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This time of year can be difficult for the bikepacker. Short, cold days and long dark nights aren’t particularly inviting and the prospect of yet another eight hours huddled under a tarp listening to the rain, really doesn’t make you want to grab your bike and get out there, does it? The sun will come back though, the days will get longer and before you know it, the pain of winter will be lost to the joy of spring but if you don’t believe me, here’s a reminder of what’s waiting round the corner.
From my vantage point, I looked down at the estuary a mile below, a silver ribbon of water fighting its way to the sea and flanked on both sides by an expanse of thick brown mud. Far in the distance the rounded tops of mid-Wales’s highest mountains were just visible through the morning haze. I shuffled round the other way and looked up at the largely forgotten hills of southern Snowdonia and they starred back at me. They loomed down, looking unwelcoming, almost threatening but I knew that this was just for show and once travelling amongst them, their character would change completely. 

I jumped down from my wall top perch and half opened the little bag fastened to my handlebars. Inside, nestling on top was a Tunnocks Tea Cake and it was still in one piece – now seemed like a good time to eat it. I unwrapped my prize from its foil and started to nibble round the bottom edge. I stopped, I could hear something, a peculiar noise that I couldn’t quite work out. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t as important as my tea cake, so I went back to that. There it was again but this time louder, I cocked my head to one side like a dog with a favourite word and listened. It may have been louder but it still wasn’t recognisable, part human perhaps but part mechanical too … I finished my tea cake. With elevenses concluded, I wondered over towards the brow of the hill I’d ridden up twenty minutes earlier. It was a proper hill, one of those with a little sign at the bottom which rates your chances of pedalling up it, in this case, the odds were one in four. As I crested the top, the source of the mystery noise became fully apparent. Cycling slowly up the hill towards me were two women. One of them was clearly struggling to defy the laws of gravity and looked to be breathing through her nose, mouth and ears simultaneously. Her face was a odd shade but beneath the deep reds and purples, the expression was one of pure determination. The second, appeared to be having an easier time with the gradient although her bike wasn’t. Every revolution of the cranks produced a high pitch ‘eek’ from some unfortunate mechanical component, it was the kind of noise that makes you screw your face up and clench your jaw in uneasy anticipation. 

I retreated a few yards back up the lane and resumed my position on the wall. As soon as I’d sat down they appeared, perhaps unaware of my presence or simply past caring, they lay their bikes down on the road, then lay down beside them. “All right ladies?” I said, wondering whether I’d given them enough time to recover the power of speech. A hand rose up from the floor in answer, it waved, then returned to the ground where it started to pat one of the bikes before appearing again, clutching a water bottle. “Where you going?”, “seaside” they said together, as they began the slow process of picking themselves up from the floor. “Well, it’s certainly a nice day for ice cream” I said, jumping down off the wall. “It would be if it wasn’t for all these f’ing hills”. “Croeso y Cymru”, I replied with a smile in my voice but a straight face. With both of them now vertical, they walked over to the opposite side of the road and plonked themselves down on the grassy banking, glugging water and starring at my bike propped against a long deceased gate. 

“Are you touring?” asked the redder of the two. Without thinking I started to reply but as soon as I opened my mouth, I realised that I couldn’t really be bothered offering a full explanation, “No, well, err sort of, yeah” I said with all the flair of a inarticulate halfwit. “We quite fancy touring, you staying in B&B and stuff?”, I was primed now, “no, I’m camping”. “You haven’t got much stuff, where’s your tent?”, this really wasn’t going well. I knew that as soon as I said, I don’t have a tent and will simply lie down on a random patch of grass, in no more than a expensive body bag, they would think that not only was I a halfwit but that I’d escaped from some kind of institution. “I’m waiting for someone, they’ve got the tent”, I lied. 

“Where are you heading once the tent arrives?”, not wanting to admit that I actually had very little idea, I picked up my shovel and continued to dig myself a hole. “Probably ride over to Barmouth” was the best I could come up with but it didn’t satisfy the inquisitive duo. “If you’re going to the coast, why are you waiting here for someone who’s obviously riding from the coast”, it was a good question but one I could easily answer, “we’re not riding on the road, we’re going off road, through the mountains”. They could have left it at that, they really could have but no, they had to ask another question – “why?”. “How do you mean, why?”. Things were getting desperate now and I needed to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. Had I been in a different frame of mind, then maybe I’d have tried to explain how riding off road increases your awareness of the natural world, how it nourishes your spirit and I might have mentioned that it’s actually really good fun – but I wasn’t, so I didn’t. What I needed was an answer that would provoke no further questions. I lent back against the wall and with the cold single mindedness usually reserved for assassins and the Inland Revenue, I said “sorry but if I have to explain it, then you really wouldn’t understand”. They looked at each other, then both looked at me and in unison cast me a stare, a special kind of stare that only women can do and at that moment, I knew there’d be no more questions.

