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A Bicycle Ride Around the British Isles … Part 79

On a good day, thirty eight miles is not a huge cycle. Tour cyclists will do more than this, three quarters flat out, on their rest days just to keep muscles flexed and toned. I’m not a tour cyclist, nor am I having a good day.

The lack of sleep has sapped my strength. My scientific side wants to know just what happens to the body when unconscious that it wakes so renewed, so reinvigorated. We should celebrate each awakening. New every morning is the Love, but also the energy reserves to manage another day. Without sleep there is no vim, no vigour and precious little love. The sheer pleasure of turning the pedals has turned to grind. The upside of the hills seem endless and relentless. The downsides are a quick drop back to sea level; a loss of all that had been gained. The freewheel downhill should be a pleasure, a release. Instead it feels like a puncture; a deflation.

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After the first few hills I stop at a petrol station. My resolve is that if I can’t fill up my sleep tanks, then I can fill up my food tanks. I get a second sandwich (sausage and egg mayo) but the coffee machine isn’t working. I buy a large bottle of cola and a bar of Fruit and Nut.

The rotund fellow behind the counter is from the West Midlands and has a sour view of the world that he is pleased to share with the his customers. If the customer matches his tendency to find fault with others then they have five minutes of mutual moaning. There are four people before me in the queue. Each has a need to point out the shortcomings of their neighbours. There isn’t a Welsh accent in the shop. These are all ex-pats and they make me squirm to be English. They are all in the mood to complain and what they most want to complain about are the Welsh.

When my turn arrives I place my purchases on the counter, proffer a ten pound note and ask if the tap outside is drinking water. He takes a strong instant dislike to me. I’m not from round these parts and there’s nothing an English blow-in likes less than another English blow-in.

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“You can use the tap if you’re buying fuel.” he says in his Brummie drawl.

I point to the chocolate bar. “This is fuelling me.” I say and he all but spits on my change.

It’s raining quite steadily now so I shelter under the canopy and enjoy a picnic as holiday cars come in. Bored faces of children in the back. Fraught mother in the passenger seat and dad oblivious, to any problem and convinced that everyone is having the time of their lives, listening to his Dire Straits’ cds. I’ve been that father and can only apologise.

Since landing in Wales I’ve been following one of the most significant routes in British history but hadn’t been aware of it until now. I’m cycling in the footsteps of Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, and his followers as they made their way to Bosworth Field where the Earl became King Henry VII.

NPG 416; King Henry VII by Unknown artist

Henry had landed at Dale, near Milford Haven on the 7th August 1485 with a following large enough to be a nuisance but no real threat to the army of King Richard III. I came to know the outline of this story (as I have discovered so much more about English history) through the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t know if Richard III is Shakespeare’s best play but I do know that, if you see a good production of it, you will have used three hours of your life extremely well.

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Shakespeare isn’t the most reliable historian but he’s a pretty good place to start (and end). Henry needed to gather men to his cause as he made his way to London and deliberately chose a circuitous route and a route that took him through Wales. He was a Welshman by birth and was keen to promote himself as such. En route, his men has stitched a red dragon onto the green  and white banner of the House of Tudor to create the modern Welsh flag. Henry was no soldier but he was shrewd and knew the value of folklore to the Welsh. The most authentic Arthurian legends have Arthur as a Welshman who is waiting for the call to free Britain from evil threats. Merlin, in the Welsh stories, had prophesied the Red dragon defeating the white dragon. These originally symbolised the ancient Britains defeating the Angles and Saxons. Henry used it to represent the Welsh overcoming the evil usurper Richard.

He didn’t have much luck in the early stages of his long march to battle and lost as much as he gained. By the time he eventually reached the fateful Leicestershire battlefield the majority of his army were Welsh. By the end of the day England had its first self-proclaimed Welsh king. Once he was established on the throne his Welshness became less important to him and it could be argued that the country failed to get very much in return for helping him to the crown.

It was on his march from Cardigan to Aberystwyth that he stopped overnight in the house of local prophet Davydd ab Lloyd ab Llewellyn ab Griffith. Henry asked the seer. “Will I gain the crown of England?”

The Welsh fortune teller was at a loss for words. He simply didn’t know and would have remained struck dumb if his wife hadn’t nudged him and whispered. “You may as well tell him yes. Put him in good humour. Let’s face it. If he loses he won’t be coming back here.”

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Henry left West Wales knowing that his destiny has been prophesised. (By a hen-pecked Welshman with his fingers crossed).

My leg weariness has now inspired an ear worm from the 1970s. The film They Shoot Horses Don’t They? is a minor masterpiece directed by Sidney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. It tells of a depression era dance marathon (lasted weeks) for a cash prize that turns out to be worthless. There was also a pop song by Welsh band Racing Cars which was far from being a classic (minor or otherwise) but is the sort of song that gets into the head of a tired cyclist wondering whether or not Aberystwyth isn’t altogether too far. It’s bad enough having to do the pedalling without the song.