Bank Holiday cycling in Wales

I’ve not been riding my bike much lately, and I’ve missed it. There’s something delightful about zipping through the countryside on a sunny day. It’s the perfect balance of travelling far/fast enough that the scenery changes, but slow enough that you can take it in. I knew it was exactly what I needed, as it’s been a rough few weeks. Work has been incredibly busy and I’ve been getting increasingly stressed, and I still feel the residues of failure after the marathon DNF.

I thought about going to France for the bank holiday but the prospect of ferry timetables and cycling in crappy ports made me more stressed, so I asked around and someone suggested Wales. I’d never been (I know!) and a friend offered to lend me his copy of Lost Lanes Wales, so the decision was made. Not before spraining my ankle AGAIN though.

Bank holiday weekend rolled around and I worked until 1am on Friday night, before spending Saturday in the park and watching the football. However I was up bright and early on Sunday morning to begin my adventure.

Sunday

I always panic about trains so left myself nearly 1.5 hours to cycle 10km to Paddington. I was worried about my carradice rubbing on my rear wheel, which it did the last time I used it, but it must have been packed wrong as it was nowhere near my wheel all weekend, and by the time I got to Paddington I had almost fought the urge to check it at every red light. Paddington itself didn’t relax me, the ticket machine wouldn’t recognise my card and there were no members of staff around to tell me where the bike carriage was, but these problems were almost immediately overcome and before I knew it I was on the 08:07 heading towards Gloucester, eating a homemade flapjack.

It was a little cloudy on the way across the country, but by the time I arrived in Gloucester at about 10 the sun had come out. I set off through a deserted town centre and onto a cycle route by the river, through a nature reserve. The path was a little gravelly in places and there was definitely a bit of boardwalk missing at one point but it was a pleasant route out of town. I saw a couple of runners but otherwise I had the place to myself.
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I passed an equine college and spotted a few nice looking horses, then came to Hartpury Church, which I’d read about as having a bee shelter. I went to check it out, feeling a bit silly clomping through the churchyard in my cycling shoes. At the back of the churchyard was the shelter, a carved sculpture where bees were encouraged to live so that they could pollinate the nearby fields. There were no bees here today, hopefully not because of colony collapse disorder or anything apocalyptic like that.
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I thought I might stop for lunch in Newent but my route went right on by, and so I carried on heading north-west. I was pretty hungry and ran out of energy, getting off my bike a couple of times. It was definitely more of a mental thing as at every hill my mind was defeated well before my legs. I stopped to have a snack on a bench outside a church near Kempley and felt a lot better.
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I crossed over a surprisingly scenic main road, and past what I thought might be a pottery.
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My route went west for a little before turning south at How Caple and along a lovely lane heading towards the River Wye. I stopped to take a picture of the valley and didn’t realise I had three cars behind me – oops.
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There were families out by the river, enjoying the sunshine, and I was tempted to go for a swim, but thought it would probably be extremely cold and not much fun.
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From here it was just a short distance to Ross-on-Wye, where I (finally!) stopped for lunch – a sourdough cheese salad roll and a chocolate crispy cake. In the sunshine. Ah. That felt better!
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Ross-on-Wye had an annoying one way system which meant I did about 50 laps of the town before managing to escape south towards Monmouth. Since Kempley I’d been following a route I’d made up, rather than one recommended anywhere, and was pleasantly surprised at how it wasn’t totally awful. South of Ross-on-Wye wasn’t amazing, but it was still quietish roads. And then… the A40. I don’t mind a dual carriageway, but it wasn’t exactly fun, so when I saw a sign at the next junction to a “hedge maze” I immediately decided that I couldn’t live without seeing the hedge maze and turned off.

The hedge maze was at a butterfly farm, of course, which is something I actually find quite disturbing (I went to one as a child and found the sensation of butterflies landing on me a bit weird) so I had an icecream in the sun instead of looking at the maze or the butterflies. There were loads of kids running around, including one little boy who was being chased by his parent, desperately trying to put a nappy on him. I decided to leave before someone did a poo on the grass.

It was back on the A40 for about 5km, which no one was happy about – I didn’t like it and the drivers didn’t like it either. I passed a sign “Croeso i Gymru” and carried on pedalling down the A40. Not exactly the bucolic welcome to Wales I was hoping for.

Eventually I got to turn off the main road and headed into Monmouth. I rode around for a while and decided it was too early (and sunny) to go to my B&B, so investigated the loud booming voice I could hear all over town. Turns out it was the Monmouth Regatta, and I got down to the river just in time to see the final race.
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Rowers and cyclists appear to wear pretty similar clothes (ie. lycra and garish sunglasses) so I fitted in well, and hung out by the river, watching the rowers be replaced by swans.
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After checking into my B&B, where I was assigned Oliver Cromwell’s old bedroom, I showered and got changed into the dress I’d brought with me (everyone takes dresses cycle touring, right?) while listening to terrible pop music. I went out to explore the town, and wandered through a meadow listening to Fuck Buttons on my ipod.monmouth.png

The owner of the B&B had told me about places to eat in the town, and recommended a Mexican restaurant as serving huge portions. It looked nice and laid back, too, and I had a relaxed evening reading and stuffing myself with chilli and cheese. Then it was back to the B&B, where there was a blues night going on downstairs. I opted for lounging on my bed and was asleep by 11pm.

