Sunday, 16 November 2014

Hay on Wye, Powys, Wales

"I need you to be my wife," said my friend and fellow journalist, "to road-test a tandem bicycle honeymoon with me." So, off we set for Hay on Wye, home of the annual literary festival in August, but nice and sleepy in mid-November.

Our two-seater was supplied by the very nice Luke and Anna, who run Drover Cycles, organising walking and cycling holidays – or simply cycle hire – either self-guided or led. They also provide water bottles, helmets, panniers and, crucially, laminated maps.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? No, me neither. But that's OK. It's different from single cycling in a few key ways:

1. You either sit in the front and have all the responsibility – deciding which direction, which gear and when to brake – or you sit in the back, put your head down and pedal.

2. Starting and stopping take a bit of teamwork, and you definitely need to communicate.

3. Most folks will watch as you go by.

We had opted for Day 2 of the cycle-moon, Builth back to Hay, approximately 34km (21m), so our ride was loaded into the back of the van and we were driven through the lashing rain to our departure point. Never mind, we'd both come well prepared with plenty of wet-weather gear.

Fortunately, it was entirely unnecessary, as the rain stopped at exactly the same moment the vehicle did to decant us and, after a wobbly start, off we went. The route was chosen for both its prettiness, its evenness and its quietness, so much of the time we were along a riverside path and hills were very slight and infrequent. A big bonus was that, being chatty folk, we were able to yak away to our hearts' content and hearing each other was never a problem.

Along the way we came to an egg shed, run on the honesty system. There wasn't a single house in sight and it was delightfully tempting to buy some, but as we were staying in a B&B serving just about the best breakfast ever anywhere, buying eggs would have been a bit like bringing coal to Newcastle, as they used to say...

Still, we got off to have a look and discovered a selection of interesting notices on the walls...

About halfway through our jaunt – which Hugh and Anna had no doubt planned – we came to Erwood Station Craft Centre which, as the name implies, is a repurposed old train station that's now a tea room and – yes, you guessed it – craft shop selling only Welsh-made things.

We were tempted by some of the jewellery and hand knitted sweaters, but settled for tea and Welsh cakes (a bit like flat scones) and chatting to the nice old boy who came in heavily decorated to pick up the Poppy Appeal tin.

Before we had a chance to feel we might have had enough, boom, we were back in Hay and heading up the little lane back to Drovers. Perfect.

We spent a very pleasant rest of the afternoon wandering in and out of the shops, imagining that we could empty our homes and re-decorate from scratch with all the lovely things we saw (ditto with our wardrobes!) and deciding where we'd eat dinner later (Tomatitos Tapas Bar and Restaurant – delicious and a wonderful atmosphere. Our B&B hosts' son described it as a "black hole – you'll go in there and hours will pass before you know it..." and he wasn't wrong).

A bottle of wine and many small plates later, and we were teetering back to our cosy and comfortable B&B. Right over the bridge from Hay, but absolutely in walking distance, The Start is mostly a 300-year-old cottage with slightly more modern bits (ie, 70-80 years old) added on. The owners are also keen cyclists – ask about their trip down Highway 101 last summer – and the lovely Dawn is definitely a hostess with the mostess. Her aforementioned breakfasts are simply amazing: eggs from her free-ranging chickens, mushrooms from her local foraging, veggie sausages from her own recipe (she also makes a glutin-free variety), homemade breads, plus unusual but definitely getting the thumbs-up preserves – think courgette and ginger jam, or lemon and lime chutney.

Blue skies broke through, chasing away the Welsh sunshine (aka rain!) for our departure, making it even harder to leave... At least it meant we could appreciate the Black Mountains, followed by the Brecon Beacons before hitting the motorway back to the Big Smoke.

Conclusion? Don't let the shorter winter days put you off a trip to this part of the world at this time of year: you can still pack in plenty and, best of all, you get it mostly to yourself!

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