This Freedom 1926 Part Six

In Thirty-Six Hours                               Thursday

I got news of a boat this morning, kindly supplied by mine host.  At 4.30pm from Weston-super-Mare.  It seemed like inequality itself !  Here I had 7 hours to do 40 miles, then, before the next evening I must cover a matter of 210 miles !  I cursed the fate that led me to tie myself then – but later, how I blessed that same tie !  That homely little cottage on the Watchet housing scheme was put high in my list of ‘best’ places.

So, by a winding lane hard by a coastguard training camp, and near the restless sea, across which I could see the brown Welsh mountains, I pottered – super pottered – back to the Minehead-Bridgewater road at the beautiful little village of St Audries or West Quantoxhead, from where one goes over the fringe of Quantocks, an exquisite range of hills.  Though a main road, somewhat motorised, and ‘done up’ by tar and flints, its long sweeping contours, its hill scenery, and its views over the ‘Severn Sea’ and the pretty little villages, flower spangled, stamped it as something ‘different’.  But after all, it was a main road, and sub-consciously I got on the ‘drops’, and speedily twiddled the remaining miles to Bridgewater.

Bridgewater was big (fairly), Bridgewater was modern, Bridgewater was busy, so busy, modern, big Bridgewater stayed me not, it knew not whence I came and cared not whither I went.  I fancy Somerset motorists have an unbounded gratitude to the Powers that Be in B.M.B, Bridgewater.  I saw myriads of petrol-pushed gentlemen entering the town with a great and holy joy on their faces.  The reason was not far to seek.  As I left B.M.B Bridgewater I entered on the very latest in speedways.  Wide, immaculate, level, and straight as an arrow it went, and on its broad back roared a million engines.  On each side great, highly decorated notices blazed the superb qualities of ‘Smell’ spirit (the stuff that shortens every mile), BP sparking plugs, and Spratts Motor Food (I fancy they have abandoned the dog biscuit line).

I had it to endure, however, and slowly ticked off the unromantic miles until, at Pawlett, there is a Bend in the road, whilst I detected a Rise.  Only one very little Bend, and one very little Rise.  Then it resumed the even tenure of its way to Highbridge, and in disgust I abandoned it.  Besides a hunger had appeared through the petrol fumes, and I thought that I might find a place in some secluded fishing village; it was with this in mind that I made for Burnham on Sea.  When I got there I wondered why it was called Burnham on Sea.  In the far distance I saw a white streak that I took for the sea, but my general view was miles of mudbanks, which the authorities of this pushful little resort call ‘miles of golden sands’.  Such is human nature.  Being a rather fashionable, if small place, I fled from Burnham, and took a road behind some dull-looking sand dunes, hungrily looking for a feeding place.  I found one at Berrow.  From then on I had an ultra-lazy ride across a great reclaimed marsh, and eventually reached that super-resort, Weston-super-Mare with about two hours to spare.

I made for the stone jetty and isolated myself thereon, finding, after an hour, that I was on the wrong one, so off I went to the north pier, paid five pence for self and bike, and found a seat.  The ‘fun of the fair’ was waging fast and furious, and a moving array of fashions constantly passed before my eyes.  What on earth people can see in parading up and down a pier beats me.  The men are all dressed to death, the women (sensibly enough) delight in wearing as little as possible, though that little contained all the frills and fops of a fastidious fashion, and all together, with the blaring ‘music’ served up, a brilliant but nerve-wracking picture is obtained.  And in a corner, un-noticed, sat a Welsh Miner’s choir, ill-dressed and obviously ill-at-ease, waiting for the boat.  From which inferences, bitter enough, can easily be drawn.  When at last the boat came in I took my place in the queue, found that it would cost me another three pence to go on board, and then had to pay four shillings and six pence for me and my bike to cross.  So my trip across the Severn cost five shillings and two pence for an hours sail.

It was a glorious sail however; the sun was beating down fiercely, a sea breeze blew in, and along the Somerset shore the mudbanks really did look like ‘miles of golden sands’.  In the middle of the Channel two big rocks stuck out of the water, sheer sided, picturesque little islets.  At 5.30pm Cardiff was reached, and soon I stood in Wales. This Freedom005   The ease with which I got through the city surprised me.  A mile of setts and tramlines, Lascars, Chinamen and the most ebony-faced blacks I ever saw brought me to a fine square, one side of which was bounded by the castle and the other by the handsome city hall, then, in a few minutes, Cardiff was behind me and I was bounding along a perfect road.  I reached the mountains at Taff Wells, entering the Taff Vale.  My way would lead me through part of the busy South Wales coalfields – Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil, rather squalid for touring, but – well I could see for myself what the conditions were like due to the lock-out.  [At this time in 1926 a national coal strike had been in place for many weeks – Ed].  At Nant-Garw, I was just searching the handbook for a tea-place when I was hailed by a lightweight cyclist.  We got riding together, so he invited me to tea at his place, and, nothing loth, I accepted.  So we headed uphill on a byway and dropped breathlessly down into another valley and a town where were the ruins of a great castle.  Immediately I saw it I knew that this was Caerphilly Castle, one of the best preserved and most extensive Edwardian castles in Britain.  A little beyond Caerphilly we reached the tiny mining village of Llanbradach, where my friend lived.

The people I met at my friend’s house were of the best.  He was a locked-out coal miner, his nephew, who made up the tiny family of three was a cyclist member of the Caerphilly CC, and his wife, every bit Welsh, was one of those warm-hearted, bright people anyone would like to know.  The table was sparse yet I knew it was the best that they could muster – no money coming in, no hopes of any, their tiny savings going down rapidly; this I gleaned, though they would not have me know.  I was made thoroughly comfortable, and though I tried to pay them something they would not take one penny.  So it went to the Miners Relief Fund.  They were the true cyclists in spirit, lovers of the open and the road.  Yes, those workless Welsh miners were some of the best people I have met.

At 7.30pm I left Llanbradach – I had to tear myself away – and headed up the Rhymney Valley.  It is a real colliery valley with little sign of any pits, whilst the scenery was quite good and the evening perfect.  There were many hills, but by now my knees were attuned to hills, and after Devon it was not all bad.  There were so many different roads that I had to keep in close touch with my maps, for some of these roads end in a cul-de-sac at some little town at the head of a valley.  After a place called Nelson, I reached Taff Vale again.  Sunset.  Over the great brown humps of Fforest Fawr the sky was now blood red.  High overhead the wisps of cloud were tinged gold and red, and the eastern sky was an endless blue.  Now and then the valley became pretty, now and then squalid.  I passed a row of houses, each house possessing only one room; miners dwellings, and a condemnation of the perniciousness of that industry at the present day.

The pits were all closed, silent knots of men stood in the streets or sat by the roadside, half naked children ran in and out of the houses, and women with careworn faces stood gossiping at their doors.  From that it is but a step to see what lies behind it all, to see them in semi-starvation, with empty purses, empty larders and empty stomachs, but with that indomitable courage to carry on and fight to the end.  I think they deserve every help it is possible for us to give them towards defending their already grossly inadequate wages.

Merthyr Tydfil was reached now, a biggish town crowding the end of the valley.  When I was walking up the hill on the Brecon road, one of a crowd of youngsters shouted: “Ee look, a boy scout!”, whereupon another answered with withering contempt “Nay, ‘e’s not a boy scout, if ‘e was ‘e’d ride that ‘ill!”.  I felt very, very small at that.

Now the time was 9.30pm and I had 185 miles to go to Llanberis.  It was plain to see that I should never do it in a day, so I hit upon the idea of an all nighter.  The more I thought of it the more I liked it.  I got some supper at Nant ddu above Merthyr, and got the Innkeeper to pack me something up, and so, with lamp lit, I made a start.


This Freedom 1926 Part Five

Along the coast of North Devon


This morning was distinctly brighter when I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and found the sunshine flooding the room.  I had something before me, I thought, as I lay abed musing over my future plans.  Here was Wednesday; by Friday night I must be at the foot of Snowdon to keep an appointment.  A boat from Ilfracombe to somewhere in South Wales would make that comparatively easy, but then I should miss Lynton and Lynmouth, so I decided that a boat from, say, Minehead, tonight, would nicely fill the bill.  So I must get to Minehead for an early boat.

As a stubbly crop had appeared in some density on my chin, and as I did not desire to be taken as a real tramp, I decided to patronise the first barber’s shop I came to.  That barber was a traditional one as regards chinwag, but he ‘knew his Bideford’, and told me how he had followed ‘Westward Ho’ and all its characters all through North Devon.  He had traced Amyas Leigh and his family and found them true characters, Salvation Yeo, Captain Oxenhope, Charles Carey of Clovelly, and many other old sea dogs he ascertained had actually once lived and undergone experiences just as exciting as Kingsley tells of, though, the barber told me, Carey was only 12 years of age when Kingsley credits him with crossing the Spanish Main.  He was an exceedingly interesting and well informed man, was that Bideford barber.  Owing to a burnt-up complexion, my adventures with the razor were just as exciting and painful as any of those buccaneers of the Main.

I came to Bideford Quay, where young Amyas heard Salvation Yeo exhorting his hearers to cross the Main with him and to:

“Fill his pockets with the good red gold

By sailing on the sea-oh!”

and where he had seen the marvellous hieroglyphic chart.  Bideford Quay is just what anyone expects in an ordinary fishing town, for all the old picturesqueness has gone under the pressure of more modern needs.  A statue of Kingsley stands at the end of the quay.  Crossing the bridge, I joined a road that ran by an estuary of mudbanks, then ran across country on an uninteresting, hot, and dusty road to Barnstaple, which is called ‘Barum’ on the milestones for short.  This place is similar to Bideford in style and ordinariness, but retains some slender hold on the past by the possession of an old council house or something; beneath its verandah are displayed in miniature all the coats of arms of the well known local families of bygone days.  In a cage-like affair there stands the bartering table that did service at ‘Barum’ market centuries ago, and a big notice propounded to all and sundry the points of interest in the neighbourhood.  The rivers Torridge (of Bideford) and the Taw (of Barnstaple) join forces here ‘ere they empty their muddy treacle into the bay at Appledore.  Again the road was level and almost featureless for some miles, until it ran along a pretty little valley and then, evidently deciding that it would have to shape if it wanted to be called a Devonshire road, it climbed a big hill.  The top on the other side was down an exquisite little valley that precipitated me into Ilfracombe.

