Pembroke, Monday, 6 November Day 191 4395 miles
Here I am stuck in Pembroke for a few days feeling sorry for myself. I've got a bad throat and chest and I've been to the doctor who has given me some pills (called anti-biotics) to try to make me better. It's doubly frustrating because there's been some good, sunshiny cycling weather whilst I've been lying on my bed reading.
However, Pembroke is a pleasant little town perched on a hill with an old castle, surrounded on three sides by rivers.
A few days ago I went to a place called Portmeirion which has been built to look like an Italian village. I think Mummy & Daddy would like it - why don't you suggest they read the guidebooks about it. Hope to see you soon.
After breakfast next morning I got chatting to a group of six cyclists who had arrived last night, converging from several different directions in order to cycle the Cheshire Cycleway together. Two of them had cycled 120 miles in the day just to get to the start of their tour. I watched them load up and set off on their tour before leaving myself.
I made my way back to Queensferry and then followed the main road north-westward along the banks of the Dee estuary. I had been somewhat apprehensive about the traffic as the coast road around most of Wales is almost all busy main roads. Crispin, who I had met several months ago in Helmsdale youth hostel in north-east Scotland, had suffered badly from traffic in Wales and given up following the coast road. But the road was almost empty and I was soon bowling along happily with the wind behind me. The sky was grey and overcast, spots of rain threatened worse to come, the wind was swirling dangerously. But life was easy with the wind behind me. It felt good to be back on the road.
I reached Prestatyn after two easy hours and then the rain started to fall with greater determination. I stopped to take off my fleece jacket and put on my new waterproofs for the first time. As the coast curved round to the west the wind became a troublesome crosswind. The arms of my new jacket flapped noisily in the wind but otherwise both jacket and overtrousers were snug and comfortable. The overtrousers were certainly easier to cycle in than my old ones because the legs were specially cut around the knees to be the right shape for cycling. After the rain stopped I kept on the rainsuit to see how much condensation it generated. Climbing the dual carriageway out of Abergele the sun even came out for a while to help work up a good stew.
At the Llanddulas roundabout the A55 road becomes re-designated as the A55(M), prohibited to cycles, and I had to turn off onto the old coast road. Though this road was even quieter it meant a long, stiff climb up to Old Colwyn which the new road by-passes. The stew inside my rainsuit fermented even more. On my left the whole hillside had disappeared, sliced off by quarrying, and on my right a precipitous drop led to the railway and the new road at sea level. I seemed to be cycling on an exposed mountain ridge rather than a seaside road. I zoomed down to the promenade in a sudden squall of rain and then back into the centre of Colwyn Bay in search of a cafe for lunch. Stripping off the rainsuit I found my shirt and the front of my trousers merely damp rather than soaked with condensation and the rain had certainly been kept at bay. A distinct improvement on my battered old running suit.
My fast, wind-driven morning had brought me forty-five miles. It was followed by a long, slow wade through a mountainous, roast-beef lunch. Stomach contented, I donned fleece jacket and rainsuit for a leisurely walk around the town and then a more strenuous walk up the long, steep hill which leads to the youth hostel, arriving just as the thick black clouds came down from the mountains. Sheltering in the porch of a youth hostel, waiting for it to open as the rain poured down, is not always my idea of fun. But I felt invigorated by the morning's run, my stomach was full, I was warm and dry. What more could a traveller require?
The rain had stopped during the night and I awoke to a cold, clear morning. I breakfasted alone in the empty hostel. The sun beckoned me, teasing me out into a calm day. It was calm because the wind had swung round further to the west anticipating my arrival. For the moment I was sheltered by the high ground as I worked my way out of Penrhyn Bay and over Little Ormes Head to the north shore of Llandudno. Bow-fronted and balconied hotels curved round the sweep of the bay to form an elegant crescent facing out over the sea. There were few people to see the waves creaming onto the beach. Beyond, the golden sands of the sheltered bay gave way to the unforgiving, grey cliffs of Great Ormes Head.
