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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 81

Middle aged bikers join in the procession to the sea. These puzzle me as much as caravaners. Outwardly it’s the appeal of the highway and the escape from the crowd. Yet these folk love nothing better than to gather in herds, either in convoy on the roads or in taking over a market town or a seafront. In the days of patched Levis and bandanas bedecking youthful forms, there was a certain romance. Now they are older and the smell of mid-life is rich off them, their stunning girlfriends (it’s not a feminist sect) have broadened and coarsened. They are a bunch of rebels who set out to tear up the rules on health and safety yet they are now encased in body armour and corporate branding. Two fingers to the man has now become a need to express identity through brand names. Leathers can look good on a lithe, fit James Toseland or a  tiny, little Valentino Rossi. They don’t suit the waddle and the paunch. They pass by endlessly through the August afternoon on the coast of Wales. Used to a perceived lack of respect from the four wheel fraternity they pass on discourtesy to the cyclist.

The closer I get, the greater the remaining distance seems to be. It was around sixty mountain miles when I set off at the first light of dawn. Now it’s six and that seems almost too far. I stop at what must be a contender for the worst café in the principality. Attached to a CostCutter mini-mart it serves tepid tea and cottage pie with greater adhesive power than taste. It isn’t the sort of place to complain. The road outside is hot with holiday makers. The café is practically empty.

I’m sure I’m ready to enter the town when one final hill presents itself. Once over this another decides to take its place. A double last sting in the dragon’s tail. And here are a sight to see. I’ve waited all my life as a birdwatcher to see red kites and here are dozens of them. Soaring high on thermals rising from the cornfields or plunging through the very trees I cycle under. They are spectacular. Regarded as an endangered species for much of my life and, according to my bird books, only to be seen by the very lucky while walking in the deserted regions of mid Wales, they have been reintroduced in various parts of Britain. The success of the scheme around Aberystwyth is clear for all to see. One comes in to land quite near me; wings arched and back, legs extended and talons like meat hooks ready to grasp the branch. I feel privileged.

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And finally I’m among streets and houses. I lose my way and struggle to find a town centre, but once I get off and push, I’m soon passing shops and colour and holiday crowds. The general movement is towards the sea front. I go with it. I’m tempted by anywhere that offers a bed for the night but hold out until I have seen the town. The Belle Vue Hotel is right on the front, is painted a delightful shade of Welsh blue, and has a double room just outside my price range which the girl on the desk can see no reason at all to reduce. I take it. Follow instructions to some outbuildings that were once stables and home of ostlers, I relieve my bicycle of bags it has carried from Kilkenny.

The room is perfect. A double bed , an easy chair looking out to sea and a bath that accepts my aching body. I don’t even try to read. The whole day passes before me as I lay back and know that I haven’t got to pedal another rotation. I can hear seagulls and waves heaving on the shore and the distant calls of children playing on the sand. I’ll walk out there later, but for now I towel myself down, climb into bed and am asleep almost instantly.

And I sleep for gentle hours. The bright afternoon sun looking over the shoulder of my hotel has become a low western sun glinting onto the waters of Cardigan Bay and beyond to Ireland where my head last lay down on a pillow.

An evening walk is just right. Trippers have gone, either the long drive home or to the many small hotels and guest houses. Weary ways have been taken and I’m still half asleep myself. But this town is radiant in the later light. I walk the length one way along the sand and shingles. We’re constantly drawn to the sea. It renews us, it refreshes us. The very sound of it speaks to something within us. I was born near the sea and it is the one thing I must return to. It is the call of a clock that was set many centuries before my birth. The drag and drift of the surf. The smell of salt and seaweed and iodine in the evening air. The very walk does me as much good as the sleep that rescued me. I feel more sleep calling but  want to see the town and have an hour of daylight.

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The pier doesn’t want to let me on and I’m not disappointed.  I’d have to go through the sort of bar I’ve spent my adult life walking away from, in order to get out on the finger into the sea. It’s not much of a pier. The town and the sea look well enough from the shoreline. I walk to the other end and find the ruins of a castle.  I’ll find out the history and the stories later. Right now it just feels nice to be there and to see it. I sit on a bench and enjoy the flapping of a large Welsh flag above me and the call of the sea birds changing from gulls to waders as the evening slowly closes into night.

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This is a town of poetry and language and learning. Wales holds a very special place in the development of education in Britain. It gave us our first centres of learning and our first real attempts to extend learning to all. It is the land of the teacher every bit as much as it is the land of the poet and the storyteller. It is a land of aspiration against the odds, the land of having to do things the hard way but getting on a little bit further because of it. The wonderful gothic pile on the front is part of the University. It softens its hard edges in the evening light. It reminds me of so many lectures in Manchester and Exeter and Oxford and Birmingham. I found my own route to an education at a different time and at a different pace to my peers. I’ve found my own route out here to this university on the western coast of Wales, the land of my grandmother. I feel at home and I feel at peace.