I’ve spent a few weeks in London, Oxford, and the Welsh Valleys. In London I slept in various places, revisiting some posh town squares and climbing onto a couple of low roofs.
But before I go on I must mention that I’ve tried to make this website a bit more user friendly – since my blog posts are so few and far between I thought perhaps if anyone’s following they’d soon get tired of visiting to see if I’ve written anything new. So on the right of this page (or at the far bottom in some web browers) you can enter your email address and click ‘subscribe’ to be notified when I publish a new entry. Why anyone would want to know when I’ve written another long rambling, I do not know…
Back to London where I saw this elderly woman sleeping in a grubby corner off Vauxhall Bridge Road near Victoria Station:
The poor woman didn’t even have a sleeping bag or mattress. Clearly it’s a corner where drunks like to piss during the night. I felt sorry for her and thought about suggesting some safer places to sleep, but I couldn’t bring myself to wake her up – I might have given her a shock, so I decided to leave it for another day.
It always surprises me how many people choose to sleep next to busy high streets, it’s the last place I’d think of going for a quiet night. I’d be afraid of drunk idiots kicking me in the ribcage or playing mean jokes. I’ve thought a lot about this in recent months, and I think there are two possible reasons why people still sleep in these exposed places.
There are many who want to be on the high street so that they can beg, receive free food, steal, get drunk or take drugs with others of their kind. These people stay out in public all day giving homeless people a bad name. By nightime they’re so wasted that they just fall asleep wherever they happen to end up. I saw a couple by Victoria Station who look pretty smashed:
But there may be another type of homeless person who sleeps on the high street in exposed places – perhaps they simply can’t think of anywhere else to sleep. Perhaps they’ve never walked around and explored London, and are not aware of all the peaceful, scenic places there are to get a quiet night’s rest. Maybe they’re new to London… but I’ve met some cases who’ve been around for several months and don’t seem to know any more than ten hectares around Victoria Station. Why is that?
I think some of them are afraid to explore – they’ve become familiar with an area that offers them some comforts and are scared to move away from it because they have nothing else anywhere else. It’s a fear of the unknown. Victoria Station and its toilets are open almost 24 hours per day, year in, year out, and there are even some homeless people who spend the night just dozing off sitting in the waiting area. There’s a cornish pasty shop open into the early hours of the morning, and a day centre for the homeless around the corner. Perhaps this kind of homeless people see no point in exploring.
I have several advantages when it comes to finding a place to sleep in Central London: I’ve lived there for eight years, my work takes me to many areas of the city and, most importantly, I ride a bicycle. In addition to these advantages I just like exploring, climbing, and trespassing. The bicycle is priceless – I can scout a whole mile in just five minutes looking for a place to sleep, or make a quick dash for a familiar shelter in bad weather, all of which would take five times longer on foot, not to mention having to carry all my stuff on my back.
I left the poor lady where she was and I decided to try sleeping somewhere new for the night. I whipped around a few corners to the unique Lillington Gardens housing estate.
Completed in 1971 this estate and its 1860 church building of matching red-brick colour were declared a conservation area in 1990, and I can see why – it feels like an escape from Central London, it’s a laberynth of brick walkways and passages and the central shared gardens are sheilded from the bustle of city life by the surrounding housing blocks. Although you can walk freely onto the estate from several streets it’s always very quiet and often deserted.
I climbed onto the low roof of the gardener’s office and made my bed there.
In the morning the gardeners walked in and out of the office and started watering the flowers but they had no way of knowing that I was sound asleep just above their heads. I hopped off unseen and in the next courtyard of the estate I spread my sleeping bags out for air while I brushed my teeth.
I thought to myself, isn’t it amazing how many people sleep rough in the horrible noisy smelly corners around Victoria Station, when all they have to do is walk for two minutes to a beautiful and peaceful place like this. They might not know it exists, but do they have no curiosity about the city around them? It was meer curiosity that first led me to walk into this estate a couple of years ago…
The following night I was in Battersea Park. I hopped on to the roof of a little tea hut beside the main cycle road along the north side of the park. It was a fantastically clear night for star-gazing and the park lights all go out at midnight.
Unfortunately the roof wasn’t flat and the side to my right sloped downwards enough to make me visible from ground level about twenty metres away. I was too tired to care and fell asleep – the park was both locked and deserted, and I have no fear of morning commuters. In the morning I could hear and feel the vibrations as staff opened the tea hut beneath me and started serving customers, unaware of my presence. After an hour or two of chuckling to myself, and falling asleep again, a foreign-looking gardener saw me from the sloping side of the roof and started shouting:
“Ey! Whad you doing dere? Ey!…”
“Shshsh!” I winked and gestured for him to be quiet.
But it was too late, he was already walking towards the hut and pointing at me excitedly, “Ey… EY! Dere’s a buy sleeping on da roof!”
The manager came out and saw me. “What the hell are you doin’ up there!” He boomed, in a South African accent.
“Only sleeping,” I replied. “I’m sorry, I’ll get down immediately.” I hurriedly got out of my bed and packed it in my bag.
“The park is big,” he said, “why are you sleeping on this roof?”
“I feel safer here,” I replied. I climbed down the back of the hut and went straight round to the front to order a cup of tea. “Yeh I’m really sorry about that mate, I won’t sleep here again, I promise…”
“Yea, you better not mate…” he was still fuming.
I remembered that South Africa had just thrashed England in the test series. “You guys are amazing, you must be the best cricket team in the world by now!”
“Haha! Britannia don’t rule the waves no more! All we gotta do now is beat you in the one day matches, and you’re history!”
He was now smiling, so I pretended to know a bit about cricket then headed off to work.
I also spent a few nights in the flat where my newly acquired girlfriend lives, which was, of course, very warm and cosy. One wise old gentleman who’s a regular client of mine cheekily asked me:
“How many nights per week do you stay with her?”
