GWTTA: Monmouth (Trefynwy)

Let’s call the visit to Monmouth a learning experience. 

I learned, for instance, that I should probably do a little research on the places I visit as part of the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure before going to them (a). Otherwise I’ll arrive at said place with no idea of what might be there.

Additionally, I learned I should not attempt to explore a place when I haven’t eaten. Being hungry makes me incomparably stupid and indecisive. Which, of course, isn’t a good thing to be when you don’t know what you’re doing.

These two issues came to a head when I had the experience of also learning that the Waitrose in Monmouth doesn’t have a cafe.

For those of you playing along at home, Waitrose is chain of high-end grocery stores in the United Kingdom. Often they have cafes. Or so I thought.

Monnow Bridge

I had ridden through Monmouth once or twice in the past and noted the existence of aforementioned Waitrose, so my plan had been to arrive, eat at aforementioned cafe and thereafter take a leisurely stroll through aforementioned town to see what I could see. But, as I said afore, the Monmouth Waitrose is sans cafe.

Because I had not arrived with a back-up plan, because I was feeling a little flustered from my ride here, and because I was being made stupid by hunger, I was not able to respond to this minor setback and simply choose somewhere else to eat. There are literally dozens of cafes, pubs and restaurants in Monmouth but in the face of them I became so indecisive that all I was able to do was walk around getting more and more upset at my inability to decide where to eat.

“Oh moan, that place looks a little too pricey. Woe is me, eating in this place might leave me too full for dinner tonight. Sorrow, with all my motorcycle gear I’d draw too much attention in there. Fie, this place looks so nice I’ll want to spend the rest of the day in here. Distress, If I go in there I’ll want a pint, too, but I have to ride home…”

In the end, I just chose to not eat. This in itself was a learning experience. From it I learned that if I spend all day riding around in the cold, having eaten nothing but two pieces of toast in the morning, I will end up getting a fever blister the next day and feeling awful for the next two weeks.

Monmouth Castle

All in all, I would say my visit to Monmouth was something of a bust. I was flustered and hungry and I failed to deal with it properly.

I was feeling flustered partially because my visit to Monmouth came on the same day I had visited Caerleon –– the two towns only being a few miles apart –– and that hadn’t gone terribly well. But also because it was on the ride to Monmouth I learned I shouldn’t rely solely on my sat-nav (known as a GPS in America-land) to get to a place. I mean, yeesh, everyone knows that. But especially my sat-nav.

Mine is a hand-me-down Tom-Tom given to me for free because its previous owner was convinced she couldn’t trust it. I learned on my Monmouth adventure that I can’t really trust it either. Especially not its battery, When I stopped in the middle of nowhere to click on the device, its battery was dead. I have since found that some sort of fault in the sat-nav (probably as a result of its being in my bag that time I got soaked en route to Exeter) causes it to take more than 48 hours to charge fully.

I’m going to need to come up with a solution to my sat-nav issue as I go forward with the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure. Navigation can be damned tricky in Land of Song. Physical maps are hard to use on a motorcycle anyway, of course, but also it can be extra difficult to find maps that even bother to include the small country lanes that are requisite to getting places in Wales.

Getting lost en route to Monmouth.

Meanwhile, outside of Cardiff and Swansea, phone signal is weak at best and sometimes non-existent, so navigating via Google Maps is ill-advised (not to mention it saps battery that will be needed to phone for help if your bike breaks down). But, for that matter, sat-navs, too, struggle to keep tabs as you wind through narrow valleys. My friend, Sian, was born and raised in Wales but lives now in London. She told me she often gets lost when she returns home. In trying to give me directions to the town where her wedding was held she said: “Head west and follow your heart.”

Which is more or less what I did when getting from Caerleon to Monmouth (though, I was headed north and east).

There is a pretty straight-forward 70-mph route I could have taken, but that would have been boring. I wanted instead to make my way through the undulating country lanes that lie between the two towns. With my sat-nav dead, I studied an overview map of the area on my phone, memorised the names of a few towns I would pass, and set out –– planning to use road signs as a guide.

The phrase “road sign” is a misleading one when it comes to finding your way in the Welsh countryside. There are, indeed, signs by the road but often they were not designed for motorists. In these country lanes the signs can be upward of 200 years old, intended for the eyes of people moving at a far slower pace.

Random shop in Monmouth

If you’ve ever read PG Wodehouse novels, he frequently references the challenges of driving in the 1920s, literally having to stop and get out of the car to read a road sign. These are the sort of signs that were guiding me to Monmouth. And the route they prescribed was one that saw me bumping down lanes so narrow I could stretch out both my arms and touch the hedges on either side.

These lanes were pockmarked, crumbling, and caked with mud, livestock manure and, in some darker corners, algae. It is in situations like this that I am thankful I do not own an expensive motorcycle. As I rode along, I found myself remembering the claims made by the Michelin guys when they wined and dined me a few months ago. Pilot Road 4 tires have improved grip on every surface but snow, they said.

But “improved” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” Not when tackling the literal and metaphorical crap found on a Welsh lane. I had several bum-clenching moments of having the rear tire kick out on me as I crept down the lanes. Fortunately, I encountered almost no other traffic on these roads (everyone else being smart enough to avoid them, I suppose) and was able to move at a snail’s pace.

Eventually, I was rewarded for my efforts. I stopped on the rise of a hill, alone in the green, tranquil quiet of the countryside. I shut off my bike and was overwhelmed by the silence, the peacefulness. It felt otherworldly. Normally you just don’t find this sort of thing in Britain. Everyone is so aggressive, so impatient and so crowded around each other on this little archipelago that when it all finally stops, when you can take a breath and actually hear the sound of fresh air filling your lungs, the experience kicks you in the stomach.

This was intensified by the views I had of the mountains to the north of me. I sat there for several minutes, listening to my breathing, the birds and faraway sheep. I didn’t really think it at the time but it occurs to me now that this is the point of the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure; this sort of thing is why I moved to Wales.

Statue of Charles Rolls upstaging statue of Henry V

Eventually, I fired up the bike again and bounced my way down to Monmouth. It is a nice town, far more English in its quaintness than most Welsh towns and villages. That makes sense, as it is quite close to the English border.

Thanks to a statue in the town centre, I learned it is also the birthplace of one of the most iconic Englishmen ever: Henry V. You know, the fella of, “Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George,” fame. You can’t get more English than that, lads. Especially considering the fact that before becoming king, Henry V cut his warring teeth by defeating and humiliating one of Wales’ greatest cultural heroes: Owain Glyndwr.

Far more recently, Monmouth was home to equally iconic Englishman Charles Rolls, of Rolls-Royce fame, and in present day it is home to a whole lot of people who don’t speak a word of Welsh. In part because of all of these things, the town is often dismissed by hardcore Welshies. And this speaks to something else that I sense will become a theme throughout the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure: often, the things I like most about Wales are, in fact, quite English in nature.

I didn’t bother to ponder this at the time, however. I was hungry. After a quick visit to the crumbling remains of Monmouth Castle (built by the English to help them invade Wales) and a stroll through the town’s older streets I headed back to my bike and sped home to dinner. It had been a positive learning experience, even if I was still pretty ignorant about Monmouth.


(a) If you’ve got any insider knowledge about the places I’m planning to visit, please clue me in.