Caerphilly to Solva
I was keen to get going in the morning, knowing I had my longest day at 137 miles. The night before I had wheedled and whined to persuade the owner to get up early enough to provide a cooked breakfast (“So long as you don’t want sausages – they take a bloody age to cook!”) for 07:00.
Eating was becoming difficult. Forcing down the calories was a chore. As I ground my way through a huge bowl of muesli I considered that the day could have been a lot longer than 137 miles – over 20 miles longer. Something had gone wrong in the planning and I had ended up booking this and the next B&B about 160 miles apart. It could have been a disaster but looking at the map I noticed that Route 4 stuck to the coast on the last stretch between Carmarthen and St David’s, passing through Tenby and Pembroke Dock. Instead I allowed Google to route me from Carmarthen, saving just over 20 miles. Google had done a good job of routing me from Land’s End to John O’Groats and I was confident it wouldn’t let me down here. To make sure I covered the whole Sustrans route from side to side I was going to follow Route 4 back from St David’s to Carmarthen on my return.
Despite it being excellently cooked I almost had to force the Welsh breakfast (which looked surprisingly like a Full English) down. I was reaching the point of fatigue where it is hard to stomach food at all but I had got the poor owner up to cook it and I needed the fuel so down it went.
Even with the lack of sausage it took a while to plough through breakfast and I was only on the road by 07:30. Despite being gloriously sunny it was surprisingly cold with a brisk wind raising goose bumps on my arms and legs.
“You’ll freeze in this wind,” the troll informed me. “You’ll use up what little energy you have left trying to keep warm.”
“Bog off troll. I’ll warm up once I get going.”
“True, true. All those hills. You’ll probably be sweating and swearing in a few minutes. For the next 15 hours or so.”
“It won’t take that long, not with this tailwind,” I insisted.
“That could change any minute. It might be a headwind in an hour, then you’ll be buggered.”
“Best I get as far as possible before it does then!” I said, swinging a leg over the bike.
“Look,” wheedled the troll, “we passed Caerphilly Railway Station last night. It’s literally at the end of the road, less than a ¼ mile away. It’s nice and warm on the train. Comfy too…”
Stoically I cycled off in the opposite direction and after a few hundred metres joined a cycle path. By the time I got there I was shivering so stopped to put on my arm and leg warmers. For the uninitiated, these are essentially tubes of thick Lycra material that you pull on to cover skin exposed by shorts and short sleeves. They are very useful to moderate temperature through a long day’s ride. This was the first time on the whole trip that I had needed them, despite some early starts and late finishes.
The extra warmth kept the troll at bay as the path gently descended for 6 miles into Pontypridd. I was glad the troll wasn’t around because I managed to get a little lost in Pontypridd. I had to back track several times before finding my way out, over the Rhondda River and then up the biggest hill of the tour so far. In total I climbed 200 vertical metres in about 2 km. That’s an average gradient of 10% but in places the slope touched 17%. It was a tough test for legs that were shot after so many miles of dirt track in the previous two days, especially with the weight of my saddlebag dragging me backwards. At the steepest point my gear slipped and I lost what little forward momentum I had, forcing me to a stop. I walked the hill until it levelled out to a more manageable 10% and tried again. But first I lifted the back wheel and turned over the crank to change up a couple of gears so there was no risk of slipping.
“Ha! Hills, hills, hills and now you can’t use your bottom two gears! Seriously, go home!” came a voice from below waist level. The troll was clinging to my leg for some reason. Frowning I remounted the bike, throwing my encumbered leg over, hoping to fling the troll as far away from me as possible. He clung on and sank his teeth deep into my calf.
I swore through gritted teeth as the cramp took hold. Sucking in deep breaths I tried to relax my muscles as they instinctively clenched in pain. After an hour or so the pain subsided and I risked winching my leg back over the bike, lowering the bike to the ground as far as possible so I didn’t have to swing it too high. Reaching down I yanked the troll form my leg and hurled him across the road. Ignoring his protests I started to hobble up the hill.
The walk stretched out my calf and hamstring and by the time I reached the top the cramp was a dull ache. Not having a troll chewing on it probably helped. Gingerly I eased my leg back over the bike once more and set off, pushing harder with my undamaged left leg.
