A Right Royal Ride

Mountain bike trails with Kim Jones

The old Drove road leading onto the plateau

This month Kim Jones takes us on a ride starting off north of Llandovery.

The day he and Tracey undertook this ride over the Mallaen mountains, they experienced some torrential rain and spectacular thunder storms as well as some sunny spells – not that this deterred them. This route is about 23 miles and is quite challenging – hopefully the weather will be better when you follow the route.

Land ownership is an interesting and often controversial topic; what often surprises me though is who owns what and how, and why did it come into their possession. There’s an area of forest I cycle through occasionally which is owned by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Really? My thoughts exactly.

What on earth is the Baron doing with a woodland in South Wales?

It gets better though; the owner of the land that this ride passes over is none other than a lady who goes by the name of Elizabeth. Nothing unusual in that except that this Elizabeth just happens to be the Queen. Yes, the Queen! Now then, it’s strange the thoughts that come into your head, or mine at least whilst riding a bike. As we left the forest behind and entered onto what is Crown Estate it crossed my mind, what would I do if I needed a nature wee? Normally this isn’t an issue, but to wee on the Queen’s land, well, it’s just not right. Particularly here, as once on the top there’s not really anywhere to hide and there might possibly be a royal spotter about, if indeed there is such a thing.

So, I held on for a long time (my mum would have been proud of me) but in the end the inevitable needed to happen…and did.

Now, so far, I seem to have got away with it, but if I’m found out and end up in the tower I do hope you will visit me, bringing beer and sausages.

Mynydd Mallaen lies to the west of the small villages of Cilycwm and Rhandirmwyn and north of Llandovery. Whilst it translates into English as Mallaen mountain, I never think of it as a mountain but rather a plateau, as there is no obvious peak, just lots of bumps. It reminds me of The Cairngorm plateau, though obviously on a greatly reduced scale. Its sides in places, fall steeply into partially hidden valleys, some of which hide some quite spectacular waterfalls, which are a joy to bathe under. Its top is crossed by old drove roads, one of which we will follow today, and is marked with two Bronze Age cairns. It also gives birth to many streams that help fill the rivers Towy and Cothi.

This relatively innocuous area of Wales can at times be a wild and inhospitable place, open to all that the weather brings in from the west, its exposed tops are often trounced by the wind and lashed with rain. Last time I was here the sun was having a lazy morning refusing to show her face, and the weather in her absence was behaving like a petulant teenager. Persistent deluges of rain impregnated every pore, whilst gusting winds busily rearranged the clouds as together, the wind saturated grasses and I fought in vain to stay upright. For the second time that day I was blown clean off my bike and with my will to fight on having long deserted me I crawled and sought sanctuary under a large boulder, gazing in wondrous awe at the storm around me. How could I not be moved by it? That absolute untamed, unmanaged POWER!

I love wild weather, I love its feel, its energy, its might and the primal feelings it stirs inside me; like the music of the early punk bands, it slaps you in the face ‘pay attention, listen to me!’. And there is a crazy joy to be had from being amongst it, for wild doesn’t understand the need or see the point so refuses to comply, being wild is being free, and we need wild in all its forms, weather, land, people and places.

Left to right: Tracey setting off at the start of the trail ride after parking the Landy / Leaving the black stuff and onto the track that heads up around Pen Lifau / The hollow tree

The steady incline towards Pen Lifau

Today though, having left The Landy at Cwm-y-Rhaeadr we enjoy the warmth of a rather exquisite July day, as we make our way down the valley floor riding past the com-memorative stone to Morgan Rhys, a local teacher who penned a few hymns and some books. He must have had some impact on the local and surrounding communities to have this plaque laid here for him, though I have failed to find out much about him. We pause at the gate to the old drove road which leads up to and over the hill; I rode this way last time I was here so today we choose to ride up through the forest on stony tracks, which although just as steep are less taxing to climb on a bike.

Having left the nasty black stuff behind, we hit the dirt and start the climb up into the forest. Adjacent to the gate through which we pass to contour around Pen Lifau is a hollow tree; as a child hollowed trees used to fuel my imagination with thoughts of fairies and gateways to elven kingdoms. This one though, rather than acting as a gateway to the unknown, serves as a hiding place for a feisty lamb which leapt out as I leant on the gate, giving me rather a fright and resulting in a promise to myself to have lamb chops for supper.

The track skirts the edge of the forest

The track soon climbs steeply over some Silurian slabs as it exchanges the confines of what remains of the plantation for the open hillside of Rhiw Cilgwyn. We stop at another gate which provides access onto the open hill. Puzzled by a curious sound, I turn around to see perched on one of the weathered fence posts, a spotted flycatcher here on his summer holidays and joyously announcing his presence by impersonating the sound of a squeaky wheel barrow. I whistle back, but he’s not easily fooled by a lanky bloke on his bike and gives me a one-eyed look that only a flycatch-er can, before taking to the air. Riding through the gate I try to chat with a few sheep, lazing on the bank ahead; now either my attempt at sheep talk caused offence or that young upstart from earlier has given them the head’s up that the old bloke is having lamb for tea. Either way, they too make a rather swift exit, leaving us with the track to ourselves.

