A few days away

Tuesday 29th May

The dreadful Bank Holiday weather had been swept away in the night and the normal working day dawned cold but bright. The tandem was soon loaded and we were away. Graham also caught the 10.48 from Prittlewell, heading back to Uni for his Finals, and laden with bottles of red wine. He left us at Shenfield.

We arrived in Liverpool Street to time and re-assembled the bike. Although the sun was shining as we left, the rain soon began. We decided not to stop to put our coats on. At one point we got stuck at a kerb and in our efforts to free the bike we had a right-sided slow-motion clipless moment. Fortunately there was no traffic coming at the time. Soon we passed Kings’s Cross and almost missed Euston, so well concealed is it these days by plane trees in full leaf.

Mr. Branson’s employees were most obliging. The tandem was soon stowed safely in the Train Manager’s Compartment (aka Guard’s Van), we were ensconced in our seats and tucking into cheese & pickle sandwiches, licquorish allsorts and coffee. I recalled seeing, years ago, a lion cut out of the chalk in a hillside somewhere near Cheddington station and within seconds there it was as we whizzed towards Birmingham at well over 100 mph.

There were “minor technical problems” at Shrewsbury which caused some 30 minutes’ delay and a further wait at Newtown because there was another train coming the other way. We eventually arrived in Caersws at 4.50, 37 minutes late.

By now, all the clouds had cleared and there was a fairly brisk headwind. We set off along the B road and on this occasion it was probably a mistake to avoid the designated cycle route, which seemed to be a little further but also flatter, as it followed the Severn more closely.

We descended into Llanidloes through a cold tunnel of beech trees and after a brief look around the deserted town centre we climbed again. This was as hard work as parts of Cornwall and Devon had been and we had two or three “1 in 7 or greater” chevrons to negotiate.

There was a lovely white farmhouse for sale at Tylwch,

which was as good a place as any for me to don my longs. We managed to keep cycling up some of the tougher hills and I think we are considerably fitter than we were at the start of LEJOG.

We came across a sign saying “Rhayader 6” rather sooner than I expected, which was encouraging, and eventually we reached the long, screaming descent into the town. Our highest speed of the day was 41.2 mph and we arrived at the Liverpool Guest House at about 8.15. After unloading the bike and changing our clothes, we had an audience with the Rev. James and then it was time for a Madras.

30th May.

After a wet night, it was a damp morning. We selected a walk to the north of the town, along a narrow lane then a track over the mountains and into the Marteg valley. Eventually we came across Gilfach, a grade II listed Welsh longhouse, in which livestock were kept at one end while people lived at the other. There is a nature reserve round about and we saw a pair of stonechats and a pair of bullfinches. There were, as ever, plenty of red kites and we were treated to aerobatic displays as ravens and kites mobbed one another.

We came across a field of cattle where a large and impressive bull

took some interest in us, but fortunately there was a fence separating us from him and his progeny. We reached the Sun Inn at St. Harmon at lunchtime, but sadly there was no lunch to be had there as the place was shut. We stomped hungrily down the B road for 3.5 miles until we reached Rhayader again and had a very agreeable baguette washed down with a pint or two of Hancock’s bitter. We then dropped the walking gear off at the guest house before tackling Clive Powell. Mike & Jeff ordered some hire bikes for the morning. There was a really nice Goretex jacket in Jan’s size which had been reduced from £125 to £70, so we bought that.

The weather had improved greatly by this time so we walked along the Wye Valley path and found a very comfortable picnic table. We just sat,

enjoying the warmth andd tranquillity as swallows, house martins and sand martins all flew up and down. We saw a dipper and a grey wagtail and of course there were lots of kites flying around as at 3 pm they had been fed at Gigrin.

I had a telephone conversation with each of the children. Denis had made a liver cake for Morphy and he found a couple of pub phone numbers for us. Heather thinks she has found someone competent working for the Student Loans company and is therefore a little more hopeful of sorting out her finances for next year. Ellen had been entertaining Mike Schurer and was suffering from the consequences of that, as well as her cold, and Graham had just finished his penultimate exam. This time tomorrow he will be a B.A., marking apart.

After an hour or so’s relaxation back at Liverpool house, we were ready to begin the evening’s operations. We had noticed a pub, the Corn Mill, which had 4 real ales on although they had no food. They also had a seemingly resident Irishman who expounded volubly his theories relating to Life, the Universe and Everything. He tried to sing the Lark in the Morning, but got the tune wrong and didn’t know the words. He did however, have two redeemng features: the top joint of the middle finger of his right hand was missing and he thought I looked like a professor. We had ample reason to adjourn to the Lamb & Flag for a meal.

