A Welshman, an Englishwoman and a Thai lady cycle across South Wales…

Caerphilly dragon
Caerphilly dragon

For some reason I assumed it would not be too hilly in South Wales. I was proven wrong.  After being lulled into a false sense of undulation by the easy crossing from England, and the lollop along to Newport, things started to look acclivitous…

The problem is the valleys – my husband, being a valley boyo from Bedwas, could of warned me. You would think the valleys peter out as they reach the sea, but no, they rear up in a last defiant roar… So after having a lovely time sitting under the Newport Transporter Bridge, ignoring my companions shrill voices urging me to ‘Come on up you Jessie’ and making more espresso coffee than is good for me, and after a scoot around the town and nearby Caerleon (superb) we set off over the valley ends to Caerphilly.

View down from on top of Newport transporter bridge
View down from on top of Newport transporter bridge

Coming around Newport from Caerleon, we used the quiet route along the 14 Locks, a canalside path that was considerably steeper in places than you would imagine a canal path to be. But with the wild flowers and waterfowl and the excellent visitor centre at the end, we forgave it. Later we took to the old railway path that leads to Caerphilly, but this seemed to be built on the heights above too. I was starting to think my husband had planned this all along…

After a quick visit to Bedwas, my husband’s hometown, where we were blessed with free vegetables from the local greengrocer (a proper green-grocer, not just a veg shop!) we arrived at Caerphilly Castle. After a chance meeting with a local Thai lady, we were whisked away to dine on sticky rice and papaya salad.  It was our first experience of Thai hospitality, a banquet of food and drink, a shower, a bed, and in the morning our panniers packed to overflow with bags of salad and a barrel (i kid you not) of sticky rice as well as cans and cans of beer.  We didn’t have to shop for a week!  On the strength of it we are moving to Thailand…

It was lucky we had such hearty sustenance, after Pontypridd we had to ascend a mountain! Even locals spoke in hushed tones about its verticality.  We got on with it and were soon separated. My husband miles ahead, refusing to dismount, but stopping to talk to horses, dogs, sheep, more horses… Then me, toiling away pushing my laden steed, pretty much from the bottom on.  Sira lagged behind, only because she wisely stopped to fill up with water, then because she had dropped her Thai flag and could not continue without it, then because it was so steep that finally even she had to get off and push.  The end just never seemed to arrive, dusk began to fall and still we climbed.  Eventually attaining the wind-lashed summit – hoping against hope there would be a flat place to camp, but no, we had to wend our way down into Tonyrefail and seek shelter beside an industrial unit – thank goodness for sundays – we ate, and slept deep.

Port Talbot
Port Talbot

More hills followed until we regained the coast at Margam. where we saw the awesome collection of inscribed stones at their small museum, but were locked out of the Abbey.

An industrial interlude followed as we pedalled through Port Talbot, pausing to wonder what impact the scandal of Tata steel closing would have on the area.  My husband had been dumbfounded by the changes since he left Wales as a 12 year old. The steep slagheaps, the black rivers, the grime over everything had gone.  But then so had the jobs…  So much energy/money/hope ? had been put into the ‘greening’ of South Wales, it looked beautiful – pristine, a place to be proud of.  But could people afford to live here?  Was it working, were they working?

Heading for Swansea
Heading for Swansea

The broad sweep of Swansea bay opened before us. Despite a stiff headwind – all day… despite the sand stinging our eyes,it was gorgeous! We spent a couple of days exploring the town, eating laverbread for breakfast, learning local and industrial history at the museum, met keen cycling locals around the marinas.  We stayed at a campsite on the tallest hill for miles around, with glorious views over the Gower Peninsular. There we increased our multicultural diversity by befriending an excited Chinese family and a Polish girl with two cute kids, football levelled the language difficulties!

We crossed the neck of the Gower on a bridlepath, which caused breakage on my bike, but avoided the blasted hill again…

On through superb scenery, Llanelli round to Kidwelly a plethora of excellent, wide cyclepaths.  A visit to the castle where i met the famous cat.  (Note to self: if you feed all your dog biscuits to an apparently starving castle cat, you cannot complain when farm dogs try and savage you…)

We were following the Celtic Trail (mostly Sustrans Route 4) so missed Laugharne, but we had visited Dylan Thomas’ home before.  From Carmarthen, a cross country leg down to Tenby, that most idyllic town, where scrumptious fresh seafood is de rigeur and a boat swashes you across to Caldey Island if you are of the pilgrim persuasion…

Beer with a friend in St. Florence and breakfast at Lamphey Palace did us no harm and we motored on to Pembroke Castle, a sight for sore eyes.

Pembroke Castle
Pembroke Castle

So many incredible castles in Wales, but as most were built to either subdue the Welsh or to repulse the English, it is yet another of those awkward historic moments.  Like visiting Rouen – when the receptionist told us to go to the square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake – ‘i am sooooo sorry’ I said. ‘Why?’ she said, looking puzzled.  ‘Because we burnt her’ I replied.  Her gales of laughter swept us out into the night, feeling that we had at least made an effort towards entente cordiale…

Pembrokeshire has a reputation for unspoilt beauty and deservedly so.  You can forgive the steepness of the hills when the countryside is so lovely to look at – almost.

We gained the coast again at Broadhaven and were too spent to cycle back up the monumental hill we had scooted down for the only campsite.  So Sira went off to scout a ‘spot’ to camp.  She returned with an invitation to camp in the local Baptist church grounds. We had to be gone before the morning service. It was a lovely peaceful and sheltered spot and we felt their pastoral care was well expressed!

