The Celtic Cycling Circle: Easterly Ireland and Westerly Wales

Introduction

Ireland and Wales have long established cycling routes that once completed are rarely repeated.

The Celtic Cycling Circle meets a long-awaited need for a brand new route suited to touring cyclists, e-bike riders, fundraisers and culture vultures that is unique in three distinctive ways:-

  • Firstly the route introduces touring cyclists to some of the historic bonds that connect Ireland with Wales. It has been inspired by the work of an EU funded project named ‘Ports, Past and Present‘ led by University College Cork in partnership with Wexford County Council, Aberystwyth and Trinity Saint David Universities who examined the cultural heritage of ports in the Irish sea basin. One of the objectives of this project is to encourage people to spend time in port towns rather than transit through them. And as there is so much to see and different things to experience during different seasons in the year, this route needs to be repeated to fully appreciate its splendour and fascinating heritage.
  • Secondly there is no designated starting point or end point; being a circle, cyclists can join or leave at a point that is most convenient to them. And with no set destination to race towards its attraction is all about the journey and lets face it, this is what touring on a pedal bike is all about.
  • Thirdly, cyclists social media forums regularly comment that established cycling routes in Ireland and Wales are somewhat challenging for novice cyclists. The Celtic Cycling Circle strives to overcome that drawback by dividing the route into stages that match the ability of many novice riders with the added bonus that each stage is worth stopping at to explore, savour and enjoy. For cyclists using basic e-bikes an average stage distance of 35 miles is comfortably within the range of most fully charged batteries.

This route visits the 5 Celtic port towns connected and intertwined by ferry routes serving Holyhead, Dublin, Rosslare, Pembroke Dock and Fishguard. The landscape and history of those areas can be viewed on the ‘Ports, Past and Present‘ suite of YouTube films.

The journey covers a distance of 592km / 368 miles that can be travelled in one go which is great for those seeking a fund-raising challenge, or at a slower pace to suit the circumstances of individual cyclists ; in the Spring of 2022 my cycling journeyed at a very leisurely pace 259 miles / 416km along the West Coast of Wales. Then six months later I cycled 176km/ 109 miles along the East coast of Ireland this story tells.

Route planning

For those new to touring ‘getting lost‘ can spoil an otherwise great ride. This can be avoided by using modern technology. Many of us are familiar with in-car sat-nav devices that guide us from A to B and the idea of something similar for cycling adventures can be very appealing.

The cycle.travel route planner ( https://cycle.travel ) guided me to the port towns I wished to visit in Ireland and Wales. Other route planning systems such as Cycle Streets ( https://www.cyclestreets.net/journey ), Komoot ( https://www.komoot.com )  or Ride with GPS ( https://ridewithgps.com ) are equally good.

  • Through Ireland this computer generated route avoided the British equivalent of ‘A’ roads (pre-fixed by the letter ‘N’) to follow safer regional and local routes that are pre-fixed with the letters ‘R’ and ‘L’, traffic free greenways, designated cycling paths and way-marked cycling routes that have pre-existing levels of popularity.
  • Through Wales a network of National Cycling Routes (NCR) are designed to keep people safe. NCR 4, 47,82, 81 and 8 were followed.

The plotted route was downloaded into my bicycle GPS system that provides turn-by-turn directions avoiding the need to stop at every road junction to consult a guide book or check a paper map.

The bike and luggage

The route best suites riders of hybrid, road, touring or e-bikes. My ride used an e-bike and battery recharging points are highlighted along the route to help future e-bike followers. Equipment wise I wore a high-viz coloured rucksack and handlebar bag to carry my battery recharger and the minimum of touring paraphernalia needed to: (a) look after my bike and (b) myself; spare inner tubes, tyre levers, pump, GPS system, written route notes, toiletries, mobile telephone, first-aid items, clothing for dry days, water-proofs for any rain, night attire and €30 in cash. As for the luxury item my bicycle bottle carrier contained a thermos flask for hot coffee.

I hope this story inspires readers to ride the Celtic Cycling Circle.

Part 1: The East Coast of Ireland

Travelling by Ferry

Boarding the Night Ferry at Pembroke Dock

To witness sunrise I boarded an overnight ferry to Rosslare Europort located in the south east of Ireland. The more popular alternative is the 14:45 ferry from Pembroke Dock which arrives in Rosslare Europort at 18:46 allowing ample time to reach and stay overnight in Wexford.

For those arriving on the night ferry I strongly recommend staying in one of the many guest houses or hotels that can be found just outside the Port and in Rosslare town who accommodate passengers arriving in the early hours of the morning.

Irish ferries accept both Euro and Sterling for payment and onboard currency exchange rates apply for any payments made in Sterling. At the time of booking my crossing it was not necessary to produce evidence of COVID vaccination or of a recent negative test. Passports are not required, though some form of photo identity is needed. In case of needing medical care I carried my European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) that is being rebranded as a Global Health Insurance Card.

I spent this evening in a warm, clean, quiet en-suite cabin and quickly drifted off to sleep before waking a few hours later for a shower and cup of tea. The ferry berthed in Rosslare Europort at 3:30am which is right in the middle of the witching hour.

In the Middle Ages many believed women used this hour to cast good or bad spells on men. The Catholic church appeased that belief through an edict banning activities between 3 and 4am with the barbaric consequence of witch hunts. These gave rise to tens of thousands of women across Europe being burnt at the stake for ill fortune that befell men. What happened to the women whose men received good fortune?

When the PA system announced that vehicle passengers should make their way to the car deck I made my way down to level 5 where a deck hand removed the ratchet straps that had safely secured my bicycle during the sea crossing.

Stage 1 Port of Rosslare to Wexford 27km / 17miles

Cycling route with gradients between the Port of Rosslare and Wexford town

Despite being 4am the Port was extremely busy; some trucks were leaving for destinations across Ireland, others were waiting to board ships bound for Europe. Yet Rosslare Europort has more to offer than being a vital trade route. For the past 30 years it has been crucially important for touring cyclists following Euro-Velo 1 (EV1).

EV1 is clearly signed on the Port entry-exit road. It is numbered 1 due to it being the very first of what is now an active network of 14 long distance bicycle routes that span Europe to encourage European integration through the ever-increasing popularity of cycling tourism.

EV1 starts in Scandinavia then after crossing the majestic fjords of Norway it traverses Scotland where a ferry to Northern Ireland is followed by a bicycle ride down the West and South coast of Ireland to reach Rosslare. Rosslare Europort is a vital link to reach France and cycle via Spain to the destination of EV1 in Portugal.

This morning my journey followed the east coast of Ireland and began by using a local cycling route numbered 3, a magical network of traffic free country lanes which at this time of the morning was in total darkness. As all you can see is limited to the distance of the front light’s shine other senses, particularly smell and hearing are heightened.

The cold night air smelt surprisingly refreshing. Rustling noises coming from trees and hedges combined with occasional squeals from the undergrowth to betray the presence of wildlife. To dispel a myth that nothing can be seen at night my bike light shone firstly on a mother rat crossing the lane with her young family – I guess she was visiting friends , then a stealthy red fox whose beautiful slit green eyes glowed, sparkled and beamed back at me like a pair of precious emeralds.

Knowing I would be cycling in complete darkness during the early hours and semi darkness at the end of the day, I fitted two headlights; a 3000 lumen headlight with sufficient power to last 3 hours would be used in the morning and a smaller 1000 lumen light would be used for the end of the day. Then to be seen on the road a pair of high intensity rear lights flickered to alert motorists of my presence throughout the journey.

16km/10miles later dark country lanes joined a main road into Wexford town. It used to be the case that only milkmen and people ‘up to no good‘ are out and about at 5am so it came as no surprise to have attracted the attention of the Gardaí. For cyclists visiting Ireland for the first time there are alternative ways of getting the attention of the emergency services. As is the case in the UK you should ring 999 or if you prefer 112.

The Gardaí began to follow me, their presence unnerving despite me having nothing to be nervous about. So I stopped by a monument at the harbour-side thinking if they wanted to know anything I would rather be asked than stalked, yet they drove past and accelerated away. 

By not cycling I began to feel cold so poured a coffee from my bicycle flask then strolled around the monument with the cup warming my hands. I read the monument is dedicated to a locally born man named John Barry who became an American Navy captain fighting the English Navy back in the late 1700s. The English tried to bribe him to abandon the American cause but knowing that they could not be trusted he replied by sinking all their ships.

A long time before the Port at Rosslare opened, Wexford was a principal seaport. Back then Ireland and Wales had been Celtic Nations whose religious leaders were Druids.

During the 1st century a Catholic Pope sent missionaries to convert people living in the Celtic nations to christianity. Druid priests knew christian conversions would undermine their positions and used force to drive missionaries away, including Palladius who was driven out of Wexford.

Although the mission of Palladius failed a later attempt by Saint Patrick – who became the patron saint – was more successful in driving the ‘snakes’ (read: Druids) out of Ireland. Patrick then sent his own missionary called Ignatius from Wexford to convert the people of Wales. Ignatius is mentioned in the Wales section of this Celtic Cycling story as his grave headstone that came from the Wicklow mountains, rests next to the alter of a Church near my home town of Harlech.

Later in the day I would meet Finola, a history graduate. Finola explained Ireland has another patron saint named St Bridget. She was a druid goddess depicted holding a pair of snakes, casting a shadow of doubt over St Patricks’ success story. Yet should ‘Snakes’ not be a metaphor, my earlier sighting of rats suggests he succeeded.

From the harbour I visited Wexford Westgate. During Norman times Wexford was a walled town and this was one of several entrances built into the wall. It is now a Heritage Centre where the story of the Normans in Wexford is explained and aided by guided walks.

Wexford is a lovely town with a fine selection of shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Cyclists wanting an overnight stay can choose from ‘Fay the Guesthouse’ with a lockable garage for bicycles and ‘The Amber Springs Hotel’ or ‘The Riverbank House Hotel’ allow e-bikes to be recharged in their premises.

Stage 2 Wexford to Gorey 48km / 29 miles

Cycling route with gradients between Wexford and Gorey

From Wexford town I spent the next 2 hours in cyclists’ paradise with no people, streetlights, traffic or buildings. Solo cycling in complete darkness certainly keeps your mind in the present.

By 7am I entered an environment that had been denatured by and for the benefit of people to live, work and move further and faster than simple leg power allows. The trees and hedgerows of mother nature have been replaced by homes for people to live in, buildings for work and shops to provide food and household items.

Here in Gorey cyclists needing spares or repairs will come across the Revolve Bike Shop Ltd. Yet this business is more than a straightforward sales and service centre. The managing director and chief mechanic is Peter Sinott who possesses global experience and competence to deal with road, mountain, hybrid, e-bikes, and custom builds. Check out their website: www.revolvebikeshop.ie .

For cyclists seeking an overnight stay, The ‘Ashdown Park Hotel’ is a 5 minute ride from the town centre and has an indoor space to store bicycles.

Stage 3: Gorey to Wicklow 45km / 28 miles

Cycling route with gradients between Gorey and Wicklow

From Gorey it takes roughly an hour to cycle along local cycling route number 2 that follows the R772, a fairly level 20km/12mile road towards Arklow.

The new day was heralded by a fine mist of light showers, marked by a collective twittering, tweeting and chirps from birds. Autumnal colours looked like a landscape painting that could befit the finest art gallery; canopies of trees that once bore the green leafs of summer were changing into delicate golds tipped with strong surges of reds. As the morning air became less still some gently fluttered down from their branches to lay at rest on the ground. This morning will be a lasting memory.

Arklow has existed as fishing village for centuries and being parallel to my hometown of Harlech I wondered if the Wicklow gravestone that stands in my local church was carried by boat from here. Because Arklow Maritime Museum is the source of local maritime information I have sent them an email posing that question and shall update this story if they reply.

Cyclists wanting to stay in town may wish to book into the ‘Arklow Bay Hotel’ who offer an indoor area to store and recharge bicycles. Joe’s Bike Shop at 49 Lower Main Street is the local go- to place for spares, repairs and recharging of e-bike batteries.

From Arklow I cycled a further 27km /17 miles to Wicklow along the R750 which carried very little traffic as most vehicles were using the M11 running parallel to my road.

An unexpected feature of todays ride was the arrival of Storm Claudio bringing with it very strong winds followed by heavy rain. When route planning I had calculated an average e-bike speed of 24km/15mph would take 4 hours to cover the 91km/ 57 mile distance between Wexford and Wicklow.

This morning justified my decision to journey with, rather than against, the prevailing wind. Storm Claudio propelled me along the roads at an average speed of 32km/ 20 mph that delivered me into Wicklow an hour earlier than I had calculated.

Despite Wicklow having twin towns in France (Montigny), Germany (Eichenzell) and Wales (Porthmadog), in recent years twinning activities have been few and far between due to Covid travel restrictions. Members of Côr Meibion Madog / Porthmadog Male Voice Choir who have visited to sing in Wicklow tell me they enjoyed being part of a different community.

By now I had been cycling for 6 hours and had ridden over 70 miles; needless to say my e-bike battery needed some fresh energy and so did I. Fortunately Ciara Kavanagh, owner of ‘The Sports Room’ on Abbey Street, had given prior permission for me to recharge my e-bike battery in her premises and joy-oh-joy, The Sports Room even has its own café .

As it would take an hour or so to recharge my bicycle battery I went for a walk around Wicklow town.

Whilst most EU countries use a 2-pin plug Ireland uses the 3-pin plug and socket, so e-bike users do not need to use a travel adaptor. After connecting my e-bike to a charging point I enjoyed a lovely leisurely breakfast then looked around the store to appreciate the high quality of bicycles, sports clothing and accessories for sale at affordable prices. This amazing place supports health and fitness in the local community through organised activities including walks, runs, swims, road biking and mountain biking. It even has its own a bicycle workshop where competent staff offer spares and repairs.

The town is such a clean and tidy place. On Main Street I came across Wicklow Gaol. This former prison is now a museum which introduces visitors to the town’s history from the arrival of St Patrick and the hardships of the famine years to the establishment of the Irish free State exactly a century ago. During certain times of the year actors portray prison life in the 18th century.

There is so much to see and do in Wicklow, including a walk along the town heritage trail, that Wicklow is worthy of an overnight stay. The choice of overnight accommodation includes ‘The Bridge Tavern’ that will feature in Irelands television adverts to promote this years Christmas and new year festivities.

During the 19th century the Bridge Tavern was known as Halpin’s Bridge Hotel which was owned and run by James and his wife Anne Halpin. As explained on a wall plaque attached to the building this is where their son Robert was born.

In adult life Robert captained a ship that was designed by the train and ship engineer Brunel, who is mentioned in the Wales part of this story. The ship that Robert Halpin captained laid cables along the ocean bed for telegraph messages to be sent across the world.

Early messages were sent using Morse Code. For those unaware, Morse Code is a set of different length pulse signals representing individual letters to construct words. During the 2nd world war my father was a navy telegraph operator skilled in sending Morse Code and deciphering messages received into normal language.

Returning to The Sports Room I was immeasurably grateful to Ciara for both the breakfast and for allowing my bike to be left in the premises while I went for a walk. Having fully recharged myself and my e- bike battery I continued to Dublin.

Stage 4 Wicklow to the Port of Dublin 56km / 35miles

Cycling route with gradients from Wicklow to the Port of Dublin

From Wicklow I cycled towards Dublin via Bray along the R761 using roadside cycleways through the villages of Rathnew and Newcastle. When making my way through the village of Kilcoole my ride came to a abrupt halt due to heavy rain.

Despite using a cycling lane designed to segregate riders from vehicles, very heavy rain reduced visibility to such an extent that motorists would struggle to see me, so I stopped and took shelter under a bus shelter where I met Finola who kindly took my photo:

We spoke for ages and her knowledge of history added value to my appreciation of this route. In addition to her telling me about St Bridget we chatted about Dublin that I will refer to later.

After chatting for a while the rain was still pouring down and by not cycling I was beginning to feel very cold. I knew my route to Dublin was parallel to the railway service so thought I would catch a train to the next town of Bray.

Finola used her smartphone that revealed the next train was not due for an hour or so, yet pleasingly the weather in Bray would be dry and sunny. She then suggested using the approaching bus. Until now I didn’t know people could take bicycles onto a public bus and to add to my joy Finola even paid my bus fare, how incredibly kind.

The bus was lovely and warm and my seat was next to a USB port that I used to boost the power of my smartphone. Shortly afterwards the bus arrived in Bray and as forecasted, the weather was dry and sunny.

I made my way to number 1 Martello Terrace. In the late 1960s my ‘O’ level studies included English Literature and read ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ (1916) written by James Joyce. His story includes a Christmas scene based in the living room of his family home which is the last property on the right behind the silver car.

Not wanting to peer through the living room window of the present occupant’s house I photographed from a respectful distance.  Martello Terrace was named after several Martello Towers built nearby. The last Martello tower I saw was in Pembroke dock and my next sighting was close by at Sandycove.

Martellos are a French design that were built around the coastline as a line of defence against an invasion by the French. The Martello Tower in Sandycove seen on the right of my photo is now home to The James Joyce Museum. He was known to have lived in the tower and the opening of his most famous book ‘Ulysses‘ (1922) begins here.

There is no charge to visit the tower and visitors are invited to make a donation that I gladly made. The museum exhibits his written work and allows photos to be taken. The above is the living quarters and later in this story I will insert a photo of Dún Laoghaire harbour that I took from the roof.

From here I made my way to ‘The Metals’, an historic pathway now used by cyclists and walkers:

A year ago Brian Ellis from National Maritime Museum of Ireland walked with me to this spot. Brians’ local knowledge explained why The Metals came into being, why the harbour was built and why the harbour and town received three name changes:-

  • The Metals name reflects this pathways heritage. It was once a railway track used by wagons carrying stone and rubble quarried from the hillside down to the sea front. Those materials were then used to make the breakwater walls of Dún Laoghaire harbour.
  • Wagons worked in sets of three using a pulley system; the weight of three loaded wagons rolling down The Metals pulled three empty wagons back up to the top of the hill for reloading. Then the cycle began again.
  • Dún Laoghaire used to be known as Dunleary then in 1822 the name of was changed to Kingstown in honour of George IV’s visit. Dún Laoghaire harbour was built to move goods and passengers long before airlines came into being, The harbour took 25 years to complete.

