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. 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.