Cycling in the UK - the official guide to the National Cycle Network
I hatched a plan to cycle from Cardiff to Holyhead, via my annual family camping trip on the Isle of Anglesey. I planned to give myself a week to cycle up from Cardiff to Anglesey (the camp site is under ten miles from Holyhead). The aim was to do seven days of cycling of around 30-40 miles, with a rest day in the middle.
It all started well with a short cycle (1 mile) to Cambridge station in a hot (27C) sunshine. From there I got the train to Kings Cross and cycled down Euston Road to Paddington Station to catch my train out to Cardiff. I was slightly apprehensive about cycling on Euston Road but there is a helpful bus / cycle / taxi lane which helped shelter me from the worst of the traffic on this three lane road. My trains were all on time and I was met in Cardiff by a friend of mine who took me to the pub for a couple of drinks. Arguably this was not the most sensible decision I've ever made, but I set off up the Taff Trail towards Dare Country park around 4pm, as the temperature started to drop slightly towards the sane.
I followed NCN route 8 along the Taff trail from Cardiff out towards Castell Coch. This is a nice ride, providing you aren't on a laden touring bike. They have barriers to stop motor cyclists travelling on the path (see right) which are supposed to allow cyclists through providing they're travelling slowly and have their pedals in the right configuration. Unfortunately they're much more difficult to pass if your panniers hit them, and you end up having to lift your bike over them. The occur at intervals of about a mile along the urban sections of the trail, which turns a lovely path into a frustrating experience that nearly left me riding on the road instead. The gate next to the barrier is unfortunately padlocked shut, preventing me from using that as an alternative.
I stopped at Castell Coch, to take some photos and to eat in a local pub while watching England get knocked out of the World Cup on penalties by Portugal. Helpfully half the pub was cheering England and the other half - in true Welsh stereotypical style - was cheering Portugal.
The climb up to Castell Coch is steep, and I got lost on the way down ending up tracking what I thought was the cycle path that degenerated into a nice but completely uncycleable footpath, that brought me down on the other side, into a 'busy' roundabout that the low route follows. From here I tracked through and up the Taff Trail again as far as Abercynon. Here I broke off the official trail to follow the B4275 towards Aberdare and from there up into the country park where I was camping for the night. The climbs through Abercynon and up to the country park were both very steep but fortunately not that long.
At Dare country park, I'm happy to say I arrived as it was getting dark, with a brand new tent I'd never assembled before, and thanks to the extended football match in the pub - somewhat drunker that I really intended. However, I got my tent up without incident in the moonlight between the concrete caravan pitch I'd been allocated and the pitch next to it and camped my first night.
I was somewhat apprehensive about this day, although it's not that far by distance (35 miles) it does involve cycling over the Brecon Beacons, hitting a peak altitude of 439m in the middle. The trip across the B4276 out of Aberdare fully deserves it's arrow, this early in the day and trip I had a fleeting desire to give up the whole crazy enterprise and go home, but I persisted on to rejoin NCN8 at Merthyr Tydfil, where I was able to purchase a large stock of water and Lucozade Sport ready for the twenty or so miles of steep hill climbing ahead of me in the Brecon Beacons.
NCN 8 makes relatively light work of the hills for the first part, it follows a disused railway line that's a gentle even uphill gradient up to Pontscill Reservoir. The view isn't great - most of the time you're in a cutting but it improves as you cross the viaducts giving views over the Taff. As the path climbest to the highest points you travel on a stony path (right) through Talybont forest. I missed the turnoff to travel down the east side of Talybont reservoir, instead I followed the minor road to the carpark that has a terrifyingly steep descent to the reservoir, I lost around 300m of altitude over two miles instead of five. From there it's a nice ride down NCN8 to Brecon and out northward to camp next to the B4602. The change in temperature from the top of the mountains to the bottom was quite noticeable, it was pleasant and sunny at the top, but very hot in the valley.
Heading out of Brecon NCN8 follows a minor road to Llanfilo avoiding the 'busy' A470. Careful reading of the Sustrans map will tell you that whilst the A470 is nice and flat, the minor road it picks ascends roughly 200m steeply, and descends it again to Llanfilo, which makes for a steep four miles, where the primary view is of the flat and not very busy A470 that you should have cycled on instead. The ambient temperature was still around 27C with bright sunshine so this steep climb was remarkably hard work.
Again out of Llanfile the path goes frankly nuts. The official route for NCN8 takes you from Llanfilo through Talgarth and Glasbury round to Llyswen, a trip of 12.5 miles, to avoid 3 miles on the slightly downhill and quiet A470. This time I took the A road and arrived in good time at the 'Wye Knot Stop' cafe in Llyswen where I was able to reprovision myself with apple juice and coffee.