“Oh, it varies, maybe two…” I replied.
“Might I suggest that as the weather gets colder you increase that to four, and then five, and then seven by mid-Winter?”
I laughed, and shrugged it off. I don’t want to use a girl just to get a roof over my head, as tempting as that may be. But of course if I happen to have a girlfriend in the Winter then her invitations will be most welcome! An important aspect of this lifestyle is reducing my dependance on other people, whether it be for regular income or for guaranteed accommodation. I don’t want to stay in any relationship just because I want a roof over my head; that wouldn’t be right.
At the other extreme a friend told me about his mate at university in Leeds who was, well, not couch-surfing but err… girl-surfing! He had three girls on the go at any one time and was therefore guaranteed a place to stay every night, so he didn’t even carry a sleeping bag or any outdoors gear and just went around in sandals! Unfortunately I don’t think he was very honest with any of these girls…
Another young homeless chap I met in Oxford was staying in a house of five female students, and in return for free board he was cleaning the house, cooking for them every day and sleeping with two of them! Needless to say he was quite happy with this arrangement.
These guys really do travel light – all they need to own is their clothes and what’s in their pockets. Somebody told me about another chap who did this long-term all over the UK, but not necessarily staying with girls – just walking to the next place and trusting that there will always be someone who will offer him a dry place to sleep. I was told he never had to sleep rough, and has since written a book about it.
But I have problems with this kind of arrangement, with living with a girlfriend to get a roof over my head. After the initial honeymoon feeling wears off, perhaps I won’t want to hang out with the same girl all the time but feel like I have no choice because I’ve nowhere else to go. I depend on her and this is not nice for her either. In contrast, if I learn to live comfortably outdoors I’ll not think twice about leaving as soon as I feel I’ve outstayed my welcome, which is better for everyone involved. If I feel at home outdoors I feel free to get up and travel whenever I feel like it, because regardless where I end up I’m guaranteed a warm place to sleep every night: my soft, cosy bed which I carry with me everywhere.
It certainly would be more convenient to have a girlfriend in the Winter than in the Summer. And of course if the Winter got too tough I could just move in and go halves on her rent. But a lot of woman don’t like this kind of utilitarian, contractual relationship so one must tread carefully, and honestly. Certainly with my current girlfriend we just like each other lots and that’s all there is to it. Despite it being Summertime I’m spending a lot of time hanging out with her and we’re thoroughly enjoying it.
So much so, that we decided to go to Wales together to do a bit of cycle touring. First we spent a couple of days in Cardiff staying with her friends; she had a few commitments so I walked around central Cardiff to explore a new city.
It’s the first time I’ve ever been there and I was pleasantly surprised. When I was a kid we drove past on the way somewhere and I asked:
“Dad, what’s in Cardiff? Can we see Cardiff?”
“Oh don’t bother son, it’s just a dirty run-down industrial place, nothing interesting there.”
There might actually have been some truth in that, but that was the late 1980′s – since then there have been massive investments in the whole area. For example the Millenium Stadium:
And the Taff Trail, a peaceful cycle path following the length of the River Taff all the way to Cardiff Bay:
The Bay itself has seen the most dramatic changes. At anything below high tide it used to be an expanse of smelly mud surrounded by derelict wharves and warehouses, legacies of industrial Cardiff when millions of tons of coal were loaded up for shipping.
But in the 1990′s they built a barrage and a lock separating the sea from the bay, so that now it’s always full of water.
Many impressive buildings and developments have sprung up around it, from the International Sports Village to arts centres to luxury hotels. Cardiff International Swimming Pool is particularly impressive – a fifty metre, ten lane pool, plus a twenty-five metre pool, beach, water slides and a gym:
Many of the buildings around the bay had enticing places for me to shelter and sleep. I like sleeping in places that are clean, empty, and have a nice waterscape view .
The only industry I could see remaining in the port was a place for unloading oil. But there are several short canals and basins still in water, that make for some interesting places to walk, cycle, or sleep.
The barrage is one long cycle/walkway and is very popular on sunny weekends. It’s not just a wall between the sea and the bay, it’s wide and it accommodates a pub restaurant and a skate park. It’s a fantastic place to watch the sunset then see some of the lights of Cardiff on the water. I’m lucky to visit it now because it was only four years ago that after various squabbles between the council and landowners the barrage was finally opened up to the general public.
A few more photos from around the bay area:
Cardiff city centre is beautiful – the whole area is pedestrianised and there are lots of cafés and restaurants that have outdoor seating areas. The library is an impressive building on several floors and I was able to use an internetted computer for free without even getting a membership. The new commercial developments are all mixed up with old church buildings and remnants of the industrial era. The shape of one old building caught my attention:
At the end of the bay I could see a high point and some more terraced houses on a cliff:
I cycled up there. It was an area called Penarth.
It had a pier and brilliant views over the River Severn estuary. The two islands are called Flat Holm and Steep Holm. They’re protected nature reserves, Flat Holm has a lighthouse and a few buildings, Steep Holm only has one building which is a sea bird observatory. It’s so steep and rocky that there’s only one landing place for boats, and I’m assuming that’s only the right kind of boat in the right kind of weather.
These kinds of islands always arouse my curiosity, I can’t wait to get a little boat and go and explore them. They seem like a cool place to spend the night, you can guarantee that no-one will disturb you! Except perhaps for ten thousand noisy seagulls.
Cycling around Cardiff was made very pleasant by a free application that I downloaded for my Android phone, which is also available for iOS should you be that way inclined. It’s called The Complete National Cycle Network and was recently created by Sustrans, the UK charity for sustainable transport. It provides free mapping for the whole of the UK including 1:25,000 and 1:10,000 Ordnance Survey maps, with national and local cycle routes clearly marked. The ones marked in green are traffic-free, the ones marked in purple are on quiet roads.