Monday

I’d said I wanted an early breakfast, saying I’d be down at 7.30 – but didn’t wake up until 7.30! I chucked some clothes on and went downstairs, where I chatted to the lovely owner while eating a (veggie) full english. It’s not what I’d normally eat but I thought it would help fuel me for the day ahead.

I got myself together and got on the road. It was forecast to get warmer so I’d rolled my shorts up so that the tan line would be the same as the day before. Priorities! I had a full change of clothes, which I could have done without but it was nice to not have to put on smelly kit.

Immediately out of Monmouth there were a few hills, but my legs felt a lot happier than the day before. I felt generally in much better spirits than I had the day before, clearly eating proper food is a good thing!

I was cycling parallel to the A40 but a distance from it, but eventually I crossed over and decided that this must be South Wales. There was one very big hill on the agenda for the day and this was immediately after the A40, but I felt a lot more positive and rode up almost all of it, stopping for a quick photo near the top as the views were just so lovely.
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Then I hurtled through some lanes, freaking myself out a bit on the descents. I really hate descending, I have an irrational terror that I can usually keep semi-under control but it will occasionally bubble up into a physical refusal to go on. I went through a farm and round a corner, and faced a 15% descent. And stopped. It was actually kind of difficult to get off my bike as it was so steep but I managed it, sweating coldly and trying/failing to have words with myself.

I could hear voices close by but couldn’t work out where they were coming from. Eventually I managed to get back on my bike and around the corner I saw a car and small sheep transporter in the road. The farmer and his three dogs were rounding up the sheep into the transporter. He was a young guy and we had a brief chat before he had to leg it after one errant sheep who didn’t want to go in the transporter. I was pretty transfixed by the working dogs and the way one corralled the sheep into a field.
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Once the farmer had gone I had a 15% slog up the other side of the little valley, but this turned out be to the final steep hill as after this there were a few km to go before hitting a bigger road into Usk, a further few km on from there.

Usk is pretty small, so small I managed to accidentally cycle through the whole town and miss the high street, and had to do a u-turn outside what I thought was a picturesque castle (but was actually a young offender’s institution). I had lunch in a Sprokwobble’s cafe, enjoying a cup of tea in the sunshine.

Beyond Usk, it got warmer and I headed south, keeping the river to my right before crossing a steep bridge at Newbridge. I stopped to make friends with some cows near the golf course.
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Heading into Caerleon, a village outside Newport, I went past a cemetery and along a lane almost entirely encircled by flowers, before taking a wrong bloody turn and going down an access road for the railway. I turned back and got back onto the right track, a designated cycle way to Newport (how did I miss the signs?!). This was a really lovely route, the path ran alongside the railway and next to the river on a wooden boardwalk. I wish I’d stopped to take pictures as it was so beautiful!

Lots of people were out on bikes and families out walking. A family had left their baby in a pram in the middle of the path but were super polite and apologised to me for getting in their way. Don’t worry about me, I thought! Two young boys cycled past and one wobbled off and into some stinging nettles. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” the other asked, in the most Welsh accent imaginable.

The path continued into Newport, kicking me out onto a main road, which was a bit grim but I managed to get back on the cycle path by the new footbridge. There were some signs up detailing the history of Newport and I had a good old read, before heading along the cycle path hugging the water’s edge..
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I have to admit to being a sucker for bridges and other engineering marvels (eg. my longstanding love for the Falkirk Wheel) so I was very excited to see the transporter bridge. There are only two in the UK! From afar it didn’t look that great, but as I got closer I saw the gondola making the crossing, and when I got closer still I heard that the visitor centre was banging out tunes like Gangnam Style and the Macarena. I stripped down to my vest and shorts and sat by the bridge, watching the bridge in action and eating some quasi-healthy sweets.
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From here I got back on the bike, through an industrial estate and onto a long, flat road to Cardiff. It seemed like the kind of road that might be busy mid-week but on a bank holiday it was fairly deserted. There were a lot of horses by the side of the road and I was a little wary of them. I went down Lamby Way, and past the Lamby Industrial Estate, but there were no signs so no photos, alas.

Once in Cardiff I headed for the centre, then saw a sign to Cardiff Bay and followed that. There were so many people out enjoying the sunshine and there was a great vibe. The Welsh Assembly building is very impressive.
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I begrudgingly headed to the station and got some snacks before getting the train back to London, my phone full of snaps ready for instagramming and my soul salved by two days outside in the sunshine.