Title: Lost Lanes Wales - 36 Glorious Bike Rides In Wales And The Borders
Author: Jack Thurston
Publisher: Wild Things Publishing
Order: Wild Things
What it is: A mix of travelogue and riding suggestions covering Wales and the border counties, with downloadable maps and GPS files
Strengths: The mix of history, culture and geography bring the routes alive, as do the sumptuous photographs illustrating the rides.
Weaknesses: So much history, so little space
Wales. The Brecon Beacons for walking, Snowdonia for climbing mountains, the Pembroke coast for rock climbing. Holyhead and Fishguard for ferries. The Great Orme for ice cream. Hay-on-Wye for fondling secondhand books. Newport for my only dose of Friday night rugby, Abergavenny for an unlikely stag weekend, Cardiff for the worst break up ever. Aberystwyth for the warped Wales of Malcolm Pryce's noir tales. St Davids for a pointless answer in a list of British cities. Carmarthen for the birthplace of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. These are some of the ways in which I know Wales. Among them there is very little cycling. For some reason I've rarely ridden a bike there. The only decent ride I've done in Wales took me from Holyhead to Wrexham, its return journey giving me the exhilarating memory of racing an RAF jet down toward Bethesda, me on Telford's A5, it flying low and fast down the valley on my left. Wales really is somewhere I should have cycled more, I know. Jack Thurston's Lost Lanes Wales serves up a menu of enticing rides should I ever feel like rectifying this error.
A follow up to 2013's Lost Lanes - which served up suggestions for 36 bike rides on the lanes of southern England - in Lost Lanes Wales Thurston again offers the reader 36 bike rides on roads light in traffic and heavy in distractions ranging from geography to history, food and drink to arts and crafts.
The rides contained in Lost Lanes Wales - which actually extends beyond Wales and into the border counties - include 30 routes mapped out by Thurston and which the reader can tackle whenever they like, adding to or subtracting from the suggested route as they choose. These rides range in length from about 25 to 75 kilometres.
|Porthmadog / Harlech (train return)
|Gowerton / Kidwelly (train return)
In addition to these Thurston recommends half a dozen organised rides ranging from the super slick Velothon Wales sportive (about 15,000 participants) to the Merseyside CTC-organised Wild Wales Challenge (about 650 riders) and on to more casual turn-up-and-ride themed events, as well as the week-long Gower Cycling Festival.
Each route is presented with a couple of pages of text, some photographs, and a helpful map sketching out the route. Readers are then able to download from the book's website more detailed maps of each route, along with GPX files for GPS devices.
All of Thurston's routes can be completed on road bikes but some do take the rider off metalled roads and onto tracks, including one ride that offers an alternative history for the birth of mountain biking, an origin story that does not include Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey or Joe Breeze:
"off-road cycling actually goes back much further [than it's acknowledged Marin County roots], to the very earliest days of the bicycle. In Britain this kind of riding has traditionally been known as ‘rough stuff' and this ride [around Chirk, in North Wales] includes a classic rough stuff route first popularised in an article in Cycling magazine way back in 1919. The author was cycling journalist Walter M. Robinson, better known by his pen name Wayfarer, and he describes riding across the Berwyn mountain range in March, when it was still snowbound. Battling against inclement weather and arduous terrain, he was often forced to push or even carry his bike, but concludes that 'some of the best of cycling would be missed if one always had to be in the saddle or on a hard road'."
Four decades on and Wayfarer was still being remembered by some cyclists, with members of the Rough Stuff Fellowship following in his wheel tracks in the 1950s and installing a small memorial at Bwlch Nant Rhyd Wilym to the man who inspired them.
