While promoting his semi-autobiographical film, Cemetery Junction, Reading-born comedian Ricky Gervais talked about his inspiration in writing the story, which examined the longing common among many young people to escape their roots and explore the wider world. “When I was 18 I told my mum I was going to live in France and she said, ‘What do you want to go there for? There are parts of Reading you haven’t seen yet’.”
It was an idea that came to mind during a day in west Wales in November, roaming the Ceredigion moors around the harbour town of Aberaeron for the first time. My compass is often pointing in the direction of mainland Europe, to the steepling mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees, down the rabbit hole of alluring destinations I know only from the television. Mystery and adventure and excitement is to be found there.
But yet, there’s still so much of the UK I haven’t experienced. I mean, for someone who’s pretty well travelled, I’ve never, for instance, been to Scotland! Or Northern Ireland. I’m British and 50 per cent of its countries remain personal uncharted territory. This trip to Aberaeron was evidence that if I set my sights a little closer to home it can pay unexpected dividends.
I was invited here by Glyn Heulyn, owner of the Harbourmaster Hotel. Glyn left a career in the financial services to open this boutique hotel and restaurant in 2002 with his wife, Menna, and has racked up a string of awards and acclaim in the meantime. Its name is a bit of a giveaway but the grade II listed building, some time prior to the Heulyns’ arrival, controlled shipping out of the Aberaeron harbour. As a hotel it retains its prominence in the town, as a must-visit destination for visitors and also its eye-catching façade (I want to say it’s purple, but being colour blind I’ll go with the consensus: cobalt blue). It also retains a nautical feel inside, with circular windows and all 13 of its rooms named after 19th century boats built in Aberaeron.
The Harbourmaster is cycling-friendly and that stems from Glyn and Menna’s passion for riding. Glyn, an ex-rugby-playing giant redwood of a man, talks about cycling with infectious enthusiasm; as well as riding at least 70 miles a week, he trains hard on the turbo, goes to competitive power-based spin classes and is a Strava fanatic. Cycling is both his opportunity to be competitive and also his time to relax, a break from the rigours of running a popular hotel.
He arrives at breakfast dressed in Rapha clobber he’d inherited from a friend, who lost so much weight it no longer fitted him. While gratefully accepting the hand-me-downs, by the time he hits the hills he wishes it was him who’d lost some timber. He’s mapped a 60-mile route for us, which will take us almost immediately inland into the hills in a clockwise direction towards our cake stop in Llangeitho, scooting through the valley towards Felinfach, before rising – and descending again – into Cwmtydu Cove, through New Quay and following the A487 back into Aberaeron. Having arrived after sunset the previous evening, I’ve little idea what to expect…
November in Great Britain is a great time to ride. Yes, it can be cold and wet, but I still have the fitness gleaned from the summer in my legs and I’m not far enough into the cold period to be fed up with it. There are no imminent competitive targets, no numbers to watch – just cycling, stripped back to the bones, riding for pure enjoyment and gulping down the fresh, crisp autumn air.
Glyn has promised a day spent on small country lanes free of traffic, and after a brief ride up the A487 towards Aberystwyth, we take a sharp right up an even sharper climb on the B4577 that takes us up onto the moors that will be our home for the next six hours.
The climb eases considerably after a mile but continues, with the odd drop, for a further nine to the highest point of our day at a smidge over 1000ft. The weather isn’t quite the forecasted sunny spells, but despite the overcast skies there’s barely a breath of wind, which is always a bonus for November.
Probing Glyn for some stories about the local area, I’m surprised when he points into the distance, towards Tregaron, and tells me about the 1970s bust of what was at the time the largest LSD drug ring in the world. ‘Operation Julie’ saw 28 officers from 10 police forces go undercover as hippies for 13 months, which sounds like a bit of a skive to me. It did, however, yield results, recovering £6.5m worth of LSD crystal, found buried at the Tregaron home of the ringleader Richard Kemp, a chemist, with the 15 defendants in the case landing a whopping 120 years combined jail time.
Winding our way slowly down to the cafe in Llangeitho, conversation turns to a very different kind of high – a choral one. Local legend here says this village is where the 18th century composer George Handel found his inspiration for the Messiah’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, after hearing the singing crowds in the local church. With the chorus now in my head, perhaps for the rest of the day, I clip back in for a triumphant march down a gradual descent, and the narrow lanes through Abermeurig and Felinfach, trying to take mental notes of the town names but hopelessly failing to grasp the intricacies of the Welsh language.
The climbs then start to come thick and fast, first out of Felinfach, then at the 35-mile mark, both with double digit pitches. The descents are trickily negotiated as fallen leaves churn together with fresh rainfall, though the weather gods seem to be with us as we constantly dodge rain showers. The views are consistently impressive, the bright autumn colours accompanying always varied terrain. During WWII, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas lived in the hamlet of Talsarn, on the route just before Felinfach, and the countryside inspired much of his work during this period. He and his wife Caitlin Macnamara, the saucy pair, conceived their daughter Aeronwy on the banks of the River Aeron, from which they took her name. Thomas also spent a lot of time in Aberaeron, probably in one of its many pubs, given his ultimately tragic fondness for booze.
going to the dogs
Shortly after being chased some 100m by a spirited Jack Russell (“We train all dogs to go after the English,” laughs Glyn), we arrive at the most scenic part of the route, Cwmtydu Cove. Once thought to be a smugglers’ cove where pirates would make use of its many caves to store their plunder, the only piratical behaviour found here these days comes from the crushingly steep road that takes us back up into the hills south of New Quay. Such is the vertiginous slope that it plays havoc with the gearbox of photographer Jesse’s car, which shuts down and absolutely refuses to budge.
The leisurely pace of the day forces us to skip a planned second coffee stop in New Quay because of concerns over light, and instead we head back up the A487 to Aberaeron. It might also have had something to do with the call I overheard Glyn make back to the restaurant asking to save us what remained of Sunday lunch, but I couldn’t possibly confirm that.
The end of the best rides always come too soon, and this jaunt around Ceredigion fell into that bracket, though the idea of tucking into a plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding back at the Harbourmaster blinded me to it at the time. It was a day where I’d had everything I look for in a ride – gorgeous scenery, testing hills, hidden gems and good company. Most importantly, it was new ground broken, and in the car on the drive back home I started to ponder what else this nation of ours has up its sleeve.
Cycling Plus Features Editor and tireless domestique John has been putting in a shift for the magazine for seven years. Despite having been a ‘proper’ road cyclist for the last decade, he still can’t work out what his main motivation for punishing all-day rides is. A freewheeling attitude towards cake is the popular theory, however.