It started with just a small innocuous advert on the message board of my mountain bike club…..”planning a trip, anyone interested in bike touring get in touch”.
Why not I thought, what harm could there be in just replying……
A lot as it turns out, which is why, a few weeks later, I’m sat around my kitchen table with 3 strapping strangers drinking beer and discussing luggage. Bike luggage.
It seemed only polite at this juncture to get to know my fellow suffer-fest companions as in just a week’s time we are off to Wales to take on the Trans-Cambrian trail, cycling and camping together for three days covering over 100 miles of some of the best remote mountain trails in the UK. It’s nice to put faces to names too with communication thus far being limited to What’s app banter.
M, my long-suffering partner appears with pizza and our intrepid band is complete. For the first time ever on a trip I have done none of the planning or organising which is both wonderful and scary, especially for those of us with control issues. This is Keith’s baby, submitter of advert and veteran cycle tourist he completed the trail last year and apparently enjoyed the pain so much he’s willing to give it another bash.
Two of his friends Gary aka Action Man and Paul, make us the remainder of the party. Gary is hyper qualified in the bike stakes as he’s just returned from cycling across New Zealand – on a bike carrying a disabled ex-service man, one of his many feats of endurance as we will learn.
Fast forward a few days and the next time we meet it’s in the middle of a field on the Welsh borders at Knighton, close to Offa’s Dyke. The river running through the field is the cartographic dividing line between England and Wales or so I’m reliably informed by the sat-nav. Handy information but it doesn’t make up for her failure to direct us to the campsite. After much inching through precipitous single track lanes in the car it’s good old fashioned human-eyesight which finally spots the handwritten felt-tip sign welcoming us to Panpwnton farm hikers camp.
The campsite is small but with a warm welcome and spotlessly clean toilet, which gives it high marks with me even if a bit of a queue forms for the single cubicle at peak times.
Tent pitched, Gary and Keith soon arrive but with the sad news that Paul has had to pull out last minute. One man down already, but undaunted we head to the pub for a pre-event athletes’ dinner of pizza washed down with copious amounts of beer and wine.
The next day dawns misty but dry. In my true organised-bordering-on-obsessive style I’ve have arranged all our kit for the fastest most efficient start possible, with provision for a decent cooked breakfast to send us on our way. M returns from the car with cups of tea, time to start the day and the adventure……
M: Where are the car keys….?
Me: “Very funny”.
M: “No, seriously where are the car keys…..?” And then the rain starts.
Three hours later the breakdown man is shaking his head having tried and failed to open the car using what looks like a credit card, blood pressure cuff and a coat hanger.
All our gear is still firmly imprisoned inside the car, perfectly packed bags, clothes, keys for the bikes also locked to the car.
I’m all for throwing a brick through the window (it’s M’s car) spurred by the heady effect of Hanger (hunger induced anger) and frustration. Fortunately Keith has spare food but the kit is still safely locked away and we’re going nowhere. After hours of scouring the camping field combing knee length grass in the drizzle, our best but unfounded guess is that the keys have been locked in the vehicle. In defeat I sit in the tent listening to the rain. With nothing better to do I decide to check M’s sleeping bag one more time just in case…… I FOUND THEM. Relief washes away frustration as the Breakdown man just rolls his eyes at us and leaves. We finally set off and even the drizzle is clearing up.
The trail: Day One
Knighton to Elan Valley
35 miles, 4150 feet of climbing
It’s great to finally be moving as we cycle up the hill away from the campsite. The car keys are firmly stored in my pocket for when we return in 3 days.
The trail begins after only a mile or so of tarmac. The whole route is advertised as over 70% off road, with any tarmac that there is consisting of small country lanes making it fantastic MTB country.
After turning off onto what looks like someone’s driveway, pedalling up a last bit of steep tarmac, we head through our first (of oh so many) gates leading uphill on a rugged trail. Full of enthusiasm we pedal hard wanting to ride every hill even though Keith has warned us it’s impossible. Panting and blowing at the top there’s a shout below from Keith, we’ve taken a wrong turn (and ridden the hill for no reason). Slightly cowed we turn around, me rolling squarely through some wet dog mess as we do, the pungent turd slathering my tyre and throwing up fumes as we descend.
Back on the track Keith points to a vertical bank of grass behind us. This is where we start pushing.
Any hopes I had of riding the whole way instantly drain away. The hill is monstrous. I’m pushing the bike vertically, using the brakes to stop us tumbling back into oblivion whilst the sheep look on amused. It takes well over half an hour to reach the top, during which time it starts raining again. I also begin to regret packing quite so many flapjacks and all of my camping equipment as the bike weighs a ton.