This was the photograph of the harbour I took from the roof of the James Joyce museum/ Martello Tower at Sandycove. By the end of the 19th century poets, playwrights and authors including James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens journeyed from or to this harbour on steam packet boats. Charles Dickens in his 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewitt wrote:-

” an incessant roar from the funnels of steam packet boats expressed the surrounding scenes of perspiration and emotion from shoals of passengers and the families they were leaving or returning to. They hurried hither and thither waving, trying to catch a first or last sight”

Without question this harbour holds very important memories for many people. In 1860 James McCuskern from Sligo, County Sligo left here to find work in England. His boat berthed in Chester that used to be favoured for passengers to-ing and fro-ing from England as it avoided a longer overland journey from the Welsh Port of Holyhead. It was also a less expensive and shorter journey from Chester to other English cities. James made his way to the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to join a large contingent of Irishmen working for a bleach making business. Bleach was used to whiten textiles and paper. A few years later James married a local girl and his grandson was my dad. Sadly James never returned to Sligo. He died from asphyxiation in a fire at work.

When the Irish free state was created Kingstown was renamed Dún Laoghaire where I berthed on my very first visit to Ireland in the early 1970s. I had boarded the ferry as a solo traveller knowing nobody and got off at Dún Laoghaire having made 20 friends. We were all intoxicated and exhausted from laughing and joining in with so many quality songs including a few made-up chorus lines for 7 drunken nights; who remembers the Dubliners ? ……happy days eh.

In its day Dún Laoghaire was the largest man-made harbour in Western Europe and it remains vital to the economy of Ireland welcoming 70 cruise liners a year – continuing a tradition for passenger service that began over two centuries ago. In addition to the cruise liner business the harbour is used by local and Belgian fishing trawlers who unload their catch and refuel here. The harbour is also headquarters of ‘The Irish Lights’ who manage sea safety by providing and maintaining navigational lights and buoys and marking or removing dangerous wrecks from around the coastline.

From my vantage point on ‘The Metals’ overlooking the harbour, the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, housed in a former Mariners Church, stood behind me.

The Baily Optic

This museum is definately worth a visit. Its centrepiece and most noticeable object is a 10-ton lighthouse light known as ‘The Baily Optic’. The optic floats and rotates in a trough of mercury supported on a cast-iron pedestal and could cast its beam of light across the sea 41km / 26 nautical miles. Putting the power of this lights beam into context, 26 nautical miles is nearly 1/3 of the total sea distance of 96 nautical miles between Dublin to Holyhead.

The Baily Optic came from a lighthouse at Howth Head a mile or so from Howth harbour, my next destination. James Joyce in his novel Ulysses refers to the flashing beacon of the Howth Baily light as a constant reminder to Dubliners of the city’s historic dependence on the sea.

When making my way to Howth I cycled into Dublin alongside the River Liffey. During the last quarter of the 19th century the Liffey needed to be dug deeper to instate harbour walls. The Liffey would then be used for the berthing of deep water boats to bring or export goods from the centre of Dublin. A diving bell was used to access and excavate the river bed which now rests on the North Quay as an educational and tourist attraction, seen as the orange structure in the background of this photograph:

The bell worked by being lowered straight down into the river; its bottomless interior air prevented river water from filling the bell, which is heavy enough to stand on the river bed. Workers would then climb down to dig out mud, shovel it into buckets that were hauled to the surface, emptied and lowered back down to be refilled until the riverbed had been excavated to the required depth. Working conditions were described in a poem by Gary Brown that was presented at the ‘If Objects Could Speak’ Ports, Past and Present workshop run by Suzanne Iuppa in July 2021:

Get to bell before the low tide, Slow down the pipe mind your stride.
Compressed air makes the breathing hard, Working for hours in heat and dark.
Levelling out the seabed get it right, quay stones to be laid before the night.
Six in our gang in our metal tomb, under the sea fearing our doom.
Inhaling air from pumps up above, bursted ear drums noses of blood.
Put men in a pipe and down to a bell, Working in heat like the fires of hell.
Digging and scraping swinging a pick, working in a vacuum for 2 quid a week.
Get the job done there’s a Quay to be laid, not for the faint hearted you can’t be afraid.
When the river gets angry it’s no place to be, in a bell on the seabed under the sea.

We’re building a quay for ships big and small,
A deep sea dock we call the North Wall.

It is worth staying in Dublin for a day or so to explore more of its history and enjoy a warm welcome in numerous bars and restaurants to savour traditional food, drink and music. There is an abundance of places to stay and countless bicycle shops offer spares, repairs, and charging points for e-bikes.

Having started this ride at Rosslare Europort to remark on its importance to touring cyclists using Euro-Velo 1, Dublin is the starting point of Euro-Velo 2 , otherwise known at the Capitals Route. 

From the welcoming atmosphere of Dublin’s Pubs the destination of Euro-Velo 2 is Red Square in Moscow. Between Dublin and Moscow EV2 visits London, Berlin, Warsaw and  Minsk; six compelling but different cities united by a 5,000 km / 3,100 mile cyclists nirvana; sadly the present aggression of Russia towards Ukraine makes this route one to avoid for now.

The many other attractions of Dublin include its castle. During my earlier conversation with Finola I learn’t the origins of the name Dublin came from a black pool within the area of `Dublin Castle (now landscaped and called the Dubh Linn Gardens ) that I visited last year.

Close by is a museum where we had both seen the display of drawings telling the Dante’s travels through hell, purgatory and heaven that represents the souls journey towards God. The illustrations were drawn in the 1800s; I wondered to what extend they have acted as a social influence for people to follow the churches teachings.

Whilst exploring the City I found myself in Talbot Street where a Welsh Chapel once stood.

This archived drawing is named ‘Capel Cymraeg Dublin’ which suggests it was drawn by a Welsh person. Yet the headstone reads ‘Welsh Church’ suggesting it was built by local stone masons. 

Apart from its intended use to provide a place of Worship for sailors it also became a focal point for Welsh domestic servants, housemaids, parlour maids and cooks who had settled in Dublin. The congregation was increased by Welsh people who sailed from Holyhead to Dublin and waited for a boat from Dublin to reach Ports in the South of Wales. At that time the overland route from North to South Wales was more torturous than the roads of todays traveller so it was quicker and more comfortable to make a sea voyage.

On the opposite side of the road I noticed a lodging house named Holyhead. I wondered if it was built at the time of the chapel and if the guests were people who came from the Holyhead ferry.

In December 1939 the Welsh chapel closed for the duration of the 2nd world war and failed to reopen. Based on this photograph of its present day use I wondered whether the time has arrived for the building to be developed or demolished:

The warm welcome of Dublin’s Pubs extends to serving a drink that is reputed to have medicinal qualities – a national legend that allegedly strips away harmful deposits of cholesterol from artery walls.

An unexpected side-effect of this cholesterol-ectomy caused my wheels to wobble – thankfully downhill to reach Howth Harbour.

Howth used to be a natural water inlet suited to fishing and packet sailing boats. This all changed when the 1800 Act of Union delivered a massive financial investment to improve the infrastructure for parliamentarians and their mail to move speedily and safely between Dublin and London. New harbours were built, packet steamers replaced sail boats and a mail coach road was built to connect Dublin Castle with the Houses of Parliament in London.

Part of that funding was used to build the walls of Howth breakwater. Unfortunately the wall trapped sand and mud inside the harbour that consequently needed ongoing dredging. By the time deeper hulled paddle steamers replaced shallower sail boats the Royal Mail packet boat service moved to the newer, bigger and deeper harbour at Dún Laoghaire. That aside the heritage of Howth Harbour continues to hold items of historical and cultural importance which can be still seen by visiting cyclists; a Monarch’s footprints and a very important wall plaque.

The monarchs footprints act as a reminder of a visit here in 1821 by King George IV, the former Prince Regent whose extravagant lifestyle contributed to fashions of the Regency era. His spending plunged him into debt that his father King George III refused to pay until he married Princess Caroline of Braunschweig ( German for Brunswick).

Throughout history Royal marriages were often made for reasons other than love so Royals often took mistresses; George IV enjoyed the company of several mistresses and an extra-marital affair with Elizabeth Conyngham benefited her family. Elizabeths husband was raised to the rank of a Marquess.

By the time of George IVs coronation he disliked his wife Caroline so much that he stopped her from attending the proceedings. She died 3 weeks later, believing herself to have been poisoned. He received news of his wife’s death at the Port of Holyhead then boarded the Royal Yacht to arrive in Howth intoxicated.

To give the public an impression he was in mourning George IV stepped back from planned engagements. But he was actually staying in the bed chamber of his mistress Elizabeth Conyngham, some 48km / 30 miles North of Howth at Slane Castle, County Meath.

One vessel that was certainly more welcomed than this Royal visitor was the Yacht ASGARD that berthed here in 1914. It is written that this is probably the most significant vessel in the history of the Irish State. Its cargo of German rifles and ammunition armed Irish forces during the 1916 Easter Rising against English rule.

The Plaque States
“On Tuesday 26th July 1914 Erskine Childers and the crew of the Asgard landed here with guns and ammunition for the Irish volunteers to fight for the freedom of Ireland”.

During my earlier conversation with Finola she remarked that guns and ammunition were also brought into other Irish Ports, including Kilcoole, close to the bus shelter where we met. The armaments were then hidden in a nearby convent.

Cyclists staying in Howth ought to consider booking a Dublin Bay day cruise that departs from this harbour. Because darkness was falling it was too late for me to book a cruise so made my way to Howth Head. 

The age-old saying ‘ things could be worse at sea’ is used to tell someone that things are not as bad as they seem. Perils of the sea often caused loss of life; ships sank after colliding in foggy weather and others were wrecked by striking rocks in shallow water.

Despite paddle steamers being equipped to keep safe in fog they were often in peril close to land. Back in the 19th century it was customary for fatal accidents to happen before safety improvements were made.

In response to ships floundering on the rocks by Dublin harbour a lighthouse was built at Howth Head. Yet despite its intended safety purpose, vessels would still flounder due to these shortcomings:-

  • Firstly lighthouse keepers were being ordered to ‘Light the light when it is dark‘ – resulting in ships running onto rocks after the sky was dark and before the light was lit. When those orders were changed to ‘Light up every evening at Sunset’ the number of ships running aground reduced but still occurred in foggy weather.
  • On a foggy night in August 1846 a City of Dublin Steam Packet Steamer floundered on the rocks close to the lighthouse. In response fog horns were installed.

Some 50 years later the Howth Lighthouse has its Baily optic fitted. Its longer and brighter beam enabled the lighthouse to perform its safety and navigational purpose for well over a century.

The timing of my arrival here allowed this photograph of a pulse of light once seen by James Joyce who wrote in Ulysses :

“The Howth Bailey light. Two, four, six, eight, nine. See?
The light has to flash or they might think it a house”.

In the background of my photograph are two separate light sources. They are from a Irish ferry and a Stena-line ferry service heading into the modern port of Dublin from Holyhead.

The modern Port of Dublin stands at the foot of the River Liffey. I sense from my reading that the River Liffey has more importance in history than any of the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ visited around Celtic Cycling Circle.

Since the middle ages traders and raiders have used the Liffey Estuary to gain easy access to the central plains of Éire. During the modern era, trading from the Liffey between Britain, Europe and further afield is inextricably linked to the development of Dublin City.

These day cargoes going through the Port of Dublin gives an insight to how people live their lives. The export of animals and imports of coal have been replaced by the export of chilled meats and imports of oil which I became aware of during the last mile of my cycling journey.

The air along Tolka Quay Road smelt of kerosene from its oil storage facilities which mixed with exhaust fumes from refrigerated lorries to-ing and fro-ing from the ferry terminal. 

It was now 6pm and over the past 14 hours I had cycled 128 miles to arrive inside the ferry terminal in time to board a Stena-Line ferry to Holyhead, Wales. Unfortunately the impact of stormy weather was to delay sailings until 10pm that night.

As Stena-line is a Sterling boat, payment in sterling for refreshment and/or duty free is accepted without incurring a currency exchange charge. Irish ferries provide an equally good service between Dublin and Holyhead so the choice of ferry provider is best based on the ferry that is first to depart following your time of arrival at the Port of Dublin.

The next part of my journey around the Celtic Cycling Circle wheels through Wales and whilst I hope you have enjoyed the journey so far, there are far more interesting historic and present-day stories about port towns, sea crossings and people who link Ireland and Wales that can be found here: https://portspastpresent.eu

Part 2: Wheeling through Wales

The 400km / 240mile route through West Wales

The transition into and from the season of summer reveals natures colours at their very best. This springtime journey through Wales occurred six months before my autumnal bicycle ride along the east coast of Ireland. And to benefit from a prevailing rather than a head wind, both rides followed a south to north direction.

Stage 1: Pembroke Dock to Fishguard Harbour 31 miles / 50km

Cycling route with gradients between Pembroke Dock and Fishguard

Pembroke Dock is accessible by train with regular daily services from London Paddington via Swansea.

My arrival at Pembroke Dock railway station retraced the journey of wooden cabinets that my grandfather had made. He was a craftsman cabinet maker for Waring and Gillow in Liverpool and cabinets he made were fitted into Royal Yachts that were built here.

I stayed overnight at The Lakeside Guest House who allow e-bikes to be recharged in their premises. Then the following morning I coasted downhill to explore the dockyard road network and make my way to the Irish ferry terminal.

Spring Blossom at the entrance to the Royal Navy Dockyard

The entrance was lined by stone buildings that included a guardhouse, officer buildings, administration and storage buildings. The age of these buildings reflect an era when the Port town was a vital line of defence. The Royal Naval Dockyard is positioned on the southern bank of the Cleddau Estuary, 7 nautical miles from the Irish Sea.

The Martello Tower at Pembroke Dock

To guard against attack from invaders accessing the Cleddau estuary, the docks were protected by cannons located on top on this Martello tower.

Since the 17th century over 260 warships and 5 Royal Yachts were built here as was the Sunderland flying boat. During the 2nd world war the dock was a flying boat base to detect German U boats and destroy them with aerial mines / depth charges.

In the spring of 1979 the hangers that once housed Sunderland flying boats were used to build Pembroke Docks very last ship, a spaceship called ‘The Millennium Falcon’. It was taken in sections from here to Londons Elstree studios and then featured in all the Star Wars films. The visitors centre now houses a display to show how the spaceship was made.

Like many Port towns maritime activity created employment and the adjoining town called Pembroke Dock grew to provide the housing and shops that familes need. These days the towns’ heritage is celebrated in a former dockyard chapel where a visit of 2-3 hours is recommended. I asked at the heritiage centre why public ferries were allowed anywhere near a security conscious military area. They explained a jetty for ferries was built next to not within the military complex.

When Pembroke Dock ceased to have military importance the present ferry terminal was built for crossings to and from Rosslare that now occur twice daily and take roughtly 4 hours. My purpose in visiting the ferry terminal was to see a mural by Pembrokeshire artist Robert Jakes. Called ‘The Sea of Stories’ it is a ceramic mural that hangs on the wall in the ferry terminal café area.

 

Robert designed and made the 70 tiles his mural uses to tell seperate stories based on historical facts, myths and the recollections of local people including the sounds of bells ringing in Cardigan Bay, sightings of mermaids and that the name of my destination for today, Fishguard, comes from the use of fishtraps used in that area of sea.

After reading the mural I began my bicycle ride to Fishguard along the London Road. Bierspool Cycles were on my right – post code SA72 6DT. They are ideally located for cyclists needing any running repairs or spares. Roughly a mile later I was cycling along a freshly laid cycling lane over the Cleddau Bridge that spans the river of that name. I paused here to enjoy panoramic views of the waterway and Pembroke Dock.

 

The Cleddau Estuary and Pembroke Dock

At the end of the bridge I joined a cycling path laid over a former railway track named ‘The Brunel Way’ after the famous shipping and railway engineer. As such its gradients avoided steep climbs and allowed me to arrive quickly and safely to the next town of Haverfordwest.

I chose to eat lunch at a riverside café. The distant view of an ancient bridge with a decorative arch on the parapet contained a dedication to King George IV who crossed it in 1821 on his way back to London from Ireland. From here I made my way to Haverfordwest Castle and asked whether the King spent the night at the castle. I was told he didn’t. His boat had berthed at Milford and his coach went directly back to London.

Milford is where the Anglo-Norman invasion set off from. The impact and legacy of Normal culture revolutionalised how the people of Ireland led their lives through social changes relating to farming practices, housing, politicis and religion.

From Haverfordwest my cycling journey followed a mixture of B, C and unclassified roads that carried very little traffic and arrived for an overnight stay within sight of Fishguard and Goodwick harbour early that evening.

Stage 2:  From Fishguard to Newcastle Emlyn 28m / 45km

Cycling route with gradients between Fishguard and Newcastle Emlyn

Fishguard and Goodwick Harbour is also the terminus of a railway line from London Paddington via Cardiff. From the harbour twice daily Stena-Line ferry crossings reach Rosslare in just under 3¼hrs. 

The Ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare

A slow and relaxing walk along the sea front leads into the town of Fishguard to see the traditional Thursday Market held in the Town Hall between 8am – 3pm. Here you can find a wide variety of fabulous stalls with everything you could want from a market; two butchers, a fishmonger, fruit, veg, plants, bread, cakes, coffee, books and local crafts.

The invasion tapestry displayed at Fishguard town hall

The town hall displays a tapestry that records the very last invasion of Britain made by the French. Over 200 years ago they landed along the sea front I had just walked along with an army of 1,500. It is said that a local heroine named Jemima Nicholas captured several soldiers single handedly with nothing more than a pitch fork.

After all those years the Inn still stands

The French surrendered at the nearby Royal Oak Pub. The table where the surrender was signed can be seen together with a wall plaque commemorating that event.

Apart from the market and history of invasion, other attractions include live screenings of productions from the Royal Opera House in London and a visit to the town would not be complete without a visit to the Sea Mor catch and release aquarium with its variety of local marine wildlife including pipe fish, lobster, conger eel , moon jellyfish and sometimes octopus.

For cyclists needing any running repairs or spares Pembrokeshire cycles is located in the town on Hamilton Street from where I set off towards Newcastle Emlyn using a mixture of B roads and unclasified single track roads that carried very little traffic.

The Joy of Springtime cycling

Here I witnessed the pure joy of springtime cycling – new leaves growing on trees and the blossom of Hawthorn and Blackthorn hedgerows. I even crossed a ford, a rare find these days:

Experience the thrill of cycling through a Ford

My 3 hour journey to Newcastle Emlyn included a several hills with lengthy free-wheeling descents punctuated by the joy of riding along glorious traffic free lanes.

Stage 3: Newcastle Emlyn to Lampeter 20m / 32 km

Newcastle Emlyn is a town that developed in size alongside the river Teifi where a weir used to harness the potential of river water to power a woollen mill and a corn mill. For a short while a turbine was fitted that provided the town with electricity. With the current fuel crisis perhaps that scheme ought to be reintroduced.

Newcastle Emlyn

RiverTeifi was once fiited with a turbine to provide the town with electicity

The towns attractions include its castle, independent shops, places to eat suiting every taste and a wide varieity of accommodation. Bikes can be accommodated in a former Coaching Inn called Gwestyr Emlyn where e-bikes can recharged.

