The Journey

Journey to Middle Earth

Round trip, it is roughly 250 miles from Penarth to Pennant. Well, this particular round trip is that far, because it is one that takes in a fair number of detours, wandering first through a blur of same-as-the-other-one Valleys towns, then up through Brecon Beacons National Park, off onto an unmarked road, then a stretch of tiny B roads until arriving in a village that is so middle-of-nowhere that the mind boggles at how (and why) anyone ended up there in the first place.

The distance is not so great, I suppose. Especially when broken into two days. In the summer I did a 220-miler in one day. Admittedly, though, I got so tired (and, as a result, inattentive) on that trip I almost sped into the back of a lorry. Additionally, that journey took in more well-travelled roads than this trek to the deep, green heart of Wales. And perhaps it’s that last aspect that had me so unnerved. In the days leading up to the adventure I couldn’t sleep.

The whole adventure started with news that Jenn was being called to London for two days on business. I decided to take advantage of those days to do something on my own. My head has been more than a little weird lately and I’ve been wanting to get away and be on my own for a bit. I like being on my own; I find it cathartic. But I like being with Jenn so much more that I rarely get a chance.

Your actions have consequences. I am sure that if I said to Jenn, “I want to go off on my own for a while,” she would have no problem with it. But I worry about the repercussions. What if she got used to my not being around? What if, indeed, she found my not-being-aroundness to be a preferable state? Likely that would not happen, but best not to risk it. Especially now she has gotten this new job that will take her to London often. I’m sure I’ll soon have had my fill of being on my own.

I chose Pennant somewhat at random; it was home to the cheapest of nearby B&Bs listed on My original intent was to swing south, toward New Forest National Park, but you can’t argue with a £30 B&B (sigh, I can remember the days when a stay could be had for £12 a person). Once the bed and breakfast was booked, I started a constant worrying that was more on par with a motorcycle trek to Siberia than a two-day jaunt.

At the Penarth Tesco, ready to go.

On the first day of my adventure, I was out of bed by 6 a.m. The night before I had packed my bags, checked them, checked them again, and checked them once more. Once that was done, I checked my bags. Then I went to bed, but got up about an hour later because I realised I needed to check the bags. I checked them again a few times in the morning for good measure and was out of the door at exactly 7:30. Half an hour later the bike had a full tank of petrol, the tires had been checked and I had done one last safety wee at the Tesco. I was ready for adventure.

I felt the first tiny droplets of rain as I was riding through the Whitchurch neighbourhood of Cardiff. The forecast had called for a little rain, but I had optimistically thought I might be able to avoid it. By the time I made it onto the dual carriageway section of the A470 the misting had become a steady light rain.

For those of you playing along at home, a “dual carriageway” is the British term for what an American would call freeway. I didn’t want to spend too long on this section of road because I sort of like urban riding and the challenges of filtering through traffic. Plus, I saw this as an opportunity to visit a section of the South Wales Valleys to which I had never been. Yes, all Valleys towns look exactly alike, but I wanted to say I had been there. So, I left the A470 at Pontypridd and promptly got lost.

There is a magic line when riding in the rain that separates the states of dry and wet. This line is very thin but it is equally definite. There is no between; you are either dry or you are wet. And once you cross that line there is no going back. I crossed it as I was going through a roundabout in Porth. Upon entering the roundabout I was snug in my riding gear, happy at my slow but steady pace through traffic. Upon exiting the roundabout a stream of water had found its way into my appropriately named Triumph Adventure trousers, and my scrotum was now soaking in a great pool of cold water.

This was distracting, to say the least. So much so that I soon had no idea where I was. I pulled into the first large parking lot I could find, to give myself a chance to dig my map from the tank bag. Upon entering the parking lot I found myself spoiled for choice in terms of spaces and in my soggy state of distraction I rode around in circles unable to decide where to stop.