The road around the Head is one way. It is a toll road but the toll-gate keeper had not turned up that morning. Cut into the side of the cliff, the road twists and turns as it climbs slowly towards the lighthouse and the coastguard station perched on the end of the Head, peering out into the Irish Sea. As the wind gusted around I felt exposed as if I would be plucked off the road and into the crashing sea below, but also hemmed in by the looming shade of the rock face above. Out of the clear blue sky, gobbets of water splashed into my face, whether rain or spray scooped up by the wind I know not. In reality it is an easy climb but it felt relentless. As I rounded the Head itself I felt the full force of the wind, fortunately directly into my face otherwise I would have been blown completely off the bike. Head down in bottom gear, I ploughed on until suddenly I emerged into the sun and the long downhill stretch into Deganwy. There I rested in the sun opposite the railway station in what seemed like a calm pool of stillness. Fickle wind!
Crossing the river to Conwy was a disappointment. The modern road bridge was reduced to one way traffic because it was under repair, Stephenson's railway bridge of 1848 was invisible behind a shroud of scaffolding, and the old suspension bridge built by Telford in 1826 was hidden behind these two and closed to the public pending completion of its restoration.
Behind the bridges the castle, built by Edward I in 1292 as part of his iron ring for subduing the Welsh, gazed down disdainfully on these modern excrescenses. I tried without success to find an easy way into the castle for the bike. It was a half-hearted attempt, I wasn't really in the mood for castles. Instead I wandered around the tiny streets and alleyways clustered within the medieval town walls before leaving their claustrophobic embrace to settle on the quayside for another rest in the sun.
Beyond Conwy Robert Stephenson had driven a tunnel through the headland for his railway line and the A55 road now follows suit by plunging underground. Here cyclists and pedestrians are instructed to cross the dual carriageway to a footpath around the outside of the headland. I ignored the signs indicating that I should be wheeling my bicycle along the footpath. Rounding a corner I was suddenly hit by a solid wall of wind channelling between the cliff face and a vertical finger of rock towering over the sea. Wham! I was brought to a complete standstill and had to leap off the bike before I fell off. So that was why the sign said I should dismount. I wheeled the bike until the road emerged from the tunnel and I could re-cross the dual carriageway to re-join the normal flow of traffic. Windy Wales.
Further on the road became the A55(M) again and I was directed off to go through the town of Penmaenmawr. On the other side of town the road rejoined the A55 which then promptly disappeared underground once more. Here pedestrians, cyclists, and horses were instructed to cross to the central reservation of the dual carriageway onto a path which led over the top of the headland. Built with great care the gradient of the path never exceeded 1-in-14 but it seemed more like a scene from a science fiction film than a country bridleway. On the left the cliff rose steeply, the face consolidated by huge stainless-steel bolts penetrating deep into the rock. On the right a high aluminium fence to save the unwary from plummeting into the sea.
On the far side of the headland I descended to the central reservation and then re-crossed to the nearside and the safety of a lay-by. A large concrete block had been thoughtfully placed for remounting a horse. Here also a signpost bearing pictograms of a mounted horse, a horse and cart, and a bicycle, and a yard-and-a-half of Welsh and English text urged me to use the lay-by to merge with the traffic. Thank goodness there was little traffic about; on a busy summer's day all this crossing and re-crossing of carriageways must be a nightmare.
I struggled on through the wind and the occasional flurry of rain until I reached Bangor an hour later. Here I slumped over an indifferent meal in the National Milk Bar, bruised and battered by a meagre thirty miles of the Welsh wind, whiling away time until the youth hostel opened, too lethargic to engage in any sightseeing.
When I went to bed I thought I might be kept awake by the doors and windows of the old house banging and rattling in the wind. So it was a bit of a surprise to find myself suddenly wide awake after nine solid hours of uninterrupted sleep. There was a handful of other people to talk to over breakfast which made a change. This might well be the last hostel I could stay at in Wales because they were now all closing down for the winter. Before leaving Bangor I posted a package to Richard and a postcard to my friend Gill to wish her well in the Snowdon Marathon which she would be running in a few days time. Even if the headwind kept up I think on balance I would still rather be cycling than running a marathon in mountainous terrain. The wind did keep up. By the end of the day I would rather have been running the marathon. But I wasn't to know that as I set off towards Caernarfon.