From here the next stage of Lampeter is 20 miles / 32km away. The journey takes a little over 2 hours and involves short sections of a busy ‘A’ road and quieter ‘B’ roads.

Stage 4: Lampeter to Aberystwyth 35 miles / 56km

Lampeter is home to the oldest University in Wales – Trinity Saint Davids – who host the occasional peoples market. Other attractions include a gold mine and Lampeter’s Victoria Hall. If time allows visit Strata Florida ( The Vale of Flowers ) Abbey that has stood on lush meadows beside the banks of the river Teifi since 1201 and is the final resting place for generations of medieval Welsh princes. You can still see some of the incredible decorated tiles that at one time covered all the ground.

From Lampter the miles to Aberystwyth followed fairly level ground along a velvety smooth ‘B’ road that I found extremely comfortable, safe and speedy. Then I descended along the traffic free national cycling route 81 and wrongly assumed it would be equally smooth going.

Sadly the cycling surface quickly deteriorated into a dirt track with pot holes and sharp stone that risked punctures. To make matters worse a drift of 50 or so sheep were marching towards me. I was later informed this section of NCR 81 is an ancient drovers route known as Ystrad Meurig.

My route joined an ancient drovers trail

Wheeling my bicyle into a hedgerow I waited for the sheep to pass by. This took ages and when the occasional sheep stopped to look at me so did many others. And there they stayed until the physical force of followers pushed the flock forwards.

After they passed by I checked myself for ticks and continued cycling until the next delay – a single track that was so narrow it is best suited to walkers not riders. With the benefit of hindsight I would have stayed on the quiet and comfortable ‘B’ road rather than this time consuming NCR detour which actually rejoined the ‘B’ road I was taken from inorder to reach Aberystwyth.

Stage 4: Aberystwyth to The George III at Penmaenpool 35miles / 56km

Cycling route with gradients between Aberystwyth and Penmaenpool

Here in Aberystwyth there is no shortage of hotel or guest house accommodation to suit all budgets that allow access to a plug socket where e-bikes can be recharged. For bicycle repairs and spares Summit Cycles can be found in a prominent position along the North Parade.

Aberystwyth

Before its status as a hugely respected University town Aberystwyth harbour was a major employer with over 300 ships registered here and some sailings may well have crossed to harbours along the east coast of Ireland. 

Peaks and Troughs to Borth

Following my overnight stay an early morning start took me along quiet ‘B’ roads to the seaside resort of Borth. Thankfully my e-bike reduced the effort of cycling up this hill.

The reason for cycling through Borth was to avoid the distance I would otherwise need to cycle along a busy ‘A’ road . Yet exiting Borth I had no option so stopped for a rest in a village called Furnace.

Dyfi Furnace

The village of Furance gained its name from a water wheel that powered a charcoal fired furnace. Visitors can go inside the building or alternatively read the public information board to learn more about its history and method of operation.

From here Machynlleth was a mere 3 miles away. On the outskirts of town a patchy arrangement of bicycle paths provided respite from passing vehicles.

Machynlleth is signed as being the ancient capital of Wales from where Euro-Velo 2 can be accessed.

EV2 received mention earlier in this story, it starts in  Dublin and ends in Moscow. This morning I followed the route along single track roads and by-ways to reach Dolgellau, 15 miles / 24km away.

Dolgellau offers numerous places to stay to suit all budgets and most allow bicycles to be stored where e-bike batteries can be recharged. For spares and repairs Dolgellau cycles is located in a prominent position in the town centre on Smithfield Street.

An alternative to staying in the town is to make an advanced booking at the George III in Penmaenpool. The George is reached by following National Cycling Route 8 along a cycling path known as Morfa Mawddach which is clearly signed from the centre of Dolgellau. The George allows bicycles to be stored overnight and allow access to a plug socket for the recharging of e-bike batteries. 

George III resting alongside National Cycling Route 8

In years gone by this section of NCR 8 was a railway track used by trains that journeyed here from Deeside. The signalling is a reminder of its heritage.

Liquid Gold

After an evening meal at the George consider taking a leisurely stroll along the Morfa Mawddach Trail towards Barmouth and read the public information boards that record an interesting history of that particular area.

On a clear evening watch the sun as it sets beyond Barmouth Bridge. It was from this vantage point that William Wordsworth once wrote:

” The gentleness of heaven is on the sea

Stage 5: Penmaenpool to Tremadog 30 miles / 48km 

Cycling route with gradients between Penmaenpool and Tremadog

When leaving the George a 2 mile cycle ride along the Morfa Mawddach Trail to reach Barmouth and beyond is sheer joy. The terrain is flat and the mountainous surrounds contrast with sea views have been painted by JMW Turner and is displayed in Londons Tate art gallery.

Cycling over the Barmouth Bridge

Pigots Commercial Directory lists the trades, tradesmen, professionals and transport links in the 19th century. Conveyance by water included regular sailings between Barmouth and Dublin:

From Barmouth ten miles of safe cycling along the A496, which provides cycling paths for large sections of the route, leads to the outskirts of Harlech and the picture-postcard hamlet of Llandanwg. Here the church in the sand dunes dates back to the 5th century, a period in time when Druids in Wales were being challenged by peoples conversions to Christianity by monks sent here by St Patrick.

The Church in the Dunes

This particular church is written to be one of the oldest Christian foundations in Wales. In those days a place where a church stood was known in the Welsh language as Llan, hence the name of this hamlet of Llandanwg. In due course a small collection of homes would gather around churches and over the passge of time some of those settlements have become towns including Llandudno. 

The headstone brought from the Wicklow mountains for Ignatious

This massive 8ft, 2.4 meter grave headstone that rests by the alter is inscribed with the name Ignatious, one of the monks St Patrick had sent. Scientific analysis established the stone came from the Wicklow mountains. It was brought into the church from the graveyard when the naive was built over his grave in the 17th century.

When cycling from the churchyard to rejoin the Harlech road cyclists can top up ther water bottles at the Morlyn Guest house who are part of the refill revolution, so your fresh water will be supplied without cost. 

If your ride coincides with Irelands national holiday on March 17th – the date St. Patrick is reputed to have died, floodlighting saturates Castell Harlech in emerald; Ireland is often identified as the Emerald Isle due to climatic conditions that colours the countryside emerald green.

Harlech is famed for its castle that has ancient links with Ireland through a Welsh book called The Mabinogi. The Mabinogi was written during the 3rd century and includes a collection of mythological stories told under 4 branches. The second branch tells this story of a lady called Branwen:

” From the Castle Rock where Harlech Castle stands the Welsh King first saw the Irish longboats of Matholwch loom into view. The soldiers shields were turned upside down as a sign of peace. An envoy from those longboats obtained agreement from the King of Wales to the marriage of Branwen to the King of Ireland .”

In those days marraiges created a political union between both lands and the Mabinogi story unfolds to explain how the marriage was damaged by family jealousy.

A steep street in Harlech

A few years ago a road in the centre of Harlech named Fford Pen Llech was judged to be the steepest street in the world with a gradient of 37.45%. More recent evidence proves that Baldwin Street in New Zealand is the steepest street in the world. Nevertheless Fford Pen Llech is the undisputed 2nd steepest street and cyclists from Éire have participated in time trails to reach the top.

From Harlech a gentle descent through the villages of Penrhyndeudraeth and Minnfford leads into the town of Porthmadog, twinned with Wicklow.

Back in the 1800s ships would set sail from many Welsh Ports carrying cargoes of slate from the Snowdonia mountain range; Porthmadog was no exception. Slate arrived at the harbour by train and that historic narrow gauge railway is now a tourist attraction.

Should cyclists need any spares or repairs, KK cycles can be found along the High Street.

Porthmadog is an attractive harbour town with accommodation to suit all budgets where bikes can be stored and e-bike batteries recharged. Other cyclists may wish to cycle for a further mile into the village of Tremadog and stay at the Snowdon Lodge guest house where Lawrence of Arabia was born.

Stage 6: Tremadog to Menai Bridge 28 miles / 45km

Cycling route with gradients between Tremadog and Menai Bridge

Apart from A.E. Lawrence being born in Tremadog this village holds further historic interest; Tremadog was built in the early nineteenth century as part of a visionary idea from the mind of William Maddocks. His plan was to create road scheme carrying parliamentarians and mail between Dublin from London. Tremadog would provide a staging post where horses would be exchanged when making their way to or from a packet boat service operating from a natural harbour in Porthdinllaen, roughly 20 miles away.

The Union Inn Tremadog

He was so confident in his plan that two of the streets in Tremadog were named London Street and Dublin Street. And as his proposed route was due to the 1800 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland he intended to name its total length ‘The Union Road’. Then in 1802 he opened a tavern in the village square and named it ‘The Union Inn’ which still stands today.

His proposal very nearly succeeded. A casting vote by the speaker of the House of Commons kept the Dublin packet boat service at Holyhead. Thomas Telford was then commissioned to build a road from London to the Port of Holyhead ( the Holyhead Road) and the respected Irish surveyor William Dargan to build the Dublin Road between Howth Harbour and Dublin Castle, known as the Dublin Road.

From Tremadog I followed National Cycling Route 8 to join Lôn Eifion, a well used cycle route covering a distance of 12 miles / 19km between Brycir and Caernarfon.

The entrance to Lôn Eifion adjacent to a water tower that supplied steam trains

The entire length of this former railway track has a smooth tarmac surface. Because it was used for steam trains they were supplied with water stored in tanks at both end of the line.

Mid-way along the track is a cycle friendly cafe named Inigo Jones. It is worth stopping here as the complex that it sits in includes a slate workshop that celebrates the heritage of local slate mining.

Castell Caernarfon

Arriving in Caernarfon the first sight is its castle, one of several that were built some 600 years ago by order of King Edward 1st who wanted to ensure Wales was kept under English rule.

In 1969 the now ‘King Charles’ was crowned Prince of Wales here; over the past 50 years that event is responsible for generating millions of tourist pounds.

Before Edward 1st had Caernarfon castle built the town had been fortified by the Romans. Their reason for being here was to protect their interests in minerals.

Translating the name of Caernarfon the Welsh word Caer means fort and Afon means river. So the town name means fort at the mouth of a river.

For cyclists needing spares or repairs Beics Antur is located in the High Street and those needing places to stay will be spoilt from a choice of 10 hotels or guest houses, most of whom accommodate bicycles and allow batteries to be recharged.

Those not wishing to stay in town can cycle to a Premier Inn at Menai Bridge who allow bikes in bedrooms where e-bikes can plug into a power supply.

Stage 7: Menai Bridge to the Port of Holyhead 31miles / 50kms

Cycling route with gradients from Menai Bridge to the Port of Holyhead

Two bridges cross the Menai Strait from mainland Wales onto the Island of Angelsey (Ynys Môn ) to reach the Port of Holyhead. The first bridge you come to, Britannia Bridge, is too dangerous for crossing by bicycle. Continue towards Bangor and use the Menai Suspension Bridge.

The Menai Bridge was the worlds first suspension bridge that is best viewed from a lay-by a mile or so along the A5 in Ynys Môn.

The Magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge

The bridge was originally built for Mail and Stagecoaches to-ing and fro-ing from the Port of Holyhead. This is evident when looking at its arches that were built to accommodate their width and height.

Coaching arches are still used by coaches that are now motorised.

When the bridge was completed in 1826 it became the worlds first major suspension bridge bridge. Its opening was celebrated by Charlie Dodson, the author otherwise known as Lewis Carroll:

I had just completed my design to keep the Menai Suspension Bridge free from rust by boiling it in wine
“Haddocks’ Eyes” Through the Looking Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll ought to have supplied more wine. The metal suspension fittings now need replacement and despite it being closed to traffic it remans in use for pedestrians and cyclists.

From Menai Bridge National Cycling Route 8 follows a winding route that 20 years ago kept cyclists safe from large goods vehicles and hostile traffic. These days most vehicles heading to Holyhead use a purpose built dual carriageway, the A55. For that reason this route follows Telford’s original road to Holyhead the A5. The road is not particularly busy and allows cyclists to follow a reasonably straight road.

A couple of miles from the Menai Bridge I stopped at a village with a very long name.

The Welsh village with a long name

It lays claim to be the longest place name in Europe and am sure the townsfolk of Wicklow made a good decision to twin with Porthmadog. It would take a very long envelope to address letters to this place.

When reaching Holyhead to simply board a ferry to Ireland or from Ireland to journey into mainland Wales, would miss seeing a multitude of historic attractions. These include the Breakwater Country Park and Holyhead Maritime Museum.

The Breakwater Country Park nestles into Holyhead mountain. The reception area includes information signage with suggested walks and there is a small complex of buildings where local art is displayed and refreshments supplied at an outlet staffed by volunteers raising funds to protect North Wales Wildlife.

Sea Views from Holyhead Mountain

One walk route delivers sea views and by looking landward, the impact of quarrying.

Until the early part of the 1800s gale force northerly winds could prevent vessels entering or leaving Holyhead harbour; to do so would risk them being blown onto rocks wrecking the ships and loss of lives.

With the 1800 ‘Act of Union’ with Ireland, it was no longer acceptable for poor weather to delay sailings. Holyhead needed a large area of calm water which was achieved by building a breakwater from stone quarried from the mountain, giving rise to the now aptly named ‘Breakwater Country Park’.

The Holyhead Breakwater

It took 28 years to build this breakwater wall which people are allowed to walk along. Its effectiveness can be seen in this photograph by comparing the choppy seaward side with calmer harbour waters.

For the past 2 centuries this Breakwater has tamed the sea for vessels crossing between Holyhead and Dublin to safely enter or leave the harbour in stormy seas.

Ferries from Holyhead to the Emerald Isles

Even grey threatening skies do not prevent a modern fleet of Stena line and Irish ferries from providing two crossings every day in all weathers, taking a little over 3 hours.

Will Steward Holyhead Park Ranger showing the Fog Cannon

This photograph was taken inside the former quarry. The exposed vertical shards of rock are what remains of the mountainside after quarrymen had removed the quantity needed to build the Breakwater wall.

Whilst the breakwater calmed the sea, vessels could still flounder on the rocks in poor visibility caused by nightfall or fog. So a lighthouse was positioned at the end of the breakwater which identified the harbour entrance at night; in foggy weather a cannon positioned in the quarry sounded over the sea at 10 min intervals.

Whilst the fog cannon helped vessels stay clear of rocks, there was still a risk of vessels colliding with each other so they carried various devices to warn each other of their presence. Barry Hillier, Director of Holyhead Maritime Museum, shared these examples of different types of sonic horn equipment exhibited at the museum:

These days vessels use global positioning systems that enable ships to safely make their way around rocky areas so land based fog horns are no longer needed. Despite modern technology ships horns or whistles are still used, helping to avoid collision by sounding warnings to communicate their direction, location or danger.

The second of many attractions in Holyhead is the maritime museum, based in Britains oldest lifeboat station.

Before entering the building a former air raid shelter (the brick building visible beyond the grass bank on the right of this photograph) is well worth a visit; firstly to experience being inside an air raid shelter and secondly to view an exhibition of local war time memorabilia kindly donated by the people of Holyhead. Their generosity helps to offer a glimpse of life during those traumatic years.

Inside the former lifeboat building the museum contains an extensive display that tells a story of Holyheads’ maritime history, its people and the hazardous work they undertook.

This amazing museum even managed to save and display a mural that portrays episodes in the life of St. Columba – his journey to Iona and the monastery he founded. It also shows the coronation of the Scottish King Aiden who helped bring peace to the feuding clans of Scotland, depicted by white doves of peace.

For cyclists wishing to stay in Holyhead for a day or so, most hotels and guest houses have space for bicycles to be stored and allow e-bike batteries recharged. For those arriving in or departing from Holyhead by train, there is a direct line to major towns in the north west and midlands of England along its route into London.

This story was introduced with an invitation to watch the golden glow of the sun setting from the West coast of Wales. So there is no better place to end than with this view of the setting sun taken from Holyhead mountain.

The Golden Sunset of Holyhead

Springtime in Shropshire

Beautiful Shropshire

The Reason why

I first planned to ride here in 2018 then awful British weather persuaded me to find somewhere dry and warm so cycled through the Dutch bulb fields instead.

Despite the pleasure of finding fine weather Hollands bulb fields are little more than regimented lines of colour stretching over a flat and featureless landscape. Would the simple pleasures of life be found closer to home?

“There pass the careless people and here by the road I loiter. 
The loveliest of trees, the cherry, is now hung with bloom along the bough and stands about the woodland  wearing white for Eastertide” 
A Shropshire Lad (1896) Alfred Edward Houseman 

Like the careless people Houseman wrote about I have been totally guilty of passing through Shropshire. So the reason for this bike ride was to enjoy springtime blossom.

The Plan

Drone picture of flood damage to the railway between Newtown and Shrewsbury

My original intention was to travel by train for an overnight stay in Shropshires county town of Shrewsbury. Then flood water from storms’ Dudley and Eunice washed away large areas of railway ballast. So a rail replacement coach service provided free return road travel between Machynlleth and Shrewsbury whilst my bicycle was safely stored in a luggage space between the coaches axles.

The ride begins

My overnight stay at The Lion Hotel was reached by cycling up a short sharp climb along Wyle Cop, an old English term meaning High Hill; Wyle also refers to a sorcerer.

The lion above the front entrance door was placed here some 250 years ago. The paw on a bunch of grapes is a masonic symbol representing nature being allowed to flourish.

At the rear of the hotel the’ Lion with tail extended‘ is an heraldic emblem that represents the act of springing. It is present on the coat of arms for the Earl of Shrewsbury – which explains why it overlooks Shrewsbury town.

Apart from symbolism these lions had a practical use. Both were put in place in the 1800s when most people could not read and these days just as then, they continue to inform everyone this building is called The Lion.

“If hotels are to be  judged on their guest list The Lion has to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of them; Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, The Beatles, Cilla Black, Morecambe and Wise, Cliff Richard…. “  and this evening, me.                
Four Centuries at The Lion Hotel Shrewsbury (2011) John Butterworth

After checking in I found my square reasonably sized 2nd floor bedroom to be clean and basic – furnished with a bed, side tables, wardrobe, armchair, television, tea/coffee making facilities and an en-suite. As the hotel is 400 years old the floor boards creaked. A large radiator was positioned underneath a window that faced a wall of the building opposite.

Like many hotel rooms I opened the door to be overwhelmed by heat. I turned the radiator off then walking to the wardrobe was puzzled why that corner of the room was so cold. The adjoining bathroom had a strange smell which wasn’t that of stagnant water, dampness or blocked plumbing. Opening the bathroom window I assumed the coldness in that corner of the room was because that window had been open to ventilate the bedroom until just before my arrival.

A spooky story

It has been written and people privately mentioned The Lion Hotel is haunted and Orbs – the spherical supernatural energies of the dearly departed – float through walls from room to room then across the street into the cellarage of shops.

