WALES, 4th – 10th January 2017
It was a crisp new year. Christmas was over and the new year’s cider and bag pipe parade a vague memory. We had walked in the hills in sun and in thick fog, we had played Paw Patrol, charades and hide and seek with our niece and nephew. The smoothies tasted of an every day routine. Chris was still writing on his book, it was hard work and the deadline had been delayed. I began to get restless, impatiently waiting for our big adventure to continue, and therefore I made an impulsive decision to go cycling by myself. I planned to do a loop up into Snowdonia National Park in Wales and come back to Malvern a week later in time for a dinner we had arranged at the pub with Chris’s friends Dr. Dave and Dr. Dan. Meeting the doctors was something I wouldn’t miss.
I woke up long before it got light out of mere excitement. It was different going cycling by myself than together with Chris. I would have to deal with the cold, quite possibly some rain, the short days and long nights, the British traffic and the hills that would grow bigger and bigger in the west, all of this without his support, encouragement and advice. I loved to cycle with him, but I was also keen on the challenge and the reward of being able to do it all on my own. So, I was up before anyone else, and after a big, breakfast in my own silence I woke Chris up to say goodbye.
There was a very steep road going up and over Malvern Hills just behind our house, but I thought that would not be the best way to begin my trip, and instead I went through an orchard where the gradient was milder, but here I had to push my bike through some very slippery mud. Remembering my previous breakdown on a muddy path, I thought this was my chance for a comeback, and as it was my very first challenge of the trip, I enjoyed it fully.
A few kilometres later I realized that it hadn’t made much difference if I had taken the steep road as I now struggled up another hill just as long and steep. This was no gentle beginning. Fortunately, the landscape began to flatten out a little as Malvern Hills became a sight on the horizon behind me that I could see from the top of the smaller hills I still had to tackle. I had a good time though, thrilled by the unknown landscape constantly revealing itself in front of me. It was so good to be on the move again, to see new things and places, to be outside and feel the wind, rain and sunshine, to be cycling. This was what I loved to do.
As I pedalled slowly uphill a man who, no surprise, was walking his dog stopped me for a chat. It was not that easy to chat though, as I had some difficulties understanding his great, local dialect, and he also didn’t understand when I in my neither local, nor British accent told him I was heading towards Le-o-min-ster. Finally, he realized I was talking about Le’m’ster and I made sure to remember the pronounciation in case I would find myself in more conversations with the locals. He was a cheerful and experienced man who had travelled his own country throroughly and also had been to Germany and Denmark as a soldier when he was young. Now he, proud like a little boy, proved to me that he still remembered it all by naming one place after the other ending the performance by proclaiming, that he was 80 years old – and I pleased him by showing my surprise. Oh, he was wonderful.
“I wish you a good trip” he said
“And I wish you a good day”
“Every day is a good day when you are my age”
I can’t wait!
In the afternoon, I arrived in Le’m’ster and went to the tourist information to see if they had some good maps or other useful information for cycling in the area. A very friendly lady spent about 20 minutes looking through all their pamphlets and magazines only to finally conclude that they didn’t. I felt like I had to take at least one leaflet after all her efforts and later on that leaflet would become useful for other purposes.
Even on the flat road out of Le’m’ster I felt tired and when the hills again began to rise all around me I felt like a devil was holding onto the bike making my pedalling efforts improbably inefficient. A steep hill suddenly loomed in front of me and I thought I would simply not be able to get up but somehow I did, and I felt a very tired satisfaction tickle inside me.
It was not easy to find a place to camp as stone walls, hedgerows and fences were running along every metre of the roads and the forests I could see only began further away from the road behind the fields. I knew there was nothing to do but keep cycling until an option appeared and so I did and so it did. A hole in the hedgerow where there finally was a forest behind, and a deep valley. My bike and I tumbled down the hillside, trying not to think about how we should get up again the next morning and after I had kicked the ground for about 15 minutes I had a fairly flat two metres to sleep on. By this time, I felt a vague pain in my right knee and I appreciated the long dark winter night where I could do nothing else but lie down and rest. I didn’t have any reception on my phone, so the text I had promised to send Chris to say I was okay would have to wait until the next day. This would not worry him as much as it would worry our host Jane, but there was nothing I could do about it and that was one of the charms about cycle touring.
The night was completely still and I was all alone with the forest and the bright, cold moonlight.
The next day didn’t just begin with me pedalling slowly up steep hills, taking a break every hundred metres to catch my breath, enjoy the amazing view and take photos of the wide stretched, frosty, green hills bathed in white sunlight. It went on like this the whole day as I rode along the border to Wales on the southern edge of Shropshire Hills. Of course, it didn’t go up all the time. I had some thrilling down hills in between leaned over my handlebars pressing the brake levers with every muscle in my hands, but they were always over too soon and before I knew it I found myself at the foot of the next hill that it would take me much, much longer to get up. I liked the rugged feeling up on the hill tops where only the sheep and I witnessed the yellow grass ocean animated by the wind. Up there I felt not alone in, but alone with an undisturbed world.
