A warm welcome in the Welsh hills
I’m not exactly a fan of hills. I am the opposite of a fan in fact. And yet here I was, with husband Chris and our friends Julia and Richard, embarking on an ambitious three-day ride across Wales – from Bristol to Pembrokeshire … via Brecon. Brecon as in Beacons; Beacons as in mountains; 160 miles of hills.
I don’t mind telling you that I was terrified – especially about the first day, which looked especially long and gruelling.
So much so that Chris and I took a sneaky drive over the Severn bridge one Sunday a few weeks before the ride to see for ourselves. We followed National Cycle Network route 42 – all beautifully signed – to Usk. I kept up a running commentary the whole way from the passenger seat along the lines of “ok this bit is bearable, yup that hill is bearable”.
So it was going to be bearable; we were reassured.
Preparation complete, we next found ourselves crossing the Severn bridge — on bikes, with panniers — early one morning in mid-May.
And I can tell you that although it was a long old day (we left the house at 7.20am and got in at 6pm), the ride from Bristol to Brecon was great. We got to Usk by about 11.30. We had coffee and cake at the Green Flute café, part of the Usk Rural Life museum. Then it was a remarkably easy ride up to Goytre wharf via Nant-y-derry. From here, we set off alongside the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, taking us to Brecon on 28 miles of unpaved towpath.
The going was pretty bumpy and certainly slower than tarmac but the good news was that there was zero navigation to do. The tree-lined canal was gorgeously verdant; we stopped at a bench to eat our sandwiches and fed a friendly robin with bits of bread; there were ducklings on the canal, lambs in the fields and bluebells all over the place. All was right with the world.
Our B&B in Brecon was the Borderers where we got a warm welcome from both the new owners and the old owners (whose house purchase had fallen through so they had to stay on). They were satisfyingly gob-smacked when we told them we had cycled from Bristol.
I’m afraid there seemed to be slim pickings on the food front in Brecon; the highlight of the evening was a few games of pool in the Gremlin pub.
Our second day started with a small set-back as Julia’s chain got tangled up and we needed the services of a bike shop. Luckily the lovely people at Biped Cycles helped out with a new chain and we were on our way by 10am. Thank goodness it happened in Brecon is all I can say as we were about to go into back of beyond territory.
The countryside from Brecon up to the Usk reservoir was completely wonderful with hardly a car in sight and fantastic views including Pen y Fan. It was a lot of climbing up to Llanddeusant and we were glad to stop at the highest point and eat our lunch at a picnic table and marvel at all the red kites soaring above our heads. The red kite feeding station here has successfully increased numbers and we were blown away when we saw a dozen of them flying over at one time.
Sadly there was no people feeding station – we could really have done with a coffee.
Anyway, this was a high point in all ways. We eventually wobbled off, not really looking where we were going, staring at the sky, still mesmerised by the red kites above our heads.
What goes up has to come down – and we did. At pace. It was lovely. The miles flew by. We went through a little town called Bethlehem on the way to Ffairfach. From here it was just 14 miles to Carmarthen on the B4300 – a gently rolling road along the Towy river valley. I say just … but 14 miles at the end of a long day is not to be sniffed at.
It was a case of heads down and get on with it; I tried singing to keep me going – until a couple of cyclists silently appeared alongside me. They had the grace not to mention the singing and were really friendly. They told us about Wright’s – a brilliant café/shop with homemade everything including ice cream — which was just up the road a bit.
So we stopped there and refuelled giving us the strength to do the final seven miles to Carmarthen so we could get on with having the next meal.
Our hotel was the smart Spilman where we had a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast. But I am getting ahead of myself; that night we went around the corner from the hotel to Café No 4 – one of Wales’ best restaurants, offering three courses of exquisite food for just £30 a head (bring your own booze and pay in cash).
Day three. The novelty was wearing off; bums were getting sorer; and energy levels had dwindled. And our route seemed to take us over every hill that West Wales had to offer. Up and down; over and over and over again. “What fresh hell is this?” I cried out as we turned a corner to be faced with yet another bloody hill.
We eventually found refuge at the café in the Tavernspite garden centre. It was slightly strange in that there weren’t many people in there but they told us they were fully booked for lunch. I told myself not to be paranoid. After a bit of begging, they agreed to make us some sandwiches.
As we were leaving, a lovely lady next door asked us if we’d been able to get fed at the café and seemed to be on the verge of inviting us in for lunch. We’d already had a lovely chat with a woman at the start of the day who had stopped us to ask if we needed water. The kindness of strangers is just another upside of getting out on your bike.
Anyway, we soldiered on up and down the next 473 hills, held up only by a family of geese. The last stretch was very pretty – along quiet country roads through villages like Wiston and Crundale until we got close to Haverfordwest. From here we cut across to Camrose, Keeston and Simpson Cross so that we could press on to our destination, Nolton Haven, and embark on two days of post-ride drinking and lying down.
All in all it was a fantastic trip and it was certainly challenging enough to feel like a real achievement. Thanks to Julia and Richard for planning the whole thing, putting us up at their holiday home afterwards — and for making us do it in the first place.
Information on this ride, its stages and mileages — plus photos and maps — are all here. Obviously there are lots of lovely places to stay in West Wales so you will want to work out your own arrangements for the last day depending on where you are headed.
Unless you happen to want to go to Nolton Haven. If so, our friends’ holiday home, Westerly, is available for rent – and comes highly recommended. It’s just metres from the beach where there is also an interesting pub, the Mariners, complete with an enormous stuffed albatross.
And a mile or two along the coastal path to the south is the delightfully laid-back Druidstone hotel – I’ve now been there twice and it’s like wandering into a well-worn country house where you are greeted like a friend, offered great food and drink and made to feel completely at home. A bit like Wales generally come to think of it.