As well as being mostly off road the route is also billed as a very respectable 95% ride-able which sounds wonderful until you realise that means that you will need to push/carry your bike for at least 5% of the time and at 108 miles long that’s still 5.4 miles of pushing. It feels like more, much more!
The route continues on soft grass, winding slowly uphill. The grass makes for hard going although it’s thankfully relatively dry. If really wet under wheel it would be exhausting. With blackening sky the day rolls on, the views are of dark sweeping hills and sheep. Many sheep. The aroma of dog shit is joined by the earthy tang of sheep poo which sprays up under wheel and coats pretty much everything. My mood is brightened somewhat when M starts shouting and cursing having gone to grab his water bottle and picked up a handful of steaming dung. Snigger.
The grassland is interspersed by a few gravel walking trails although most of the time we are heading across what look like sheep tracks. Keith’s doing a prime job of navigating even when we look at him askance as he send us away from a lovely gravel road down an invisible path in the grass.
The day passes in much the same way, grass trail across hills and gravel tracks, dipping through farm yards and climbing back out. It’s hard going but the views are spectacular and go someway to reminding you why you are putting yourself through this. At the end of a long day it’s a weary and subdued bunch however that hit the town of Rhayader to raid the Co-op shop before heading the final few miles to our campsite at Elan Oaks.
The site is off of a pretty trailway and well set up….. for caravans, indeed camping seems to have been a bit of an afterthought as we push our bikes to a soggy field past a couple of sad porta-loos and outdoor sinks. True to form, just as we arrives the weather sticks 2 fingers up and starts raining hard as we pitch our tents.
The evening is saved however by the promise of hot food as we regroup in the Elan Valley Hotel across the road. I hang all my wet clothes out to dry in it’s near deserted dining room as the owner smiles tolerantly as he offers a menu and a place to charge my phone. I could have cried.
Over the years I’ve cycled a lot with camping gear, including off road through the mountains of Chile and Argentina, but today was tough. The boggy grass and precipitous hills were something else. To top it all off tonight was actually the last night of camping as we had room booked in a pub for the second (final) night of the trip.
It was then that I had a rare moment of genius….in true damsel in distress fashion I appealed to the owners of the pub to ask if we could perhaps leave our (sodden/pungent) camping gear with them tomorrow and collect it on the following day on our way home. I have never been so grateful as when they said yes!
An excellent meal with further copious amount of beer and wine left us all feeling good. Even the rain had let up for the walk back to the tent.
The trail: Day Two
Elan Valley to Llangurig
41 miles, 5220 feet of climbing
It can really psych you out when something is billed as ‘the toughest day’ and this was exactly how day two had been described and day one had been tough so this was scary prospect. It would certainly be the longest day in terms of miles and the most climbing and it dawned with a sense of trepidation….and the sound of rain lashing against the tent. Waiting and failing to find a break in the weather we de-camped and squelched over to the hotel for breakfast bearing armfuls of soggy camping gear. An hour later and it was with a huge sense of relief and a considerably lighter bike that we headed out, fortified by a large cooked breakfast and minus camping kit. Even the rain had stopped.
The Elan Valley is known as the Welsh Lake District, it covers 70 square miles of lakes and countryside and hosts 6 reservoirs built, not to provide water to locals, but to be diverted and gravity-fed to the industrialised city of Birmingham hundreds of miles away to help cope with it’s exploding population.
Leaving the hotel, the trail quickly took us past the first reservoir before dropping down the side of a steep hill. Having missed the on road route we managed to improvise with a sheep track which plunged steeply down the side of a tall hill. Skidding down the rock strewn grass was certainly a good way to shake off the last bits of sleep.
A short pedal and then what goes down must inevitably go up again….and up….and up, a winding tarmac road until stretching out like a wall in front of us which was, Keith proudly informed us, Puke Hill. With an average gradient of nearly 15% it loomed ahead ominously.
The joy of mountain bikes however, over road bikes, is that they have a low ratio of gears of which I was incredibly glad. Coupled with the lack of camping gear my bike felt, if not lighter than air, then something approaching it.
Inch by inch I took on Puke Hill, pedalling and panting until, lungs screeching I topped out. Even if that killed me for the entire day it was worth it, with the added bonus of being able to get a photo of all 3 boys pushing up behind me.
