Category Archives: Dragon’s Backbone

Blog posts for C2C Wales (the Dragon’s Backbone)

And the winner is…

Highest road
1 Gospel Pass 549 m
2 Bwlch-y-Groes 545 m
3 ?

Steepest Road
1 Start of the Devil’s Staircase
2 Bwlch-y-Groes near the top, next to the safety barriers
3 Climb out of the Tywi valley,  a couple of miles beyond the Devil’s Staircase

Best Descent
Gospel Pass, towards Hay. Silky – smooth surface, wonderful views.  Doing it in company with another cyclist made it special.

Best Ascent
Nant Gwynant.  Not too steep, steady gradient, wonderful scenery

Best Cafe
Great Oak Wholefood Cafe, Llanidloes.
Friendly service, great meal, free Wifi and battery charging -excellent value.

Best Campsite
Tie between Riverside Camping at Caernarfon and Blackthorn Farm near Holyhead. Both were very friendly and welcoming and had excellent facilities, including an on site cafe at Riverside and a B&B at Blackthorn, both of which serve breakfast.  Beautiful riverside location (providing it’s not in flood) or coastal views (providing it’s not blowing a gale) respectively.  Riverside sneaks it with free Wifi.

Getting to the End.

I was always somewhat ambivalent about finishing this trip in Caernarfon or Holyhead.  By Caernarfon I would have done all the mountains and reached the sea. What more was needed? Well, Caernarfon doesn’t have the right sort of railway station so I would have had to cycle to Bangor anyway, and my editor encouraged me to finish with a photo of South Stack lighthouse.
So what was there to see? Magnificent views of the Menai Straits from the smooth tarmac of the bike path along the old Caernarfon to Bangor railway line.  Close-up views of Telford’s wonderful suspension bridge and The Swellies, the tidal rapids between Telford’s bridge and Stephenson’s Brittania bridge. And Llanfair PG.
I won’t try typing out the full version of the village with the longest name on a mobile phone keypad.  I recall hearing a story that the reason for the long name was basically a tourist attraction.  When I were a lad you could buy a four-inch long cardboard platform ticket at the station.  Tastes change but the tradition continues.  In what used to be the station yard is now Shopping World, what passes for a tourist attraction these days.  It had certainly attracted coaches from as far away as Great Yarmouth. For the passing cyclist
at the end of a tour it was a useful place to pick up the obligatory box of Welsh fudge to take back to work.
There’s an old folk tale (which I just made up) that when Duw had finished creating Wales, he had some bits left over. Not enough for a big mountain range or majestic moorland, mostly just the twisty-turny bits of country lanes that wouldn’t fit anywhere else.  Being short of time he dumped them down in the sea just a bit away from the mainland.  Not quite flat, with surprisingly many steep ups and downs. That’s why the best thing about cycling in Anglesey is the view of the mainland. 
And what a view it is! From the Carneddau to Bardsey the whole of Snowdonia was stretched out on my left as I pushed my way into the stiff westerly that was trying to keep me from Holyhead.
Anglesey does have its own little mountain, and my campsite was halfway up it. This had the advantage that it wasn’t much further to South Stack lighthouse, which really was the end of the road. Time to press-gang a couple from Somerset into taking my photo and admire the views.  From the top of the headland one could see the Wicklow mountains.

Shelter from the storm

My ID may be RocknTroll, but I don’t often post from beneath bridges. I had heard the storm coming for some time, from the thunder rumbling over Rhobell Fawr to my left.
When I saw lightning, I knew it was time to take shelter. There was one more steep stretch to climb before the descent to Trawsfynydd, but I could see the road ahead across open moorland.  Seeing a clump of trees beside road I pulled over.
On closer inspection there was astream in the trees and the stream ran under the road. There’s almost enough headroom to stand upright and it’s dry apart from under foot.
Half an hour and two blogs.  I hope it stops soon.

Feed my lambs

“En Pommerol on dort jus’qua midi” – “at Pommerol one sleeps til midday” was the caption on a child’s drawing in the Reception at Pomerol, the most tranquil campsite i stayed at in France. Celyn Brithion at Minllyn near Dinas Maddwy is its Welsh equivalent. 
Turning off the main road there is a clear sign for tourers to your left and tents to the right. The tents have the best of it — smooth, manicured lawn set about with picnic tables, garden armchair, free range hens — and a boat on a trailer.
When the owner returned from wherever he was, he  disappeared into the house, to re-emerge a few minutes later carrying four baby’s drinking bottles. He had four orphan lambs he was looking after for his daughter,  one of them only two days old.
Helping feed a lamb was a reminder of how strongly such delicate – looking creatures could push, pull and suck.
Once fed, the lambs explored the garden, including my tent. 
The owner told me how the didn’t get as many campers these days. First it was foot-and-mouth, then a run of bad summers and the recession.  He reckoned that your typical camper is part of the sqeezed middle, with less disposable income to spend on a weekend away.
It’s a shame, as it’s a lovely site. In the silence of the evening it’s hard to believe it’s adjacent to the A470, Wales’ main north – south route.  Oh, and I slept for eleven hours.

