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Visions of Snowdonia

By Milosz Wisniewski, Wed, 18 Jun 97 21:24:58 +0100
(Unfortunately, due to technical limitations - namely lack of access to scanner - I can't provide any pictures to this writeup now. But I hope to do that in the future)
To be honest, I have not invented the title, it was given to BBC documentary aired for quite few weeks in the evenings - it was actually after seeing the first of films when I decided to visit this Welsh hilly land. At that time I have been staying for about four weeks in England and was looking forward to making first cycling outing, preferably somewhere in the mountains. Along with my wife I have been studying the maps of Wales - the most appropriate area for a weekend jump from the north London area where we live. At first we were keen to go to the Black Mountains area in mid-south Wales, but then, after seeing mentioned "Visions of Snowdonia" we quickly changed the plans appalled by a wild beauty of fluorescently green hills leaning towards the sea.

A quick look at bed & breakfast guide at local bookstore revealed some interesting opportunities for accommodation and having a perspective of crowded weekend ending with Monday's bank holiday (which is just typically English escape - word for another day off) we have reserved a room at the outskirts of Bala - popular resort in southern part of Northern Wales. That was a first touch of Welsh language- village's name of Cefn- ddwysarn has been thoroughly spelled over the phone.

It wasn't an easy trip through Friday's afternoon traffic to get there - but time was passing quickly, I was entertained by my wife reading out loud reports from the first week of Giro from a local cycling weekly. Just as the sun decided to cut the light supply for that day we stopped at the nice cottage which was to become our home for the next three days. Greeted warmly by a hostess we enjoyed a welcome cup of tea and quickly paid a visit to the bedroom tired after rather exhausting week.

The morning brought just unusual sunny weather which prompted us to make the decision about the first day's route. We drove to Dolgelllau, a grey stone settlement nested nicely in a shallow valley barely touching the Barmouth Bay. Right after jumping onto the bikes and turning onto A493 road leading to the sea we discovered first short hills giving necessary warm-up. As we approached a small village of Fairbourne, where the seaside railway has its central point I discovered that the tyre in my mountain bike was badly punctured exposing the tube to the brake pads - which quickly pierced it through. Utilising my best Mc Gyver's abilities I have managed to repair the tube and we finally reached the sea viewing it from an easy ascent - although there were no cliffs underneath, the combination of sea and hills, with distant peninsula to the right was well worth taking a camera out of the bag.

We kept rolling along the coast, passing picturesque villages and farming yard crowded with sheep separated from the neighbours by characteristic fences made of flat stones. Final destination of this part of a trip became a little disappointment - except nice stony church the town of Tywyn was not really the highlight of the day. The map presented a nice alternative road B4405 along the valley which led us to the stop in a quiet guest house next to the Dolgoch waterfall. A cup of tea and couple of biscuits refreshed us enough to tackle the rest of the road ending behind the lake looking like a fisherman's dream. Faced with a choice of either going straight back to Dolgelllau or continuing the climb south we decided for the latter, partly tempted by the information on something called "Centre for Alternative Technology" located further down the road. "Down" occurred to be rather improper word for the next two kilometres which welcomed us with two stretches of genuine mountain grade. Then a longish descent from the village of Corris filling our hearts with a fear about the need to climb it back in two hours time and we reached a short side road to the attraction of the day. Centre of Alternative Technology is a small establishment located on the hill approachable by means of a cog railway powered by a special water balancing system. Centre's main task seems to be providing information on energy-saving technologies and promoting environmental friendly implementations. It starts with the ticket where cyclists are given 50% off the entrance price. Visiting gave us a bit of well needed rest so we were ready to go back north.

The climb back was very easy with a helping tail wind, and we looked rather fresh when passing a beer enthusiast sitting on a hedge who mumbled "rather you than me..." toward us. A487 road which we followed from the Centre leads to Dolgellau, but after the crossing with B4405 from which we came originally it starts to climb up in a steady manner along a stretch which brought to my memory a view of last straight of Furka ascent. The need to climb was rewarded by a sight in the back with mist - camouflaged mountains and the lake down in the valley. The ascent ended rather unexpectedly with a sharp left turn exposing delightful meadows filled with sheep and surrounded by ample hills. From this point onward it was just rather uneventful although quick descent to Dolgellau where we packed into our car rather quickly urged by a company of some very strange characters occupying the parking place. A warm shower was certainly one of the nicest things one could experience after a day long 80 kilometres ride. But we were still anxious to see how the Welsh dinner look like, so we went to Bala and shoved the steaks down our throats flushing it with Tetley's beer - sorry - ale.

Previous day's experience was probably a bit too much for my wife who announced in the morning that she would be interested in more relaxed form of cycling. Therefore we simply agreed that we go our separate ways - she would stay and relax at the farm and I'd crack through some hilly stuff.

I left without any particular plan - except perhaps reaching Betws - y Coed - told to be one of the main tourist centres in Wales. I rolled down towards Bala, turning right just before the town onto an unmarked road which I hoped let me avoid the traffic for a while. I was right although nothing in this world comes free, I had to forced my way up a solid 15% hill on a granny gear before getting to some sort of civilised flat section from which I could see cars riding up a parallel A 4212 - my soon - to - be destination. Actually, sooner than I expected as after some twenty minutes I met even narrower road joining from the left side which led me back to the kingdom of exhaust fumes. Fortunately, combination of Sunday morning and the fact that most of the cars were going up only to the start point of rafting adventure nearby left me soon in silence and so I reached the first lake of the day - Llyn Celyn. Road was taking a smooth left turn around the lake shores where huge rocks suggested proximity of mountain slopes on the west - south side. Northern side was covered with meadows occupied by flocks of sheep, waiting till the last second to run away from the fence where they enjoyed more juicy grass.

