Part of the fun and the challenge of creating this 300-mile walking path through Wales has been researching and mapping the routes I would take. A lot of the time I start by studying OS Maps – searching for established trails and walking routes. If there are tricky looking parts to the walks I’ll try and scout them in advance to make sure I don’t get too lost or run into obstacles/blocked routes along the way.
I plan each walk to follow a specific narrative route. And so, when I wanted to tell the story of Wales’ industrial deforestation during the height of the iron and coal boom, I knew I had to map a route that would lead me across the South Wales Valleys. The route I was contemplating ran from the outskirts of Aberdare (located at the top of the Cynon River valley) around the Rhigos Mountain (the highest in South Glamorgan) and through the dense conifer forests of the Afan Valley to the town of Neath some 35km to the west. Clearly that was too much walking for a one-day hike (for me at least) so I decided the best way to plan a manageable route was to undertake reconnaissance by mountain bike.
I had a group of friends who regularly rode the bike trails in the hills north of Cardiff. I ran my idea by a few of them and they seemed keen for the adventure – you might say a little too keen and that concerned me slightly. You see, I’m not a very experienced mountain biker. But I had been a bike courier in New York some 30 years before. That had to stand me in good stead, no?
One damp summer morning six of us set out on the journey. We met at Dare Valley Country Park, just outside of Aberdare, having first deposited two cars at our destination at Gnoll Country Park, a famous old estate on the outskirts of Neath. We’d ride for about four hours then drive back for the car we’d left at the start. I knew most of the riders from walking trips we’d done in the past but a couple I’d be meeting for the first time.
The night before we were due to ride I decided to review my OS map route. The plan was to climb through the nearby woodland up to National Cycle Path 47 then follow it as it weaved its way below the Rhigos Mountain through a wind farm and into Afan Forest Park. From there the trail would lead us gently down into Gnoll Country Park. The distance seemed very doable though I was slightly perturbed by the estimated 580m in ascent that we had in front of us.
Maybe there was a shortcut?
And so, over a glass of red wine (okay maybe two) I revisited the route I’d already mapped and started to tweak things a little. It struck me that, instead of starting at the east side of Dare Valley Park we could ride to its northwestern tip (where the old Bwllfa coal mine once sat) and follow the path up the hill. It would save us at least half an hour of riding uphill. Pleased with this last-minute adjustment I headed off to bed.
It wasn’t until we started cycling up my shortcut the next morning that I realised the magnitude of my mistake. Within 10 minutes of the ascent at least two of my companions had stopped talking to me.
“Are you sure this is a cycle trail?” said my friend Richard (who had invited me into the riding group and I sensed was already regretting it) as we pushed our mountain bikes up a thin, muddy, steep and very slippery track up the side of Mynnydd Cefn-y-Gyngon.
“No, it’s not. It’s very clearly marked as a footpath,” said Allen, another of the riders who was now studying his own OS map of the mountain. Allen was a high school teacher and highly experienced in leading mountain walking expeditions. He’d also gone on walks with me in the past and was clearly skeptical of my map-reading abilities.
The day didn’t get much better. Even when we’d made it onto the cycle route 47 I still managed to get us lost in the windfarms – at one point we raced down a dirt track only to reach a dead end and then had to climb all the way back up.
“Never, ever, surrender high ground when riding,” another one of the riders who I didn’t know so well muttered at one point.
“I think you’ve invented a new sport. Losteering” said Richard, trying to lighten the mood.
To get back up to route 47 the regular riders knuckled down and steadily tackled the climb in low gear. By now I was walking and pushing my bike. Then, having found the proper path once more, we started the many descents into Neath over loose gravel forestry roads. The other riders would speed ahead while I hung onto my handlebars for dear life, gingerly using the front brake to delay what I was now convinced was an almost certain appointment with a broken collarbone.
“Try not to use your brakes on the descent,” said Richard after I finally made it, white knuckled, to the foot of one hill.
“You just have to learn to trust the bike to ride the gravel and choose the easiest approach to the corners. You’re more likely to come off if you brake.”
I looked at him incredulously but tried to put his advice into practice. The only time I braked for the rest of the descents was when a herd of deer – three adults and two foals – shot out of the conifer forest and leapt across our path into the woods on the other side of the track.
Finally, after a few hours of being shown up as a very mediocre mountain biker and an even worse mountain bike trail planner, we made it to Gnoll Country park and the sanctuary of my car, safely sitting in the car park. As I breathed a huge sigh of relief at having survived the day I suddenly realised I didn’t have my car keys. They must have fallen out of my backpack when I was getting ready to start the ride. Or worse, I’d lost them in the forest!
My riding companions looked at me in disbelief – who was this idiot they’d agreed to follow through the Valleys?
And yes. I had to take the train home.