My girlfriend joined me and we cycled up the Taff Trail, following the river up and out of Cardiff. Our intention was to go right up into the valleys, up to six hundred metres over the hills and through the forest, and down into Neath and Swansea, about 50 miles, with the option of continuing along the coast if we wanted to go further. We had five days to do it so we were planning to go at a really relaxed pace and stop whenever we felt like it to take in the rich local history. This plan followed national cycle route numbers 8, 881, and 47. The Sustrans website warned us about the higher section of route 47: “Neath to Pontypridd is known as the High Level Route and is currently suitable for mountain bikes only on high and exposed forestry tracks.” But she had a mountain bike and I had a hybrid with all-terrain tyres so we were up for the challenge.
It was September in Wales, and I hadn’t bought any waterproof clothing. A bit silly really, but I had decided to continue my experiment that I was doing in London – living outdoors with no waterproofs. The theory is that even when I carry waterproof clothes, if it’s raining I don’t stand outdoors, I immediately find shelter. And in London it doesn’t rain much.
When I used to live indoors I would go out in heavy rain on purpose some times just for fun, in the knowledge that I would be able to dry off and warm up indoors at the end of the day. However when you’re going to sleep outdoors, you can’t do that. You must stay dry, or at least have a dry change of clothes, a shelter and a dry sleeping bag to get into at the end of the day.
Since I don’t carry a change of clothes nor any waterproof clothing, it’s crucial that I shelter from the rain. In London this is a piece of cake, because it hardly ever rains and there is shelter everywhere. But I wanted to see if my approach could be stretched to the wetter parts of the UK like Wales. Since most of our weather comes off the Atlantic most of the rain gets dumped on the west coast of Britain – it can get quite windy there too. I don’t mind a failed experiment – if we got soaked through we could seek out accommodation for one night. My girlfriend was wiser and had bought a waterproof jacket, trousers, and a funny waterproof hat.
But I had another weapon in my arsenal: rain radar. Sixteen radars spread over the British Isles give a clear picture of where it’s currently raining, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This technology has recently been shared with the public – first on websites, and now on apps for smartphones. I use an app called Weather Pro, available for Android and iOS for a one-off fee of about £3, that delivers priceless information on the go. So long as I have an internet connection, I can see a new picture marking where it’s raining in the UK every fifteen minutes. By looking at a series of these pictures over the last two hours you get some idea of whether any rain is headed in your direction, how heavy it is, and how long it will last. Light rain is yellow, heavy rain is red:
Fortunately for me I’ve just switched to Three Mobile who provide a good 3G data signal right up into the Welsh valleys, with which I could check the radar and the more general weather forecasts. I charged the smartphone whenever I got the chance – at pubs, cafés and wherever we were invited to stay over.
Travelling with no waterproofs in wet country is a game of patience – if it rains you’ve got to take shelter and wait for it to stop. We were so keen to get out of Cardiff and on with our adventure that we set off in the drizzle on a Sunday afternoon. Drizzle that intensified to light rain. But we were enjoying the scenic bike ride along the lively River Taff and didn’t want to stop just outside Cardiff, so we went on… it’s only light rain, we thought, and the path goes under a lot of trees… we’ll dry off in a nice warm pub in the evening, and put the tent up when it closes.
By the time it was getting dark we were in the middle of the woods in the pouring rain. A kind gentleman out walking his dog spent a whole five minutes standing in the rain to carefully explain to us how to get to the nearest pub. It turned out to be the inn of the small village called Upper Boat, so called because when the Glamorganshire Canal from Cardiff ran through here, the larger boats could go no further and had to transfer their cargoes of iron and coal from smaller boats that came down the steep upper valley – ‘upper boats’. Upper Boat consists of a miniscule village and a huge industrial estate.
We were dripping wet when we walked up to the bar and puddles were forming around us. It was dark outside and still raining heavily, so we asked the landlord:
“Do you have a room for the night?”
“No, I’m sorry” he replied, shaking his head with a slightly embrassed look, “I know it says ‘Upper Boat Inn’ on the front but it hasn’t been an inn for a long time.”
“Are there any guest houses nearby?”
“Hmmm, well; errrm…” he couldn’t think of any unless we cycled a long way in the rain. “Aah but you can’t camp out in this weather! I’ll tell you what, we’ve got a spare room in our flat upstairs, let me ask me missus, see if you can stay ‘ere.”
The pub was owned by Crown Carveries and it was a Sunday evening so it was quite busy. After several hours cycling in the rain we were cold and hungry so we ordered King Size plates and enthusiastically piled on the beef, gammon, spuds and yorkshire pudding, drowning everything in piping hot gravy. Mmmmm!
The landlord’s missus was equally as accommodating and we hung out with them for a while in their private flat upstairs, sharing our life stories, then they invited us to make ourselves at home in the spare room and use the hot shower.
In the morning they refused to accept any money for their hospitality. “No, don’t be soft!” was the warm reply. “We couldn’t leave you sleepin’ out in all that rain!” We couldn’t believe our luck. Refreshed, all our clothes dry, our sense of adventure was renewed, and we cycled on up the valley.
If you’re ever frustrated by your girlfriend’s slow pace, an easy way to balance a cycle tour is to carry all her stuff as well as yours. My lovely companion cycles around London everyday so she is very good on two wheels but she has never ridden off-road, and I was keen to get up and over the hills, so I put all the stuff on my bike to allow her to ride free.
Three forty-litre bags carried all our stuff, including a camp stove, an ultralight tent and two heavy, bulky synthetic sleeping bags that zip together to form a cosy double. I don’t normally travel so heavily loaded but I’m not well practised at sleeping outdoors with a girlfriend. One problem I have is that the kind of gear that works for me on my own doesn’t work for a couple, and the kind of gear a couple needs is unnecessarily heavy for me alone. This is fine if you live in a house and can store both camping arrangements, taking which ever one you need depending on who’s accompanying you on your trip. But I’m not based in a buiding where I can store stuff, I need to be able to carry everything I need with me at all times.
