Photography

Exit, Pursued by Covid Restrictions

The Brecon Beacons were not on my initial plan at all.

Riding them would be lumpier than the coast. It would make the end of my trip unnecessarily hard, and also shorter. I’d miss both the big cities of South Wales, and the southernmost point in Wales. And the apparently beautiful Gower Peninsular. All very irritating…

But, as the clunking fist of Welsh Covid restrictions tightened its grip across the region, it became clear that the detour away from the coast was a good move. Partly because climbing a range of big hills isn’t really all that bad, at least when they look this good.

And partly because the few areas of South Wales which were still navigable when I started out were locked down by yesterday (Sunday), making ‘non-essential travel’ illegal as well as very difficult.

If I’d stayed on the coast, I’d either still be firmly stuck there, or would be finishing the tour on a train instead of under my own steam. Neither of those outcomes would be entirely satisfactory.

Instead, the biggest climb was over by Saturday lunchtime, and I was admiring the views that usually come from a little bit of altitude. The Brecons are also one of the UK strongholds of the once-extinct Red Kite, and I was lucky enough to watch a magnificent bird of prey riding the thermals over the tops for a few minutes.

Then it was a fast drop into the Usk valley, before a long, gently downhill (if slightly undulating) afternoon, including a nice stretch on the canal towpath out of Brecon, above.

After a bit over 100kms, my penultimate day on the road was over. I was only a relatively short day’s ride from home, and within a couple of hours of the English border. With worrying about the restrictions, re-planning my direction, and a slightly shorter line than the original coastal route, I’d barely noticed that the ride was basically done.

A cold but sunny start yesterday (Sunday), with a northerly wind pushing me straight towards Bristol, and home. Things speeded up with the tailwind. Breakfast in the cold, some country lanes, one more proper hill before the drop to the River Severn. A nice view back into the Welsh countryside from the top of my last 15% ramp (above).

Blown along the ridge above the Wye Valley through Devauden. An even higher-speed drop to Chepstow racecourse, and a gentle but quick run along the gently descending bypass to the original Severn Bridge. The end of Wales. Which, with castles and kites and spectacular coastlines, was actually pretty good, despite the Covid-related frustrations. Diolch, Gymru!

I got to the middle of the mighty River Severn, suspended between Wales and England, before I decided I needed to slow down a little. And actually enjoy the end of the trip, rather than just hammering towards it. I had to slow down and smell the roses, or wake up and smell the coffee. Or something like that.

As it happened, it was smelling (and drinking) the coffee. Dan from Bool’s Bicycles and a mate of his were (almost coincidentally) crossing the bridge in the other direction for a couple of days away, so it was a cuppa and a chat at a legendarily disappointing service station, just into England.

And a rare opportunity to get a picture of the bike, trailer and me all together. Stylish, huh? With possibly the least inspiring background of the whole trip, too…

A gentle and flat drift along the floodplains on the Bristol side of the Severn. Marvelling at the industrial warehouses, incinerators and giant wind turbines. It’s not the way I’d normally choose to head into central Bristol – there are plenty more direct and more scenic options.

But there’s one big benefit of putting up with the industrial detritus out by the Severn. It means you can follow the River Avon into town, through the gorge. And there’s really only one proper way to enter Bristol centre after a long trip away – under the Clifton Suspension Bridge on a lovely sunny afternoon. Not too bad…

I trundled gently home through the city, past surprisingly large crowds of drinkers on the quays, soaking up the sunshine before the depressing prospect of a dark and virus-dominated autumn and winter.

The post mortem starts almost immediately. Another big ride done. The four corners of the UK covered. A suspiciously round number of miles under the wheels. The mixed feelings of satisfaction at finishing, and wishing that the ride would go on for longer. The warped sense of time that makes it feel like I’ve been away for years, even though it’s been less than 80 days.

And the question that always surfaces for me at the end of a big trip…

Right, then. Where next?

Escaping the Pembrokeshire Dangler

As you may have gathered from the previous post, Covid-19 (or rather, the various UK authorities’ reaction to it) is finally having a major impact on my route and plans.

It’s left it very late in the day, thankfully. And it seems to have left just enough of a gap for me to squeeze over the finish line before the gates slam shut.

Just a few minutes after I last posted here on Wednesday morning, I was already firming up plans to re-route to avoid the local lockdowns in South Wales. I was also being soaked by a continual band of heavy showers, and getting somewhat upset with the weather forecast, which had promised me a nice sunny, if breezy, day.

The rain eventually cleared in the afternoon, and I continued south with a tailwind before hitting the huge inlet of Milford Haven (though I was well inland of the town of the same name). As well as being a base for local yachties, Milford Haven also contains a colossal gas terminal further towards the sea, keeping the UK’s fossil fuel addiction burning.

Although increasingly unbelievable, the forecast for Thursday was awful, so I decided to risk one final rest day to plan how to finish up without getting trapped.

Pembroke is not a bad place to be stuck on a rainy day, with possibly my favourite castle of the whole trip (though there’s stiff competition) parked in the centre, and another old and wiggly town built around it. There’s a lot of history there, too, as there’s been a castle in Pembroke since the 11th century, and it’s the birthplace of King Henry VII.

Meanwhile, out in Covid land, there were more rumblings from the Welsh government about adding even more areas to the local lockdowns, including Cardiff and Swansea, Wales’ two biggest cities. This would wipe out any small chance that I could zip through the Covid zones on each side of Cardiff.

