Monday, 5 September 2016

Riding 'Round Part VI: Wales


When I’m travelling I usually have a bit of a research the day before of the area I’m heading into and pin a bunch of potential sights and places to eat and sleep on my map, and then formulate a rough route. After departing the ferry from Dublin, my plans to dine at Anglesey’s most well known (and out of the way) restaurant, Oyster Catcher, were thwarted when I was advised that it was fully booked out, due to the neighbouring towns experiencing a power cut. Oh well.

The road is often filled with too many remarkable sights to stop at every time, and also some that you can’t stop at. The bridge from Anglesey onto mainland Wales at dusk had stunning views over the water, but I could only catch as many glimpses as I dared while taking my eyes off the bridge road and accompanying traffic. I had selected a campsite roughly in the centre of Snowdonia, Wales’ famed national park, to base myself in over the next few days and headed there in the failing light.

All was going well until I went to setup camp and noticed that my sleeping bag was no longer in my employ, and had abandoned me in my hour of need somewhere between there and Dublin. A number of things went through my head such as; oh well I got it for free from the lost and found at work anyway; I’ve only got a week left of my trip and surely I can get thrifty with my motorbike jacket, and; this is so shit I am going to freeze to death. Trusting my luck and sheer optimism I backtracked along the road for about 45 minutes, hoping it had fallen off in the nearby area, rather than somewhere back near the ferry. I guess we’ll never know, because I never did locate my sleeping bag.

But of course things always work out, because when I stopped at a backwater service station for petrol and a sausage roll for dinner (a far cry from the oysters I had planned) there was a whole rack of £15 sleeping bags by the exit. Shazam, day saved! I mean, it really didn’t compare to my arctic, you-can-survive-the-apocalypse-in-this bag, but I wasn’t complaining.

For my first full day in Wales I had splashed out and booked a day-long expedition in an old slate mine with Go Below, which boasted the world’s longest underground zip-line among other things. This was easily one of the best experiences of my ride, if not THE best. I met up with my caving buddies, Michelle, Lee and their daughter Nicole, and another couple, Nicole and Pete, along with our two guides. After kitting up (me in basically my riding gear with gumboots) we trekked up the mine entrance and headed in. The history of the mines and miners itself was really interesting and its effect on the landscape and town unmissable.

I was totally unprepared for what was inside the mine. First up, right off the bat was walking along these tiny lengths of timber that were sitting on bolts, drilled into the smooth stone wall over a massive drop into the dark mine below. After that it was just stepping across on the bolts themselves. It was so amazing that the cave and the experience hadn’t been overtaken with unnecessary safety precautions - of course we were always in harnesses attached to very safe guide lines, but there was still a level of risk and adventure involved. We spent most of the day down there, crossing on lots of mini zip lines, scaling walls and inclines, walking across old beams and bridges that the miners themselves used, and getting down to 300 metres underground. The vibe and camaraderie within the group was really strong and is what topped off a perfect experience.

I’m actually quite scared of heights and it has often been debilitating for me, but I really felt like I conquered it in the mine (granted, I’m also a lot less scared when I’m strapped to something). There was an added level of terror especially on the big zip line because you’re just heading into complete darkness. I also once again proved that my super power is making waterproof things un-waterproof, as my gumboots filled with water even though the water level was never higher than ankle deep.

The experience ended with a 25 metre free fall (you literally just had to step off the edge) into a black cavern, with a machine (and the dashing Dennis) catching us just before we hit the ground. Brilliant. It was hilarious to watch Michelle tackle the drop as she froze up and cackled with laughter. The day ended with much needed hot food and drink at the local cafe.

At this point I should mention that Welsh names really are fantastic, if not seemingly impossible to pronounce. The town near the mine, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the surrounding landscape was stunning. I don’t think it would be everyone’s cup of tea, but I have an affinity for stone and rock landscapes, and the area was absolutely covered with slate scree, discarded from the mines. Combined with grey skies, green shrubbery and plenty of water, it was so unique. I looped through the town a few times, at one point clambering dangerously up an outcrop I’m pretty sure was in someone’s backyard, for the view.

On the way back to camp, wet, sore and tired I had a real scare. I was heading down the highway on a steep incline when it started to rain and so I began to look for somewhere to pull in and put on my wet weather gear. Seeing a spot just up ahead, and with a wet road and slate dust on my tires, I stupidly pulled too hard and too quickly on the brakes and lost control as it started skidding. I then had to just try and hold on as the bike jolted repeatedly, before thankfully righting itself. I had to pull over and take a bit to calm down, because I’m pretty sure if I had come off at that speed I would have broken a lot of bones, if not be dead. Definitely an experience to learn from. The rest of the night was spent thawing out and recovering in the pub across the road from my campsite.

