From our house we have a good view of one side the range of hills known as the Berwyn.
I spend a lot of time staring at these hills, watching as they change by the second with the passage of clouds over them and noting how they change with the progress of the seasons. This year I have also spent a lot of time riding over them. There is one metaled road across the top of the Berwyn, which in itself makes for a beautiful road bike ride, but, as I am discovering, there are many old green lanes and drovers’ tracks that cross the tops, dipping in and out of steep-sided blind valleys. You know that if you descend from the tops you are going to have to work to get out of the valley.
My father’s family is from a small place called Froncysyllte at the northern end of the Berwyn, made famous by Thomas Telford’s aqueduct which carries the Llangollen Canal across the River Dee. My paternal grandfather was born there in 1917 and met my grandmother there when she was visiting her family in the valley. He only left the place when World War II dragged him away. Subsequently he became a vintner and went on in the 1950s to invent and name the drink ‘The Snowball’ (for which he won some shopping vouchers and bought an highly fashionable studio couch (sofa bed to you and me).
Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying that I have some connection with the area. In fact, and this may be sentimental mumbo jumbo, I would say I felt a profound sense of homecoming (something akin the fulfillment of the Welsh sense of hiraeth, which refers to the longing for a place, tinged with sadness for the departed) when my wife and I decided to move to near Bala just over three years ago. I have since then been learning Welsh and also my way around the area. As a child I spent many holidays in the area and before I was really aware of notions of longing I was conscious that my heart used to lift as we crossed the border into Wales and the hazy outlines of the Berwyn would start to emerge.
The main venue for my childhood holidays was a small village in the Tanat Valley, called Llangynog. I used to ride my Raleigh Burner round the disused quarry there, and drag the heavy little bike to the top of the steep hills that surrounded the area, then descend with no meaningful form of braking as the flexy calipers failed to grip the yellow plastic ‘mag’ wheels. There was literally no stopping me. The same disused quarry is now the Revolution Bike Park and the obstacles created there by the Athertons are well beyond the capabilities of me and my Burner or indeed of me on any bike.
More to follow as our small boy becomes a man (of sorts) and reacquaints himself with the Berwyn.
The ride up to the Wayfarer memorial on the Berwyn has become one of our regular rides. A mini epic of about 24 miles with 3,300 feet of climbing. The classic Wayfarer route starts in Llandrillo and goes over the Berwyn and down into Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog. It’s an epic ride with lots of climbing and some interesting descents but finishing in Llanarmon DC means that there’s a long and hard slog home, unless you can persuade someone to pick you up. We’ve created a shortened version which starts and finishes at Ty Beic and doesn’t require a car.
Our route starts from the back gate and up to Caer Euni along the ridge before dropping down to Bethel and crossing the A494. There’s a much quicker route along the road if you want to avoid a testing grassy climb and some would say an unnecessary off-road slog.
Once across the main road there’s a bridleway through Ty’n Fedw and up to Mynydd Mynyllod. During the winter months parts of this can be very boggy but a dry spring and early summer means that it is still relatively dry even after some recent downpours. The track across the moor is difficult to find but we do have a GPS/Strava file we can share.
there’s a track there somewhere
From the wind turbines at the top of Mynydd Mynyllod we drop down to Cwynyd and take small back roads to the start of the climb proper up to the Wayfarer memorial. This is a hard slog up a tarmac road. Once the tarmac runs out the gradient easies a little as the track follows the contours. During the holiday season you may see the odd group of walkers and a few green laners but the track is wide enough to accommodate everyone and there’s never any conflict. And choose a day during the week you’re unlikely to see another soul.
before the crash
The climb takes about an hour. Once at the top take time to enjoy the views and sign the book in the metal box by the memorial. It’s then a fairly fast and fun descent down a rocky track to Llandrillo. Don’t do what I did recently. Hit a loose rock, not hold on to the bars properly, impromptu dismount, trashed helmet and damaged hand.
arty rock and sky pic
time for a picnic
Looking smug and not for the first time
quick check of the map
gates to slow the descent
If it’s open we’d recommend a quick pint in the Dudley Arms before bashing along the road to Llandderfel where it’s possible to have another quick pint and a bite to eat in the Bryntirion before the ride home. The beer will help numb the pain for the *testing* climb from Llandderfel to Cefynddwysarn and the final haul back up to Ty Beic. There’s another off-road route home through Ty Uchaf if the road doesn’t appeal.
That stem is too short
there is a lot of climbing
This ride is not for everyone. There’s a lot of climbing and the descent off the Berwyn is slightly spoiled by the number of gates. But if you like cycling out of the door without having to use a car, non-technical cross country riding with epic views and being able to earn your end of ride pint, then this could be the ride for you. It is rideable all year round but in the depths of winter I’d probably take the car to Cynwyd and ride from there. If you fancy the complete Wayfarer to Llanarmon DC and back then a cross bike would be Richard’s steed of choice. He’s written about such a ride here.
A few weeks ago I decided on a long distance ride over the Berwyn, following in the tracks of the very first offroad cycling journalist – Wayfarer. He regularly travelled the same roads and tracks that I do today, though he did it 100 years ago. Whenever I find that the going is getting tough or I click for a lower gear and find there isn’t one, I think of him and just how punishing some of his rides must have been (although, unlike me, I believe he was just as happy pushing).
I managed to pick one of the hottest days of the year for my expedition, which started by riding to the small village of Llandrillo in the valley of the River Dee. My goal was to go over the top first to Pen Bwlch Llandrillo and down into the valley of the River Ceiriog on the other side and then back over the Berwyn (to my side of it), have a beer in my local beer shop and grovel the last 4 miles uphill back to my home – the last section of our drive being a particularly unpleasant 20% gradient.
