A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 86
The time spent on the tops of The Cambrian Mountains was as fine and invigorating as any part of the tour. The cloud is high and occasionally the sun breaks through. It adds to the sheer size and scope of the landscape. If I were a painter I might occasionally make my way down to St Ives for the light, but I’d be carrying my brushes and my watercolours up here even more often. The beauty of the place speaks of the future, the present and of a very ancient past. Up here you can believe in spirits. The stories of Merlin were first heard hereabouts and legend has it that there is a giant sleeping under Plynlimon.
It reminds me of North Dartmoor but is far bigger and with a sparser population. There are few outcrops of rock. The majority of the peaks are rounded and covered in vegetation. There are huge blanket bogs. This is one of the great watersheds of Britain. Water that falls as rain on these uplands will flow through Shrewsbury and Worcester, Hereford and Monmouth, Tewkesbury and Gloucester, Carmarthen, Cardigan and Aberystwyth. When it rains heavily up here, and it rains an awful lot, those towns need to be ready for floods.
There is no rain today. It’s early afternoon and I’ve done all the hard work. I’ve been away from home for a long time now and, for the first time on the journey, my front wheel is pointing towards the house where I live. My legs are warmed up and there are twenty miles of downhill ahead of me. There are 170 miles separating me from my own kitchen table and suddenly I want to be there more than anything else in the world. The whole journey, up until now, has been about moving along, but moving along slowly enough to see what is to be seen. From the time I wash out my mug and get back on my bicycle, on the tops of the mountains of mid Wales, it becomes all about getting home.
Everything is with me: the gradient, the warmth, the strength in my legs and even the wind.
Just before the farm of Eisteddfa Gurig I pass the point I’ve been waiting for. The place where the rivers change direction. The great divide. And, as if to prove that these modern local government people are in tune with history and geography, I pass the sign that tells me that I am leaving Ceregigion and entering the county of Powys. If I were a mountain man, and I can be if the fancy takes, I’d park the bicycle in the farmyard (actually a rather smart paved area), pull a day sack onto my back and head off through the grass and bog to climb Plynlimon. At just under two and a half thousand feet it’s not an insignificant elevation.
The map tells me I’m about to pass Elvis Rock. I see nothing until I turn around and see the word Elvis painted boldly, but not well, by a devoted fan with a bucket of distemper. If this gets on the Ordnance Survey then I am going to suggest that the big poster I had in my bedroom in 1974 should designate a very small part of Huddersfield as Dylan Wall.
The vista is stunning. The valley stretches before me with spurs crossing each other as landscape artists like them to do. There is every colour of British uplands, so the same artist would have to be skilled at mixing a thousand shades of green and brown. The burbling and chattering waters of the Afon Tarenig keeps me company. It is one of many tributaries of the Wye. I momentarily contemplate following the river from source to sea but then, once again feel the pull of home. Maybe some other day. It’s 120 miles. That one should be done on foot … with a sheepdog. The one that is sleeping at my feet as I type.
I was worried that I might have chosen the wrong road out of Wales but already those doubts have proved ill founded. Descending through long bends with moorland on one side of me and conifers on the other, this feels like one of the best cycling roads in Britain. The traffic is light, the weather is perfect and my odometer is ticking off miles at an impressive rate. Having manhandled the chain onto the bigger front cog I’m flying down the hill but still finding time to soak in the passing fells, occasional rather well maintained farms and the odd run down chapel. Behind the trees is the Wye itself. Silver glimpses between the branches and then a stretch of upland river that has created water meadows where cattle and sheep graze. To my left are the steep flanks of the fell, to my right is grazing pasture; straight ahead the road snakes ever downwards. Broadleaf trees and the valley floor widens. A petrol station with a single pump that has seen better days. The bicycle hasn’t dropped below 25 miles per hour in five miles and still I thunder on.
The first town is Llangurig. It’s tempting to stop and look around but I’ve got the bit between my teeth. I set off late but have a feeling that a lot of miles will be covered before nightfall. Llangurig is almost exactly one thousand feet above sea level. It has a dubious claim to fame of possessing (in its time) the shortest lived railway branch line in the country. A line was built here from Llanidloes in 1861 and the town welcomed its one and only train before the line was promptly closed again. It became known as the railway that never was. The line was supposed to extend to the coast. There is a suggestion that the surveyor was working a mile at a time and it was only when they got the track this far that he discovered that there was a bloody big mountain in the way.
The A44 runs out here and I join the much busier A470. I also leave behind the ‘Sylvan Wye’ and pedal like a man possessed towards Llanidloes where I will meet up with the River Severn. Unimaginatively I contemplate a journey from source to sea with that one as well. Instead I find the biggest gear and keep pedalling. I’ve built up a head of steam. I’m riding home.