This makes sense of a connection between the road name of Wyle and sorcery. It may even explain the reason for regular stays here by Charles Dickens who harboured a lifelong attraction towards the supernatural. This evening the only floating I experienced was to sleep – in my dreams…..

As usual I watched the 10:30 news then after the weather forecast went to bed and turned the light off fully expecting to wake at 7am the next morning. In the early hours a loud scream, the likes of which I have never heard before woke me.

In the cold corner of my completely dark bedroom room I actually saw a swirling stream of highly energised light and air currents rising from the floor and billowing into a ball some 6 ft (1.8 meters) above. The loud scream was a noise I am unable to make, yet it was coming from the pit of my own stomach.

When turning on the bedside light the noise coming from me that was certainly not of my making ceased.

In the brightness of my room that swirling highly energised ball of light and air currents continued to grow from the stream of air rising from the floorboards. A few moments later the swirling ball penetrated the ceiling followed by the stream of air and disappeared.

Getting out of bed I went to the bathroom. The cold spot in the corner of the room had gone as had the smell in the bathroom. Glancing at the clock it was only 2:30 in the morning and despite being startled I was amazingly calm.

Noticing a sachet of drinking chocolate amongst the complimentary tea and coffee I made a cup and sat up in bed to drink it. Then the white duvet I was laying under moved up and down as though someone was next to me. Spectrophilia is not my thing so told it to go to the Foreign Office, finished my drinking chocolate and went back to sleep.

Cycling to and beyond the end of the world

Springtime alongside the River Severn

Suitably fuelled with porridge and coffee I set off at 8am to cycle alongside the banks of the River Severn and see the first signs of spring bursting into life.

During the mail and stage coaching days of the 1800s’ horses stabled in Shrewsbury were washed and refreshed themselves in the river. Then during the industrial revolution the river was used to transport coal, goods and people – bringing prosperity to many towns including Shrewsbury and Ironbridge.

I had plotted todays route through the free to use cycle.travel mapping site then downloaded turn by turn directions into my Garmin edge bicycle navigation system. The journey followed the River Severn as far at Ironbridge by firstly riding on National Cycling Route (NCR) 81 known as Lon Cambria which runs between Aberystwyth and Wolverhampton, then NCR 45 which runs between Salisbury and Chester; through Shropshire it is known as the Mercian Way.

The Mytton and Mermaid at Atcham

The first village I arrived at was Atcham famed for the Mytton and Mermaid public house that stands on Watling Street. It was once used as a staging post along the Harlech to London stage and mail coach route. It looks a grand building and the original coaching yard would be used for overnight storage and any running repairs, with stabling and pasture land for the horses.

In the early 1900s the Mytton and Merman was owned by Clough Williams-Ellis and used by for travellers to rest  enroute to and from his Italianate village of Portmeirion.

Toll House on Watling Street opposite the Mytton and Mermaid

Watling Street is steeped in history due in no small measure to the Romans whose engineering created a decent surface and cared for its maintenance. During the coaching era that spanned two centuries 1700-1900 it provided a route to and from London and continued to do so with the arrival of motor vehicles. Yet new roads have resulted in what was a major road being empty.

This made me wonder about the future of our present motorways, by-pass and ‘A’ roads. Over the next 100 years will they be needed or useful when different forms of transport emerge.

My GPS navigation system then guided me along quiet country lanes through  Wroxeter, once the site of a Roman settlement. As this was the furthest point Roman soldiers could travel from Rome, Wroxter became known as ‘The End of the World’ .  

Looking between the white blossomed trees I noticed an octagonal building that looked empty. Bearing in mind its unusual architecture and the surrounding beauty of Shropshires countryside its unoccupied state surprised me.

For the next few miles I cycled along a single track road until reaching a small collection of expensive looking properties in the village of Little Wenlock, dominated by its church and Rectory then continued past the villages of Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge.

Coalbrookdale is famous for its history of Iron Ore smelting that used coal from open cast mines sited along the sides of the river valley. River water helped produce  steam power to make Iron, an example of which is this iron bridge:

The Iron Bridge

The Iron bridge crosses the River Severn in the village of that name, marketed by the tourist board as being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It is also a place to find a bacon roll and mug of hot coffee – an ideal place to rest for my elevenses.

The Teddy Bear Shop

Ironbridge is also famed across the world for the manufacture of Merrythought Teddy bears that cost between £100 and £200 each. 

My journey westward visited the market town of Much Wenlock. Some 30 minutes ago I had cycled through Little Wenlock so I stopped here and used my smart phone to understand the association between both places. They were part of the Manor of Wenlock  and Countess Godiva (the famous Lady Godiva) had a religious house built here.

Much Wenlock Abbey Ruins

This was the only glimpse I could capture of the Abbey, having refused to pay English heritage a lot of money to walk through a set of gates for a closer look. Leaving Much Wenlock along a road I have regularly driven along I cycled through the blossom filled lanes of Shropshire and quaintly named villages of Longville in the Dale, Wall under Heywood and Hope Bowlder.

By lunchtime I was approaching Church Stretton, characterised by attractive  buildings and houses hugging the surrounding hillside with equally attractive houses and shops in the town itself.

At one time Queen Victoria decreed that the governors of British colonies should all enjoy a regular supply of Stretton water, the purest water in England. Umm, why do supermarkets import bottled water from Europe? Crazy ! 

The High Street contains many independent shops serving the community. This  resilience of local retail business is in stark contrast to ghost towns created after the shopping chains that took over many high streets closed in favour of selling products out-of-town or on-line.

Church Stretton market is certainly in the heart of the town. When cycling next to it a Rotarian asked for a donation to provide financial support to people suffering in the Ukraine, which I gladly agreed to. In return he took this photo:

The Thursday market in Church Stretton

Amongst the many venues in Church Stretton its marketplace is where people meet and socialise, buy fruit, veg, meat, flowers and other products produced locally and further afield.

The market has a really fascinating history that makes it unique:

An 1832 engraving of the Church Stretton Market Hall

To help me understand the history of Church Stretton being a market town the local library very kindly contacted experts who explained:

The decision to hold a weekly market was made by King John who owned the manor of Stretton-on-le-Dale in 1214. Then in 1336 Edward III granted a charter to hold a market here on a Thursday, which continues to this day.

During the mid 1300s there was a dramatic fall in the population as a result of plague (the black death). The inevitable disruption to communities caused social and economic upheaval and the market in Church Stretton fell into disuse.

By the mid 1600s a timber framed market hall was built. It could accommodate up to 250 people and was used for concerts, balls and public meetings. The upper story housed the town officers and a subscription library. It also contained a large hall with a dais where magistrates sat, below them was seating for the public.

The open ground floor was used for the sale of foodstuffs, meat, fish and poultry. Haberdashery , clothing and earthenware were sold from boards and trestles under the arches and on open air pitches outside.

The old town hall was demolished in July 1963 because it was deemed to be unsafe. The weekly market is still held in the same space where the original building stood.
Authors: Tony Crace and Barrie Rayner

Whilst Shrewsbury celebrates Charles Darwin I am not aware of any landmarks in Shropshire that celebrates The Shropshire Lad, the sole exception being found opposite the town Library in Church Stretton:

This Springtime bicycle ride through parts of Shropshire delivered more interest, history and culture than my ride through the bulb fields of Holland. For now I will always remember:

‘The Happy Highways where I went”
From ‘The Shropshire Lad’ by A.E. Houseman


Winter in Worthing

Two years ago legal restrictions placed a personal responsibility on everyone to reduce the spread of Covid infection by staying at home and keeping away from others. So for the past two years I could not visit my sister who had downsized from her large Brighton home and moved to a smaller property near her two daughters houses who live in Worthing.

Safe in the knowledge that my sister and I had both received more needles than a pin cushion, we would both be protected from the seriousness of Covid, so set off from home to see her.

My plan was to travel to Wolverhampton by train along the Harlech branch line. From here I would join a main-line train coming down from Glasgow and would reach London just after 3pm that afternoon. Twelve weeks beforehand I brought a heavily discounted train ticket for a first class return journey. 

Flood damage at Welshpool

A week before setting out heavy rain flooded vast expanses of land and washed away large sections of railway line ballast, so using the branch line train to and from Wolverhampton was not an option. So I drove to Wolverhampton and left the car in a 24 hour car park. 

Secured on a bike coat hook

My advanced ticket also included a bicycle travel pass to store it on a coat hook behind the train drivers cabin. When lifting the front wheel up into the air I was delighted in the choice of the ‘lighter-to-lift Creo’ bicycle and not the heavier Trek Domane I had originally considered buying.

Because my reserved seat was located at the opposite end of the train there would be no way of seeing a thief making off with it at any of the stations between Wolverhampton and London, so  secured it with a Kryptonite gold standard cable and lock to a steel on the compartment wall. 

The journey from the Midlands to London was memorable. Looking from the train window much of the route was following the Grand Union Canal that I had cycled to London along a few years ago and today recognised many of the marinas, motorway views, wharfs and flights of locks that flashed by.

From Euston Station I cycled under iron grey skies towards Worthing and not wanting to carry a heavy chain and padlock I attached it to a fence outside the station. All I had to do is remember where it was on my return tomorrow.

10 minutes later I reached the Thames and know of no other City in the UK that has a river with so many bridges and tunnels. Later that evening my sister and I agreed  these could be a great quiz question on the ‘Pointless’ television programme.

The river was busy. Numerous ferries criss-cross and an assortment of other craft continually move up or downstream. Some boats are permanently moored as houseboats, restaurants or in the case of  HMS Belfast , a floating museum. This sparked a memory of my time working for a company that supplied biscuits to the Senior Service. Called the Navy Biscuit it continued a long standing tradition to supply the Royal Navy with food items that would survive long sea journeys without going stale. Back in 1666 one supplier was a Mr Thomas Farriner whose bakery in Pudding Street burn’t down and caused the Great Fire of London. 

My first cycling adventure through the City of London was 10 years ago. At that time my route followed the Avenue Verte from St Pauls to the Notre-Dame de Paris. Back then the route followed very patchy arrangements for cyclists. Yet the past 10 years have coincided with massive improvements to make London a safer place to negotiate by bicycle.

When cycling over the river along Blackfriars Bridge from Central into Greater London I noticed eight pairs of stout red pillars standing apart at regular intervals between both banks.

I then came across an insignia commemorating a railway company that owned a track those pillars once supported.  It was used by trains travelling between London and the sea ports of Chatham and Dover nearly 160 years ago, yet the rivers red pillars look as though they were put in place yesterday.  

Insignia

From Blackfriars Bridge my route weaved through quiet backroads to join a cycling path along the A3 and whilst I stopped at traffic lights the imposing frontage of Surrey County Cricket Club, known as The Oval  was to my right.

The Oval

The Oval has hosted international Test cricket matches for more years than I care to remember. Then  Clapham Common came into view which has a certain notoriety for muggings, gay cruising and knife crime. 

Clapham Common

A few years ago the Secretary of State for Wales was robbed at knife-point and later resigned after a man tried to blackmail him with suggestions he had been looking for gay sex on the Common.

Former US President Donald Trump then stated the extent of Londons’ knife crime resembled a war zone, yet knife crime on Clapham Common is nothing new. 

Sixty years ago a fatal stabbing occurred here and a group of teenage boys were charged with the victims murder. Back then it was fashionable for some teenagers to wear Edwardian styled jackets and as the short name for Edward is Ted a national newspaper called the accused Teddy Boys. Teddy Boys wore drainpipe trousers and suede shoes known as brothel creepers. Their hair was styled with Brylcreem to create a quiff at the front and the back was combed in from both sides creating the look of a Ducks ****.

To avoid being mistaken for a Teddy Boy, gay or knife carrying mugger I hammered away from the Common into Clapham town. Here the bicycle lane was continually obstructed by taxis, delivery vehicles, roads works and a procession of slow buses. Does anyone remember this saying: The man on the Clapham Omnibus?  – it was used in English Courts of Law to help Juries decide whether the accused had acted in the same way as a reasonable person would.  So I applied that principle to Rule 140 of the UK 2022 edition of the highway code which states  “cyclists are not obliged to use cycling lanes or cycle tracks”.

Despite the main carriageway avoiding cycling obstructions I could not keep away from the stench of exhaust fumes as motorists roared away from one set of traffic lights to brake sharply and stop at the next. Thankfully the e-car revolution will make life better but for now, like the hare and tortoise, I would repeatedly catch up with lines of stationery motorists to see some drivers talking on their phone, others  eating, several were drinking and a few smoking joints – a stench that mixed with the exhaust fumed air to make this part of my ride unpleasant. Then weaving through Balam and Tooting I cycled into Cheam Park where a gas mask factory used to be – gosh, I could have used one today.

Exiting the park I was now 20 miles away from Euston Station and cycled through Epsom. Despite wondering whether Epsom salts still exist I didn’t feel the need to search for any.

Epsom Downs

My route took me alongside the white fencing rails of Epsom Downs but know next to nothing about horse racing apart from the Epsom Derby being a very famous race. I then passed several large houses with equally impressive large livery yards. By now the drizzly rain alternated with bursts of heavy showers.

Cycling under the M25

Shortly afterwards I followed a quiet single track road then went under the noisy and busy M25, marking the end of Greater London.

Over the next 15 miles dusk turned to complete darkness, leaving me to cycle along a series of country lanes used by motorists speeding hither and thither in pouring rain.

My route skirted around Dorking and by the time I reached the outskirts of Horsham that combination of heavy rain, complete darkness and speeding motorists created a dangerous situation for cycling any further, so caught a train to Brighton.

From Brighton station I wheeled my bike downhill to reach the coastal path about 1/2 a mile away that stretched for 10 miles to arrive in Worthing.

Between Brighton station and the coastal path a row of shops were meeting a need for take-away junk food . Many provided a home delivery service and others were simply selling fast over the counter food . Have people forgotten how to cook? If so it certainly goes some way to explain the obesity crisis and peoples inability to hold cutlery and ignorance to select the correct utensils during a three course meal.

More worryingly despite being used to seeing road kill such as badgers, hedgehogs, pheasant and rabbits, the road kill outside these food outlets consisted of three rats – yack.

When Take-Away Boulevard ended I began cycling the last few miles to reach Worthing and saw this marvellous ‘Art-Deco’ looking modern building glowing in the darkness of night:

The Warnes Building, Worthing

By the time I arrived at my sisters lovely home I had been exposed to coldness and rain for over 6 hours and was close to being hypothermic. Two cups of tea, a hot shower and clean dry clothes later we both caught up on family matters over a meal of Oxtail stew and in celebration of today being shrove Tuesday, a couple of Pancakes .

Following a good nights sleep my journey home began by cycling to nearby Worthing station and boarded a train to reach Victoria station to sightsee in London. Many strange shaped office tower blocks reach for the sky – my sister refers to them as Vanity buildings. I agree and much prefer more traditional London sights.

A rainy day outside Buckingham Palace
The Elizabeth Tower and clock face of Big Ben

Close by I came across Londons most famous Party Palace – a private members club concealed by heavy metal gates that are guarded by armed police who see no evil, hear no evil and know no evil. Umm….

A Glimpse of Londons Night life

When taking this photograph a chap with a very large megaphone amplified and directed his voice towards the distant den of iniquity. He was shouting:

“ Boris Johnson – A liar and a charlatan .

The worst Prime Minister this country has ever had at the worst possible time”

He certainly made himself heard and the microphones of newscasters on the street facing number 10 will certainly share those words to the rest of the world. 

The power of free speech.

Stories from previous rides: 2010 – 21

During 2021 a total of 30,698 people viewed the content of their choice. To read any of the stories listed below simply click the month and year of that posting using the archive menu bar to the left of this page.

November 2021: Goodbye Bessie Hello Gyspy

October 2021: The Sound of Hurry

June 2021: Cycling along the Coaching Route to Holyhead

August 2020: Cycling along the Harlech Coaching Route

May 2020: Ride to Rhyd

October 2019: A visit to Sian Owen

December 2018: Cycling Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome

September 2018: Cycling coast to coast next to Vallum Antonini

April 2018: The harbingers of a spring cycling holiday

October 2017: Cycling from Shrewsbury to Blackpool for the ‘British Heart Foundation’

July 2017: National Cycle Route 72 ‘Hadrian’s Cycleway’

May 2017: Forgotten Britain –  A bicycle ride along the Grand Union Canal Towpath

September 2016: Morecambe Bay to Whitley Bay

June 2016: The background to cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats for Tŷ Gobaith

May 2016: Lands End to John O’Groats. A story for the  Tŷ Gobaith children

September 2015: Memory Lane. Crosby beach to the South Lake District

July 2015: Cycling alongside the Rhine from its source to the North Sea – travel log

October 2014: The story of Bessie my bike

August 2014: Cycling along the Trans-pennine trail

May 2012: London to Paris by bicycle

May 2010: My first 100 miler – Bangor to Aberystwyth Universities

Bye-Bye Bessie and Greetings to Gypsy

Bessie

Some 10 years ago thoughts of having a ‘Very last Bike’ lead to being measured for a bespoke frame and the design of Bessie. Over the past decade she has carried me safely along the lengths of Britain, the Rhine from its source to the sea and ultimately Via Francigena.

In recent years long distance rides have left me feeling exhausted and my ability to cycle for 80 miles a day had reduced to 60 miles.

Rather than get slower and slower then eventually stop cycling I decided an e-bike would reduce the effort of pedalling and help me go further, faster and not be so exhausted. So I made the sad decision to sell Bessie and buy an e-bike.

Fellow cyclists with a keen interest in e-bikes supplied me with advice and brochures that described the difference between motor watts and battery watts. Other sources of information came from on-line reviews and published assessments from cycling journalists of different e-bike makes and models. The outcome produced a long rather than short list of bikes to choose from.

Leaving my notes to one side I took Bessie for one last adventure to Dublin which confirmed my wish to buy a pedal assisted e-bike. After returning home the sad decision to sell Bessie was turned into pleasure when an an on-line auction bidder paid an agreeable amount of money for her .

After waving goodbye to Bessie I revisited my long list of e-bikes to decide on a shortlist criteria. This was to exclude aluminium or steel bikes and all models with straight handlebars. The sight of welded joints doesn’t appeal to me and I dislike straight handlebars. Their width makes them a hassle to squeeze past and they don’t offer the range of postural changes needed to prevent hand, wrist, neck and shoulder discomfort.

My shortlist left me to decide between two affordable carbon framed drop bar e-bikes; the ‘Trek Domane‘ and ‘Specialised Creo SL Comp‘. My next step was to visit bike shops for a close look at them.

An attraction of the American manufactured Trek is their use of what I believe to be the best motor and long range battery pack made by Bosch. And the Domane really stood out from other models in the shop.

