Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hastings, Welsh riding & almost the end of my stay in London

I'm up in Ipswich this weekend visiting Louis & Emma (Te Puke & Palmy friends) before I leave (ash cloud permitting) for Canada next weekend. The weather seems to have regressed back to winter, so it's been a nice relaxing weekend hanging out with old friends, eating good food, watching sport (a horrible game, but a good last ball win by the Black Caps), churning through a recent Tess Gerritsen novel, winning at Buzz & so on. All the major things have been crossed off my list of things to do before leaving London, so it's been nice to get away for the weekend & ignore all the smaller things left. Louis & Emma live in a flat in a converted malthouse, & I really like the massive exposed beams & wondering at all the industrial & processing goings on that this place would have once seen - plus being so close to town is pretty good too.

Trish & I did make it to Battle & Hastings last week. I was quite impressed that Trish made it around the large battlefield with her previously broken ankle & leg still on the mend. The small display & video before walking around the field complemented an excellent audio-guide. The battlefield runs up the side of long gentle slope to the abbey at the top. It was quite difficult at times on the rather pleasant spring day on which we were there to imagine fifteen to twenty thousand men slashing, bashing, shooting & charging at each other over the length of 14th October 1066. One part of the commentary that sticks in my mind is when it said that the first phase of the battle was over - that was six hours after the start & the battle then continued for the rest of the day. I can hardly last six waking hours without food, or at the least a drink - I can hardly imagine having to fight all day with such heavy equipment just in the chance that I might stay alive & help my side to a victory. William the Conqueror was persuaded by the Pope to build an abbey on the top of the hill as an act of penance for all the blood spilt - parts of this still stand & the second half of the tour is around the remains, which were quite interesting. Leaving Battle, we headed off to Hastings - which is quite a dreary little seaside town really. The most interesting thing around the seaside were the two short funicular railways that go from sea level to the top of cliffs - one of them is now the steepest in Britain at 78% incline; the tracked submersible tractor unit to launch the Lifeguard's launch was also of note.

The day following, I eventually got around to packing up the bike & associated gear for the bank holiday weekend & set off to Farnborough to meet Andy - with a fair bit of sitting on the M25 in traffic on the way. After a feed at Andy's & loading up Andy's A3 with two bikes & associated gear, food & clothes we were off to Wales for a weekend of riding. The weather forecasted did not look too promising, but the prospect of three days' worth of riding had us both pretty excited. We stayed in Southgate, on the Gower Peninsula (the UK's first area of outstanding natural beauty, apparently) just west of Swansea in south Wales - where Andy's sister, her partner & their daughter live. Andy's parents have a holiday house just around the corner from Katie, Simon & Amber, so this is where we stayed for the weekend. After reasonable traffic (considering the long weekend) we arrived, unpacked & promptly hit the hay.

Saturday dawned overcast, but dry & shortly Simon had turned up on his bike & Katie pushing Amber in the stroller. At thirteen months Amber is just learning to walk & was quite intrigued by a stranger - so she kept staring at me with her large & gorgeous deep brown eyes. Shortly after, we were out riding & Simon was showing us his local trails around the peninsula. We started off with a nice rocky descent before crossing a road & riding through a group of Scouts setting up camp for the weekend. Most of the riding was out in the open with a mixture of ascents & descents & a bit of ridge riding. Nothing too taxing, but my lack of time on the bike started to show on some of the climbs - there was one good steep one, but at least I wasn't off pushing this weekend, even if I was in the granny ring. On a good day you can see Devon from the Gower, but it was a bit overcast, so we could only just see back to the Welsh mainland.Apparently we were in King Arthur territory, so we had to stop for a pint of Double Dragon here:From here it was only another half an hour or so home. While not a particularly demanding ride on the face of it, it must have been pretty trying for me as I was exhausted for the rest of the day & even had a bit of nap before we headed around to Katie & Simon's for dinner - where I was feeling so out of sorts I shockingly lost part of my appetite & couldn't quite finish my meal, weird.