The Mountain Road

The road from Llanidloes to Machynlleth gets a lot of billing as “The Mountain Road”. Even the road signs say “via narrow mountain road”. As I turned left for Machynlleth just beyond the delightfully-named Staylittle I was amazed by the width.
It was here I met Richard and Phyllis.  I stopped in a layby to take a photo of the view down the Dylife Gorge. They were parked higher up in the layby. After taking a photo I wandered over and asked if they’d mind taking one with me in it. This led on to an offer of a cup of tea, which I gladly accepted.  (My first free cup of tea of the trip was from Dot, a resident of the leisure park near Builth).
Beyond Dylife there was a road narrows sign, and it did get somewhat narrower, but there was still room for two cars to pass without difficulty. The County Council needs to apply to the EU for funding to upgrade the signs to match the roads.
Earlier in the morning I had passed a very old sign, one that said “Unsuitable for Motor Vehicles”. It certainly was. Whereas many farm tracks have two bands of tarmac with a strip of grass down the middle, this had a narrow central band of tarmac and two gullies either side deeper even than Oxfordshire’s potholes. Sustrans followers with vertigo would be advised not to use it. This would have a better claim to be THE Mountain Road, if only it were a road.
My average speed for today was 9.3 mph. Yesterday it was 8.4. Abergwesyn to Tregaron is THE mountain road.

Here be dragons

Last night the dragons were out. Even with my eyes shut I sensed the flash of their fiery breath swaddled in my sleeping bag. The echoes of their roars resounded all across the valley from Moelwyns to Manod, until eventually they rumbled away into the distance.
This morning the thunder had gone but it ws still raining, as befits a campsite in one of Wales’ best examples of temperate rain forest, otherwise known as the Vale of Ffestiniog.
The rain eased up before I reached the first climb, past the station at Tan-y-Bwlch. Llyn Mair was quite still, with perfect reflections of the oak woodland on the hillside beyond.
It was too early in the day to see a train on the Ffestiniog Railway, though I did hear one before I started the descent to Garreg. Garreg has a wonderful shop/cafe, the sort that every village should have. I restocked on flapjacks, Anglesey sea salt fudge and other cyclist’s essentials while my coffee was being made. I even practised my Welsh.


After leaving the cafe I saw one of the steel dragons that inhabit the Welsh Highland Railway and took a photo of it.
I also stopped to take one of the down train as it crossed the river at the top of Aberglaslyn pass.
Nant Gwynant was a lovely ride, and one of the highlights of the trip.  Unlike most other Welsh roads it had been engineered and is a steady gradient throughout, so much so that it would not be out of place in the Alps.  It was easy to get into a rhythm and enjoy the views – first Llyn Dinas, then Llyn Gwynant, the Glyders, Crib Goch and finally Yr Wyddfa itself, peeking through the dragons’ smoke.
After the zoom down Llanberis pass there was a glimpse of a modern dragon’s lair, the entrance to the Dinorwic power station. Inside the mountain is a cavern the size of a cathedral. I remember visiting when it was under construction and seeing a man sitting inside one of the Francis turbines fitting the rotor blades. This modern dragon can breathe xxGW at xx seconds’ notice.

Talk of the Devil

The Devil’s Staircase deserves its reputation as one of the steepest roads in Wales.  I thought I might manage to ride the 25% gradient at least as far as the first hairpin,  but the laws of physics and biology dictated otherwise.
First the front wheel started skidding on the remains of last winter’s grit-salt, then it gave a few bumps as it lost and regained contact with the tarmac. Finally it was too much. My heart rate was above what is considered sensible for someone of my vintage, so it was time to get off and walk. This was a similar speed to riding, just a little easier.
The Devil’s Staircase is one of three climbs out of valleys between Abergwesyn and Tregaron.  Although also steep, the others were rideable. The second was the valley of the Towy and was marked with the Ceredigion boundary sign.  There was a handy rock to sit on, making an ideal spot for lunch.
As I was setting up the camera for a selfie of my lunch spot, a road cyclist in bright red and yellow came whizzing past with a friendly “Morning” and charged at the climb.
He was followed by half a dozen other members of Taff Ely CC, so I grabbed the camera and took some shots of the peleton climbing the zig – zags up the side of the valley.
They were leaving the cafe in Tregaron when I arrived (they must have had a long lunch), so I asked if they’d cycled all the way from Cardiff.  No, they’d driven to Rhayader and were returning via Cwm Ystwyth and the Elan Valley.

