October 14, 2015

Travel we say, wander we choose

'It'll be alright once I'm on the move,' I told myself over bran flakes at breakfast time. A mile down the road I realised I hadn't filled my water bottles. Having already checked out of the hostel I snuck back in, using the door code I'd handily photographed earlier, and sped through to the kitchen and back out again. The guy at the desk wasn't even there.

Being a battle-hardened outdoorsy sort of gal, I was wearing my weather station watch that does all sorts of scientific, weathery things, it bleeps in seven different ways and tells you the time in Caracas. Just because I could, I pressed the middle button and it said 24.4ºC. It certainly wasn't 24.4ºC in the air rushing past my face as I tried and failed to ride out of town at a relaxed touring sort of pace.

During my evening of GPS programming I'd decided that for much of the route I could follow my nose, and follow the Sustrans National Cycle Network signs the rest of the time, so I approximated great swathes of here-to-there. The fiddly bits, like the road junctions in Conwy and the road out of Porthmadog, needed tighter planning with more data points. 'How hard can it be?' I thought as I was reaching the access point onto the old railway line. 'I just have to turn left…here, and, oh, no that's wrong. Bugger it, I'm way past the turn off.' I turned around. I could see the old railway, because it was 20 feet above me on a bridge. A GPS with a five-year old street map does tend to get caught out from time to time. I retraced my route, rode too far, doubled back again and as an experiment took a trip into a quiet-looking cul-de-sac with posh new houses that probably cost half a million each. I discovered a gap in the wooden fence, and next to it a shiny blue sign with a bicycle symbol. See, stuff has a habit of working out like that.

Temporarily disorientated I studied the nearby signpost for clues. A minute or two later a man riding a Moulton AM arrived. 'Nice bike!' I said approvingly.
'I used to have a recumbent, you know, made by Trek. But I couldn't really get the hang of it.'
'I remember that one, the R200 with the red frame shaped like a stick?'
'Aye that's it. Is that one comfortable? Have you come far?'
'It's lovely,' I said, 'it's like an armchair.' I bounced up and down on the seat to prove it. 'And no, just from town today.'
'Are you lost? Do you need any directions?'
I laughed. 'Actually I know exactly where I am. I'm just wondering which way to go. Is Hawarden Bridge that way?' I said, pointing in the direction of Hawarden Bridge.

The big swing bridge After a few minutes I managed to escape and powered along the disused railway. It was once part of the Great Central Railway route joining the North Wales and Liverpool Railway and the Wrexham, Mold and Connah's Quay Railway. After Nationalisation it was all controlled by the LNER. Now it was NCN Route 5 and belonged to dog walkers and cyclists. In the other direction it was once the Cheshire Lines Railway to Northwich, and part of it too is now Route 5. You can only follow it as far as Mickle Trafford because they're still using the rest of the railway line. You can deal with the roads after that. I took some photographs of the great swing bridge at Hawarden, its asymmetric 'hogback' main truss and second and third trusses all in a rather pleasing cream colour. Then it tried to rain.

I'd already cycled further out of Chester than I'd been before. The last time, which was nine years earlier, a friend and I had followed the path on the north side of the River Dee, as far as Queensferry. We must've gone out late because it was summer and it got dark as we turned back. My friend switched on the lights on her bike. I say 'lights' but they were the feeblest things I'd ever seen. She would've been better holding a glow worm. She might've been riding a bike, but she wasn't a cyclist as such; she didn't arrange her life around using her bike in the way that I did. I pressed a rubbery blue switch on my handlebars and blazed out fifteen Watts of pure halogen power. LEDs weren't up to much back then, and we were all riding around with honking great battery packs that could quite easily double as blunt weapons. Vistalite actually called them their 'Nightstick' series. Now of course you can buy a powerful bike light that's so small it could fit into the useless little side pocket they keep sewing into jeans.

It wasn't long before I left the cosy cycle path and rejoined the roads. The A548 was mostly easy riding with occasional dashes of well graded dual carriageway. In a town somewhere along the way I stopped at a petrol station to buy a couple of bananas. I find riding with a group quite difficult because my eating routine gets sidelined in the name of progress. When they want to stop, I'm just getting on top of my digestion. On my own, I had the perfect opportunity to eat what I damn well liked and when I liked. I learned from riding the Erie Canal that I seemed to work best on bananas, crisps, chocolate milk and water. I learned from friends that jelly babies make quite a good energy gel substitute, and are certainly more palatable. I understand. I've never eaten an energy gel, but I've heard they're like eating bogies. The petrol station could only sell me an entire bunch of bananas, which was a problem because I had little enough spare space already. I did the sensible thing, then, and bought a huge bag of cheesy crisps as well.

