Tour of North Wales
I had planned to tour from Grenoble this year, taking in Mont Ventoux along the way. Covid ruled that out. I was still keen, however, to get a trip in, all the more so given the limits that have applied. I opted in the end for Wales, although leaving it late to try to choose a place where the weather would be dry. I can confirm that forecasts beyond a few days are not reliable
Day 1 - Chester to Bala
I had travelled to Chester the previous day by train. I stayed in the Queen Hotel, opposite the station. Compared to the palaver of travelling by plane, having to build the bike and then get to the accommodation, it was a welcome change. Chester too stands up as an attractive town. I ate at Joseph Benjamin, which had a predominantly Spanish menu, although I had grilled mackerel. The place retained a good atmosphere despite the spacing adjustments.
The hotel provided a very poor breakfast in a bag left outside the door. It wasn’t so much the concept but the cheap contents which let it down. Setting out from Chester, the terrain is pretty flat. I was quickly into Wales, where it immediately became hillier, with the first proper climb of the tour on the Brymbo Road. The morning had been dry but there was a short downpour before I reached the Horseshoe Pass which reminded me that wet gear was an essential for this trip.
I would recommend avoiding the pass on weekends and bank holidays. The Ponderosa café was packed. I had endless numbers of mopeds pass me. There was also a lot of diesel on the road, which combined with the wet conditions made the descent a bit of a trial. I’m sure it would be a lot more attractive on a weekday.
After this, the ride picked up. An at times rough road follows the north bank of the river for ten miles to Corwen. There is a pretty pub at Carrog, the Grouse Inn, which has an outlook over the river.
After Corwen, the roads are smoother, following the south bank all the way to Bala. There is another good looking pub called the Bryntiron about five miles from the finish.
The town of Bala is set some way back from the lake. It is quite limited in what it has to offer. I stayed at the White Lion, which had a fairly single basic room but which was fine for my purposes. I ate at the Cyfnod Bistro, which had a typical Italian menu and again was perfectly adequate. All in all it was a pleasant, rather than an outstanding start to the trip.
Day 2 - Bala to Barmouth
Leaving Bala the next morning, I transitioned quickly from the largely gentle countryside of the day before to an altogether wilder environment. Less than a mile outside Bala, a narrow road is signposted to Lake Vyrnwy. There is five miles of fairly steady climbing, with a further, tougher one mile climb to reach the top. It is a very beautiful road, which one can see snaking its way to the pass, while sheep are grazing on what seem vertical slopes.
The descent to the lake is less dramatic but still enjoyable. When I reached the bottom, the right turning which would take me on my route was closed due to a landslide. Instead of riding half a mile, I had to ride around the lake to get back on track, adding about seven miles to the journey. I wasn’t entirely sure that the road I needed would be open, which caused me some anxiety. There is a café and visitor centre at the south end of the lake where I got a bit more reassurance. The eastern side of the lake is largely obscured by trees but the western side provides better views.
Thankfully, the road I needed, which would take me all the way to Dinas Maddwy, was open. This road joins up with Bwlch-y-Groes. Again, it was a beautiful road, climbing steeply for two miles, before easing to the junction. The road down is extremely steep. A cyclist coming up said he couldn’t grip the road. Given the damp conditions, I came down gingerly.
At Dinas Maddwy I had some lunch at the Crafty Café and met a fellow cyclist. As with the previous day, a quiet road followed north of the river through pleasant undulating countryside for around 13 miles, with very few cars. Joining the A493, the route became a lot busier and it also started to rain heavily. There were some fine views of the estuary but it was hard to ignore the rain beating into my face.
Aberdyfil looked like it might have promise on a sunny day but I just plugged on through it. Thankfully after Twynn, the rain eased and the route followed a cycle track and mainly minor roads for the rest of the journey into Barmouth. There are some great views of the sea and then finally a memorable entry into Barmouth itself across a wooden bridge which runs next to the railway track. It is not possible for cars to come this way.
I stayed at the Royal. Its a friendly pub but that doesn’t give much indication of how good the accommodation is. I had a very attractive and spacious room. Barmouth is a nice seaside town, with what looked a good beach. I ate at the Bank, which was the best restaurant on my stopovers outside Chester.
Day 3 - Barmouth to Caernarfon
Day three of the trip was not only the middle of the tour but also something of a watershed. The day started grey. I came away from the busy A road and climbed into the hills above Harlech for three and a half miles up to 1000ft. I’m sure there would be great views of the coast on a fine day but I could see about 50m in the mist. It was very damp.
After a bumpy descent on a rough road, there were some good views of the estuary at Port Madoc.
The rain came again on my way to Beddgelert, where I planned to stop. The place was full of people milling around. None of the cafés were open to sit down in to revive. I instead had to plump for standing up, eating a sandwich, with a take-away tea. I headed out of Beddgelert feeling colder than when I had arrived. A couple of miles into the climb out of the village, I was beginning to feel a bit miserable, at which I point I stopped to put on some long finger gloves and a hat.
