In an interview with the cycling podcast recently I was asked where my favourite place was to cycle. I immediately responded – Wales. I don’t think it was the answer they were expecting, but with the combination of the scenery, people and food, it is easy to fall in love with.
So when an invite to visit Carmarthenshire popped into my inbox, I jumped at the chance.
Carmarthenshire is often overlooked, being wedged between the popular cycling destination, the Brecon Beacons and the beaches of Pembrokeshire. To learn more about what this county has to offer we set off for a weekend to ride a few of the six new routes created by Discover Carmarthenshire as a part of their ambition is to become the ‘cycling hub of Wales’.
Carmarthenshire’s varied landscape offers all kinds of cycling experiences, from gentle routes along the coastline to the more challenging, hilly trails through the countryside. The roads are quiet, well paved and offer up spectacular scenery. There isn’t much more a cyclist could ask for.
We were generously loaned a car by Skoda and made the drive to Wales on Friday night after work. As night drew in, we arrived at our home for the weekend, Cwmcrwth farm. The working farm has a number of stone cottages that have been beautifully converted from the original farm buildings while retaining their traditional character. Original barn doors have been replaced with huge windows, ensuring the sunshine floods through the cottages. Exposed beams and original stonework all help retain the farm’s wonderful character.
The owners describe the property as an authentic farm holiday destination with something for everyone, from helping to feed the animals (lots of piglets and coos), to even learning Pig & Goat keeping. For those wanting to venture a little further, the farm is surrounded by castles, gardens, National Trust properties and beaches, not to mention the Brecon Beacons and Brechfa Forest.
In our group, two of us were cycling, and two wanted to go hike and explore the castles, this spot couldn’t have been more perfectly suited to both needs.
On Saturday morning we got up early and opted to take on the Big Wilderness Adventure route, covering 105km/65 miles and 1700m/5500ft.
The route starts in the market town of Llandovery and follows the river Towy upstream, towards its source. Within minutes we had left the town behind and were out on the quiet country roads. The gradual rise of the roads gave us a good chance to warm up before the real hills start with the climb up to Llyn Brianne reservoir.
This was the highlight of the day. We rode for several kilometres up into the clouds with the walls of the Towy Valley rising on either side of us. Along the way, we passed a number of local attractions including the Dinas RSPB nature reserve. The supposed hideout location of Welsh folklore character, Twm Siȏn Cati, the Welsh Robin Hood. We took a little detour as we got close to see the dam wall of Llyn Brianne, the tallest in the UK at 91 metres in height.
Back on the route, we followed the road around the reservoir edge, the road constantly undulating with incredible views and sweeping descends around every corner.
Locals later told us that the reservoir was created in the 1960s and a few houses were abandoned and submerged. Apparently, in the summer or when water levels are low, you can see the tops of some of the buildings.
The route continues north, skirting the Cambrian mountains in an area known as the ‘Desert of Wales’ revealing a barren and wild landscape. Since leaving Llandovery, we had still not seen a single car, and 40km in we had already clocked over 1000m of climbing…. There had to be a descent soon!
Not long after, we were rewarded with a technical descent into the town of Tregaron. The road twists and turns with gradients hitting 20%+. The rain had set in at this point, and we were soaked through (apparently I need to reproof my raincoat!). As we arrived into Tregaron, we spotted a pub and made the call to pop in for lunch and to try and warm back up. There was a huge fireplace, so we took off our wet layers and tucked into coffee and soup.
The rain was starting come down harder, and the clouds had moved in reducing all visibility. We decided at this point to call it a day and save the rest of the route for another day. We were disappointed, but winter cycling doesn’t always go entirely as planned.
That evening we drove to The Plough Rhosmaen; a four-star boutique hotel on the edge of the Beacons, for dinner. There was a wedding taking place at the venue and a number of local groups dressed up for a nice dinner out. The restaurant was fantastic and put an impressive vegan menu together. We had called in advance to check they could pull together some vegan options, but they also have a few options on the menu. The restaurant had a number of local dishes all prepared with their own flair and beautifully presented. After dinner, we called it an early night so we could be up early to hit the road again.
The next day we decided to take on the 59-mile Tywi Valley tour of the castles loop, which starts and ends in Carmarthen and takes in a slice of the Tour of Britain route.
The route follows the Tywi river, from Carmarthen, heading upstream and passing numerous castles and historical sites. It also kept us out of the mountains, ensuring we wouldn’t run into any weather-related issues again.
We started in the valley with views of Dinefwr Castle in the distance and made a mental note to investigate it the next day. 30km in the terrain becomes a bit more challenging as you are taken up the side of the valley. The first climb up to Bethlehem comes at you like a wall, with gradients over 10% but we were rewarded with views of the valley and river below.
The route took us back into Llandovery, which marked the end of the flatter terrain. We rode up Henllys Hill to the village of Siloh and again there were stunning views, this time of the mountain Bannau Sir Gaer in the distance.
The hillsides open up with beautiful views all around and perfectly smooth road surfaces. The climb out of Brechfa is the longest on the route totalling 4 kilometres. The start is the steepest, up to 10% in places before levelling out and averaging just over 4%. From here we took a detour to get back to our accommodation. We found ourselves on one of the most challenging climbs of the weekend. With a ford at the base of the climb, we were forced to dismount and carry our bikes over a rickety bridge and start the climb from a complete stop…. Oh, and it was over 15%.
Only 14 people have ever done the climb on Strava (known as ‘A climb to put hairs on your chest’)… so for those hunting KOMs its one to do.
After that climb, the rest of the ride seemed easy in comparison!
By the time we got back to the house we were starving and in serious need of a post-ride coffee. So we drove into Ammanford to check out the opening day of the speciality coffee roasters, Coaltown’s new 4,000 sq ft roastery.
We were greeted by Scott James, the founder, and had the chance to find out a bit more about Coaltown, and taste why it is rated one of the top coffee roasters in the UK.
Ammanford is a small town of 5400 people, and a former mining community where anthracite coal (Black Gold) fuelled the local economy. In 2003, the last of the local collieries closed, bringing with it a slow demise with high unemployment with no prospect for the school leavers of today. Scott wanted to change the opportunities for young people in his community. A self-professed homebody, he explained it is his hope that the roastery helps to bring in industry and get the town producing a new form of “black gold”; coffee.
He has also set up the Coaltown Academy “We’re going to bring in three apprentices at a time, train them from the beginning – basics in coffee, how to prepare coffee, how to roast coffee – We’re looking to give them all the fundamental skills they need to prepare coffee and at the end of it put them out into the wider world.”
It was inspiring to see someone so ambitious and so invested in the future of other young people in his community. On top of that, the coffee and lunch were fantastic!
One of the reasons I love cycling in Wales so much is you can spend hours (even days) exploring back lanes and winding roads without seeing another person. It feels like you are out in the wilderness, but when lunch time comes around it’s easy to find a town and pop into a pub for food, it’s the best of both worlds!