This was to be the second bothy trip that Dave and I had done by bike, carrying the minimum of equipment that we could get away with. Train tickets had been booked as Dave was coming from the Midlands and I from South Wales we aimed to meet in Shrewsbury, on the train to Newtown.
The forecast had been getting slowly more pessimistic as the week had gone on and with the expectation of it being around freezing if not a little colder we dressed accordingly, with spare dry and warm kit stowed away. Routes had been discussed by email in the months preceding and although we anticipated staying the night in Lluest Cwm Bach bothy we had packed bivvy bags in case it was full. As it was, it turned out to be empty but I’ll come to that. The route planned was a mix of lanes, access roads, bridleways and hike-a-bike, with the occasional main road thrown in where unavoidable.
From Newtown we headed South East briefly on the A489 before climbing quite sharply along the C-roads towards Bronyvastre and then to Lower Wig. Taking the bridleway through the farmyard and across fields we first rode and then walked as the slopes became too steep and boggy to climb on the bikes. We joined the B4355 for a short and very cold section along the top past Cider House, watching out for patches of ice left by the melting snow whilst the icy winds and snow spirts whipped our faces. All warmth generated on the climbs ebbing away. Continuing South along the access road past Banc Gorddwr we found the surface to be surprisingly good, due to the wind-farm development. As yet we hadn’t encountered much in the way of proper Rough stuff! The pub at Llanbadarn Fynydd was closed so lunch would have to wait. Using a mix of access roads and Glyndwrs Way we arrived in Abbey Cwm Hir. There wasn’t much life to be seen in the hamlet, and again the pub was closed. Continuing along the access road that had been adopted as part of the NCN as 825 we encountered a bridge with a small ‘Danger’ sign nailed to a post. The danger being the bridge was without sides, and missing some useful parts of its structure with gaps where the wood surface had rotten and fallen into the water below. Despite being paved originally, the surface along here was more mulch, mud and holes than bitumen and we quite enjoyed the stiff climb and quick descents as the lane followed the natural topography. Red Kites emerged from the tops of hedges as we passed, and with the clear blue skies above us they joined several others circling on the developing thermals.
Arriving in Rhayader we finally found an open pub to have lunch, at almost 3pm. Chatting in the pub we were told the weather forecast had changed and the light snow that was blowing around was as much as was going to fall. This cheered us. After a drink and plates of fish and chips and ham, egg and chips we carried on out through Elan village and then into the Elan Valley. The dams were all as grand as ever, with spray hazing around from the overflows as we passed. Truly grand engineering.
We rode along the access road around Caban-coch and Garreg-ddu reservoirs and then at the Northern tip of the latter we forked right and rode along the bridleway above Penygarreg reservoir. The NCN81 continues on a paved section a few metres down all the way along from the Visitor Centre before it bears off West across the Craig Goch dam and continues away North. Our path took us along the bridleway East, climbing steadily along a mixed surface of rock and grass as it contoured around Rhiw Caws and Cwm Garw. We broke off and headed North shortly after crossing the ford where the two tumps meet. We were able to ride the sheeptracks for a while, despite some light snow underfoot and then in a moment a cloud of snow enveloped us as the wind blew hard up the valley. Five minutes later it had passed but we were now finding the surface more slippy and the sheep track less easy to follow. We used the bikes as one might use trekking poles to aid our crossing of Nant Gors-y-nod and then once around the bulge of Cefn Cwm we were able to glimpse first of all the trees that stood proud of the bothy, and then down into the gully we saw the bothy itself.
Refurbished in 2013 by the Mountain Bothy Association and Elan Valley Trust the bothy was very presentable and a good size inside; 10-12 could sleep on the raised sleeping area with more on the floor if needed. Reading the bothy book we found out that the table and chairs we were sat at had been made from reclaimed timber from the building. Water was taken by filter from the water butts on site using a small MSR filter and bottles topped up. The stove was lit and warmth began to emanate forth whilst I cooked up dinner. We’d taken in fire materials so were able to leave some behind as well as taking advantage of some coal that had been taken in by a previous occupant. Bed was taken at around 9pm and we looked forward to the next morning.
