A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 77
There are no plateaus on the tops and no valley floors. I cycle up one side of the hill and glide down the other. The day gets stronger, occasional cars pass and farmers begin to tend their fields. It’s still before the getting up time of the majority and my sleepless fatigue is balanced by the stunning beauty of the west of Wales. When I take the main road option at Newport I leave the sea and the coastal views but plunge into the interior. It’s an adult portion; no gentle, undulating flatlands here for the faint-hearted; these are the hard yards for the legs but the sweet miles on the eye and the ear.
I continue to pass little guest houses and farmhouse b&bs. If it were after six in the evening I would stop at any one of them, but it is only just after six in the morning. I resolve a plan. If I can’t fill up with sleep; and it is at times like this that you appreciate just what an amazing job sleep does in restoring the body, what enormous strength we draw from it; then I will fuel myself on food. If only Cardigan would come closer.
The Afon (river) Teifi marks my arrival. This is a river to study. Almost perfect in every detail whether you are a painter, a fly fisherman or a coracle builder. This river is rewarding and beautiful in equal measure. Its source is a collection of tarns in the sparsely populated regions of mid Wales, its course contains one of the largest natural bog lands in Britain and it flows with grace and power through all the stages of a river. It’s entry into Cardigan is hidden and mysterious in a steep wooded gorge. It is a majestic stream that flows under the town’s bridges and after Cardigan it opens out into an estuary to match any in the five nations. I’ve camped by the Teifi, swum in the stream and built sand castles where it reaches the sea. I like this river.
I like Cardigan as well, even if it is a little slow to provide this cyclist with the sustenance I require. The café I had been fantasising about doesn’t seem to exist. The smoking mugs of coffee and the plates of devilled kidneys and hot rolls belong to another world. I’ve got empty streets and closed shops.
The town is pretty. Not a word I often use to describe towns of this size, but it has preserved its good looks while providing all the services a grown up town needs. Except at seven in the morning! I’m not alone. A number of directionless fellows are wandering the otherwise deserted streets. I park my bicycle and join them on the aimless saunter. Always hoping that the perfect breakfast is just around the corner but finding everything as closed as an oyster. Even the Portaloos near the river are firmly shut, though my need obliges me to find a way inside. I almost wish I hadn’t.
I park myself on a bench in the muffled middle beneath a Welsh flag and the town clock and watch the somnambulists of the west stare into shop windows or shuffle by untrusting. A portly, bearded man on a mobility scooter waits patiently at the pelican crossing until the light shows green. There isn’t a car for miles. Once across he engages me in a conversation. He could be speaking Welsh. All I hear are incomprehensible phonemes with a rising inflection that suggests that he is asking me a question.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
The phrase gets repeated three more times, each time with increasing waving of the arms and a darkening of fierce facial features. The nearest I can make out is “Are you rough?” and I decide to go with this.
“No, I’m just a little tired thank you.”
He seems to think that I’ve spent the night on the tiles There’s a half empty beer glass on the ledge behind me that I hadn’t noticed.
We grunt at each other a little more and he seems satisfied and scooters away.
Down a side street a Premier shop opens and I become the first customer. The woman is beyond delightful; she is seriously lovely. She’s sorting the papers into piles on the floor of the shop and before I’ve properly entered she’s being helpful. “Which paper is it you are wanting?” (the full magical glory of the lilting tones of Welsh are there. I feel as though I am in an opera.) “So I can sort it out for you.’
“Well, actually. I wasn’t wanting a paper. I wondered if you sold maps.”
“No we don’t.” It was said rather beautifully with full apology in the manner. “But!” she announces as her hands fall on a pile of thin road atlases. “They are giving these away today with the Daily Mirror. They look very good, see? They’ve even got a map of Ireland.”
“That’s where I’ve just come from.”
We look at the pages together. They are really quite good. Enough detail and the all important confirmation that I have chosen (by accident) a sensible way of getting from Fishguard to Derbyshire. We both agree that fate was on my side when it brought me to this shop on the day the Mirror was actually giving away road atlases.
“A lot of people don’t like that road (to Aberystwyth), it’s so bendy see.”
“I’ll have a Daily Mirror then please. And, have you anything that I could have for breakfast?”
“I’ll sort your newspaper for you. You go and see what you can find.”
And stone me if there isn’t a coffee machine and a selection of yesterday’s sandwiches. The machine produces me a Nescafé cappuccino and the shelf provides me with a ham and egg roll.
“You get the coffee half price because you have bought it with a sandwich. It’s a meal deal see.”
She has made my morning. Friendly, cheerful and wonderfully helpful. I take my purchases back to my bench. I’ve had better breakfasts but I can’t remember one that I enjoyed more. A street cleaner shows undue diligence in collecting every tiny scrap of paper from around me without acknowledging my presence. Another man walks by, stops in front of me and stares in a manner I would have found unsettling half an hour earlier (I now recognised it as a local pastime), took out a comb, straightened his tousled locks, stared at me again as if to garner approbation, and walked on.
The coffee is delicious and it brightens my brain magnificently. I use these renewed mental powers to look through the tabloid. Ten minutes later I feel enriched enough with the world of boob jobs, minor celebrities and the detailed news of Manchester united and Chelsea to dump, all bar the road atlas, into the nearest bin. I am watched closely by the road sweeper. I contemplate a second coffee and sandwich. It starts to rain.