Here you cross the wide River Wye and follow some lovely backroads and B roads up to Builth Wells. It's a lovely ride, undulating gently and despite the busy road warning on the official map, I saw no more than three or four cars in the six or so miles up to the 'very dangerous junction' - again devoid of traffic.
Builth Wells is pretty, but has the worlds worst castle. I went up to the castle site which essentially consists of a mound of earth with a map showing where there was a castle at some point in the past, but isn't any more. It's similar to Cambridge Castle in this respect.
From Builth Wells I followed the path around the River Wye to Newbridge, it's another nice undulating ride here with a further stop for refreshments in Newbridge-on-Wye. From here I attempted to follow the path outwards towards Rhayader but I completely lost the path near the approach to the National Trust coach road and instead accidently followed a footpath and farm track up to Rhos-y-beddau. This was steep and rough and took a long time to ascend the (unnecessary) hill. When the road ended in the farm I was fortunate that the farmer was there who helpfully told me where I was and directed me to a bridleway across his land that would take me back down to the coach road I was aiming for.
On the extremely steep off road descent to the bridleway I mostly had to walk my bike and I unluckily picked up a puncture in my front tyre. Hoping to make it to the coach road before my tyre went completely flat to get an easier location to change my inner tube I pushed on, slipped and hit a nasty rock and broke the main bolt that held my left front rack together.
At this point I introduced the local sheep to several colourful english swear words that I think there were previously unaware of. I was stuck on an extremely steep hillside with a broken rack and puncture, it was blazingly hot and I was running out of water. Fortunately I'd packed my full set of cable-ties - around a hundred or so. Cable ties are incredibly strong, and using enough of them I was able to patch my rack firm enough to carry on. Then I had the enjoyment of fixing my puncture and replacing my inner tube so I could carry on.
I made it down to the coach road and from there on to Llanwrthwl - some hour and a half later than I expected. From there I started to the follow NCN8 towards Rhayader but when it set off up a large and obviously unnecessary hill I turned round and followed the A470 for three miles instead into the centre of Rhayader. As if to punish me the cycling gods cursed me with a puncture as I arrived, leaving me having to walk my bike the half mile to the campsite in Rhayader where I had the pleasure of changing another tyre after pitching camp.
Here I telephoned my friend Helen whilst I ate dinner. Handily she grew up in Rhayader (and had previously worked in the pub in which I was eating) and was able to tell me there was a mountain bike hire centre - Clive Powell Mountain Bike Centre.
I set off nice an early and made it to the Clive Powell Mountain Bike Centre for 8:30am, early enough to catch their resident mechanic and beg him to assist me in fixing my rack and supplying some extra bolts to pin it together. About twenty minutes - and an incredibly reasonable five quid - later I was on the road again to head up to the high pass before the descent to Machynlleth.
The ride out to Llangurig undulates up the Wye valley slowly ascending as you cross the tributaries to the Wye and the river gets narrower and shallower. At Llangurig I stopped to take emergency Curly-Wurly chocolate and a couple of litres of water before the road rises out on the way to Llanidloes and then up into the Coedwig Hafren Forest. Checking my rack was holding I set off and up.
It's steep out of Llangurig as you leave the Wye valley and then there's a fun ride through farms taking you into the valley of the River Severn - some 200 miles away by river from the estuary I started near. The road up from Llanidloes is beautiful, it's mostly used by tourists and the Forestry Commission, and it heads up a lovely valley into the forest on the plain above near the sources of the Wye and the Severn.
Despite my fears the ascent was gentle and led to a little park with benches, parking and toilets for walks in the area. I highly recommend stopping up here in the forest as I did for a couple of hours to read a book, drink some water and take a walk in the stunning scenery.
Setting off from that stopping point the road is smooth and gently undulates past farms and forest, over small bridges with the occasional outdoor team attempting to build a bridge over a river near Dolydd.
The road up from the forest takes you through Dylife, the best view on the whole trip down it's glacier carved valley.
From here it's a short, reasonably gentle ride up to the highest point on Lon Las Cymru, 510m before a terrifying 8 mile plummet back to sea level at Macynlleth. On the plain up here there were circling birds of prey enjoying the thermals, the odd sheep pottering onto the road and crows marauding.
On the fast trip down I met a large number of mountain bikers who had taken a van to the top of the pass I'd cycled to, and were then having a competition to crash into the friendly police officers hidden around the first bend. Dropping into Macynlleth I skirted through to camp at the Centre for Alternative Technology, on the final part of the route I went over the new shiny millenium bridge, and passed a marker for the edge of the Snowdonia national park - at last I'd entered North Wales.
