Bora da, which is “Good Morning” in Welsh. I am back in England after a five-day 160-km bike tour through beautifully preserved Southern Wales in company of my eldest sister, Morag and two friends. One was Neil van der Spuy, who lives in Cape Town’s Llandudno and is the son of the late P.A.M Van der Spuy, the revered head master of Bergvliet High. The other was our leader Barry Crossfield from Buckinghamshire.
Our route from outside Ludlow to Cardiff included several kilometres along canal towpaths. Unlike my last ride in 2014, along the Grand Union Canal with the same trio, I did not have an unplanned dunking. On that occasion I wrecked my cellphone and lost my pride.
This time was more serious. While cycling in rain around the base of the Black Mountains to the mystical Llangorse Lake en route to the Cathedral town of Brecon, my pannier containing two passports, camera, tape recorder, R1 000 and all my British pounds, fell off the bike. I only discovered this much later when we stopped for a bite at the Lake Café.
Panic set in. Not only was I penniless but persona non grata, ie an enemy of the state and without travel documents to get home.
Barry suggested we borrow a car to retrace our journey to the working mill at Talgarth which, like our Josephine Mill in Newlands, produces a daily bag of flour for bread. Generously café owner Bianca Barnard offered her old run-around and her young daughter nervously drove us back along the narrow twisting lanes to the Mill. No bag was found. To add to my woes, the car hit a speed bump causing irreparable structural damage.
Back at the café we spent ages on the phone reporting my loss to the Brecon Police hoping that somebody had found the pannier and handed it in. Miracle of miracles that happened within minutes of our call. Unfortunately, the charming Brecon policewoman, who handed me the pannier with everything intact, did not know the name of the honest woman motorist. I will thank her publicly in a letter to the local Brecon newspaper.
Three cyclists met by chance
By coincidence it was an earlier example of remarkable honesty which brought together my three riding companions.
Back in 2006, Neil was on a lone bike ride exploring the South Downs to Winchester. After a lunch break he stopped for a nap under a tree at the side of the road. Setting off again he had ridden about two kilometres when he realised that his bum bag, with his ID documents and cash, was not around his waist.
He begged a farmer to phone Morag and later when he was pouring out his tale of woe to her in Winchester, the phone rang. It was a stranger named Barry Crossfield who had been walking his dog past the same tree and spotted the bag. Discovering the wallet and Morag’s contact details, he made contact with Neil.
When the three met up they found they shared a love of cycling and decided one day to do a tour together. The jaunt to Wales was their 10th annual adventure and supposedly their last. But somehow I doubt it…
Bruised but not broken
As a rookie cyclist I am always Tail-End Charlie. Wales has a reputation for raining 364 days a year and an undulating landscape, so I decided to hire an e-bike from Chris and Kay Dartnell who run Wheely Wonderful Cycling from their farm near Ludlow in Shropshire.
This pedal-assisted bike, powered by a battery-charged small motor, was a wonderful help to zoom up the hills but the descents were tricky and on my first nervous day proved my downfall. I was going too fast and uncertain of the correct procedure to slow down, pressed the wrong button causing the bike to stop dead and swerve into a stone wall. I did not break any bones but collected a few bruises and the impact turned the front wheel 360 degrees.
Neil kindly unscrambled my wheel and I managed to ride the last few kilometres to our first overnight stop at the Radnorshire Arms Hotel in Presteigne. But it was tough. It felt as though the brakes were jammed which was more or less the case as all the cables were twisted.
Fortunately, Chris Dartnell not only sorted out that problem but also advised me on the safe way to go downhill. “Just freewheel and gently press the brakes left, right, left right….”
I was still Tail-End Charlie on my e-bike but I was determined to arrive alive and not damage the bike.
Not much has changed
Some of the buildings in Wales are very old and have secrets which renovations expose. The Radnorshire Arms, the original home of one of Elizabeth 1’s courtiers Sir Christopher Hatton, is an outstanding timber-framed building dating back to 1616. Our room was named Llanbister, next door to Llangunlle and Weobley, the latter aptly describing the staircase.
Snooping around the resident’s lounge I spotted a plaque describing the Priest’s Hole, a hidden space behind panelling which was discovered in 1828.
In it was a diary kept for two years by a priest who, in fear of his life, had lived for two years in a space just big enough to hold a chair. The building also had a tunnel leading underground to a safe house on the hill where Catholics could find refuge from persecutors like Oliver Cromwell.
Both the hole and passage were a sharp reminder of religious intolerance as fierce then as it is in some parts of the world.
Not much has changed, has it?