Even after the exertion of the climb I couldn’t get warm on the narrow road between Pontypridd and Tonyrefail. I was tempted to put on my rain jacket as an extra layer but the road was bucking up and down and I didn’t want to get too sweaty, that would end up chilling me even more.
Despite my discomfort the road was idyllic and virtually traffic free and by the time I pedalled into Tonyrefail I had covered 14 miles. The route out of town was another steep climb and after several warning signs I decided to walk rather than risk my legs cramping up again.
“You can’t keep walking up every hill you come to. You’ve got an enormous distance to cover today. You’re never going to make it!” piped the troll.
“It isn’t much slower than the pace I was managing on the bike,” I pointed out. “Anyway, it helps to stretch out my muscles.”
“Well, I’ve been looking on the tablet and there’s a branch line nearby. The route passes really close to Tondu Station and…”
Fortunately the top of the hill arrived before he could tempt me further.
Having pushed all the way up the hill I was confronted with a dirt track. It was very rough but thankfully was heading back downhill, so I only had to concentrate on steering. After a few hundred metres the dirt track transformed to a traffic free tarmac path through a beautiful valley. It was a glorious descent that continued for 6 miles all the way to Brynmenyn, on the outskirts of Bridgend.
Another stiff climb took me out of town. I ignored the troll’s attempts to draw my attention to the sign for Tondu Station and joined another cycle path, which led 4 miles into Kenfig Hill where I had to stop to load the next part of the route on my Garmin.
Once out of town I rode over one more single sharp tooth and joined the A48 for a mile. Normally I am quite happy to leave busy main roads but this one had a good, separate cycle path the traffic, and, more importantly, had provided the flattest mile of cycling so far that day. Before me stretched a lane heading up another steep incline. I would have been tempted to stick on the A48 but the cycle path terminated there and I certainly didn’t fancy the main carriageway.
A mile of climbing brought me to a strange gate system. There were two heavy iron gates set in tall stone walls that opened into each other, a bit like the doors in the B&B back in London. You had to open one, step in and close it before opening the second to escape the other side. The trouble was the gap between them was too small for the bike and the gates where too tall to lift it over. I struggled a bit and finally squeezed the bike through, tipped up on its back wheel with me crushed up against the wall, trying to swing the heavy gates. A bizarre obstacle for a national cycle route.
On the other side was a very pleasant cycle through Margam Castle Country Park, with its abandoned industrial buildings and flowering rhododendrons running rampant through the grounds. On the flat land between me and the sea there was a sprawl of industrial buildings with chimneys blasting clouds of water vapour into the otherwise clear azure sky. By now I had warmed up and I removed my arm and leg warmers and enjoyed the sun on my skin as I descended for a mile and a half through the park to exit onto the A48 again via another set of double gates.
Route 4 followed the A48 over the M4 and then for about a mile before heading off through a mix of residential streets and industrial areas towards Port Talbot. Before reaching the town the route veered away towards the coast, past the docks. Crossing the River Afan on a closed road the route followed a path along the river, with views back over the industrialised zone to the hills I had cycled through. It had a definite feel of an area past its prime, falling into decay and disuse.
The path was tarmacked but covered with patches of windblown sand. In places it was quite deep and resulted in a fair bit of slipping and skidding on narrow tyres and I had to keep my wits about me not to fall. Fortunately the strong tailwind kept me moving without having to put too much force through the pedals, which would have resulted in wheel spins due to poor traction.
Rounding the corner I discovered where all the sand had come from. Before me stretched mile after mile of golden sandy beaches, all around Swansea Bay, as far as the eye could see. It was a breath taking sight and one that filled me with hope for it was very flat. There was a hip hop bird who seemed very happy too. He was break dancing, spinning around on his back and his head in the sand. Very bizarre.
The cycle along the seafront was a little sketchy because the sand was even deeper here. It was making a real effort to reclaim the path and in a couple of places I climbed off and pushed rather than risk an embarrassing, slow speed fall. It was with mixed feelings therefore, that I turned away from the seafront as the route picked up roads leading back to the A48 and on to the A483. The roads were surprisingly quiet but I kept to the cycle path alongside anyway. They were good quality and I was getting tired and not up to concentrating 100%. It was not exactly inspiring cycling but with a tailwind it was relatively easy going for my tired legs. Right at that point I would not have objected overly if it had stayed like that for the next 90 miles to the end of the day.