I’m not saying my distracted nature is to blame here but it was certainly a mitigating factor. Eventually my mind clicked that I just needed to stop anywhere and I brought the bike to an awkward stop. As I did so, I stuck my foot out and discovered that wet brick is almost completely frictionless. There was no uh-oh moment. I put down my right foot, I fell over, and Aliona came down with me.

I had dropped her again.

“Hell,” I thought. “I’m not even out of the Valleys yet. This is not a good start.”

I reached down, clicked the emergency kill switch and looked around. No one was there to see me in this moment of embarrassment , so I felt calm. I positioned myself in that squat position you see on YouTube videos, got a good grip and pushed up with my legs. The bike lifted slightly, then my feet slipped out from under me and I landed on my butt. As I did this, I heard a little clink-clink noise.

Note the slippery brick surface.

Shit. Something had broken. After turning to face the bike and just muscling it back upright without finesse I discovered that the thing broken was my brake lever.

How many swear words can you say in five minutes? I’ll bet I said more. The rain was unrelenting and made it difficult for me to think. Ideas, portions of thought, jumped around in my head so quickly that I couldn’t form any particular one of them. I wanted to find someplace dry. I wanted to pee, my wet underwear having created a feeling of urgency. I wanted to get the hell out of whatever miserable town I was in. I wanted to figure out where I was. I wanted to get back on the road.

I was unable to come up with good, immediate solutions to any of these problems, so I chose instead to stand in the rain and mutter every profanity and combination of profanities that I could muster.

Eventually I was able to gain enough clarity to assess the situation. Brake lever withstanding, the bike was fine. She’s a tough old girl, Aliona. There was enough brake lever left that I could get two fingers on it, which meant the bike was drivable. But probably not so much that I could ignore the situation. I needed a new lever. Now.

Thanks to the intensity of my motorcycle obsession I am aware of just about every motorcycle shop in the South Wales and West Country area. Running down the mental list, I realised that Celtic Motorcycles was probably the closest and wouldn’t require too much of a change in my route. Plus, it is the only Victory dealership in Wales.

“Golly,” I thought. “This is going to turn out OK. I’ll go there, they’ll throw on a new brake lever, I’ll use their toilet, and I’ll get to ogle some Victory awesomeness. Ooh, maybe this will turn out like the time I visited the Harley-Davidson dealership and ended up test riding an 883 Sportster and 1200 Sportster.”

¿Dónde están las motos de Victory?

Nope. Not so much. Celtic Motorcycles is a Victory dealership that has only one (used) Victory Vision in its showroom (a). The rest of the small building is occupied by high-mileage used economy bikes of the sort that are so annoyingly prevalent in these parts. Wales is where old VFRs go to die.

Additionally, Celtic Motorcycles does not have public toilets. Nor does it have any brake levers for a Honda CBF600 sitting around. What it does have, however, is a really awesome mechanic who will drop everything to come out and jerryrig another brake lever onto your bike with duct tape and charge you only £10.

“You wouldn’t be able to pass an MOT with that, mate,” he said. “But it’ll hold up. Be sure to sort it out properly as soon as you can.”

I thanked him profusely and got back on the road (after first detouring to the toilets at a nearby Tesco). Up through Hirwaun and onto the small, winding A4059 –– a road I had chosen because dropping the little Google Maps Street View guy just about anywhere along its length affords you an incredible view of Brecon Beacons National Park. Look, here’s an example of what I’m talking about; I just picked that spot at random. Isn’t that amazing? For all my complaints about Wales (and there are many), I can’t deny it’s got some pretty amazing scenery.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of that. At Penderyn the rain turned to heavy, thick, wet, oppressive fog. I slowed to about 30 mph, keeping wary of the free-roaming sheep I could see grazing along the roadside. Sheep are strange animals; if you walk anywhere near them they’ll bolt, but if you come at them with a roaring 600cc machine they don’t give a fuck.

At Beacons Reservoir

Eventually the fog lifted and turned again to rain. I soon found a kind of zen in the wetness: “Well, this is just how things are. I am wet. It is the Truth. I can like it or dislike it, but I cannot change it.”