A small homage to a big man. ‘Wayfarer’ was an insurance clerk from Liverpool. His name was Walter Macgregor Robinson and he was famously tough and cheery. He wrote his account of crossing Bwlch Llandrillo in 1919 and it was published in Cycling. One of Wayfarer’s mottos was ‘Cycles are for riding, not for cleaning’. In my neglectful way I am keeping his spirit alive.
Like many people who ride a bike, especially when that riding is solo and in a remote spot, my mind tends to wander. I often wonder what thoughts that Wayfarer, a veteran of combat in the First World War, must have worked his way through whilst crossing these hills.
Anyway, back to the ride. Having climbed out of Llandrillo up an initially very steep track which turns into just a steep track, I crossed the pass at Pen Bwlch Llandrillo, where there is a plaque to commemorate Wayfarer – describing him as ‘a lover of Wales’. I inadvertently disturbed some other lovers of Wales who were having al fresco sex behind a 4×4 next to Wayfarer’s plaque. A cheery “p’nawn da” (good afternoon) seemed to take them by surprise.
From there I descended the rocky track into the Ceiriog valley and to a small village called Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog. There are two lovely pubs in the village but despite the heat of the day I resisted the very strong urge to stop at either of them. The last time I came by this way with a friend on a bike, we were riding through a snowy landscape and being continuously washed clean by meltwater, and it was much easier to resist the thought of a beer. As so often when I am tempted by a mid-ride beer the thing that helps me resist is the thought that it will taste EVEN better at the end.
From Llanarmon DC it’s a steep haul up out of the valley whichever way you go. I chose to do the first bit on the road towards Llanrhaedhr ym Mochnant (where I believe one or some of the Athertons might live). From the top it’s down into the Tanat valley and into tiny lanes that have hedgerows so high that all you can really see is a strip of sky. The lanes are cool on a hot day. It’s through Llanrhaedhr and along the Tanat, this time on rough tracks high above the main road and then a plummet down a sunken lane that is so overgrown it makes me feel I must be the first person along it this year. This brings me out near the village of Llangynog – the location for so many of my childhood holidays. Even 15 years ago this place had two pubs, a café, post office cum general store and a petrol station. Now it’s just got the one pub – well, that and the Revolution Bike Park.
From here I could take the ‘easy’ route out of the Tanat valley which is to say the three mile road climb back to the top of the Berwyn. But I’m in no mood for that – I feel I would be cheating myself. By now almost of all my body is tingling with nettle stings from the sunken lane and like the weird pervert I am I don’t want this ride to end. So, instead of the road climb I opt for what I know to be an horrible slog along the rough track that descends right to the valley floor before heading steeply up and essentially gaining the same elevation as the road but having lost a load of height before and then making it up with a savage, loose rocky grind back to the top. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As I crawl the last few hundred metres to the top I can just see some riders on the road. As I get to the road I can see it’s my clubmates from Clwb Beicio Bala on their Wednesday Social. As I stand there covered in blood (my own), sweat and excrement (mostly not my own) they beetle past me in their neat kit and shout for me to come with them, but by this stage I have nothing on my mind except the five mile descent into Bala and a cold pint of beer.
I am writing this a few weeks after the event. We have turned a corner into autumn and the dusty days of summer feel distant now. That day I went out in shorts and a short-sleeved jersey and I came back covered in a mix of sweat, dust, dead flies and what felt like 100 nettle stings. Just how I like it. I’m sometimes not sure why I do these rides. I think maybe it’s for the sheer pleasure I have when they’re over. One thing I do know though is that as long as I can ride a bicycle I’ll carry on.
As I said, it’s autumn now and I love this time of year but that memory, like the memory of a dream, of a hot, dusty ride and of lying in bed that night with my legs and arms tingling will keep going through the winter.
I’m not sure what Wayfarer would make of my bicycle and my attire (or of people having sex next to his plaque), but I’d like to think that he’d appreciate my (and their) endeavor. Another few miles under the belt and another few thoughts worked through. Why take the easy way when you can make things harder and much more unpleasant for yourself in pursuit of long term private glory? As in all things, as an old friend and I used to say “Maximum Endeavour!”
I have a confession. I enjoy road cycling as much if not more so than mountain biking. I didn’t feel that way when we lived in South London where I endured and survived a 7 mile commute into central London everyday and weekend rides into Kent meant a 20 minute slog through South London’s Mean Streets. I don’t cycle as far as I used to and all day epics are a thing of the past – I blame that dog – but a 30 mile ride can be just as worthwhile and rewarding. The roads around here are so quiet that we can cycle for miles without seeing a car and there are very few roundabouts or traffic lights to break the rhythm. Bala’s driving test centre is famous, and much in demand, as one of the few centres where a test doesn’t involve such things. I took my driving test a couple of years ago in Bala, not having the need for a car when living in London. The first time I negotiated a roundabout and dual carriageway behind a wheel was driving to Chester and back to visit Richard in hospital after he broke his hand. But that’s another story.
The weather last week was great so we had no excuse not to get out on the bikes. Sunday was a 32 mile ride (with 3000ft of climbing) over Bwlch y Groes, down to Lake Vyrnwy and back over Rhosygwalia. Monday was another 30 mile ride through Llandderfel to the top of the Berwyn before turning round and heading back to Bala with a detour around Llyn Tegid. We had planned to ride over the Berwyns to Llangynog and then Vyrnwy, Bwlch y Groes back to Bala but realised we would be late for our Welsh conversational class in Stori, or ‘siarad caci tarw yn Gymraeg’ as we like to call it, so we cut the ride short. Thursday is chaingang night, a 20 mile thrash starting and finishing at the Bryntirion.