Now I am not going to run Ilfracombe down just because it happens to be unfortunate enough to be popular and modern, for even I would not mind spending a day or two here-abouts for the sake of exploring the coast.  The coast is great, and the setting is gorgeous, but the rows of classy shops and the big hotels and the band playing popular airs on a huge mass of rock that cuts the bay in two are liable to frighten away a mere cyclist.  I enquired of a boat for South Wales, but found that, owing to the coal shortage, pleasure boats only sailed on Thursday afternoons, so I left Ilfracombe alone in its glory.  Still, if I could not get a boat till then, how on earth could I get to Llanberis in time?  I am not addicted to thinking for long at once, however, and ceased pondering with the thought that somehow or other I should manage it.  I saw a cliff path zig-zagging up some steps, was fascinated with it, sweated up it, and arrived on the very road that I wanted, more by good luck than good management.

A swoop down brought me back to sea level at a tiny, almost cliff-bound bay which was ruined by a housing scheme and bathing vans.  The long climb onto the cliffs again made me feel that lunch was an urgent problem.  The view was absolutely great.  The reddish cliffs, the green sea and the jutting headlands were finer than I had ever seen, finer than my imagination had painted them.  I dropped down to Combe Martin, a famous beauty spot with a tiny, quaint harbour and a long straggling village leading up the combe.  Here I had dinner of strawberries and cream at a café that proclaimed its nature to me as soon as I got inside.  Tiny, painted teacups and wafers of bread are of little use to a hungry cyclist.  The waitress opened her eyes when I called for plateful after plateful; then when the bill came I opened my eyes – and ‘paid through the nose’.

The belated heat-wave had returned with renewed vigour when I started again, so I decided that I deserved a rest and bought a newspaper and some postcards, stopping beyond the village to read and write.  But something else had a say in it, for I was driven away by those ferocious, man-eating vipeds, the Midge family, which were undisturbed by dense columns of Woodbine smoke by which I sought to defend myself.  Followed a long, long tramp uphill through deep, hot woods, with never a sign of water where I might quench a long-standing thirst.  When I reached the top, I saw a lane leading towards the sea, and caring not whither I went, I followed it.  I led me to Trentishoe, a tiny hamlet with an ancient church, then over a heath with a view of a great shining sea.  A heat haze robbed me of the views of South Wales.  A fork road that I took deteoriated into a track and ended in a farmyard at the head of a little dell, but by enquiring I was shown a path that led me down the dell into exquisite woodland scenery – and to a stream where my thirst was temporarily banished.  The dell ran into a magnificent combe whose steep sides were clothed in woods, and I joined a narrow road at an hotel called Hunters Inn.

My road was now all uphill, and was motorised to the point of exasperation.  In the hot rays of a merciless sun I padded the hoof round and round and in and out with many a stop for water until I reached the edge of the cliffs again.  Glorious Devon !  Oh, who could traverse this part of the English wonderland and see those iron-bound cliffs, those jagged rock-teeth, that sapphire sea and those distant headlands, one beyond the other, without being affected.  The miles of hard-riding and walking behind and before me were limmed into delightfulness at this magnificent vista.  Here, now, was the time to sit gazing over it all and let ones thoughts soar to realms beyond the world.  Here was the place where to be alone was most desirable, for, though I like to share these delights with a companion, there are times when I would rather be alone in my communion with nature.  A companion whose whole mind is in sympathy and is toned with one’s own is rare, and of all my friends, only one I know finds the same delights and feelings as myself.

Walking and stopping every few minutes was my mode of progress along that cliff road.  I left the motor-road and kept on a cliff path, eventually running down between over-hanging bushes of bramble and golden gorse to Woody Bay.  It is a woody bay; here the cliffs are hidden beneath a dense growth of bushes, and right from the waters edge one sees nothing but green and gold bush, first sheer, then in a gradual upward sweep to the summit.  Beyond here the red cliffs again took precedence, then after a dip into another attractive little combe (I forget the name) I climbed over a golf course in which was an old mansion made into a hotel (Lee Abbey), and reached the Valley of Rocks.  This, in direct contrast to Woody Bay is entirely devoid of trees.  Here rocks are piled up in all conceivable shapes, some great solid masses, some delicately pinnacled, and some finely balanced.  The narrow path wormed in and out of the rocks then ran on the edge of the cliffs, showing the same magnificent coast views as before, and I eventually reached Lynton, which is upper – and modern Lynmouth.  This Freedom007

I was hungry, but couldn’t find a place, so I dropped down to the Ilfracombe-Minehead road, which here consists of mud, ruts, and contortions at a gradient of one in five; Beggars Roost by name, and said to be the most dangerous main road hill in England.  At its foot is Lynmouth, another of those quaint fishing villages amid surroundings of breathless beauty.  Then, on an empty stomach I started up the two mile, one in seven Countisbury Hill.  If you intend to go up Countisbury, have a feed at the bottom.  It is worth it.  Half way up I met some Manchester CTCites, and had a long chat with them.  They put me wise to a good place at Watchet, eight miles beyond Minehead, of which more later.  Just near the summit, when my eyes were glazing, and I was sinking fast for want of food, I spotted a farmhouse with a ‘teas’ notice inside the garden, so in I trooped.  I found it the tea-place of my dreams.  A real Devon tea it was, with strawberries and thick butter-like cream, all kinds of fruit, and eggs and delicious bread and butter and cake – it was a right blow-out.  My afternoon mileage was fourteen !

Within two miles of Countisbury, Devon, glorious Devon was behind me, and I was back in “Zummerzet”, and on the sea-edge of Exmoor Forest, wherein are wild red deer.  I saw none.  Aided by a strong breeze, and the cooler air of evening, I was able to make great headway over the ups and downs, and was often rewarded with views of the glistening sea away on my left or rolling moors and wooded combes on my right.  Then the Porlock fork road was reached, and I took the toll road – the main road descends one of the worst hills in England at a one in five gradient.  The view from the edge of Exmoor, over the vale, and the golden bay of Porlock was magnificent, holding me for a long time.  The descent on the toll road to Porlock village afforded me many fine views both seaward and landward, and the neat, whitewashed village was a picture in itself.  Followed a fairly easy run between the hills, with the setting sun behind throwing a crimson glamour on the even sea, and the ‘evening glow’ spreading over the countryside, to Minehead, a pleasant enough seaport.  No boats would leave for Wales for a week !

Hm, the position was getting more complicated !  If no boats were available, my only way was by the Severn tunnel, which would mean a ride to Llanberis of about 380 miles, obviously an impossibility in two days.  I decided to try that place at Watchet, so, as the time was 9.45 I ‘did a blind’.  Then I saw a signpost pointing to Dunster, which, I had heard, was worth seeing, so off I flew up a secluded lane.  Dunster is a wonderful little place, hidden from the rest of the world, and passed by, unnoticed by the roar of modern traffic.  Old fashioned, overshadowed by the wooded hillsides, sweetly scented by the creeper roses adorning the walls, and quaint, with its ancient little covered market, it demands a place amongst the foremost of England’s prettiest villages.

Another blind down another lane from the main road landed me in Watchet, and I soon found the recommended place, at 11.10pm !  At supper I had a table fit for a duke, with food that would make the same duke green with envy.  Mine host promised to find out if a boat crossed the Channel from Weston-super-Mare, informing me that had I been a little earlier I should have got a chance of spending a night in a fishing smack, reaching Barry Dock for breakfast next day.  That would have been OK !  Anyway, I consoled myself, one can’t have it both ways.


This Freedom 1926 Part Four


At breakfast this morning, it did not take us long to put Kingsbridge behind which, after a night of rain, was just wallowing in sludge.  It was one of those close, sticky mornings with a sky of sombre grey that foretold of more rain.  The Plymouth road was like a narrow lane between high banks that, though they shut out the views, displayed hosts of roses and honeysuckle; it was full of steep hills, rarely rideable and, much to my joy, was all pot-holes full of water.  One gets sick of immaculate surfaces, and really appreciates a few miles of rough riding and splashing.  So I got as many pot-holes in to the yard as I could.  This country is very sparsely populated, and it is quite a common thing for schoolchildren from the outlying farms coming to school on horseback.  We saw several such.

Although we were on a regular touring route, Modbury turned out ‘en masse’ to see us.  And as Modbury is situated all the way up a steep hill it had the chance of seeing us properly.  Youngsters who ought to have gone to school spoke loudly and scathingly because we dismounted, maidens pulled faces and giggled at me (so my friend said, though I swore it was him !) and old ladies left their washing to gossip about our clothing, for, as my friend wore generously made ‘plus fours’ and I ‘shorts’, we undoubtedly made a fine pair of freaks; so by the time the top of Modbury was reached, I, at least, was ready to do a sprint.  After that the ripples in the country grew less pronounced, until at length we were riding at least a mile without walking a hill, and the surface had deteoriated to its usual perfection.

The entrance to Plymouth was dull and tram-lined.  The inside of Plymouth was exciting, the traffic and cars, and a heavy downpour of rain deciding us not to take up permanent residence there.  My companion was just as anxious to get out of it as I was, and as his way was not mine we parted company, he making for Devonport and I for Saltash ferry.  I never saw Plymouth Sound or any of the ‘lions’.  I left my companion at exactly noon, by a nearby clock, enquired for the route, walked up many steep streets, rode over millions of setts, and at exactly 12.40 reached the same place again.

The second attempt put me right after I had wandered all over the warehouse district, and inside the cape I came to Saltash Ferry and found the craft on the wrong side.  It took me an hour to get across to Saltash, making the journey by a sister-ship to the one at Dartmouth.  A ‘Teas’ notice in a quaint little alley attracted me, and I had lunch in the rear of an oyster shop with an open window in front of which the budding manhood of Saltash stood watching me.  But that is not all.  All the street came to look at my bike and to whizz the pedals backwards or ring the bell.  Then a baby started to cry, and in two minutes pandemonium reigned, every baby for miles around joining in sympathy.  Clicking freewheel, ringing bell, and the lusty howls of a host of seamen-to-be struck up a tune that would make Jack Hylton’s celebrated Savoy Orphans weep with envy.  The houses were quaint and doddering; upstairs one might shake hands across the street; fishing tackle was piled up by the doors, the street was cobbled, a pungent shrimp-cum-lobster-cum-oyster smell prevailed, and the kiddies spoke in the drawling Cornish accent.  When I left the alley I was given a royal send-off by a cheering crowd of urchins.

