For many, Wales is close by and easily accessible, particularly by train. So why look further afield for your next cycle touring when you’ve got such wonderful riding country on your doorstep. Richard Barrett sets out five reasons to put Wales high on your to-do list.
1 Wales is another country
Although they had to swear allegiances to the English kings, until the Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, Wales was ruled over by Welsh princes or Marcher lords. So as a country with a defined administrative border, it is still fewer than 500 years old. However, until the National Assembly for Wales was created in September 1997, it was effectively totally governed by the UK government based in Westminster and it was not until the Welsh population voted in favour of devolution in 2006 that the Welsh Parliament based in Cardiff was granted powers to create its own legislation and vary taxation.
Then there is its language. I live within a couple of miles of the Welsh border and as I cycle around my local area, I am constantly aware of how places names rapidly change from English to Welsh as I ride deeper into Wales. About 20 per cent of Welsh school pupils receive a Welsh-medium education with the entire syllabus delivered in Welsh, but even in English-medium schools, Welsh is a compulsory curriculum subject up to GCSE level. As a result, you are likely to hear Welsh spoken wherever you go. So rather than automatically looking towards Europe or further afield when you’re planning your next tour, think Wales – it’s a separate country with a distinctive culture.
However, you do need to be prepared for some very strange anomalies. Despite being in remote west Wales, the inhabitants of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire are more likely to speak English than their immediate neighbours, and the region is sometimes referred to as Little England beyond Wales. When historians started to study this linguistic division in the early 20th century, they used the Anglo-Saxon word landsker (visible boundary) to describe the phenomenon that is reflected in local place names. At the bottom of the hill you’re riding through the very English-sounding Newgale; while at the top you’re in Penycwm – and the transition happened in half a mile. The area within the Landsker Line includes 50 castles and strongholds built and garrisoned by the Normans and Flemish soldiers in the 11th and 12th centuries to protect the communities who settled there to take advantage of the good agricultural land between the rocky coastline and the Preseli Hills. Evidence of this settlement persists, and a genetic study in 2005 revealed marked differences in the DNA profiles of inhabitants on opposite sides of the Landsker Line, with the 2011 census finding a far smaller proportion of Welsh speakers in the area to its south.
Maelor, to the east of Wrexham in north Wales, is another part of the country with a decidedly English feel. It became divided from Wales when Offa's Dyke was constructed in the eighth century and became part of the Kingdom of Mercia, only to be reclaimed by Madog ap Maredudd of Kingdom of Powys in the 12th century. It has been part of Wales ever since but its place names, such as Overton, Penley and Bettisfield, remain entirely English. However, the preponderance of Welsh flags on display when I cycled through Maelor during the World Cup of 2018 suggests its population are in no doubt as to their nationality.
2 It’s just over there on the left
For much of the UK population Wales is remarkably close. Many cyclists will happily add an extra day or two to either end of their tour and make use of the National Cycle Network (NCN) and ride to Wales and back, effectively starting their holiday as soon as they step out of their front door.
But others from further afield, and those pressed for time, will undoubtedly need another form of transport. Unless you are riding in a big group or on a tandem, the easiest way to get to Wales is by train. You will need to make a reservation for your bike on busy mainline services, but once there you will soon find that it is easy to get around with your bike on services within Wales. That makes it an ideal destination for long weekends and mini-tours venturing into parts of the country that you have yet to explore.
3 Make it as long or as short as you want
The most famous touring route in Wales is undoubtedly Lôn Las Cymru, which runs from Cardiff or Chepstow to Holyhead, giving 250 miles or so of very varied terrain right through the heart of Wales. I explored that route in the Cicerone guidebook Cycling Lôn Las Cymru, which was first published in 2018, offering schedules from four to seven days. In the recently published Cycle Touring in Wales, I describe a complete 657-mile circuit of Wales following the coastline and the border, which is perfect for a two-week trip, plus six cross routes that can be used to create shorter loops. There are numerous shorter tours described in the guidebook, such as a 144-mile tour around North Wales and Snowdonia, which could be done over a long weekend and is easily accessible by taking the train to Wrexham or Chester. Alternatively, if you want something longer that is easily accessible by train in southern Wales, how about a 232-mile tour along the easy-rolling south coast, (much of which is on shared used path) to Carmarthen and back along the waymarked Cycle across the Beacons trail to Abergavenny and a train home.
