A weekend away in St Helens for a 1950’s themed wedding was exactly what I needed; a touch of glamour. Dan suggested a microadventure. A little bit of bikepacking in Wales would break up the journey back to Southampton.
Sometime between trying on frocks, scoffing cake and testing half a dozen red lipsticks, I managed to buy OS Explorer Map 255; Llangollen & Berwyn. Drew, a fellow bearbones forum buddy had sent a GPX file with a suggested route, so we were well prepared. With silver shoes and red polka dot dress packed away, we drove to Llanrhaedr-ym-Mochnant. The village was the setting for the film starring Hugh Grant, ‘The Englishman who walked up a hill and came down a mountain’.
There, we set up the bikes and grabbed some lunch at the Plough Inn. As I downed scampi and homemade chips, Dan devoured a bean burger. He also had the yummy chips. Making a five point turn, a bus turned to go back from where it came, signalling the end of the route. Instead of carrying on, the driver jumped out and strolled to his house next door to the pub. A woman carrying the makings of lunch followed him indoors.
Standing proudly at the turning circle, a sculpture of a sheep reminds us we’re in wales. A ram to be exact, of that there was no doubt. So slow was my progress as we set off north, I thought I had a flat. A full belly wasn’t helpful either, but pretty soon I got into my rhythm riding along tree lined lanes. The mercury hit 25c. Muggy, and not a breath of air. Where road ended a track began. A stony path where we pushed and were passed by someone fitter and younger with no weight on his bike. As I rested for a few moments, a father and son stopped to ask what I was doing.
‘Are you planning on wildcamping?’
‘Where will you camp?’
‘Wherever I am when I get too tired to push.’
‘Do you have everything you need with you?’
‘We do indeed.’
Everything except a wee hipflask of brandy, I thought, as they sped off over the top of the hill. The hills were lush and green. Large flocks of sheep roamed freely on the slopes folds. There were no buildings, wind turbines, mobile phone masts or electricity pylons to spoil the view. Timeless, it was. The ground turned marshy. Rushes reigned supreme. I tried to open a gate one handed while holding onto the bike with the other. This would not have been so difficult but I was trying to keep my feet reasonably dry and was leaning at full stretch to reach the latch. Dan got fed up with my faffing and opened the gate. He was more than ankle deep in water, I managed to stay dry. Then we strayed off the path. ‘This can’t be right. How on earth did Drew cover the whole route in five hours?’ It was impossible to ride through the swamp. My socks squelched in my boots. We pushed to higher ground slowly reaching the top. Glorious, downhill single track. If it hadn’t have been so steep it would have been fantastic. I knew I should have switched back to the knobblies as I slithered and skid down Blueberry Hill. Not its real name, but perfectly apt as it was cloaked in blueberry bushes. ‘I found my freedom, on Blueberry Hill…’ My singing stopped as Dan took a tumble. ‘Like landing on carpet,’ he assured me.
Turning right was wrong. We pushed back uphill. We think we should have turned right where a stream trickled through a slate river bed but opted for straight ahead. Lost again, we ended up in a sea of waist high thistles, stinging nettles and bracken. We were on the wrong side of the valley. I was stung so badly that I stopped feeling the stings. Dan bore the brunt of the thicket as I followed in the path he flattened. Climbing over a ruined building to cross a ford, we ended up in the grounds of a private house. There was a road leading to Llangynog. We stopped for coffee, a Magnum ice cream and refilled our water at the village pub.
Relieved to be back on the route, we continued along a quiet narrow road scattering hundreds of grouse. An almost vertical forested hill cast shade from the sun. We rode past St Mellangell’s church to a private estate, which clearly was forbidden territory. It was after 7pm by then.
‘We’re lost again Dan.’ ‘No. We’re not lost. Lost is when you don’t know where you are and we know exactly where we are.’ ‘Hmm,’ I said, shaking my head miserably. ‘We might know where we are, and where we want to go. We just don’t know how to get there. Therefore we are lost.’ Dan knew better than to argue. He opened the map and showed me where we were.
A bridleway taking us to an altitude of 500m, would bring us back to the route. A shiny black gate led to a bridleway. Freshly painted I discovered when I looked at my sticky blackened hands. I warned Dan. There was a sign too. It read ‘Waterfall’. Every sign said waterfall, but which waterfall? In less than 100m the track vanished. ‘What sort of bridleway is this?’ I said, smearing black tar across my face. I walked in the general direction of the path marked on the map, hopeful I’d find it. We rode, then backtracked, finding nothing. I spotted another shiny black gate at the top of a field. I could barely push the bike the gradient was so steep. We zig zagged up the hill to the gate which led to a bridleway. Midges swarmed around me and I sprayed myself from head to toe. They bit relentlessly. A fallen tree blocked the track. We manoeuvred around it and carried on. Insect repellent stung my thistle scrapes and the midges stuck to sticky damp skin. I hadn’t the energy to slap them. The path melded into open hillside. There was nothing to indicate the route. I wanted to camp. I was exhausted. ‘Let’s push on…’ Dan started. ‘We’re stopping at the top of that hill. I don’t give a fuck if there’s a path or not. I’m not going on any more.’ I slapped my calves and face and sprayed more poison in a quest to stave off the bastards. At last a breeze filled in. We reached 450m and the top of a gorge. We stopped and pitched camp in a sheltered hollow. Udon noodles and minestrone soup never tasted so good. Looking out across the hills as dusk fell, I smiled quietly. Sheep grazed high on a hill; slugs came out as dew settled. Songbirds gave their last call of the evening. We were alone with the stars. Before dark we were fast asleep, so deep we slept long beyond sunrise. In the morning, I stood at the top of our sleepy hollow. The sun warmed my face and I stretched to the heavens. I felt alive, albeit itchy. After breakfast, we climbed higher to access the ridge. Twenty minutes later we’d made about 100m of progress. It was a tough decision, but we had to turn back. Southampton was a long way off and conditions were too tough to continue. It was great craic on the way back, riding downhill across fields, picking up the track we knew, joining the lane where the grouse ran like mini dinosaurs, sitting in the churchyard swallow watching and a sipping coffee at the pub. Then we followed the road to Llanrhaedr. We tried a few bridleways, but they were either invisible or overgrown. Along the way, something caught my eye. ‘Dan, I think that’s a stone circle, I can spot one a mile off.’ Dan rolled his eyes and followed me to the field. A digger carried a large black rectangular item in its bucket. ‘You’re just in time Darling,’ Dan chuckled. ‘They’re taking your stone circle away.’ That was untrue. There had been a music festival the day before, a worker told me. Barriers were being removed by the digger and the stone circle it turned out was built about 70 years ago. ‘Not exactly Stonehenge,’ in the words of the worker.
Back at the village, we ordered lunch, roast beef dinner with all the trimmings for me and a salad for Dan. I discovered a tick buried into my forearm much to Dan’s horror. ‘I’ve never had a tick in my life.’ That night, back in the comfort and familiarity of home, Dan found one in his upper arm. I removed the creature and checked for others, and then soothed my polka dot legs with cream.