My mind wandered into meaningless thought with the monotony but was brought back to alertness by a sign pointing the direction to the Amazon. I hadn’t realised the Amazon was between Port Talbot and Swansea. Of course it wasn’t the jungly type of Amazon, it was the online shopping type. Most businesses don’t warrant their own road directions. Amazon even had their own road – Ffordd Amazon. But then the warehouse (or ‘Fulfilment Centre’, as they like to call it) is massive. At 800,000 square feet it is the size of 11 football pitches.
After 7 miles predominantly alongside the busy roads the route cut back to the sea front, just before entering Swansea. Avoiding the road crossing of the River Tawe it followed the east bank for half a mile before crossing a footbridge to the west bank. Then, rounding the Maritime Quarter, on the corner between the river and the sea, I came upon my first Welsh flag, ripping and snapping in the stiff breeze. My heart lifted, not least because it indicated a continuing tailwind, perhaps the only thing that was keeping my legs going. Despite a few miles of flat they were feeling extremely fatigued and I knew the flat would not last forever. The profile was supposed to be pretty jagged for the last 60 miles or so and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
But that was later. Right now I was being unexpectedly delighted by Swansea. I had been expecting some grubby post-industrial seascape, a bit like the area around Port Talbot, but was surprised to find a bright, colourful scene that struck me as more Scandinavian than Welsh. [It might not look Scandinavian at all but that’s the impression it left on me with my, possibly entirely incorrect, set of mental images.]
The cycle path was broad and flat, running alongside 3 miles of sandy beach. Dotted by the side of the path were various items of outdoor gym equipment, the type that relies on your own body weight for resistance. A few kids were having a go but I have to admit that I wasn’t tempted.
The sun was still beaming down on me, as it had been since the beginning of the trip four days before. I was developing a typical cyclist’s tan, brown from wrist to biceps and ankle to lower thigh and white everywhere else. I even had a brown oval on the back of each hand where there was a gap in my cycling mitts.
Cycling constantly east to west the sun was always hanging in the sky to my left and I amused myself by wondering if I was going to end up with my left side tanned more than my right. It would be quite funny but I guessed the tan would even out on the way back.
All good things must come to an end (as must all bad things) and the route turned away from the seafront. Before leaving I stopped to look back to see where I had come from. I could see the whole curve of the bay I had been cycling around since dropping down out of the hills through the Margam Castle Country Park 18 miles back and wondered exactly where it was. Not being familiar with the local landscape it was impossible to tell but it looked an awfully long way.
“Yeah, and you’ve still got another 85 miles to cycle before you can stop for the night. That’s, five times that distance. Look at it. Soak it in. Go and get on a train.”
I didn’t get on a train but I did get on a railway line – an old one that had been tarmacked and converted to a cycle path. It was going uphill and, for a railway line, fairly steeply. It rose steadily through a wooded landscape which, whilst pleasant, blocked most of the tailwind. After so many wind assisted, flat miles it was a rude shock to the legs and I started to give real credence to the troll’s cajolings. But the gradient was constant and I soon found a new, slower rhythm. Before long I was even considering that if the last 80 odd miles were all like this then I would take it over a series of nasty, sharp, jagged hills.
That said, after 2½ miles of constant climb I was glad when the path first levelled out and then started descending at a similar gradient. The 2 ½ miles of down was considerably faster and exited me at Gowerton. Had I a map, I would have known that the cycle path had brought me almost right across the neck of the Gower Peninsula. A couple more miles of roads and paths and I had completed the job, crossing the River Loughor on the A484 road bridge.
Leaving the A484 immediately after the bridge a path looped around and then plunged downhill over the road on a cycle bridge. The bridge bed was laid with loosely fitted railway sleepers that made an initially terrifying and then deeply satisfying rumbling BRRRRR! as I hammered across them and on down to the coast.
My mind and body were pretty shot by then but if memory serves the path was all tarmacked (if not, the surface was good or it would have warranted a note) as it twisted and turned along the coast to Llanelli. From there it picked up the Millennium Coastal Path to Burry Port, 10 miles closer to my destination.
