Trans-Cambrian, days 3-5, or, “it’s all downhill to Machynlleth”

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. I’ll give you all my excuses another time. In the meantime if you’ve not yet read about the first two days of our Trans-Cambrian adventure, you should do so first.

Day 3: Claerddu bothy – Cwmystwyth valley (30 miles)

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I left you a long time ago in a bothy in the Elan Valley. I’d finally had a bit of sleep after the first sleepless bivvying night, but we had decided to try and sleep outdoors again.

Leaving bright and early the next morning, we wheeled our bikes across the stream, out into what was effectively a field, and then set off. Then I stumbled and took a chainring to the shin. More bruises to add to my steadily growing collection.

The first half of day three was grey and drizzly. We hit a long section that consisted mainly of deep ruts that terrified me because I envisaged clipping my pedals and tumbling and breaking my ankles. I had a little cry as I unpacked my rain jacket for the nth time.

Towards midday we made the decision to go off-route in search of warmth and food, so we enjoyed a long tarmac descent into Pont-rhyd-y-groes and got some lunch at a charming little place called Cwtch Cafe. ‘Cwtch’ is, in my opinion, the cutest welsh word that exists, so it made me very happy to stop there. A cwtch was what I needed, and a cwtch is what I got. Figuratively. On a plate.

A sharp climb later, we rejoined the route near Storehouse — a name which confused the hell out of us when we saw it on the map — and after being chased off by a bunch of lary dogs, enjoyed a great descent through an unnamed forest. I began to enjoy myself again.

Now, at this point, it’s important to mention that we had now spent two and a half days mountain biking in blistering heat, carrying lots of gear, without any access to showers or any opportunity to wash. Suffice to say we reeked a fair amount, and were running out of clean clothes.

So, when we crossed the river Ystwyth at Pont Dologau, we took advantage of our isolation and jumped in. After giving our clothes a good scrub, we stripped down and had the coldest bath known to man. It was probably my first time being naked in public (though I use that term loosely) which was incredibly liberating.

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Our washing and laundry spot

We emerged from the water victoriously clean and refreshed, only to then climb a sharp hill and wind up at the top dripping with sweat once again.

We later joined National Cycling route 81 at Cwmystwyth, which is an unbelievably smooth road that snakes through a beautiful valley and left me wishing we had the road bikes.

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Route 81

We’d seen on the map that there was a campsite further along the route, and decided to aim for it. While we’d planned to wild camp the whole way, we were also unsure how far we’d get that day and couldn’t imagine finding a spot nearby that would work.

However, we were disappointed to find the campsite was a bit naff. It was essentially a patch of grass next to the road that some people with SUVs are happy to pay to pitch a tent on. We stopped, we looked, we pedalled on.

Ambition took hold when we next consulted the map: another bothy was on the horizon! Nant Rhys looked like it was within reach, so we decided to push hard and get there before dark. Little did we know, one of the most challenging climbs was waiting for us a few miles ahead.

It probably isn’t that challenging when you look at it objectively, but by this point I was so ridiculously tired, and we were effectively climbing up the side of a valley. Around 6pm, while it was still bright and sunny, I begged Adam to let us stop and make camp. I just didn’t have anything left to give.

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Looking back over what we’d already climbed

We found a patch of flat ground next to the path and we stopped. Normally I wouldn’t want to sleep so close to a pathway but the middle of Wales is just completely empty. You could see for miles, and there was no one around except some sheep.

That night I almost slept well. I remember being super comfortable and warm, but waking up sporadically through the night. I didn’t mind though, because whenever I did, I took a peek outside the bivvy to find the most amazing starry night sky. It’s amazing what you don’t realise you’re missing out on when living in the city.

Day 4: Cwmystwyth – Foel Fadian (22 miles)

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A killer view to wake up to

On the morning of day four, it was Adam’s turn to be the grumpy one. Despite sleeping relatively well and waking up in the most beautiful spot, we also awoke to the sensation of being roasted alive in our sleeping bags while being eaten alive by midges at the same time. Plus the wet clothes we’d hung out to dry were still soaking wet. Not a great start!

With our bikes loaded up with bags and soggy underwear displayed prominently, we set off once again. Despite his moaning, I think Adam started enjoying himself quite quickly once we reached a really beautiful forest.

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We came off-route to head into Llangurig for supplies and food, and was greeted with a goldmine. The Post Office had lots of vegan-friendly snacks included the coveted oat flips (good god they’re amazing), while the Bluebell Inn treated us to spaghetti bolognese and vegetable curry. Not to forget the Village Tea Room where we met a friendly van salesman who was the first to inform us that “it’s all downhill to Machynlleth”.

The next part of our adventure took us through the Hafren forest, which was absolutely astounding in its beauty, in its trails, and in its solitude. Again, we just couldn’t believe we had the place to ourselves. We reached the upper course of the River Severn and decided to stop for a paddle, which was really lovely for our overheating feet.

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The River Severn, not how we’re used to seeing it

Along this journey we’d been talking about the fact that people generally do this ride in three days, and about how much we’d possibly miss if we simply put our heads down and stormed through. This was made all the more poignant when we stumbled upon an osprey hide. 

So, ospreys were reintroduced to the region in 2013, when a nest was constructed for them and the entire area was sealed off to people. A pair of ospreys made it their home, and year on year they’ve been breeding. The site is managed by Natural Resources Wales, who monitor their wellbeing. We never would have learned this if we’d just pummelled through the forest with our heads down.

Instead we stopped, we read all the information that was there, hung out in the hide for a while, and eventually were greeted by a birdwatcher who pulled up in his car with a spotter scope and some binoculars. He let us use them to get a good view of the nest, where we saw two chicks.