The road undulated and turned and twisted and I began to reconsider my route. My original plan had been to take an unnamed road across a large expanse of moorland that is used for training by the SAS. But in light of my incident earlier in the morning I now questioned the wisdom of isolating myself in such relatively desolate country. Additionally, on the map I was carrying that particular area was marked, in big red letters, with the word DANGER, with no explanation as to what particular danger one faced. Sheep? Narrow roads? Sharp curves? Or was there a possibility of being hit by a rogue SAS bullet? I chose not to find out and carried on instead to Llandovery.

Making the decision to change my route opened the mental floodgates. If I could change this part of the trip, why could I not also change the part that said I was supposed to stop at a picnic site and eat the miserable cheese sandwich I had packed for myself? Why not eat hot food, inside and out of the rain? Soon, my mind was filled with visions of rustic pubs with roaring fires. The wet and cold suddenly started to affect me. I could feel it in my aching hands and sore back. I felt it in my dull head and weary eyes. I needed to stop.

By the time I got to Llandovery this need had become so all-consuming as to make it difficult to think. So, when I saw a pair of Triumph Tiger Explorers parked in front a café I decided that was the place for me, too. I made no further attempt to find the pub I had been imagining.

Not healthy, but delicious.

For those of you playing along at home. don’t be fooled by the word “café.” It is not as exotic or quaint as you might think. In Britain a café is what an American might call a diner. A greasy spoon. Some are better than others but none are all that spectacular. The food is predictable; a café is the sort of place you can go and order food without having to look at the menu. Every café has the same thing as every other café.

But sometimes that’s the thing you want. When you are soaked to the skin and numb from cold, the opportunity to shovel down a plate of fried egg, bacon, fried bread, mushrooms, hash browns and sausage is exactly what you want. Especially when it’s washed down with a big pot of hot tea.

Tea makes everything better, y’all. And soon I was starting to feel cheerful. I had a chat with the two Brummies who owned the Triumphs parked outside (why is it that so many bikers I meet are from the Midlands?), then another chat with a fella who wanted to tell me about how much he loved his Honda Pan European, and finally felt ready to get back on the road. I dug a pair of dry gloves from my tank bag and set out.

I got lost trying to find the A483, passing the café again three times before finally finding my way. Roads in the UK are utterly confusing. Firstly, they are not marked very well at all, but also they make no sort of logical sense. For instance, in the United States all odd-numbered highways and interstates run north-south (i.e., I-35) and all even-numbered highways and interstates run east-west (i.e., I-94). Logical, see? In America, roads are there to help you get places. In Wales they seem to exist just because someone had a spare bit of asphalt and a free afternoon.

Additionally, the roads twist and meander with no seemingly obvious purpose. I imagine that the laying of most Welsh roads went like this:

Rhodri: “Right. I reckon I wan’ to do me a bit o’ road buildin’ today.”
Gavin: “Oh, thass a good idea, Rhod. Where to you wan’ it to go, like?”
Rhodri: “Good question, Gav. I don’ know, to be honest. But there we are, see. Less jus’ get started and see where we end up.”
Gavin: “Tidy. Oh, now. There’s a sheep up by here. You wan’ me to move ‘im out the way?”
Rhodri: “No worries, Gav. He’s not hurtin’ nobody. We’ll just have the road go roun’ him.”
Gavin: “Good idea, Rhod. Oh, now. He’s moved again, now, ‘asn’t he? What ya reckon? Turn the road the other way?”
Rhodri: “That’s juss the stuff, Gav. Lovely bit of road, this. Don’ wan’ things too straight anyway. Just fall asleep, innit?”

Sometimes Britain’s OK.

Though, as I hit Beulah and made my way up the B4358 I started to think that perhaps I am so spoiled by the roads of Wales as to be unappreciative. In the United States, people will travel for miles and miles and miles to ride certain famous winding roads. They will give these roads names like “The Serpent” and “The Dragon.” In Wales we have roads like that, too. But here we call them: “Every road in Wales.”