It was amazing how much better I felt for getting comfortable. The rain eased off and I started the climb to Pen-y-Pass. There was enough visibility to see the grandeur of the mountains, which had an alpine feel. Remarkably when I reached the pass, the road on the western side was entirely dry. Even more remarkably, it didn’t rain for the remainder of the trip.
The descent from Pen-y-Pass is short but spectacular, the only road truly reminiscent of some of my European trips.
Passing through Llanberis, I stuck to the main road, which wasn’t busy, all the way into Caernarfon. I stayed at the Celtic Royal, a very large hotel, with an attractive lobby but otherwise very functional.
I had been to Caernarfon thirty years ago. I remembered, of course, the castle but I couldn’t recall how extensive its walls were or the great views of the Menai Strait. It is also striking as an enclave for the welsh language. My grandparents on my father’s side were native welsh speakers but my own father only spoke little, and on moving to England, I was not brought up to speak it at all. In Caernarfon, every young person I passed was speaking in welsh to their friends, so it feels like it is in very good health.
I hadn’t booked anywhere to eat and found the couple of restaurants I tried unable to accommodate me. I ended up eating outside the Black Boy Inn, having a very pubby lasagna. Had I to do it again, I would have booked Ty Castelli.
Day 4 – Caernarfon to Betwys-y-Coed
Rather than carry clothes for the full five days, I got my gear washed in a laundrette. I picked it up a ten, so had a later start than usual. After the first couple of miles of busy roads, the traffic thinned out on the way to Beddgelert and the sun shone. I suspect this road would be much busier on a weekend but on a Wednesday morning in September, it was a very pretty road to follow.
Once through Beddgelert, cars became even less frequent and the route got even better.
The finest road on the route, in my opinion, is coming out of Ffestiniog, climbing for five miles and then descending for seven – very long by UK standards. It was a gentle climb, taking in waterfalls and tarns, and sweeping views. The road was wide and well surfaced but empty.
Having reached the busy A5, a small road is signposted to Nebo and on to Llanwrst. There was virtually no traffic, with more sheep on the road than cars. Following a sharp descent into Llanwrst, I followed the western side of the river to Betws-y-Coed, on another quiet road.
After the best day of riding, where I had seen very few people, it was a bit of a shock to see how crowded Betws-y-Coed was. It’s a pretty place and like Beddgelert a honey-pot for tourism in the area. I stayed in the Hotel Afan which was expensive for what it offered. I ate at Olif, another restaurant offering Spanish food, although it would be unlikely to be recognised in Spain.
Day 5 = Betwys-y-Coed to Chester
I didn’t have particularly hight expectations of the return to Chester but apart from the last ten miles, there was to a lot to enjoy. I avoided the first few miles of the busy A5, by taking steep and rough roads the other side of the river. Having briefly ridden along the main road, I took the turn for Denbigh, which climbed gradually to the lake, Llyn Brenig. Whilst not as spectacular as the day before, it was a lovely road, which reminded me a little of the North Yorkshire Moors.
After reaching Prion, there was a very rough road, with lots of grass growing through it, which descended to the A525 – I would avoid had I known.
I knew I had one more tough climb to do before finishing but hadn’t researched the road in advance. It turned out to be Pembarra, which features in toughest UK climb articles and books. I slogged my way up the first half of it before hitting the hairpin which which registers at 25%. Laden down with panniers, there was no way I could manage that. I was grateful to manage to dismount my bike, rather than just topple over. The road was too steep to immediately get back on, so I pushed for a couple of hundred metres before riding the remainder. At the top of the pass, there was a car park which was surprisingly full, with lots of walkers using it.
After the quick descent, there was in fact one more very short climb through a beautiful wood just after the village of Maesfyn. With about ten miles to Chester to go, the beautiful lanes ran out, and I followed busy roads back to the city.
I arranged to stay at Edgar House, which is perched on the city walls overlooking the river, where my wife joined me. It is a lovely small hotel, with great attention to detail, which I would thoroughly recommend. We ate at the Sticky Walnut, which was also extremely good.
The UK and Wales, in particular, has notoriously unreliable weather. There is no getting around the fact that the dry conditions of the last couple of days greatly improved the trip, after the first wet days. There is also no avoiding that the UK is expensive compared to most countries and standards of accommodation and food are generally not as high, although the hotel and restaurant in Chester were excellent by any measure. I will not be abandoning my trips to Europe in favour of domestic tours. That said, this was a very enjoyable trip, with some breath taking scenery, and some genuinely interesting towns. In what has been a difficult year for everyone, staying in the UK was never going to be a sacrifice which would register and in fact turned into a trip to enjoy.