So, perhaps the first indication that things haven’t exactly gone according to plan would be that I am sat here, typing this, on Sunday night. We aren’t due home until tomorrow.
Let me start from the beginning.
The original plan was to set off Friday morning, around 10am, and head towards Bala- around 35miles. Whilst the
longest ride we’ve done to date has been 30miles, we felt comfortable that this was achieveable over the course of a whole day, with time to stop and let Theo have a play and run around. However, Matt was away in Germany on business over the course of the week- and came back on the red eye, Thursday night/Friday morning. As he crept in at around 3am, only to be woken by Theo bright and early at 5am, exhaustion set in- for both of us. When we finally managed to get ourselves up and organised, it was past 1pm- and we didn’t hit the road until 2pm, 4 hours behind schedule. Those 4hours, we came to realise, made all the difference.
We were heavily laden- the new Chariot trailer with a fully packed boot, and 4 panniers on my Dawes, containing the tent, 6 (!!!!) sleeping bags (Matt insists that in the cold of Canada, we’ll need 2 apiece…I remain dubious) our camping stove, food and all our clothes and spares. The weight was quite significant- and upon initially setting off, I found myself wobbling uncontrollably as I adjusted to the difference! However, I soon found my balance, and although it was admittedly harder (and slower!) going, we coped.
Our first curse was the route itself. Without exaggeration, around 75% of the first “leg” was uphill. Long, slow rambling Welsh hills that stretched for miles without respite- and a few short, sharp inclines thrown in alongside. Already lacking in energy, we both struggled to remain upbeat as we faced hill after hill after hill. We’d come out dressed for the cold, but the effort required us to start shedding layers- and it was at this point that Matt made an error in judgement, removing his gloves and beloved merino wool Buff and placing them in the trailer with Theo. Apparently the front cover of the Chariot isn’t quite so secure as the Burley- and in a moment of passing boredom, Theo begun posting items out of the door. As I was cycling ahead of Matt, neither of us noticed until his toy helicopter landed with a resonding “bang” on the tarmac- and on closer inspection, we discovered that one of the gloves and the buff were both gone. £45… gone.
The exhaustion, hills and this discovery did little for our morale. Alongside this, my iphone- upon which we were relying for our GPS navigation- died a sad death, leaving us without any concept of our whereabouts. Matt’s phone had been our original plan for map reading but, alas, Matt had left his micro-usb charger in Germany- without which, he couldn’t use the new bottle-dyno set up on his front wheel to charge his phone on route. We trudged out 25miles before the sheer cold and fatigue set in and we begun seeking out somewhere to set up camp for the night. We were just outside of Corwen, and prior research had already shown that as it was out of season for campers, we weren’t likely to find an open campsite anywhere. We would need to stealth camp.
We eventually found a field down a country lane, marked as having a public right of access, with an open gate and hedgerows to provide some cover for us. We set up our tent, tucked up against the hedge, and covered our bikes with a tarp. While Matt started up the stove, I headed down into Corwen to fetch some milk and supplies- and was impressed that as I cycled back and scoured the hillside, I couldn’t see our make-shift campsite at all. Discrete camping- successful.
The night itself wasn’t quite so successful. Shortly after we crawled into our tent, the rain really started to fall- heavily so. It pounded on the tent with resounding volume and Theo, bored from a few hours sat in the trailer, was full of energy and climbing all over us. We were exhausted and fed up- and unable to sleep. A broken nights sleep followed, even after Theo eventually admitted defeat (and, it must be said, slept the night through- at least one of us managed it!)
Day 2- we packed up briskly and decided to head down into Corwen to charge up my phone for GPS navigation, and grab a hot drink to thaw ourselves out. We had literally just loaded up and set off, when I sensed something wasn’t quite right with my bike. A complete flat on the rear wheel- I had a puncture.
Still in the pouring rain, we pulled into a bus shelter and proceeded to strip the wheel and repair the puncture. Plucking a thorn from the tyre which we suspected to be the culprit, we found one hole in the inner tube and amongst a great deal of fiddling, wasted around 30mins fixing the damage. Not the best start.
In Corwen, we found an obliging Cafe who let us plug in my phone and served us up 2 steaming hot cups of hot
chocolate, while Theo ran riot, terrorising the toy gorillas scattered around the room. We waited [im]patiently for my phone to pick up a bit of juice before deciding to head off again. Our aim was to get to Bala (yesterdays destination) by lunchtime, and then head on towards Pwheli in the afternoon. It would be tough- but it was just about do-able. Saddling our bikes again, we managed about 50yards when I emitted a long groan. My rear wheel- it was flat. Again.
