coronavirus

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?

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…