31st May.

We loaded the tandem and hied us to Clive Powell’s Bke Shop where Mike & Jeff hired two Giant hybrid machines. On heading for the Elan Valley trail, it soon became apparent that once again Janet & I would be the slowest. Today my back decided to misbehave and the old pain returned. It didn’t seem to affect me while we were going along, but gave me the occasional sharp stab when we were stopped.

We saw quite a few interesting small birds: wheatears, a couple of redstarts, and Jeff thought we saw winchats. I don’t know what they look like so that didn’t help me much.

We had an elevenses / lunch stop at the point where the Elan Valley road meets the Mountain Road


and on the descent Janet & I reached 38.1 mph where in the same spot last September we cranked the old tandem up to 40.8 mph. On reaching Blaen-y-cwm, we turned right onto the rough track and disturbed a whole family of wheatears, the parents becoming particularly alarmed when one of the youngsters strayed far to close to us for far too long.

We gained the impression that there were more wind turbines on the top than there were last September and we also noted that we were capable of cycling up hills which had defeated us the last time we were here. We kept riding even on the steep downhill which saw Francis leave the road in the September ride and we arrived at the Blue Bell Inn in time for a drink but too late for food. We had Butty Bach and I did like the name of the brewery: the Purple Moose Brewery, which assuming that the Welsh translation is grammatical becomes Bragdy Mws Piws.

There had been several light showers during the morning but as we headed south along the Wye Valley road, the sun shone and we stopped for more lunch. While we were eating, a stoat whizzed across the meadow in front of us and ran down the hill towards the river.

We were interruped by a downpour, by far the heaviest of the day, and eventually got fed up wth the totally inadequate shelter provided by a small ash tree and continued riding. This was probably the heaviest rain we have ever ridden through and the braking was definitely affected. We were part way through a fairly rapid descent when the phone rang. When we eventually returned the call it was Jen Jameson. We talked about our ETA on Saturday and that was about it.

We arrived back in Rhayader shortly before 5 p.m. and after Jeff & Mike had returned their steeds to Clive Powell, we went to the digs for showers etc. Our landlady made it plain that she wasn’t going to do any washing for us (I had thought that B & Bs displaying the CTC logo and “Cyclists Welcome” sign were prepared to take on a bit of laundry, even if they charged extra for it) so I did today’s shorts & tops myself and hung them up in the shower to drip-dry.

Our meal was at the Lamb & Flag again and it was adequate rather than memorable. We were all so knackered by the day’s proceedings that we retired around 10 p.m.

1st June

It was cloudless when I opened the curtains at 8 a.m. Before setting off on the walk that Jeff had planned, we visited the sandwich bar in the town and bought some baguettes for lunch. We then drove to a car park near to the southern end of the Caban Coch reservoir. We were to tackle two hills – Gorllwyn at 613 metres and the Y Gamriw at 604, one above and the other below 2000 feet.

We climbed behind a farm and followed a track. This gradually petered out but we continued due south

until we reached a summit of just over 500 metres. We stopped here and had the first instalment of lunch – we all felt that we could heartily recommend the sandwich bar in Rhayader – and then headed across some very boggy ground towards Gorllwyn.

There was quite a lot to see. There were the usual kites and buzzards, and at one point a buzzard swooped low towards a pair of ravens. There then ensued a few seconds’ aerial combat which I felt sure that the buzzard had deliberately provoked. We also saw plenty of skylarks, the first of which caused some debate amongst us as it continually flitted from tree to tree in a most unskylark-like fashion. However, we reached a consensus that a skylark it was. At one point I saw something wriggling in the grass and a closer inspection revaled that it was a common lizard.

As we climbed we noticed that there was a lot of new growth as a result of a fairly recent and very extensive hillside fire, which presumably occurred in the April drought.

However, the recovery was well under way and it may well have made the going easier as the grass was much less tussocky in the affected areas.

The view from the top was spectacular. Although a little hazy, we could see the whole spread of the Brecon Beacons from Pen y fan to the Black Mountains with the Mynydd Eppynt in the foreground. Just wonderful!

For a good deal of our route we followed a line of concrete posts which apparently marked the watershed between the Elan to the north and the Irfon to the south, both of them tributaries of the Wye. There was plenty of boggy stuff and at one point the landscape was reminiscent of Bleaklow or the Moon. Eventually we reached some impressive cairns. The trig point at Y Gamriw

was, oddly, at 599 metres whereas the cairns at the top of the hill were at 604. There were other large stone piles which apparently dated from the Bronze Age. One wonders why they put so much effort in to build something in so remote a place.