It was still pouring with rain and we were losing faith, and ready to head home. We had no choice but to fix up the wheel, however, and fortunately a sweet smile and some pleading eyes at a garage owner earnt us a place in his workshop in which to attempt repair no.2. It turned out there was a reasonable-sized shard of glass wedged into the tyre- and just that short ride into Corwen had produced an impressive 5 punctures in the inner tube. It took us the best part of an hour to repair them all and piece the wheel back together. 11am- miles, 0.
How we found it in us to keep going after that, I don’t actually know. Even looking back now, on reflection, I can’t believe we didn’t just head straight home. But!
Onwards towards Bala. The weather was shocking; cold, rainy. However, the route slowly started to improve. We opted for a ‘back’ route along the quieter country roads, still with the occasional killer hill thrown in, but increasingly impressive scenery. We were following the river as it wound around the hills towards the lake, with miles of farmland, some impressive patches of dense forest and some beautiful houses set into the hills. Even in the dreary weather, it had a beauty of its own- and the clouds which seemed to roll down over the hills gave an atmospheric feel to the landscape. After around 12 miles, we stopped in a park to let Theo stretch his legs and fetch ourselves some lunch, attempting to defrost our toes in a small shelter in the playground. Really, the image is fairly comical- the 3 of us, top-to-toe in waterproofs, eating tinned ham and cheese as we curled up in this tiny broken shelter. Worse still, we ended up actually brushing our teeth stood in the park- sheer class.
It was a further 8miles to Bala, and once there, we managed to purchase a spare inner tube for my bike (although miraculously, our 5 repairs seemed to be doing the job!) before deciding to head towards Llyn Celyn, following our original route. A glance at the map told us we were about to hit a long stretch of nothingness, and as such, I ventured into a small ‘Cafe/Shop’, metaphorical cap in hand, to beg for some water to fill our bottles.
This, for me, was perhaps the worst part of the trip. The moment I entered, a table of [I assumed] ‘locals’, who had been busily chatting in Welsh until my arrival, stopped short and stared at me. The owner begrudingly stood up and without a word, just stood in front of me. The looks of all in the room made me wish myself a million miles away- the true ‘up and down’ survey of me made me feel completely small. Still, undeterred, I gave my sweetest smile, apologised profusely for my cheekiness, and asked if please, could I trouble the owner for some tap water, as we had been cycling for quite some time, had unfortunately run out and my son was thirsty? The look the owner gave me made me wish I hadn’t of asked. However, he took the bottles from my hands and slowly, very deliberately, filled them from his kitchen tap. I could hear the crowd behind me whispering and wanted to make haste asap, but he took his time. Setting them down one by one in front of me, I thanked him repeatedly for his trouble, assuring him I truly appreciated it and made to leave.
“That’ll be £1, please” he growled at me.
I laughed, because obviously he’s joking.
He held out his hand and stood in my path. Apparently he isn’t joking.
I became hugely flustered, fumbling in my pockets and apologising as I didn’t know if I had any change on me until- thank god!- I find a £1 coin tucked in my pocket, and practically throw it at him in embarrassment. I should add here that I had fully intended to purchase something from the ‘shop’ as a token gesture, however, when I walked in, all I could see was a large table with said ‘locals’ sat at it, a stand with local [Welsh] newspapers, and a cigarette stand. As I don’t smoke and I don’t speak/read Welsh, neither were of any use to me.
When I get outside, I whisper to Matt that the owner had the cheek to charge me for the tap water and we pack up hurriedly. I take a sip of the water- it’s luke warm. What probably cost that ‘cafe’ owner 0.01p has cost me £1 and a great deal of embarrassment. How can anyone be so cruel?
About 6miles down the road, and we reach the infamous Llyn Celyn- a rather grim-looking man-made reservoir, originally created to serve the water demands of Liverpool and the Wirral in the 1960s. This hugely controversial project involved the flooding of the village Capel Celyn and surrounding farmland- and I’m quite saddened by the sight of it. Anti-Liverpool graffiti is still prominent around the site- including this bold statement in the carpark, “Liverpool must suffer”- there’s a great deal of ill-feeling and resentment that still remains around the subject, even after all this time. A poorly-made decision, it seems, with a great cost.
