“Well I think I’d quite like it if he marched past me with no clothes on!” exclaimed Myfanwy, the village matriarch, much to mine and Paul’s amusement!
It’s the second day of a week long mountain biking trip that friend Paul and I are undertaking and we’re sitting in a pub in Llan Ffestiniog sheltering from the interminable rain as Myfanwy entertains with an article in the local rag about the goings on of Britain’s somewhat infamous Naked Rambler in the local rag. Bedraggled and wet though (us, not the rambler) we’re drying off in the pub before setting off once again, into the deluge …
We plan to travel light, staying in B&Bs, pubs and small hotels which we’ve pre-booked. Our route, mainly off-road, follows much of the MBRUK route called the Sarn Helen, itself named after the Roman road of the same name and which part of the route is believed to follow. The trail is mostly single and double track with some stretches on quiet rural lanes. MBRUK call it ‘the most ambitious off-road ride in Britain’ … were we ready? I didn’t know!
Our trip began on a sunny Saturday in May 2014 in the town of Conwy after a lengthy railway journey with our mountain bikes and kit, the latter being contained entirely in our 20 litre backpacks. Our rail journey hadn’t started well after we were told “No bikes on this train, we’re full!” though luckily I had pre-booked a space for our bikes as well as us so our jobsworth conductor had to relent. Conwy is a pretty town, with a castle near which we had a pre-ride curry (vital) in a local tavern and Paul was served beer by a barman with a very impressive handlebar moustache. Our B&B was a lovely place with views toward Snowdonia National Park.
After a sunny start we begin climbing a very steep, long paved single track road in order to get us up in to Snowdonia … gosh it’s a slog! As I got to grips with a different set of gear ratios on what was a loan bike which I’d only ridden round a car-park (the servicing of mine was delayed so at the last minute the bike shop lent me a new Whyte T-129 S) we make it to to Coedty Reservoir near Dolgarrog and begin our first off-road section, with angry grey clouds beginning to amass above us. And then, the heavens open. And the gale force headwind starts. As we ride beside the Llyn Colwyd reservoir beneath impressive cliffs of browning bracken-coated grey rock it’s a struggle to keep the bikes upright or make any forward progress. Horizontal rain smashes into our faces, stinging with an appalling ferocity. This is brutal! The riding is at times technical with rock gaps and loose boulders to negotiate and I lose track of the number of times I’m blown off my bike as I attempt, in vain, to slow the bike, balance my weight and manoeuvre around the various obstacles.
Mercifully we find a derelict barn in which to shelter from the onslaught. Eating lunch I start to get very cold and I begin to shiver … I’ve been in this situation before and know I need to act quickly for I’m wet through and getting dangerously cold. I put on every bit of clothing I have (not much … note the mention of 20 litre rucksacks above!) and thankfully, after a bit of foot-stomping to get the blood pumping, I’m fixed. And then, after a push up to the saddled snout at the foot of the reservoir, we begin a mind-blowing descent in the face of the full force of the frontal assault from the wind and rain, through deep peat hags, somehow hopping the bikes as we ride over the wet peat sections in order to keep moving. It’s utterly fantastic and stupendously exhilarating and topped off by our first (small) river fording. Just an hour before I had been shivering uncontrollably and wondering what on earth I was doing here!
Having been delayed a fair bit due to the conditions we choose to forego two further off-road climbs up and over Cen Glas and Bwlch y Groes, opting instead for a road route via Betwys-y-Coed to our destination for the night at Penmachno … though not before stopping for a pub dinner in Betwys-y-Coed. I also took the chance to buy a new Camelbak bladder after problems with mine meant I had to switch to two plastic milk bottles lashed to my rucksack! A big day and suitably fitting for it was also my birthday. That night our room resembles a Chinese laundry, with wet clothing strung from every possible hook-like object … including the lampshade on the ceiling!
Penmachno to Coed-y-Brenin, Ganllwyd, Clywd
24.7 miles, 2,980 feet of climbing
Accommodation: Tyn-y-Groes Hotel, Ganllwyd, Clywd
Rain, rain and more rain. It barely stopped raining today. From the moment we left Penmachno the heavens opened. At first we tried to ride up the loose quarry slate which festooned the path up the back of Cwm Penmachno toward the Manod Mawr quarries, but, it was in vain and we were pushing before long. I defy anyone to ride the whole way up, for its so steep, loose and protracted. Or maybe I just had too much for breakfast! Toward the top though there are some nice, rideable, technical sections through the woods and once over the pass we whiz down the tarmac road, strafing water from our tyres with a satisfying, accompanying high pitched buzz.
And then, we’re in the town of Llan Ffestiniog. Wanting to find a cafe to dry off, we come up short, but make up for it by adjourning to the pub where we’re met with fantastic hospitality and an offer to drape our wet clothes all around the pub’s radiators. And of course that’s where we were entertained by our friend Myfanwy. The slightly confused but very friendly barman takes our order for lunch, and we opt for the large roast dinner – apparently the small version was £7, and, the large version was … also £7! Really! He said he was new. Before long but with dry clothes we were off again, into the rain once more and toward Coed-y-Brenin forest.
Before long we rode another fantastically exhilarating section, this time on a steep gravel road which was virtually a mudslide. As we rode the slate-strewn ground beneath us was literally moving, as the rain continued to cannon down from above. Trees had fallen from recent storms and at times we rode bent over the cross-bar, our heads on the handlebars in order to clear their trunks! After another long day we made it to our hotel for the night. Sadly we found the drying room to be cold (although it did have a dehumidifier) such that we definitely didn’t dry anything in our room after being expressly told not to do so. No. At dinner, we met a couple of lads biking the nearby trail centre … when we explained our trip to them they doubted our ability to finish it, and we wondered whether, if the weather carried on like it had, we could too! It had been another epic day.