Top: Flycatcher / Below: Skylark

We climb the short rise and there, laid out before us, furnishing our senses is another example of nature’s accidental beauty which visually stimulated, we ride into, our wheels flowing over the undulating ground. The grass of the trail gives way to stone as we pass the junction of the old drove road and finding our flow, our speed increases on the hardened ground. On past a lone renegade spruce that has seeded outside the confines of the forest plantation and upon which sits a winking skylark, who like a busker in the underground merrily sings to anyone who will listen.

Pompously I speed through the ford of Rhyd Galed which leaves me with soggy boots. We stop not just to empty my boots, but also to appreciate the pace we have been travelling whilst caught up in the joy of the ride. Often, I am torn; I love the feeling that speeding across the open ground brings, that moment of oneness with my bike, yet I am equally awed by what surrounds me. Occasionally this necessitates me having a quiet word with myself to slow down, to breathe and enjoy all this, the now if you like. And what a now this is, for here atop the plateau is a panoramic view north to where the hills, like folds in a large quilt, disappear into the distant horizon. Horizons, as indeed do skies, vast, empty skies matter; to me they are a tonic, natures ‘pick me up’ if you like. A clear, unobstructed horizon, close or distant, cleanses and stimulates my mind.

Still climbing to the plateau, the panoramic view looking south

We pass a lone rowan, which somehow looks displaced. Unless it is a grand, proud oak, trees for me look sad on their own, as horses belong in packs, trees belong in woods and perhaps this land should once again be woodland, not a regimented plantation but unstructured, wild and uncultivated. Just imagine… ‘Coed Mallean, a secluded forested haven there for those who care to visit, those who perhaps just for a while wish to lose themselves in themselves, away from their norm’.

Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Kim’s butterfly that landed on his leg

I might have been shunned by that flycatcher earlier and then the sheep, but from nowhere a butterfly comes over and settles on my leg. I stop riding thinking she will fly off, but no, she stays, seemingly quite happy. I pedal off again expecting her to take her leave, but no, she doesn’t, so I stop and dig out the camera. Clearly camera shy, she flutters her wings just as I snap the photo, and now she is gone and I’m left wondering.

There’s one or two occasions on this ride when the track simply disappears or just perhaps doesn’t go where you’d like. Cresting Esgair Ferchon is one of those moments; there’s a great path which heads south west but we need to go in a northerly direction. I know it’s here some-where, for I rode it last time and it’s a rather nifty sheep track which takes you through Rhyd Ddu (black ford) whose name is taken not from some dark satanic act that occurred here but from the colour of its waters that do indeed appear to run black. I spend a few minutes wandering around hopefully before I stumble across it. For the record, just head north east for fifty or so metres, you can’t miss it (he says!). It’s as good as I remember it, and as fast too.

Tracey riding through the rough grass on top of the plateau Mynydd Mallean

We pick our way through the marshy ground, still riding before gently climbing to the north western edge of the plateau where we lie on the warm ground our heads resting on the rock slab, our eyes closed, at peace with whoever or whatever we are, humans doing not humans being.

And it is here, something that I have only experienced very occasion-ally, not just silence, but Absolute Silence. A very rare thing indeed. Something so profound, so compelling, so intoxicating. Yes, very rare.

We are so consumed by our lives, so bogged down by routine that to many of us this sound of nothing or indeed to do nothing can be an alien concept. Everyone should feel this, experience it, this calming, this healing, this peace.

Clockwise from top left: The sides of the plateau fall steeply into hidden valleys / Tracey negotiating her bike over rough terrain / Standing stone on the plateau / The barren scenery of Mynydd Mallaen with its lumps and bumps

Step away if you can, if you want, if only for a short time and escape your routine, that arch enemy that strangles the soul and stifles the spirit and search for this silence. It really is something special.

Awoken by a sudden breeze we get to our feet; the weather is turning, it is time to move. This next bit is also a little vague and with no discernible path, we opt to take what appears to be a quad track leading from the field behind and follow it north east across the undulating ground. Today we have made the conscious decision not to bring a map or a compass, and whilst this may be seen by some as a complacent act, it is not. In fact, it is a deliberate attempt on my part to try and experience how it would have felt to first wander here, not knowing what you might stumble upon. This is a relatively safe place to do so as it is only a small area and I would like to think a place I am well enough acquainted, with not to get too lost.

Ever since I was a child, I have wondered how it would have felt to have travelled west, day after day following the sun, would it have been a journey of adventure or of trepidation?

How would Magellan’s sailors have felt on their circumnavigation of the earth sailing across the Pacific not knowing if they were going to drop off the edge of the world?

What feelings would Ibn Battutah’s men have experienced as they explored the medieval Islamic world?

Fear? Excitement? Would they have felt anxious? Possibly all three.

One day, one day soon hopefully.