At this point, the weather sinks once more and freezing cold, with the prospect of at least 25miles before we reach the next village, we were undecided about whether or not the decision to carry on was advisable, as it was now clear we weren’t going to be able to reach our intended destination and would have to find somewhere else to spend the night. Theo was also incredibly restless and we felt extremely guilty at forcing him to spend any longer in the trailer- we needed to find something to do to entertain him. In addition, although seemingly enjoying his new trailer, Theo didn’t have much luck in terms of taking in the scenery around him…
The route we had taken was wet and muddy- and Matt’s rear wheel kicked up as much mud as feasibly possible over the cover and windows of the Chariot, until the whole thing was smeared and visibility was pretty close to zero. We couldn’t expect him to sit for a few hours in the trailer, unable to see out, while we trudged on towards the next town.
We decided to head back towards Bala, stopping a few miles away at a white water rafting centre. We spent about 45mins watching the rafts and dingys crash through the waves and chasing Theo as he ran circles around us and eagerly explored all the equipment lying about . He really enjoyed himself, giggling away as he explored every nook and cranny, exclaiming at the big waves and attempting to name all the different colours of the dingys lined up on the grass (unsuccessfully, unfortunately… but we’ll get there!:) ) and we were glad of the chance to do something for him, to help him burn off some energy and see a bit more of the world around him- in spite of the bad weather! The Canolfan Treweryn white water centre is reputed as being the best in the country- with the unique feature of having a river dam release, providing the appropriate flow of water on demand- at times of low water levels, for example, or during competitions. If Theo hadn’t of been with us, I don’t doubt I would have ventured to have a go myself- it’s been years since I did white water rafting!
About a mile up from the centre was a campsite, and so we set off to see if we could find somewhere to set up for the night. Inevitably, however, the welcoming sign of “Closed” greeted us- and we were forced to retrace our steps towards Bala. A sign for another campsite led us alongside the lake, a further 6miles of beautiful nature at its very best- although our tiredness and the weather subdued our appreciation to a degree. However, once again, a locked gate and ‘Closed until 28th March’ was the response- and once again, the hunt began for a stealth camp site for the night.
This proved far more difficult than the previous night. There was farm land as far as the eye could see, however- densely populated with herds of sheep, hilly or simply inaccessible. We cycled around in circles, evaluating every patch of land we came across with no success. Finally, we came across a caravan site, affiliated with the closed campsite, with static caravans scattered about and a wide open gate. A quick cycle around revealed just one caravan to be occupied- and then we decided to take the risk and set up on a patch of grass behind one of the static caravans, close to the entrance. Not ideal, but…somewhere flat, safe, quiet. And thankfully, the weather was kinder to us- a quieter night ensured slightly better sleep, even if we did have to continually wriggle Theo back into his sleeping bag after he successfully kicked his way out of it several times during the night.
Day 2, miles- 30.
Although we hadn’t intended to return home until the Monday, come Sunday morning we re-evaluated and decided our most sensible option was to make our way home. 2 nights of stealth camping and no facilities weren’t ideal; the prospect of a third night of the same was disheartening and did little to motivate us. Aside from this, we had no chance of reaching our destination and then cycling all the way home in one day- even if the hills were kind to us and Theo allowed us to cycle for that length of time! So, bright and early, we packed up as quickly as we could and set off with renewed determination, lured by the prospect of a hot shower and a warm bed. Thankfully some of those killer hills that had plagued us on the way out became a blessing, offering some much-needed downhill relief to rest our legs. With natures help, we managed 30 miles before stopping at a pub for Sunday lunch- and then finally completing the last 10miles home. We were soaked through, cold, exhausted and our legs were screaming in protest- but we had made it.
Day 3, miles- 40.
Grand total- 95 miles.
In conclusion? Well, we did successfully manage just under 100miles over the 2.5 days, in spite of all the niggles and issues that tripped us up at every turn. We didn’t make it to our planned destination, but we did get to experience stealth camping in the Welsh countryside, test our equipment and our endurance. We definitely learnt a fair few things from the experience- not to put our kit in the trailer with Theo, for example, and the importance (!!!) of regular breaks and organising activities, or finding places to take Theo during the day to burn off steam. We need to ensure we don’t expect too much of ourselves or become overly ambitious with the mileage we hope to do each day- and we take time to appreciate what we’re doing, rather than focusing too much on simply getting from A to B.
There are many, many more lessons to be learnt- and a lot more training to be done. But at least we’re one step closer.