When I picked the Domane off the ground it felt significantly heavier than Bessie. This was such a disappointment as a heavier weight would increase the hassle of lifting the front wheel up and onto bike rack coat hooks some trains use for cycle storage.

On closer inspection the Domane seemed to be over engineered with a pointless top bar adjustment and a gadget attached to the stem for a light or GPS system.Those attachments prevent a handlebar bag being fitted.

Surprisingly the Domane was the only bicycle in the Trek range not fitted with a Bosh motor and battery. They use a Fazua drive system that I had never heard of. When reading about it I was disappointed to discover it is less powerful than other e-bike motors and the battery takes 8 hours to recharge.

I then visited another store to see a German manufactured bike with a long-winded name, the ‘Creo SL Comp‘. Creo is German for creational, meaning the state of being created. So I questioned if the bike was work in progress for a newer and better model. SL means Super-light and Comp insinuates its speed and nimble handling will suit competition riders but I don’t do competitions.

When lifting the Creo off the ground I was amazed to discover it was lighter than Bessie. So not only will it be easier to store on trains it crucially means that less effort is needed to pedal uphill or into headwinds when the motor is not being used.

The Creo is not as attractive as the Domain and is powered by an internal battery so the whole bike has to be taken to a plug socket for recharging. And I am not aware of many guest houses, hotels or cafes that allow muddy bikes to be taken inside to use their plug socket and several hours of electricity. Fortunately a range extender battery is housed in the seat tube bottle cage which can be removed and taken into a bedroom to be recharged during overnight stays.

The manufacturer claims the internal battery will allow cyclists to ride 81 miles and with the extender battery offering a further 40 miles its combined range is 121 miles. Yet cyclists report the combined range is more like 80 miles, 34% less than the manufacturers boastful marketing claim.

Pleasingly those same reviewers state the German made motor and battery are as reliable as Bosch and helpfully advise cyclists to make efficient use of the 11-42t cassette to reach a cadence of between 60- 80 revolutions per minute. This pace will make the most efficient use of the motor which in turn maximises battery range.

The reviewers were less impressed with the Praxis 44T chain ring. They wrote its design can cause the chain to come off during quick gear changes. This flaw casts a shadow over the bikes credentials for competition use and confirmed my suspicion the bike is work in progress and sets the scene for an improved model.

After comparing both bicycles I chose the Creo. Despite its shortcomings the deciding factors were its lighter weight, the reliability and performance of its motor and an 80 mile battery range.

After making my purchase I took the bike to Shrewsbury based InvisiFRAME who are regarded as the UK market leaders for bicycle frame protection and have received multiple awards.

InvisFRAME will protect the paintwork from stone, slate, rock and transport damage and keep it looking pristine for many years to come. Check them out: https://www.invisiframe.co.uk.

So my new bike is now hanging on my man-cave wall in place of Bessie and will soon be out on the open road for many more years of cycling.

As for the name I’ve ditched ‘Creo SL Comp’ in favour of ‘Gypsy’, reflecting a lucrative sideline selling sprigs of lucky white heather, pegs and commission from tea leaf readings.

The Sound of Hurry

Admiralty Arch Holyhead

Three months ago I cycled from Marble Arch in London to Admiralty Arch in Holyhead on the aptly named Holyhead Road. This story completes that journey by retracing the route from Menai Bridge to Dublin Castle which two centuries ago was the destination and despatch point for parliamentary mail and parliamentarians. 

The Mail Coach

As Time and Tide waits for no man picture iron rimmed coach wheels ripping through gravelled roads running to Holyhead where the Royal Mail Coach would head a line of other coaches alongside shoals of passengers and heaps of luggage. Steam billowing off the backs of exhausted horses would reflect the surrounding scenes of perspiration and emotion. 

When the 1800 Act of Union created a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliamentarians made regular journeys between Dublin and Westminster. Their influence resulted in government monies being used to improve roads, harbours, boats and a multitude of bridges were built including the Menai Suspension Bridge that spans the Menai Strait.

The narrow and long Menai Strait separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland of Wales. The Irish Sea enters from the southern and northern ends and when those opposing forces of water meet they create strong swells, under-currents and whirlpools. Crossing at high tide was too dangerous so people waited to be ferried across at low tides that occur at 12 hour intervals.

The waiting for those 12 hour crossing opportunities ended at 1:35am on January 30th 1826 when the Menai Suspension Bridge opened. For the first time in history mail and stage coaches, people on foot and animals could cross at a time of their own choosing.

The shape and width of the Menai Bridge arches had been specifically designed for coaches and its dual carriageway allowed coaches coming from each direction to pass each other. 

Because the bridge made it safer, easier and quicker to cross the Menai Strait an assumption was made that more passengers would now travel to the packet boat but the numbers using the packet boat service fell by more than a quarter. The reason was given in a letter signed by businessmen from Dublin to Parliament; they informed the government that packet boat companies tried to profiteer from the ease of reaching the Port of Holyhead and doubled the packet boat fares. Customers responded by making a longer sea journey from Dublin to Liverpool.  By avoiding Wales the land route to London was shorter.

Post Office records confirm the reported decline in passengers crossing from Holyhead and revealed a 24 percent drop in income on the Holyhead route with a corresponding increase in profit from passengers sailing between Dublin to the English port of Liverpool.

The British government’s response was to do nothing. The less crowded sea crossing from Holyhead was benefiting parliamentarians then in 1848 passenger numbers surged with the arrival of the railways; the 6 hour train journey from London was cheaper, safer, more comfortable and considerably quicker than the 30 hour coach journey.

Throughout the 122 years of Union with Ireland, Holyhead prospered with Irish merchants, civil engineers and construction workers settling in the town. 

19th Century Street Scene of Holyhead Town

Holyhead was home for three communities with the Irish, Welsh and English worshiping in their own places; an Irish Catholic Church, St Marys on Market Street, numerous Welsh Chapels and an Anglican church. Cultural identities were celebrated in three separate taverns referred to as the Irish, Welsh and English hostelries. Here they would speak their mother tongue whist enjoying home comforts of company, traditional food, drink and song.

Despite having different cultural identities the three communities bonded together, some married and descendants of those relationships now live in Ireland, others in Wales and others elsewhere including places as far away as America and Australia.

As is the case in any community conflicts occasionally occurred. When Irish labourers were being hired to work alongside Welsh labourers to build the Holyhead breakwater fights broke out, with the Welsh accusing the Irish of taking local jobs.

Holyhead Breakwater creating a calmer and safer harbourage

This photo illustrates a divide between sea swell and calmer waters created by the Breakwater for packet boats and fishing vessels to anchor and shelter. Apart from the breakwater the coastline of Holyhead has another history, its source of seabird eggs.

Seabird eggs were thought to be more nutritious than chicken eggs and as the wealthy paid a high price for them locals worked in pairs to service that demand. One would use a rope to lower the other down the cliff face to steal eggs from birds’ nests. 

Not all eggs were eaten. Back in the 19th and early 20th century Oology, the name given to those who collect eggs, was hugely popular. 

By the mid 20th century the fashion for collecting birds’ eggs or even killing birds for feathers to make exotic plumes, were driving some species towards extinction. The Society for the Protection of Birds was formed, later to become the RSPB, who petitioned for laws that ultimately made those practices illegal.

In Roman times the sea beneath the cliffs was called Oceanus Hibernicus ( the ocean of the Irish) then subsequently called the Celtic Sea and now more commonly named the Irish Sea. Coastal areas have their own identity including Brittas Bay in Ireland and Tremadog Bay in Wales. Its waters are a source of food including mackerel and winter shoals of herring; Dublin Bay is famed for prawns.

The sea is formed by tidal streams coming from the Atlantic Ocean. The southern Atlantic enters through St George’s Channel. The northern enters between The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the West Coast of Scotland.

The arrows on this chart show the direction of Atlantic Southern and Northern tidal waters . This not only helps to make sense of the reason why sea water flows into the Menai Straits from opposing ends it also shows those opposing tidal waters meet on the length of a shipping lane that links Dublin and Holyhead. 

The direction of tidal flows meet along the Dublin Holyhead sea passage

On open sea the point where tidal waters meet cause waves to become steeper and waters more choppy as they move back and forth. Then other factors can come into play that can quickly create treacherous conditions:

  • Behind Dublin is the land mass of Wicklow Mountain. Behind Holyhead is the mountain range of Snowdonia. When seasonal south westerly gales are funnelled between them the strength of wind impacts on the sea to dramatically increase the size and force of waves. 
  • When the moon exerts its gravitational force on the sea those tidal forces are more extreme, especially during spring high tides. In this context the word spring refers to the springing forth of the tide twice a month  during the new and full moon. There are widely held and strong beliefs that gales are more frequent during spring tides. 

Many centuries ago stormy weather caused the Royal Yacht Mary to run aground and sink on the approach to Holyhead. The shipwreck was rediscovered and plundered in early 1970s, leading to the Protection of Wrecks Act that now protects other sunken vessels.

A group of rocks that form the most northerly tip of the North West coast of Wales lie partially submerged off the coast of Holyhead directly in the path of two shipping lanes; the lane between Holyhead and Dublin and the lane for vessels making their way to and from Liverpool. This rocky outcrop is known as the Skerries. 

To reduce the likelihood of ships floundering on the rocks that surround Holyhead a series of lighthouses were built. One on the Skerries, another to the south of Holyhead – known as the South Stack lighthouse and a third at the sea end of Holyhead breakwater.

Each lighthouse is painted to be visible from its background. The Skerries has a red collar, the Breakwater a black collar and South Stack is completely white.

Their warning beacon alerts ships to steer clear of rocks and act as a navigational aid. In foggy weather sailors would be unable to see a beacon but as noise carries through fog a cannon was fired or bells or gongs were rung, then in recent years a horn sounded to warn of hazards

The first light on Skerries was built with private monies over 300 years ago and was the last privately owned lighthouse in the British Isles. Each vessel passing within the 20 nautical mile radius that its beacon could be seen were charged 1 penny per ton weight of their vessel, collected by a tide waiter  at the British Port it sailed on high tide to or from. The tide waiter was simply called a ‘waiter’, a term we now use for someone in a restaurant who takes customer orders in return for payment.

These days light tolls are no longer levied and those at sea rely on GPS positional systems with lighthouses and fog horns acting as a final line of defence when navigational systems are not working.

Until 19th centuries three mast wooden sailing boats would pass by the Skerries on the journey between the Americas and Liverpool.

19th Century Bark

Being made from trees they were known by the Celtic word ‘Barc’ or ‘Barques’ a word that in later years became Angolphiled to ‘Bark’ from where the term embark or disembark comes from.

When paddle steamers replaced sailing boats sea crossings were faster and less likely to be cancelled due to stormy seas or from being still in the water from a lack of wind to fuel their sails.

By the end of 1827 steam packet boats had carried a total of 12,720 passengers, 727 carriages and 626 horses.

Steam Paddle Packet Boat

Coachmen may have travelled inside the carriage which was lashed to the ships deck where they took shelter until reaching the harbour town of Howth, 10 miles south of Dublin Castle. 

Howth Harbour Dublin

In its day Howth Harbour would have been the busiest in Ireland offering safe anchorage and shelter from wind, waves and strong currents. Once the Packet boat arrived the mail was transferred onto a mail coach for the 10 mile journey to Dublin Castle 10 miles away.

William Dargan, a respected surveyor who had worked on the Holyhead side of Telfords Road, was commissioned to lay the mail road from Howth Harbour to Dublin Castle, aptly named the Dublin Road.

The Dublin Road

The design principles on the Dublin Road were the same as used for the Holyhead Road; as the gradient would not be greater than 6%  the rise and fall for the team of horses pulling the mail coach was never more than 6ft (1.8 meters) for every 100ft  (30 meters) in length. The road was made without sharp bends. The mail coach reached speeds of 18mph and sharp bends in the road would risk it turning over when cornering.

Since being laid the original road has being widened to meet the needs of today’s motorist. Yet one of the original milestones laid 200 years ago and made from iron and set in stone has stood the test of time. I wonder how many people realise that it formed a chain of similar stones extending to London?

Milestones informed travellers of the direction and distances on the road they were charged to use. They also informed coach drivers how far they had to travel before changing horses. No change of horses was required along the 10 mile stretch of road built by Dargan between Howth Harbour and Dublin Castle that was used every day except Sunday.

Throughout the 19th century Christianity was the principle religion and Sundays were a holy day when people were expected to worship . Nobody was expected to work. 

Religious services for sailors were held on the packet boat but as demand grew a Welsh Chapel was built in Talbot Street. Services were conducted by Welsh Ministers who either stayed in Dublin for short periods or travelled here from Bangor in North Wales.

19th Century Welsh Chapel on Talbot Street Dublin

This archived drawing is named ‘Capel Cymraeg Dublin’ which suggests it was drawn by a Welsh person. Yet the headstone reads ‘Welsh Church’ suggesting it was built by local stone masons. 

Apart from its intended use to provide a place of Worship for sailors it also became a focal point for Welsh domestic servants, housemaids, parlour maids and cooks who had settled in Dublin. The congregation was increased by Welsh people who sailed from Holyhead to Dublin and waited for a boat from Dublin to reach Ports in the South of Wales. At that time the overland route from North to South Wales was more torturous than the roads of todays traveller so it was quicker and more comfortable to make a sea voyage.

In December 1939 the Welsh chapel closed for the duration of the 2nd world war and although it didn’t reopen as a place of worship the building went on to serve the community in a variety of other ways:

The former Welsh Chapel is now a shop selling Vapes

It has since been used as a shoe shop, then a snooker hall. Yesterday the flakey paint suggests it is an internet cafe and it sells vapes for smokers. There is no visible evidence of its spiritual or Welsh heritage.

The Coaching Archway at Dublin Castle

Every day except Sunday letters and parcels would pass under the coaching archway at Dublin castle. From London this was the 347 land and sea mile route with its timeline of travel that took 33 hours ( 27hrs to reach Holyhead, 5 hours to cross the Celtic Sea and 1 hour to travel from Howth Harbour to reach Dublin Castle).

The route taken by the Royal Mail Coach between London and Dublin in 1831 then followed by me in 2021

Day 1: At 8pm the mail coach departed from London on its 270 mile journey to reach the Port town of Holyhead with its 4 horses being exchanged with a fresh team at 10 mile intervals at 27 stage posts that supplied a total of 108 horses.

Day 2: Arriving in Holyhead at 10:55pm the following evening items were loaded onto the packet boat that sailed 58 nautical miles = 67 land miles to reach the Port of Howth.

Day 3: After berthing in Howth harbour the Dublin mail coach exchanged outgoing letters and parcels and received its incoming mail off the packet boat. The coach was then pulled away by a team of 4 horses who set off along the Dublin Road to deliver mail through the archway of Dublin castle 10 miles away at 7:30am.

To understand the nature of parliamentary mail, records of correspondence sent to and from Dublin Castle prior to the creation of the Irish Free State are kept in the UK national archiveshttps://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C5093 . 

The social history of these records relate to the efforts being made to prevent Irish independence and to administrative matters including:

Record 1505: Requesting permission from the Westminster government to develop fishing in Ireland. 

Record 1518: Seeking redress against ill treatment of farmers by the bailiffs and constables of Athlone who were demanding payments from farmers for clearing the streets of animals straying onto them.

Record 1522: Seeking clarification on the legality of a marriage between a Protestant and a Roman Catholic apparently conducted in a private dwelling by a Roman Catholic Priest.

Record 1536: Complaining over the state of mail coach roads in Dublin.

A formal response to concerns about the state of mail coach roads in Dublin was made by Sir Henry Parnell, the administrative driving force behind the parliamentary road. He said William Dargan’s new mail coach road between Dublin and Howth was an example of what he expected to see for all mail coach routes in Dublin.

Having spent several hours reading through the archive of correspondence I found no letter that deserved the speed of delivery or speed of response to ever justify the cost of improved road and sea links between Dublin and London.

It did, however, achieve its prime purpose of enabling parliamentarians to complete their journey faster, safer and in greater comfort. In addition, mail and stage coach businesses made a crucial contribution to the development of villages, towns and cities that connected people with places along its route. Its legacy has been modern road building that follows the same route for today’s commuters with their motor vehicles.

What made the system work was the people , the jobs they did and the bonds they formed with others. Those human links, like the Dublin and Welsh milestones, have stood the test of time.

Cycling along the Coaching Route to Holyhead

We often hear about the golden age of steam yet little mention is given to the coaching era despite it being the source of sayings that include: ‘A load of old bull’ , ‘Crack on’ , ‘Cracking the whip’, ‘Hold your horses’, ‘Inside job’ , ‘News’Nodding off ‘, ‘Put the skids on‘ and ‘One for the road’. 

The coaching era introduced accurate milage and benchmarked different times of day taken from sun dials across Britain with Greenwich Mean (solar) Time.

The development of railways had a huge impact on stage and mail coach use. Train travel was comfortable, fares were lower and more passengers could be carried at a faster speed in greater safety. Predictably people began travelling by train causing stage and mail coach services to go out of business. Coach builders found alternative employment with some making railway carriages that simply joined 3 stage coach bodies together.

19th Century Railway Carriage

Despite the passage of nearly two centuries of time, this bicycle ride has been able to identify evidence of those 19th century coach journeys to the Port of Holyhead.

Todays train carriage transported me to London where this cycling adventure follows the famous road to Holyhead. Its route tracks ancient pathways that were first made by pre-roman Britons that were then made into a road by the Romans. When the Romans left Britain these fell into disrepair and continued to deteriorate for well over a thousand years, fit only for drovers before Thomas Telford created the fastest overland route of its day, the Holyhead Road.

An early user of the Holyhead Road was Charles Dickens whose work as a journalist, parliamentary reporter and author made him a regular traveller. Those coach journeys and destinations provided inspiration for many novels in which the atmosphere of coaching inns and the experience of coach travel help paint a picture of coaching life.

The importance of an overland route to Holyhead begins outside the entrance to Richmond Palace, then the official London home of Queen Elizabeth 1st. In 1599 she decreed that her Royal Mail to Dublin would leave from the Port of Holyhead and despite an unsuccessful campaign in the late 1700s to relocate sailings to Ireland from Porthdinllaen, Holyhead has been in continuous use for over 400 years. 

Different Monarchs lived in different Royal Palaces and since the reign of Queen Victoria, Buckingham Palace has been the official residence of the monarchy. The gateway to it was a Marble Arch. As Queen Victoria did not like the Marble Arch her husband Prince Albert arranged for it to be placed at the entrance to Hyde Park, the setting for the Great Exhibition of 1851 – a project of his that showcased Britains craftsmanship and industries.

After a 5 minute bicycle ride from Euston railway station Marble Arch appeared in front of me. I wondered whether surrounding motorists realised the road they were using has extended here from Caergybi/ Holyhead. This was now the starting point for my adventure.

