Monday, June 20, 2011

To Wales On Two Wheels


Mark Twain (1835-1910) once remarked:

‘Learn to ride a bicycle. If you live, you won’t regret it.’

Work commitments and a hectic family life make the prospect of spending an entire summer’s day cycling through the countryside overwhelmingly enticing. Hitting the road alone and, moreover, incommunicado enhance the mental unwinding. Back in August 2003, I devised a 55-mile (Figure 21.1) route across beautiful North Wales and have been fortunate enough to find time to complete it every summer since. This year was different: my ‘other half’ joined me – the first time she had ridden a bike since her teens. Hmmm. Well, the day began, as it always has done, at Shotton railway station, on the Wales-England border (far right of Figure 21.1), at around 9 a.m. The temperature was forecast to be 23°C by midday, with plenty of unbroken sunshine and no chance of rain. Perfect. Before we boarded the 9.15 Arriva train from there to Llandudno Junction, I pointed out that there would be no way back – except on two wheels – which concentrated her mind fairly well.

Figure 21.1: Cycle route (purple) from Betws-y-coed to Prestatyn

Copyright 2010 Google Maps

With our bikes in the storage rack, we sat down and savoured one of the most picturesque rail journeys in Britain: along the Deeside and North Wales coast via Prestatyn, Abergele and Colwyn Bay. In places, the track runs no more than a stone’s throw from the shore. Looking out, it appears almost as though the train is shooting across the water.

We disembarked at Llandudno Junction after three quarters of an hour and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the station café. By 10 a.m., neither of us had a worry in the world. I cannot fully explain why I find this part of the UK so relaxing. Perhaps it is because North Wales has a low population density compared to that of England. Less congestion leads to less stress, surely? (Most modern cities are hell-holes. QED.)

Relaxed and refreshed, we hopped onto the 10.33 (single-carriage) service to Betws-y-coed, which lies about 20 miles due south of the Junction. This half-hour journey, rolling along a single track on the east bank of the River Conwy, is a dreamer’s delight. Gazing west, the densely-wooded hills of Snowdonia towered above the river, which was in spate, as a result of recent heavy rainfall. (There is a heart-warming story about the Conwy Valley Line. A few years ago, the UK’s rail company was refusing to replace parts of it, on the spurious grounds of cost. Happily, nature intervened in 2009: a severe flood washed away the entire track and ballast, leaving the purse-holders with no choice but to sanction a complete upgrade. Olé!)

It was just after eleven when we manoeuvred our bikes through the train doorway and exited the quaint station at Betws-y-coed. At this point, my partner began to doubt both my wisdom and her own sanity. Continually, I reassured her that the A470 Conwy Valley Road ran close to the riverbank, parallel to the railway line along which we had just travelled. It was, therefore, conveniently free of steep inclines – apart from one absolute killer, which I neglected to mention! – and we could take in the magnificent vistas without the need for emergency oxygen. The 55 miles were about to begin.

After half an hour spent trundling along – with Herself fiddling incessantly with her gears – we made it all of four miles to pretty Llanrwst (Figure 21.2). ‘You OK?’ I asked. ‘Yes, are you?’ she retorted. It was, evidently, less physically demanding than she had anticipated. So off we went, through tiny Welsh villages, with their cobbled pavements and quirky-looking cottages. Only the noise from an occasional passing vehicle punctuated our conversation.

Figure 21.2: The stone bridge at Llanrwst. Compare this photograph with video footage of the 2009 flood at

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

We dismounted again at Tal-y-cafn (Figure 21.3), which is Welsh for ‘place opposite the ferryboat’. We sat quietly with our drinks and watched the single-carriage train make its lonely way back north along the newly-constructed track towards the hazy estuary.

Figure 21.3: Taking a breather at Tal-y-cafn. The newly-restored Conwy Valley Line is visible between the bench and river.

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

At one o’clock, we reached the A55 intersection, and in good shape for the rest of the trek. We had all but finished the inland part. From there, it took a further half-hour to reach the coast at the ‘Queen of the Welsh Resorts’, Llandudno. The only inconvenience was an unavoidable diversion, due to major renovation work at Maesddu Bridge. (It is now complete.)

Llandudno Pier seemed like a good place to stop for lunch. This is, incidentally, the longest pier in Wales, stretching some 700 metres from the western end of the promenade (Figure 21.4). Regrettably, Herself forgot to heed my expert advice regarding the brazen behaviour of Llandudno’s seagulls, and was thus compelled to share her food.

Figure 21.4: 25 miles completed, only 30 to go ...

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

The rest of the journey, some thirty miles, is confined to a designated cycle path. The North Wales Coastal Cycleway (see link below) runs precisely along the coastline, sandwiched between the beach and railway. Hence, it runs almost totally on the level. This is perfect for even the least experienced or competent cyclists.

We freewheeled into sleepy Rhos-on-sea at three thirty. This natural and elegant coastal resort, nestled between the bays of Penrhyn and Colwyn, first captivated me as a 17-year-old. In almost thirty years, the place has never lost its charm. It is at its best late on a midsummer’s afternoon, when the day is beginning to quieten down, and just a scattering of people remain on the beach, as if having forgotten to return home. Here, time knows how to stand still (Figure 21.5).

