Berwyn Up – the Beginings

If you thought mountain biking began in California in the 1970s, think again.  It was born 100 years ago in North Wales when Walter MacGregor Robinson, aka the ‘Wayfarer’, decided to mark the end of the ‘off-season’ with a weekend ride.   On 30 March 1918 Robinson and a group of friends rode from Birmingham to Liverpool.  Not ones for taking the easy option, although they did very sensibly decide to “dispose of Wrexham” they embarked on a route that took them over one of the highest passes in Wales.  In a snowstorm.  Robinson never refers to Nant Rhyd Wilym as such.  He prefers to call it ‘Over the Top’ and that was the title of the article he wrote for ‘Cycling’ magazine a year after his adventure the popularity of which spawned a new interest in off-road cycling and the mountain bike boom was born*.

This wonderfully evocative article is written in Robinson’s eloquent, rhetorical and often humorous style.  It is also strangely prescient

“The road up the Glyn Valley for the first few miles has been “repaired” in a manner which suggests that the local authority wishes to discourage cycling and motoring visitors, upon whom the prosperity of the district in a measure depends.”

Robinson was a pioneer, encouraging cyclists to explore using mountain tracks, footpaths and byways as “some of the best of cycling would be missed if one always had to be in the saddle or on a hard road.”

Wayfarer Berwyn mountains

His cycling exploits are all the more remarkable given that he was injured during the First World War and often felt pain in his leg.  He rode a singlespeed Rover Light Roadster.  He advised other cyclists to dispense with mudguards, probably because they would become clogged with mud or on his epic wayfarer adventure, snow.  A perfectionist and fastidious in almost everything he did, he was not however a fan of cleaning his bicycle claiming that “cycles are for riding, not for cleaning”.

Robinson was an insurance clerk by profession but he was a remarkable cyclist and an inspiring writer.  In the words of the great man himself “’twill be an adventure”

Robinson’s full article about his ride is reproduced on cyclingnorthwales.co.uk

Photographs courtesy of CTC / University of Warwick Library from North Wales Mountain Bike Association 

*not entirely true, it did take another seventy odd years, but it makes a good story.

Stranger Than Paradise

The snow’s gone, spring is in the air and normal service has resumed so here’s a reminder about who we are, what we do and why we are here.

We moved to North Wales in 2013 after living in South East London for nearly 20 years.  We have always been cycling obsessed.  We met while both members of Dulwich Paragon cycling round the lanes of Kent and the North Downs and later getting our arses handed to us on a plate at Crystal Palace Crits.  At the time I was the only single female in the cycling club so I had the pick of the club and Richard didn’t.  Make of that what you will.

criteriums

That’s me in 2009, 2nd in line looking a little chunky

After years of city living and spending many weekends escaping London to find good places to ride we decided to make a permanent move.  I left my job of running a classical concert venue in central London, Richard re-located his furniture making business and we moved to Sarnau near Bala.

We knew the area well.  Richard’s family is originally from near Llangollen and he spent many a family holiday in the Tanat Valley riding his BMX or ancient Peugeot MTB around what is now the Revolution Bike Park.  I used to come here most summers with a ragtag group of cyclists from Southwark to attempt the Wild Wales Challenge.

I handed in my notice in March 2013 and by the end of June we were living in Ty Hen.  We found the house from a small ad in the local paper.  We didn’t immediately fall in love with the place but there was a lot that we liked, including the views of the Berwyn mountains, and we thought we could make it work for us.

The first job was to build a workshop for Richard so he could continue with his business (www.catchweasel.com) and work on converting the derelict outbuildings into holiday cottages.  The workshop is the Swiss style chalet behind the house.  One of our friends in Bala once said we would make more money from it as a holiday let than a workshop.  He may be right.

Work began on the barn conversions in November 2014.  We wouldn’t have chosen to start work then but we needed to get going as time and money were running out.  It was not a labour of love.  It was very, very hard work and I never want to do anything like that again.  We finished the Barn in August 2015 (4 hours before our first guests) and the Stable in December 2015.

