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A wild wet Welsh gravel tour

A wild wet Welsh gravel tour

325 miles on minor roads and gravel.

Oh boy, 2020. How much I was looking forward to my bikepacking trip in Iceland. Then corona happened and plans were revised. It did not bother me too much, because since I live in Wales I have been blessed with glorious landscapes in my back garden.

My initial plan was to ride south from my home near Aberystwyth, towards the Brecon Beacons, and then to follow the Cambrian mountains north to do some riding in the south of Snowdonia. But plans are made to be altered, and so did this one.

I have a habit of starting off way too fast, and blowing my legs up before the trip is over. To avoid this I decided to take a rather easy first day, by following the Ystwyth trail to Tregaron and onwards to Lampeter. The first bit of climbing of the day was the climb from Lampeter to the Abergorlech Forest, a plantation managed by National Resources Wales. I figured I would be able to find a wild camping spot here quite easily but I was wrong; it took me quite some time to find something suitable. I settled for a flat bit near a picknick bench , not really out of sight from the footpaths but otherwise it was perfect.

The second day I descended the last bit to Abergorlech, climbed out of the valley of the river Cothi and followed the river Dulas downstream until reaching the wide valley of the river Towi. The historical significance of this valley (as a trade route I guess?) was marked by the several ruined castles along the route. A very visible defensive keep on a hilltop in the distance looked a bit too well-preserved, and turned out to be Paxton’s tower, a ‘folly’ built 1806 in honour of Lord  Nelson. A fake castle without any real historic significance.

Folly tower
Folly tower
Castle overlooking Tywi Valley, Built in 1220.
Castle overlooking Tywi Valley, Built in 1220.

 

The route follows the river Cothi to Llandeilo, from where it gradually climbs all the way to the Usk reservoir, where I pitched my tent for my second night of wild camping. This day was certainly more hilly than my first, so I decided to stop early to give my body some rest. I stopped near the Usk reservoir where I found a most awesome camping spot (I even had a private beach!). The weather was great and the spirits were high.

My pitch near the Usk Reservoir
My pitch near the Usk Reservoir

Next morning I woke up with frost on my tent. The morning sunshine was lovely so I decided to really drag my breakfast out, justified with the excuse I needed my tent to dry. The third day was not easy. There is always some guess-work involved when preparing a route, and this time my plan did seem a bit overambitious (I left this section in the GPX file because I know there are better riders with lighter gear who are perfectly able to pull this one off, and because the tarmac alternative is easy to identify for those who want a smoother ride).

a beautiful gravel road that turned into a bit of hike-a-bike.
a beautiful gravel road that turned into a bit of hike-a-bike.

With quite some hike-a-bike I made it to the other side of the Black Mountains and into the Heads of the Valleys. The history of this region is very closely related to the mining industry and this is still visible in the landscape and in more built-up areas. Although I already did a lot of cycling and sweating today, I decided to carry on. Actually, I had no choice because camping options in the crowded Neath valley were slim. So onwards I went, up the hill and into the forest. I always enjoy cycling on forestry tracks, but again, finding a decent place to pitch my tent was hard. I settled for a sheltered meadow near a stream. A good spot were it not for the fact I had to share the place with a gazillion midges. All I can say; I saw the inside of my tent a lot.

On the fourth day the dark clouds started to gather. There was a chilly breeze and rain was predicted for the afternoon. I made good headway towards Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil, from where I picked up the Taff Trail (a bike route following old mining tram ways and canals; so easy going). My original plan was to cycle The Gap route back north through the Black Mountains. But the conditions were horribly wet and I did not fancy doing this remote mountain bike route on my rigid bike with slick tyres in the rain. I continued along the Taff Trail and made a wet descent towards Brecon.

Old mine shaft north of Merthyr Tydfil
Old mine shaft north of Merthyr Tydfil

 

Pontsticill reservoir buildings
Pontsticill reservoir buildings

 

The descent towards Talybont reservoir was wet, but the gravel road was of good quality.
The descent towards Talybont reservoir was wet, but the gravel road was of good quality.