On our return we headed west and then north across some pretty rough tussock grass and more boggy stuff. As we were approaching the farm close to where we had parked the car, we heard a cuckoo. I cuckooed back and we saw it from a distance. It did actually come close enough for me to hear it “clear its throat”, but we didn’t get a close-up view of it. We arrived back at the car at about 6 p.m. having walked nearly 10 miles. During this time we hadn’t seen another human being unless you count the complete bastards who practise flying their jet fighters over remote countryside in Wales so that later they can drop bombs on unfortunate peasants in the remoter parts of the world. I think you would be hard pressed to cite a single example in which jet fighters have ever been used in the defence of this country.

We booked a table at The Triangle, an attractive little pub tucked round the corner and overlooking the Wye at Cwmdauddwr. The food was excellent – quite the best meal we have had all week. The beer, the wine and the whisky were also of he highest order…

2nd June

We breakfasted and said our farewells to Mike & Jeff, setting off from Rhayader shortly after 10 a.m. The weather was fine as we turned off the main road towards Abbeycwmhir.

We knew that we were in for some climbing but it did not begin immediately. The high point of the ride was 417 metres, only slightly lower than the highest pont of LEJOG when we crossed the Forest of Bowland on April 15th, but the Lancashire hills are treeless and bleak by comparison. We succeeded in cycling up one of the 1 in 7 stretches, but still had to get off and push for others.

We came across a beautiful house for sale in Abbeycwmhir, but didn’t buy it…

Our arrival at the Bungalow shortly before 1 pm was well timed and Bill & Jen plied us with a good lunch. We played with their very amusing hounds and spent a happy afternoon watching birds. Their feeder was visited by robin, chaffinch, greenfinch, tits, a bullfinch, sparrows and a  family of nuthatches.

They also have a redstart’s nest in their second-hand dovecote. As dusk was falling I felt sure I had seen a treecreeper on one of the conifers.

We had more food and tried several incarnations of alcohol. To quote Porters Grange kids down the years: “I liked it – it was good!”

3rd June

Janet’s injuries sustained during the Y Gamriw walk proved to be more of a handicap than we first thought. The blister on her right heel had become an area of raw flesh bigger than a 50p piece and this was even more of a problem than her swollen knee.

We spent an educational morning rounding up sheep and then watching the performing of vasectomies on the male lambs, the inoculation with a live vaccine against sheep scab for all the youngsters, the clipping of the hooves of all the sheep, young and old, and the removal of the dags from around the arses of the old ewes. Derek and Maggie came over from their smallholding a mile or two away in order to assist with these interesting tasks.

The operation on the male lambs was not what I expected. I thought that they were to be castrated, but no. Apparently this is still the preferred method amongst the older, more traditional farmers who then offer for sale the sweetbreads for human consumption. The process we witnessed was the “crimping” of the scrotal sac in what looked like an overgrown set of pincers. This apparently damages the spermatic cord to the extent that the males are unable to reproduce.

I was struck by the manner in which the sheep, both old and young, do not struggle once they have been caught and are forced into a sitting position with their legs sticking out in front of them. The males did not bleat whilst their goolies were being crushed, but I cannot honestly say that they looked as though they were enjoying the experience.

In the afternoon Bill & I went for a walk on some of the higher hills above Llanbadarn Fynydd. I am pretty sure we had actually done this walk a year or two ago on a previous visit, but it was well worth a repeat.

4th June

Although the night was starry and the day dawned bright, it was fairly dull by the time we emereged for breakfast at about 7.45. There was some superb blackberry jam for the toast. By 8.45 we were loaded and on our way.

Although the northward climb lasted for 4.57 miles it was never very strenuous, just a bit irksome towards the end. We were rewarded with a long, gentle downhill pretty well all the way to Newtown. The town appeared in the distance rather earlier than I expected, but then the road curved and twisted for a further couple of miles before we arrived at the traffic lights. I like the A483: there was little traffic even though we were travelling at “rush hour” and pretty well every vehicle gave us a wide berth. Only one plonker decided to hoot as he approached from behind but on the whole it was a much more positive experience than riding on Sutton Road.

