Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Wales and England Part 1: North Wales

I somehow managed to cram my bike and all my camping gear into my mum's sports car - as well as her stuff and the dog - so it was about a 6 hour drive up to Conwy in North Wales.  I had a couple of days there before I'd start the journey back home on the bike.

20 miles or so before reaching Conwy, my mum and I stopped-off at Betws-y-Coed, a nice little village on a river for a short walk and to let the dog stretch his legs.  It was the first sign of the great synergy much of the UK seems to have between man-made buildings and their surroundings.  Unlike many places in the world I have been, the buildings here complement their surroundings and add to the scenery; they don't stick out like a sore thumb and spoil the view.  It was also the first opportunity to butcher a place name, much like I did all over New Zealand.  Amazingly, I managed to be even worse at pronouncing Welsh towns and villages than I did those in New Zealand.

I would definitely do more running if this kind of view was a few kilometres down the road.

Conwy was a beautiful little town to start things off.  Narrow streets with old buildings and one huge castle.  The morning after my arrival I went for a run over the other side of town to one of the rocky outcrops over-looking the town.  Even though it was a cloudy day it still gave excellent views of quite a lovely place.

Conwy Castle

Later on that day I joined my mum and her friend, plus a good friend from my time in Korea, Peter, for a short hike.  The next day, we would do a harder hike around the nearby mountains.  I had originally planned to hike up Wale's highest mountain, Mount Snowden, but I was advised by Anne - who we were staying with - that this hike would be busy with tourists and not especially enthralling. She suggested we do a longer, more technical scramble of a hike, first up Mount Trfan and then along a ridge-line after it, horse-shoeing back to our bikes.

Mount Tryfan

Firstly, though, I had to meet my friend at the start of the hike and this required about 40Km of cycling from Conwy to get there.  Pete would meet me there, as he was riding a motorbike.  The plan was to leave the bike at the base of the trail and cycle a little more afterwards about 6 hours or so later.  The cycle to the start of the walk started immediately with a 300-400 metre climb up to the Sychnant Pass just outside of Conwy, which was a bit of an early shock to the system.  It then continued along some country roads, avoiding the main road, which was extremely busy and not suitable for bikes.

One country road in particular rose so sharply that I had to get off the bike and walk, and even that was difficult.  This is not something I had to do for the rest of the trip, but it was clear very early on that this trip wasn't going to be an easy one, and that the country roads were going to be a little unpredictable in terms of gradients.  Once I got on the main A road towards the mountains, however, the gradient became more manageable, rising more gradually.

Anne was right about the choice of hike, it was fantastic, great views and quite a challenging scramble.  It was just like old times hiking in Korea, although I think Wales has slightly more appealing scenery, even if the mountains are actually lower.

After a little rest, I said goodbye to Pete and headed-off on my own to see how far I could get through Snowdonia before calling it a day.

It was superb cycling, not really that challenging, as the ascents were gradual and the descents long, without too many twisting corners to slow me down.  This didn't take away from the lovely scenery through the Welsh valleys.

By the end of the day I had done about 80Km on the bike, much more than I expected, especially with a 6 hour hike in the middle.  I'd made it past Porthmadog and settled-in at a campsite a little further down the road.  Just beforehand I had stopped to get some cash in a small town called Tremadog.  I cycled through a very modest street party outside a couple of pubs on the main street.  It was quite a quaint look at Wales.  "Show me the way to Amarillo", was pumping out over loudspeakers with a big Welsh flag in the background.  This song was to be in my head for the rest of the trip.

Day 1 route and profile.

After a little rain overnight, I hung my tent up to try and dry it out before setting-off.  My mission was to get as far as possible in the day, now heading down the West coast.  I was soon to learn that cycling along the coast of Wales is actually much tougher than cycling through the mountains. Basically, the route up the mountains were through the valleys and steady because of it; the coast on the other hand, was remarkably up and down, especially when coming in and out of the towns.

As I made my way South the hills felt like they were getting more pronounced.  I often dropped into small towns, which gave me good chances for breaks, but also posed an extra challenge of making sure I knew where I was going.  As the trip went on, I got better and better and finding my way around.

It was nice to pass through small towns and villages, many with old castles and buildings and red post boxes.  It was all very traditional, very British, and made for such a different atmosphere while riding from my trips in Australasia.

Coastline of Aberystwyth.

I made a few pit stops throughout the day, one in a place called Dogellau for a cooked breakfast and some cake, and then again in Aberystwth, a town I once considered studying in.  Aberystwyth had a very pretty waterfront, with nice buildings and a rocky coastline.  I remember when I considered studying there that the bay at Aberystwyth was home to some dolphins, so I thought I would look out on the water for a while to see if I could spot them, and sure enough, after a few minutes I could see two porpoising close to shore.

Not having many pictures of me and the bike, I looked for someone to take my picture on the shorefront at Aberystwyth.  I found an old couple; the lady said her husband better take the picture as he was better at taking photos.  He kindly took some, but afterwards I looked at the pictures and he managed to take 8 pictures of the floor and 4 of me but with his thumb over the lens.  I then asked a young couple to do it instead once they had disappeared off into the distance.