Names like Bwlch Nant Rhyd Wilym can seem somewhat off putting, an admixture of consonants deficient in vowels. But just a little bit of understanding of the Welsh language - Cymraeg - goes a long way to unlocking their meaning. And with Welsh place-names offering guidance on the local terrain, such meaning can be worth unlocking. To this end Thurston handily includes a brief lexicon which helps open up at least the first half of Bwlch Nant Rhyd Wilym, with bwlch being a gap or a pass and nant a brook or a stream. Rhyd turns out to be a ford and Wilym was just some guy. So you get the pass with the stream forded by Wilym, or something like that. Some other useful words include aber (an estuary, or the confluence of streams), llan (a church or monastery), and pont (a bridge).
If Welsh place-names can seem unpronounceable, one should be wary of their more benign cousins in the border counties, into which Thurston extends some of the rides in Lost Lanes Wales. Take the town of Leominster or the village of Weobley, names that seem designed purely to trip up the foreigner and give the locals something to laugh about when you ask for directions, Lemster and Webley being the preferred pronunciations.
Back in Wales, there are some place-names that come with no English equivalent. Take the Hiraethog hills in North Wales:
"Hiraeth is a Welsh word for which there is no adequate English translation. It's homesickness tinged with grief or sadness, a mixture of longing, yearning, nostalgia and wistfulness for a bygone Wales. Some say it's a uniquely Welsh sentiment though speakers of Portuguese and Galician come close with saudade. Hiraethog, therefore, means something along the lines of ‘place of great longing', and the upland plateau and its surrounding foothills are hidden treasures of the Welsh countryside."
Such linguistic fun and games remind the reader - if reminder were necessary - that Wales is not England. Nor - some would contend - are the border counties into which Thurston's rides extend. These lands were once the Marches:
"March means ‘border' or ‘boundary' and for centuries after [the Norman conquest of] 1066 the Marches were not really England but the semi-independent fiefdoms of Anglo-Norman warlords, a buffer zone to keep the Welsh princes in check. The independent spirit of the border counties - Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire - continues to this day and riding across from Wales into the Borders, the difference is immediate - fine half-timbered buildings, large rambling granges, grandiose churches and huge tithe barns."
A point made by Thurston in Lost Lanes Wales is that to travel by bicycle "is to travel at the speed of the land. This makes it the perfect way to appreciate a landscape as a single entity, perhaps in the way that our Bronze Age ancestors did." This ability to appreciate the landscape as a single entity is one of the joys of Lost Lanes Wales - one of the benefits, I think, of having such a clearly defined canvas - Thurston taking the reader on a journey through time and space, the lost lanes of Wales and the ghosts of Welsh history still visible along them. We get Edward I's grand design to extend his domain into Wales in the thirteenth century. We get the rising of Owain Glyndŵr, the last native prince of Wales. We get the story of the "drowning [of] Wales to slake the thirst of Englishmen," the story of Wales's dammed valleys and their reservoirs built to bring water to England's cities (and used in wartime to test the bouncing bomb of Dambusters fame). We get the stories of slate, steel and coal, the natural resources that once powered the Welsh economy and bred the progressive politics of men like Anuerin Bevan.
But as well as the big history we also get some smaller moments worth remembering. Thurston's rides take you into countryside that was familiar to Bruce Chatwin, author of On The Black Hill and In Patagonia, the latter a celebration of sorts of Wales's South American colony. Or there's Allen Ginsberg, who tuned in and dropped out while in Llanthony in 1967, an LSD trip that inspired one of his poems. And there's George Bernard Shaw, who once crashed into Bertrand Russell while the two were cycling in the Wye Valley.
As with the original Lost Lanes, you don't have to ride all the routes in Lost Lanes Wales to appreciate the book: Thurston's descriptions of his suggested routes make for engaging reading, whetting your appetite not just for the lanes of Wales, but also for Wales itself. Thurston's portrait of Wales is positive, suggesting a country that is ever more confident, ever more comfortable with its turbulent history and its journey from a rural to an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Having failed in the past to take the opportunities presented to me to explore Wales by bike, Lost Lanes Wales fully equips me to put right that wrong.