Barney takes a trip to Hay, while the sun shines…
Words & Photography Barney Marsh
In association with…
This isn’t how it usually works. If you’re a freelancer like wot I is (Barney Marsh, writer of rongs, that’s me), you usually find yourself pitching ideas like a desperate, capering gibbon to the dispassionate Singletrack suits with their blank faces and dark glasses, before one of them presses a button which either leads to a commission or (more often) a trapdoor to the metaphorical furnace room at the bottom of Singletrack Towers.
But Hannah – who essentially operates as the Metatron of Singletrack – told me she’d had an email from a young chap called Lew Price who actually suggested a ride in that there Hay-on-Wye. Lew emailed alluringly of stunning views, stiff climbs and sweet, sweet singletrack, and stuff – ooooooooh. So, like a keen little hamster – albeit one who owns a van – I trotted off, cheeks stuffed with bike gear, to the far north-eastern bit of the Brecons to see what was what.
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Hay-on-Wye evokes a variety of feelings in me. Yes, it’s at the very tippy top of the easternmost bit of the Brecon Beacons National Park, but that’s not it. For me, and I suspect for most people who’ve heard of it at all, the things that will spring to mind are books. Lots and lots of books. There are over 20 bookshops, there’s a world-renowned book and literature festival, and the place is frankly seething with literature-fiends, if that’s even a thing and not a weird oxymoron. Oh, there are plenty of road riders too, who head over there from places such as Bristol to drink tea before heading up and over the famed Gospel Pass – the highest road pass in Wales. I was one of them, a disturbingly long time ago, back when I was lithe, young and beautiful. Indeed, a few of those road riders might have concluded, as I did, gliding gracefully huffing and puffing up the pass, that there must be some pretty good mountain biking in these here hills, before idly letting such matters slide along with the descent into Abergavenny.
And some of those road riders would be right.
Strictly speaking, the hills south of Hay, and sort of south-east of Talgarth are actually known as the Black Mountains (not to be confused with the singular Black Mountain not all that far away, although neither range nor mountain is actually black). But they all fall under the aegis of the Brecon Beacons National Park, so confusingly they’re part of the Beacons whilst not actually being Beacons themselves. Got that? Good.
Are you Lew?
But, back to the matter at hand. Lew’s house is set a mile or so out from the centre of Hay, with a view of what I suspect might be the first hill of the day. It looks worryingly nasty. And as Lew and I wait for Rik, the last of our trio to arrive, we fettle bikes, tweak brakes (mine are on permanently thanks to poor maintenance – this is the first in a long, long list of excuses), and manual effortlessly up and down the drive (Lew) or look on enviously (me).
At length Rik arrives and promptly lies on the floor, stretching. It seems that he’s succumbed to one of those bastions of age, the ‘bad back’. This necessitates a variety of pre-, mid- and post-ride stretches which Lew and I treat with the delicate sympathy we’re renowned for, and take the piss mercilessly.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Lumberer.
Having stretched, fettled and rendered bikes so they’ll at least pedal, we set off. And as predicted, the first order of the day is to grind up that bloody hill. My feeble attempts to scrounge an e-bike (for the camera gear, obviously, not my weedy legs) from the dispassionate, yet curiously sadistic overlords at Singletrack had proved fruitless, so I was left to my usual station at the back as we ground up – first the road, and then trail, more road, more trail. I’m firmly of the opinion that, at this time in my life, climbing on your bike makes you live longer. Not just because you get fitter or anything anodyne like that. But with increasing steepness, your subjective experience of time seems to lengthen: stretches of trail that would take milliseconds downhill seem to take hours when you’re riding uphill, even if scant minutes have passed in the objective world. You can take solace in the fact that each pedal revolution takes you closer to your goal as well as closer to death, but when each one also requires colossal acts of will to avoid grinding to a halt in a bid to recover quivering fistfuls of trail snacks from your backpack, it’s just as easy to weep at the never-ending torment of it all. And I’ve only been riding for ten minutes. Why, oh why do we do it to ourselves?