In Burry Port the condition of the path nose-dived. It went from truly excellent to decidedly dodgy in an instant. For a mile or so the path became grass and mud, flooded in one place despite days without rain, before reaching tarmac once more: a farm track lead to gradually broadening roads into Kidwelly.
The route started to go up and down along the tiny, single tack lane from Kidwelly, along the coast. My legs began to protest and the troll was keen to point out that these bumps were a mere prelude for what was to come. I was able to shrug off the suggestion of a train at Ferryside simply because it looked like a two trains a day type of station. But shortly after the road turned majorly upward forcing me to gain 150 metres in altitude in just over a mile. The bigger hills were upon me.
Of course the good thing about going uphill is that there is invariably a downhill to compensate. This was an ideal one being shallower but longer than the ascent, meaning I could appreciate watching the metres tick away for longer without much effort. In fact I have always found it a good mental exercise on uphills to view the effort being put in as stored energy rather than lost energy, for when you reach the top you can draw it all back out on the way down the other side.
On the way down I passed Carmarthen Railway Station and the troll started nagging again. Fortunately I was going down so not swearing at the time and, as I pointed out, it was too late in the day to get a train home. I would be better off finishing the day and worrying about such things tomorrow now.
Joining the A484 once again the troll was grumbling so much I decided to stop at McDonald’s and cheer him up with a Big Mac. I think what cheered him up the most though was pointing out that it was 16:40 and we still had nearly 50 miles to go. That meant we had covered about 90 miles in roughly 9 hours so, at 10 mph, we still had 5 hours more cycling. It might be almost dark by the time we finished.
From McDonald’s I was leaving Route 4 and starting the route Google had selected between Carmarthen and my finish point in Solva, a few miles short of St David’s. I was concerned that it seemed to be directing me straight towards a very busy roundabout. Just before I entered it I spotted a path below me on my left and realised I must have missed a turn. I stopped and manoeuvred onto the verge, backtracked a little and then plunged down the bank to the path. I felt relieved to be on a safe path rather than the busy dual carriageway and followed it under one of the arteries feeding the roundabout. The path then climbed and re-joined the dual carriageway, which beyond the roundabout was now the A40.
There was no cycle path. The best the road had to offer was a thin strip of tarmac on the side with the dubious protection of a solid white line. The line was ridged so that it would cause straying car wheels to vibrate to warn drowsy drivers they were about to drive off the road. It was not reassuring. With no map and no option I pedalled onward, hoping that the route would steer me off of the A40 as soon as possible.
5 miles later I was cursing Google for their bloody stupid choice of routes and remembering that there had been stretches like this on Google route for Land’s End to John O’Groats. I had forgotten because I had rerouted all the dodgy bits to create a much safer route and had subsequently ridden that, thus temporarily erasing the bad Google bits.
“You should have listen to me in Carmarthen. I bet there would have been a train. Now you’ll never know because you will be dead.”
“Not bloody helpful, troll!”
After 7 miles I was panicking. It was now after 17:00 and the weight of traffic was becoming severe with the onset of rush hour. Then a side road appeared, paralleling the dual carriageway and with a surge of relief I cycled away from the hurtling death screaming along the road. For about 200 metres, where after I was dumped back onto the A40.
I couldn’t take it and left at the very next junction, vowing to follow quieter roads that were going in the right direction. The first one came to a dead end meaning I had to backtrack all the way to the start. The next climbed steeply and then descended to deposit me back onto the A40. The best I had done was to avoid a nasty roundabout and on the plus side the A40 was no longer a dual carriageway. Except that this was not a positive. There seemed to be almost as much traffic but there was no longer even the questionable protection of that narrow strip of tarmac on the side. I was in with the traffic and it had no extra carriageway to negotiate its way past me.
I prayed for the route to leave the A40 and kept a frantic eye out for alternatives. I managed a couple of sections away from the frenzy but on each occasion I was led back towards it. There seemed to be no option to the A40. Perhaps that was why Route 4 kept to the coast.
Whilst the road had been rolling up and down since I joined it at Carmarthen it was only after 16 miles that I hit my first major climb. It had me crawling along for the longest two miles of the trip so far. It is bad enough going at my normal cycling pace with fast traffic trying to overtake but at a virtual standstill I felt particularly vulnerable, knowing that I couldn’t afford to meander even a few inches.
