being up on these hills exposed at lower temperatures. At Staylittle Martin dived into a pannier to find extra clothing. I was so cold and wet through that standing there was numbing and I pedalled on slowly just to keep the blood flowing. Reunited we ascended to 600m and now the hillsides were exposed with no wind breaks. Occasionally slippery cattle grids had to be negotiated and then the descent began.
I was now shivering uncontrollably and hurtling downhill holding onto the brakes was not easy. The wheel rims were so wet that grip took some time to happen leading to entering some corners too fast. The bike juddered beneath me as I shivered, it shook.
Eventually the winds fell (and the rain continued to) but the temperature might have only just edged upwards when we entered Machynlleth. First I found a supermarket to dive into to warm up but then about 100m down the road we found a cafe for a hot drink. I peeled off the sopping layers and clutched the cup tight to warm up. The thaw began.
In the cafe was Ben, a third year student at Falmouth University studying Marine Biology. He was cycling to Cornwall via Llanidloes. The mountain run that we'd endured was his next two hours bike ride. He'd ridden up from Barmouth and wanted to know about the route ahead. "Stick to the Sustrans route and wear all available clothing" was my advice. I couldn't think of a more hellish two hours to complete. Poor Ben.
We left puddles in the cafe and set off for Barmouth. It was a bit up and down and the selection of an A road meant a few trucks and the odd toot on the horn from an impatient and irrational motorist. However it was a lot easier and we rolled into Barmouth at around 3pm.
I planned to get a train back to York that night and was dashed in my ambition to check with the ticket office about connections etc. It was shut being refurbished and a note said buy a ticket on the 'Arriva App'. To show how customer unfriendly that was then an old gentleman suddenly appeared over my shoulder as I'm looking at the timetable on the wall and asked me to confirm a train time. He said his eyesight wasn't good enough to read the listing. Clearly the chance of him having a smart phone to use an App seemed very unlikely.
Anyway with no ticket but a plan we adjourned to have our third portion of fish and chips in four days and say our goodbyes. At this point I’d like to think that I had improved Martin’s life forever. Not by the bike ride but by teaching him how to transfer photos between iPhones using AirDrop.
Martin armed with the map was keeping to the plan to continue up the coast to Harlech. Here I'd booked a room. From here he would, the next day, cycle into Bangor and catch a train south. By all accounts this he did but not without the odd hill and another 60 miles riding.
I got the train at around 5pm to Machynlleth (yes back there). Changed platforms and proceeded to Shrewsbury. I had a bit of a wait before catching a train to Manchester before my last connection to York. Here I unloaded the bike, mounted it and rode onto my driveway at 11.30pm. Quite a day.
DAY 4 - 50.1 miles, 5 hours 21 minutes and 995m climbed.
So Wales is beautiful and hilly. Has an often spectacular coastline and is definitely tourist friendly. The weather was atrocious on balance with mixed days of some calm and sunshine but demoralising rain and wind usually on long very steep parts of the day. Martin may never forgive me but the next ride can't be as awful can it? Can’t wait.