For example, on a section of the B4518 I decided to count how many seconds between curves; I never counted higher than 12. After about 10 minutes I got bored of counting and focused instead on my riding, the machine and I flowing through the countryside. Hairpins, S turns, long sweeps, zig-zags –– the whole country is like that.

At a picnic spot I stopped to rest and eat a chocolate bar. I took out my earplugs and listened to the quiet all around me. That’s what I miss by living in such a densely populated area. In Penarth there is never a point when I do not hear cars and buses and motorcycles and people shouting in the street –– and we live in a “quiet” village.

The rain had stopped by now and a bit of sun was peaking through the heavy cloud. I lay out on a picnic table and closed my eyes, listening to the birds and the wind, and felt a melancholy content. I wished Jenn were there with me, though I suspect that she would not have been so willing to ride around in wet gear. She enjoys being on the motorcycle and is delighted by the additional freedom of movement it offers us, but motorcycling is not a thing for her. She’s not obsessed.

That said, I am almost certainly selling her short. Bicycling is a thing for her. She will get on her bike and trudge out in the most miserable weather imaginable –– torrential rain, gale-force winds, snow –– because the act of being on the bicycle is cathartic to her. So, I know she can understand the content, the zen, that one can find in the act of being on a motorcycle. And perhaps, in fact, she might feel that, too. Maybe she would have been equally happy to lie on that picnic table next to me, listening to the empty soundtrack of Mid Wales. I would have liked for her to be.

Stopped near Afon Gwyddon.

Eventually I got a chill and decided I needed to get moving. I was tired and wet and cold but didn’t have too much further to go. Putting on my gear, I looked at the fresh scratches on Aliona’s fairing and apologised. But, hey, as Poi Dog Pondering say: wear with pride the scars on your skin. (Though I may try to find a cool Minnesota Twins decal that would cover them up.)

The village of Pennant was just as small as I had expected: just a tiny collection of houses tucked onto a tiny nameless lane in the tiny middle of nowhere. Being a postman in these parts must have been infuriating in the days before they implemented the postcode system. Whereas Benjamin Franklin established ZIP codes in the United States in the 1780s, their British equivalents weren’t implemented until the late 1950s.

Staying at the B&B felt like stepping back in time even further. When I arrived, I was given a fresh pot of tea and some biscuits.

For a tiny moment I felt annoyed about the parking situation because the whole reason I had searched for a place via Bike Stay was to have a good, safe place to put my bike. I was offered a spot on the gravel driveway, which didn’t really feel adequate. Gravel, yo. I’ve had bad experiences parking on that stuff. But, in truth, parking on the street was fine. This was not a street by any sort of American definition and I knew traffic would be minimal. As it turned out I counted just four cars going past during my entire stay. Additionally, I was able to park the bike directly beneath my bedroom window. The only attention it ever received was from a tabby cat who took a liking to the engine’s warmth.

I showered and changed into dry clothes, then sat and read until I was called to dinner. This is what I mean by stepping back in time: the whole dinner experience.

Firstly, B&Bs typically do not serve an evening meal. I can’t remember ever having stayed in one that did. Usually, breakfast is the only thing offered (it’s in the name, ol’ boy) and it’s up to you to figure out everything else. I’ve stayed at pubs, where, of course, all meals can be had in the same building. But the difference there is that in a pub one is offered a menu. You choose what you’ll be having for dinner. Not so at the Old School House Bed and Breakfast in Pennant. There, dinner is just whatever the husband and wife owners are having.

The hustle and bustle of Pennant, Wales.

“I’m making lasagna,” my host, Karen, had told me. “Should be ready about half seven. Do you want to eat in the dining room? Or you’re quite welcome to eat with us in the kitchen. That’s what David always does.”