By the end of the day I cycled out of Newtown to find a place to camp, as a man stopped me to start a conversation about what I was doing. It began to get dark and I was eager to keep going, but he kept repeating his concerns about the road ahead being very steep, very narrow and very busy and he didn’t think there would be anywhere to put up the tent. But he didn’t know what else I could do and just kept repeating his worries. Secretly, I was just waiting for him to suggest I put my tent up in his backyard, but he never did and when I finally left him it was too dark to go on. Instead, I went back to a little patch of forest I had seen previously next to the bike path, where I could camp as long as I kept my torch switched off. Luckily, I was exhausted and didn’t have any problem sleeping at 7pm.
After the first big hill the next morning I sat down in a small town to think. My knee didn’t feel right and a part of me knew that I should stop cycling. But first of all, how would I get back if not cycling? Second, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to get to that national park, see the ocean and satisfy my self-imposed challenge. And third, it was raining and I couldn’t just sit there in the rain. So, I ignored the sensible voice in my head, put my saddle up a little bit and kept cycling. And for once the road was flat, at least for 15 kilometres as I went deeper and deeper into a green valley that cut in between the hills. Of course I knew I had to get over them at some point, and when that moment came I had to push the bike most of the way up. It was very steep. At the top it was rough, wet and windy. Going down again a weird ‘clunk’ began to sound from my back wheel for every turn as I braked, sending vibrations through the whole bike. I stopped and changed the brake pads thinking they were worn, but it didn’t help, so I just continued trying to ignore it which was impossible.
I thought things were not exactly easy at this point, but it motivated me and put my spirits up. This was something for me to deal with, challenges to get through. I battled my way into a stormy wind full of rain as the road now climbed into something I, as a Dane, definitely would call ‘mountains’ as we call our highest hill of 143 metres ‘Sky mountain’. For a while I felt like the devil was back again, holding my bike and fighting my efforts to move forwards. I was hardly moving forwards and the rain hit me relentlessly. I looked for shelter, even a place I might be able to pitch my tent until the storm was over, but there was nothing, just grass, sheep and the wind everywhere.
Then I reached the top of the little mountain range where the road went up and down in steep, curled bends and there now seemed to be several devils fighting over me, one second pulling me back, the next pushing me forward with great powers, meanwhile I just did my best to hold on to the bike and the brakes that still sent this strange ‘clunk’ through the whole frame. It felt wild, it felt great, I was alert and alive. The downhill was long which was also great, except I couldn’t help thinking about how I would have to come back this way in a few days as it was the only bicycle friendly road in and out of this part of the national park.
Wet and high on energy I came down from the mountain as it began to get dark, and before I even began to worry about finding a camp site the road went through a golf course with grazing sheep and foot paths for hikers, trees and little hills I could hide behind. I didn’t think twice before I went for this perfect spot. It may sound strange, but still being high after my battle with the elements on the mountain, I quite enjoyed the task of making myself a dry bed in the wet tent where puddles kept appearing in the corners. I used the pamphlet from Le’m’ster to dry the floor, my hi-viz vest to soak up the puddles – so it also got a needed wash – and little sticks between the tent’s two layers kept the inner walls from getting more wet. Then I sat there warm and happy on my body sized island in the middle of it all. It had been a great day and I was so glad I hadn’t given up that morning.
I tried to take it easy the next day with a lazy morning and many breaks to do my knee good. The national park was mysteriously swept in floating clouds that constantly revealed new views and covered others and I appreciated the first 20 kilometres cycled without any hills to climb although I was surrounded by them on all sides. When I finally had to climb one, my knee kindly requested me to push instead of pedal, and after an hours ascent and 5 minutes descent, I got to the town Dolgellau. Here began a cycle path running on an old railway along a wide river. It was such a relief to know that it would be flat for the rest of the day. The water was completely still and reflected the hillsides and clouds that hung low around them perfectly. It was 15 kilometres that I wished could have lasted a lot longer. But I reached the end of the river where it flowed into the ocean and a good feeling of achievement rushed through me. As I went down to touch the water I knew I had cycled across the country, and although it was not the longest cross-England route you could do and nothing like a continent crossing, I still felt the achievement of having cycled the whole way from one coast to the other. I camped by the beach making use of the bathroom and benches there. I had reached the furthest point I would go on this little trip and the thought of beginning the ride back to Malvern both excited and worried me. I had to go back through all the hills again, and I was afraid my knee would get worse. I was longing for giving it some rest, and so I wished to get back fast. The long ride home could begin.
I had been looking forward to the next bit of road I was to cycle in the morning, as it hugged the steep cliffs that dropped into the sea. I had never cycled on a road like that before. Therefore, I was quite disappointed seeing nothing but a thick, white fog when I got out of the tent. Not only would I not be able to really experience the ocean road, but the cars on the road would also not be able to see me very well. I waited an hour hoping the fog would take off, but nothing changed, and because I really wanted to begin the ride back home, I went for it. It was a quiet Sunday morning and although the view was not what it could have been, it was still a quite nice experience.