Welsh hospitality
Welsh hospitality

Horrendous hills followed next day, but the views and beauty of the area made them bearable – with many stops for espresso coffee en route.

By the tme we got to Newale we had legs of steel.


Whitchurch and a plethora of small villages gave us a little relief from the hills and we wended into St. Davids smiling widely. As pilgrims to Santiago, we had now reached another pilgrim destination.  The medieval pilgrimage here – twice – was seen as equal to a journey to Rome. Three would stack up against Jerusalem.  With our certificates ‘Compostelas’ completed in latin we had already been given remission of our sins, so anything else was a bonus…

Pilgrims arriving at St Davids!
Pilgrims arriving at St Davids!

A pleasant ‘holiday’ followed staying at the Caerfai  campsite which my husband visited as a child, and which gave us a cyclists reduction.  We spent our time wisely – in the pub hoovering up roast dinner, walking miles to visit Holy Wells, and lying prone on our backs, just glad not to be cycling…

After 3 nights we felt like locals – it was time to move on. An undulating road was pleasant until the dreaded hill struck again at Trehill. One of our party took the chance of  a skinnydip… Not me. More dips and some standing stones brought us to our ending place – Fishguard.  Here we expected to be able to hop on a train – sparing us the planned circle back through the mountains, which (thank the stars) we just didn’t have time for.

But the grim truth at the station was that cycles had to be booked on in advance, only two per train and none at all in the next week. This took hours and pounds worth of mobile phone time to glean. Oh!

We did the sensible thing in the circumstances – repaired to the nearest pub to form a battle plan. Thanks to my garrulous husband, (I did tell you he’s Welsh?) our plan was soon formulated with the help of a tableful of inebriated locals.

We would go to the chip shop and stock up on an overbalanced diet.  We would cycle to the ‘other’ station.  This was a line right at the water’s edge that was the start of the local line – but was also home to the ferry terminal.(they shared a waiting room) Our confidantes assured us that this was a quiet place and maybe no-one would notice three cyclists, three bicycles and a vast array of panniers and boxes sneak aboard the train – especially if we took a midnight train…

Like all truly ridiculous plans – it worked!

The waiting room was palatial, had toilets and comfy seats and was warm! We laid out our beds and snoozed as best we could until 1am when the Swansea train was due. As it clattered into the station we threw our bicycles – still laden – on board and stood beside them with our chins jutting out.  The lady guard gave us a weary look and conceded that we could travel – but we must not block the aisle, or doors, or toilets… As they were open carriages this was just about possible and in no time at all we leapt off in Swansea.  We were confused, as were the platform staff – but as another train was just set to go – to Cardiff – our favoured destination – we rammed ourselves aboard. This time all our panniers had to be taken off the bikes – this included my huge cold-bag which contained all our food and our wooden tomato boxes which are bungied onto the fronts, our crocs and hats which dangle from any corner, and of course topbags with all our ‘important’ stuff in… Not to mention strapped on tents, sleeping bags etc.  We don’t travel light, we travel comfy!

At Cardiff the platform staff were spitting feathers at us – they only allow 2 minutes for all passengers to dismount – never mind the disabled, the children, the elderly and the bicyclists…

We didn’t care – it was five in the morning and we were in the Welsh capital – hurrah – or hwre as the locals say.

Another Holy Well - yipee!
Another Holy Well – yipee!

It wasn’t far from Cardiff to Newport.  But we took the long way round. The navigator got hot under the collar and rather lost (me) and , on the advice of a local we ended up crawling through a forest of buddleya, soft sand, gravel and mud, which brought us onto a high bluff with the only way down a three-person per bicycle traverse of epic proportion.  We emerged onto the main road about a hundred metres on from where we had started – grrr.

Once out of the smog of rush hour pollution we regained the lovely countryside and idled back to Newport.

Full circle - back at Newport Bridge
Full circle – back at Newport Bridge

After my husband had read us the entire Transporter Bridge leaflet – yet again, we were off, spotting more Holy Wells and visiting our last pub in Wales, at Mathern.

The next morning we were on a mission to get to Bristle Temple Meads Station as Sira had arranged to meet a friend for a lift at 12 noon.  That would be going some. To make matters worse the rain fell in stair rods, it did not stop until we were well inside the Bristol city limits. we were exhausted and sad to be at the end of our trip and the end of our time togather.  We had only met Sira a couple of months previously, she had come to stay with us as part of the ‘Warm Showers’ network, a reciprocal free service for touring cyclists. Her enthusiasm and charm had made her an instant friend. We were going to miss her.

We were hours late to the station and Sira’s friend was keen to get going. But Sira would not leave without one last ‘sneaky half’ ! A British habit she had taken to her heart.  So we piled into the pub opposite and got 3 pints of ale – she caused a stir by downing hers in seconds, a hug, a kiss and she was gone.

We squashed ourselves onto the next ‘bookable’ train, dismembered our bikes and panniers, and returned home to Devon. Our Welsh adventure was over. For now – next time we would walk around the newly opened coast path of Wales – walk, not cycle!

Swansea Bay
Swansea Bay



3 thoughts on “A Welshman, an Englishwoman and a Thai lady cycle across South Wales…

    1. Hi Graham and Frances – hopefully you have an email from us in your inbox…. we are back to a dishevelled garden too – and customers wanting work done, and family dramas… makes you want to cycle away again! Be great to meet up sometime and find out what route you took up thru France. We are coming up to Pompey to see Madness play on the 25th august (how will we stay up so late!) so maybe we can catch up then?
      Great to hear from you, jo

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