“So far, so good”. I sank down in a chair and reviewed with satisfaction the fare that my good hostess had laid for me. The sullen, heavy darkness of February was coming on apace and long shadows were creeping across the room, shadows that danced to the flickering flames of the fire. Outside, the wind was growing to gale velocity; it roared fiercely round the gables; it boomed down the chimney, driving lashing points of rain on the drenched window panes. I sighed contentedly. “So far, so good”……
All day I had fought the elements, and had contested my route inch by inch. As I lingered over tea I mentally retraced my route – mentally re-fought the day-long struggle against the wind, and wondered that I had got so far. I had started early, with a bleak, lowering sky above, and a cold, persistent headwind that had given me a dour forty miles grind all the way to Chester. The shelter I had enjoyed on the upland road from the old city to Llandegla was paid for – with interest – on the summit of the moors, and each downhill mile to Corwen was an exasperating push down as well as up. The anticipated shelter of the Vale of Edeyrnion had not materialised, but had reduced my pace to the merest crawl, when I had begun to lose heart. Fading daylight and heavy rains found me searching the little village at the head of Bala Lake for a place for tea, and – well, here I was.
Satisfied, I pulled close to the fire and lit a cigarette – musing – dozing. Ninety Miles! Was it not enough for a day like this? True, it was not turned 7pm, but why should I go further? I was tired: the friendly fire glowed and I yawned luxuriously. The window rattled; somewhere outside a gate crashed and swayed dismally. It was so comfortable by the fireside…..
Just outside is a fork road, where a narrow byway branches away up a deep little valley. In my mind’s eye I can see it winding in and out like a snake, here through a belt of pines where the wind plays a giant symphony; there beside a noisy overfed stream, and further along climbing up and up onto the roof of the world. How the gale sweeps those uplands! There is another road too, a smooth road that runs gently up a shallow depression in the hills, and then runs gently down into the Wonderland of the Mawddach. From Bala, at the foot of the lake, begins yet another road!
I smiled to myself as I allowed my imagination to play on memories of that road. Some say it is the vilest road in Wales. I knew that road, it would be the dickens of a route tonight. Seventeen miles to Ffestiniog – seventeen miles of hills and wind and rain and mists – I unconsciously drew nearer to the fire – it was so comfortable – and I was tired.
“Seventeen miles – but why not?” I soliloquised: “It’s a hard life at best, ever so hard… I’ll toss up for it; life’s a toss up. Heads for Arenig, tails I stay. Heads it is! Then its back to Bala, and ho! for the wind and hills and rain and mists of Arenig – seventeen miles of it!”
With the gale behind and my cape flapping like a sail I fled back along the shore of Bala Lake. The night was intensely dark, and my little oil lamp, shedding a tiny yellow patch on the black road, seemed to intensify the shadows around. Very soon I passed along the deserted main street of Bala – an oasis of twinkling lights – and turning aside up a steep byway, was surrounded once more by the inky shadows of the night.
Soon I reached a point where a still narrower road branched away to the left – a signpost bears on a solitary finger the one word ‘Arenig’. These two roads re-unite high up on the moors, the only difference between them being that the ‘main’ road is slightly longer and ascends more gradually. Following my own precedent I chose the narrower, steeper way, and settled down to the long tramp ahead. As I went higher the wind grew fiercer, I bent to it, and the stinging rain beat a tattoo on my face and penetrated my cape. No cycle cape was ever proof against the driving rain of the Welsh Highlands.
The last house and the last light (with the exception of the humble glimmer of my lamp) was behind now; the atmosphere went grey, and, to my own surprise retaining my philosophy, I laughed outright. ‘The mists of old Arenig!’ It grew thicker – colder; the yellow disc of light changed to white and glared on a grey-white blanket – the upland mists of Arenig!
“What’s this!”, I exclaimed aloud, as my front wheel suddenly scotched; “the first gate”. The mist is heavy, Ugh!, and cold. This light dazzles me – think I’ll risk it and turn it out. “That’s better, no light, no glare. What a noise that gate made when I closed it! I’ll shut the next more gently. Wha – what’s up? Water! Oh, I say, where am I? In the ditch… stood in water – no bog – I’d better strike a match and get back to the road – if I can find it. Phew! How I’m sweating!”
I laughed immoderately and then wondered why I had laughed. “Have to laugh or yell out I suppose. Might as well laugh. Now why did I close that gate so carefully? What’s the matter with me! Soaking wet and cold – yet I’m perspiring. Oh, what a night!”
So I went on, closing gates ever so gently and jumping at the least sound that caught my ears above the gusty roar of the gale and the intermittent pattering of the rain. One moment I laughed outright, and the next felt fearfully helpless, I hugged the wall, stumbled over the loose stones that strewed the road plentifully, and used some rather heavy language about it.
On the open moors, where the road runs across a wide depression ere it gains the shelter of bulky Arenig Fawr, the wind met me like a stone wall. The mist had thinned a little under Arenig, and I was able to see the confines of the road, so lighting my lamp again, I tried to ride. I crashed over a dozen or so loose boulders, skidded along a rut, and ended up in the ditch at the roadside.
Eventually the lime works at Arenig appeared, I crossed the deserted railway line – Yes! A railway runs through the wilds of Arenig – and regained the Bala-Ffestiniog road. Then it was a long succession of hills that seemed endless, while gradually my weariness increased until, when at last the deserted ruin that heralds the summit at an altitude of 1,507 ft loomed up like an unreal phantom, I was dog-tired.
I fared little better on the winding, switchback road that descends the Migneint moorlands to Pont-ar-Afon-Gam. My eyes ached with the constant strain of peering into the mist; I skidded and crashed about on the loose surface, and more by luck than good management I reached the lonely cottage of Pont-ar-Afon-gam, where a turbulent stream dashes under the road on its way down to the Vale of Ffestiniog. A mile beyond the bridge I stopped, at a point where the road runs along the face of a cliff; peered into a cauldron of mists below, and listened to the dull roar of Rhaiadr Cwm; visualising the inspiring picture I could not see. Suddenly, as I descended the mountainside, the mist lifted, and the twinkling lights of Ffestiniog and Blaenau lay below. Down – down – a double bend – a lighted street – and I had reached my goal.
Seventeen miles – three and a half hours – wind – rain – hills – mists; it had been a wild night – but I would not have had it otherwise!