The millenium bridge in Machynlleth is pretty, although you may want to go over the road bridge instead to get the good view of the cycle bridge.
I deliberately planned a short day to get some energy back. I intended to go to the Centre for Alternative Technology in the morning and cycle on to Dollgellau to camp that night. Studying the map left me in two minds over the route, the official path follows a old mining road up from Aberlefenni to a peak altitude of 400m, but rising the last 240m in a mile - that's an average of a 1 in 5, alternately I could take the A487 which rises to only 300m but more slowly and gently. Since I had the time I decided to take the mining road and travel on their new path they'd build along the pass.
Well the CAT was a decent visit, the water powered funicular is great and very very steep. It's worth a good look round if only because the entire centre does run on renewable energy, although they have a particularly good site since they have some hydro power which isn't available to normal people.
The mining road is a beautiful but shockingly steep cycle. When I say cycle I mean walk. It's just too steep to cycle up carrying luggage, consequently I had an hours hard walk pushing my way up there. At the bottom of the slope I met some workers having lunch who pointed out to me that they saw very few cyclists coming this way, that the road was a bit steep, and in their opinion you'd have to be mad to walk over the mountains in the hot temperatures (28C) that I was about to cycle over them in.
If anyone reads this and thinks that I've just described the best cycling downhill in the world, I'd like to point out that there's gates on the way down, and anyone attempting to cycle down quickly is likely to end up shredded. After I made it to the top I stopped by a small stream, dropped my water bottles in to cool them down and generally sat in the cooler air for half an hour to get my breath back and my temperature down.
On the way down the Sustrans path to Dolgellau I met a chap who was walking his dog and slicing the brambles that were intruding onto the path. I spoke to him briefly and he explained he was just doing this out of kindness to cyclists - I thanked him before continuing on my way.
As I reached Dolgellau I could see the clouds had set in over the mountains and I could hear the thunder from the storms where I'd been half an hour before, so I decided to press on out to the coast towards Barmouth. I followed the Llwybr Mawddach Trail towards Barmouth and crossed the toll bridge next to the railway line. As I arrived I realised it was ten years to the week since I'd crossed that same toll bridge by bike, on a camping trip across Wales, the previous time travelling from Bangor to Aberporth.
I'd planned to stop in Caernarfon for the next night, however I was awoken bright and early by a screaming child in the tent next door. I was set up and packed quickly and headed off up the A496 towards Harlech, I benefitted from a strong tailwind and made good time to Harlech - the first flat easy cycling I'd had since leaving Cambridge. I stopped to go around Harlech castle, a fantastic ruin on the most defensible site I think I've ever seen. Incidently the last use of Harlech castle was in 1647 in the English civil war and it was defending the English monarchy from the Parliamentarian forces.
Heading on from Harlech I followed the A496 round the coast, instead of the hilly official Sustrans route, over the toll bridge by Penrhyndeudraeth and then on the new Sustrans path beside the bridge over the Cob near Portmadog. From here I again ignored the lengthy and hilly Sustrans path, and just took the A487 up to Bryncir to join Lon Las Menai - 16 miles of traffic free path to the Menai bridge. Importantly it was 16 miles of traffic free downhill path with a tailwind. Consequently I made Caernarfon much early than expected, I stopped for tea and a toastie and a look around the walled city before deciding to press on and head for Anglesey, it was sunny with the wind behind me and the forecast for the next day didn't look so good.
Leaving Caernarfon I followed Lon Las Menai to the Menai bridge, home of possibly the best roadsign I've ever seen, which took me on to the Isle of Anglesey. From here on I was less enthused - I've been to Anglesey every year since 1989 and consequently I've seen nearly all the scenery. Besides which, the scenery just doesn't compare to the mountains behind, and for a flat island it undulates unecessarily. I stopped in Llangefni to take on sugar and water, and amusing two local character engaged me in conversation, initially in the hope of purchasing hash, but as we chatted I explained what I was doing and they took guesses on my arrival times - 7:00 and 8:30. Just for the record I arrived at 6:20. Fortuantely I met one of them again later in my stay and was able to pass on the news that I'd been successful in my journey and relatively quick about it.
From there on it was a dull but easy cycle up to the campsite at Penrhyn where my Mum cooked me some dinner and my Dad fed me beer.
A short cycle ride from the campsite to Holyhead station. The ride along the Cob Stanley embankment is great and you get to see this enormous flow - I'm not quite sure why. The path then heads through the Penrhos coastal park before finally taking you to Holyhead station and the end of the ride.