4 It has great countryside that changes rapidly
In a straight line it’s only 130 miles from north to south and just 110 miles from west to east, but Wales manages to pack in many different types of terrain, which change rapidly. On the eastern side are the rolling hills of the Marcher country along the border. But as you turn along the south coast you encounter the fen country of the Wentloog Levels between Newport and Cardiff, then an interesting section where industry meets what is essentially a Jurassic coastline, before swinging northwest along the estuaries of Afon Tywi and Afon Taf and onwards towards the rocky cliffs of Pembrokeshire.
It’s the same inland. In the morning you can be following Lôn Ystwyth (NCN 81) along the course of an old railway track that takes you gently up into hills, only to pop out on open moorland and through the remains of lead mines before dropping down through the reservoirs of the Elan Valley to Rhayader. In my experience, such a rapidly changing variety of different terrains is rarely encountered either in mainland Europe or elsewhere in the UK and it makes for interesting riding.
5 There’s plenty to see
Wales is famous for its castles; both those built by Welsh princes, such as the magnificent Carreg Cennen Castle, which is spectacularly set on a limestone crag at the western end of the Brecon Beacons, and those known collectively as the ‘Ring of Iron’ in North Wales, which were commissioned by Edward I to gain control over his newly conquered territories.
But the other iconic buildings of Wales are its chapels, and you will see hundreds of examples while cycling through the country. Up until the Toleration Act 1689 was passed, it was illegal for dissenters to meet for worship, so many congregations met secretly in remote houses and barns. But from the end of the 17th century until the early 20th century, congregations built around 10,000 chapels, often financing their construction with loans that took decades to pay off. Initially, the chapels were quite plain, but once the congregations started to commission architects, the chapels began to reflect the height of fashion, particularly during the later Victorian era when it became quite common to amalgamate all manner of architectural influences into ornate gable end walls. Some chapels still maintain a thriving congregation, but the majority have been converted for residential or commercial use, such as Libanus Chapel in Borth, which has been turned into a cinema and bistro. I enjoyed a wonderful lunch of local mackerel when I cycled through in 2018. Others stand empty and strangely silent, waiting for someone to rescue them from creeping dereliction and potential demolition.
I doubt if I’ll ever tire of riding around Wales, which is very convenient as, living near the railway station in Chester, I can hop on an early train and be almost anywhere in the country before most folk have had their first morning coffee. Despite writing two Cicerone guidebooks about Wales, there is still a lot to explore. First there are parts, such as Anglesey and the Llyn Peninsula, which were omitted the overall circuit of Cycle Touring in Wales as they would have made it too long for most folk to pack into a two-week schedule. These offshoots are included as optional detours, though.
Then there are the industrial valleys of South Wales. They may not seem like a must-do touring destination, but are continually fascinating if you’re at all interested in industrial heritage, contain some wonderful countryside above the valley bottoms and have the highest density of traffic-free, shared-use paths in the UK, most of which follow the track of railways that once carried coal and iron ore down to the coast. But while cycling along the valley bottoms is remarkably easy, climbing from one valley over into the next can be challenging. However, progress is slowly being made on reopening five former railway tunnels that ran under the hills between the valleys as cycling and walking routes. Once this is done, it will much improve the area’s appeal and I can foresee the area becoming a magnet for cycle tourists.
But if you prefer your cycling to be wild rather than urban, there is the sparsely populated area of the Cambrian Mountains bounded to the west by Afon Teifi and the east by Afon Tywi. Victorian travel writers often called them the ‘green desert of Wales’. I’ve yet to go there but I’m really looking forward to rolling hills, steep valleys clothed with ancient oaks and mile after mile of great cycling along narrow roads with little traffic. What’s more, it’s only 3½ hours for me by train to Llanwrtyd Wells on its eastern boundary and the ticket costs a mere £22.50 with a senior railcard. Other than the endless leisure time to go off touring, such concessions are one of the very few benefits of being a pensioner!