After that – ugh !, it was all hills, all ups, with the scenic tide at its lowest ebb since leaving home.  It was inland Cornwall, dreary, half moorland country, very hilly, with rain coming in spasms, each spasm leaving me sticky and thirsty.  Happily every hamlet had its pump !  At Callington I discovered that the last ten miles had taken me two hours.  Callington is a bit quaint, steep-streeted, and whitewashed very white.  The next stage of ten miles to Launceston started very unpromising, uphill, with dreary, lumpy hills all around and a hampering sidewind, but after a few miles an improvement took place, then, dropping into a little combe, I passed through some wonderful woodland scenery.  After that things went more pleasantly, and I got many a fine view of the valley of the Tamar on my right, until I reached Launceston, which lies on the main Exeter-Land’s End road, only 80 miles from the latter.  It is a steep little town of historical interest, owns up to a castle, a priory, and the remains of a wall, and is picturesquely quaint.  I joined the Bude road, and, of course, the worst of two alternatives, precipitous down, into the Ottery valley, and ever so hard up.  Then I got another dose of rain and hills, but both were left behind at Yealmbridge, from where a rippling stretch of high country took me to four cross roads at the Red Post Inn.  I was torn between two desires, the Bude road and the Kilhampton road, and the latter won.  A real Devonian lane took me to Kilhampton, an ordinary looking village on the north road to Land’s End, but Kilhampton possesses a very good tea-place, which, after 38 Cornish miles is more than just a tea-place.

It was a good job that I got tea there, too, for I came in for it when I started, open ground, dismal, very hilly, and a high wind of mushroom growth anchoring me down to one place, but after about five miles it turned completely round and, in violent contradiction sent me scudding along like a whirlwind.  After a time I deserted the main road and was soon heading furiously down into scenes of riotous beauty.  With now and then a momentary glimpse of the sea through the foliage, I went down, down, until, turning a bend, I looked upon that gem of Devon – Clovelly.  Some folks say “See Venice and die”:  I would say, “See Clovelly – and live!”  I left my bike at the top of the cobbled street which goes down to the sea in steps.  Every building in that street was a picture; verandahed, whitewashed, each wall had a most beautiful show of roses.  Down one goes on slippery cobbles, then in and out of quaint little alleys, and actually through houses until the shore and the tiniest of harbours is reached.  It is possible to walk along the harbour wall to a little lamp set at the narrow entrance.  From this point one may look back on the houses, tier upon tier above each other, at the high cliffs red and brown stretching away in headlands and toothed promontories, at the tiny, secluded little harbour with its fishing boats, and away over the foam-flecked waters to the low dim mountains of South Wales and Gower.  It was all so gorgeous, so stunning in its loveliness.  For a long time I stood by the harbour lamp, contemplating the scene, until, finding the time creeping on, I pulled myself together and tore myself away after a stern battle with a desire to stay in Clovelly.  So I climbed in and out of the alleys, and (with many a backward glance) up the cobbled street to my bike.

In a narrow lane above the combe I sat on a gate and watched the sun dip into the sea.  It changed the rolling waters into a long, rippling glory of crimson, tinted the meeting sky and sea as on the night when Hiawatha sailed into the great Beyond; as Longfellow quotes:-

“The evening sun descending

Set the clouds on fire with redness

Burned the broad sky like a prairie

Left upon the level water

One long track and trail of splendour

Down whose stream, as down a river

Westward, westward Hiawatha

Sailed into the fiery sunset,

Sailed into the purple vapours

Sailed into the dusk of evening “

“A dozen miles or more to go if I would make Bideford tonight, and now it is 9.45”, I murmured to myself as I sped down the glossy road.  I had set my heart on going to ‘Bideford in Devon’, for it stirred up thoughts of ‘Westward Ho’ and Amyas Leigh and all the heroes of schoolboy days.  So – I had set my heart on going to Bideford.  The wind had risen to gale velocity, roaring behind me, sending me scudding over hills and dales, through many a picturesque village, and on the sea edge of Dartmoor.  Darkness had fallen, and the streets were very quiet when I reached Bideford and perused my handbook.  I had gone too far, so back I ambled up a steep hill until I found the place at last, and just scraped in as the people were going to bed (11pm).  It is getting later each night !  Over supper I read a bit of Kingsley’s ‘Westward Ho!’ which lay on the table.  Very often I have perused that book, and now here I was in the town that forms the base of it.  So I turned in, with many thoughts on the past day, soon lapsing into the sleep that comes easily to one who set 92 west country miles behind him in the day.


This Freedom 1926 Part Three

At 8.30 this morning I was spinning along the road again, the Exeter road that took me along the edge of a wooded hill-country and gave me views one side of newly-mown fields and rippling acres of golden wheat, whilst on the other hand many an alluring little lane tempted me to leave my highway.  Only once did I yield to the temptation, then I found myself between two blazing walls of roses with the sky above almost hidden by foliage.  In twelve miles I reached Cullompton, where I tried to get a 20 tooth freewheel but failed, though I was offered consignments of 18’s.  At one village cycle shop I was told that an 18 would do just as well, and when I told the dealer that my gear would jump from 59.8 to 66.4 with a corresponding jump in pushing resistance, he could not understand why, so I took him out and explained, then he fell to examining my mount, confessing that he had not quite “tuk up wi’ them new-fangled thingummis”, and I had to drop my wheels out and in and work my calliper brake for him.  Still, it was one of “them there racers an’ don’t like them down handles an’ I think them back forks are too thin an’ I don’t like the looks o’it front un’s either, an’ I’d sooner you ride it till me”.  He had the old idea of something massive for a big ride.  I got a freewheel of the requisite size in Exeter, knocking a 19 tooth fixed cog off and putting the freewheel in its place.  I rode free after that until I reached Corwen on the last lap of my tour.

I paid a visit to Exeter Cathedral; in any part of which one may go without payment, the trustees leaving it to the generosity of the visitor.  And a visitor who goes through Exeter cathedral without making a voluntary contribution must be a very mean person indeed.  As with Wells, I shall serve no purpose by trying to explain the wonderful works of art that I saw both within and without, so again I will just leave it at that.  Exeter was very busy, and is all narrow streets; I was glad when I had squirmed through the traffic and reached the immaculate road on the east bank of the Exe.  Topsham was reached, and here I decided to have lunch, a Devon lunch, and just to see how things went I decided to make a light mid-day meal.  So I went into a pub and ordered a pint of cider and bread and jam – I am not enamoured of cheese.  The bread came in tiny cottage loaves, and was so delicious that I ate six to two pints of cider – bang went my light lunch decision.  Topsham is a rather quaint place, more so in the narrow streets leading to the river.

From here my road got hilly, giving me many fine river views, whilst at the foot of each hill was a hamlet that was a brilliant kaleidoscope of flowers.  The diet of cider, bread and jam was doing its worst, for the whole road was a drag.  Then I dropped into modern suburbia embodied in a seaside resort that resolved itself into Exmouth, and ere long I was on the promenade, glimpsing my first view of the English Channel.  Exmouth struck me as being a very usual resort, so without delay I got a boatman to take me across the mouth of the river.  It was one shilling to the sandy bar and two and sixpence to the Dawlish road, so I decided to economise and had a bobsworth.  But had I known !  Came nearly an hour of collar work over soft dry sand until I was reduced to the consistency of butter, for it was a hot, dull day.  Thus I reached Dawlish, which carries the usual brand of the resort, but is bounded by magnificent cliffs and jutting teeth of rock, a glorious first glimpse of the South Devon coast.

The road was all uphill and down dale; from the summit of each hill were wonderful sea and coast views.  My ideas for a thrust into Cornwall that day went by the board, for it goes against the grain to rush things amid this kind of scenery, even if the road allows it.  ‘Billy J’ was right when he said that 70 miles is a good average for a hard-rider in Devon.  In two miles I walked up three long hills, then unclimbed them all in one headlong descent into Teignmouth, another ordinary resort with an extraordinary coast.  Out again after crossing the river by a long wooden bridge for which I paid one penny and up again until I looked down on the river mouth in which were the low grey hulks of three warships, the golden bay and guardian cliffs and islands of weather and tide worn rocks of fantastic shape, with behind it all the rolling waters of the channel dotted here and there with ships.  So, with sea or land views I swept inland to Newton Abbot and Torquay.

I am correct when I say ‘inland to Torquay’ for I had not the slightest desire to go scouting around the promenade which is like the ‘prom’ of every fashionable resort only more so, and in my hatred of dresses, ‘prom’ adornments and piers with their quaint amusements, I was willing to sacrifice whatever scenic attraction there might be, to get away.  That is why I crept un-ostensibly round the back of Torquay, and came to rest at a CTC place on the outskirts.  The people came from Lancashire and were delighted to see me.  We fell to talking about ‘up north’ and about cycling matters, for they were old cyclists, retired and keeping a beautiful boarding house, which, to keep memories green, they have called ‘Dentdale’.  I had a right royal tea, a real Devonshire tea with extras, and yarned about things until the time got late, and I reluctantly tore myself away.

A few minutes later I descended to Cockington.  Situated in a narrow valley, it is everything that guide books and picture-postcards depict it to be – and more.  The old forge, charmingly set in a narrow lane hedged by equally ancient thatched cottages, whose stone walls were brown and moss grown, whilst over the garden walls hung roses and intertwining creepers, the tiny, musical stream and the overarching trees made up the sweetest rural picture I had seen for many a day.  The hamlet was quiet and unsullied by its proximity to a popular resort.  I crept down the valley, by the musical stream, along a lane whose leafy walls and roof shut out the light and threw the road in semi-darkness.  A Devonshire lane !  Is there anything in the world so beautiful !  Is there anything that can show such treasures of nature as the hedgerows of wild flowers and such scents as a Devonshire lane !

My lane took me to the tramlines and promenade of Paignton.  Only one thing did I see at Paignton that stamped it as different from the ‘rest of em’, and that was the tropical plants that grew in the gardens.  I might have been suddenly transported to some Indian or Hawaiian garden city, so different everything appeared.  Beyond here, I was pondering on a moorland-like heath, at the Brixham-Dartmouth fork roads, on which way to go, when a farmer came up and I got into conversation with him.  He was a right old West Country chap, swarthy and stolid, and speaking in the drawling tone typical of this county.  When he had ventilated his views of every topic under the sun, I asked him about the best way, and if Brixham was worth seeing.  He told me that there was nothing at Brixham and advised me to carry on to Dartmouth, which I did, though I later learned that I had missed a glorious bit of South Devon.  A long, long climb took me to a viewpoint from where the beautiful river Dart lay below me with its convoy of craft – including two ugly, grey torpedo boats.  On the long easy descent to the river, magnificent moving pictures rolled before my eyes.