I kept cycling intensly all the way back to Machynlleth, the entry point of the national park, through the thick fog. In the town I treated myself with chips and eggs in a busy little café where all the locals seemed to come for their Sunday brunch. I had already cycled a good distance that day, my knee was hurting again, and ahead of me loomed the long climb up over the mountain I had been flying down from two days before. I was worried if my knee would make it and if I would make it before nightfall if I had to push all the way up like the day before. I called Chris for some encouragement, but maybe I shouldn’t have, because hearing his voice and the question “How are you baby?” cracked the thin shell of strength I had managed to build around my worries and now they all flowed out of me like waters from a leaking dike. But the conversation did me good, in the end I knew one way or another everything was going to be fine.
After the phone call I was suddenly approached in Danish: “Er du dansker?” (“Are you Danish?”) by a young man who was in the cafe with his wife and kids. He had recognized my Danish mailman jacket, but when I initiated the natural conversation about what we both were doing here, he just turned around and left the café and my questions hanging in the air. I don’t know why, maybe he had a dark history with the Danish Mail Service, maybe that was why he had left the country?
I shrugged of the awkward encounter, because the mountain was waiting to be defeated and feeling motivated I set out on the mission. The first bit was less steep than I had feared and I was surprised how easy it went. But ahead I could the see the steeper road sections rising dramatically up into the clouds covering the top, I knew the battle was about to begin. When it did my mind went a little bit mad and I began talking with the staring, peeing sheep and the mountain in rhymes that I shall not bother you with, as it was like I said a moment of passing madness. For an hour or so I struggled my way up to the top, my knee acting surprisingly well, so I managed to cycle the whole way. Also this time it was wild and wonderful at the top with low clouds floating around and beneath me. It was a rush of satisfaction, relief and pride I felt as I glided down the other side, and everything felt exactly fine that night when I camped next to a farm, where a nice family let me stay and the woman of the house gave me coffee and a cake.
I woke up during the night with things feeling less fine as strong wind gusts from time to time bent the poles of my tent inwards and down into my face. It disturbed my much-needed sleep, especially when Karen and Thomas (the cuddly toys travelling with me) wearily jumped down from their room upstairs and into my sleeping bag. The next morning it began to rain and the wind was still blowing hard. I had decided to take bigger main roads on my way back hoping they might follow a less hilly route, but that theory proved to be wrong, the hills were inescapable here. The 15 kilometres to the town Llanidloes was everything but pleasant with my aching knee, the cold wind, rain, more big hills and some traffic. Wet and cold, I escaped into the library with the librarians looking pitiful at me, but after an hour in there I forced myself back into it, as I was still driven by the thought of coming home and let my knee have some rest. Up in the hills, I met two older men, who stood sheltered from the rain under a tree watching the hills through binoculars. They told me they were watching ‘dogs’ which I guessed meant foxes, but when I asked if they were hunting them they avoided to give me an understandable answer. I got the feeling ‘watching dogs’ was not as innocent and legal as it seemed. But they were really nice to me, they had singing Welsh accents and gave me a lot of detailed advice for my route and the pubs in the area, that I didn’t intended to make use of. Our conversation was interrupted by their scratching walkie talkies with messages from other ‘dog watchers’ and I left them, when they excitedly returned their attention to the hills whisper-shouting “There, there!”. I really hoped the fox would survive whatever it was they were doing.
Things got better in the afternoon as the skies cleared and the hills flattened out a bit. I cycled and cycled, although my knee still hurt, trying to get as close to Malvern as I could, but when I camped that evening in a field where the gate was left open, I thought I was still too far to get back the next day. As I laid down and stretched my legs the pain and exhaustion overwhelmed me, it had been a tough day that had been more about surviving than enjoying. I had done well and managed to get through the bad weather, but it had left me completely knackered. I put some music in my ears and tried to forget about it all and the rain that again began to drum on the tent, until I fell asleep.
As I rolled downhill the next day hardly touching the pedals for the first 30 kilometres my hope that I could make it back that day began to grow again. My knee was very painful until it warmed up, then it felt alright, and when I was back in Le’m’ster and had my lunch I had decided I was going to make it. Cycling back the same way I had come on the first day was a much better experience than I had thought it would be. The hills felt smaller now I had battled much bigger ones, and I felt stronger even though I was tired. Getting within sight of Malvern Hills again and seeing them grow from every hill top was encouraging and contemplating. It was like a great final ending with me rolling down the steep hill to our house with great views over the valley on the other side. I could see the light in our window, rang my bell outside the house, and as I pushed my bike through the gate Chris stood in the door with that smile and those eyes that made me feel so good inside, and relieved I knew I was home again. I relaxed in the embrace that unfortunately didn’t last very long as I apparently was more smelly than I knew after seven days without a shower.
Malvern – Le’m’ster – Machynlleth – Friog- Machynlleth – Le’m’ster – Malvern
Click below for more photos in the Flickr album #6: A hilly beginning of a new year