Post 20 - 2015 Biking Adventure

Day 42 & 43 - Wales
12th June - 13th June -  Penrhiw-pål - Newport
Total biked - 1,123 kilometres ( 712 miles)

from Fred Schlomka - 

We had a lovely ride to Newport, much of it along classic country lanes, winding down leafy valleys surrounded by trees, ferns, nettles and wildflowers. I finally got to see a really old Welsh tree. Looked like an oak but hard to be sure.

In the village of Beulah we stop for breakfast in front of an empty post office. A typical example of a slow entropy that is afflicting many of these places. A local resident Tahl happens by. We had seen her back on the road with her dog, collecting moss for her hanging plants. She explains that the previous proprietor of the post office died, and no-one took her place, so it remains empty. Tahl hopes that someone will buy the place and help revive the village by turning it into a pub. 

It seems like half of Wales of for sale. Signs on houses are everywhere, either for sale or just sold. We see many empty village churches and schools. The rules say that one can buy an old church and use it as a holiday home but not as a permanent residence. Such is the wisdom of government bureaucracies. It’s sad to see these old buildings unused. Apparently the young are moving out for lack of work, and the English are moving in, mostly retired people or mid-life professionals who are done with child-rearing. The process of gentrification reminds me of home in Jaffa. There too the inexorable change from a working poor town to a gentrified and more sterile place is well underway. But I love it anyway.

Tahl leaves us then returns 10 minutes later and invites us to her cabin (she calls it a shack) for tea. It’s a cosy residence for a single person. Tahl explains that she owns a nearby cottage but Lets (Rents) it out for the summer, augmenting her income. She had worked at a local clinic but was made redundant and laid off. She is reluctant to commute to the larger regional hospital. Now she does odd service jobs and takes care of her renters. Her son is in the British military and she proudly shows off his photo. Another act of random kindness has brought us inside the home of a villager to learn of her life and drink tea.

The route to the coast also takes us through the ancient city of Cardigan. The castle was a bit of a disappointment, although apparently the pride and joy of local residents. We couldn’t find a good angle for a photo and so never took one! It was recently re-opened to the public. Many of these public monuments in Wales - castles and the like - are actually owned by English aristocracy who rarely visit. This seems to be a legacy of English conquest and colonialism. However, apart from some sporadic activity a few decades ago, the Welsh have never developed a modern nationalist movement in the political sphere, such as happened in Ireland and Scotland. Welsh national pride is mostly expressed through Welsh language usage on street signs, in schools and in the public arena. The arts too celebrate Welsh tradition.

On leaving Cardigan, on the spur of the moment, we decide to deviate from Google Map’s suggested route and follow the street sign for ‘Bike route 84’. We had no sooner turned off the main road onto a little lane when I heard the soft sound of a harp being played in a house we were passing. We stop, and sure enough it’s a harp. A woman sees us through the window and runs out, closely followed by Susan, our host/harpist of two nights before. Hugs and kisses all around. Truly amazing since until 5 minutes before, we had not planned on going this route, and Susan happened to be there just for an hour to give a harp lesson to her student. Serendipity. This has been a recurring theme throughout our trip.

We continue though an amazing steeply sided valley, almost a gorge, except it is so so green and lush. The shades of green cover a spectrum so broad that the lines between colours completely disappear, resulting in a glorious magesty of nature. This microcosm of creation is truly a humbling experience.

At the bottom of the gorge is a ford. The 5-meter (15 feet) wide stream crosses the road with a few centimetres of water. The water is clear but the road turns dank green with algae, and a measuring stick at the side goes up to 6 feet. “It’s slippery” -  hollers a voice about a hundred meters from the other side. I see a short stocky chap disappearing into the woods. I stop, walking at this point, Sunita behind me. “Small steps” I say, “and slowly”. Already I could feel the wheels of the bike slipping sideways. I grasp it tighter, and we walk across slowly and safely.