They have a ‘floating bridge’ across the river, propelled to and fro by a steam engine, which, if noise is a virtue, must be positively bristling with good points.  Anyway, it rolled me and couple of motorcars across and charged me fourpence.  Dartmouth is a breath from the past, recalling vividly the days of those bold thieves, Drake, Raleigh, Blake and other ‘British Mariners’, but recalling them in a romantic, history book way.  Ancient cobbled alleys with the houses quaintly built, seeming, in some instances, ready to topple onto each other, a sleepy, old-fashioned little quay, and a castle and church combined, so to speak, a place where, (including the coast) one would like to potter about for days.

But my path, though flowery, and strewn with roses, had a few thorns in it.  I was already looking like a Red Indian with the heat of the two days before, and I found washing a painful, delicate operation, whilst my arms and knees were peeling and I dared hardly touch them.  Then each day was as much as anything one long search for water, for I had acquired a thirst that knew no limits.  Also, two days and a half of hard-riding on ‘fixed’ had somehow made me saddle-sore, and I knew that another day or two would be required to alleviate it.  Still, when one is amidst such scenery as I was, these ‘thorns’ are nothing against the pleasures one finds.

As ever, the road was hilly from Dartmouth, and this hill was an extra special one, the narrowness and depth of the lane making it like an oven.  On the top lay the little village of Stoke Fleming, where the walls were covered with roses and the gardens a blaze of glory,  The church, like several others I had seen had a half-round tower, castellated and no spire, similar to the narrower of the round towers of Norman fortresses.  So far as I can make it out it is a style peculiar to the West, for I don’t recall seeing one north of Somerset.  The scenery became more enchanting; now I looked down on a glorious little cove of brown tinted cliffs, either rising sheer from the water, or weathered into fantastic shapes, pinnacles and arches in islets of brown rock from a green, clear sea.  A sudden breathless descent took me to the cove, where was the tiniest of sandy beaches, and a tiny hamlet deep in a glen that owned a thousand summer shades of leaf and flower, and through which ran a crystal-clear stream.  And its name was….Blackpool !  I could not imagine a greater contrast than this infinitely beautiful, unspoiled cove beside the big, dismal, unattractive Lancashire seaside namesake, and I fancy should not hesitate if it came to a choice.

Another precipitous climb through hot woods put me once more on top of the cliffs, and with a view westwards of a stretch of golden sands behind which was a marsh where the road ran across, and eastward of magnificent cliffs, I tumbled down again, round many a hairpin bend, to sea level – on the first rough road of the tour.  A dead level two miles took me across Slapton sands to Torcross, where I turned inland for Stokenham.  Then, in rapidly gathering dusk I had six lumpy miles, through many an attractive village until I came to a town built on a very muddy river, with a quay on which all the beauty – and otherwise – of the town walked about – Kingsbridge.  As I was not attracted with it, I stopped to weigh up the chances of making a seven mile blind to Modbury (it was now 9.45).  Just as I was about to make a start and risk it, up came a cyclist, who, divining that I was in search of a place, suggested that we both ‘pig in’ where he was staying.  So I gave up my thoughts of Modbury, and away we went and were soon fixed up.  He is a Manchester chap on a fortnight’s pottering tour to Land’s End.


This Freedom 1926 Part Two


Sometimes I feel the need of a watch, one of those watches that tells the truth within half an hour or so.  In my determination to cast all laws of convention overboard this trip, I rigidly refused to carry a watch.  Of course, I do not find this difficult simply because I do not possess a watch, my financial resources not running into the price of a decent one.  I am always on the brink of bankruptcy.  So when I awoke this morning I had no idea of the time, and as all was quiet round about I did not want to go down too soon, but I hate to lie awake with a view of a blank wall through the window, so at last I got up, and was soon outside, inspecting the ‘lions’, which includes an ancient covered market hall and a castle.  The time was only 7.15.  By 8.15, I was bidding goodbye to that very interesting ‘modern maid of Ross’, and a few minutes later Ross was behind and the road to Gloucester was ahead.  The sun was getting strong and everything pointed to a continuance of the heat-wave, whilst the countryside, refreshed by the slight rain yesterday seemed more golden than ever.

I entered hill-country, the northern extremity of the Forest of Dean, a heavily wooded land, with the perfect road winding about between the hills in valleys ravishingly beautiful, and by snugly-placed timber and brick cottages, until, with a climb, I found myself looking down on the green plain of Gloucester.  The road flung itself clear of hills and straightened itself out, and by the time I had reached the City, it had become monotonously level.  I pottered round the beautiful Cathedral just as the bells were tolling their message to the yet sleepy citizens, then, not finding much else to interest me, I joined the Bristol road.  Gloucester was once a fine city to look upon – some of it may be yet, but I found industry predominating.

For some miles then I got a dose of modern highway.  Running near the Severn, this model speedway is as level and straight as a die; it is lined with the blatant adverts and dull workshops of ‘England’s Glory’ matches – matches that I shall in future refuse to buy; on its sweltering hide roared hordes of engines, so where the Bath road breaks away I joined it.  I wanted hill-country.

Need I say that I found it?  Almost subtly this winding, smooth road gradually introduced me to the southern Cotswolds, then, at Stroud, suddenly left me in the midst of them.  To begin with, I made an involuntary detour to Stroud, then, with equal unwillingness, climbed a long, un-necessary hill.  The water-supply was good, however, and I quaffed a tremendous amount.  I came into a winding valley, often spoiled by ugly houses and spasmodic industry, until at Nailsworth, I reached the open down-land.  It was rolling country, ideal for the freewheel, which I had left at home.  The hot sun was merciless, there was no shelter, no water to drink, and little outlook beyond successively bare, green ridges and coils of road.  For 25 miles it did not touch a village, but always kept to the highest point.  Never will I forget that 25 miles ride over scorched downs without a drink.  In an exhausted condition I spotted a village pub at last, and drained two tankards of cider, the first in my life.  It is queer stuff !  At last, 4 miles from Bath, I found a lunch place.  A morning ride of 50 miles would put anyone in form for lunch !

In two minutes after leaving the lunch place, I was in Somerset, and speeding downhill with widespread hill-and-valley scenery before me, into the valley of the Avon, and into Bath.  Some may say it was a shame to go through Bath without visiting the Abbey and the relics of the Roman Aquaesolis, but if anyone else had happened to be there on a hot Sunday afternoon, when crowds of people attired in the very latest fashions were parading about and eyeing them with either supercilious snobbery or discomfiting grins, he might have done as I did – take the shortest way out.  My shortest way was the wrong one, though it led to the right place, Wells, for I had intended going over the Fosse Way.

Motors predominated until I left the Avon Valley and the Bath-Bristol road at Corston, where a long, easy climb brought me onto the hills again.  Of one thing I was thankful; every village supplied water on tap.  The scenery was pleasant, not great, green and undulating.  On a climb leading to a village a passing cyclist warned me of a swarm of bees higher up.  I saw them; there were thousands of them, buzzing angrily with a noise like an aeroplane, and holding the traffic up.  I crept warily by.  I was a bit saddle-sore, somehow, but I think I was in form, for despite the excessive heat I maintained a good speed and soon came to Chewton Mendip at the foot of the famous limestone Mendip Hills.  A straight, jerky road led me to the summit, 855 ft, from where I descended Stoberry Hill.  Winding round characteristic low bluffs of limestone, and past riotous banks, with a living image of a barren Derbyshire Dale on the left, the scenery became very beautiful, and halfway down I obtained a heat-hazed view of Wells and the plains behind, flanked by the hills of Dorset, which looked like headlands jutting into a sea – a sea of green fields.  A few minutes later I was in that delightful little Somerset Cathedral City, Wells.

Of course I made for the cathedral, and obtained entrance therein.  I won’t attempt to describe it; it is much too big a subject, but I will remark on that much-discussed piece of architecture, the Inverted Arches.  Some say they are too heavy and clumsy-looking beside the intricately worked tracery around, but personally I thought they were very fine.  Wonderful places these ancient English cathedrals, with their delicate oaken carvings and intricate masonry, their memorial tablets and stained glass windows, most of which are very old and are priceless and zealously protected.  Outside, the building is almost as beautiful as the interior, and I spent quite an interesting hour looking the building over.  It is very old, building work started in 1180.  Getting some picture postcards and the ‘Dorset’ map, I moved out of the city, on the Glastonbury road, for I decided to ‘make’ the old Abbey town for tea.  It was a pity to leave the district of Mendip so soon, but I wanted to get to the South coast as quickly as possible.  The Mendip Hills possess some of the finest stalactite caverns in Britain, and round Cheddar (8 miles from Wells) are many caverns and the famous Cheddar Gorge (and cheese).

There was a motoring couple from Manchester in the tea-place, old cyclists, and still possessing the cycling characteristics, though they thought I was very ambitious when I said that I hoped to do both Devon coasts.  Of course, like many others, their cycling had been done on roadsters (push-bikes) with daily rides of 30 or 40 miles.  The ‘Lions’ of Glastonbury I did not look for, though they are many, including an Abbey and the site of a lake-town.  As at Bath I took the wrong road, but by crossing a couple of fields and stiles I regained my road and headed for Taunton, passing the church-topped hill known as the Isle of Avalon.  The road was not striking, being a series of villages until, at Piper’s Inn, it left the main Bridgewater road, became narrow and winding though perfectly smooth, and went as flat as a pancake.

Romance and history walk hand in hand in this part of Somerset.  Between Greinton and Greylake I crossed the field of Sedgemoor, where, in 1685, the last pitched battle on English soil took place.  Just beyond Othery a ruined church perched on a hill made me think that by some mysterious means Mont St. Michael had been transported from Cornwall, so identical was it, but on enquiry from a lady who proved to be a well-known painter, I was told that this was the Chapel of St Michael, Boroughbridge, and rather than actually ruined, it had never been completed.  It is very conspicuous, and I went up to it, but was not able to explore it, as every corner possessed a pair of people, who regarded me as an un-necessary intrusion.  So I left them to their corners and went to admire an excellent view over the vale of Bridgewater.

