If there isn’t an ancient Chinese proverb about auspicious beginnings not necessarily producing auspicious endings, there ought to be.
For my first truly rough stuff ride (the first day of a 3 day tour), I chose a route considered to be an excellent off-road track and of no small symbolic significance to boot. The Nant Rhyd Wilym pass, traversing the Berwyn mountains of northeast Wales, was a favourite of rough stuff cycling pioneer, Walter MacGregor Robinson, who wrote cycling articles in the early part of the previous century under the pen-name of Wayfarer. In the 1950s the Rough Stuff Fellowship dedicated a memorial to him at the top of the pass; since then the route has come to be known simply as, The Wayfarer.
Apart from picking a supposedly perfect first route, I’d also chosen a perfect day—too perfect as it turned out, the hottest September 29 since 1895! However, the morning was reasonably cool when I set out from my woodland base, and leisurely cycled the handful of miles to Chirk, a small Welsh town snugly nestled in a curvaceous crook of the border, famous for its castle and the close proximity of not one but four feats of pragmatic and beautiful Victorian engineering: the Chirk and Pontcysyllte aqueducts (both by Thomas Telford) and the Chirk and Cefn Mawr viaducts.
In The Life of Thomas Telford, Chirk aqueduct is described as, “situated in a finely wooded valley, having Chirk Castle as an eminence immediately above it, with the Welsh Mountains and Glen Ceiriog as a background and the village of Chirk with Lord Dungannon’s Ceiriog Bridge occupying the intermediate space. These combined objects compose a landscape seldom surpassed.”
A Little Bit of Heaven
Heading west into the Ceiriog Valley, the aqueduct and viaduct can be seen immediately on the left, before a fast descent into what some have referred to as “little Switzerland” and Lloyd George himself called, “a little bit of heaven on earth”. Never having visited either of those places (and probably never likely to), I can’t comment on the accuracy of the comparisons, but I can confirm, that on such a glorious day as this, it was absolutely beautiful.
Having just ridden a section of the busy A5, then passed through a fairly modern, urban settlement, entering the Ceiriog Valley feels like suddenly stepping through a secret door into another world. Even if you choose to give the Wayfarer route a miss (understandable if you’re not a masochist), I strongly recommend a leisurely ride along this delightful valley.
A Warm Welcome
Anyway, pressing on. Having wended my way the 11 beautiful miles (18 km) to the utterly enchanted village of Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog (aka Llanarmon DC), I had a brief, yet sparkling encounter with one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met, who told me that the food at the West Arms Inn was absolutely delicious. As she was also a visitor to the village I expect she hadn’t tried the food at The Hand Inn, which I imagine is probably just as good, but I took her advice, bade her a fond farewell and made for the West Arms.
As one would expect in such a rural idyll as this, the inn, and its beer garden where I ensconced myself in the shade, were very pretty indeed, whilst the food turned out to be as delicious as the beautiful lady had said. Added to that, I had the pleasing, relaxed companionship of the gardener who, even if she weren’t gardening, could feasibly be taken for Charlie Dimmock’s sister.
However, despite such an auspicious start, two off-notes chimed discordantly in the up-till-then harmonious song of the day. Foolishly I drank a couple of pints of beer with my lunch, which is not a good idea on a hot day when you have a trek ahead of you and, when I shared my Wayfarer plan with the gardener, she looked dubiously at my loaded bike and said, “It’s very rough up there you know, and very steep in several places.” As she’s a regular walker of the Wayfarer, and her sons are professional mountain bikers, I couldn’t help but begin to feel that perhaps I might have chosen a route too far.
Pride Comes Before A Climb
Still, pride wouldn’t let me go back, so I went on. The Wayfarer track starts a couple of miles down a quiet country lane running west from Llanarmon DC, and although it’s only about 2.5 miles (4 km) to the top of the track, it still took me an hour and a half . . . a very long and arduous hour and a half.
I walked the majority of it, puffing, panting, sweating, gate tangling and generally fretting about the state of the bike, the decreasing time before sunset, whether I could feasibly manage another steep climb and so on. That said, I shouldn’t have been expecting a leisurely jaunt in the countryside; after all, it is ‘rough stuff’! Still, I thought I’d have been able to ride more than 20% of it.
Actually, I imagine that if you weren’t mildly inebriated, weren’t carrying a load of camping gear, were fitter than I, and you set out from Llanarmon DC having spent the night there, then you could probably cycle 60% or more of it. The steeper sections were at the very beginning and end; the majority of the track in between was quite a gentle incline.
I made it though, and enjoyed a short break at dear old Walter’s memorial, whilst pondering the prospect of a swift descent. Alas, however, it wasn’t to be swift. The descent was so steep and rocky for a kilometre or so that it was mostly unrideable and took me close to an hour to cover. The worst part was all the gates. I’ve never encountered so many in such close succession – every 100 meters, or so it seemed.
You may wonder why gates are such a problem. I’ll tell you. Imagine trying to manoeuvre a heavily laden bike on a steep rocky slope with one hand, whilst also trying to open a large, heavy spring-loaded gate with the other. The bike is determined to lie down and, when it’s upright, roll forward. The gate, being spring-loaded, wants to close and will do so the second you take you hand off it. The worst ones were the gates that opened uphill forcing me to back-up with the bike. Many were the times when I dropped the bike or the gate slammed shut before I got through it, or both.
Admittedly I’d left the Wayfarer track shortly after the memorial (see the map above) so perhaps it doesn’t have so many gates. In the end it was almost dark before I managed to find somewhere to bed down and even then my woes didn’t diminish. It was so hot that even sleep evaporated. Still, I had the stars for company; millions of beautiful, brilliant stars tracing their silent, shining paths across the heavens. One could have taken it as a good omen for the next day’s ride. Yes, one could.