The path gradually falls away and it all seems to be going rather well. The sun now high in the sky is shining brightly and I can feel its affable warmth on my back, as the track like a river in spate that has bursts its bank, finds the least resistance as it cuts and curves its way across the moor. I must say I’m enjoying this, the sense of freedom I crave is back and I relax into the bike and the rhythm of the ride. Then abruptly and without warning, we find ourselves knee deep in a bog, with no sign of the track. A coterie of frog’s dive for cover into one of the pools before resurfacing, all staring at us seemingly annoyed at our audacity for disturbing their afternoon reverie. Except for one, a big lump of a thing that stands his ground, his flat head, bulging eyes and apparent lack of a neck giving him the appearance of a night club doorman I once knew. I’ve never been given ‘a look’ by a frog before but this chap is seemingly intent on some intimidation. That’s twice today, what’s going on?!

Stopping at the stream to wash the bog from our legs, I realise it is the same spot I came to on that crazy, wet tempestuous day. The wind had blown the map out of my hands and I was floundering around trying to catch it when a farmer appeared on his quad. Despite the weather, his shirt was unbuttoned at the neck, his jacket undone and his hands were gloveless. On his head he wore the farmers’ ubiquitous Dai cap.

Hello boy”. We shook hands, his were huge with a grip like a man clinging to a rope and it had felt like shaking hands with someone wearing gloves made of coarse sandpaper. I remember thinking I could only imagine the damage they would do if clenched into a fist and planted firmly on my jaw.

Siaradwch Cymraeg boy?

Always ‘boy‘, despite my age.

No, sorry, but I am learning”.

Don’t be sorry boy, it’s your loss”.

Cut like a knife.

What are you doing up here then?

We chatted a while, he confirmed that this was indeed Crown land and I told him an idea I had for a route through Wales.

Ah there we are then” and with that he roared off, his collie perched on the back turned around seemingly mocking me with his sneer. These old farmers (and their dogs) have a way of grounding you, though there’s never any malice.

Left: With the stormy weather closing in Tracey races over the plateau to get back to base. Right: Nearly home, following the track through Cwm-y-Rhaeadr forest

Pushing the bikes a short distance up the hill we look for a sheep track to ease our way through the long grass, suddenly aware of the storm clouds that are building in the west. Our luck seems to have run out though and with no visible path to follow we keep walking up to the brow of the hill where we stumble across a group of sheep; we exchange eye contact and they run off – it’s him again, quick, Run! Guiltily we follow them and continue across the hill on a snaking, twisting path, a motley group of six led by an old ewe. The track forks where she lets out a fearful baa which I am in no doubt is aimed at me and then performs a Tour Jete before racing away, her small troupe rallying behind her.

We turn east, leaving the sun behind us as the sheep continue on their journey towards the northern horizon.

Accompanied by panoramic views we start the long descent back to the valley floor; to our left away in the distance and sporting a wonderful forested mohican is a hill whose name escapes me, where’s my map?! And to our right Fan Brycheiniog, the sentinel bastion of the Carmarthen Fans. And what a name, what a name for a hill, Fan Brycheiniog!

A hill from whose abrupt slopes flow a myriad of streams that quench the thirst of the dark waters of Lyn y Fan Fawr. A hill from whose top on a clear sunny day I once saw the distant Isle of Lundy.

Having managed to out run it thus far, the weather has finally caught up with us, bringing a significant drop in the temperature, together with some gusting wind and ridiculously heavy rain to boot, my wild weather is back.

Onwards we go enjoying the vivacity of the now wet ride, the ground beneath our wheels a blur, the bikes seemingly hovering as they cross the open ground. Up on the pedals now, knees bent leaning slightly forwards, my shoulders relaxed, constantly shifting my weight around. Like a seasoned dance couple, the bike and I are in perfect harmony as the speed increases. A kink in the track and suddenly it drops away beneath me, the bike bucking like a crazed rodeo horse as we hurtle through the rock garden; back in control I whoop with joy and cruise towards the forest gate where we choose to pick up the man made, waymarked trail.

Now these sanitised, predictable tracks aren’t usually my thing, I always feel like a hamster on a wheel trapped not in a cage but with-in the confines of a manufactured forest. However, they do serve a purpose and have played a significant part in the growth of mountain biking here in the UK. This particular trail is smooth and fast, very fast so prejudices aside we set off. It doesn’t take long to get up to speed; in the saddle, out of the saddle, sitting, standing, a bend ahead, lean the body don’t turn the bars drift around it, oh that was close. Fluid, relaxed movements of the body keep-ing the bike stable, off the jump way, way too fast, relax, don’t brake…don’t brake! Accelerate out of the turn and up the short rise before hitting another jump and I’m airborne again. A steep bit and again I’m travelling too fast, much too fast, drop your heels, look up, look ahead, Whoa, brake! I do and then it is all over.

A grinning Kim in the tropical like rain after the last blast back

I must confess, I rather enjoyed that.

I lay the bike on the ground alongside The Landy and stand in the tropical like rain grinning like a naughty schoolboy and wait for Tracey.

This ride is best done on a clear, dry day when you can enjoy the panoramic views from the top of the plateau. It’s no fun in the wet as you are exposed to the weather for the majority of the ride and the bogs can be a little uncompromising. It’s probably at its best after a week or so of dry weather. If you do choose to visit though, promise me you won’t tell Liz.

Map needed:

Os 146. 1:50000 and a compass.

All Articles