Why the Holyhead Road was commissioned

Back in 1800 an Act of Union joined Ireland to Great Britain which lasted until 1922 when the Irish free state was established. During the Union years the Irish parliament in Dublin was abolished and the Houses of Parliament in Westminster had to expand to accommodate 100 Irish MPs and 28 Irish Peers in a centralised government . These people needed to travel back and forth to Dublin several times a year with Parliamentary mail being sent to and from Ireland on a daily basis.

Turnpike trusts were responsible for the upkeep of the route from Holyhead. Their income for road maintenance depended entirely on the amount of traffic that each section generated which in turn was affected by the size of the local population. Smaller less populated areas, especially through Wales had less usage so the Turnpike income was smaller and road surfaces were poorer.

Irish parliamentarians complained that crossing the Irish sea was slow and the road from Holyhead was so badly maintained their journey was unsafe, lengthy and uncomfortable. As the route through Wales was no better than a dangerous track a cock horse, usually tethered to the rear of coaches, was brought to the front and dragged the coach across difficult terrain.

From Marble Arch I cycled to the Houses of Parliament where Mrs Vonnette Doran from Anglesey has searched official records about the Holyhead Road and her property, the Inn at Mona.

Vonnette became aware that civil engineer Thomas Telford was a close friend of an Irish member of the House of Lords, Sir Henry Parnell. Sir Henry became the administrative driving force behind efforts to improve the Holyhead Road and spoke for many Irish parliamentarians that the road and sea crossing was unsafe for travel and unsuitable for essential communication between Dublin and Westminster.

The influence of Irish parliamentarians is evidenced by the significant funding of improvements. Sea crossings became faster when steam ships replaced sailing boats. A new harbour to serve Dublin was built at Howth and improvements were made to the Port at Holyhead. 

Vonnette found the House of Lords (microfiche) records giving authority for Thomas Telford to produce a plan for the Holyhead Road:

In 1811 the Lords of His Majesty’s Treasury issued an order directing Mr Thomas Telford to survey the Road to Holyhead and report his findings to lay out the shortest and easiest line of road the country was capable of receiving 

By 1819 Parliament had reviewed his findings and commissioned a safe, high speed road link between Holyhead and London.  The route from London to Shrewsbury was relatively easy to improve. Much of it had been developed by the Romans when they constructed Watling Street. It was the 106 miles between Shrewsbury to Holyhead where Telford levelled the road, reduced its distance, improved the road surface and met his brief in making the journey shorter, faster, safer and more comfortable. The cock horse was dispensed with and passengers who used to walk up hills to ‘save the horses’ could now remain on the coach throughout its journey. 

The Mail Coach would depart from London at 8pm in the evening and took 26hrs 55 minutes to reach Holyhead, arriving at 10:55pm the following evening. The mail coach covered a distance of 260 miles and ran to a strict timetable known as a ‘Time Bill’ . Each of the places listed on the Time Bill are where its team of 4 tired horses would be exchanged with a fresh team.

During the course of its journey the mail coach to Holyhead used 102 horses:

The Holyhead mail coach departed from St Martins le Grand where Londoners used to visit and watch the spectacle of Mail coaches being despatched according to the part of the country they were travelling to: the North, East, West and South – creating the word News.

The Bull and Mouth Coaching Inn, St Martins le Grand was the departure point of The Wonder stagecoach using the Holyhead Road to reach The Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury. A plaque is now displayed close to where it once stood; Passengers who travelled on The Wonder included Charles Dickens whose nearby home is a museum housing his original manuscripts, first editions and family items.

The Wonder of Shrewsbury


The pride of the English coaching trade was the 1825 to 1837 ‘Wonder’ between Shrewsbury and London. It was the speed and efficiency of this service that earn’t its name.

The Wonder always carried a distinctive yellow and black livery.

Its distance is a hundred and fifty miles and the number of horses kept for The Wonder is a hundred and fifty.

Perhaps for the length of ground it travels over this is the most punctual coach at all its stages on the journey at this time in England. It leaves the Lion Hotel Shrewsbury at a quarter before six, A.M. and arrives at the Bull and Mouth London at a quarter past nine, P.M.

The coachmen of The Wonder also deserve note for the uniformily good conduct and skill. Their names are Wood (who drives out of London) Lyley, Wilcox, Everett and Hayward


The Wonder completed the 158 mile journey in 15¾ hours requiring it to travel at a mean average speed of 11mph. Its lowest speed was 8mph and highest 18mph. 

Prior to train travel 19th century travellers wanting to know what stage coach to catch, when and where from could refer to coaching directories. During lockdown I came across a ‘Directory of Stagecoach Services in 1836’ compiled by Alan Bates in 1969. This names every principle coach establishment in London and names all the stagecoaches that departed from them, including these details about ‘The Wonder’:

3428 and 3429 are licensing numbers that identifies a specific coach, the equivalent of todays vehicle registration plates; 3428 was painted on a coach called ‘The Wonder’ that departed from London and 3429 was the number painted on a coach called ‘The Wonder’ that departed at ‘a quarter before 6am’ on same day to London from The Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury.

Bracketed numbers 4 – 11 means the coach was licensed to carry 4 passengers inside and a maximum of 11 others on the roof. Passenger limits were introduced in response to the number of people injured or killed due to overcrowding and fell from roofs that had no seating.

Licensing was undertaken by the Board of Stamps and Taxes later to become the Inland Revenue. This made coach drivers legally responsible to ensure the coach was not overcrowded , travel the distance expected from them on time and not drive furiously or when intoxicated. 

Enforcement was carried out by Revenue Inspectors who stationed themselves along the routes to count passenger numbers and hold the driver accountable for bad driving or poor time keeping. These days revenue inspectors look for tax dodgers.

E.Sherman & Co: E. Sherman was the registered keeper of the stagecoaches, & Co refers to Isaac Taylor who owned The Wonder service. The same system continues with todays motor vehicles; the registered keeper is not always the actual owner.

The coach departed from London at 7am and from Shrewsbury at 5:45am on the same day. Running two coaches was the reason for the ‘Wonder’ having two licensing numbers. ‘Wonder’ was a name given to the speed and efficiency of this service rather than a particular coach.

The 12 named stages were places where the 4 horses that pulled The Wonder were replaced with a fresh team and where passengers alighted or boarded. The cost of travel was based on these stages. Fare stages serve the same purpose along modern bus routes.

To find out exactly where in those towns and villages the Wonder stopped I contacted local history groups and the archive departments of city museums whose local knowledge was invaluable. To ensure I would be cycling to the correct location a highly respected Wellington historian, Allan Frost, verified the information I had received with commercial directories, 19th century newspaper adverts and numerous coaching books. This enabled me to retrace the route of the Wonder knowing I was going to the correct places despite some inns being renamed, repurposed or sadly demolished.

My bicycle journey would cover the 50 miles a day ‘The Wonder’ coach driver would travel before being swapped with the next driver. To mark the importance of those places I booked my overnight stays at the coaching inns where that changeover occurred.

Some months before setting out I became acquainted with Robin Mager who cycled The Wonder route to London and back in a single day. His amazing achievement covered a distance of 315.8 miles and raised nearly £2000 for Macmillan Cancer support. Very, very well done Robin. 

Robin kindly shared his experience of cycling the route with invaluable advice about roads that are unsafe for cycling with reassurance that many others were safer than I had assumed.

Day 1: From the Bull and Mouth to St Albans

The Bull and Mouth coaching inn was owned by The Wonders registered keeper Edward Sherman. It was one of several principle coaching establishments in London with over 60 long distance coaches arriving and departing each day, Sundays excepted. People worked busily around the clock to ensure prompt early morning departures and the reception of evening arrivals creating a hive of activity and noise:

‘What a babel of tongues!

People hurrying hither and thither, some who had come too soon, others late. There were carriages, hackney coaches, carts and barrows; porters jostling, touters swearing, cads elbowing, coachmen wrangling, passengers grumbling, women scolding. Trunks, portmanteaux, hat-boxes and band-boxes strewn on the ground for loading.

Then there were orange merchants, cigar merchants, umbrella merchants, perambulating piemen, coachmen out of place, coaches out of place, country clods gaping, talking and wandering all occasionally interrupted by music from a guards horn. 


Bags are given to the coachman and you see them being placed safely on the roof where they cannot be rubbed.

Persons have their choice of places, either a seat inside or a seat on the roof all positioned close to the exit point in the order of who gets off first.

By John Jervis ‘An Old Coachman’ 1827

Coachman Wood drove the Wonder from here to the White Hart at St Albans via the Peacock Inn, Islington, a 10 minute bicycle ride away.

Charles Dickens describes how Nicholas Nickleby departs from here:

When I got up to the Peacock I found everybody drinking hot purl in self-preservation. I asked if there were a seat to spare. Inside or out I was the only passenger. This gave me a still livelier idea of the great inclemency of the weather, since that coach always loaded particularly well. 

I took a little hot purl which I found uncommonly good and got onto the coach roof. When seated they tied me to the seat and built me up with straw to the waist. Conscious of making a rather ridiculous appearance I began my journey.

During the coldness of winter it was not unheard of for roof passengers to die from exposure to the cold so they tried to keep warm by insulating themselves, outwardly with straw and inwardly by hot drinks.

Hot Purl’ was a mixture of warm beer infused with the tips of a wormwood plant with added gin. When the gin and beer had been poured into a tankard a red hot poker was pushed in the vessel to heat the contents. 

The practice of being tied to seat prevented roof passengers from being thrown to the ground when bouncing along a bumpy road or whenever the coach jolted. The term ‘Nodding Off‘ comes from sleeping passengers not tied to their seats being thrown to the ground on a jolting coach, sometimes with fatal consequences.

These days the Peacock building has been converted into premises for an assortment of businesses.

From here I reached the Griffin stage post in Barnet where the first exchange of horses occurred. Horses kept for the Wonder were said to be:

All sleek and plump. None of the horses worked more than one hour out of the 24, being required merely on one of the 10 mile stages which they frequently performed in five minutes under the scheduled time, and were then taken fresh and vigorous from the traces.

They were fed liberally with the view of keeping them heavy, rather than muscular; strength for short and powerful exertion being required rather than endurance. They seldom worked more than 4 years on this fast coach. Well groomed and cared for, theirs was a lot to be envied

These days visitors to the Griffin enjoy a beer and barbecue in its heated courtyard. 

Cycling towards St Albans my bicycle satellite navigation system took me through a myriad of residential roads until reaching a former railway track that is now a cycling route until reaching a bicycle path alongside a busy main road.

The constant roar of traffic was in stark contrast to the sight of fields and open space, creating a strong sense of leaving London.

During droving days livestock from North Wales would reach and rest on those pastures to gain the weight that had been lost due to the distance they walked. Following a few weeks of grazing a plump cow would attract the highest price in London markets. 

Before the large scale development of coal mining the export and sale of cattle was the main source of income to Wales. Other drovers stopped in an area of London named to reflected their stay – Shepherds Bush.

Behind me was the busy A1, formerly known as the Great North Road used by stage and mail coaches to Scotland via Newcastle-upon-Tyne with stops at towns and cities in between.

Just before 6pm I arrived at my St Albans overnight stay in the White Hart Coaching Inn that was built around a central courtyard entered through a level lintel gateway.

Despite level lintel entrance gates being cheap, easy and quicker to build than stone archways they offered less headroom. Those failing to duck were often killed. The demise of a Mrs Elizabeth Wilson was told by Alfred Jingle – Charles Dickens 1837 Pickwick Papers Chapter 2

Heads, heads take care of your heads, cried the loquacious stranger as they drove under the lintel into the coach yard. 

Terrible place, dangerous work. The other day five children with mother, a tall lady, eating sandwiches forgot . Crash, knock ! 

The children look round, mother’s head off sandwich in her hand now with no mouth to put it in – Shocking !

It was because of numerous fatalities the law required low headroom signs to be displayed. This remains a legal requirement and either a warning triangle or that same wording continues to be displayed on structures lower than 16′ (5 meters) from the ground. 

The ghost of Elizabeth Wilson is said to haunt the White Hart so that night I protected myself with a bowl of garlic and mushroom soup then slept with one eye open.

Day 2: St Albans to Towcester

Coachman Lyle would have driven The Wonder from here for the next 50 miles along its route to Shrewsbury. Coachman Wood will have remained in St Albans to wait for and then drive the Wonder coming from Shrewsbury into London.

Cycling away from the White Hart I quickly reached ‘The Bull’ in Redbourn some 8 miles away. Droving provided the town its income and there is evidence of drovers from North Wales visiting here.

Redbourn was on the Drove Road from North Wales, thus many inns had large areas behind to pen the animals. On Thursdays droves of cattle arrived in the village on their way to slaughter in London.

The most famous coaching inn was ‘The Bull’. It had a large wrought iron sign that stretched half way across the road and a very large lantern over the front door. Drovers from North Wales paid using tokens because carrying real cash increased their danger of being robbed.

Stagecoaches from Shrewsbury, the “Stag”, “Wonder” and “Nimrod” stopped here. It is likely that between 80 and 90 coaches passed through the village every day, ensuring a profitable passing trade for the inns from early morning to around midnight. Inn keepers were warned of the approaching coaches by stable lads who would keep a good lookout shouting ‘Uphards’ or ‘Downhards’ so that the teams of fresh horses could be ready for change.

One Mary Lofty, a widow of 70, made a living by collecting horse dung, first in a box and later, due to the generosity of her neighbours, a wheel barrow. She lived until she was over 84 years old.

Source: www.redbournvillage.org.uk/stage-coaches reproduced with the kind permission of Joyce Clayton , author

Tokens accepted from drovers in Redbourn were produced in Anglesey at Parys Copper Mine; they came in 2 sizes with the larger being valued at 1 old penny and the smaller a halfpenny. The letters PMC stand for Parry copper mine and the date stamp – 1797 – is partially obscured by the green tinge of copper. The outer edge of the coin reads: We promise to pay the bearer one penny.

The next stage post after was 10 miles away at the Swan with Two Necks in Dunstable. The Bates stagecoach directory names the coaches that stopped here from London and an equal number would have called here when travelling towards London. Coaches began to arrive between 5:30am continued until 8pm in the evening. 

Time of Arrival in DunstableStagecoach nameDestination
05:30The TelegraphManchester
06:00The StagShrewsbury
06:30The NimrodShrewsbury
06:30The UnionLeicester
06:45The TimesNottingham
07:30The Daventry Accommodation CoachDaventry
07:45The Independent Tally-hoBirmingham
08:00 The Red BeaverManchester
08:30The Royal DefianceManchester
09:30The NorthamptonNorthampton
09:56The WonderShrewsbury
14:00The UmpireLiverpool
16:30The ExpressLeeds
16:30The GreyhoundBirmingham
17:00The CourierLeeds
17:00The EmpressLiverpool
17:30The EconomistBirmingham
17:45The HopeHalifax
18:30The AlbionLiverpool
18:45The WonderLondon
19:00The Royal BruceManchester
20:00The BeehiveManchester

Each of these 22 coaches carried an average of 10 passengers hauled by a team of 4 tired horses that Dunstable would exchange. 

When assembling this list I was struck by the volume of coaches which amounted to 440 daily passenger journeys through Dunstable. It seems to mark a change in social mobility that distinguishes the industrial revolution from the days of people travelling as far as their feet could carry them.

Every day Sundays excepted, 88 tired horses driving out of London and 88 driving towards London would need to be exchanged with an equal number of fresh horses. For the next 24 hours the 176 tired horses would rest, graze and take shelter in Dunstable with some requiring the services of a blacksmith.

I gave thought to the fate of horses that were used to haul thousands of coaches across the land. With the arrival of the railways less were needed so less were bred. The old and injured were slaughtered and others put to other work pulling carts not people.

Wellington historian Allan Frost later informed me that a surplus of horses continued until the 1st world war when thousands were killed in action. After the war there was a shortage of horses and it was this shortage that stimulated the rise in popularity, use and ownership of motor vehicles for the middle classes and bicycles for ordinary working people.

As the Dunstable stage post named ‘The Swan with Two Necks’  closed many years ago I continued cycling along Watling Street to Little Brickhill. In 1832 when Queen Victoria was a 13 year old Princess her carriage shared this stretch of road with The Wonder and both received fresh horses at the long since demolished George Inn where an Italian restaurant of the same name has replaced the former building.

An hour later I arrived at Stoney Stratford famed for its two coaching inns, the Cock and Bull. According to folklore these completed with each other to invent news that was so unbelievable the saying A Cock and Bull story came into being. To this day a made-up story is either called Cock & Bull, A Load of Bull or the name of the other pub.

When leaving Stoney Stratford It started to rain and would continue to pour down for the next 4½ days of cycling,  made worse by splashing and spray from passing vehicles. For now I was simply pleased to arrive at my next overnight stay, the Saracens Head in Towcester.

During coaching days all but the most determined would wait at a coaching inn until weather conditions improved, as described in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836) by Charles Dickens:

The mud and wet splashed through the open window to such an extent that the discomfort was almost as great to the pair of insides as to the pair of outsides.

They pulled up before the door of the Saracens Head, Towcester and steam ascended from the horses in such clouds as to wholly obscure the hostler.

‘There’s beds here sir’, said Sam (Weller) to his master (Mr Pickwick). Everything clean and comfortable. Wery good little dinner sir, they can get is ready in half and hour; pair of fowls and a weal cutlet, french beans, taters, tart and tidiness. ‘You’d better stop here’

My evening meal was Toad in the Hole then went to bed and slept like a log with the musical accompaniment of rain showering onto the bedroom window. It was still raining the next day, with the down pour being even harsher by strong winds.

Day 3 From Towcester to Birmingham

It was from the Saracens Head that coachman Lyle was replaced by Handsome Jack Everitt who drove the Wonder to Birmingham, my destination for todays bicycle ride. Jack was known as ‘Spicy Jack’ who took care of his personal appearance despite his walking being affected by ‘crook’d legs’ as he called them. Both were fractured in different coaching accidents and the poor setting of his bones left him with a bowed legs. He also had quite a reputation:

‘Handsome Jack Everitt’, a celebrated coachman, was famous on the road and realised a considerable fortune. He was well up on the secrets of horse racing, the prize ring, cock fighting and other gentlemanly sports.

Being May Day the coach was gaily decked out with Coventry ribbon and flowers.
 
May-day was a traditional race day when wagers were placed on who would win the fastest time. 


The Wonders horses literally flew through the town, to the no small concern of many who predicted disaster, but everything had been taken out of the streets half an hour before to make all clear. 


Source: Kaga Simpson Historic Coventry forum

This bicycle adventure was occurring nearly 200 years to the very month that The Wonder flew through these streets on race day. The speed of the Wonder was celebrated at a publicity event staged to influence people to travel by coach instead of train. The Wonder departed from London at the same time as a train and arrived at Birmingham Curson Street Station before the train.

