The Journey Travel

135 miles

This is why you get a motorcycle.

On average, Britain experiences five really good days a year. Sometimes less, rarely more. The last time we experienced anything of the sort that an American would describe as summer was in 2006, when there was about a month of hot weather. Everyone lost their minds that year –– Ninjah took to wandering the city centre claiming to be a sun god prophet, and the Prince of Wales pub installed an air-conditioning system they have not used since.

The five good days a year are not even consecutive. Nor are they placed anywhere near one another. Perhaps one will come in early March, another in late May (though, not on the bank holiday), two lovely days in July perhaps, and then an incredible and unexpected weekend in October or November. That’s about it. If you’re lucky.
So, living here teaches you to seize upon climatological opportunities. You have to be always ready to act, always prepared to make the most of a sunny day. Many Britons falter on this point. Their inexperience means they don’t really know how to handle good weather, so they simply spend the day in the ovenlike confines (a) of a pub’s beer garden, getting blind on cider and developing medically threatening sunburns.
Not me, though. Especially now. Because I’ve got a motorcycle.
As soon as the weather forecasters started predicting a good weekend I was staring at a map and thinking: 1) Where should we go? 2) Where will everyone else go?
That second factor is an especially important one to consider on this island. Southwest England, just 30 miles east (or 10 miles south) of Penarth, is the most densely populated area in Europe. And with the exception of perhaps certain corners of the Scottish Highlands, the rest of the United Kingdom is not much better. In a space the size of Oregon there are squeezed double the population of Canada. There is never enough room. Solace of the kind available to me as a kid in Texas or a teenager in Minnesota is incomprehensible to people here.
So, when the weather turns hot the absolute last place you want to be is the beach. Because everyone else will be there. Everyone. And far too many of them will be drunk and have come to the beach from some post-industrial swill-pit of a town that no one in their right mind would ever visit except for the purpose of firebombing (b). A town where no one has ever heard of tact or politeness toward others. A town where the women outweigh the men one to three. A town where racism counts as humour. A town where even the children are incapable of completing a sentence without profanity. And the last thing you want is to be spending one of your allotted five good days sitting next to them.

My new favourite picture of me.

I decided the best thing to do was go inland: some 60 miles from the azure main, to Hay-on-Wye, a small village on the northeastern edge of Brecon Beacons National Park. Nestled just barely on the Welsh side of the Wales-England border, the town becomes overrun with literature types every year for the Hay Festival, but the rest of the time it is relatively quiet.

We finally left the flat a little before noon, well after my intended departure time of 10 a.m. The delay was of my own doing. I was slow to get out of bed, leisurely in eating breakfast, and painstaking in gearing up. I have yet to develop the ability to get ready to ride with any sort of efficiency. If I were to be riding with a group of guys I am certain they would all just leave me behind. Jenn, though, was patient enough — turning her face to the sun like a lemur as I messed with my keffiyeh (or shemagh, if you’re British) and jacket and helmet and gloves and trousers and the bike and so on.

Soon we were flying up the A470, through a corridor of leafy-soft trees and the gentle hills of the Taff Valley rising on each side. Then onto the smaller, curvier, slower stretch of the road as it passes through the Brecon Beacons. In each dip, glen, glade and meadow we could feel and smell the air change. We were a part of the world around us, not just speeding through it.

Tea in sight of Pen y Fan and Corn Du.

We stopped for tea and Welsh cakes at the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre, managing to find a table outside the cafe that offered an incredible view of Pen y Fan and Corn Du, the two most iconic peaks of the Brecon Beacons and the spot where Jenn and I once watched the sunrise early in our relationship (c).

Soon we were back on the bike, the CBF600SA seemingly built for exactly this sort of thing: cheerfully carrying two people through mountain scenery. The bike held to the road, never straining. Due to my penchant for getting confused at roundabouts (d), we ended up taking a detour through the town of Brecon, but soon we were back on the road to Hay.

We ate lunch at the Three Tuns, a pub suggested by the conversational woman at the tourist centre. The food was incredibly good, but sitting in the pub’s beer garden I found myself way too hot. My newly purchased motorcycle trousers, it seems, are designed for the more traditional British climate.

As soon as we finished eating, I insisted we head down to the River Wye. I wanted to take off my shoes and dip my feet in the river. But once I was there, memories of Texas and Minnesota summers flooded my mind and I decided I needed to jump in.