For day two in Snowdonia, I spent the morning wandering a bit around the small, but stunning town of Betws-y-Coed, having already ridden through it twice to and from the mine. This is the kind of town where I could picture myself escaping to if I wanted to hide from the world, much like Bourton-on-the-Water in England. I then dedicated my afternoon to heading over to Llanberis and climbing Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak.

Admittedly I did take the ‘easy’ path up, but it was so incredibly boring and uneventful, apart from when the train (and the clever people who booked a ticket on it ahead of time) went past. There wasn’t much in the way of views on the way up, and then near the summit I was beaten around in blisteringly cold winds and clouds rolled in, making it hard to see past my nose. I decided to abort the mission and headed down the more difficult path (surely that was the obvious choice) hell bent on getting off that mountain as soon as humanly possible. Disappointingly the views riding past and around the mountain were ten times better. I caught the bus back to my bike, basically passing out with exhaustion against the window.

I think this was the first night I realised I hadn’t gone a single day without having a cider and for some reason (unknown to me now) I decided this was an issue, so I had a coke with dinner, just to prove to myself I hadn’t developed alcoholism. 

The following day was a big ride down south. I passed through Harlech and definitely could have spent some time there, but I was running out of time and hedging my bets that there would be more to see before the end. I stopped for lunch in Aberystwyth, which I dubbed the Launceston of Wales, and was too tired and cranky to do anything more than basically collapse in the nearest Starbucks.

By the time I got to Tenby, my destination (because some blog or another listed it as one of the most picturesque places in the UK), it was 8pm and I had to make a decision on whether I was going to find food or a campsite because there wasn’t enough time for both. I opted for food.

As soon as I sat down in the pub and ordered, a couple asked if I was from Ireland. About 30 seconds into the conversation about me and my trip Tony and Caroline had invited me to have a shower and bed at their place, and even offered to do my washing. Because they were true locals and knew everyone, people would stop by to chat and they would say, 'we've found this Australian and we're giving him a bed for the night'. I had run out of clean clothes about two days back, so it sounded a dream. They really ended up being my saviours and to this day I am regularly thinking of them and the amazing generosity they showed me.

They had a big beautiful house with loads of spare rooms as their kids have moved out (one was the exact same age as me!). They fed me, offered to drive me around and Caroline even lent me her rain coat. In true Welsh style, it absolutely poured down the next day, so as I tried to leave to go for a walk, umbrella over my head (poor thing was not up for the task, the wind kept turning it inside out), I walked right into the side of a reversing truck, which then drove over my foot. Of course it was being driven by their son, who had just arrived.

Metatarsal damage aside, I lasted about ten minutes outside in the torrential downpour before I aborted the mission and went back to spend the day inside with my new adopted family, who were just like Pam and Mick but sounded like Gwen and Bryn from Gavin and Stacey, so really it couldn't have gotten any more perfect, especially when they said 'lush' and 'tidy'. In fact sometimes in my head I call them Pam and Mick and have to remind myself that that isn’t their real names. I did manage to walk into Tenby along the coastal path but seriously underestimated the distance and so spent most of the ‘not-as-rainy’ time walking, so by the time I actually go to Tenby it was raining too much again to see anything, and everything was closed. Caroline, obviously with uncanny motherly skills arrived to save me once again. We ordered Indian take out and spent the night together watching Britain’s Got Talent. It was amazing how quickly I felt comfortable and at home - it was truly like they were my family.

In the morning I (finally) got to Tenby for breakfast and a wander around (yes, it was very picturesque!) before farewelling my family for the road. I headed straight for Barry, the significance of which would be lost on nearly all Australians. There’s a fantastic British comedy called Gavin and Stacey (written and starring James Corden actually!), and Stacey’s house and work are in Barry, the town being the butt of a few jokes in the show. I got some great pics at Barry Island, Stacey and Gwen’s house, and even Pam and Mick’s house in nearby Dinas Powys (even though in the show it’s in England). A neighbour at the latter spotted me and came out for a chat, telling me about the elderly couple that now live in the house and the droves of tourists that came back in the early days.

By the time I got to Cardiff I was done. Done with the day but also done with the trip, just because I was so exhausted and I was ready just to not live out of a small bag and be on the road everyday. There’s not a huge amount to see in Cardiff, but all I managed to do was walk to the mall and eat McDonalds. On my last day I was disappointed I couldn’t use the motorway over the bridge and pay the £5.10 charge (Gavin and Stacey reference), so took the long back back into England and the ride ‘home’.  

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