The next stage post at the Plough and Bell in Daventry has been demolished. Pigots directory for Daventry lists the trades and businesses that supported the coaching era beyond the people who worked at coaching inns. Trades included blacksmiths, wheelwrights, saddlers, harness makers, feed merchants and whip makers that I sense commanded more public respect than the landed gentry. Daventry museum houses examples of stagecoach whips that had been manufactured in the town. 

Coachmen used whips to provide a forward signal to the leading horse, so the length of whip would reach the front horse’s shoulder not the face. They were as lightweight as possible to prevent muscle fatigue and joint pain in the coach drivers hands and arms during a long drive. The whip was normally held in the driver’s right hand ‘The whip hand’ and a socket was fitted to the right of the coachman’s box seat that held the whip in place when not in use. 

These days the term ‘Whip Hand‘ describes somebody with power or control over others. The saying: ‘Crack the Whip’ describes people who bully others and sometimes the phrase is shortened to ‘Crack on‘ which means continue to do something, which was my cue to start pedalling. 

I am quite used to cycling in the rain as waterproof clothing usually keeps me dry. Sadly I had forgotten to pack my waterproof cycling gloves and the 2 pairs I had with me were too wet to wear. In addition the head wind I had endured since setting out from Towcester became a dangerous side wind that risked blowing me into passing vehicles. It was so unnerving I stopped under a gaily coloured bus shelter until weather conditions improved, wrapping my hands around my thermos flask cup to warm them up.

Things happen for a reason and am certain the reason for taking shelter here was to collect my thoughts and think about the people who travelled on stagecoaches through such awful weather. Many must have contracted hypothermia or in hot weather heat exhaustion or sunstroke. During windy weather the side windows were kept open allowing strong winds to blow through the coach instead of knocking it over. Those sitting on the roof simply endured the weather.

Old newspaper articles certainly refer to coaches driving through the snow to arrive at stage posts with passengers who had frozen to death. Other articles report that passengers were seriously or fatally injured when side winds blew the coach over. Saying ‘Musn’t grumble’ I continued the journey.

The Wonder meets the Wonder

With a break in the weather and a cycle path that segregated me from the danger of side winds blowing my bicycle into moving traffic I continued to Dunchurch.

Because The Wonder from Shrewsbury travelled along the same road on the same day as The Wonder from London they had to pass each other at some point along the journey. The distance between Shrewsbury and London was 158 miles and the 79 mile half way point is between Daventry and Coventry, so I decided to work out where the passing place was.

Pigots directory for the Coventry City Hotel states the time each coach stopped and departed. Knowing the mean speed of travel for both coaches were identical I could then work out where these coaches passed each other. 

The Wonder coming from Shrewsbury driven by coachman Wilcox departed from the City Hotel at 12:05 to travel towards Daventry. The Wonder from London  arrived at the City hotel at a quarter before four driven by Jack Everitt. As the distance between Coventry and Daventry is 19 miles I calculated they passed each other along this length of road near the Dun Cow at Dunchurch.

After capturing the above photograph of the recently rebuilt Dun Cow in Dunchurch my bicycle sat nav system delivered me into the centre of Coventry along traffic-free cycling paths where The City Hotel once stood in Broadgate.

Although The City Hotel stage post was demolished decades ago I made my way to see the Godiva clock. I had planned to arrive here at 2pm. When the bell strikes the hour Lady Godiva appears riding a white horse. As she travels across the clock face a window above her opens and out pops the head of Peeping Tom, a name he was given because of secretly looking at her nakedness. Being blinded by what he sees Tom covers his eyes and quickly pops his head back inside for another hour.

Because of the time spent sheltering from the elements I arrived here 20 minutes late. There was no way I was going to spend the next 40 minutes in the cold to be a peeping Tom, so off I headed to Meriden. The journey was made easier by Thomas Telford who levelled steep hills and swiftly arrived at The Bulls Head, once described as ‘The handsomest Inn in England’.

During my childhood Meriden was known as the centre of England. Modern equipment has plotted the precise centre to be in the middle of a farmers field 10 miles away.

Meriden village green also contains an obelisk dedicated to cyclists who lost their lives whilst during active service in the 1st world war. 

From here I made my way to Birmingham. During The Wonder years its stage post was at The Albion Hotel then in 1830 The Hen and Chickens on New Street. This was where coach driver Sam Hayward drove The Wonder back to Shrewsbury.

The Hen and Chickens coaching inn has been replaced with a bank and Premier Inn where I stayed for the night.

After checking in I went shopping for a pair of thermal, waterproof cycling gloves that cost more money than I intended to spend but hey-ho, needs must.

Day 5 from Birmingham to Shrewsbury

The next morning I set out to follow the tracks of The Wonders most famed coach driver, Sam Hayward all the way to the Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury and began by making my way to the Town Hall. 

I left my overnight accommodation at 7am and was saddened to see a family had spent the night sleeping on the ground in the lobby of the Premier Inn and wondered why someone couldn’t have given them a room for the night, I hardly saw any guests during my stay.

Birmingham Town Hall is faced with quality stone known as Anglesey Marble from Penmon Quarry. I wondered how it reached here and quickly found out as this story will shortly reveal.

One of the town hall architects was Joseph Hansom of Hansom cab fame, the one horse carriages that were used as a taxi on the streets of London. ‘Taxi’ and ‘Cab‘ are still words that we use.

Shortly after Birmingham Town Hall opened Charles Dickens gave his very first public reading of A Christmas Carol here to raise money for local charities providing adult education. The financial success inspired him to deliver paid performances for personal gain in Britain, Ireland and America.

Because the town hall opened in 1834 Sam Hayward will have seen it being built and his daily journeys have been captured in this painting. Look closely for the yellow and black livery of The’ Wonder driving towards Shrewsbury in the foreground.

My route from here should have followed the Holyhead Road through Winson Green, West Bromwich and Bilston where The Wonder exchanged its horses at the Kings Arms and continued to Wolverhampton.

Despite coach drivers changing over every 50 miles, the same guard continued throughout its journey. Dicky Ash was the guard on one coach and the guard on the other was a man named Yates.

In 1834 shortly before Christmas the coach accompanied by Yates was making its way towards Bilston overloaded with game and hampers so perched himself over the rear wheels. When the coach lurched forward Yates fell under the rear wheels and sustained a fatal injury.

The Kings Arms no longer exists and I know from living and working in this area the road from Birmingham to Wolverhampton is dangerous for cyclists, so I plotted a route along the traffic free National Cycling network.

It took just over an hour to cycle along the towing path from Birmingham to Wolverhampton. This traffic free route was also noise and rain free.

Stone used to face Birmingham Town Hall came from Penmon Quarry by boat along the river Dee to Chester then from there by barge to Birmingham town centre where a horse and cart transported it to the Town Hall.

My arrival in Wolverhampton was unceremonious. The Wonder bound for London arrived here at 8am and The Wonder bound for Shrewsbury arrived every evening at ‘A quarter before 8′ . The daily arrivals of The Wonder have been recorded in articles held by Wolverhampton Library and Archive service:

The Wonder came up into Salop Street, round the corner into Cock Street and under the archway entrance to reach the yard of the new hotel*  Passengers would climb aboard, parcels packed and horses changed then the coach would be out of the yard once again.

Cock Street changed its name to Victoria Street in honour of Queen Victoria who visited. 

* The new hotel was the Star and Garter Inn

Source:Wolverhampton Archives 
When the guards bugle sounded its approach the barmaid would start pouring an ale. As the wheels of the coach arrived in the yard out ran the inn keeper, bar-maid, stable lads and mischievous urchins. 


The horses were pulled back upon their haunches and stopped as if shot and a wooden block was thrust under the hind wheel; the reins were thrown down on either side, the whip given unceremoniously to the envied occupant of the box seat.


The coachman descended with a princely air of condescension and nobly took hold of the foaming tankard presented to him. 


Ere a minute has flown by when the guard would say; ‘All Right’ .


The coachman ascended, the block withdrawn and the horses dart away at a gallop.


Source: ‘The Horse Exchange’ by Judith Flanders

In its day The Star and Garter was Wolverhamptons main hotel. It was demolished in 1964 to make way for the now dated Mander Shopping Centre

When railways began to take over from mail and stagecoaches people had to find other work. I previously mentioned that some coach builders went on to build railway carriages. Blacksmiths began to manufacture bicycles.

Wolverhampton became the 3rd largest manufacturer of bicycles with over 200 businesses involved with frame, wheel and component manufacture. Many cyclists attended bicycle race meetings in the grounds of the Molineux hotel which is now the football pitch use by Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Wolverhampton also produced the ‘Rolls Royce’ of bicycles in the Sunbeam. The factory building where it was made has recently been converted into apartments that still displays the Sunbeam name. Sunbeam bicycles were hugely popular due to an oil bath enclosure that lubricated the chain and kept oil off the cyclist. These days cyclists use a special hook to handle the oily chain. Check it out: www.rehook.bike

Sir Edward Elgar was a famous Sunbeam cyclist and a statue with his bicycle, made by Jemma Pearson – the person responsible for the sculpture of Charles Darwin at Shrewsbury School –  now stands outside Hereford cathedral. 

Between Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury the next stage post was called the Summer House. An Inn trading under this name does exists, though on the opposite side of the road to the original stage post and of relatively modern construction, so held no interest to me. I continued to the village of Tong.

Little Nell was a principle character in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) by Charles Dickens. There must be something in the air here in Tong as the churchyard contains her reputed grave. Nearby Boris could be seen talking to the trees. Strange place.

From Tong I arrived at the Jerningham Arms in Shifnal, one of three separate coaching establishments run by different members of the Taylor Family. This has now been converted into homes called The Jerningham Apartments. The tooing and froing of coaches through Shifnal provided a lot of employment to the town.

10 miles further along the road I arrived at the next stage post in Wellington. Now known as the Old Orleton in past years it traded as the Haygate, the Falcon and at one time was simply farm buildings that exchanged horses for the passing mail and stage coach trade.

During the remaining 10 miles to reach my destination of the day I followed a route once used by the 9thcentury Roman army going to nearby Wroxeter.

Romans marched on the left to keep their sword hand free to deal with aggressors walking towards them and their practice of keeping to the left established a tradition of driving to the left on todays roads.

During the 19th century most of Europe became part of the Napoleonic (French) Empire. As Napoleon was left handed the right side of the road benefited his sword hand so changed centuries of Roman tradition, which is why motorists across Europe drive on the right hand side of their roads.

After cycling over the English Bridge I followed the river bank for ½ a mile then cycled up ‘Wyle Cop’, an old English name that describes a hill. The Lion Hotel is certainly at the top of a hill, this was my steepest climb since leaving London.

When I arrived outside The Lion, Barry Hillier the Director of Holyhead Maritime Museum was there to meet me. Barry had been following the progress of this cycling adventure and was in the area and came here to welcome me, thank you Barry !

Last year my cycling adventure ended here having followed the stagecoach route from Harlech once used by Charles Darwin. In addition to the Lion being the departure point for Charles Darwin, the blue plaque notes the Hotel was also visited by Dickens, the violinist Paganini, Marie (Madam) Tussaud, Benjamin Disraeli and today, me.

That evening I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with John and Jan Butterworth. It was Johns’ book ‘Four Centuries at the Lion Hotel Shrewsbury’ that inspired my interest in stage and mail coach travel.

Day 5 from Shrewsbury to Betws y Coed

Yesterday I arrived at the Lion having retraced the stage coach route of The Wonder from London using the Holyhead Road shared by mail coaches. Today I was departing to follow the mail coach driven by Sam Haywards brother.

Mail coaches travelled throughout the night and although its lights were bright enough for people to see the coach coming towards them, they were not bright enough for the driver to see the road ahead. 

Fortunately horses have excellent night time vision and as they always ran between the same stages they knew exactly where they were going.

18 hours ago I entered Shrewsbury from England by crossing the English Bridge. Today I cycled to Wales by crossing the appropriately named Welsh Bridge and quickly arrived at another crossing point at Montford.

The bridge at Montford was one of the first that Thomas Telford constructed. His design included a drip stone that prevented rain water dripping from the deck and eroding the lower structures. As the bridge is over 200 years old, this design feature worked.

A few miles from Montford Bridge is the next stage post at Nesscliff, the Old Three Pigeons. Regular customers to the Old Three Pigeons included highwaymen spending money robbed from travellers, except from passengers of  Royal Mail coaches.

The Royal Mail was protected by a guard armed with loaded pistols and a Blunderbus. This short flared barrelled gun was designed to scatter projectiles over a wide surface area allowing the guard to shoot without taking careful aim.  If the sight of a Blunderbus didn’t deter robbers, the guard would take a more careful aim with his loaded pistols. The next stage post was the Wynnstay Arms in Oswestry.

Arriving at the Wynnstay it stated to rain and continued to pour for the rest of the day. This former coaching inn stage post is now an impressive looking Hotel where I took shelter under its entrance to don a set of waterproof over- trousers.

Wynnstay used to be the family home of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn a descendant of Owain Glyndŵr the last Welsh person to be a Prince of Wales. Papers from the Williams-Wynn family refer to drovers and have been quoted in several books that I will refer to later in this story.

From here I made a short detour for a coffee break at Cafe Wylfa in Chirk to meet cousin Ken who I last saw 60 years ago and his wife Marian. Ken remarked we have both survived a life of work to reach retirement relatively unscathed.

Beyond Caffi Wylfa is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct that used to be the tallest aqueduct in the world and was designed by Thomas Telford with another engineer named William Jessop. 

A short distance from Chirk was the A5, the Holyhead Road, that I could now stay on without diversions to avoid the dangers of traffic all the to Holyhead.

At Llangollen I took a passing photograph of The Hand Hotel stage post before heading to the Owain Glyndŵr stage post in Corwen.

On the outskirts of Corwen a mound of earth known as Castell Glyndyfrdwy was owned by freedom fighter Owain Glyndŵr whose fierce war of independence from English has continued in a different forms for the past 900 years.

When the Holyhead Road was in its planning and construction stage, teams of Commissioners made regular progress reports for Parliament that includes a mention of this stretch of road.

From Llangollen to Corwen many parts were extremely dangerous for a coach to travel on. The road was very narrow and steep with no side fence except for about a foot and a half of mould or dirt thrown up to prevent carriages falling down three or four hundred feet into the River Dee.

Stage coaches had been frequently overturned or have broken down from the badness of the road and even the mails had been overturned.

Telfords Road has been designed to mature and last. From the moment it first opened the weight of coaches compacted the stone surface that then became harder, smoothers and faster to roll over.


Source: Shrewsbury and Holyhead Road. Annual Report of the Commissioners published by the House of Commons London 1830

One advantages of cycling is the ability to notice things that are missed when driving including remnants of walling on either side of the road and regular alcoves that have been rebuilt at the places where the original wall has degraded. Perhaps small pebbles were stored here to replace those pinged away by rolling wheels of coaches, or may have been a refuge for people to stand clear of mail coaches charging towards them. On the other side of the road the precipitous drop mentioned by the road commissioning team remains visible.

When cycling the route of the Wonder it was relatively easy to find out about its passengers. Yet I found nothing written about mail coach as their primary purpose was to transfer mail. Some passengers were carried to help defer the expense of running the service. 

Papers belonging to the Oswestry Williams Wynn family are mentioned in a book by Richard Colyer referring to the journey of a Porthmon (or drover dealer) travelling through Corwen from Anglesey or Bangor heading to London where the best prices would be paid for livestock, the most valuable of which were cattle. Drovers also took on other roles:

Drovers were carrying post and packages long before mail coaches arrived. Some also carried garments such as woollen socks brought in Wales to sell at a profit along their journey. They would also receive a small fee to act as protectors and guardians for those who wished to walk in relative safety between Wales and the City of London. These included young girls wishing to work as maids or cooks for the wealthy, earning salaries they could only dream about in Wales. Some girls used the skills they had learn’t at their family farms to become a milk maid in London as some cows were kept as milkers and not slaughtered for meat.


Source: ‘Welsh Drovers’ by Richard Colyer

The journey of drovers returning to Wales was perilous due to the large sums of money they were delivering to farmers whose livestock they sold. 

In the 1830s drovers could expect an average market price of £100 for the sale of a small herd of 18 cattle. Using the national archives currency converter I calculated the value of £100 in 1830 is now worth £6,780, little wonder drovers preferred a speedy the journey back to Wales under the protection of a heavily armed Royal Mail coach guard. Yet they could still be robbed when making their way from the coach to pay individual farmers and needed a safer method of moving large sums of money.

Drovers played an important part in the setting up of the early banking system including The Black Ox. The Black Ox was eventually taken over by a Welsh family, the Llwyds who worked in Birmingham. The logo they adopted went back to their early days of droving when their family used a black horse on their receipts; the same prancing Black Horse now brands Lloyds Bank.

The mail coach stopped in Corwen to exchange its team of horses at the Owain Glyndwr Hotel, a process that took less than 5 minutes. At one time this place was called the New Inn Hotel and signage by the front door states the first public National Eisteddfod was held here, an event that celebrates and promotes Welsh culture and language. Corwen is also home to its very own Museum and is a ‘must visit’ educational attraction where I was welcomed by Lyndsay Watkins and Jim Ritchie with tea, biscuits and a tour of the exhibits.

When cycling through England there has been very little evidence of the original Holyhead Road apart from those coaching inns that have survived the passage of time; I have not seen any toll houses, milestones or reference to what was the most important road of its time until, that is, crossing the boarder into Wales:

What a pleasure to see signage that reminds travellers this route is historically important, what a delight it is to see Toll Houses being used as homes or businesses and the presence of milestones, especially as many milestones were destroyed during World War II when the government ordered all road signs be removed to confuse the Germans in the event of an invasion.

The Telford milestones contain unique features: The direction of travel, in this case Holyhead, is 75 miles from here. Underneath are the names of places where horses are replaced; in the direction of travel is Corwen, in the other direction Llangollen. The distance to those places is measured in miles and furlongs. Telford used a Gunters wheel to establish accurate milage. The wheel unravelled a length of chain that contained a set number of links ( 100 links =1 chain length, 10 chains = 1 furlong and 8 furlongs = 1 mile).

The chiseled horizontal mark highlighted by the chiseled arrow is a benchmark. In olden days an angle iron could be placed in the horizontal grove to form a bench for a levelling rod to gauge the elevation of that point from sea level. The permanency of that grove ensured future levelling rods would be placed in the same place .

These days the term benchmarking refers to a practice adopted by businesses and institutions to compare what they are doing with what is happening elsewhere. When building roads surveyors use global positioning systems.

The above photo (left) shows the elevation reference from sea level in the Llangollen area and the specific details of the elevation for Telfords milestone (113.343 metes above sea level) is shown on the right http://www.parallel.co.uk/os-benchmark-archive

Elevation is different from height. Height is a vertical measurement from the ground that reveal how tall a person is or the height that a building stands. 