It was difficult to know where to stop after Aberystwyth, but at around 7pm I couldn't ride any longer, and because of the lack of tree cover in this part of Wales and many farms, I saw a sign for camping and thought I might as well pay again, even though I really dislike paying for camping.  As I rode down the track, I couldn't see any signs of a campsite, just two fairly large houses with no one around.  Eventually a man came out and I asked if this was where the campsite was.  He said yes, and that another cyclist had camped there the day before.  There were no facilities though, and so he just said I didn't need to pay and to just camp in the field out back near a couple of old caravans.  Perfect.

Day 2 route and profile.

After another rainy early morning, I managed to dry-off in one of those caravans as the door was open.  This was very handy as it was still raining outside.  I got myself all sorted in the dry inside and thought that I could have just stayed in the caravan for the night, but I guess that would have been a bit cheeky.

Half of Wales done, I had to cycle quite a bit more down the coast through Pembrokeshire National Park and then across to the Brecon Beacons, which did bring up some challenges, both in terrain and with the weather.  All about that in the next post.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

A Week Through England and Wales

I have recently attached the words, "and beyond", to the blog to represent the fact that I may stray outside of Australasia from time to time on my bicycle tours.  Fitting then that my first tour not in either Australia or New Zealand will be back home in good ol' blighty.

I haven't been home for about 3 and a half years, so as much as I'd like to do a huge tour of Britain, I think it is more important to re-connect with friends and family, so for that reason, I will be touring for about a week and having about 4 weeks just at home in Colchester.

I had been hoping my inspiring mate from Korea (who cycled from Korea back home to England) could join me on this one, but alas it wasn't the right time for him.  This is often the problem with bicycle touring; not many people do it or can do it, and when they can, the time isn't always right for you both at the same time.  However, I plan to meet up with him at the start of the cycle to scale some mountains- just like old times in Korea.

The Route

I will be first hiking in Snowdonia National Park and then cycling right through Wales, where I will hike up Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons, the highest mountain in Southern Wales and the training ground of the SAS, before heading home through England.  If I am struggling for time, I may take the train home from Oxford, shortly after passing through the Cotswolds, but the plan is to cycle all the way home.  The way home, through a very populated area of the UK with a myriad of different routes and unpalatable roads to cycle on, is my main headache for this trip.

Without doubt, the highlight of the trip will be Wales.  I will begin by being driven from my home in Colchester to Conwy where I'll meet up with my friend for some hiking, and where I will stay at my mum's friend's house.  She has kindly offered to put me up for a couple of nights while my mum visits her for a few days.  Conwy looks like a nice little town to explore, as well as being in close proximity to Snowdonia National Park.  Perfect.

The Challenges

This is going to be a very different kind of bike tour to any of the tours in Australia and New Zealand that I have completed so far.  Physically, this tour is nowhere near as demanding (although it's still over 800Km in 7 days with a fair amount of hiking).  There will be some climbs at times, but not a patch on New Zealand or the Snowy Mountains in Australia.  I will also not have to deal with a lack of supplies, which is always a serious consideration when you venture outside the major cities in Australia as you are met, quite often, with vast expanses of wilderness. Even in New Zealand, I had long stretches without shops or civilization.  This, not only creates worries about finding supplies, but also makes your bike significantly heavier, as you have to carry lots more food and water.  I won't have such troubles cycling through England and Wales.  Lighter bike, more stops, and less hills.

However, there is an advantage to the wilderness; less people, less roads, and less traffic.  In Australia and New Zealand, you pick a road and you ride on it for hours, sometimes even days, and in the case of riding through Australia, even weeks.  Unbelievably, in over 4000Km through Australia, I only turned-off onto another road about 6 times I think, and I was on one road, the Stuart Highway, for nearly 3000Km!  Even New Zealand has less roads than you might imagine, route planning in this part of the world is a doddle.

In comparison, looking at the road map of England, especially, is like looking at a maze of different possible routes, and I know many of these roads are probably not going to be fun to cycle on, with too much traffic being my main problem.  This is making it slightly difficult for me to know just how far I will go in a day.  However, on my side is more hours of daylight than I have ever ridden with, so I can make up time if necessary.

The unpredictability of the weather is also something I will have to watch out for.  It isn't that much fun riding in the rain.  In Australia, it is not something you have to contend with that often and in New Zealand I had the time to plan around it and rest-up when it came.  I only have 7 or 8 days this time, so if it rains, I'll have to ride through it.  Again though, long hours of daylight may help me and I may be able to stop and let showers pass.  At least it should also be warm (fingers crossed).

It will certainly be a more challenging tour in terms of route-finding and dealing with traffic and people, but it should serve as good preparation for a couple of tours of East Asia, on the drawing board for next year.  At least I can speak the language and know what to expect in the UK, it could be a whole lot more confusing in Japan, for example.

The Hiking

It is not all about the cycling. Wales promises to be a pretty cool place to do some hiking, so with that in mind, I have a number of hikes in Snowdonia National Park planned, mostly only a few hours in duration, but I might string them together into one or two long days on foot.  All the hikes are within 40Km (about 25 miles) of my base at the start of the trip in Conwy.

After cycling through Snowdonia and down the West coast of Wales, I will also be cycling through the Brecon Beacons, so another opportunity - this time for a longer hike - will present itself, this time up Pen y Fan.

This journey promises to be a very strangely different experience for me, as most of my adventures, both hiking and biking, have usually occurred on the other side of the world from where I was brought-up. I haven't lived in the UK for the last 7 years, and in the last ten, I have only spent about a year there, so it is both familiar and alien to me all at the same time.  It should be a fascinating trip.