A TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009 entrant

Author: Steve Cooke


You can’t take photographs, the ticket-gate attendant told me. It’s against the law. I was at Paddington Station taking a picture of a couple hugging each other goodbye under Brunel’s spectacular wrought-iron arches. It’s not against the law, I replied. Not to be discouraged she continued: you need permission from the station manager. I gave up at this stage.

It’s hardly surprising they are on edge. For years they let a South American vagrant lurk in the station’s nooks and crannies with his camera and glass jars full of sticky substances. Not  to forget the unattended luggage. If Paddington Bear were around today, he would be carted-off to Paddington Green Police Station and charged under the Terrorism Act 2000. Or shot.

We were on our way to Wales for an Easter cycling / camping / hotel holiday. The plan was to get a train to Newport with a connection to Abergavenny. We would then cycle the five miles to a Bed and Breakfast in Glangrwyney – a hamlet romantically snuggled between the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons in the Usk Valley.

First we had to get our bikes on the train. First Great Western allow up to six bikes on most London to Swansea (via Newport) services – but this depends on the time and day. For details and to make a bicycle reservation free of charge (not compulsory, but advised) call FGW on 08457 000 125 (option 2, option 2). It is worth asking if there will be engineering works on the line as bicycles are not allowed on replacement bus services. More information can be found in the Cycling by Train PDF booklet

We stowed our cycles in the front carriage – which happened to be a good 100 yards from the end of the train. I would advise anyone to get there early to avoid the palpitations caused by frantic and frenetic chords of the conductors’ whistles. We jumped into the nearest carriage, which just so happened to be a good 100 yards from our seat reservations.

Once we had caught our breath a new situation became apparent. Four of us were wedged in a carriage door-well with little possibility of moving any further. I swivelled my hips into a gap and craned my neck to see that it was not only the door-well that was jammed – but the entire carriage aisle. The manoeuvre had me virtually dry-humping the guy next to me. In any other context it would have been a sexual assault.

The situation deteriorated into a farce when the driver announced that the seat reservation numbers on the train did not match those on the tickets. Not that it mattered for us anyway. He followed it up with a report that the buffet car was now open for refreshments. A chorus of snorts around us ensued. Even Spiderman would struggle to get there. Finally the doors had to be kept clear of luggage in case of an emergency. You couldn’t make this up.

Standing and snackless I began to feel anxious. The countryside was flying by at a rate of knots. I was used to the gentle roll of a suburban train – not the unbalancing sharp lateral movements of a 120 miles-an-hour high-speed train. These things have an unnerving habit of falling-off the rails in the UK. Were this to happen – put quite simply – we’d all be fucked.

The National Passenger Survey run by Independent rail consumer watchdog – Passenger Focus – puts First Great Western at the bottom of a UK passenger satisfaction league table. I can see why.

To let-off steam or to seek redress email First Great Western: fgwfeedback@firstgroup.com. For more information see their Complaints Handling Policy PDF.

The one advantage of being stuck in a door-well is that you can pull down the window and take photos of the scenery. The Westbury Horse in Wiltshire was the highlight. The present incarnation may have been reshaped and had the original chalk replaced by white concrete – but it still has the wow factor. Not bad for ancient graffiti.

At Newport Station we disembarked for the next leg of our train journey – or so we thought. Fifteen years ago there was only one train operator. The then Conservative Government thought it would be a good idea to privatise British Rail. There are now twenty-six train operators in Britain – each with their own policies, procedures and guidelines.

It took nine pages of information to tell me that we could take our bikes on the trains from London to Abergavenny. I’m guessing that’s three or four more than it takes to actually drive the train.

Arriva Trains Wales Cycling by Train PDF booklet provides details on when and where cycles can be accommodated. The Newport to Abergavenny route is down to the conductor’s discretion. Unfortunately for us it was a discretion applied with a uncompromising fervour. One hour and two half-empty trains later we chose not to risk an entire afternoon on the platform and decided to cycle the 25 miles to Glangrwyney.

We were armed with a road atlas and ready to roll. We turned left out of the station and at the first intersection turned north onto the A4042. After a few hundred yards the manic road proved too much so we looked for an alternative route. It was then we got lucky. A cheerful Welsh couple directed us to a towpath next to a canal that runs all the way to Brecon via Abergavenny. The path doubles as National Cycle Route 46 and is signposted most of the way.