Eventually I hauled myself over the top but I am not sure if the descent was worse. I had a lot more speed but it was too much too keep in close to the side of the road. On the other hand it was a lot less than the cars that were still trying to come by.
By the time I reached a second major hill I had cracked. As I laboured up, cars tearing by, I negotiated a deal with the troll to find a railway station once we had reached St David’s and was on the cusp of trading my soul for a way off the road when one appeared. I turned off and was overjoyed to see that my route followed me: it had finally left the A40 after 26 miles.
The one positive about being on the A40 was speed. It was now 18:10 so it had only taken me an hour and a half since leaving the McDonald’s in Carmarthen. That meant I had averaged 17 mph and if I could manage 11 mph for the last 22 miles I could be finished in another 2 hours.
Fuelled with positive energy at leaving the A40 I pushed on. After the frenetic pace of the A40, the single track lanes through woodlands were sublime. They gave way to slightly wider lanes on the approach to Haverfordwest but when the route joined the A4076 I kept to the pavement, even though the traffic was light. Within a mile I left that main road for smaller roads that began to climb once more.
My legs were on their limit and screaming for a stop when the hill finally peaked and sent me plummeting down all the way to the beach. I was almost there now, just another 9 miles to go. But I knew from cycling the coast in Cornwall that 9 miles could mean a lot of hills.
As if reading my mind the road began climbing almost the moment it hit the beach. Up, up it went, almost climbing back as far as I had just descended, only to tip over and dive back down to the beach once more.
There was a little more respite this time with a couple of hundred metres of flat before the final big push up of the day. And that is exactly what it was – a big push. The hill was far too steep for my raddled legs to cope with, especially without my bottom two gears. It was almost too steep to walk. I stopped several times to catch my breath but once at the top it was an easy cruise into Solva.
Once there I had to find the B&B. Solva was a small place but there was no sign of a B&B anywhere. Eventually I found it, off the road, the only access being through the car park of the pub between it and the road.
Even when I had found it access proved difficult. The rooms were above a café and the entrance was up a narrow flight of stone steps. Leaving the bike at the bottom I ascended and rang the bell. No answer. I opened the door and entered, calling out. No response. I walked in and looked around. There was no one about. I went upstairs. Vacant. Returning downstairs I was confronted by an elderly Australian couple asking what I was up to. I explained that I had a room booked and they relaxed. They were guests but said that they had only seen the owners once because they didn’t live on site. They retired to their own room leaving me wondering what to do.
I did the obvious thing and called the owner. Or at least I tried to but I had no mobile signal. Whilst wandering up and down the passage trying to find a signal I noticed that the door to one of the rooms was ajar. Peeking in I couldn’t help thinking what a nice room it was, with a magnificent view over the bay. With no one to tell me otherwise I decided that it must be mine.
Returning outside I hauled my bike inside and tucked it neatly in a corner behind one of the beds, greasy cogs to the wall so it couldn’t cause any damage.
Wondering how I was going to let my wife know I was still alive I explored a little more and found a large kitchen area with a Wi-Fi access code pinned to a board. I retrieved the tablet and connected up. Unfortunately there was only access in the kitchen, not the rooms, so I had to Skype from there. Then I typed a very short blog before returning to my room to carry out the rest of the evening routines.
Really long tough day. Only the tailwind got me here I think. Too late and too tired to type much else. Weather again glorious but really cold in the wind for the first three hours. Welsh coast mighty fine but very steep hills.
Spent most of the day fantasising about getting on a train home. Only a few miles to St David’s first thing tomorrow and then need to make a decision to carry on cycling home or find the nearest railway station. The reality is I am not fit enough for the trip. So tired…
Day 5 Statistics
Av heart rate:
Day 5a Elevation Profile
Note: This section cover the distance between the start and Kenfig Hill. The two longest hills are those I walked partially up. The long descent was on a beautiful valley path, tarmacked apart from the first few hundred metres.
Day 5b Elevation Profile
Note: Kenfig Hill to the finish in Solva. The last 55 miles (90km) were particularly vicious on legs that had been going for 5 days (and weren’t even very good at the beginning).