To be able accommodate a girlfriend I would at least need to carry a double sleeping bag, wider inflatable mat, and a double bivvy bag everywhere, which would be excessive weight for when I’m alone, and also perhaps a bit chilly in the Winter with so much empty space inside a double bag. In addition I’m not sure if a double bivvy bag would work in the cold because in the Winter I like to close the opening so tight so that only my nose is exposed to the cold air – it could be awkward sharing it with a girlfriend having to sleep with our noses stuck together all night!
The tent is the compromise, but I don’t want to take it everywhere with me because I don’t need it when I’m on my own, so it’s stored at my parents’ house. I don’t like this, I want to work towards carrying everything I ever need with me, on my bike.
There is a possible solution with the sleeping bags – if I carry a single bag with a full-length zip on one side, and my girlfriend has a bag with a full zip on the other side, we can mate the bags together to form a double. If she has her own mat too, then all we need is a combined shelter – a tent. This was pretty much our arrangement for this trip to Wales; although the synthetic bags we borrowed were heavy and bulky, they zipped together nicely to form a double so we slept toasty and warm in eachother’s arms.
I’ve gone off using tents primarily because I want to be outdoors and enjoy the view – I don’t want to cycle around somewhere like Wales just to stare at the inside of a tent for several hours per day. (Although sharing it with a girlfriend there are other interesting things to look at inside the tent.) It’s also a bit of a chore to find a flat spot with nice soft ground and pitch a tent in the dark when I’m tired at the end of the day.
When I first started living outdoors I used the tent, but I quickly switched to using a bivvy bag (bivouac or waterproof sleeping bag cover) because a tent is not practical in a big city like London, and there are all kinds of shelters that will do the same job like under porches, balconies and bridges. Tents have more appeal for exposed camping spots in the wilderness above the tree line especially in really harsh windy weather. But for everything else a bivvy bag containing a mat and sleeping bag is so much more practical – you just roll it out, inflate the mat and go to sleep.
I remember cycling around the province of Puglia in southern Itlay in June 2010 with a lovely Korean girlfriend – we took the same tent and slept in it most nights, but the most memorable night was spent without it sleeping out in the open on the fortified walls of the ancient medieval city of Ostuni, from where we watched the sun rise over the Mediterranean Sea. Much better view than the inside of a tent.
I heard that the homeless people who are more likely to survive in the Siberian Winters that grip Eastern Europe, where temperatures plummet below -20 Celsius, are the ones who stuff a dog down their sleeping bag to keep them warm. I don’t have a dog but I find that a young woman works just as well – I would hazard a guess it’s a much more pleasant experience than sleeping with a dog! It makes perfect sense because any part of my body in contact with hers will not loose any heat at all, no matter how cold it is outside. And girls who normally feel cold sleeping alone always end up commenting how warm they slept in my arms.
Anyway, back in Wales, we soon reached the small town of Pontypridd (‘Ponty’ to the locals), with its famously wide stone arch bridge. My companion wishes to remain anonymous so she will be a mystery person on my blog. There she is standing on the bridge!
This Old Bridge over the River Taff was built in 1756 but was so steep that it was difficult to get a horse and cart over it, so a hundred years later another one was built right next to it. Pontypridd means ‘the bridge by the earthen house’ but this referred to older wooden bridges, not the famous stone arch.
At Ponty the Taff is joined by a major tributory called the Rhondda. There’s a national cycle route closely following the Rhondda and gently climbing up the valley so we decided to go that way through a town called Porth, turning up another tributory called the Rhondda Fach (which means small Rhondda). then continuing through the settlements of Ynyshir (pronounced ‘Annaseeher’), Wattstown, Stanleytown, Tylorstown, Ferndale and Maerdy (pronounced ‘Mardy’).
Maerdy is the last village at the top of the valley so from there, if we were confident about the weather, we could launch up into the hills and the forest, about twenty miles of isolation until reaching Neath near Swansea.
The towns of the Rhondda sprung up around the coal mining industry which was active there from 1812-1990; before that it was mostly farmland. I asked my companion for some lessons in architecture so she taught me a bit about how to identify buildings from different decades and how to tell the difference between solid walls and cavity walls. Most of the streets were made of the same grey limestone that we saw in Cardiff. My brother commented on a photo, that it’s a bit boring how all the houses are the same, but I disagree – I think the matching terraces are beautiful and give the area a historical feel.
The steep valley sides must have made for some interesting construction challenges.
At Porth rain stopped play again and we had to hang out in a fish & chip shop for a long time to shelter. We made conversation with an old dear who happened to be sitting opposite us eating fish & chips. She only had one tooth, right in the middle of her upper jaw (locals have been known to call her “central ‘eating”) and between her heavy Welsh accent and perhaps a bit of deafness we struggled to understand each other. But she seemed to really appreciate that we were making an effort, with countless big one-toothed smiles combined with a very long ‘yeeeeeeeeh,’ in a tone of voice that said ‘aren’t they a sweet young couple!’
“I got ten children, twenty four grandchildren and sixteen great grandchildren,” she said proudly. “But they’re all to busy to see me now…”
“Wow, that’s amazing! So many…” we replied.
“Yeeeeeeeeeh…” she said, with a massive grin. “I lived all my life ‘ere in Rhondda.”
After she left we were informed that she had paid for our meals too! We were shocked, almost feeling guilty that the old pensioner had forked out for us, if anything we felt like paying for her meal. When she shuffled in the shop again we asked her:
“Did you pay for our food? Ooooh, you mustn’t do that!”
