Like all of us, my cyclist friend John had been exploring his local lanes during lockdown, and he suggested I might like to join him in Ammanford for a few days' cycling. I thought it would be fun to ride there and back on the trike and meet up with a few other friends along the way. The nights I was not staying with friends I would find a quiet spot near the road and sleep in a bivvy bag, which would be less trouble than a tent and more flexible than being constrained by official camp sites. It would also be a good way to avoid being indoors with other people while the Delta variant was surging across the country.
Saturday 3rd July: Cambridge - Oxford
I have cycled from Cambridge to Oxford twice before. The first time, I used Richard’s Cambridge & Oxford cycle route. This is a nice route on quiet lanes, but it crosses the A1 dual carriageway near Sandy and I didn’t want to repeat that experience. The other time I was carrying camping gear and decided to do the route in two stages, with an overnight at a campsite near Aylesbury. This time, I would do it in one day using a route of my own devising, and cross the A1 using the bridge between Edworth and Langford.
I had intended to be on the road by 8am, but was running 45 minutes late by the time I was packed and ready to go. It had been raining earlier that morning, but by now the rain had cleared so I set off in the dry.
I stopped to eat a sandwich on the outskirts of Ampthill, and again for a snack in Woburn. Although there were clouds in the sky the rain did not return, and I found myself stopping to apply sun block.
The final stop was in Soulbury, where I brewed some tea.
I lived in Oxford from 1999-2008 and cycled regularly with Oxford CTC for much of that time, so shortly after the halfway mark I started to recognize places we would reach on rides from Oxford. My memory of the roads was hazy after all this time, so I was still relying on the Garmin for navigation. It got me almost to my destination, but the battery gave out about a mile from the end; fortunately by then I knew where I was and easily found my way to Tony and Gordon’s, where I’d be staying for three nights.
Sunday I had a restful day, spending the afternoon in the garden with Tony and Gordon where we were joined by another friend. On Monday, Tony loaned me his electric bike to ride into town where I was meeting Alex for a walk on Christchurch Meadow, then later Bob and Andrew for lunch. In the afternoon I rode to Tim and Ana’s in Iffley village; I had lodged with them for 7 years and we had a good catch-up over tea in the garden.
Tuesday 6th July: Oxford - Chepstow
I was well rested by now and ready for the next leg of the journey. Tony made me breakfast and a sandwich to carry for lunch, and I was ready to set off shortly after 8am.
There was a lot of rain forecast today, but in the event it never came to much - a few drops here and there, but not enough to warrant a waterproof. I stopped by the preaching stone in Down Ampney (birthplace of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) to eat my sandwich and make some tea.
I had arranged to meet John on the Severn Bridge (“We can’t miss each other there,” he had said), and called him to give an ETA when I was a few miles away.
John was waiting on the bridge as planned, and we cycled into Chepstow together to eat at a pub. By now it was cold and windy and threatening rain, so I conceded to eat indoors. It was a big pub and not too busy, and I enjoyed a rest and a good meal before we set off up the hill for our first night in the woods. By now the rain had materialized, and I had my first experience of camping in a bivvy bag in the rain.
Wednesday 7th July: Chepstow - Deri
I had had a restless night and woke early with a slug crawling across my face. I packed up and got the trike back onto the forest road. John had pitched his tent nearby but was still sleeping, so I went for a short walk in the woods to kill some time.
Despite John’s late rising, we were underway shortly after 7am with a steady climb to Usk, descending into the town before any cafes had opened, so I had breakfast from the Co-op.
There is a series of valleys north of Cardiff, and John had devised a crazy route “Across the valleys” that would traverse them in a straight line from east to west, with lots of climbing:
He had added an extra loop just after Pontypool, with a stiff climb we later named “the hill too far”. It was too steep in places for the loaded trike, with the rear wheel spinning on the damp road surface, and I had to get off to push several times. It didn’t help that I had had a long ride the previous day and slept badly: that first real hill of the day nearly finished me off!
When we finally got to the top, John noticed that he had lost a brake block on the way up. He had had to replace a brake block earlier in the trip, but was only carrying one spare so had used a left-hand block in the right-hand calliper. This meant it did not clip in properly, and if the front wheel rolled backwards while the brake was engaged it would slide out. Off he went back down the hill (on foot) to look for it. This gave me plenty of time to rest at the top and admire the view. Some time later he returned brandishing the missing brake block which, by some miracle he had found a mile back. The missing-and-later-found brake block would occur twice more on the trip.
The experience of this climb made us change our plans: the slow progress meant we wouldn’t reach the camping spot near Treharris that John had planned, we would just have to plod on and see how far we got. We ended the day in the hills between Deri and Treharris; while we were scouting for a good place to camp, some teenagers turned up in cars and started chasing sheep across the grassy hilltop. We backtracked half a mile or so the way we had come to make camp by a wall a few feet from the roadside. It was a quiet road and, once the last few cars had passed, we spent the night undisturbed.