The answer comes some fifteen minutes (and several thousand years) later, as we finally crest the rise and stop for a quick break at the top of what looks like a magnificent descent. A lone tractor appears in the middle of nowhere, stops, and the farmer gets out. He spends five minutes talking on his phone, and then gets back in the tractor and disappears – phone reception here, it seems, is a scarce commodity. But it’s our fate to head even further into the unknown (or at least, away from the tractor), and so we helter-skelter down the other side of the rise – all grassy slopes, and disconcerting drop offs – onto a trail that is known to Lew as ‘Bomber’.
Apparently, this trail name was coined before Lew and his mates found out about a (possibly apocryphal, possibly not) tale of a World War II aeroplane, fresh from mistakenly bombing somewhere Welsh, that crashed into the ridgeline to our left (strangely called Darren Lwyd) with no survivors. I must confess that a subsequent internet trawl yielded no evidence, although this particular part of the internet is rife with astonishing detail and minutiae and rather low on broad-brush information – such as a nice, handy map. Although I’m willing to grant that this requirement might be seen as ever so slightly morbid.
The Brecons are peppered with such plane crash tales – certainly more than I was expecting. Ask anyone local, and they’ll be able to point you to myriad crash sites – some of them containing wreckage, some of them mere splodges on the ground, and some of them totally invisible; if they existed at all, they’ve been completely swallowed up by the landscape. Most of them, though, have official documentation – it’s genuinely surprising precisely how many aircraft have come a cropper here, and it can lend a somewhat sombre tone to proceedings. It’s pretty difficult to reconcile the staggering beauty of the landscape with the horrors that it can occasionally conceal, especially on such a beautiful day.
The thing about mountain biking, though, is that it’s quite good at taking up every last drop of your attention; the trail we’re now hurtling along is one of those I wish would never end. By turns fast, flowing, gloriously scenic, technical, tight, twisty, narrow, open and always an absolute blast, this run qualifies as one of the best single slices of singletrack I’ve ridden in years. It’s not steep – it drops only 124m in 2.2km, but it packs loads into those scant metres. Yes, there’s some undulant contouring, but you’re always carrying enough momentum to feel like each small climb is totally effortless – and then you’re on to the next section.
After a mile or two, near the bottom of the descent, we stop at a small waterfall to eat some jelly babies, to horse about (me and Lew), to stretch (Rik) and to contemplate the prospect of pushing back up it again for more photos. To be honest, this is far from a chore – the expectation of what’s to come sees to that. And after a little more trail, and a puncture for Rik, and a little more road, we crest the Gospel Pass again, and head down towards a hot date with Offa.
Show Offa’s Dyke.
Offa’s Dyke was apparently built by an Anglo-Saxon king about 1,200 years ago, and it roughly delineates the border between what is now England and what is now Wales. Surprise, surprise, being a dyke, it mostly takes the form of a raised earth ‘wall’ with a whopping great ditch next to it. But not here, though. Oh no. Here there be lumpen things of a far more substantial nature – and happily, aforementioned lumpy things also include one of the rare sections of the Dyke that can also be ridden by mountain bikes.
Unfortunately this one is ridden in the ‘up’ direction, although the whimpering grind does have plenty of treasures too – not least the view, which can be enjoyed at length as you slowly creak upwards (OK, as I slowly creaked upwards). It is here that Rik endures his second puncture of the day and, as a fully fledged grown-up with time commitments, he regrettably has to call it a day. Lew and I soldier bravely on to get the best of the weather and the light.