“Yeeeeeeeh,” was her reply, with another massive grin, and away she went, back out into the dreary drizzle, a little sad, we thought, but a shining example of the kind of sweet hospitality we experienced all the way up The Rhondda.
As we rode on we took a wrong turn and had to push our bikes up a steep bank. The photo looks down the valley, the houses of the Ferndale area just visible in the background.
Finally we made it to the last village at the top of the valley, at 300 metres above sea level, called Maerdy.
It was here that one of the last coal mines was in operation until 1990. As we entered the village we were greeted by a group of kids who were having a great time messing about by the river.
On entering the village we met a very interesting gentleman who was fluent in Malay.
“I’ll bet you didn’t expect to meet a Welshman in this little village who speaks Malay, did you?” he said, beaming.
“No, where did you learn?”
“In the military, I was deployed there in the Malayan Emergency. After that I was redeployed in Indonesia, and went right down through South-East Asia. I spent many years there, and when they first deployed me I worked alongside a Malaysian soldier so I had to learn the lingo. It’s a very similar language in Indonesia, you just have to adapt it a bit more the further you go from Malaysia.”
The Malaysian Emergency was guerilla warfare by a communist party in rebellion against British rule.
I find it fascinating to learn how different languages are related. For example if one learns Malay, one can also very quickly learn to communicate in Indonesian, and might even have a headstart in learning other Austronesian languages spoken as far afield as Madagascar, the Phillipines, the Pacific Islands and even among the Maori of New Zealand.
Anyway the gentleman had spend most of his life travelling in exotic places, but had decided to come home to Maerdy to retire. Interestingly, he was surprised that we thought The Rhondda was a pleasant and scenic area. Perhaps it was a lot more grey and sooty when he was younger, when the coal mines were fully operational.
It was too late to attempt the twenty mile ride over the remote hills, and we were quite damp again but the locals told us there were no guest houses unless we went back down the valley. We decided to visit the social club in Maerdy and then camp in the little park opposite. We had been determined not to stay in paid accommodation unless absolutely necessary, but the Welsh weather had dampened our spirits.
Nonetheless we hadn’t even gotten into the social club when a gentleman who was smoking at the door invited us to sleep on the floor in his flat.
“It’s pretty basic,” he said, “but at least you’ll ‘ave a roof over yer ‘ead. Better than campin’ out in this weather!”
So we galdly accepted, and enjoyed an evening of relaxation and much laughter in the amazing, incredible, unmissable: Maerdy Social Club.
I ordered two pints of a warm, tasty local ale.
“That’ll be three pounds sixty please,” said the pretty young barmaid.
“How much for the other pint?” I asked, innocently, since £3.60 is the normal price of one pint in the Thames Valley.
“No,” she smiled, “they’re £1.80 each, £3.60 for both.”
With great joy I carried both pints away and announced the good news to my girlfriend. We had a few more after that.
As we settled down and hung our clothes on chairs to dry, the room filled with friendly people and we were asked:
“Are you playing then?”
“Playing what?” we replied.
“Oh, we’ve never played before…”
“Don’t worry, we’ll teach yer,” said the young brothers who took us under their wing, pictured nearest the camera in the above photo. They also offered us a place to stay for the night, but we had already accepted the offer of the gentleman at the door.
I knew nothing about bingo because my parents are fundamentalist Christians who believe that all gambling is evil. I agree with them in some respects, but since it only cost 30p to play the bingo game I thought it would be fun to join in, not least because there wasn’t one person in the room who wasn’t playing.
In bingo each player purchases a little bit of paper that has a few random numbers between 1-90 on it, then as an old man reads out other random numbers, players cross off any numbers that happen to be written on their little bit of paper. If all the numbers on one paper are called out, the player shouts ‘house!’ to claim the prize money.
The chap who was teaching us the rules was sat next to us, and he had entered the bingo game four times by buying four little bits of paper which he had laid on the table in front of him. As the numbers were read out, not only was he able to scan all four of his papers at once and cross off matching numbers, he also cast his eye on our bit of paper and crossed off our numbers when we had failed to notice them or were too slow.
A simple game indeed, but we were both entranced – there was absolute silence and concentration as the numbers were read out, and that reading out of numbers was the best bit. In a calm, round voice and the strongest Welsh accent we had ever heard, the old man went on, and on…
“Two and four, twenty-four. Five and six, fifty-six. All the sevens, seventy-seven. Six and o, blind sixty. On it’s own, number seven. Doctor’s orders, number nine…”
I’ve since learned that there are common nicknames for many of the numbers in bingo. For example, in WWII doctors prescribed a laxative pill called ‘Number Nine’, hence the ‘doctor’s orders’.
“Eighty-nine, nearly there. Legs, eleven. Unlucky for some, thirteen. Four and three, forty-three.”
“HOUSE!” shouted our mentor, at exactly the same time as a woman halfway down the room. He enthusiatically grabbed his ticket and handed it to the caller for verification.
“Well done! What did you win? How much did you win?” we asked exitedly.
“Three pounds thirty!” was his extatic reply, “but I gotta share it with her over there, so I get one pound sixty-five.” He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Oh, that’s… that’s brilliant!” we exclaimed with a chuckle. Well, if it cost 30p to enter you can’t expect to become a millionaire from the prize money.
One of the brothers had an accent and a matching manner that was truly priceless. If I ever imagined the most authentic, innocent character from the remote Welsh valleys this was it – he was really eager and sincere as he keenly encouraged us in our bingo game in the most classic Welsh accent. In Cardiff the accents had been relatively mild, but despite the 2001 census reporting that only 21% of people in The Rhondda speak Welsh, it seems that the further you go up the valleys the stronger their accents become when they speak English.
Before the second round commenced, we decided to take our pints upstairs where we had been told there was a quiz about to start. We thought the bingo room was the whole social club, because it was a large club room for such a small village, but no, the quiz room was even bigger!
