Thwarted by the weather. Rewarded by the weather...
Believe it or not, this cycle tour actually started on the 27th December! The winter of late 2017 and early 2018 turned into one of the worst on record and I twice had to alter my plans to visit West Wales because of unusually heavy snow in all parts of the UK.
I rebooked for the first Bank Holiday in May expecting the worst and was rewarded with one of the best weather weekends in recent times. In fact, the early May Bank Holiday of 2018 was the hottest on record and I was cycling for the full three days. All of the costly ticket changes paid off and my perseverance to go was rewarded with warmly deserved sunshine after a tough few months in Rochdale.
Change of plan required...
The new plan was to catch the train from Rochdale to Aberystwyth in West Wales, cycle down the A487 to Aberaeron, through Cardigan before spending the night in the YHA youth hostel in Newport (not to be confused with Newport Gwent over 100 miles away near Cardiff!)
After doing some research on Google Maps and Streetview, I soon realised that my plan was flawed because the predicted good weather would have made the main A road very busy and I was due to arrive into Aberystwyth around lunchtime at the busiest time of day.
The main road is hilly and narrow with long 60 mph stretches with no real alternative for either cars or bikes to reach different parts of the West Wales coast. A solution to the problem was required and as ever, my trusty Brompton bike was the solution and an inter-regional public bus.
Taking the Brompton on the TrawsCymru...
The TrawsCymru bus network connects towns in Wales stretching from Bangor to Haverfordwest that are not served by a railway station in a bid to move people around the region easily and boost visitor numbers to towns along the way.
Amazingly at weekends, the bus is free due to a public subsidy by the Welsh Government (thanks Devolution!) and the good news was that my Brompton could travel too when folded down. I would then be able to avoid riding on the busy A road and pick up a quieter route further south!
I arrived into Aberystwyth after a pleasant journey from Rochdale with a short wait in Shrewsbury to change trains. I’ve always enjoyed travelling on Arriva Trains Wales services. I like the layout of the trains and the routes tend to be very scenic. Wide, panoramic windows and comfy seats allow passengers to enjoy the often spectacular views along the Cambrian Line.
Back to Aberystwyth...
I went on a day trip to Aberystwyth when I was at university and have fond memories of sitting in a once-ubiquitous ‘National Milk Bar’ fully decked out in the finest Formica whilst waiting for my return train to Birmingham in the pouring rain. I was now back in the town many years later and to be honest not much had changed except for a new retail park built in the ‘clone town’ style and a busy Wetherspoon’s had opened up in the train station.
For those interested in regional quirks, the Aberystwyth branch of the Milk Bar shut in 2009. The was a uniquely Welsh institution designed by local farmers to sell their dairy goods has been consigned to the past. This was the kind of idea that was probably ahead of its time given the current retail trend for sustainability and sourcing local produce to sell in shops and supermarkets.
I had a couple of hours to ride around Aberystwyth and cycled alongside the elegant Victorian promenade, past the small pier and the grand university building situated on the seafront.
Aberystwyth might be very provincial (Birmingham is a three-hour journey away) yet there is an excellent university campus and built in the brutalist, concrete style. There are even some unique crushed metal business units by famed designer Thomas Heatherwick lurking amongst the trees.
I returned to Aberystwyth town centre with a quick stop at the grand and imposing National Library of Wales that sits high atop the town.
I also made sure that I visited the nearby football ground and host stadium of the 2018 Welsh Cup Final featuring the local side vs. the eventual winners Connah’s Quay the next day.
Experiencing Welsh language problems...
The TrawsCymru bus was scheduled to depart just past 1400 and with my Brompton folded up, I was ready to go. The driver let me on with no questions or issues about the bike, however, I was confused about whether this was the correct bus because of the Welsh-speaking driver.
The timetable said ‘Aberteifi’, but there seemed to be some confusion about whether this meant ‘Cardigan’ or not in English. In the end, with the help of Google Maps and pointing to my phone as if I was ordering a meal in a Spanish restaurant, I was definitely on the right bus and heading in the right direction.
I don’t think that I’ve ever had to overcome a language barrier in Britain before, but this is one of the charms of Wales! You can feel abroad yet be very much at home.
Shortly after leaving Aberystwyth, I realised why my decision to go on the bus was a good one with cars hurtling past at 60 mph and no cycle path until reaching the remote, drone testing military base at Aberporth. The journey took over 2 hours and was continually busy with families and locals enjoying the Bank Holiday attractions along the coast.
My little Brompton bike received some strange, yet curious looks from fellow passengers (full-sized bikes are banned on the bus network to the annoyance of locals) and as we meandered between the main A487 trunk road, small coastal villages and some extremely close passes with oncoming traffic on tight bends, I was really enjoying the journey.
The sun was shining through the windows, I was exploring a new part of the country and the bus was free. Over 40 miles of travel for nothing. Time was pressing on though and I was itching to ride and to take advantage of the lowering afternoon sun.
Cycling from Cardigan Castle...
I started riding at Cardigan Castle with the aim of following a minor B road that hugged the coast, but against my better judgement, I decided to follow the blue National Cycle Network signs to Newport (Pembrokeshire).
Considering I only had to cover a distance of about 12 miles, I thought this made sense to do and would probably take me on the route I planned on going on anyway.
Unfortunately, Route 82 was as meandering as the bus journey I had been on for about two hours, took me through steep and rough-surfaced farm roads, inexplicably back onto the main road and across a ford. I even had to wait for a dairy cow herd to cross the road from one field to another!
The short journey ended up taking nearly two hours and I arrived at the former schoolhouse youth hostel at around 1700. I was handed my dorm key and locked my Brompton in the bike shed. I was feeling quite tired, but I needed to dash off to watch Rochdale play Charlton in their final game of the season at 1730.
I found a local pub in the village and to much amusement from the Welsh locals, I asked for the crucial game to be put on the screens. The landlady obliged and I stayed rooted to my seat for the whole match more out of superstition than anything else.
Realising just how good that moment was...
Despite being a bit gutted that I was not in the Sandy Lane end at Spotland after following the 'Dale’ through some real highs and lows this season, I was reminded just how fortunate I was by a local farmer on a stag do going from village to village.
Rochdale had won 1-0 and stayed in League One, I was cycle touring on my favourite bike in a stunning part of the country and still had a couple more days of cycling in the sun through South West Wales to reach my eventual destination of Tenby.
I went back to the youth hostel located just off the main road and couldn’t sleep. There were 6 of us in the all-male dorm room and the air was very musty and sweaty.
I also started to develop a bit of a cough and only really drifted off at 3 am whilst listening to Will Self’s excellent bus journeys around Britain podcast series on BBC Radio 4.