The track up into the mountains is actually rideable but bikepacking’s not generally considered to be a sprint discipline, energy conservation is an important consideration, so we pushed. We knew it well, although steep and rough to start, our minds were already thinking about the descent off the top but for now, we were still climbing. Within a quarter of a mile, the gradient softens and any excuses diminish, however, it’s not quite as straightforward as it might sound. A series of short and very sharp rocky sections present themselves at regular intervals; balance, forethought and luck are required in equal measure if you want to reach the summit, without reverting to a walk.

Progress was on the steadier side of brisk but there was no rush. It was the end of March but it felt like July. Luckily for me, Matt has a habit of bringing good weather with him and today was no exception. There was nowhere else I’d have rather been at that moment, so the longer it took, the more opportunity we had to enjoy the experience. Unsurprisingly, the descent is very much like the ascent only it’s more fun and doesn’t last as long. We reached the gate which signals game over and coasted down the tarmac lane and into the village. The pub was open, as was the peculiar village shop but ignoring temptation and potential ridicule we pedalled through the lanes and towards the next bwlch – for anyone unfamiliar with the word bwlch, it’s best thought of as ‘pass’, as in mountain pass.

Although our second bwlch was a lot higher and noticeably longer than the first, the smooth surface meant that there was no plausible reason not to ride it. With legs set to automatic we began to crawl our way towards the small notch in the hills just visible a couple of miles ahead. We replenished our water supplies half way up from a small stream running off the mountains. It also seemed like a good time to see what chocolate covered inspiration Matt could find in his bags. We sat on the edge of the road looking down into the valley bottom. I regaled Matt with my stories of Wales long ago and both of us tried hard to picture the same scene a few hundred years before. Where we saw flat green pasture, someone then would have gazed upon the sea and what appears to be a tall rock face to us, would have been a sea cliff to them. Stuffing our pondering’s in our pockets alongside our wrappers, we picked the bikes back up and continued to pedal.

The ability to converse in complete sentences signified the top. A gravel track now carries you across the plateau and your first, tantalising glimpse of the white sands and palm trees that is Barmouth. From where we stood, which was leaning against a gate beside a small forest, Barmouth was down hill, very down hill. We had two options, there was longer and more gradual or there was plummet. The lure of fish and chips was too much to resist, so we opted for plummet. I’d forgotten just how steep our chosen path was and unfortunately, I’d also forgotten that my brakes have an regular habit of fading when faced with such descents. It was quite a shock when I did eventually remember as I recalled both the hill and condition of my brakes simultaneously. My fingers were pulling the levers but their efforts didn’t appear to generate any noticeable reduction in speed. I pulled harder, nothing, harder still but we just kept going faster. By now, my sub-conscious had woken from its slumber and generated some alarmingly vivid pictures for my conscious mind to have look at. I  scanned the mental images of what lay ahead, firstly the 30% gradient didn’t ease, actually that’s not strictly true, the 30% gradient didn’t ease until it spat you directly onto the busy main road at the bottom. Perhaps oddly, finding myself ejected straight in front of speeding cars, vans and caravans wasn’t my main concern. At that moment, I was more worried about whether I would manage to negotiate the sharp right hand bend I’d just been reminded of. I tried every combination of swear words I could think of but even the really offensive ones did nothing to slow me down. Feet were forced into action, first I pushed my left one against the ground as hard as I could, maybe it was helping, it was hard to tell so I threw any remaining caution to the sea breeze and removed my right foot from the pedal and used that too. With both feet scraping along the ground and my arse planted firmly on the top tube, I was now fully and completely out of control.

Although various outcomes to the situation were still possible, it appeared that each one would result in a high degree of pain and a number of broken metal things. The anticipated right hander came into view, I scanned the road ahead pretending that I might spot a viable line round it. My eyes darted about, road, tree, wall, gravel, DRIVE! On the left hand side of the road was a driveway, it was just before what appeared to be the apex of the bend and best of all, it went up hill. I readied myself for the transition between speedy tarmac and the rough gravel. Feet firmly back on the pedals, try and point the bike in the correct direction and a final quiet word, to whichever deity might be willing to forgive the previous swearing. A loud whoosh as my tyres came into contact with the pebbles covering the drive, then the joy of deafening silence. 