David was the other guest. A Birmingham-based butcher who travels to local street markets selling meat from his truck (Meat from the back of a truck! What could go wrong?), he stays at the B&B every Tuesday. At dinner we all sat around a small table, sharing spaghetti bolognese (Karen had changed the menu slightly at the last minute) and garlic bread, chatting about current events and sharing gossip about the locals. See what I mean about stepping back in time? I felt like a traveller in the 1600s, visiting Wales in a time before anyone thought visiting Wales might be a good idea –– a time before hotels –– in which one would have simply shown up at the door of a farmhouse and relied upon the resident family’s good hospitality.

Though, in that faraway time I likely would have had to share a bed with David. He looked a cuddly enough chap, but I’m glad we had our separate rooms. After dinner I read for a bit more and retired to my bedroom by 10 p.m. I was exhausted. Outside my window it was so pitch dark I couldn’t see my bike just a few feet away. I couldn’t see anything else, either. It was dark enough that I left my curtains open, my window cracked slightly to allow me to hear a nearby creek and the call of an owl.

Breakfast in the morning was of the hearty English variety, and after a shower I was on my way by 8:30 a.m. It was drier this morning, but cooler. I wrapped up in a sweater beneath my jacket, zipped in the lining to my Adventure trousers (every time I say “Adventure trousers” it amuses me), and slipped on my thickest pair of wool socks.

Down the curving and undulating A483 in the crisp autumn air, and I was happy. I have now ridden in all four seasons (well, their British versions, at least) and I think autumn is my favourite. You feel alive –– electric. Oh, how I wish I could go back in time and ride a motorcycle as a teenager; the number of girls I could have wooed with rides through the Minnesota Octobers would have been astronomical.

Most roads in Mid Wales are incredibly narrow.

If I had pined for Jenn’s company in the wet, I pined for it even more now as the bike and I waltzed south in the autumnal cool. I wanted to reach back and squeeze her thigh, feel her wrapping her arms around me. But perhaps if she had been there I would have been more nervous, less willing to lean into the curves. As it was, I had one of the most enjoyable rides I can remember.

My only complaint came in the quality of my gloves. They weren’t warm enough. That was surprising because they are the gloves I had worn last winter. But on reflection, it occurs to me that: A) I was wearing them whilst training, and therefore my brain was so focused on learning stuff that I wasn’t paying as much attention to my personal comfort; B) Actually, I can remember that my hands would sometimes hurt for a whole week after a day of training; C) During that period I very rarely rode at highway speeds and certainly not for long spaces.

By the time I got to Pont ar Daf, south of Brecon, I had made a solemn promise to myself that the addition of heated grips would be a priority. As well as the purchase of some better gloves.

I stopped at a roadside café (the British term for “food truck”) for a cup of tea in the shadow of Pen y Fan and Corn Du, southern Britain’s highest peaks, and tucked my gloves into my jacket to try to warm them. The fella in the truck and I had a conversation about the value of heated grips and he gave me another tea for half price.

I had just another 45 miles to go, so took a deep breath and hopped back on the A470. Down the Taff Valley, ever faster toward Cardiff until I was flying along at 85 mph (b) toward home. It was a good trip, and although I was originally a little annoyed that it would be short I think it was a good length for my first proper road trip. I got to have some fun, and learn a few things that will come in handy for future trips. Most of all, I got to reconfirm my love of motorcycling. I got to remind myself that all the frustration involved in getting me to this point was worth it.

My apologies for such a long post. Primarily it’s a post for myself, I suppose –– something for me to look back on in the years and journeys to come.

This sort of thing is why I moved to Wales.

Enjoying the tranquillity of Mid Wales

Centuries-old bridge in Builth Wells


(a) This post was long enough, so I didn’t want to get into it. But, what the hell? How can you be an official dealership for a motorcycle you don’t have in stock?

(b) As always, law enforcement officials should note that this is a lie, told for the sake of enhancing the narrative. I never speed. I am a good boy.