Thursday 8th July: Deri - Ammanford
Rather than continue with John’s “Across the valleys” route, we made the pragmatic decision to take the cycle path on a disused railway line up the Cynon Valley, then follow a more sensible (flatter!) route to Ammanford.
We stopped for lunch at an outside table at a cafe in Aberdare; I had fish and chips while John had an all-day breakfast. It turned out to be a bargain, at just £14 for the two meals.
The valleys of South Wales were at one time mined for coal and had railway lines running up them to serve the mines. These now form an excellent network of cycle paths. Unfortunately, they are all inaccessible to tandems, cargo bikes, and trikes thanks to a selection of narrow A-frame gates, sharp chicanes, and kissing gates. I remember from a trip to wales almost 20 years ago that some of the gates are even too narrow for a two-wheeled bicycle with full panniers (shortly after that trip I resigned my Sustrans membership in protest). My protest did no good: these cycle paths are still inaccessible. This meant we had to keep stopping, unloading the trike, and lifting it over obstacles, then loading up again before setting off towards the next gate. It took two of us to lift and manoeuvre the trike, so this route would have been impossible had I been on my own.
Finally we arrived in Ammanford, where I was grateful to get to John’s house with the promise of a bed for a few nights and a rest day tomorrow.
Saturday 10th July: Llandeilo and Brynaman
Well rested and on an unloaded trike, today we did a circular ride from Ammanford taking in a couple of ancient monuments, Paxton’s Tower and Dryslwyn Castle.
John titled this route “50km to 500m” as there was a long climb at the end before one of the best descents of the trip. I managed this climb (albeit slowly) and enjoyed the fast descent (something the trike excels at).
Monday 12th July: Llanelli
The forecast for Sunday was for rain most of the day, while today should be dry, so we made Sunday a rest day and set out for another circular ride today. It was John’s birthday and I promised to treat him to lunch in Llanelli. Most of the route there was down another valley cycle path, but surprisingly this one was accessible: while there were still A-frame barriers in place, the barriers alongside had been removed leaving the cycle path open. Ironically today it didn’t matter as I had borrowed a two-wheeled cycle from John (clearly he had gotten fed up with the slow pace of my climbing on the trike). On this lightweight bike the hills today were no problem for me!
We stopped for lunch at a seafront cafe as planned, eating outside in a cool wind with occasional glimpses of sunshine. But shortly after we set off for home it started to rain properly and we had to stop to don waterproofs - it turned out wetter today than it had been yesterday, so much for the weather forecast!
John had also been looking forward to a birthday beer in Pontarddulais, but I was nervous about drinking indoors and the weather was not really nice enough to sit outside. Luckily I was saved by the only pub we found open serving nothing but John Smith’s, which is not suitable for everyday drinking let alone a birthday treat.
Instead we pressed on to Ammanford where I would buy scones, cream, jam, and Bara brith for a birthday tea when we arrived home, and some beer to share later in the evening.
Tuesday 13th July: Ammanford - Peterchurch
The first leg of the journey home would also be the day with the most climbing, as I had to cross the Brecon Beacons. John came with me for the first couple of miles to see me off on the right road out of town. Although there was a lot of climbing today, none of it was as steep as the “hill too far” and I was optimistic I would manage the climbs. About 6 miles into the ride, on a steep corner, there was a clunk and I realized my chain had snapped!
Thanks to some good advice from Simon I was carrying a chain tool and a quick link, so after removing the broken link was able to join the chain back together without too much trouble and was soon underway again. For the rest of the day I was afraid to push too hard on the pedals, and got off to push the trike up the steeper slopes rather than risk another break.
The route from Ammanford to Brecon was one of the nicest of the trip. Yes, there was a lot of climbing, but for the first time the roads were free of hedges and there were excellent views in all directions. I wasn’t carrying anything for lunch and hadn’t realized quite how far it would be to Brecon, so it was 3.30pm before I could stop for provisions. I shopped at Aldi for lunch, supper, and some emergency rations so I wouldn’t get caught out again tomorrow.
After lunch in Brecon I pressed on to Hay on Wye, arriving around 6pm and finding it something of a ghost town. I decided to carry on and do the first of tomorrow’s hills before stopping. Passing through Dorstone, I spotted a tap in the centre of the village and stopped to fill up my water bottles. Now I was keeping my eyes peeled for a likely spot to stay the night. Near Peterchurch I found an open gateway into a field with a flat patch of grass where I could bed down behind the hedge.
The last part of this ride is missing from the GPS track as the Garmin ran out of battery again.