At the next village is a little stone monument which is supposed to mark the exact spot where King Alfred let the cakes burn.  I refer to the Isle of Athelney.  This area was once, no doubt, under water, and every hill was an island possessing its shrine, as Athelney and Avalon, which, in after years, became famous in legend.  Lyng was the last of a chain of marshland villages, so I hailed Lyng with relief.  After a day of hills a bit of level country comes as a change, but when one does not get the ghost of an incline for mile after mile, when level fields and stagnant dykes dissect the fields and line the road all the time, and when the air from four to six feet is solid with flies and midges, making you dismount every hundred yards to unearth them out of your eyes, one does get tired of it.  The sun specs’ were very useful, but I could not bear them on for long at once; they made my head ache.  But Lyng ended the marsh, and for a few miles I climbed and descended umpteen snappy little hills, eventually joining a main road which took me into Taunton.

Fig 10d     Boroughbridge near Taunton

This Freedom004

Taunton on Sunday night is like any other town on Sunday night, a place where, in the main street, all the lads and lasses parade their manliness or beauty, and failing those qualities, their best clothes, and stand staring at you, making cheap jokes about ‘bare knees’.  Moreover Taunton struck me as quite an ordinary country town, whatever there might be ‘behind the scenes’, so after ascertaining the time I got on with it along the Exeter road.  It was crowded with bicycle riders, motorcyclists and motorists.  A ragtime cyclist on a cheap lightweight drew me into a scrap.  He rode wrong, was geared miles too high, and was dressed in his Sunday clothes, but he gave me a hard tussle, and it was only after one or two hills that I left him after a record seven miles to Wellington.  It was 9.30 in Wellington, but as it was something like Taunton I decided to push on and bank my hopes at an Inn at Sampford Arundel, the only listed place after Wellington for 20 miles.  I pottered then, for it was only 3 or 4 miles away, and the country had become charming.  From a ridge I obtained a beautiful view of the last rays of sunlight above the Quantocks and the green fields between, settling down to the quiet of a summer twilight.  Ah, here was Sampford Arundel, just the place to spend the night, at a dip in the country, thickly wooded with a little stream running musically by the Inn.

It never struck me that they might be full up until I asked, then – “I’m sorry but we are full up” came the reply, and I was advised to try the White Ball a “little up the road”.  That “little”, as is usual in the country developed into two miles, all of it being literally “up” the road.  It was dark when I got there, and the Inn was closed up.  Then a yokel told me that the Pink Ball – Blue – no it was Red Ball was sure to put me up – a few yards down the road, so off I skipped for another two miles, wondering if I should have to try all the Balls on a Snooker table ere I found a place.  Ah, there it was, a new place with a crowd of topers on the steps – it was well after closing time.  It struck me very unfavourably, but, well the next place was twelve miles away, so it was Hobson’s Choice.  The Barman decided, on my enquiry to ‘ask mamma’, and a long time elapsed before ‘mamma’ came and accepted me.  Supper in a well kept room, and the neat condition of my bedroom served to nullify my misgivings about the place.

This Inn is just near Burlescombe, a mile or so over the Devonshire border, so I found that I had unconsciously set myself a record; breakfast in Herefordshire, dinner in Gloucestershire, tea in Somerset and supper in Devon.

Glorious Devon !

‘Green swelling hills of Devon, foliage-traced

With cliffs romantic, round bright waters close –

Here blushes early, lingers late the rose,

The myrtle here survives the leafy waste

Like isles pine-pinnacled the glossy deep ‘

This Freedom 1926 Part one

This Freedom001

And now, for ten days, I have the wish.  Ten whole days in which to exercise ‘this freedom’, in which I own no master, no allegiance to anyone, even be he the king; in which my mood will take me where it will – as it will; my bicycle to take me – some money (not too much of that !), and ten days of absolute, untrammelled freedom – why, I was the wealthiest man in the whole world !  So I packed up my kit; on a cycling tour the secret lies in knowing not what to carry, but what not to carry.  The ‘tenderfoot’ tourist, even if he has studied the problem, always takes too much luggage with him; only experience can teach him what constitute ‘necessities’ and ‘luxuries’.  So, modestly enough, claiming to have some idea of the hang of it, I took the following to pull me through ten days.

A spare shirt, a pair of stockings and handkerchiefs were my touring extras, to which might be added nearly a dozen maps Bartholomew’s CTC half inch to a mile, and that golden key to touring, the CTC Handbook.  My cape of course is my regular kit.  I was clothed to the best advantage, though perhaps not very conventionally, wearing light cycling shoes and stockings, flannel ‘shorts’, sports shirt and alpaca jacket – which is about as thick as a piece of tissue paper.  Thus I combined coolness with a maximum amount of freedom of limb.  To conclude, the only knowledge of where I was going was a hazy notion of the South coast, Sussex, Dorset or Devon – and even that would depend on my mood.  The only thing I had promised was to meet a motorcycling uncle at Llanberis on the return Friday evening, with a view to climbing Snowdon.  But till then I had seven days, and much can be seen and done in seven days.

I had decided to get away at 5am on the great morning, for my first day was to get me somewhere about Gloucester, but as is my habit I was late, and what with messing about cooking breakfast and other things, it was 6.30 when I banged the door; then, as I mounted I felt that I was free at last – my holiday had started.  How sweet were those rural by-lanes, the pretty, winding lanes of the ‘old, familiar road’, those little cottages and quiet villages by which I sped ere I reached my Southward road at Beeston.  My Southward road was the great highway that runs from end to end of the British wonderland, from Lands End to John-o-Groats, and for many miles this was to carry me.  To Whitchurch the scenery was typical Cheshire – and remained so when I had crossed the border into Shropshire.  I crossed a corner of Prees Heath, the scene of a big military encampment during the War, then I rode through pleasantly scented pasture country and drew into the Hawkestone Hills, similar to Peckforton Hills in formation and very beautiful.  With very little climbing the road wormed its way through the range to picturesque Lee Brockhurst.  Hadnall introduced me to long, straight stretches of road that would be uninteresting were it not for the distant views of the border mountains and the nearer Wrekin, and that this is the plain on which was fought the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.  There is a village called Battlefield and a memorial church three miles from Shrewsbury.

Stifling a strong desire to make a slight detour to Wroxeter, where is the Roman Uriconium, I ran into Salop, where I had a lunch of strawberries and cream with other delicacies, for which I was charged a formidable price.  Heeding not the various attractions of Shrewsbury, I crossed the English bridge which was being widened, and took the Ludlow road.  The scenery was nothing to write about, being flat and monotonous and motorised, and as I faced a stiff breeze and unaccountably became saddle-sore, I was not sorry when I came up against the hill-country, and entered the narrow vale between Caer Caradoc and the Long Mynd, in which lies the residential town of Church Stretton.  I searched high and low here for maps of the Dorset and Devon coasts without avail.

The hill-country became splendid, and the villages were glorious pictures in ‘black and white’ and flowery gardens, whilst the wind turned and sided me now, so I easily ticked back the miles, having the good fortune to run into a heavy rainstorm, which was luxuriously cooling.  Unhappily, it soon passed off.  Just after Craven Arms I turned to view quaint little Stokesay Castle, and becoming enamoured of it, went inside.  Though not a ruin, the castle interior is barren of equipment, except for one room, which has been turned into a tiny museum, in which are various local relics and documents relevant to Stokesay.  I know nothing of its history, except that it dates from the 13th century, the timber work that gives it such a picturesque appearance being added in the Elizabethan period, thus converting it into a kind of fortified mansion.  I fancy that the ornamental fireplace and beautiful plaster work also belong to these latter times.  I was sorry to see that the main hall has been converted into a refreshment hall.

This Freedom002 Whilst I had been pottering about the castle, another rainstorm had come, but just as I made a dash to get in it, it passed away, and soon the merciless sun was beating down in approved heat-wave fashion.  A wide, perfect road carried me through a rich haymaking country to Ludlow, which is situated above the River Teme.  There is an old bridge over the river, leading into the steep main street, and from this bridge one gets an imposing view of the castle, a ruined fortress similar in style, I thought, to Kenilworth.  In Ludlow are some ancient little ‘bits’, the best being old inns, a notable example of which is the ‘Feathers’.  I had another exhaustive search here for maps but met with the same rebuffs as at Church Stretton.

My lot was now the type of country that often lies in view of a main road, just ‘country’ – nothing else, whilst the main road itself suffered for a time from the usual complaint, traffic.  The heat too, was almost unbearable, and at Woofferton, where I was tempted to follow the Teme Valley to old-world Tenbury and Worcester, I enjoyed the doubtful ‘fun’ of wallowing along a newly tarred two miles length of road.  By the time I had dissected countless tarry stones from my knees and shoes, and succeeded in liberally transferring the dauby stuff to my hands, I had decided to go straight ahead.  Then the country took on a new outlook, the road winding in and out like an alluring by-lane with the country around just like a garden.  Herefordshire !  I met a tandem couple who turned out to be two prominent members of my club, and with whom I had a long chat.  They were as brown as berries, had been in Devon and Cornwall, had there obtained, besides an unhealthy taste for cider, a great enthusiasm for the West Country and they urged me to go their way, lending me maps and putting me ‘on’ several finds, in the shape of caterers and lodging houses.  So I left them, and the half-formed thoughts of heading West resolved into a decision.  I had tea in an old-world cottage in old-world Leominster, or ‘Lemster’, as it is pronounced, and then ran into a magnificent country, perhaps not really magnificent in the right sense of the word, but a bit of untainted England, fields of waving wheat all splashed with crimson poppies, long-grass meadows, rolling up and down in furling waves….

‘-Such and up and down,

Of verdure, noting too much up or down,

A ripple of land, as if God’s finger touch’d

But did not press in making England’.

and hedges ablaze with roses.  Once the road climbed evenly for a mile or more, and I had a fine view from the summit, a view of sweeping hills – waves of land all green and red and brown and gold until the blue haze of distance mingled it all.  I came to quaint old Hereford, busy Hereford, I should say, for the Saturday night crowds were about.  Perhaps the best thing to remind me of Hereford will be the long search for ‘sun-specs’ I had.  I wanted some ‘sun-specs’ for my eyes had ached that day with the glare of the sun, but the millions of midges which seem to be all determined to explore the inner recesses of my eyes were my chief reason for the investment.  Hereford was combed for those ‘specs’, and I got them just as I was about to give up the hunt.  But they were good ones, and I yet mourn their loss, which came about a month later on the Berwyns – Bwlch Rhiw Hirnant, to be precise.  I must hold the crowds responsible for my failure to take a proper look at Hereford Cathedral and for not looking up the street where Nell Gwynne was born, but I did spend a moment looking down at the sylvan Wye from the old bridge.  That, I think, concluded my associations with the ancient city of Hereford.