The final mile into Barmouth was largely uneventful, although it was accompanied by a nagging voice, a voice that kept telling me how good its brakes were compared to mine and that they’d never given any cause for concern. It was probably a fair point given the near tragic incident a few miles back but I tried my best to ignore it and concentrate on chips. A quick lap the wrong way round the one way system lead us to a chip shop and a late lunch. The whole town bathed in the aroma of factor twenty and candyfloss. We lent the bikes against the chippy window, plonked our helmets on a rather unsteady plastic table and walked inside. The ‘menu’ took up nearly an entire wall and seemed to contain every conceivable item that could be battered and deep-fried … in all fairness, it also listed a few that really shouldn’t be. We settled on the traditional option, then retired outside to watch the world go by.

Barmouth may be in Wales but it’s is no different to any other UK seaside town, when the sun comes out, the people come out. A little sunshine does quite remarkable things to the British population, our usual reserved nature gets tossed aside along with our coats and woolly hats and we embark on a quest to get as much sun as possible onto our milky white skin. Whichever way we looked, the streets were awash with shirt-less blokes, sucking in bellies and displaying their tattoos. Bulldogs rubbed shoulders with panthers, skulls of every description grimaced menacingly at anyone who dared stare and dragons, swallows and ‘coy carp’ jockeyed for position outside every cafe and pub. 

In the main, the women had less tattoos than the men but they were no less entertaining. Muffin tops met bikini tops, size 16 boobs squeezed into size 12 cups, puffy ankles propping up flabby thighs, short skirts and even shorter shorts. I unzipped my jersey another half inch in solidarity. A shout from inside indicated our food was ready; Armed with fish, chips and bendy plastic forks we returned outside to continue watching the greatest show on earth. 

I starred hard at the polystyrene tray and the handful of chips it contained, shall I eat them or should I leave them? I couldn’t decide. “These your bikes?” I looked up to see where the words had come from, already getting out of my seat and formulating an apology for leaving them partially blocking the footpath. Two lads in their early twenties stood looking at the loaded bikes with genuine interest. I sat back down and thought I’d let Matt do the talking but his attention may still have been focused on other things. I answered questions about luggage, gearing and sleeping bags with great enthusiasm but managed to skirt around the subject of where we were going. Earlier in the day, I’d been able to say “we’re going to Barmouth” but now we were here, I hadn’t the faintest idea where we were headed.

There had been a very brief chat about a night in the Rhinogs but the idea was quickly dismissed when Matt mentioned that he really needed to be home for 10.00am the following morning. Our people watching had taken up a little more time than we’d anticipated and afternoon had slipped into early evening. We assembled our belongings, fastened helmets and without conferring, started pedalling south towards home. The estuary gave us easy miles to work the batter from our legs but it also lead us to the start of the days biggest climb. The main problem with a visit to the coast is the sea, to be more precise, it’s actually, the level of the sea. You can’t get any lower, every direction is up. We still had another Bwlch to crest before bedtime and the start of it lay nearly five miles away. A labyrinth of narrow lanes and little used tracks took us ever skyward. The light was fading and with it went the heat of the day, darkness arrived and we were still climbing. With a mile to go until we arrived at the bwlch we had a choice to make, press on or spent the night here and wait for morning. It had just turned nine when we opened the gate which signified the start of the bwlch road and it would be over thirty minutes later before we reached the top. The wind was now blowing hard off the coast and at 1800 feet, it was cold. A quick search in the trees at the edge of the crumbly, single track road proved fruitless. A forest track held greater potential, so we followed it. These situations rarely provide the perfect overnight spot, so it was no surprise that the best we could find was a gravelly turning circle with a painfully thin carpet of grass clinging to the edges. 

It may not have been idyllic but it was flat and very importantly, it was sheltered from the west. It’s highly unlikely that the ground would have accepted tent pegs so we deemed tarps unnecessary and simply laid our bivvy bags out on the floor. To the untrained eye, what followed was five minutes of stumbling about in the dark but in reality was in fact, a finely honed routine that in no short order had us set for the night, Sleeping bags gradually waking from their slumber, mats inflated and water approaching a gentle boil. From the comfort of our down cocoons, we sipped one last brew before finally succumbing to the call of the sleep monster and the promise of another beautiful day.


  1. nobby says:

    That was a joy to read.

    WAs "coy carp" deliberate? I hope so :0)

  2. Lars Henning says:

    Excellent visuals. Great piece Stu.

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