Figure 21.5: The serene Rhos-on-sea on the North Wales coast

Copyright 2008 Bernard Wellings

Continuing eastward toward Pensarn and Kinmel Bay, we passed underneath the entrance to the near-derelict Victoria Pier at Colwyn Bay (Figure 21.6). Each year I witness the sad, dilapidated state of this once-magnificent Edwardian structure, with its art deco pavilion, and every time I see it, it pains me more. (The current political debate over its future is quite acrimonious. I, along with many others, hope for restoration rather than demolition.)

Figure 21.6: Colwyn Bay's Victoria Pier has an uncertain future.

Copyright 2010 David Jones, MP

The open stretch from Colwyn Bay to Rhyl is, to my mind, the most scenic part of the ride. To our right – inland – were isolated beach cafés, an improbable number of grassy caravan parks, a neat wooden footbridge over an inlet at Llanddulas, and to our left, nothing but sky and sea, blue on blue.

It was exactly six in the evening when we finally arrived at our endpoint: Prestatyn Promenade. We had been on (and off) two wheels for seven hours. I think it was my tenth Betws-Prestatyn trek and it had gone without a hiccup. During previous summers, I had encountered all manner of setbacks: torrential rain, a puncture, gear failure, and even had my watch stolen. This time was perfect.

Tanned but tired, we pushed the bikes half a mile inland to the recently-demolished Prestatyn station and waited for the 6.30 train back to Shotton. Herself survived the ride, and, as Mark Twain had predicted, had no regrets. That said, I am sure bicycles in the 19th century were nothing like they are in the 21st. The art of survival, however, remains the same.

Copyright 2011 Paul Spradbery

Friday, June 17, 2011

Some Delicacies Are Edible

The worst thing about my school dinners was the food. On a good day, it was merely indigestible; on a bad one, unidentifiable as well. Worse still, the dinner queue snaked alongside the kitchen windows, through which we could not avoid seeing the ominous stuff being prepared. Jokes and horror stories were rife. I remember a much older boy telling me that the gleaming, metal, state-of-the-art machine in the corner was responsible for putting lumps in the mash. Being rational, I believed him.

As a naturally wary six-year-old, there was but one item which I could stomach: the humble Scotch egg. The trouble was, it was served only once a square moon. Almost every lunchtime, my daily flicker of optimism was extinguished by the inevitable sight (and smell) of huge trays brimming with shoe-sole beef, saltwater carrots and the Devil’s sprouts.

A Scotch egg, for the uninitiated, is a hard-boiled egg – minus the shell, before anyone emails me – coated with sausage meat and breadcrumbs, then fried. Its origins are unclear, although Fortnum & Mason, a top department store situated on London’s Piccadilly, has been credited with its invention. Bless them both, if it is true.

Although Scotch eggs are most common in the UK, they can be bought in Western Europe, West Africa and throughout the United States. At the Minnesota State Fair, they are served on a stick. (I cannot help wondering whether anyone has ever attempted to eat one whole, or, indeed, skewered several on a single stick like some monstrous kebab. One of my work colleagues is a native Minnesotan; perhaps I ought to ask him.)

Most, though, are sold in supermarkets. Mass-produced, and packaged in plastic, they are more or less edible. Better, though, to find a decent butcher’s shop and eat them fresh. One such place is Stanley & Sons, Church Street, Beaumaris, on the island of Anglesey. Piping hot, straight from the oven, they are also much larger than average.

However, the best I have ever come across are expertly prepared by The Handmade Scotch Egg Company (see link below). Based just outside Hereford in the UK, in the sleepy village of Bishop’s Frome (pronounced ‘Frume’), it is a family business run by Neil and Penny Chambers. Food critics from publications such as the Independent, Mail on Sunday, Guardian and Country Living all agree that their culinary creations are extraordinary.

Now, as luck would have it, I paid a flying visit to Great Malvern (5 miles from Bishop’s Frome) earlier this month. Such an opportunity was too good to miss. At the company ‘HQ’, a huge, green ‘cowshed’ situated ‘behind the Hop Packet’ – you get the picture – there are at least 37 varieties on offer. Ingredients include sage and onion, apple, tarragon, cranberries, haggis and even whisky. Each one has its own distinctive taste, and some recipes are inspired. Perhaps the most celebrated of them all is the Black Watch, in which free-range pork is mixed with black pudding (Figure 20.1). There are also vegetarian and gluten-free types, with other weird-and-wonderful new varieties constantly emerging.

Figure 20.1: The 'Black Watch' - an edible English delicacy

Copyright 2010 Cooking The Books

The good news for those living too far from Bishop’s Frome to pay a visit: all are available from the company’s online store. Place an order and, within days, they will be delivered to your door in a chilled container.

I promise you that they taste infinitely better than the Devil’s sprouts – or, for that matter, anyone else’s.

Copyright 2011 Paul Spradbery