This Freedom003

The next 14 miles on the hills to the west of the Wye Valley hold glorious memories yet with me.  The sun was setting; over the hills and valleys, green fields and woods was the hush of a summer twilight, a twilight that, at first tinged with the rays of the setting sun, golden hued, changed ever so slowly until the distant hills went blue and hazy and a dead quiet settled o’er the countryside.  Then is the time when the bicycle scores, when one glides noiselessly along, when one is, and desires to be, at peace with the great peace around, when one may sit on a stile and watch the distant mountains turn from purple to blue, and see the haze of night – a filmy cloak steal over them, when one may walk slowly uphill and see the roses drooping to sleep, or catch the scents of the hedgerows and hayfields; that is when one draws closer to infinite secrets of Nature, and feels the call of the countryside.  Add that to the thoughts of a whole week – more than a week of such country and it will be readily understood how supremely happy I was.  I revelled in my bare arms, open neck and, yes, bare knees, loose, light clothing, and in the knowledge that now, time was my own; I could go whither I chose.  I would put up in the next village till the next village came, then the next, and so on, for I hated to give up riding on such an evening.  The freedom of cycle touring, it is great !

Eventually I found myself crossing the Wye again and entering a quaint little town, Ross on Wye, where I took counsel with myself.  The local clock was set at 9.15; Gloucester, the next place in the handbook was 16 miles away.  Was it feasible tonight?  An hour’s hard-riding if the roads were not hilly, an hour hard-riding in country like this – no, I couldn’t do it, so I found a place, had supper to the tune of a wireless concert from 2LO (You can’t get thoroughly away from modern life even in quaint little Ross) then took a walk when dusk was deepening to night, and a bright streak over the Black Mountains of Brecon was all that was left of a magnificent day, a day of 148 miles of the English Wonderland.  Back at my little Temperance Hotel I sat listening to the burlesque of Harry Lauder, and to the engaging remarks of the daughter of the house, a rather pretty ‘modern maid of Ross’, who wanted me to tell her of the latest things in jazz and hairdressing in town.  I’m afraid that I failed to tell her more than she already knew, for I did not know myself, but all the same I must apologise to Harry Lauder for neglecting him.  The end of a perfect day !

Over Moel Sych 2,713ft


Over Moel Sych001 September, 1932, like ‘the Lady April’ had her full share of moods.  One associates this lovely month with bountiful harvest, with sunshine and blue skies, a period of settled weather through which creeps approaching autumn.  But this month was tearful, sunny, shaken by gales, frost and calm and hot, mixing all the varieties of our English climate into an April pot-pourri.

On the third Saturday afternoon I crossed Chat Moss under the bluest of skies.  Little puffs of white cloud floated slowly along, and the sun was hot, like full summer.  I moved quickly, as one who has many miles to cover in few hours, for Jo and Fred would be awaiting me ninety miles away, and they had promised to have a grand supper awaiting my arrival.  Although adding a few miles I took the Tarporley road in preference to the main road by Chester and Chirk.  I was on roads that make hurry possible.  The little hills and long levels of this familiar highway, with a light breeze behind, kept my feet circling quickly; unconsciously, as my mind travelled with my eyes along the hedges and into cottage gardens.  Twelve years before I had first timidly crept along here in a mood of discovery, my wondering senses in a growing delight of new sights and scenes, and now I appreciated it just as much, looking forward to the next bend just as keenly, though I had turned that bend a hundred times.  There is something great about the way one can travel the same old roads so many times in the same spirit of enthusiasm.  It would break one’s heart to know that never again could one’s face be set towards them.  Death were better!

I appreciate suitable company, but when an alien voice breaks upon a mental ecstasy, I curse silently, and answer with an eloquent semi-silence.  This voice announced a desire to be listened to for the next ten miles to Bunbury – ten of the loveliest, most expectant, miles.  At least he had a turn of speed, so we whipped along until the lane which led him to his lady-love appeared, and I found myself alone again.  Eleven miles to Whitchurch, easy, glorious miles, with the red hills of Peckforton to the west, a roaming place on many a Sunday with Tom in the past nine years.

[Now alas with his real buddy, Tom Idle no longer.  One year earlier, Tom Idle had stepped up to the altar and married a Welsh girl and presumably settled down in North Wales, for we hear no more about him, and my computer searches have thrown up nothing.  Charlie must have been gutted for in his record of cycle runs kept for 25 years, just two words against the entry for 28 September 1931, “Tom’s Wedding”]. 

Two miles from Whitchurch, on the Shropshire border a tandem pair caught up to me, and boasted how they had come all the way from Burtonwood by St Helens.  I agreed they had done a good ride (almost as far as I had) but when they complained of the hard road I laughed.  “You’ll have harder yet!” I forecasted, as, entering Whitchurch, I sent them on to the Wellington road, myself turning westward in an oblique slant towards the Welsh border.

A few miles along the Ellesmere road I stopped for tea at a cottage all but hidden in a long riot of a garden.  Fifty six miles were good enough for an afternoon ride.  Now the level waters of the Mere, the narrow streets of Ellesmere, the crossing of the Holyhead road at Whittington, where the great towers and moat of a feudal castle add romance to the place.  I have heard it said that here was born the poor boy who dreamed of London streets paved with gold, and who became the Capital’s greatest Lord Mayor three times.  Behind the fairy story of Dick Whittington is the germ of truth.  Saturday night in Oswestry, narrow streets, great crowds, dusk – and the road again, beating south again as the moon came up.

There is a cross roads at Llynclys, and there I turned westwards, between low hills, growing higher, with a river growing swifter, clearer, the Tanat river.  Lamplit, in moonlight, a road almost level, are ideal conditions of travel, and my wheels sped for many miles, veered at last from the main valley, and came to Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, the deep village under the shadow of Berwyn.  The last four miles above the Rhaeadr stream would shatter any dream of speed, the ninety miles in my legs began to tell their tale, and my mind was occupied with the promised supper, now so near.  I had earned it, I felt.  After an array of good things there was to be plum pudding overspread with custard.  Two helpings.  Then I would lie back in supreme comfort when it was over, and smoke a reminiscent cigarette.

There was Pistyll Rhaeadr ahead, a tall black cliff shutting up the valley, with the white streak of water upon it, a farm, even a group of great fir trees dwarfed by this, the highest waterfall in Wales.  On the last hill above the farm I turned aside through a gate, along a good green track, and at the first bend I saw our two tents romantically placed across the track – the only level spot in that region.  The tents were unlit and deserted; inside I saw the rest of the kit hurriedly thrown down.  Leaned against the steep moor were the two bicycles.  Then I saw the table.  This was a huge, flat-topped rock about two feet high.  For lack of other space Fred had encircled it within the tent, one large section protruding from the doorway.  And even the table was bare!

My light had evidently been seen, for there were voices calling me from somewhere far below in the bottom of the valley.  Some time later two overheated cyclists burst through the bracken below the path, carrying a milk can and canvas bucket.  They had foraged the farm without luck, and taking a short cut along this branch valley had become tangled up in fences, heather, and bog.

Long afterwards the pudding appeared, if not hot and steaming, at least warm on the outside.  Of custard there was none, but we sat round our rocky table in the bright moonlight and ate, and drank coffee ad lib, and yarned.  The ‘table’ effectively stopped us from closing up the tent, so Fred and I slept curled round it.

Cool and sulky morning.  How often has serene eventide lulled our last thoughts into a golden morrow, to find, on awakening, a transformation, a promise falsified?  The rain barely held off while we packed our kit away, and as we moved on in single file along the narrowing path the rain came, “gentle as the dew from heaven” at first, then steadily settling in, in true Berwyn fashion.  At a stream the track ended, the trouble began, the usual becaped struggle over tufty grass, tangly heather, into the wild amphitheatre in which lie reed edged, gloomy Llyn Lluncaws, under the frowning brow of Moel Sych.  As this was our third crossing we feared no false moves, and skirted the lake, striking by the easiest route, towards a rugged summit ridge directly north.

There is no easy way, with heavily laden bicycles that first summit was reached by sheer hard graft.  The cumbrous capes, the slipping grass, brought us down in turns, and we fell heavily.  The heather tugged at us.  This ridge gave a view into the deep jaws of Maen Gwynedd valley, across which the rain slanted.  Now the climb was toward Moel Sych itself, aslant  the main spur, again a devilish struggle, this time with loose scree to cross, over which one looked down hundreds of feet of rock to Llyn Lluncaws.  I was well ahead when I saw Jo suddenly slip and come down, bicycle and all on the very edge of the cliff.  Fred dropped his bike and made a grab, hauling her clear, with not a foot of space nor a moment of time to spare.  Dangerous moments!  No injuries, just a word of thanks, and once more the slow, wary plod with shouldered bikes.  These things are not remarkable, just the rough chances of the hills which the three of us are willing to take.

Over Moel Sych004The summit cairn of Moel Sych, yours truly aged 15 in shorts, Fred Dunster left of picture and H H Willis seated and standing behind another RSF member known only as ‘Bart’.  This picture and story incidentally, complement the release on this website of the story ‘Behind the Ranges’, released on 21st of January this year.  This ‘summit’ took place at Easter 1956, on the occasion of the very first RSF Easter Meet.  Below you will see a picture – an old one – of Charlie in a tartan shirt taking tea with our RSF President Sir Hugh and Lady Rankin at the same Easter Meet.

Over Moel Sych003

A tiny ‘gateway’ of a gap in the rock heralded the summit, and hot and winded we threw ourselves down.  Our altitude was 2,715 ft; the great backbone of Berwyn heaved away with its many ribs eastward.  Llyn Lluncaws lay a thousand feet below in dark reflection, a pear shaped mirror.  On the northern side, miles of bog-ridden moorland slopes wasting away into the rain.  Nothing more, except the sense of vastness and a great solitude.

Now the long descent, three miles and more of wary treading.  Again we were fortified by past experience.  The exultation of winning to a difficult summit is apt to vanish when the subsequent descent becomes so involved that one wearies of even hoping to get down to sane, hard roads again, and we shall never forget such an experience in rain and bog when every step had become a labour, every movement an effort, every vista a morale-shattering vista of endless acres of shaggy tussocks emphasised by boggy runnels that were more to be feared than the bitter tops.  That is when one begins to long for the easy pleasure of just lying down and perhaps sleeping, sleeping on and on…  for ever.  We had learned the way, striking down the slope of Nant Esgeiriau, remaining sufficiently above the watercourses to avoid shouldering the heavy bikes again.  The rain ceased – perhaps we got below the clouds – and at a farmhouse called Rhuol we reached the old road which runs up Cwm Pennant to join the Milltir Cerig.  There we tried to make ourselves look less disreputable, changed into dry stockings (but kept on soaked shoes), started the primus stoves, and did ourselves well on the rest of our food.