The general knowledge quiz was good fun but we lost every round miserably, until a couple of old ladies randomly joined our team who knew all the right answers instantly. We were amazed how their brains immediately twigged the solution to all the problems.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a third room, equally as big, but in this room no women are allowed to enter. This is the boys room, where they simply sit and drink beer and watch rugby. Our host-to-be spent the evening in that room, and finally led us off to his flat across the road.
“I’m sorry I’m not normally this drunk,” he said, “it’s just me day off, you see. Like I said me flat’s pretty basic – actually it’s a right old tip, my kids been ‘ere and wrecked the place.” He shook his head. “But at least it’s a roof over yer ‘eads, better than sleepin’ out in this weather…”
“No no no,” we replied, “don’t apologise, this is great, we can sleep anywhere, we’ve got our camping mats we can put on the floor; it’s very generous of you to offer…”
The flat was indeed a tip. It was a modern conversion but the walls were covered in dents and splashes of beer and coffee, the carpets were filthy, the kitchen was smelly with the remains of old food, the bathtub was full of grey water, and there was a giant pile of cigarrette ash next to the toilet – obviously somebody liked smoking while sitting on the loo. We began to wish we had stayed in our tent. As he rolled a joint, our host shared his story:
“I’m in a band called The Tinmen. We used to be quite popular, we had gigs everywhere and got signed to a record label. But even though we were doin’ so well the label decided to drop us, and we were left with nothing. I dunno why they went and did that…
“Now I work in that factory at the end of the road, making rubber washers. It’s long hours, you know, it’s hard – I’m struggling to make ends meet.
“I got five kids, you see, they’re livin’ wi’ their mam but when they stayed here they wrecked the place with all their fighting and parties. They’re good kids… one o’ them’s a rapper, he’s in prison now… but they’re good at heart you know.” He paused. “They wrecked this place, it was all brand new when I started renting it so now I’m in deep shit – when I save up enough money I’ll ‘ave to refurbish the flat. I know it’s pretty grim, but I don’t spend any time ‘ere you see, I’m too busy working, I just come ‘ere to ‘ave a showah an get me ‘ead down.”
We listened to The Tinmen’s music, which was quite good. He gave us a copy of one of their albums, and spoke fondly of his experiences with the band, who are still going under another name. But there was sadness in his voice, especially when he spoke of the reality of his everyday life. It seemed like he had once believed the band would be commercially successful and that he could live off his music, but now that hope was all gone.
In the morning his ex-wife marched in the front door and, not expecting to meet us, explained that the energy company had cut off her gas supply so she was coming round for hot water to wash her hair.
Before we left I tried to give our host some money – after hearing about his predicament I thought it was only fair. But he refused to accept anything. “No, I won’t have it, he said, “I’m sure you would do the same for me.”
After we left I thought to myself, the only reason his life’s so hard is because he’s got to pay so much rent and has the responsibility of looking after a flat that he doesn’t own. He lives on his own now – if he just put a tent up near the local heated swimming pool, where he could shower and exercise, life would be so much easier. Maybe he thought he ought to rent a big place to accommodate his children, but that idea has backfired now… it certainly made me think twice about ever having kids! Anyway it was very kind of him to offer us a place to stay – it seems many people of The Rhondda are hard-up, but extremely generous all the same.
We cycled to the top of the valley but it rained again so we ended up hiding in a little bus shelter. The forecast looked miserable so we gave up on going over the hills and through the forest, turned back and headed down the valley again. We thought we could spend the remaining three days of our holiday lingering in the villages we had passed through, and visit the Rhondda Heritage Museum.
When another rain shower hit us we took shelter in a community centre where the friendly folk welcomed us to hang out for as long as we wanted. Finally by nightfall we went for a swim at the Tylorstown leisure centre. We were damp and chilly when we arrived but the pool was a cosy 29 degrees Celsius and there was also a hot steam room and sauna. In addition the store room where they invited us to put our bikes doubled as the boiler room so I was able to dry all my clothes. We lazed around there for a couple of hours, and came out feeling a million bucks. It was a weird paradox to be floating in the warm water whilst watching the cold rain running down the floor-to-roof windows – some kind of luxury outdoors adventure this was! We felt so warm.
After we left we met the only unfriendly person in The Rhondda – the landlord at the Duke of York pub in Tylorstown, who was quite rude to my girlfriend. I don’t know if he was racist, or didn’t like touring cyclists, or was generally just a grumpy old scrooge, but he didn’t even let us in. He was the exception, for the Rhondda people are friendly people – maybe he’s an immigrant outsider. Or maybe his Mrs hasn’t given him any for a long time.
In contrast the chinese takeaway across the road was very friendly, and after eating our fill we pitched our tent on the side of the hill above the village. The village roads were incredibly steep, it was a wonder the parked cars didn’t just slide away. Our pitch was a good 150 feet above the main road where we had just eaten our chinese, in a kids’ playground that had had all the swings removed and been derelict for many years, but still had some pieces of the kind of soft rubberised tar mac that stops chidren getting hurt when they fall over. This material was so old that we managed to push tent pegs into it, giving a rock solid pitch.
This was immensely convenient because despite being so high above the valley all the grass was completely waterlogged and you could hear it squelching underfoot. It was also just as well because my tent was about to be put to the test by some rather exciting weather.
Just as we got the tent pitched and were ducking inside it started to rain again, at first lightly, then more heavily, and the wind picked up. In the middle of the night there were flashes of light and immense claps of thunder rolling down the valley. I watched and listened carefully because I was afraid of being struck by lightning in our exposed position, but there remained a safe amount of time in between each lighting strike and thunderclap. Having said that perhaps we were lucky, because if the storm did pass directly overhead I would have still been sitting there listening until it was too late. Anyway the chances of being struck by lightning are supposed to be really remote, right?