I had to give up on following the coast, commit to the hilly inland route via Brecon, and get planning.

The Covid ‘second wave’ in Wales is actually not as bad as it is in England, but the Welsh government seems to tend towards stricter lockdown measures. During Lockdown 1, back in the springtime, they had a five-mile travel limit. I don’t want to risk getting stuck with that sort of thing, so am aiming at the quickest possible route back, without touching the exclusion zones in the south.

After a wetter than expected day, and a fully wet day, I was fully expecting yesterday (Friday) to defy the weather forecast and be wet too. In fact, it turned out OK, with just the odd (very heavy) shower scudding through the area on a strong northerly wind. I headed slightly north of east through the sunshine towards Carmarthen (above and below).

As well as the Welsh road surfaces being by far the most consistently decent in the UK, they’re also making some decent strides on the bike infrastructure side of things. Some rubbish signposting aside, Carmarthen boasted both some extremely bright (and therefore easy to follow) bike paths, and a fairly spectacular cycling / pedestrian bridge.

Carmarthen is also the gateway to the pretty Towy valley, which provided a gentle route towards the big hills of the Brecon Beacons. Even as I was heading up the valley yesterday, the expected Swansea and Cardiff lockdowns were announced, so it looks like I made the right call on the route.

Today, it’s a big hill pretty much straight out of the gate, up onto the Brecons. Fingers crossed, that’ll take me to the start of an exceptionally long (by British standards) downhill run across the top of the Brecon Beacons National Park, avoiding the Welsh Covid zone.

And one more day should take me home, and the end of the trip. Suddenly that’s tomorrow, which seems slightly insane. It remains to be seen whether things will actually be that simple.

And the Pembrokeshire Dangler? Nothing rude, and not a peculiar local delicacy. Nor even a medical condition or the local serial killer. No. It’s a line of rain showers which occur when there’s a northerly wind picking moisture up off the Irish Sea. Beautiful weather on either side, and a constantly miserable time for anyone stuck underneath.

Sounds very familiar. But I’m not in Pembrokeshire any more…

West Wales – the Honey Trap

Yesterday (Tuesday) was the day the sun dimmed.

Maybe not literally (I assume it’s still out there in the middle of the solar system, doing its thing). But it certainly took advantage of the autumnal equinox to duck out of my way for a while.

And maybe the light dimmed figuratively, too, as the UK began a seemingly inevitable slide back towards Covid lockdown.

Despite only being about a week away from finishing the trip, there’s a rapidly increasing chance that the south-west corner of Wales might become a trap from which I can’t escape on the bike.

But, before most of South Wales locked down in front of me yesterday, the West certainly lured me in. It’s stunning.

On Sunday morning, I trundled most of the way from Bangor to Caernarfon on a bumpy cycle track, and then spent a little while enjoying the walled city, and magnificent castle (above). It was an impressive introduction to the west coast.

One of the big advantages of the light fading this far north on the planet is that (on the occasions that the sun actually shines) the light stays beautiful for a lot longer at the start and end of the day. Long shadows and sunshine make anywhere look nice, but the Lleyn peninsular, which sticks out into the Irish Sea, doesn’t need much help (above).

The only trouble with a solid semi-circle of high hills dropping into the sea is that you’re likely to have to climb them at some point. I’d managed to avoid 15%-plus gradients for a while, so it was a bit of a shock to be grinding up them again.

On the other hand, a little bit of effort led to some lovely views (above), and gives you access to the pretty towns and bays of the southern side of the peninsular, like Criccieth (below).

Sunday had been lovely, and I was pretty sure that Monday wouldn’t be able to match it. On paper, it was a long grind down the main coast road (like many remote places, all the traffic has to use the one big-ish road round here), which was not necessarily likely to be much fun.

The morning quickly put my mind at rest. Only a few minutes down the road from Criccieth, where the Lleyn peninsular meets the mainland, it was looking like this:

And the scenery barely let up all day. Even in the handful of miles around Barmouth, you get the pretty town, followed by the wooden cycle / footbridge attached to the railway across the estuary (below).

Then you push on a little, hit a little ramp out of a village, and suddenly realise that you’ve got a spectacular view of the town, the bay and the area around it (below). And not actually very much traffic to contend with until you get down to Aberystwyth.

Aberystwyth was where things started to change. When I arrived on Monday evening, it was basking in golden evening sunshine. Heading further south yesterday (Tuesday), however, things were suddenly looking much duller and less cheerful:

The road was busy, so I swerved into smaller lanes, which were pleasant, but super hilly. Combined with the occasional patch of drizzle, things were already a little miserable even before the politicians started lining up on TV in the evening.

There’s little doubt that summer is over (both literally and metaphorically). I’ve only got a handful of days to ride to get back to Bristol and finish the ride. But there’s now no route along the south coast of Wales, as most counties have entered local lockdown. And there’s rain on the ground this morning, and more incoming from the Atlantic. The temperature’s through the floor, too.

As it stands, there’s still the chance to squeeze through to the end. I can shunt the route inland from South Wales, although that would involve some heavy climbing through the Brecon Beacons. But with things moving so quickly in Covid World, it’s far from clear that the alternative route will remain open for long.

It’s fingers crossed time…