On the way to Rhyl were a couple of outbreaks of Art Deco in neat orange brick rather than pastel plasterwork, and then a huge rusting ship sitting beyond a ramshackle open air market. I harboured thoughts of deviating for a wee explore, but I was in a hurry and didn't really fancy taking my chances. The market looked like it might be guarded by dogs and men with salivating chops. What on earth was a ship doing here? Originally it was the TSS Duke of Lancaster, a passenger-only steam ferry built for British Railways in the 1950s. It plied the Scottish islands and, as a cruise ship, travelled all over Europe. Later it was converted to carry cars as well as people, but in 1978 it all ended and the Lancaster was laid up in Cumbria. Then in 1979 it was brought to the north Wales coast as "the Fun Ship", a sort of arcade gaming and bars and entertainment venue. It closed in 2004 and has sat rusting ever since.

I was making good speed along the roads and the drivers were mostly behaving themselves, but I was quite happy to get back onto the cycle path. I turned off at Talacre and rode along a path that felt like it was made of railway ballast. After shoehorning my bike—CAUTION: WIDE LOAD—through yet another Sustrans barrier, the kind that tapers towards the top so that it jams your panniers, your handlebars and your shoulders, I emerged next to the mudflats of the Point of Ayr. The path surface improved and I sped up nicely, heeling into fast turns as the tarmac wandered around vaguely. The landscape was part nature reserve and part post-industrial, concrete paved wasteland, with complicated looking gas pipelines in the background. Until the mid-1990s it was the Point of Ayr Colliery, but now its edges are gradually being reclaimed by nature.

Then I got lost. The path had gone along the embankment, across a car park, along a nice little boardwalk with butterflies and flowers, and fed me into the dunes. On foot or perhaps on a mountain bike it would be a lovely excursion; on a touring bike almost too heavy to lift it was ridiculous. I turned back to the embankment and thought about riding on the beach. The tide was out, after all, and there were cars parked out there. The big coloured map on a signpost was no help whatsoever. It didn't even have north pointing up the way.

'But the GPS said it was this way!' I muttered to anyone who might've been listening. Clearly the GPS was programmed by an idiot. I finally spotted the tiny little blue arrow sign, stuck to one of those tapered barriers that jams your handlebars. It was so obvious, while hiding itself quietly in some bramble bushes. And we were on the move again, and heading west. Presthaven holiday park was an endless series of static caravans, some not even with wheels anymore, others with white picket fences. For some reason I was fascinated by the waste pipes hanging down underneath them all. Children with bicycles padded around in bare feet, and their parents wandered around walking their dogs or chatted to each other with their arms folded. I found my way out of the park and missed the turning for the path through the golf course because the road into the park was full of queueing cars. The seafront promenade that stretches for a mile or more was smooth jointed concrete and no jagged bits of seashells. It was very quiet.

Pausing in Prestatyn I stopped to eat a banana and watched the offshore wind farm. It was lunchtime but I didn't have lunch with me, only millions of snacks. When I did a loop through the Moorfoots to Innerleithen and Peebles, at lunchtime I attempted to eat an entire baked potato full of Coronation Chicken. I brought a third of it home again in clingfilm, while the other two-thirds took the rest of the day to digest, instead of giving me energy for the homeward bash. This time I was thinking simplicity. I set off again, and straight into enormous quantities of flies. They were everywhere, going up the arms of my t-shirt, under my cap, behind my glasses, up my nose and into my ears. I brushed furiously at my chest and carried on.

There are precious few remnants of the Glasgow Garden Festival now. Other than its own name, Festival Park on the south side of the Clyde contains only a few tantalising clues to the long gone exhibits, such as parts of a rockery, a water feature and a wiggly path. In 1988 no-one outside NASA was using digital cameras. You either made prints or shot slide film, and my Dad shot a lot of slides, including a set of eight photographs from the festival. One of these was of a view looking up the big tower to the observation deck with its Clydesdale Bank 150th Anniversary sponsorship logo for all to see. Rhyl was going to be well-to-do and seasidey: all generous public lawns, plant pots, Punch and Judy on the sandy beach, and immaculate brick and ashlar houses with palm trees and newly painted window frames.

"Got to Rhyl – a sort of New Brighton that was all desperately shabby, like a 1960s housing estate version of Blackpool. The sky tower thing from the Glasgow Garden Festival is still there! It's shut and verging on dereliction."

Needless to say, I didn't hang around.

But just after Rhyl was a brand new footbridge over the River Clywd, next to Foryd Harbour, and that seemed to be the cycle path route. On the far side, the tourist information building was shiny and new, and had lots of bikes parked outside. There was a shiny new cafe, and a bicycle workshop. When I saw that most of the bikes outside were adapted for disabled people and special needs, I decided this was as good a place as any to park a recumbent and have lunch. I ordered a cup of tea and leafed through a copy of MTBR to read about disc brakes, and a lady came over to me from a table by the window.

'Is that…your bike outside?'

Oh, here we go again. The Lightning always seems to be a hit with people, especially now that it's painted sparkly pinkish-purple instead of black.