The man behind the warning has disappeared. His little farm along the lane looks like it came straight out of a Robin Hood movie. Moss-covered stone and slate - various types of fowl wandering around - a tiny spiral of smoke from the chimney poking above the croft. The fencing around the adjacent paddocks and fields look like they were erected in the 15th century with numerous repairs of various sections folding over each other into a pleasing scene of permanence and presence. It appears to be a rural paradise.

We descend into Newport where Catherine, Sunita’s old school friend lives. Sunita has unsuccessfully been trying to reach her for the past week so we hope to become unexpected, yet welcome, guests. Sunita hasn’t seen her since graduate school, but we have fantasies about a soft bed for the night and shelter before the thunderstorm hits. Our serendipity is on holiday as is Catherine! She is in the States just when we are in Wales!

We follow our backup plan and go to the campsite at the beach. Great view. Nice people. We resolve to spend another day in Newport and head off to the local pub, The Royal Oak. As we walk in the door, a fellow glued to the stool at the bar called out, “so you made it to town”. It was David, the same man who gave us the warning at the ford. We end up sitting outside for the evening with David and his partner, Lynne. David regaled us with stories of his truck driving youth in the 1980s when he worked for his uncle’s company and drove all over Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Now he drives only in Wales and tells us tales of strange families in the hills that marry ‘in’, so that the farms stay in the clan, often with th ehusband a resident of one farm while his wife stays at another. David assures us that there are still lots of rural people who rarely venture more than 5 miles from their farm during their lifetime. Quite amazing in 21st century Britain. By the end of the evening we are all good friends. We decline an invitation to spend the night on their farm (to far to bike back uphill), but promise to bring the harp to the pub the next night.

“Uh oh”, I say in the morning after a night of steady drizzle. The sleeping bag is dry but all around is dampness - seeping up through the floor. The  rainfly is also leaking. The last waterproofing treatment I did in London has failed. The tent is not waterproof. We need a new tent ASAP. My 30 year-old Moss tent has come to the end of its useful life as a wet weather tent. I go into mourning. It was one of the first shock-corded tents with an impressive weight to volume ratio, and gave birth to many of the designs of the modern tents people buy today.

We secure our kit and commiserate. Newport is a town of a few thousand residents and the nearest large town with a camping store was about 1 1/2 hours away by bus. There’s only one other possibility. We had noticed in town a well-stocked hardware store so we hop on the bike and pay a visit. It’s a long shot and when we walk in and ask about a tent the only one we are shown is a small one person ‘popup’ tent. However the owner had only recently taken over the store and was not too familiar with his stock. As we look around, Sunita plucks a package off a shelf and lo and behold it is a 3-person tent of exactly the size we need. It is also quite cheap, so for £55 we are saved again. We go from mild despondency to glee as our day brightens.

Matt the owner of the hardware store is also handy with his hands so when I explain a problem with the harp trailer, we get going together and install a new strut which fixes the issue. Once again our needs are being met without much effort on our part. Our guardian angel is continuing to take care of us.

Newport is a dream village for visitors, which is perhaps why it is being bought up by the English and overrun with tourists in the summer. We are lucky to be there in the off season. The classic stone vernacular abounds, and many of the pubs and shops look like they popped out of an episode of Downton Abbey.  Sunita delights in the natural foods store and we stock up on food.

I spend the bulk of the day, as planned, settled in to the campground cafe which mercifully has good WiFi. They even let me stay after closing time and I continue to pound on the laptop while they vacuum around my feet. We tell the owner that our old tent is a donation that they should ‘pass on’ to a deserving person in need of a tent. It will become a random act of kindness to a stranger.

In the evening we feast on Sri Lankan curry and other gourmet vegan delights purchased that afternoon. With warm food in our bellies, we again visit The Royal Oak, this time with the harp in tow. Our friends David and Lynne are there and Sunita plays the two Welsh tunes she knows, and some Irish music. We have a nice convivial evening, but drink no alcohol. We had two or three pints of local brew the evening before and decided to lighten up for a good night’s sleep since we were biking again on the morrow. David just couldn’t understand how a grown man could drink tea in the pub. I think he was a little embarrased.

We return to a glorious pink sunset. A fitting end to another eclectic day on the road. Tomorrow we go to the Emerald Isle. 


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