Sharing the Good News

It was a surprise to hear “Good Morning” behind me as I passed Capel-y-Ffin and approached the steepest part of Wales ‘ highest road,  the Gospel Pass.


Matt was from near Swindon and had just finished his finals. He was now getting away from it all by cycling to Pwllheli to meet up with family. As he was staying in bunkhouses not camping,  he had less kit than I did and a lighter bike (Specialized Allez). This would probably have made him faster up the hills even without the 40 year age difference. He seemed more interested in having company than racing ahead, as today was his easy day and a warm up for tomorrow’s 100+   miles from Rhayader to Pwllheli.
We had a lovely descent to Hay-on-Wye, enjoying the views of the Wye valley. After coffee in Hay we carried on past Boughrood and Erwood,  places familiar from canoeing days.
By the side of the road we saw two cyclists sitting on a bench admiring the view. We stopped to say “Hi” and as it was 1 pm this turned into our lunch stop. They were students from Colorado, making their first ever bike tour – from Dublin to Budapest. They had stayed last night at the bunkhouse near Rhayader where Matt was headed for tonight.  Small world.

Taking a Tumble.


Not what you might think. Read on.

When planning the first day’s ride north from Newport,  Llanthony immediately commended itself as the camping destination. Romantic ruins in a valley renowned for its beauty and handily placed for the next day’s challenge of the highest road in Wales.
The route looked straightforward – a couple if detours to see the sights of Newport (they do exist), and a Sustrans route along the old canal.
That was before they announced this year’s Tour of Britain. A mountain-top finish on The Tumble, Wales’ answer to Ventoux and too good to miss. So at Pontypool I swapped the old canal for the old railway to Blaenafon. Definitely not flat,  but a better tarmac surface than most roads.
From Blaenafon it was up the easy side of The Tumble – only 2 miles at 11%. After a quick photo of the Keeper’s Pond it was a swift (30+ mph) descent to Abergavenny,  but no tumbles.

Ready to go

BJ ready to take on the Dragon's Backbone

All is packed,  ready for the 08:36 to Newport tomorrow. For those interested,  the planned itinerary includes the following campsites:

Thu  Llanthony
Fri  Garth (near Builth Wells)
Sat  Cwm Ystwyth
Sun  Dinas Maddwy
Mon  Maentwrog
Tue  Caernarfon
Wed  Holyhead
and home again on Thursday.

Where to where?

C2C Cymru – a great idea for a coast-to-coast ride in Wales. But should it be Caerleon to Caernarfon, Casnewydd to Caergybi, or some other combination?

The idea of a Welsh “End to End” had been on my mind for years, something to daydream about when work was tedious. Short enough to fit into a week, it should have a distinctive Welsh character to make it worthwhile. More daydreaming came up with the concept of The Dragon’s Backbone, taking in all the big climbs from one corner to the other.

I was 18 when I set out on my first-ever cycle tour. Myschoolmate Russ and I had youth-hostelled from Queensferry (the north-east corner) to Pembrokeshire (the south-west) and back. A journey along the opposite diagonal would have a nice symmetry to it.

Our route  had taken in the Bwlch-y-Groes, which we were told was the highest metalled road in Wales. Recently I’d read that this Bwlch was not the highest road, and that the Gospel Pass from Llanthony to Hay-on-Wye was slightly higher. True enough, electronic OS map has a spot height on the Bwlch at 545 m and one on Gospel Pass as 549 m. Then the Tour of Britain route was announced, with a stage finish on The Tumble. This seemed like too good a chance to miss, as I could take in The Tumble summit (not to be confused with a village of the same name near Swansea) en route from Newport to Llanthony. Add in the Devil’s Staircase and Nant Gwynant for sentimental reasons, join the dots and the route was pretty much there.

The south-east and north-west corners are well-served by rail, so I could easily get from home in Oxfordshire to Newport for a 10:00 am start. So that was it – Casnewydd (Newport) to Caergybi (Holyhead) via Caerleon and Caernarfon.