And so the day went. The scenery and terrain differed markedly from day one, there was the inevitable same number of gates to open and close but aside from that the terrain, was varied, technical and wonderful.
After Puke Hill came a section of boulder-strewn undulating tracks full of rocks the size of sheep and traversed by the same. Technical climbing and descending whilst also ploughing through deep water-filled holes never knowing if you’d be just wetting the tyres or the entire bike. The track ended in the magnificent Claerwen dam (and a tarmac road which gave an easier option for arrival) before a steep push to head up and around the reservoir. The lee of it’s banks even provided a sunny lunch stop, the rain having decided to take a well-earned day off.
Although rough under-wheel the reservoir tracks allowed us to pick up some speed and flow which continued when we hit the tarmac the other end. Being a roadie at heart I love a bit of tarmac and this was the best kind, smooth and near traffic free, long swoopy undulations, bordered by wild grasslands and lakes. The miles disappeared under-wheel in a way so different from the previous day, spirits soared along with the hawks we kept spotting. By the end of the road section we’d covered half of today’s miles relatively easily. We’d also acquired a new companion….a be-horned sheep’s skull, nicknamed Larry after the 1960’s children’s TV character, Larry the Lamb.
An off road climb next, through pine forest this time, the heady smell of warm sap accompanying us before some of the most beautiful, fast, flowing single track descents thorough the trees which left a permanent grin and many insects plastered across our faces.
Another winding valley road, this one with starker but no less stunning fauna, through abandoned mining stations and derelict houses until the sat nav kindly led us into someone else’s garden….no, not some random house after all but another trail leading up the steep side of the valley. Once a metalled road it had obviously long since fallen into disuse but a funny strip of tarmac remained down the middle and it was on this we spent the next hour pushing and pedalling up in turn. The summit was a cold and windswept place with spectacular views and the partial descent back down into the sunshine a welcome relief if somewhat hair-raising, brake discs squealing in protest.
Two trails now presented at the bottom and sat-nav seemed unwilling to commit herself as to which one…. the left fork to a bridge which looked like it crossed into a boggy field and the right fork the beginnings of a gravel track into the woods. Both trails headed the way we needed to go, roughly in parallel, separated from each other by 2 small rivers.
Long story short, we chose the right. It should have been the left. It took us less than 10 minutes to discover our error but somehow the idea of retracing our steps seemed a stupid one, after all, they were only small rivers.
Step in Action Man…. as we stood debating the wisdom of trying to cross we were distracted by some loud crashing, splashing noises. Gary was in the river hauling around stones to make a walkway, he then proceeded to carry all our bikes one by one before helping us across. Same process for river number 2. Thirty minutes later we were standing, mostly dry on the other side of both bits of water and right next to the first path that we didn’t take. Somehow the sense of adventure completely outweighed the stupidity of not taking a 10 minute back track.
Anticipation was with us now, it had been a long day but we were nearing the end and, weirdly, nowhere near as bad as anticipated. The last few miles were a steady climb through more sun-bathed fragrant pine forest before an undulating descent into the town of Llangurig. Happily sailing past the campsite on the outskirts of town, a short pedal later and we were pulling, tired, but elated into the car park of the Bluebell Inn our home for the night.
A welcome pint or several, a great meal and no camping. Winner.
The trail: Day Three
Llangurig to Machynllnth
31 miles, 3510 feet of climbing
Despite some serious crossing of fingers day 3 dawned drizzly, but as it was the last of our adventure, spirits were high and we were looking forward to finishing in style. Buoyed by our exertions of the last 2 days and still enjoying the relative freedom of the pared-down kit we fairly flew out of the pub car park, retracing our steps from yesterday for the first few miles to pick up the trail again.
Gates and more gates as we dripped along the edges of farmland before climbing again through fields of sheep and the inevitable poo.
I love sheep and the way they evaluate life and its potential dangers. Little clusters of them would watch us intensely for long minutes as we climbed steadily towards them getting to within feet before finally, one in the bunch would lose his nerve and dash off in panic. Of course the others followed suit but would get tangled up in themselves in their mad-hurry to get away in a noisy thrashing of woolly limbs, a little white tidal wave of bodies surging before us everywhere we went, 0 to 60 mph panic in seconds.
Back to the trail. The rain and mist intensified and for the first time long trousers came out (at least for me) as the temperature dropped. Gaining altitude over the whole morning we squelched across bleak, treeless fields before coming to a loose, slate-covered downhill of narrow single track which Keith was now recalling from the previous journey. Very gingerly that we scooted and slid our way down the precipitous, shifting slate path, a grass bank towering to our right, a steep drop to the left and it was with some relief that we skidded to a stop at the bottom in one piece, only to be faced with an equally vertiginous push up the other side.