The trail that leads on from the top, in all its glorious, rocky (and times, arse-puckeringly techy) wonder, falls into the Olchon Valley, the head of which is called – magnificently – Darren. This is not at all uncommon hereabouts. A simple look at the map demonstrates precisely how prolific this here Darren chap is. There’s Darren Lwyd, which we’ve already seen, there’s a Pen Rhos Dirion (Welsh Darren?) and there are Darrens dotted all over the place. Initially mystified, I wondered about some righteous, improbably named adventurer, who in ancient times cleared the hills of bandits: “Look!” quoth the townsfolk, “Let us rejoice, for the warrior has returned! Let us all speak his name, for it is Darren!” And then it turns out that ‘Darren’ (and permutations thereof) means ‘edge’ in Welsh. Which is initially disappointing, but I’m still slightly amused by the fact that all the Darrens I know are a bit ‘edgy’. Even when a lot of the ones I know – uh – really aren’t (sorry, any Darren who may take offence). Is ‘The Edge’ from U2’s real name Darren? Answers on a postcard…*
*please don’t. [It’s ‘Dave’ anyway… – Eighties Ed]
At length, we find ourselves, having neatly circumnavigated Crib y Garth, back at the base of Offa’s Dyke. And so, once again, the Gospel Pass must be whimpered up. It’s funny how it doesn’t get any easier the second time, after a thousand-odd metres of climbing. All I can say is, thank god for jelly babies. But all that extra effort (it’d be easy enough to blat down the road if you were really shagged) is well worth it: laid out before us is a truly wonderful blurry-fast whizz down a steep valley and into a tree-lined avenue, festooned with roots of a delightfully huckable variety. At length we wind up at an extremely old partial river dam at the intersection of two fords, which was used in days of yore to dip sheep (I prefer dipping crisps – arf).
From here, it’s just a short tarmacked climb to the final descent of the day, which is apparently also called Darren (can you detect a theme?). It’s another blast – fast track hurtlings give way to rocky, skate-y sketch-o-ramas which give way to glorious birch-lined trails and, finally, it spits us out on the road, ready for a short spin back into Hay-on-Wye for one of the best ice creams I’ve had in recent years (damson something-or-other: it was magnificent). I’ll definitely be back, and sooner rather than later.
Why indeed? As mentioned, Hay-on-Wye is perhaps not as well known in mountain biking circles as, say Crickhowell or Talybont. But it’s way, way more fecund (from a trail perspective, natch) than you’d perhaps expect. The same geology you find elsewhere in the Brecons leads to similar extraordinary scenery – although with one key difference: it’s an awful lot quieter. Of course, you’ll get plenty of walkers, but we managed to have great swathes of the hills to ourselves and other mountain bikers seem fairly thin on the ground. It’s spectacularly rare to feel that you’ve chanced upon a little undiscovered honeypot in plain sight like this, so I’m almost reluctant to tell you about it. I’ve been on a few monumental epics on the Brecons in my time and I’ve ridden some spectacular trails – but I’ve also ridden some that, although much lauded, have seemed a little humdrum. But not here.
The trails I rode, thanks to Lew and his expert guidance, were genuinely some of the most fun bits of singletrack I’ve ridden in ages, and to feel that I was riding stuff that was privy to the lucky locals, and barely a few outsiders, was a special treat indeed. Of course, there will naturally be people who will snootily proclaim that they’ve been riding here for years, and I would say to them, amongst some other things, that they’re extremely lucky. I’ll definitely be back, and no mistake.
Hay itself is a charming little place – plenty of cafés, places to eat and drink and accommodation options await you, and of course, more bookshops than you can shake a very large stick at. The reasons for this are not completely clear, but the Hay-on-Wye book festival, usually held at the end of May or the beginning of June, is either a must to visit, or a must to avoid, depending on whether you really, really like books, or whether you really, really don’t like people. But it works as a great base for exploring the region, there’s the rest of the Brecons to ride and there are all those lovely bookshops. Bring it on.
- Distance: 42.95km (26.69 miles)
- Highest Point: 669.98m (2,198.1ft)
- Total Ascent: 1,622m (5,323ft)
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