It all started out pleasantly enough. We cycled between the water-way and high hedge rows – past and over moss covered stone bridges. Diffused rays of sun slashed through the trees and shimmered off the canal. The backdrop was a sky illuminated by slews of greys that rolled and melted into each other. I felt like I was in an oil painting. That was until the greys conspired and turned surly. Any serenity was swiftly dampened by the horizontal rain and blown away by the headwind. Miles of uphill undulation also took its toll. By the time we got to Pontypool we needed an emergency ingestion of Red Bull and chocolate digestives.

The weather and fatigue created an urgency to get to our destination. We came off the canal path and hit the A4042. It was followed by a short stint up Heads of the Valleys Road, an under construction motorway covered in witches hats – or bollards as they are called in the UK. We rolled up to the hotel just after sunset. Four hours after we had started our journey.

The Glangrwyney Court Hotel is a small Georgian Mansion with manicured gardens set on four acres and surrounded by farmland. That’s not where we stayed. Our accommodation was the rather more modest, but none the less cute, gatehouse cottage. A miniature version of the main house. Bookings can be made over the phone on 01873 811288 or by email: info@glancourt.co.uk.

 After we had settled-in and met up with our fellow holidaymakers we drove the two miles to Crickhowell for dinner. It was at The Bear Hotel I experienced Faggots for the first time – accompanied by gravy, mushy peas and chips. They are meatballs usually made from minced pig intestines flavoured with herbs and breadcrumbs. They are not as bad as they sound. Then again neither is scurvy. I watched with envy, slitty-eyed and sideways, while others ate their cod and venison.

Outside the mercury indicated the temperature was near zero. Plans to go camping were being reconsidered. It came down to a game of chicken. You can change your mind if you want toIf you go – I’ll go… Back and forth. No one blinked – so we both went. It was a half-hour drive to Llanthony Priory. Eric had recently reconnected with nature. That’s what he said anyway. I suspect the real reason was the opportunity to test out his new portable gas oven. I understood. I needed to restore my man-chi after being emasculated by one too many episodes of Sex and the City. That and so I could use my Swiss army knife for a reason other than my nails. I kissed my wife farewell and then set-off to the sound of Brokeback Mountain sniggers.

On reflection – no good could ever come of this. Two men dine on animal entrails then drive into the Black Mountains at midnight to stay at a medieval monastery in the middle of nowhere. If it were a horror movie plot – it would be a laughable cliché.

Llanthony Priory was built by Augustian monks in the 12th century. It is set far up the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains – about seven miles north of Abergavenny. All that remains today are ruins. These combine with the isolation and mountain backdrop to give the monastery an eerie aura. Add an Easter full moon; howling wind; and intermittent snow flurries – and the aura becomes almost supernatural.

We pitched our tent in the icy half-light and enthusiastically headed for the Llanthony Priory Hotel. The moment we entered the subterranean grotto bar the lively din turned frosty. Twenty faces stared at us in silence. We had just interrupted a biker convention of sorts. We self-consciously shuffled to the bar. Two cups of tea please, I said. As our faces thawed so did the atmosphere and the conversations resumed. I looked around. This lot appeared more arthritic than angry. Then I don’t suppose Hell’s Angels go camping much.

Back at the tent the man-chi restoration began. I lay on my Therm-a-Rest inflatable mattress and curled up into a ball in my zero-rated sleeping bag. It wasn’t long before I felt the earlier cup of tea. As the pee-pangs intensified so did my determination to stay in the warmish fetal position. To say it was cold would be an understatement. Worse still – the wind relentlessly buffeted and warped the tent. The fly constantly rubbed against the tent body and made the swish-swish-swish sound that you might expect from a fast walker in a nylon tracksuit. It reminded me of my last visit to Chatham High Street. Both were the cause of a sleepless night.

In the morning, bleary-eyed and chilled to the bone, I got-up to the throaty purr of a nearby motorbike. Perpetually cheerful Eric broke out the gas oven and we enjoyed a hot chocolate drink from a breakfast bowl, followed by boiled eggs. I excitedly used my Swiss army knife to pick off the shell. It got me thinking. Nobody has messed with Switzerland since its soldiers were armed with a cheese-knife, cork-screw and tweezers. This is despite two European world wars. I rationalised this with the thought that fondue-powered; half-cut; Swiss squaddies plucking enemy eyebrows would put the fear of God into any would-be invader.