Jo was the lucky one for once; she had a day or two to spare, and gathering together our kit, bade us au revoir, to penetrate deeper into Merioneth.  Fred and I, with over eighty miles yet to cover, turned our wheels eastward from Llandrillo, through the vale of Edeyrnion to Corwen, laboured over the Llandegla Moors to a belated tea at Chester.

In the quiet glow of evening, with September once again in her golden mood, we planned our next hill-crossing, little dismayed by the hostile reception Moel Sych seems to hold against our persistent wooing.

By the way, Moel Sych means ‘Dry Hill’.

Over Moel Sych002

Camping Cameo Four

Camping Cameo 4 03


         We had covered hard country that day, and we were tired.  Dusk had come as we crossed Stang Pass from Barnard Castle to Reeth, but the lovely evening, changing into night, had kept us on…Easter Sunday 1931……  through a section of Swaledale, over the ridge to Leyburn and across Wensleydale to Middleham.  We entered Coverdale, but searched long and fruitlessly in the dark for a farm campsite.  The open moors would have suited us, but the nearest moorland site was far up the dale………and we were tired.  At last at the end of the cosy street we sighted a farm building – the last farm in Carlton Coverdale – a long black building, with a little curtained window dimly lit.  Searching around, we found a gate giving access to a large side door, and through its many cracks a light was burning.

One of us knocked, and the result was silence.  A second knock resulted in heavy breathing from behind the door.  We waited and the breathing stopped after a time.  Doubtless here was an old man.  Again we knocked, and the breathing started again.  A very old man, we agreed.  A chain started to rattle; the door was being loosened, we surmised.  The rattling ceased and silence reigned again.  This must be a very old man who is very much fatigued, we reiterated, and felt sorry to disturb him.  We knocked yet again and the chain started to rattle again, this time continuing without ever seeming to be loosed.  The thing began to get weird, and we got no ‘forrarder’.  One of us at last gave a loud rat-tat on the door.  A horse whinneyed…….!

Further searching about the long, blank mysterious building with it’s one little curtained window and it’s lighted stable, brought us to a path which led round the back.  The secret was out!  The ‘back’ was the ‘front’, and the side in the village street was actually the back.  There was a door on this side and a cottage window beside it, so we knocked on the door.  Someone moved about but did not answer, so in a little while we knocked again.  We heard another movement, the light went out of the room, and in a moment re-appeared in another room on the other side of the door, probably a scullery to judge by the tiny window.  Then silence again.  The place got on our nerves, and one of us, determined to know something, knocked again, hard.  Came a slouching sound as of old, tired feet on stone flags, a series of bolts were drawn (we counted about six), then a period of fumbling, a creak, and the door was flung open.  Tightly rolled strips of paper fell in all directions, obviously packing from all around the door, and an old man evilly dressed with a face that was screwed up in bitter, miserly rage, stood, first surveying his scattered papers, then looking bloodthirsty-like at us.  “Can you find us a place to pitch a couple of tents?”, one of us ventured.  “No” he snarled.  We turned away immediately, and left him to rebolt his door and replace all the bits of newspaper.

We found a beautiful little place a mile further on, and obtained whatever we desired, but we could get no information whatever about the long, blank, ‘back to front’ building in Carlton Coverdale.

A Vagabond Way Part Two

I had given myself a hard task considering the heat, having undoubtedly chosen the hilliest possible way, and as far as Pen-y-bont-fawr (which lay over a nasty hill) I paid for it, but from there I became suddenly energetic, romping up the stuffy valley that leads over from Cwm Hirnant to Lake Vyrnwy.  I shall not forget the ride along the shore of the lake, for Vyrnwy, though a reservoir, is a gem that could vie with Ullswater for sheer beauty of setting.  But the gnats………!

A Vagabond Way003



Then that wonderful tramp up Cwm Eunant, along the atrocious track that joins the Bwlch-y-Groes road.  The time was getting late, and already the sun was sinking, hanging lie a pendant ruby above the teeth of the mountains, ready, it seemed, to drop into the rocky abyss behind.  The moors about me, two thousand feet high, brooded with the stillness of death.  Not a soul, not a house, not a bird, nor even a trickling stream, just a great expanse of mute brown moors, bare shoulders leaning to the infinity of space – and the teeth of rugged monsters ahead to which the brown trackway  seemed to run in crazy coils and twists and loops.  Nature, maybe, cried ‘shame’ to see me hurry then, but there was a sunset over Aran Mawddwy that would not tarry, and I would see its splendour.

Seelah!  The magic moorlands crumpled on the left, and in their bosom lay a deep vale, indescribably green and serene, winding down till vale and hills were one again in misty distance.  I saw another trackway pass across my vision, and fall, in a single slant, down the face of a precipice to the Vale below……Bwlch-y-Groes.  I left my bike and ran up to the summit of the Bwlch, and up again over moss and heather to a crowning knoll.  I saw the flaming orb of the sun sink behind black rock; I saw a hundred colours shoot up above the fangs; I saw the colours change and fade, and change again, until the light retreated and left the mountains to themselves.  Perhaps I was mad, for I skipped down the Pass of the Groes like a child, leading my bike and singing aloud.  I skipped down 1200 feet to the valley below till the mountains hung over me.  In a tiny village shop where the chief articles of sale seemed to be candles, I asked for eggs and butter, and underwent a critical survey from every villager, for this was apparently the village gathering ground o’nights.   A ten-shilling note which I proffered was accepted dubiously and subjected to a severe scrutiny by three of the menfolk, and to give me change the place was ransacked.  Yet I have been thinking I am poor!

Two miles further along, when it was almost dark, I cast around for a likely site for a night’s undisturbed vagabonding.  I found a cosy place beside a hedge at the edge of a wood far up the mountainside.  There was a stream trickling through the wood, and too nearly dry to be really clean, but in cases such as this it is not the policy of a wise camper to question too closely.  The gnats and mosquitoes, in search of food, found me a morsel much to their taste, and though I slaughtered thousands over supper, thousands more came, and I retreated up the hillside.  I made my bed well up the slope whence I could look down on the lights of the valley and up at the lights of heaven.

Consciousness always comes to me very slowly, reluctantly.  I awoke to a feeling of strangeness, and quite a minute passed before I discovered that I was in the hedge.  I had rolled down the slope for ten yards or so, but (as a hardened vagabond) I had slept untroubled.  My groundsheet was still on the hillside!  A tang was in the air, and when I got up I felt a little cold, but I ran along the hedge waving my canvas water-bucket and towel in mid-air, and ere I reached the tiny stream I was warm enough.

What a life it was!  There I was, cooking breakfast in the open with the broad vale of Dyfi below, and the sunlight tipping the mountain tops; with clothing light and scanty as decency permits, laughing and singing to myself – alive to the glorious world I owned.  A world of the mind, but a wide, wide world, boundless and infinite as Space-time.

A brown road below me, road of the valley, winding under the crouching hillsides of Mawddwy, crossing sparkling streams that tinkled lightly in the draught of summer, hedged by winsome wild roses and scented with honeysuckle; fields that rippled gold lakes of buttercups, and lay under the snow of daisies; gardens that blushed shyly – marguerites that grew boldly in grassy borders.  And high above the brown ranges of Mawddwy.  Was it on such a morn with such a sight that made old George Borrow cry out the native “heddychol ddyfryn tlws” – peaceful, pretty vale – as he swung down from the Pass of the Cross?  I’d wager it was!

With Dinas Mawddwy slumbering yet, I crept away along Cwm Cerist.  The sun scorched again with all yesterday’s fury, making the mountain recess of the Cwm hot and uncomfortable.  The road tilted upwards, wedging its way into Bwlch Oerddrws, the long, steep gradient bringing back all the old yearning for ‘waters cool and deep’.  Bwlch Oerddrws means ‘Cold Door Pass’, but the hot breath of wind that greeted me on the summit merited the appellation ‘Blackberry Joe’ once gave it, ‘Oven Door Pass’.  But there were views yet unsmothered by heat, views of the great humps of Mawddwy with deep, narrow vales intersecting, and ahead views of the lovely Mawddach and the proud Giants Nose of Cader Idris.

To put it mildly, I crashed down to Cross Foxes and revelled on the magnificent, reconstructed road from Tall-y-Llyn to Dolgelly.  For the hundredth time I passed along the Mawddach Estuary in wonder and muttered that “this were paradise enow”, till the Trawsfynydd-Ffestiniog Road breaks away into a paradise of its own – the Vale of Eden.  It is Eden, with temptations on every hand.  One was a path, and it took me up to Rhaiadr Du, the Black Cataract, where the water splits in two and falls down a rocky chasm into a deep pool.  Around is verdant growth that belies the name of it.

Opposite the way to Rhaiadr Du another path took me down to the Mawddach which flowed between high cliffs in a channel at least fifteen feet deep, with a rustic footbridge leading across towards a farm.  The water was so clear that I could see the minutest object at the bottom, and, prior to taking a dive, thought it was no more than five or six feet deep.  In a dive from the bridge and a downward swim, I barely touched the bottom, and came up on the last gasp like a cork.  I frolicked about for an hour or more in the beautifully cold water, and on the hot rock-slabs, cooked my lunch and ate it in bathing costume, and afterwards went in for a long series of final dips.  My frame of mind suited that bohemian style, and surely no-one ever had more beautiful surroundings.  There was the river, all waterfalls, rapids and deep channels flowing between tall rock as full of living colour as the flowers and trees, and all around where mountains shining in the sun, with the ridge of Cader Idris o’er them all.  And the deep blue of the sky was faultless.

This Garden of Eden, however, is no sinecure on a hot day; it climbs relentlessly uphill, and when I had dragged myself up for two miles I remembered that I had left my shaving outfit in Paradise, and ruefully unclimbed it all too quickly, recovered those instruments of torture to a sun-burned skin and once more faced the steady drag up to the open moorlands.

On the last steep pull out of the last belt of upland trees I saw a dead snake.  It lay curled up in the middle of the road, its head crushed by the wheel of a motor-car.  For a British snake it was a very big one, being roughly twenty-seven inches long, measured by my shoes.  The colour was brown mottled, with a skin wrinkled as is the shell of a tortoise, and white underneath.  I do not know what kind of snake it was – certainly not a grass snake, and possibly a kind of adder or even a species of viper, both of which are dangerous.  I surmised that its marshy home had dried in the prolonged heat and it had been crossing the road towards the river Eden when a passing motorist had caught it.  (Probably a species of viper, rather uncommon in Britain – March 1931).

