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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 76

Despite having my notes to occupy me and chocolate and water from a Wexford tap, the night extends itself and I feel a terrible tiredness. If a hotel had a night porter I’d book myself in and sleep for twenty four hours. I used to admire those who managed without sleep and have stayed up in my youth and in my prime. All I feel at present though is hollowness and a cold that worries my chest and legs. The plan had centred on getting some sleep on the ferry and I got none. I’m about to discover just how important sleep is to a man in his fifties. Sitting quietly in a deserted railway terminal in the West of Wales is no sort of rest. I have nothing to knit up my ravelled sleeve of care. I have little spur to my ambition. I haven’t even got a map, just a distant memory that there is a coast road to Aberystwyth and that, if I get there, I may be no nearer home. But I’ll at least be further north and this pleases my homing instincts. I made a bad mistake in not buying a map in Wexford and am only too aware that I may be setting off in entirely the wrong direction.

If only the dawn would arrive and I could set off in some direction.

I’d hoped to be on my way by half past four but it’s still thick night. By quarter to five you can tell that morning is on its way and I mount the bicycle and slowly pedal through the shadows of the docks. The port seems to go on forever and my legs are almost devoid of strength.

Instinct tells me to ride through the town, the road sign tells me to go a different route. I obey the sign, being happy to see the word Cardigan, my first target, and find myself on a hill that not only points to the sky but nigh on reaches it. I have hopes that it may get the blood circulating and rejuvenate my legs. There is to be no rejuvenation. I’m buried and I’ve only cycled two miles and climbed one hill. To rub considerable salt into my deep lack of morning enthusiasm, I pass a sign pointing to my left. It says Fishguard half a mile.

I’m on a main road. I have nowhere to stop. I’m already completely exhausted and I’ve covered a net half mile. Welcome to Wales.

As the morning washes the inky darkness from the sky, the gathering light reveals a landscape to make my spirit dance. This is beauty true blent. This is the land of storyteller and the saint. My Welsh blood starts to pump. Maybe not the land of my father but certainly the land of my grandmother and all of her family up until her for as many generations as one can count. I have the world to myself and, despite fatigue, that world is magnificent.

And it is only twenty miles to Cardigan. Twenty miles doesn’t seem very far; an evening run out; a morning jaunt. On the other side of the hill is a downslope and my jauntiness gets an airing. At the bottom of the hill the road immediately points upwards again. It is to be a pattern they repeats itself for the rest of the day. I start at sea level and end at sea level and climb thousands and thousands of feet.

A scattering of cottages and bed and breakfasts bead the ribbon of the road. I envy every sleeping person within. I envy every sleeping person in the entire principality and then, not thirty yards in front, just where the shadows of the tall trees meet the first rays of the sun, a fox, midnight black and nimble on his pins is dancing in the middle of the road. And I mean dancing. Stopping, he becomes aware of me and calmly leaves the stage. No panic in his breast at my entrance. If anything, a parting sniff of derision.

And up we go again. I climb as far as I can and push the rest of the way. It’s hard work and my mental state becomes as deflated as my physical. But as I rise up, magnificent coastal views come into sight. Who can see these without some quickening of the heart? To my right the fields eventually give way to upland hills and fells. I’m caught in a pincer movement between beauty and pain.

At the brow I come into the pretty village of Dinas Cross. The houses here are still sleeping and look most attractive in the morning air. They know how to paint houses in the west of Wales. Mostly they are whitewashed which always works, but the locals like to experiment with bolder shades which you wouldn’t think would work. In the Welsh morning light they look just fine to me.

The uphills are so hard fought that the downhills cannot repay. What can take twenty minutes to climb can take less than two to descend.

At Newport I find myself nodding off at 30 miles per hour. I’ve heard of it happening to motorists (we don’t admit of it happening to ourselves) but I’ve never heard of a pedaller falling asleep at his wheels.

In the 1790s poets left urban settlements in search of truth and beauty in the countryside and rural settings. In the 1960s progressive rock bands did the same. They had a farmhouse stage which usually lasted a little over a year and involved drinking industrial amounts of alcohol, producing an inferior LP and then having the musical differences that lead to an eventual split. Newport was the country base of The Incredible String Band. I loved, and indeed still love, the folk rock fusion of Fairport Convention’s Liege and Leif phase and I like the early work of Steeleye Span but I never really fell for The Incredible String boys. They seemed to sum up what happens to perfectly good music in the hands of people who are too clever by half for a simple medium. They are to English folk music what the Sealed Knot are to English history. Interesting in their own way but largely to be avoided.

If I had possessed a map I would have chosen the little coastal road but my over-riding desire is to get to Cardigan and some breakfast and some rest. The coastal road would have saved me a couple of miles, but I wasn’t to know. The five hills I’d climbed so far were the toughest five hills I’d encountered on the whole journey. There were plenty more to come.