Wednesday 14th July: Peterchurch - Winchcombe
The plan for today had been only to get as far as Tewkesbury, but as I had a head start thanks to the extra effort yesterday, I hoped to get a little farther. My route was mostly on minor roads, and like in Wales these roads climb up and down the sides of the valleys rather than taking the more obvious route of the major roads down the middle. It was hot today, making these climbs hard work.
I got a little lost in Hereford thanks to not paying enough attention to the map and found myself riding on a horrendous main road only to loop around back to where I had left the cycle path. A closer look at the map told me my mistake: although I needed to turn right, I had to follow the cycle path to the left to drop down and turn right under the bridge I had crossed in error. After rectifying this mistake the route out of Hereford was good and traffic-free.
I pressed on to Ledbury where I bought lunch and a Magnum ice cream, then onwards again to Tewkesbury. I saw on the map that I was near a cycle shop, so locked up the trike and went to look for it on foot. I was able to buy a replacement quick link, which made me much more relaxed about the possibility of the chain breaking again. The guy in the shop said “These are like gold dust, but then everything is these days.” Well, we all know about the current shortage of cycle components.
The next memorable town after Tewkesbury was Winchcombe, at the foot of the Cotswolds. I remembered from another cycle tour (where I rode from Tewkesbury to Oxford) that there was a big hill here, but I couldn’t remember whether Winchcombe was at the top or the bottom. It turned out to be at the bottom, and rather than tackle a climb first thing tomorrow I pressed on to the top: yes, it was as bad as I remembered! I didn’t go far after cresting the hill before stopping in a gateway for the night.
Thursday 15th July: Winchcombe - Greens Norton
After making good progress yesterday I had a shorter ride ahead of me today to my friend Jessie’s in Greens Norton. I woke early, and there being nothing better to do I packed up and was on the road shortly after 6am. The landscape was different now, with picture-postcard Cotswold villages, and it didn’t seem too long before I arrived in Chipping Campden. I bought a pack of 6 sausage rolls from the Co-op, still warm from the oven, and scoffed these for breakfast. I also bought a sandwich for lunch in case nothing better turned up.
I followed the B-road from Chipping Campden to Shipston-on-Stour, which turned out to be quite busy with traffic as 9am approached, but it was the most direct route and the good road allowed for faster progress. Around midday I pulled up by Boddington Reservoir where I brewed some tea and ate my sandwich. There was a fishing competition going on, but they didn’t seem to be catching much. After this brief lunch stop it was the final push to Greens Norton, where I arrived early afternoon and was able to wash off three days of grime then spend a relaxing afternoon in the garden drinking tea.
Jessie fed me well and gave me a comfortable bed for the night. setting me up nicely for tomorrow’s ride home to Cambridge.
Friday 16th July: Greens Norton - Cambridge
I could have stayed another night at Jessie’s, but I was keen to have a weekend at home before returning to work on Monday, and felt well enough rested after a night in a proper bed. Although it was another long ride, there was less climbing and the second half of the ride was on familiar roads. I passed through Harrold and Odell, which I remembered as a destination for some club rides. Not too long after that came St Neots and I knew I was nearly home!
Back Home Again!
The trike held up well, with just one mechanical (the broken chain), and this must have been my most comfortable cycle tour ever. There is no pressure on contact points, and you don’t expend any effort balancing the loaded trike, so the only impact of riding long distances is tired legs.
The panniers I used turned out to be a little too deep for the trike. Although it looks like there is plenty of clearance from the ground, when I added my weight to the trike it compressed the suspension leaving hardly any clearance; this meant the panniers would occasionally catch the ground when the road was uneven.
Then there were those inaccessible Welsh cycle paths: two decades on and they still have impossible barriers!
I also had some problems climbing steep hills, especially if the surface was wet or gravelly: I would lose traction and the rear wheel of the trike would just spin. Chunkier tyres would be needed to get up slopes much more than 20% or on rough surfaces.
Speaking of hills, another frustration with the minor roads is that you can’t take full advantage of the downhill stretches: the roads are narrow and twisty, and there is not enough visibility to descend safely at speed. Once I got back onto roads with two lanes it felt like I was getting better value for the climbing with some easy, fast descents.
This was also my first time camping with a bivvy bag. It worked well for wild camping, needing much less space than pitching a tent, making it much easier to find places to stay the night. It provided good Covid-safe accommodation, but nothing in the way of comfort.
Two weeks after setting off I was home in Cambridge, having cycled 589 miles and climbed 35,404ft. One of my friends on Facebook commented “That’s not a holiday!” and I’m inclined to agree: it was damned hard work at times. Wondering why I found it so gruelling (comfort of the trike aside), I realized that most of the cycle camping trips I’ve done on two wheels I have aimed to cover no more than 50 miles a day. Some legs of this trip were much longer than that.
All in all it was a good trip, and great to spend time with the friends I managed to meet along the way. But the best part was getting home.