There were open moorlands to Trawsfynydd, with the road hilly and the tar soft underwheel, with a long range of many-headed peaks on the seaward side.  There lies the unfrequented wilds of the Ardudwy Hundred with their neglected passes – Bwlch Drws Ardudwy, and Bwlch Tiddiad.  I saw the deep gap of the Gate, and remembered the Roman Steps in the mists of rain-clouds one September evening.  They have recently built a huge reservoir at Trawsfynydd, and the good God, Electricity, starts from here to supply the border lands with power.  Power to drive ten thousand wheels, to light ten thousand homes.

                                                             Cwm Prysor

A Vagabond Way004


The map shows a track twelve miles long from Trawsfynydd to Arenig on the Bala-Ffestiniog road.  It was a track I have never explored, and I joined it that day.  As all mountain tracks, it started quite innocent, of fair surface, with many gates, and very hilly, but quite promising, withal.  In a mile or so the surface worsened, and then went steadily worse until a stream, which had kept close company for some distance, became one with the road.  Deep holes, boulders, sand, loose stones and the fiery heat made riding impossible and walking slow and painful.  I walked for miles into Nant Due [not identified on a 1951 Ordnance Survey map, but near lots of Roman remains! Ed], a tortuous valley, where a concrete bridge had been washed away by the last storm, and left just as the floods had abandoned it.  Tremendous chunks of concrete lay all over the track; higher up it was a mere footpath – or a mere rut on the mountain-side.  The beginning of Cwm Prysor was heralded by interminable hills, and Cwm Prysor was as dry as Pussyfoot Johnson, with not a ghost of a stream to slake a thirst.

I had walked about eight or nine miles when I reached Llyn Tryweryn, where I had hoped for a swim, but the whole lake was surrounded by reeds and tall rushes which left it only useful for an obscure suicide, and bad as I felt, I did not want to die just then.  Llyn Tryweryn is used by fishermen, and so I found the path quite good again from there to the highway at Rhyd-y-Fen.  This once was the terror of travellers from Bala to Ffestiniog, or vice-versa, and I have reason to remember more than one wild adventure over Arenig.  But now tarmac replaces the hideous surface that used to be, and in luxury I drifted down for ten miles into Bala.

Llandderfel stands five miles above Bala on the river Dee at the beginning of the Vale of Penllyn.  From Llandderfel to Corwen, the ‘sweet vale of Edeyrnion’ stretches for eight entrancing miles, and there are three roads to confuse the wondering mind for choice.  The main road to Corwen must be used only when time demands speed, but between the secondary road and a rough lane that hugs the river there is little to choose.  What of the road through Llandrillo and Cynwyd, that offers the best of what the Dee can give, and endears one permanently to lovely Merioneth?  And what of a narrow lane that never feels the pulse of petrol engines, that wanders waywardly with the river, that touches but the sleeping walls of hidden farms – that glows with wild rose and over which the heavy scents of honeysuckle hang fragrantly?

I chose the lane; I swam in a little pool on the river; I had tea alfresco by a tumbling stream – I pottered!  For five brief miles I changed my mode and joined the great highway from Corwen to Glyndyfrdwy.  There I crossed the river and along a lane identical with the lane of the Vale of Edernion, I came to a small farm, Groes Llwyd by name, to join my comrades of the “We R 7”; to give up my vagabonding and join them camping in a field on the banks of the Dee.  Some had been touring, some were new to the great camping game, so chins wagged late with travellers’ tales.

Sunday morning was torrid.  From the moment we awoke till we packed  up seven hours later our only clothing were bathing costumes, our sport the placid river Dee.  River bathing and sun bathing is wonderful sport on a hot day – until the sun bites into the unprotected skin.  I suffered for it for many days afterwards.  The popularity of water suddenly came to an end when one of the boys who could not swim got out of his depth and lost his nerve.  He was fished out almost on the last gasp and brought round by artificial respiration.

We separated, my comrades and I, late in the afternoon, for they were bound for Lancashire, and I had my temporary home on the very doorstep of Wales (15 miles to the border at Queensferry).  For me lay a pleasant mountain route; a lane down the Vale of Clywd; the highway pass of Bwlch-y-Parc to Mold, and winding lanes to my temporary Wirral home.

For me, the sweltering steel foundry o’days and the warm sea o’nights, the beacon at Thurstaston, to gaze at the languid sunsets – to look across the sands o’ Dee to blue mountains, and to visualise afresh a Vagabond Way.

A Vagabond Way Part One

A Vagabond Way002A Vagabond Way001

 It was mid-July, and a heat-wave had come along.  It had been coming slowly for days, coming out of the sea beyond Hilbre Island.  I had watched it nightly from the beacon at Thurstaston [Wirral], for it was in the sunsets that had made sea and sky one long track of glory: it had come in with the lazy ships harbour-bound; it had bade adieu to the hesitating stems of outgoing vessels: it was in the milky warmth of the sea at Leasowe, where it had been my wont to bathe those same nights.  It was in the sweating toil of the foundry, where each boiling day I had worked with sand and molten steel.

On one unbearable Wednesday the foreman had come along, and (with tongue in cheek) had spun the ancient yarn of slack trade.  We would have to stop till Monday.  I was sorry, I said (with tongue in cheek).  My face may have appeared downcast, but my heart was glad!  There were those mountains across the Dee, there were rivers, valleys, and there was the sea.  Oh, I was glad!  And so I returned home to Bolton to pick up my camping gear – minus tent, for I would sleep out………. the Vagabond Way.

Next morning I cast around for cooling waters.  On the dusty roads to Ringway I visualised a dream-river of sparkling liquid, cool and deep, and at Castle Mill I found it.  True it was not what I had pictured, for it was narrow, shallow and swift and over it hung an odour faintly reminiscent of sewerage works.  But the weather was so hot!  Like a giant refreshed I wended my way to Knutsford for a mid-afternoon meal.

After that my progress was haphazard.  Lanes, lanes all the while, hot, dry lanes wandering hither and thither, but always drawing me a little nearer to those mountains ‘cross the Dee.  At Little Budworth is a mere near the village store.  The storekeeper, a chatty individual, enlightened me as to the bathing amenities of the mere.  Sometimes the village youths went in, he said, and told me the story of one young fellow who was drowned there two years before.  I gathered that I was almost the counterpart of that unfortunate enthusiast.  Nevertheless, I went in.  It looks pretty enough, but it is a snare and a delusion; I stirred up a deep accumulation of mud the moment I tried to touch the bottom; it tugged at me from beneath, and I fled in terror.

I passed below the Peckforton Hills in that wonderful hour after sunset.  Deep-sunk lanes, when the birds have lapsed into silence, when one hears just the droning wings of flies or homing bees; where cottages nestle behind gardens of riotous assemblage, and when local ancients doze at the garden gate.  Near tiny Bickerton is a well that has served me in dryer times than this, and there my canvas bucket was filled.  I wheeled the bike and carried the precious liquid for miles, along pine-shaded lanes and sandy tracks until I reached a tiny depression right on top of the hills.  With trees all around, and grass like velvet, no-one could desire a better place for vagabonding.  While my Primus boiled my supper porridge, I watched the twilight robe the mountains across the wide plain of the Dee, and thought I’d reached Utopia.

My cape made a ground-sheet on the spring-mattress of turf; my sleeping-bag was ample bedding; above my head the ceiling of the stars, and even as I lay in soliloquy of these things, oblivion drew the curtain o’er them.

The sky was wide and blue, and the fresh, scented air of early morning was on my face; a lark soared high into the ring of blue above me, singing, wheeling, diving.  I followed its flight, and my fancy took flight and soared up with the lark until a touch of sunlight trembled on the tree-tops.  I arose, and (half dressed) ran along the hill top till I was breathless.  Twas good to be so fully alive!  Twas good, this vagabond life, with breakfast of eggs and bacon, thick chunks of bread, marmalade, steaming coffee – a fine, kingly, open-air breakfast.

Then there was a pine-shaded path, and open heath-land constantly in view of the mountains I hoped soon to roam.  There was the breath of new-mown hay in the lanes all the way through Malpas and the border village of Worthenbury, and at Bangor Is-y-Coed there was the river Dee, deep and clean…….I yielded.

Changing my direction, I followed the river closely to Overton, and a fine bit of valley scenery near Erbistock followed by a parched bit of semi-industrialism led me across the black, broad, shiny Holyhead road south of Chirk, into a prosaic, Sunday-school type of village.  But from that point I was back in the mountains, on a dusty lane that crawled along the southern side of the vale of Ceiriog.  There is a hamlet called Bron-y-Garth, and just below is a pool on the River Ceiriog, where the local schoolboys bathe.  I could manage no more than a lie down in the depleted pool, and even during a super heatwave, lying down in a mountain stream is a chilly business!

A bevy of boys just released from school came dashing down, making friends with me, and gabbling away in alternating Welsh and English.  They were full of news, and bursting to confide it.  One of them, a sturdy ‘old man’ of twelve or so who was evidently chief of the gang, was held in great respect.  He was a man of the world, an experienced chap, for he had knocked about a bit, seen the world, so to speak.  He had been to Oswestry!  Moreover, there was a radio at home; he had seen an aeroplane, and his brother had been to London.  He, then, was one who commanded due respect from his fellows.  This was their bathing pool, but none of them would go near it this week, because next Monday they were all migrating with the Sunday school picnic to New Brighton, and if they caught a cold they would not be able to go.  I am yet puzzling how any of that set of hardy mountain lads can catch a cold.  They were highly excited about the coming trip, and discovering that I was resident so near, they plied me with questions concerning Merseyside until the school bell tore them away.

The heat was taking my appetite.  It was 3pm when I reached Glyn Ceiriog for the first ‘eats’ since early morning.  Subsequently, in the narrow valley, and on the fierce climb beyond Llanarmon DC, the heat became so intense that my progress deteriorated to a mere crawl.  The light breeze on the summit was like a breath from the molten steel in the Seacombe foundry, and the views were limited by a heat-haze.  At Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, I turned towards Pistyll Rhaiadr, but the hilly road was too heavy for my mood, and I found solace in the river instead.  There was a waterfall into a deep pool surrounded by smooth, high rocks, and there I got a fine swim in the bubbling water, and spent a luxurious period sat beneath the fall itself.