Heavy rain turned into a heavy hail shower, the incessant bombardment of our tent was quite loud. Just a thin layer of ultralight fabric separated us from the hail and thunder.
“Ermmm… are you sure your tent will hold up?” she asked.
“Yeh, it’ll be fine,” I said, and gave her another kiss.
I spoke not from experience, just from faith in the tent designer, Terra Nova of Derbyshire, who also make tents for polar expeditions, and I was also well chuffed with the rock solid pitch we had found – the tent pegs would not budge, embedded deep in the rubberised tarmac. They might get struck by lightning, but at least they wouldn’t budge!
The tent didn’t move an inch, nor let one drop of water inside. We slept all warm and dry and cosy, enjoying the sound effects of our first night out – for such was the generous hospitality of her friends in Cardiff, and the people of The Rhondda, that we hadn’t had the chance to use the tent until now. In the morning we were greeted by sunshine and blue skies.
It was an idyllic wild camping experience – if every night was like this I would carry a tent everywhere, if I could always find solid, well-drained pitches like this, with such a beautiful view. But I can’t, and that’s why I don’t normally sleep in a tent, I carry a bivvy bag instead.
On the other side of the valley was Old Smokey, a massive slag heap, old waste from coal mining, so named because it used to smoke like a volcano when the deposits were fresh.
We felt encouraged by our fun camping experience and the warm sunshine, and since the weather forecast had improved we decided to make another dash for the top of the valley and the hills beyond.
A short rain shower found us by a petrol station where we took shelter, the manager was kind enough to invite us inside where I bought a hot oxtail soup for 50p. The rain was not as easy to predict as in London. Because the weather was coming in from a west-south-westerly direction for the entire duration of our holiday, the moist air came from the Atlantic through the Fastnet area and dumped all its water on the hills of Wales. This meant that we had to check the rain radar more frequently because the rain would suddenly appear out of nowhere just as the Atlantic airs hit the coast of Wales. In contrast it’s much easier in London because in the prevailing westerly winds you can see on the radar images that if it’s raining in Cardiff it might rain in London a few hours later. Besides, most of the water has already been dumped on the west country before it gets to London.
Once we got above Maerdy there were no more settlements, only pine forest, grassy slopes, an old stone bridge, a reservoir, and remnants of the industrial age. Oh, and sheep. This is what I had imagined when I thought of cycling through Wales, and I could not get enough of the scenery…
Another rain shower found us in a large open space with no shelter at all. We got our groundsheet out and put it over our heads. This was quite effective and we stayed dry. It made me think again about an invention I saw on a backpacking forum a while ago – a tarp shelter that has a hole and a hood and so can be converted into a poncho for wearing in the rain. I wonder if they’ll become commercially available…
The sun got quite low in the sky and we decided against going into the remote hills, miles from civilisation, instead we turned around and cycled up along the ridge overlooking the Rhondda Fach valley that we had just come up, and headed towards Old Smokey. It was a pleasant ride through the pine forests on a nice, wide, gravelly track, another route clearly marked out and maintained by the local authorities and Sustrans.
As we reached four hundred metres above sea level we could see the enchanting outlines of the Brecon Beacons in the distance. It made me feel like cycling right on over them all…
By nightfall we had reached the curious little hamlet of Llanwonno (pronounced ‘clanvonnoe’). The Ordnance Survey map (see above) had aroused our curiosity by putting a symbol for a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere – a single beer mug in a big pine forest. When we got there we discovered there were no other businesses and no houses in Llanwonno, only an old church and an old pub.
We learned that before the industrial revolution had kicked off all the coal mining, the entire Rhondda area was sparsely inhabited by farmers – it was open farmland and it’s only in recent decades that the pine forest we cycled through has been planted. It was the farmers who paid for the church to be constructed.
We treated ourselves to a big beef steak and some real ale in the pub, sat right next to the log burner on which I dried my soggy shoes, taking them off every few minutes in case they melted. It was a lovely dining room for some serious eating, and a cosy bar area was next door with its own log burner. We did enquire about renting a room for the night, but they were only available by prior appointment. However the staff were kind enough to let us pitch our tent by the picnic tables behind the pub.
It was a very damp, soggy corner and the wood chippings didn’t hold the tent pegs very well. Fortunately it was bright and sunny the following morning and despite the damp I managed to find some dead wood hanging from a tree that was dry enough to cook some porridge with my little wood-burning stove.
The Bushbuddy Ultra camp stove is very lightweight and efficient, and because the fire is raised off the bottom of the stove by a grill inside a can inside another can, you can pretty much put it on anything without risk of scorching the surface. I can even grab the bottom of it when it’s on fire because it’s not hot, although there is a risk of burning bits of wood falling out the side or hot water boiling over from the cooking pot.
The smell of wood smoke and the resulting smokey porridge lifted our damp spirits. The friendly pub cleaner bought out some tea and coffee and the manager invited us in to us the toilets and fill up with drinking water. One woman who was doing the dishes in the kitchen was not impressed to see us and wanted to get us locked out as soon as possible, but the rest of them were a friendly bunch, and they looked after us very well.
They lent us the key to the church building and when we went to have a look around the old church warden was there, and he told us a bit of history about the place, where an episode of the new Doctor Who series was filmed and where the legendary runner Guto Nyth Brân (Griffith Morgan) was buried.
Guto lived from 1700-1737 and was never beaten in a race. Some of the legends that surround the big man include him running from his home in Porth to Pontypridd and back, a distance of seven miles, before his mother’s kettle had boiled, and that after blowing out a candle he could run across his room and get in bed before the light had faded. He died young after pushing himself a bit too hard in a race and was buried at Llanwonno. Every New Year’s Eve the Nos Golan race is held in his memory, a three mile race starting in the nearby town of Mountain Ash, which is also host to his statue:
It was a fine day so after visiting the church building we cycled back up to the ridge and along some bridleways with striking views of the vale of Glamorgan, the Severn estuary and a distant wind farm.