The trail centre at Brechfa is one that Andy had been wanting to ride at for quite some time & Sunday was the day. We started off on the Raven trail that was graded "black/severe" & the signboard feature such glowing descriptions as: "mountain biking to the next level" & "fast, undulating trail that sweeps betweens and flows sinuously in berms and over jumps". I wasn't particularly convinced as the trail had a really steep & hard climb at the start on nicely paved singletrack & then the following descent was a slippery rooty affair which didn't really flow at all. In fact, on this trail it seemed that the price you paid for a lot of climbing was never really repaid by decent descents. A few times I would notice a great singletrack climb to be followed by descending on fireroad - what a waste. Still, at least I wasn't the guy near the end of the trail with his arm in a sling & a broken collar bone. With all that climbing I was pretty tired (in addition to the previous day's ride) & spent a lot of time in the granny ring & with Andy waiting for me. Back to the car for lunch & to load up the car again for a few miles' driving up the valley to the red/difficult graded trail.

The Gorlech trail was about the same length as the Raven trail, but with even more climbing (over 1000m c.f. 725m). Fortunately, this climbing was a lot more manageable & some of the singletrack going up was beautiful winding its way through mossy trees.We got much more value for our climbing efforts out of this trail & parts of it flowed very nicely & all the berms, step-ups, tabletops & other jumps were great fun. Not to mention every so often popping out of the trees with good views over the valleys (& even some sun, which was much better than the sleet forecast).The only work in Welsh I learnt all weekend was 'araf', which means 'slow'. Due to the British Health & Safety cotton wool culture, these two words were plastered all over the narrow roads & at any opportunity along the trails - for no good reason. Here is Andy waiting for me again after another great piece of trail.So my legs managed to survive near on 40 km of riding & about 1800 m of climbing & we didn't even get all that wet - only a little bit from all the puddles at any dip in the trails. Still it was enough water to mean that I had to pay a little more attention to cleaning my bike that night. A night blobbing in front of the telly - we avoided Welsh TV & some how ended up watching an episode of The Pretender (there really was nothing better on) which took me back about a decade or so (the days when you would record on VCR TV programs to watch later - haven't done that for ages).

Bank Holiday Monday dawned brilliantly sunny. After sleeping in a bit & tidying up the house at a leisurely pace, Andy took me for a short stroll across the golf course that neighbours the village to the see the ruins of Pennard Castle. A castle has been here since about 1100 & it's in a great position above some sheer drops, one small problem is that sand blown up on the wind easily builds up against the castle - it was for this reason that the castle was abandoned at the end of the 14th century. The golf course is a real links course - wind-swept, open full of hummocks, hillocks & mounds; however it is a good couple of hundred feet up from the ocean & has commanding views of Three Cliffs Bay below.

Back on the road we headed east towards Port Talbot & its blast furnaces, steelmaking, rolling & finishing plants before we turned up the valley to Afan - one of Wales' most popular trail centres. As it was a public holiday, there were a lot of people out walking & on all sorts of types & quality of bikes. We did the Y Wal trail, & this proved to be the most enjoyable ride of the weekend. Crossing the river at the bottom of the valley we climbed quite easily for a while - old rail paths always have nice gradients. The steepness stepped up a notch, but even in my state I could manage it in the middle ring - maybe a little bit of strength & fitness was returning to my legs after all - & we managed to pass quite a few groups of riders. Some of climb was on singletrack & it was really quite nice. But what was even better, was that these trail builders had remember to save their best work for the downhill - woohoo! These lived up to the signboard's claims this time: "some of the best singletrack descents in the UK... fast, open & flowing". Great fun & in no time at all we were back at the car - three days of good to great riding were over. With the car loaded up again & lunch downed we were back on the M4 fighting the holiday traffic. Countering what is apparently usual, when we crossed the Severn from Wales to England the weather went from good to poor; with a little crawling on the M5 we were soon at Taunton & catching up with John & Anna - Andy had not met the twins, Ester & Lydia, yet. The A303 back to Andy's was pretty chocka, but my run home up the M3 & around the M25 were unbelievably quick.

The rest of the past week has included Tuesday in Portsmouth (taxi-driver for Trish, who was attending a workshop), a bit of painting of the cattery at Ray & Jill's, buying travel insurance, walking a good few miles down the Thames from Kew to Putney & the penultimate visit to Andrew & Shelley's. I'm back round there next week to say goodbye, the only consolation there is the pavalova Shelley has promised to cook - with the Patricks planning on being back in NZ by the time I return to the UK & their wonderful hospitality & friendship, it's a harder goodbye than most.

Forgot to mention that I got to vote in the general & local elections last week. Not really much of note there - strolled across the road in my slippers to the local primary school, resisted the urge to vote for Napoleon Dynamite of the Loony Party & that was about it really.

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