'The sit-down bike out there? Yes, that's mine.'
'I was saying to my husband, there's that bike again! When we saw it just now we thought it must be yours. We passed you on the road way back there. How long have you been here? You must've been going at some speed.'
'Oh, well, I do a bit of cycling, and the road's pretty smooth. It was good, I was trying not to ride too hard, but…I can't always help myself. Mind you my load's pretty heavy today and I got lost in the dunes earlier on.'
'Are you going far?'
'I started in Chester earlier on, I'm just on my way to Conwy.' I knew my campsite was before Conwy but it was the only town in the vicinity that I could remember. The campsite was just another waypoint punched into my GPS.
'Ohh, Conwy's lovely. That's a long way though, you must be very fit! Are you going to go round the castle?'
'Oh I'd like to but I don't really have time. I've been before, sort of, but I'm just passing through this time. I have to get myself to Llanberis tomorrow.'
'That's a lovely place, too, Llanberis, very hilly. Well, good luck!'

My sausage roll and tea arrived, my guest said goodbye and went out to her car, and I resumed reading about bicycle components that I didn't want and carbon fibre full sussers that secretly I did.

Having refuelled I extricated my bike from the A-frame bike stand and headed out along the coastal path for a while. After the enormous caravan park that's hemmed in by the railway my nice easy cycle path ran out. They'd closed it for maintenance, probably, but hadn't bothered to sign a diversion or anything. Fortunately an old man pointed me up a narrow overgrown path behind a wall, leading to an old footbridge over the railway and out onto the road again. Oh well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. He said I'd probably have to walk the path but I managed to cycle it anyway. The road was a lot faster, smoother, and steeper.

I slipped back onto the coastal path shortly after, to leave the cars and trucks thundering past on the A55 above me. Onto Colwyn Bay, which unlike Rhyl was very nice and very posh by the sea. Along the promenade I sped past the big houses with their big porches and big driveways, and soon came to Rhôs on Sea (and do remember the circumflex). The campsite I'd chosen for the night was Dinarth Hall, sandwiched between Rhôs on Sea and Penrhyn Bay. I discovered it was a large working farm. While another customer took ages, I sat on a wall near the booking office. It was actually a static caravan, complete with windowboxes and a pair of small dogs that were chasing each other non-stop. The big sheepdog lazing on the ground just outside was so lazy he didn't even move his ears when I said hello. But I was feeling pretty good. I'd covered a decent distance, I hadn't eaten too much or too little and I hadn't bonked. My bike was running well, too. I could have ridden to Conwy quite happily even if it was beginning to drizzle.

The campsite seemed to be very busy with cars, motorhomes and even a Dodge Ram 2500 with a 5th wheel hitch for its caravan trailer with expanding sides. Here was me with my bicycle and my little tent, and I was the only cycle camper in the entire place. The facilities were fairly good at Dinarth Hall, save for no paper towels in the washing up area or the toilet block, and only one of the cubicles having any toilet paper. The tap in the field did cold water pretty well though. At the very back of the back field, where it was quieter, next to the hedge with a watery ditch on the other side, were the lightweight pitches. So people who carry the least and have the fewest luxuries, like wellies and hats and gas stoves, had to walk the furthest to use the loo and do their washing up. It was really trying to rain by this point, and I managed to put my tent up in record time. The rain went off in a huff, to make somewhere else wet instead.

Setting up shop I dumped my luggage and had a quick jaunt out to the supermarket and back for supplies. I just managed to make dinner before it the rain came back. Then it stopped, then it started again. And then it stopped again. In amongst all this I made several highly disorganised trips to civilization, and every time I came home the front door of the Zephyros dripped on me. The Hilleberg Akto is possibly the benchmark for good design and small size, with a single hoop pole construction, and the Zephyros—and its big brother, the Terra Nova Laser Competition—is notionally similar. But the Zeph has taller ends that come to a point, like the bow of a ship, so the main door and the back door are effectively attached to the ground closer to the pole. In practice this means that the door makes a sort of triangular opening, and the door flaps around and drips onto the inner tent and onto your back as you climb inside. This gets quite annoying.

In most other ways I was really quite enjoying the tent. Its full name is the Wild Country Zephyros 2XL Lite, a short-lived version of the short-lived extra long version of the Zeph 2-person tent, using slightly higher performance fabrics, reflective Dyneema cord guylines that cut into your fingers, and pathetic aluminium pegs that I immediately replaced. I was never really sure how much weight it all saved. I came across it quite by chance in my local branch of Tiso. After testing it for length I bought it on the spot. It's lovely and long and lets me stretch out when I sleep or read; I'm not one for sitting cross-legged for hours and I think my knees would explode. Tipping the scales at a hair under 2kg it's comparable with my first tent, one of Decathlon's none-more-grey and generally decent, but slightly short, Quechua offerings. One time, I closed the Quechua's door and yelped as I caught all my hair in the zip. The Zeph also has a nice white, almost see-through inner with big panels of mesh. I still managed to find earwigs in my tent during the evening, causing a minor panic chez Becky and frantic rearranging of luggage to find the wee beasties and put them outside. The last thing I wanted was insects inside my sleeping bag!

The next afternoon it rained properly, so I invented a new way of getting in and out of my tent.

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