A Journey Around the British Isles …Part 85
Between Aberystwyth and Llanidloes there is a little bit of every type of Welsh geography. You start with a coast with sandy beach and shingle and rock and cliffs, a natural harbour and a significant river mouth. Then a population centre with a commercial heart, historic places of interest, retail parks, a major university and secondary industry. Proceeding inland comes a narrow coastal plain with mixed agriculture, small scattered hamlets, dormitory villages and farms. All the time you are rising as you ride not one but two rivers through all of their stages. You can follow either the Ystwyth or the Rheidol. Both are fascinating rivers. The Rheidol holds the distinction of being the steepest river in Britain. I follow this one.
Both rivers are worthy of detailed study. Today the valleys are sparsely populated but this masks an industrial history. Lead, and silver have been mined here since Roman times. In later years they became an important source of zinc. During the eighteenth century these were the populated parts of the region, Aberystwyth being little more than a few fishermen’s cottages. The heavy metals of the Ystwyth and the Rheidol brought tough employment to hundreds. The turnover was immense. The average life expectancy of a miner here was 32. There are always dangers in working underground with picks and explosives. The main danger here though was lead poisoning. It’s difficult to imagine as I cycle past the clear waters of the Rheidol that this was once one of the most polluted rivers in Wales. As recently a the late 1960s an adit (horizontal mine entrance) blew out under pressure from mine water held behind it and polluted the river all over again poisoning fish and turning the waters orange.
The river has its own natural filters for pollutants in wetlands, reed beds and run offs. They are still in place. There is an awful lot of lead and zinc in these hills. Of the fifty most polluting mines in all of Wales, thirty six are to be found in the Aberystwyth area. With all the hundreds of deep mined collieries in the valleys of Glamorgan who would have thought that would be the case?
I’ve chosen the main A44. I figure that the climb is going to be hard enough and I’m hoping that, at midday, the traffic won’t be too bad. There are a number of lorries heading east and we show each other all the courtesy of true gentlemen. Professional drivers, by which I mean ones who are actually qualified to drive at a higher level than we mortals, tend to show a decent level of respect to cyclists. Not all, but most.
Mining has given way to beef farming with sheep taking over on the uplands. The place is a haven for birdlife and popular with tourists. Most aim at the Devil’s Bridge and the spectacular waterfalls. Behind the falls is the entrance to the mine that didn’t need a superannuation scheme. My road is largely free of tourist traffic. My legs are fully warmed up and when I reach Capel Bangor I’m in the trees and beating out a steady rhythm up a determined slope. It’s almost the perfect gradient. I’ve found the cadence that suits and this climb has properly begun.
The people here have found their own pace; a man wheeling his bin out for collection stops, pauses, pushes back a flop of greying hair and nods to the cyclist. An unexpected village school. What a place to learn to write and draw with so much here to write and draw about. You only get one childhood. Why not spend it in a place like this?
“A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.
This was better than home” *
You’d remember these schooldays all your life where the classroom glowed like a sweetshop.
Up through the tree line; always a special moment. Any cyclist dreads the thought of hills but loves to climb. I’m uncommonly happy. Fit and strong and never once stopping in the miles and miles of constant uphill to the top. Not head down and surviving but flourishing, savouring every twisting turn. You don’t get many hairpin bends in Britain, the hills aren’t on that scale. They are in Wales. And each bend reveals a different landscape; a different climate. It gets colder as you rise but you don’t notice it. Climbing means getting hot; you chill on the descent when riding a bicycle. This is a modern road but at the same time, an ancient route, a drover’s way. Gravity as much as silver mines and sheep trails connects you in communion with the past. There are two sorts of people in the world: those who have climbed this mountain and those who stayed at the bottom and looked up. It’s more than worth the effort.
The cyclist becomes entranced by it all. Whether you’re holding a steady rhythm on your own on a Welsh flank or trying to leave the pack behind on the slopes on Mont Ventoux, you keep turning pedals, adjusting your hand grips. Sometimes out of the saddle, but mostly seated, eyes aware of all around you as you beat out your progress like Mayakovsky beating out his verses syllable by syllable. It’s an internal as well as an external journey. People don’t ride bicycles only to see what is there but to understand what is here, within. Every cyclist is a poet, a philosopher. I’m rising up the western edge of the Cambrian Mountains; “it’s quite a thing!” **
And then I’m there and I’m ready for a cup of tea and a sit down. On my left the Bwlch Nant yr Arian visitor centre promises me mountain bike trails and views of red kites. Instead it has benches quaintly shaped like foxes and a canteen of the sort you might find in a run down sixties municipal swimming pool. Queues of children aching to get away from the “Oh look… a tree” worthiness of the place in order to spend their money on a waffle and a can of coke. It isn’t for me. There’s a thousand square miles of wonder up here and the visitor centre adds to it not one jot.
A mile or two further up the road I spy a little cafe on the side of the road and imagine tea served from a china pot into blue and white cups and saucers. Freshly griddled crumpets and Welsh cakes and maybe a roast venison sandwich with homemade plum chutney on bread baked so the crust is almost burnt. Locally churned butter and a warm welcome from the proprietress who comes from a family that have lived on this mountain for generations.
The door is locked and the tattooed man working in the kitchen neither acknowledges me nor cares. I walk round the other side and enter a charmless room with condensation blocking the view. The place is under new management. An English couple who are to Welsh traditional catering what Malcolm Muggeridge is to rugby league. The tea is tepid and flavourless. The bacon sandwich, one of the worst I have ever been served. I finish neither.
Higher up and further I finally reach a place that brings the rest of Wales into the picture. I can almost see Shropshire from here. I’m probably on the highest point this side of the Urals; you so often are in Britain. I get out my own little stove and brew a proper mug to celebrate the occasion. It’s a place of brooding beauty. My mother would have loved it up here. Made it ma! Top of the world!
* Mrs Tilscher’s Class by Carol Ann Duffy
** Brooklyn Bridge by Vladimir Mayakovsky