We had time to visit the Co-op for some provisions before heading towwards the station, but once we were on the platform we were engaged in conversation by a youthful Village Idiot whose sole topic was football. I did my best to edge my way out, but this left Janet in the lurch. She is far kinder and more tolerant than I am and even managed to keep a straight face when confronted with such piercing observations as “London’s a big place – much bigger than Newtown”. This experience made the wait for the train, which in reality was something less than half an hour, seem like an eternity.

The cycle accommodation in Welsh trains is exceptionally badly designed. You have to squeeze your steed through a gap which is actually narrower than the handlebars and into a cubby-hole with another bike where the two frames can soothingly grate the paint off one another with the rocking motion of the train. In both directions, there were too many bikes chasing too few spaces. Why do we have to make cycle reservations when there is nowhere suitable to put bikes?

The remainder of the journey is best glossed over. We were late into Birmingham so missed our connection by a minute or so; the next train, half an hour later, was diverted so arrived in Euston further half-hour late; then some poor unfortunate had ended it all near Seven Kings so that caused a further delay at Liverpool Street; and the Epitome of Essex Man chose to get on the train at Stratford, where the platform was on the side where we had stored the bike. Rather than walk a few yards to another door, he insisted on coming through “our” door. When I pointed out that it would have been rather easier to use the other door a few paces away, his response was “I don’t care how many fucking doors there are. Move your fucking bike!”

Welcome back to Essex.

Cotswold Walking Weekend

I was quite worried that this weekend away might have had to be cancelled as I did something to my left foot a couple of days before setting off, and even when we were on the train heading for Stroud, I was still limping quite a bit. As it happens I needn’t have worried.

A couple of times a year Mrs. Wow & I go for a walking break with the Povall Boys, some long-standing friends of ours, now retired, who happen to share our fondness for good food (especially curries), good beer and good walks. Jeff & Mike are twins. I suggested the Cotswolds as a destination when I picked up some cheap train tickets (£20 return, Prittlewell to Stroud) and they readily agreed.

One of the great things about ACF is that you get to meet new friends, and on the Friday evening Jaded (actually, this was the third consecutive weekend that I have enjoyed Jaded’s company!) and Monsieur Pumpé joined us for some excellent beer and a good curry. We drank at the Golden Fleece in Nelson Street, a basic pub with a wide choice of well-kept real ales. This was followed by a visit to the Balti Spice. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t on the best of form, as I was pretty knackered and my foot was still giving me some trouble. However, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

Saturday’s walk was a 9-miler starting and finishing at a disused airfield here .

We headed north towards Withington,

where we visited a pub (the Kings Head?) with a loopy dog

desperate for attention and gravity drawn beer which was past its best, then east towards Cassey Compton,

and then south towards a Roman villa

near Chedworth. From the villa we walked east aong the MacMillan Way then followed the edge of the wood and back towards Chedworth village where we visited the Seven Tuns, quite remarkably a Young’s tied house with some very good Ramrod bitter, but too much of a hint of SW1 about it, and then climbed the hill beside the church

and back to the car.

At one point we had some difficuly with the navigation as what we thought was the path had been ploughed up and, not 100% sure of our ground, we were reluctant to stomp across ploughed land unnecessarily. We kept to the edge of the field until we reached the road. The road was easy walking, but I was annoyed: bloody farmers are supposed to keep footpaths open and I gained the impression more than once during the weekend that some marvellous hillwalking country was being made less accessible by the Landed Gentry. I wonder how much of this attitude is fostered by the proximity of royalty just down the road at Highgrove?

We had an evening meal at an Eldridge Pope pub in Cirencester, the Black Horse, but it was not great. The food almost made up in quantity for what it lacked in quality, and they only had one beer on. Furthermore, half the bar space seemed to be occupied by unwashed glasses until someone whom I took for the landlady appeared and suddenly things got done. After getting back to our digs, Jeff & I walked to the Golden Fleece again, where Maurice X, the Man from Madagasca (or was it Morocco? Somewhere alliteratively African, anyway) was entertaining the packed house with unnecessarily amplifiied guitar playing. Jeff & I sat outside and drank London Pride.

On the Sunday we did Laurie Lee’s walk, a 7-miler starting and finishing at Bulls Cross. This was another wonderful walk, with much more up-and-down than the previous day’s. However, we found the route rather difficult to follow. The walk is no. 21 in the Pathfinder Guide, Cotswold Walks, and perhaps it didn’t help that we were following the route clockwise when the instructions assumed anticlockwise. We had a good reason for this: it was the only way, we reckoned, to be able to arrive at Laurie Lee’s local, the Woolpack in Slad, at a sensible time for a cooked lunch.