And the sketchy trails didn’t end there, another cold and windswept area of grassland led to another cliff-like valley edge and more hair-raising single track descents. It required all my concentration and the few bike handling skills I possess) to navigate the steep downhill slopes of tumbling, loose shale. The panniers’ weight on the rear of the bike added an extra flavour of spice as did the constantly shifting floor beneath your wheels. The only solution was to keep rolling and, in amongst the fear, adrenaline and total concentration there was a huge buzz at the speed and thrill of careening down the hillside, barely in control but flying.
Our brakes were literally smoking at the bottom on the hillside as the pace steadied and we once again hit the tarmac. There was no respite from the hills or the rain however, steep steep climbs on legs that already felt they had cycled far too many miles and we were all feeling the burn and having to dig deeper and deeper on each climb.
After a significant amount of upwards mobility we reached a literal and metaphorical fork in the road. Previously when Keith, our erstwhile planner had gotten to this point during his trip he’d been in severe danger of missing his train home so had had to bail out of the last section and opt for a sprint down the road to the station some 6 miles away. We of course had that option now, to be kind to tired, wet and weary bodies and do the same or……
Bugger, everyone voted to continue the trail. Of course we did, it was only 8 miles after all, just over that ridge over there……!
For the next hour we toiled up a never ending series of steep inclines, first an energy-sucking grassy track followed by a narrow ridge line so steep we were pushing near vertically, struggling for footholds. I was incredibly glad I’d offloaded my stuff but that was the only happy thought that sprang to mind as we cursed and squelched and pushed our way up the ridge, lashed by rain and sliding and stumbling over the rocky ground. Finally reaching the top M announced that, after all that, we’d only covered a measly half a mile, I could have cried.
The only way was down however, via a fast and hair-raising descent along muddy, slippery single track, punctuated by large rocks and larger potholes. I’m going far too fast but so cold and tired now I just want to finish until…. we’re lost. We can vaguely see the direction we want to take through the mist but every path we take the sat-nav says we’re off course unless…. we push up again…..another steep, soggy hillside, another muddy slippery descent and we’re still off course although vaguely in the right direction.
Breaking out google maps we take stock and take shelter from the driving rain. Despite the GPS insisting we’re off course it does at least look like the forest trail we’re now on will get us to a road which will get us to our final destination. A look and a silent agreement passes between us and as one we charge off, bolting down fire-trails and eventually, joyfully finding the road. As it turns out we’re only a mile or so from the original exit point and a soaking speedy dash brings us shivering into Machynllnth, our planned final destination.
Officially the trail ends at Dovey Junction but we’d have to retrace our steps to this point anyway and none of us feels like we’ve missed out. It’s lashing down now and too wet to take a finishing photo as M’s camera has gotten waterlogged and wisely, there are no people about to ask, so we squelch to the nearest pub where we are viewed with suspicion as we drip mud, sheep poo and water on their clean floor.
A change of clothes and a coffee is all we manage before thankfully the amazing bike taxi arrives to whisk us back to Kinghton, which feels like hundreds of days ago, not just 3.
Reflecting on the way back to the taxi, trying to ignore the smell of wet, sweaty cycle-wear, I look back on what has been an amazing trip. The scenery and the terrain have been both varied to look at and ride through, demanding and exhilarating. It feels like an achievement and, even more, a real adventure, which at a total distance of 107 miles with nearly 13,000 feet of climbing I can safely say it was.
Would I recommend it, certainly, would I do it again…..hmm ask me later!
In short, what there’s much of:
- Sheep poo
- Windmills, forests of them.
- Water….. if you’re lucky enough to escape the rain there are still plenty of fords and deep puddles to soak you.
- Pushing up hills/hike a bike
- Technical single track, climbs and descents, plus a huge variety of scenery, trails and terrain.
- Miles, smiles and a sense of adventure.
What there’s not much of:
- Spare Oxygen – all used up on climbing!
- Shops or humans, once you’re on the trail there’s no nipping to the supermarket for a mars bar. The same when seeking help for injuries or mechanicals problems.
- Phone signal, as above. I wouldn’t fancy riding this one alone.
- Signage, take a good sat-nav/GPS device
For more information on the trail see here
Final thanks go to Keith, Action Man, M and Larry, the best bunch to get muddy and go adventuring with!