Barn from field

The cottages are designed to appeal to cyclists as cycling is our passion.  We provide secure bike storage, bike wash, workstand and tools and can give advice about the best routes, rides and bike parks.  One of the reasons we chose to live here is that we are no more than a 40 minute drive from about eight trail centres and mountain bike trails.  One of our first guests described the area as Singletrack Epicentre which is about right and since moving here we have discovered that there are also some great natural trails in the hills behind us and over on the Berwyn.  Last year we started to build a bike track in the large, steep field at the front of the property.

The road riding is exceptional with quiet roads, challenging climbs and exhilarating descents.  We can go out for a 30 mile ride, pick the right roads and not see a car.

North Wales Road cycling

After about a year of living here we acquired a dog.  Jac (spelt the Welsh way without a ‘k’) is the photogenic Labrador you see in nearly all of our photos.  As we like dogs so much it seemed daft not to allow dogs to stay in our cottages so we made one of the them, the Stable, pet friendly.  Dogs love roaming around the grounds and playing in the field and Jac gets on with everyone and everything.  We’ve also had cats to stay and Jac didn’t eat them.

Jac the labrador

 

Our cottages are not your normal barn conversions.  We both have unusual and quirky taste and have a habit of picking things up in junk and charity shops.  These have found their way into the cottages along with some of Richard’s creations.

nut job

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Stranger than paradise

door handle

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Neutral they are not.  They’re also much nicer and much warmer than our house.  We wish we lived in one of them.

 

Off On Road

It’s been 6 months since my last mountain bike ride as my last attempt resulted in an unplanned dismount and a broken thumb.  Pain, lack of control (nothing new there) but mainly fear has kept me off off road and on on road ever since.  Richard found a sneaky local loop which has tempted me back.  1 1/2 road miles from Ty Beic, a mile long with 200 feet of climbing and a gradual ascent and gentle singletrack descent.  Nothing technical and can be ridden all year round.  Ideal.  Ride it multiple times at speed and it’s a good workout.  Perfect for a quick morning spin before anyone else is out of bed or a gentle evening ride before bed.

I first road it last week in snow and ice and again yesterday in mud.  I prefer the snow.  If Eleanor isn’t too brutal I may go again today.

Shameless marketing warning, if you want to try it for yourself it’s only £65 per night (£32.50 per person) to stay during January to March and there are further discounts if you are a Singletrack magazine subscriber.

 

Berwyn Up (Part 1)

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.Road cycling Berwyns

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.

Cadair BerwynBerwyn cyclocrossBerwyn mountains

Tim, Emma, Daisy and Mosy’s Welsh Adventure

Begin with four bikes and three dogs.  Add dry dusty trails and sneaky singletrack.  Throw in some big views and empty landscapes.  Add lashings of sunshine and a dash of Welsh beer and cider, combine with lots of enthusiasm.  The result is two satisfied customers, three tired dogs and two very happy hosts.

Destination Wales

MB Wales has made a film about mountain biking in Wales.  From trail centres, epic downhills, natural trails and family rides, it manages to convey in just over 5 minutes the incredible variety of riding to be enjoyed in Wales.  It would be rude not to share.

Semitrack

It’s been a very wet winter here.  I’m not complaining – we haven’t been flooded out of our home unlike a lot of people, but it has meant that the natural riding has been pretty much out of bounds.  But every now and again the sun shines brightly and the landscape is transformed.  And I’m reminded that summer is not that far away.

Walking the dog the other day, the sun came out and the shadow suddenly revealed all the sheep trails criss-crossing the hill.  I’ve suddenly discovered a new series of trails for when things are a bit drier.  This stuff is so narrow it’s not even singletrack – more semitrack, giving just enough to ride across the steep hillside.

semitrack

singletrack