Some more steep bridleways led us down to the town of Porth again – so steep that my companion had to walk some of the more rocky patches. But I take my hat off to her, she has never ridden off-road before and the steep rocky bridleways of the Welsh valleys were a baptism of fire for her – she performed admirably and afterwards claimed to have enjoyed the experience.
Between Porth and Trehafod we visited the heritage museum which opened up the world of The Rhondda in the heyday of the coal mining industry. There was also a room dedicated to the terrible disasters and some amazing rescue stories. Many men were trapped underground for days while the flood waters rose and the air became toxic – many of them died a horrible death but some were rescued by the tireless digging work of their friends and colleagues.
I remember learning about the dreaful working conditions of the cole mines, or collieries, in history lessons at middle and upper school, but what struck me this time is that most of the disasters were unnecessary. Among the company owners and businessmen there was more value placed on money than on human life, that’s why many of the mine shafts were not supported properly and caved in, because it would have cost a lot more time and money to support them properly. And that’s also why some mine shafts were dug dangreously close to other mines that were known to be flooded, and small leaks were left to get bigger, until they finally gave way and the working men and even some young boys were drowned. It could be argued that similar greedy business practises continue today, but the people who suffer are not in our country so we are not shocked. Indeed, most of the people who will suffer from our greed are yet to be born…
My sweet companion had to get back to London so we put our bikes on the train at Trehafod and changed trains at Cardiff.
She stayed on the train to Paddington but I got off at Didcot Parkway to get a connection to Oxford where I could dump the camping gear that I don’t carry for my solo adventures and sort out a few bits and bobs.
We had a great time in Wales and it was a good learning experience. I was definitely reminded of how much better it is to travel light – if I ever go back there I hope to be in the ultralight, sub 10 lb category with a bikepacking setup – this will make negotiating the obstacles and barriers so much easier and it’ll be much better to not have to carry loads of bags when away from the bike. There were too many barriers along the cycle route, like this one:
We quickly grew tired of getting off our bikes because the barriers had so little room to manouver, and there was another one literally every five minutes. If I was travelling ultralight on a very light bike I could grab the bike and lift it over in one easy movement, but with all the heavy touring panniers this was hard work.
I can understand why there are so many barriers up the Rhondda – apparently they’ve had big problems with boy-racers on their motorbikes and 4×4′s tearing up and down the cycleways and footpaths, terrorising innocent families on their days out. But I’m not sure, perhaps I’d rather share the path with a few speeding mopeds than have to dismount every few minutes.
Obviously there’s a good reason for the barriers, and this doesn’t detract in any way from the fantastic job that Sustrans and the local authorities have done in creating and signposting such a vast network of cycle paths throughout the United Kingdom. I wrote to Sustrans about it, but even if the barriers remain I think I’d be tempted to come back with an ultralight setup to see how much easier it is and to satisfy my curiosity about what lies over the top of the Rhondda Fach valley and beyond.
But most of all I’ll come back to meet The Rhondda Folk again – their friendly hospitality really shone through the grey mist and more than made up for the drab weather.
Cycle touring with a girlfriend is not very efficient at first – decisions take longer, we wait for eachother for no reason, everything seems to take twice as along and the total weight of our gear seems to be much greater than the sum of its parts. But I believe it takes a lot of practise for a couple to become efficient at cycle touring together – indeed we became more efficient as the week wore on, and I’m certain that eventually it would be more efficient to cycle around together because many items can be shared like the tent and the cooking equipment. And jobs can be shared – for example one person can pack the tent while another reads the map. It’s also really nice to be able to share the beautiful views and humourous experiences. However this level of efficiency could only be nurtured in a long-term committed relationship, something I’m not interested in at the moment, but that’s another subject…
I want to continue touring on my own for a few years – this trip to Wales, and the Sustrans National Cycle Route smartphone app, further opened my eyes to the vast expanse of cycle routes in this country and the limitless adventure and exploration that the UK has to offer.
I’m excited that as I learn more about how to travel light and fast and stay safe and comfortable in the great outdoors, I’ll be able to cycle further and further afield – first around Greater London and the Thames Valley, then the rest of Britain, then, who knows?
Since Wales I’ve spent a few weeks in Oxford staying with my folks. Well actually just my brothers because my folks went off to Argentina for a month to be with my elderly uncle who was critically ill. He died last week, aged 76, so now my folks have come back and I’m spending time with them. He was a father figure to my mother because her father died young, when she was just seven years old, but her brother was fifteen years older than her and took responsibility for the family. They lived in Santa Fé by the great River Paraná in Argentina.
He was very hard-working and became a bank manager, but later gave it all up to work full time for the Church, only earning just enough to make ends meet. He became a great spiritual leader but was very practical and always kept his head screwed on, until three years ago when he started suffering from vascular dementia. His mother, my grandmother, is still alive, aged 96, and this has been very difficult for her to accept, and it has been even more difficult for my late uncle’s wife.
I’m disappointed that I won’t get to see him when I go to Argentina next month, but we are all relieved that his suffereing, and the suffering of those close to him, is now over, and that if his Christian beliefs are true then he’s in a much better place now. I’ll still be able to see my granny and the rest of my relatives, and I’m going to take my bike there for a bit of warm Summer touring. Conveniently, I will escape most of the English Winter and come back in March.
In the meantime I’ve done a fair bit of research and shopping and have made lots of exciting improvements to my gear for outdoor living. I look forward to sharing what I’ve learnt here on my blog, as I head back to London to test it all out in the first month of Winter. In the meantime I’ll just summarise these improvements in one word: ultralight.