Overnight the snow arrived quite heavily and after a breakfast of coffee and flapjack we set out into continuing heavy snow fall with around 8-10” underfoot. Due to the gradient we were always going to have to hike-a-bike out from the bothy. The plan had been to hike North-Easterly up Waun Fign and rejoin the bridleway across Esgair Perfedd. However as we continued to climb up with the bothy disappearing behind us the conditions were worsening. Around 30 metres from the top and struggling to hold ourselves and bikes upright as we waded through the deepening snow we made the decision instead contour around towards the bridleway lower down, descending gently as we did so. The snow was drifting in places and at one point as I found a rocky edge with my boot sole I took another step and found myself down in snow up to my waist. There were numerous slides and stumbles, with the wheels of the bikes rendered immobile by the snow gathered around the tyres and tubes. Carrying, dragging and sliding the bikes along, we continued around Cefn Cwm. At some point along the section the map on my handlebars was blown away down the valley. I hadn’t noticed it as the snow whipped against my face and the wind threatened to unseat us from the valley side and down towards the reservoir below. We disturbed a Peregrine Falcon not ten feet away as we used Gorse bushes proud of the snow as stepping stones to guide us. It burst away from the ground and in a beautiful flash of greys and creams flew down the valley away from us.
There were moments where we contemplated leaving the bikes and trekking back to the bothy but we could see the dark outline of the bridleway not too far ahead. Rejoining at the ford, the dark line of stone was clear against the white background of snow due to the water flowing down the path of least resistance. With joy we remounted and began riding along. Not 100 yards later there as a crunch as my ice-laden chain and cassette bound up the rear derailleur and it bent up into the wheel. I was bemused as to how it had occurred as I hadn’t touched the shifters. Still that wasn’t going to help reconcile the problem. With the snow up past the axles I shifted the bike around until I was able to split the chain and remove the derailleur. Now able to push the bike we continued until we reached the toilets and the NCN section at the dam. I busied myself bending the hanger out from the cassette, and removing the cable and tying it up to the chainstay. Then measuring the chain up and removing a section in order to create a length suitable to singlespeed the bike. Once that was done I was able to enjoy a chocolate mini-roll that Dave kindly thrust into my hands. Spinning the cranks by hand it became clear the chain was bowstring tight. This concerned me as there was only a narrow 11-speed chain on, not the usual 1/8” chain of a singlespeed or fixed gear. But it did mean I was now mobile at a pace quicker than walking.
Re-tracing our route out, I was minimising pedal efforts and walking on the steeper climbs to minimise risk of chain snap. To our amusement this created a ‘tortoise and hare’ all the way to the Visitor Centre as Dave would ride past me on the ascents, and I past him on the descents; more confident due to the years of cyclocross racing, that and I was really looking forward to a cooked breakfast! We met a lone walker above the Visitor centre who confirmed it was closed so we were then committed to heading into Rhayader to find some food. A friendly café on the corner provided a large plate of hot food whilst we reviewed our options. We were behind time by some margin; it had taken us three and a half hours to get the 9 miles to Rhayader from the bothy, and the planned train home from Newtown was at 14:50. With my singlespeed gear inch of just 44” our top speed on the flat was no more than 12 mph and on the climbs it was walking pace.
We made the decision to head towards Pen-y-bont station to try and make the train to Shrewsbury for our connections from there. This meant using the A44 although due to the weather it was mostly quiet. We were passed by maybe 10 cars by the time we had made the station. There was a suspicious lack of visible rail showing, although the train we planned to catch was the first of the day so we tried not to draw pessimistic conclusions from that. After a half hour wait and a couple of phone calls we found out that train had been cancelled due to frozen points at Craven Arms. The options left now weren’t very palatable but we decided to ride the 23 miles from Crossgates to Newtown along the A483. I have to say Dave was stoic in his decision and leading on, and as the miles passed by, and I ate more jelly babies I felt stronger. Traffic again was very quiet on the trunk road and we took turns in the wind with the other rider following on the wheel. It was with some surprise that we rounded a corner near Dolfor to see cars stopped in the road, and pedalling up to the head of the queue I could see cars at odd angles in the road along the snow, and a plough trying to clear the way. Near the front was a Traffic Police car so I pulled alongside and asked if the road was closed, to which the officer replied that no; it was just this section that was difficult. We shared a joke and then they kindly gave us some hot water in our bottles to defrost the iced slush that the water had turned into. We rode on and carried our bikes around the plough and stranded cars before remounting and carrying on the last few miles into Newtown which thankfully were gently descending. The police car passed us shortly before Newtown with a flash of blue lights and a wave.
After a warming tray of chips at Genie’s opposite the ginnel to the train station we were finally at our destination. It turned out that the earlier train we had been booked on had been cancelled and so the approaching 16:40 was the first one we would have been able to board. Before it arrived we chipped off the accumulated ice and snow from our bikes in order that the melt water wouldn’t cause an issue on the train.
A tough 85 miles, and whilst not to plan it was still an enjoyable experience. There are still many byways and bridleways yet to be ridden in that area, and a couple more bothies to try out so we will return.
Words and pictures – Thom Hadfield