 

Entering Brecon soaked to the bone, I desperately wanted to warm up in a pub, book a hotel even. But these are funny times and there was nothing to do but to carry on. At least it had cleared up.

But the relief of dry weather was only short lived. Rain started to fall again once I left Brecon, and the weather predictions for the next days were not great either. The idea of not being able to shelter in a pub, café, camping or hotel whatsoever made the trip mentally quite straining, and I felt like a wimp of having these feelings on the first day of rain.

Anyway, I carried on. Soon I was a Sennybridge again. The planned route would lead me over the Epynt mountains, and straight through the Ministry of Defence firing range. I checked beforehand and there should not be any firing going on in the afternoon, so I cracked on. It was a long way up, misty rain interspersed with showers. I passed some kind of gate, with a big red flag just discernible in the clouds. I felt gutted.

Upon closer inspection I found a small sign telling me basically to ignore the red flag as I was on the Epynt Way, which is a public right of way. So I carried on, until the road led me past some barracks. I was really very sure that I should not be there but none of the soldiers seemed to care so I applied the just-go-slowly-until-halted strategy. I felt like a James Bond in bright fluorescent yellow sneaking past enemy barracks. After a soldier told me: “Yes this is a public path but please don’t take a left turn because they are shooting with live rounds”, I managed to make it into the National Resources Wales forest where I managed to find a small patch of flat ground for my tent. It was still raining.

The fifth day was dry (hurrah!). But I already made up my mind. Since my route would lead me near my home I decided to take a rest day. I took the beautiful road to Llyn Brianne and down again into Tregaron. The last stretch home was tough, but I knew I had cold beer in the fridge and that was just the mental doping I needed.

On the highest point on the road from Llyn Brianne to Tregaron, the Brecon Beacons are just visible in the background.
On the highest point on the road from Llyn Brianne to Tregaron, the Brecon Beacons are just visible in the background.

One rest day became two, but after those I was good to continue going north. This route turned out to be much a bit better balanced with loads of gravel through woods and open moorland. I also tried to identify wild-camp spots beforehand which was really useful. The gravel section east of Pumlumon mountain, and between the sources of the rivers Severn and Wye is loads of fun, and the lake north of Llanbrynmair proved to be a perfect camp spot.

gravel section north of Llanbrynmair
gravel section north of Llanbrynmair

 

Some bad weather was predicted for the next day, but I had not imagined it wouldn’t be dry for a second. The route was absolutely great, with loads of rideable gravel and very little hike-a-bike or tarmac. I found a great camp spot just along a byway used by 4×4 a little north of Machynlleth. Outside there was rain and midges, so inside the tent was the only option. Next morning I was greeted with clear skies and heavenly sunshine, it was almost 11 in the morning when I finally left.

 

Ruined building near Machynlleth
Ruined building near Machynlleth
Wild camp spot along a 4x4 route near Pantperthog
Wild camp spot along a 4×4 route near Pantperthog

 

 

I had planned for the last night of the trip to be spent just north east of Nant-y-Moch, and my girlfriend and some friends would meet me there. So it was a short day, and there even was time for a coffee in Machynlleth.

 

After a fair bit of pushing I reached this stunning track/
After a fair bit of pushing I reached this stunning track/
Where the Afon Hyddgen, the Afon Hengawn and Nant y Llyn meet, that is where the best wild camp spot of Wales is.
Where the Afon Hyddgen, the Afon Hengawn and Nant y Llyn meet, that is where the best wild camp spot of Wales is.

I still struggle sometimes with distinguishing public tracks and private roads on maps when preparing a route. So when I was turned back by a land-owner I had no other option than to push the bike up the hill (I have remedied this in the GPX file below). It wasn’t that bad, and I still made it to the camp spot in time. It was great to meet everybody there, beers were had!

In all the trip was about 325 miles and it took me eight days to complete. The only sections I could not ride were the two off road sections south of Sennybridge, for which there are easy tarmac alternatives. I have left out the other unrideable sections in the gpx route below.

 

https://www.alltrails.com/explore/map/wild-wet-welsh-gravel-tour-3f78fa1