Soon the road left friendly green and blue landscape and led to the junction with a sign announcing B4391 which I chose to be my next turn. Here landscape changed, I was entering wilder, desolate world of vast highlands covered with the grass which had not regained its green yet - with howling wind, given some mist it would be an ideal horror scene. Not to mention, it was all the way up with long sections of flatter road until the left turn which, as the map suggested, should bring me all the way down along an unmarked road to the Betws - y - Coed neighbourhood. And it did ! First few kilometres gave me the impression of being the steepest descent I have ever ridden and I felt very sorry for two guys climbing up this incredible hill using their racing combos. But the steepness soon turned the downhill into easier ride along a forgotten land of fields, meadows, streams and just few houses. And these field were giving a true definition of green colour - I could say rarely seen anywhere else. But, not only nothing in this world is free, but also nothing pleasant lasts long, a truth reminded by a more dense population of Penmachno village at first and by roaring A5 descent to Betws - y Coed not much later.

The town itself, despite all the traffic and crowds makes a nice impression with its stony houses, lots of green, winding main road leading to forest hills around. I used a supermarket at the said street to replenish in calories because I knew one thing - I wanted to avoid going back south - east on A5 which meant I had to take a short, narrow bypass to Nebo suggesting a bit of huffing an puffing on granny again. And I guessed right - I was at 30 / 23 most of the way up, then the road led me through false downhills just to prove that there is another nasty short and steep hill to conquer. So when I finally joined B5113 at Nebo I was almost there - the only thing that saved me from longer rest was the perspective of going down for at least few kilometres. Seeing the join with undesired A5 again I turned left A543 which should have brought me to Brenig Reservoir - big artificial lake amidst the pine forest. But before it happened a specific sound announce another puncture. The reason was the same as the day before and looking for some solution to cover the hole in the tyre I invented one of the most unusual condom applications. Armed heavily I continued the ride through pine woods along the Brenig Reservoir which was hardly visible through the trees. It was another up and down section which led me back to A5, again only for the moment, because the final part of this day's trip was to run through tiny villages and very narrow roads east of Foel Goch hill. It was mid afternoon and I started to feel quite tired, with thoughts of shower coming more often. But as it usually happens in such circumstances, I missed the right turns few times, had to fight my way up a horrendous hill where I needed to get off my bike two times to conquer 300 m. Section, and so on. Then, when I finally reached the last ramp leading to the hotel, it really took my best efforts to ride it to the end. But I was lucky after covering over 120 kilometres and getting a better feel what this part of Wales was about.

The next day was actually our last to stay in this very friendly area, so we decided to take shorter ride, just to leave before the return traffic starts to jam the roads. Our choice was the Lake Vyrnwy located south of Bala among wooden hills. The distance looked reasonable on the map, but it occurred to be much longer trip than originally expected. It starts with a short section with very steep descent to the village of Pale decorated with picturesque bridge crossing the local river. Then the tarmac starts to roll up with few serpentines covered by a morning shadow. Soon the road leaves the trees and winds gently up through a deserted land - similar to the one I saw yesterday. Finally the climb ends with a stunning view down below into the green valley and the road jumps into it with the speed of pure alpine standard. There it goes through silent, stone villages of Pencraig, Llangylog and Penybontfawr, the latter of which brings the next right turn leading to the lake. We were a bit afraid about this last section - to be a climb again, so we sat at the corner of the street and had some apples and water. A friendly farmer went out of his home to ask us where we were going. I used this opportunity to get some idea about the climb to the lake, and even more importantly - about the return route. It wasn't very appalling perspective to come back using the same route we just did, and the map showed a promise of alternative starting at the north - west corner of the lake towards Bala. But our farmer had both good and bad news. Good news was that the section to the lake was rather gentle, with just two short steep fragments. Bad news was the expression on his face when we showed him our alternative comeback route. "It's going down to Bala, that's right" he said "but you need to climb some three miles first and I need to use first gear in my car when I go there". Anyway, even with this prophecy, We just couldn't see going back the same way and we rushed ourselves through the fields towards the lake. It is pretty magnificent view when it appears, as you need to climb a little to see the dam crossing the valley - the dam is rather old, made of dark grey stone and giving the access to the other side of the lake . The dam, stony tower guarding the other bank and the shadow from the woods around give the lake a specific, thrilling charm.

We crossed the road along the southern bank of the lake and reached the infamous shortcut to Bala. Last apples, Lion bars and time to go ! It wasn't long before we needed to switch to low gear but luckily, very steep sections were separated by flatter ones, just enough to get some breath before hitting the next one. Plus, later part of the ascent is covered by woods again, cooling the air nicely. As I was struggling on the last meters before reaching a cattle grid announcing the soon-to-be end of the torture, a road cyclist came from the opposite direction passing me with incredible speed and vanishing in the woods. How he did that without using the breaks - hard to imagine. I could sense the type of speed he had on the descent into the next valley - the road was almost straight, therefore downhill conditions were perfect. And so was the view from the bottom of the valley on the road going up tom the hill which we left just few minutes before... Then it was just the speedy ride on almost empty road passing sheep filled meadows and more houses as we approached Bala. And the trip which was supposed to be an easy, short Sunday ride turned to become over 70 kms of hard hilly work. But, as both days before, it was highly rewarding experience, handing us the feel of mountains even despite relatively low altitudes. And Every day was different - from marine and farmland Saturday, through deserted and demanding Sunday - to be finished with the most alpine landscape of today.

And certainly there is more to explore, therefore be continued.