However, many of the paths were overgrown, there were occasions when the waymarks were absent, and quite a few fallen trees made the going difficult. In addition, I don’t recall visiting an area as bad as the Cotswolds for signs telling you what you were not allowed to do. “Private, no footpath!” , “Private road. Footpath only. No bicycles.” Even the local publication, Guide to the Cotswolds, depicts a beautiful lake, the most prominent feature in the photograph being a “No Fishing” sign.

There were some superb views. Here are some.


Once we had overcome our navigational difficulties, during which we disturbed three fallow deer which disappeared into the undergrowth, we found the

pub. It does not get a mention in the current Good Beer Guide, but I have seldom been into a finer pub. It served Uley’s beer, of which Old Spot was the favourite. There was also Laurie Lee’s bitter and a basic bitter. For the cider-inclined there was, of course, Rosie’s Cider.

The beer was good, but the food

was fantastic. It was a traditional roast, either pork (Gloucester Old Spot, of course) or beef (Aberdeen Angus) and they ran out. Apparenty they had only ordered enough food to supply 80 Sunday lunches, but we got ours!

The locals were extremely friendly. I had hardly set foot in the bar when another customer, a burly bearded bugger, thrust a digital camera in my face and photographed me. It turned out that the pub was running a beard-growing competition  Grin involving quite a few customers. Regulars who were taking part had had their photos taken in September at the start of the competition and again a few times until the competition concludes at Christmas. There was also  a Rogues’ Gallery of occasional visitors who showed some expertise in the noble art of beard growing and Yours Truly should now be firmly established somewhere there.

I put my rucksack and sticks down in the bar while carrying some beer, and one of the regulars said in his lovely Gloucestershire burr, “They’ll be alright there, no one round here goes walking!” I retorted, “What, you mean they all ride bikes?” which he found far more amusing than I expected.

After leaving the pub we climbed the hill opposite, involving about 100 metres of ascent in half a kilometre. Then it was a reasonably straight route back to the car. It was along this stretch that we followed a footpath, scarcely wide enough for walking between the dry stone wall and the barbed ire fence, immediately next to a much wider path which was evidently meant for horses, but the two were separated! It would have been possible to get over the wall and negotiate the barbed wire for some much easier walking, but some land owner wanted it that way so walkers were relegated to a difficult path when a much easier one could have been made available!

On the way back to Stroud we visited Painswick, a very neat village with a load of extravagant topiary in the churchyard. I looked in the estate agent’s window: hardly anything under half a million.

That evening we visited the Duke’s Head where we enjoyed some Timothy Taylor Landlord bitter, not exactly local but a very fine beer nonetheless, and followed this up with an even better curry than Friday’s, at the Radjoot restaurant, immediately next door to the Balti Spice.

My impressions of the weekend? The Cotswold Hills are a fantastic area for both walking and cycling. There are plenty of small roads, some steep hills, but lots more easy riding. Picturesque villages tend to be in steep, narrow valleys with the wider open spaces round about more undulating. The walking is hampered in places with inadequate waymarks and path maintenance and there is a lot of evidence of horsy types dominant: lots of green wellies, Land Rovers and pro-hunting signs.

The people we met were mostly very pleasant: Jaded & Monsieur Pumpé are first rate chaps and the fact that Gloucester is a great rugby-playing area makes it almost an extension of South Wales (I’m going to get some stick for that comment!). I felt that one woman, high on a magnificent horse, rather held her nose when she answered our “Good Morning” and there were one or two other occasions when we felt that the more cut-glass-accented residents would prefer it if a bunch of scruffy ramblers wouldn’t ask them which way the footpath goes.

I was not overly struck with our accommodation, the Downfield Hotel. The beds were comfortable enough, the breakfast plentiful and well-cooked, and the shower worked well. However, the Maitre d’ seemed to think that making jokes at guests’ expense was a good way to conduct business and he seemed to resent our asking for a nightcap at his pretty well-stocked bar. He had quite a choice of single malt, but we couldn’t see Lagavulin so Jeff had a Laphroiag and I settled for a Macallan. Janet asked for an orange joice and he replied sardonically “This is a bar…” and then tried to laugh it off. I think he was trying to imply that she should have been drinking something alcoholic.

Would I go back? Certainly! I’ll be amongst the first when Jaded’s Cotswold tour comes to fruition. I reckon a Sunday Lunch at the Woolpack in Slad would be hard to beat. If it can be beaten then it will be by a very special establishment indeed.