Remember what I said about this being an overcrowded place. I could see people across the river about 100 yards away. But I didn’t care. I stripped off all my clothes and flopped into the cool, clear water. I dove down and swam under the water for a bit. When I resurfaced, Jenn was also naked and shuffling into the river.

“This is my first time skinny dipping,” she said.

“Well, usually you do it at night,” I said. “And in a place where there aren’t so many people around. I know this is an odd thing to complain about, but this water is really clean. And really clear. I thought perhaps things would be covered up a little better, but I can see my toes. There’s no hiding the fact we’re nude. I can see a canoe coming down the river. I think I’ll swim around a little more and get out before they get too close.”

I dove down and swam looping circles under the water, then hustled back to the shore to hide behind a bush as I used my keffiyeh to towel off. Jenn, however, kept playing, and soon the canoe was too close for her to be able to get out of the water without being clearly seen.

“I’ll just stay here and wait until they pass,” she said. “Hopefully they won’t paddle too close.”

She tread water, staying as low as she could, and laughing. I wrapped the keffiyeh around my waist and stepped out from the bushes and shin deep in the river. There I spotted something: it wasn’t just one canoe. There had been a cluster of them. And now, behind close them, I could see several more. Several more.

The River Wye

It turned out to be an urban youth group — one of those things where they ship a load of inner city kids out to the country for a weekend. There were three teenage boys in each canoe, none of them possessing the skill to do a great deal more than follow the current. So rather than paddle around the lady who was swimming, they floated — slowly — right toward the spot where Jenn had chosen to stand her ground.

She looked at me and grimaced. A procession of no less than 20 agonisingly slow, mis-angled canoes followed, each passing within five feet of her. The boys, of course, stared brazenly at the naked white lady in the water but were good enough not to say anything, apart from a solitary whistle. I like to think they returned to the city with a tremendous appreciation for the countryside.

I could do nothing but laugh. Fortunately, Jenn was laughing, too. Eventually, finally, all the canoes passed and Jenn was able to get out. We got dressed, feeling refreshed and happy, and walked back into town.

Jenn catches me adjusting my visor.

With cones of sheep’s milk ice cream from Shepherd’s in hand, we found a shaded spot by the walls of Hay Castle where we could look out over the village and across the Wye Valley.

This is why I came to Britain, yo. This sort of view and atmosphere is what I moved here for.

Unfortunately, it’s not where I live (yet), so we wandered back to the bike, I took 10 minutes to get my gear on, and we started the trip back down to Penarth.

The late afternoon was beginning to cool enough that once we got moving I was perfectly comfortable in my head-to-toe black gear. As we passed again the peaks of Corn Du and Pen-y-Fan I moved my left hand back to squeeze Jenn’s knee. She responded by hugging me.

I felt happy, and in one of those rare states of mind in which I am not constantly pining to return to the United States. Swimming in rivers and ice cream; that’s summer, yo. That’s real, actual summer. If we were in Minnesota or Texas we’d be doing those same things.

I thought to myself how fortunate we’ve been this year, having already had an incredibly good summer-like weekend back in May. Maybe there will be more. One can only hope. If so, we’ll be ready.

(a) Due to the paucity of legitimately warm days in this country, the British have developed what they call a “garden.” It is somewhere between the American definitions of a garden and a back yard. A common, clever feature of the British garden is the way of building walls so that the garden is windless, thereby trapping the sun’s heat. This means that if you are wearing a booze coat you can often sit outside when it is actually too cold to sit outside. However, when the weather is genuinely warm, a garden becomes intolerable.

(b) I guarantee you that any British person reading that is thinking: “Hey, yeah, I know the town he’s talking about.” There are dozens of them. This is not because the UK is poo, but simply an unhappy side effect of overpopulation. If you have a lot of people, by nature some of them are going to be dickheads.

(c) I credit that experience as key in Jenn’s falling in love with me.

(d) Before you start criticising me, British people, I understand how roundabouts work. My problem comes at large roundabouts where I can’t see my exit upon entering the roundabout. In that situation, I am forced to rely on my terribly poor short-term memory and the glanced-at information I got from the sign approaching the roundabout. Remember, too, that in Wales all that information is in Welsh and English, and that I am fluent in both languages. So, I am inundated with information at exactly the point my brain is instead focusing on slowing down and hoping the car behind me is going to slow down, as well. The end result is that I often find myself entering the roundabout and thinking: “Oh, hell. I’m not sure which turning I want.”