Llanthony Priory lies next to Offa’s Path – or as the Welsh like to call it Llwybr Clawdd Offa. Easy for them to say. Offa’s is a 177 mile long trail that marked the old border between Wales and Anglo-Saxon England. It is one of 15 national walks in Britain. Every year thousands of people walk along the route. Not us. Not this time anyway. We climbed the hill that overlooks the priory to take photos. We patiently waited for the sun to peek through gaps in the layered and wind-churned clouds. With the realisation that it would not happen anytime soon – we snapped a few unsatisfactory shots and headed back for the drive to Glangrwyney.

Back at the cottage I had the chance to absorb the interior design. The owners must have drawn their inspiration from Antiques Roadshow – but shopped at Woolworths. It was a celebration of ersatz country kitsch. Mass produced painted plates and etchings adorned the walls. Chinese vases, tasselled lamps and fake flowers were omnipresent. I don’t image that even Alan Titchmarsh has a straw chicken effigy on his mantle. The Torvill & Dean biography on the bookshelf suggested the age of the usual cliental. All that was missing was a Charles and Diana commemorative biscuit tin. Strangely, there were no doilies to be seen anywhere.

In its defence I would say the decor is consistent. It has a homely feel – like a visit to my grandparents. The gatehouse has two double bedrooms; a kitchen/dining room; and a lounge. The best feature is the large bathroom and the massive bath. It costs £130 a night and accommodates up to four people. What is more, for an extra fiver per person – a full English cooked breakfast is available in the main house.

We all contemplated the day ahead. The more energetic decided on a vigorous mountain walk. Others were happy with a leisurely ramble. I was the latter. We meandered through paddocks along the river Usk to Crickhowell. It was an afternoon of pub pool and the methodical demolition of Beef & Mustard crisps.

Outside it was less orderly. The seasons were muddled. Naked trees, snow flecked peaks and an icy breeze said it was winter. Daffodils and spring lambs said otherwise. Magnolia blossoms said somewhere in-between as they began to unfold and stretch – several weeks behind those on my London street.

A languid day was followed by a lethargic evening in the rustic local pub. The Blue Bell Inn is a 17th century stone coach house that serves decent potions of gastro grub. We caught up with the rest of the group. They had been much more active. In fact they had completed a five-hour hike that included a snow blizzard white-out. The evening’s conversation took a similar tack and included foggy discussions well off the beaten track. Talk eventually turned to camping. You can change your mind if you want toOK, I said. There was no back and forth this time.

The following day we left the hotel late after a hearty breakfast. We decided not to risk the train journey to Newport. The cycle was pleasant and took half the time. The mood was relaxed. Even a snow-and-hail storm was met with good cheer.
There is an international flavour to this part of Wales. It’s in the names. You don’t have to go to Brazil or South Africa to climb the Sugar Loaf or see Table Mountain. There are villages like Penperlleni that sound like a sparkling Italian mineral water and towns like Croes-y-Mwyalch that sound like something from the mythical Hogwarts.

Back along the towpath we appreciated the birdlife. The canal was full of moorhens, coots, mallard ducks, white swans, Canadian geese and grey herons. It was also full of shopping trolleys and plastic bottles. I’ve sent an email to the local council. You can too: council@cwmbran.gov.uk

We stopped for a picnic on a canal lock bridge. It was here I saw a spectacular sight – a swan in full flight. It headed straight for us – up the enclosed tree lined canal. It was big. Really big. Their wingspan can be up to nine feet. For context – that’s the floor to ceiling height of an apartment.

We continued on our way and arrived at the train station early – chastened by our earlier Paddington mad-cycle-dash. Unfortunately not early enough to see the city. Newport is a Welsh cultural capital. It has a cathedral, castle and Roman history. It also has neon blue lights in the railway station toilets to deter drug use. Culture and crack are connected in more ways than many give credit. Dali, for example, was off-his-head for sure.

This time we knew where to wait on the platform. Or so we thought. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It turns out they don’t turn the trains around at Swansea. The conductor explained this as if it were blindingly obvious – about ten seconds before the train was due to depart. We ran the 100 yards to the back of the train to the chorus of impatient, frantic and frenetic whistles. No wonder everyone hates cyclists.

Seated and settled on the train, I listened to the customer service manager’s safety announcement – read the seat back card, he said. If you are blind, a copy is available in brail. Please ask a customer service representative. It begs the question – if you are blind how are you going to find one? Fully sighted I struggled.

As the train flew through the English countryside I stared out the window. This is because the buffet car doesn’t sell newspapers or magazines. But enough of the petulant train traumas. I pulled out my Swiss army knife and did my nails. Lucky security didn’t see me do that at Paddington. With my camera and all – I might have spent a long weekend at Paddington Green Police station instead.