This is why it’s important to take your time.

After this we continued our route into Staylittle where we’d hoped to stock up on supplies for the night. Unfortunately it seemed that Staylittle consists of nothing but a post box, a phone box and a church hall.

It probably has more than that, but it was useless to us at the time. On we rode, encountering a friendly driver who stopped for a chat, and once again mused that “it’s all downhill to Machynlleth”. This became a mantra for us. Climbing getting too hard? Don’t worry, it’s all downhill to Machynlleth.

Upon the recommendation of Polly Clark, we once again left our route and headed towards Dylife, where we caught the most incredible view over a glacial valley.

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The valley in Dylife

We pedalled along a long and smooth road that would have been lovely on road bikes, but was torture on loaded-up mountain bikes with semi-deflated tyres. Nevertheless we persisted, and were rewarded with the sight of a pub: The Star Inn.

We sat outside, had some chips and refreshing drinks and exchanged pleasantries with a family who seemed slightly impressed with us and our getup. We pondered the enormous hill in front of us, knowing that the path we needed to rejoin was on its ridge, and we would essentially have to haul up and over to save on precious time.

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View from the pub: contemplating the hill we needed to crest

We puffed and panted our way up the very sharp climb, emerged victorious at its crest, and glanced back down at the pub in the hopes of seeing our admiring audience. Alas, they’d gone inside. No accolades for Mildred and Adam. Back into the wilderness.

What the wilderness brought us was a very sharp and sudden descent over loose shale that was just too hairy for my liking. I’d seen this part of the trail in photos and videos and had been anticipating the humiliating walk down and back up. Adam rode it very carefully on the way down, and joined me in walking back up the other side.

For the first and only time on this trip, this is where we met another cyclist. Amazingly, he’d set out from Knighton that morning and was on his way back. He was doing the entire Trans-Cambrian Way and back in 24 hours, and we were about to set up camp for the fourth time. It was a little humbling, but then we remembered: ospreys.

We climbed towards the peak of Foel Fadian, past Glaswyn Reservoir and made camp in the most amazing spot:

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The best place I’ve ever slept

This was by far my favourite place to sleep, and I slept really well. It’s typical that it took me until the final night to really settle into bivvying, and I’m sad to say I haven’t bivvied since. Next year, I’m going to do ALL THE BIVVYING.

Day 5: Foel Fadian – Machynlleth (13 miles)

My expectations of the final day were grossly unrealistic. We’d been promised multiple times that it would all be downhill to Machynlleth, and we were at the highest point in our route.

Of course, we’d failed to notice one small flaw in these promises. The folks who told us it would all be downhill to Machynlleth were drivers, and generally when you’re driving in your car, you don’t really notice the very small changes in gradient. You go up the hill, and you go down the hill. When the hill undulates, you perceive it to be flat.

Unfortunately it’s not so simple on the bike. You go down the hill, the hill flattens out, and then you start going back up. Then down, then up. Then up a little more. The nuances of the road’s gradient play a much larger part when you’re moving under the steam of your own legs. And so, it was not all downhill to Machynlleth.

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Contemplating Adam’s skid mark and refusing to ride

However, I’ve skipped ahead in the story. First we had to get down from Foel Fadian. In anticipation of the trip I’d watched a lot of YouTube videos by others who had completed it, and I’d watched Phill Stasiw’s video of an impressively smooth descent. With all this “downhill” talk, I’d gotten it into my head that the morning descent would be fast and fun, and we’d pretty much roll to the end of the route.

How mistaken I was. I have so much respect for Phill’s mastery of this descent, because it is fucking terrifying. It is unbelievably steep, and again it is coated with that loose shale that my tyres just did not want to hold onto. I watched as Adam slowly and carefully rode his way down, and I froze up. I couldn’t even walk down, my feet had no grip and the ground was simply falling away from me.

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There’s Adam, waiting patiently for me at the bottom!

Eventually I very slowly walked the bike down half of the descent, and then very slowly and carefully rode the second half as it started to level out. My self-esteem plummeted. I may have cried again. We re-joined the roads and a little of civilisation.

Later on we left the road near the river Hengwm crossing and began to climb up the side of the valley through some forest and farmland. It was around midday by this point and we’d realised we were running dangerously low on water. As we approached a farmhouse I braved the awkwardness of knocking on a stranger’s door, and the woman who answered was just delightful. She was house-sitting with what can only be described as a menagerie of animals. She was really lovely, and filled our water bladders up for us. That was a nice boost.

We rejoined Glyndwr’s Way for the last time and enjoyed an amazing descent through a a forest in Glaspwll with sweeping, winding, gravel roads. Adam got a bit rad and launched himself off some sort of object in an attempt to ‘send it’, but instead achieved a ‘stack it’ as he almost toppled off his bike when his wheels touched the ground. He laughed it off.

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Glaspwll gravelly goodness

The end was nearing and throughout the majority of this last day, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I was enjoying myself in a sense but I was also the most exhausted – physically and mentally – I’d ever been.

The road flattened out before another big climb, but this climb was oh, so worth it. It led to an incredible descent through the Llyfnant valley, and my confidence returned to an all-time high. I don’t know what it was about that particular descent, but I felt myself coming back to life. It was just beautiful.

We finally closed the last gate behind us in Caerhedyn and joined the road which took us to Dovey Junction. I haven’t mentioned the gates, but there were so. fucking. many. We were happy to see the back of them.

Dovey Junction is a really strange train station that’s in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful sight to behold. From there we didn’t have to wait long until a train came to whisk us away to Machynlleth, and at last our Trans-Cambrian journey was over.

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Not the most picturesque ending, but an ending nonetheless
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