Knowing elevation helps with the construction of roads. As a pedal cyclist prior knowledge of elevation informs me what is possible to ride along. With loaded pannier bags gradients up to 6% are easy to cycle along. Between,7% to 10% the hills take a bit of effort and I can manage short distances of 10% to 15% with a lot of puffing and panting. I push the bike up anything over 15%.

Telford built his road with a gradient that was never greater than 6%, so the rise or fall in this the road was never more than 6ft (1:8 meter) for every 100ft (30 meters) in length.

Gosh this afternoons rain was heavy and persistent yet these poor conditions were to my advantage; many drivers stayed at home and the road was virtually traffic free. New gloves and waterproof clothing were keeping me dry and warm and as an added bonus I managed to cycle 25 miles in 99 minutes to reach the Druids = 15 MPH which isn’t bad for an OAP on a fully ladened touring bicycle.

The Druids was once a Coaching Inn strategically positioned at the junction of what used to be the Bwlch Drws Ardudwy (doorway to Ardudwy) drovers route that extended from Harlech to Bala,the Druids, Corwen and beyond.

In my last cycling blog I discovered a diary held by Shrewsbury Archives that records a holiday taken in Barmouth by a family of the name Hodgson and the stagecoach journey to reach there. The Hodgsons had travelled on a stage coach called The Emerald that was making its way from Birmingham to Holyhead where passengers would board the packet boat to Ireland.

The Hodgson family got off The Emerald at The Druids Inn where they waited from a cross country coach that took them to Barmouth via Dolgellau. The Druids Inn coaching building can be seen behind the road sign on above photograph, although the complex is now a holiday park.

Continuing my journey I came across the former stage post at Cernioge, once described as a miserable inn that traded under the name of the Prince Llewellyn,  then the Kings Hotel.  It became known as the Cernioge Inn when Telford completed his road then stayed here and described it as being excellent.

These days its former stable block is passed with little regard but the slower pace of cycling provides a better view. Coachmen would stay in the rooms above the stable block, accessed by the flight of stone steps seen on the side of this building.

Who would have thought that this stone building had stood here for over 200 years. It looks strong enough to stand here for eternity. 

On the opposite side of the road is the former Cernioge Inn itself, a modest looking farmhouse visited by people who are an important part of history and the place where Sam Haywards brother was exchanged with a fresh driver who drove it to the packet ferry in Holyhead.

Princess Victoria stopped here on her journey from Llangollen to Beaumaris. It is said she listened to a harpist to whom she gave £1. In 1816 a Dr Samual Spiker describes his stay at the Cernioge:

“Of simple appearance with only five windows in front, and before it a court-yard, laid with gravel in which peacocks, turkies, pigeons, and other poultry strutted about in rural security. The landlady’s daughter played Welsh airs the whole evening through on the harp, the favourite instrument of the Welsh, which afforded us a most agreeable entertainment”

Dr. Samuel Heinrich Spiker :Travels through England, Wales, & Scotland, in the year 1816

From here I continued cycling to my last overnight stay in Betws y Coed. 

The original coaching route to Holyhead would have arrived at the outskirts of Betws y Coed then made a right hand turn here to follow the bank of the River Conwy to and beyond Llanrwst. The coach eventually followed the coastline route into Bangor before crossing the Menai Straits and travelling onwards to Holyhead. 

Telford bridged the River in 1815, the year of Napoleons defeat so named it The Waterloo Bridge. From here stage and mail coaches would then have had a shorter safer and faster journey on an improved road to reach Bangor.

The Waterloo Bridge was made of iron not of stone with the sides decorated in the language of flowers. A Shamrock honours people from Ireland a Thistle for Scotland, Rose for England and Leek for Wales for the nationality of those who lost their lives during the Napoleonic wars.

The mail coach exchanged horses at the Royal Oak and my stay here was memorable for its excellent customer service. I arrived tired and dripping wet so the manager seeing my dishevelled state had a member of staff wheel my bicycle to a purpose built drying room and helped to carry my pannier bags to my overnight room in the stables.

That evening I enjoyed the most tastiest of meals during the whole of this bicycle ride. Home made soup, local lamb and ice cream with sorbet. The Royal Oak still caters for coaches, the motorised type that deliver scores of passengers at the same time.

Day 6 From Betws y Coed to Holyhead

I set off early this morning and smooth tarmac aided a fast cycling pace to reach Tyn y Coed where the coaching Inn car park houses a replica red & black mail coach. I have always known a coach being exhibited here. The first was purchased from the makers of the Alfred Hitchcock 1939 film Jamaica Inn and the present coach is an exact replica of the Holyhead Mail.

My pre-ride reading found the above picture showing the interior of the Holyhead to London mail coach with its original upholstery. The padding is horsehair, long lasting and unyielding. The glazed window is raised and held in place with a strap and peg, a design feature used when coach builders made railway carriages as testified by the mechanisms seen inside railway heritage coaches.

From Tyn y Coed a drizzly climb took me to Capel Curig, the next stage post for the mail coach to refresh the team of 4 that pulled it past the toll house to reach the summit,

Capel Curig is where Welsh naturalist and travel writer Thomas Pennant invented the word Snowdonia . If I am wrong about the following explanation I am sure people will correct me: Yr Wyddfa refers to Snowdon. Yr Eryri refers to Snowdonia. The mountain range of Yr Eryri includes several peaks such as Moel Hebog, Moel Ddu and Moelwyn, mentioned in 11thcentury records with the word Snawdune that described snow capped peaks.

Snawdune was modified by Welshman Thomas Pennant as the title for his 1778 book, ‘A Journey in Snowdonia’. His invented word is the reason for the area continuing to be referred to as Snowdonia within a wider geographical area protected by the aptly named Snowdonia National Park Authority.

Sometimes I wish people would stop squabbling about the names of places and simply enjoy the views the most splendid of which can be found along the length of the Holyhead Road from Llangollen through Betws y Coed , over Capel Curig and through the Ogwen Valley. The road has a gentle rise, fall and climb to Nant Ffrancon – the Glen of Beavers – followed by a three mile descent into Bethesda and The Bull stage post.

My pre-ride reading informed me of a mail coach driver who was blinded by the snow and arrived here safely because his team of horses knew where to go and where to stop.

Some industrial disputes capture the publics attention and here in 1900 Bethesda nearly 3000 quarrymen went on strike for 3 years. The strike left families in such poverty that collections across Britain supported them with food, clothing and money.

My bicycle journey continued into Bangor. During coaching days Bangor was said to be the high road to the ‘Head’. ‘Head’ was used in everyday conversation to mean Holyhead. In lower Bangor The Penrhyn Arms Hotel was one of the largest and best hotels on the road to London with private suites where dignitaries would rest and recuperate from or before crossing the Irish Sea and Menai straits. 

When railways replaced mail and stagecoaches the Penrhyn Arms lost its customers and closed. Despite widespread poverty, especially in the wake of a 3 year strike by quarrymen they and local farmers raised enough money to buy the Penrhyn Arms building to create Bangor University for their children to receive an education and a better future.

Pleasingly the former entrance to the Penrhyn Arms Hotel has been saved. It now contains an inscription reminding people the former Hotel became a building that educated the children of local working people from which the University developed.

Bangor University has since met the reason for its existence and expanded in size to be  recognised as being world class, with a gold standard award for teaching excellence.

Coaches leaving the Penrhyn Arms climbed the Holyhead Road to reach Upper Bangor passing Ffriddoedd Road. A Ffriddoedd is a wet field on high ground where rushes grew. Harvested rush would be cut into suitable lengths then hung up to dry. Once dried the rush would be stripped, cut into smaller lengths, rolled then soaked in animal fat to become theforerunner of our modern candle. 

Beyond Ffriddoedd is an educational site that is now part of Bangor University where the next stage post for the mail coach was the George Hotel. The Bangor ferry left from its shoreline to cross the straits.

Not so very long ago people, luggage, post and packages were ferried across the strong, rapid currents of the Menai Straits to and from Ynys Môn (Anglesey). During low tide cattle between the age of 18 months and 3 years swam to this shoreline. Some would be taken by drovers and sold in London meat markets.

The George Building continues to be used for education and the view from the gardens shows the width of the Menai straits that ferrys and cattle would cross.

Despite the danger of crossing the Menai Straits for man and beast alike there was considerable opposition to Thomas Telford replacing the ferry with a bridge. When compensation was paid those who opposed his bridge the opposition became strong supporters of it.

Due to its size, the best view of Menai Suspension Bridge is from a distance.The Admiralty required Telford to provide clearance for the masts of sailing ships, so the bridge had to stand 100 feet (30.48 m) above high water. The stone used for the arches and piers was limestone quarried from Penmon Quarries, the same source and same type of stone that was used in the construction of Birmingham Town Hall and many other places.

The George Building can be seen nestling on the shore line from where this account of a Royal Mail coach journey begins:

From the road to the east came the sound of hurry: iron-rimmed wheels and horses hooves galloping on rough gravel racing to keep time. The London to Holyhead Mail was heading to the Port. Its scarlett sides and royal crest proclaiming the right to carry the precious mail bag for Dublin.

As it pulled up outside the Bangor ferry inn its exhausted horses were unharnessed and a fresh team attached. A man stepped forward with an air of command. He climbed quickly onto the top of the coach and sat down next to David Davies the coachman on duty that night. This mans name was William Povis who had overseen the building of the Menai Suspension Bridge. He was taking command of the mail coach and that was final.

A note was sent down to the ferryman saying his services would not be needed that night or ever again. With a flick of the reigns the horses strained and the coach set off on the short journey to the bridge. And so, without no more fanfare than this on a horrible night at 1:35am on January 30th 1826 the Menai Suspension Bridge was opened by high mounted steeds with their high crescent necks held high, pulling the Royal Mail coach off the mainland over the Menai Straits and onto the island of Anglesey.


These horses were conscious of their triumphant achievement.

Source: Man of Iron – Thomas Telford by John Glover 2017

Although the Menai Bridge was constructed for the mail coach, there were many other users including such commercial stage coaches, private carriages and drovers moving livestock .

With the exception of the Royal Mail coach all other users paid a Toll to cross this bridge. Records state that between May 1829 and April 1830 a total of 6,452 cattle were walked across. This seemed out of proportion to the size of Anglesey and wondered if some of those cattle were Irish cattle. So I contacted Barry Hillier, the Director of Holyhead Maritime Museum who found out the answer :

The relatively small size of the packet boats and other vessels in 1830 may have precluded the carriage of large numbers of cattle from Ireland so although some may have been transported across the Irish Sea, it’s unlikely that these would have explained the figures quoted by Mr Patton.

What he’s not shown in his calculations is the direction of travel because in the 1800s the notion of Hendre and Hafod played a major role in agriculture.
 
Farmers would send their animals from Anglesey in the Spring ( Anglesey was the winter accommodation – the Hendre,) to the slopes of Eryri/Snowdonia, which was mostly common land, for summer grazing – the Hafod.
At the end of the Summer the beasts would be walked back to Anglesey and the 6,452 head of cattle suddenly halves to 3,226. 

In addition, one of the largest cattle markets in north-west Wales was found in Menai Bridge (Posh people in Waitrose don’t realise that they’re walking on centuries of compacted cow dung!) so Caernarfonshire farmers would walk their animals across the bridge to be sold. If they were bought by other Caernarfonshire farmers or by abattoirs in Bangor or Caernarfon, then they’d be walked back across the bridge. Every time they walked, a toll was charged.

I suspect that certain individual cows walked across that bridge four or five times – which affected the statistics!

Source: GARETH HUWS
April 2021

Here in Ynys Môn every toll house is in excellent condition and in use as a home or a business. Telford built 5 toll houses between the Menai bridge and Holyhead. Although the Toll house on the Menai bridge no longer exists the others are located Llanfair, Gwalchmai, Caer Ceiliog and Holyhead itself.

Toll houses were not unique to roads. I once cycled alongside the Grand Union of Canals and passed several at major locks or canal junctions to collect money from users to recoup the cost of canal construction.

Toll houses along the Holyhead Road were built by the Government to help recoup the £300,000 capital cost of building the road, its many bridgestoll houses and the Inn at Mona. According the national archives currency converter £300,000 in 1830 is equal to £21 million in 2021.

The Inn at Mona was the only stage post between Menai Bridge and the Port of Holyhead and todays visit was a high point of my cycling adventure, made possible by the owners of the Mona Inn, Mr Kevin Doran and his wife Vonnette, who kindly allowed me access to the unrestored grade 2 listed building to see and photograph its features. 

Coaching Inns were a vital part of coaching infrastructure that served the needs of the traveller needing food, drink, a wash, rest and clean clothing with stables staffed by ostlers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights who cared for horses and made running repairs to the coaches.

Whilst my journey from London has attempted to visit each of the 28 coaching inns along the route it revealed that only 8 continue to provide overnight accommodation, food and drink:

  • 10 have been demolished (36%)
  • 8 continue to function as an Inn by providing overnight accommodation and food (29%)
  • 5 are struggling to survive as pubs and have a doubtful uncertain future (19%)
  • 4have been converted into shops or apartments (14%)

The Mona Inn was once used by wealthy private travellers in their own coaches and the public riding in Stage or Royal Mail coaches. Owners Kevin and Vonnette Doran have been its custodians and Vonnette has gathered a vast amount of historical information about the property that has now been lodged with the Council Archivist in nearby Llangefni. She kindly gave permission for me include this extract in this story:

In 1819 the field called Caer-Mon was chosen as the location to build the new half way house. It was 14 miles from Holyhead and 9 miles from Bangor, however the locals did not agree and repeatedly pulled the milestones down.
 
Today the milestone along with all its furnishings for the road reads Bangor 12 miles Holyhead 13 miles. It may well be that part of the decision in choosing this location was the usual distance for horses to travel before being exchanged for a fresh team.

It is probable that the same stonemason responsible for building Toll Houses across Anglesey was the same person who built the Inn at Mona

The Mona Inn opened to the traveller in May 1822
Source: Mrs Vonnette Doran

Today Kevin Doran met showed me around the building to explain how it was used and allowed me to photograph its features:

From left to right: Travellers who had not made a booking would knock the front door. It would then be the decision of the inn keeper to decide who to accept.

The gateway in the middle photograph was minded by the gatekeeper who occupied the room next to the gate. He would listen out for the sound of a coaching horn and fling the gates open for the carriage to enter. Royal mail coaches would be brought to a halt in the middle of the courtyard where its horses were exchanged with a fresh team, the coach would turn on its axis then charge off to either the Holyhead packet ferry of head for the Menai Bridge and Bangor. Kevin explained that 72 horses were rotated through the coaching inn every 24 hours.

The photo on the right is where the privileged travellers would alight. The outline of the original doorway can be seen to the left of the Porch. The Porch had been constructed after the coaching era.

From Left to Right: There were 7 bedrooms on the first floor and as this was the era of candlelight, guests would be able to buy candles from the inn keeper.

Each room was lime plastered and the wealthy had a private room facing the court yard, each fitted with a hob grate as shown in the middle photo.The metal sides of the hob grate was where a kettle would keep water hot for washing or for a pan of food to be kept hot. The fire also heated the room.

The bedrooms facing the road would be shared with strangers. Some had an open fire others were kept warm by the firebricks extracting warmth from the burning fire into other rooms.

Beneath the floorboards there would be a layer of sharp sea shells or broken glass that helped to insulate the bedrooms and control vermin. The rooms had chamber pots, not toilets – and became known as bed chambers.

From Left to Right:

This was the era of window shutters and the Inn at Mona has them in abundance. The wealthy would stay in their own room and the less well off would had a choice of 2 communal areas. One for relaxation and the other for meals.

The communal areas had their own fireplace and an essential piece of equipment for every coaching inn was a spittoon. Spitting was practiced by both men and women and spittoons were introduced to replace what was once a habitual practice of spitting on the floor. Spittoons were flat bottomed, often weighted to prevent them tipping over.

To protect the plastered walls a skirting board prevented the sweeping and cleaning brush from causing damage. A dado rail was protected the wall from damage by furniture including chair backs.

A vaulted cellar under the dining area would be where food and drink was kept chilled. Interestingly the cellarage did not extend throughout the ground floor. Where it didn’t exist the floorboards were prone to dry rot. Where it did exist the ventilation kept the floorboards in good condition.

From left to right: Equal care and attention was given to horses and the carriages they pulled. The coach houses kept them dry and those needing repair received attention by the blacksmith or wheelwright.

Feed for the horses were stored above their stabling where a trap door that was used to haul bales into the hay loft can be seen.

The cobblestone ground floor would usually be covered in straw and a feeding frame for hay leans into the stable at a 45% angle, holding the contents at head height inside the horses manger.

it was 199 years since the Inn at Mona first opened for the traveller. I am the very last traveller to visit.

The Inn at Mona is for sale and wow, what an opportunity it is for prospective purchasers to buy an important part of our nations history and heritage, knowing that nothing like it will never, ever be built again. After bidding my farewells to Kevin my bicycle ride continued to Holyhead.

Nearing journeys end I imagined the sense of relief and arrival felt by countless others approaching here by packet boat, mail coach, stagecoach and privately owned carriages. 200 years ago mail coaches timed their arrival in Holyhead with that of the packet boat. They had to be on time as ‘Time and Tide waits for no man’ .

Stage coaches would go directly to the ‘Packet Boat’ or waited for its arrival at the ‘Eagle and Child Inn’ that no longer exists, however the building is still standing and is known now as Victoria Terrace.

In the maritime world a packet boat is identified by its function to carry packets and mail, not the boats design. The Post Office used steam packets as these were not so vulnerable to the wind conditions that delayed sailing ships.

The photo of an arrival in Holyhead in 1820 by sail captures Admiralty Arch in the background. The Harlequin was one of the earliest Packet steamships sailing back and forth to Holyhead and Howth, a suburb of Dublin between 1824 and 1837.

As Irish parliamentarians were based in Westminster I was curious to understand where their parliamentary documents were being sent. An enquiry to the Irish Embassy in London revealed documents relating legislation were sent to Dublin Castle where they were lodged as an official  record of laws. Constituency mail was sent to and from the person or business concerned.

I was delighted to cycle under the Admiralty Archway captured in the photograph taken in 1820, the starting point of the Holyhead Road and my journeys end.

In 1836 the mail coach from here covered the distance of 260 measured miles, taking 26 hours 55 minutes to journey from here to Marble Arch. 185 years later this bicycle ride required 5 overnight stay covering a distance of 290 cycling miles taking 44 cycling hours 

Climbing off my bicycle I could barely stand up straight, yet was pleased to share the moment with (Left to Right) Alan Williams, Holyhead Stena Line Manager who gave permission for me to cycle into a restricted area underneath Admiralty Arch, Holyhead Mayor Richard Parry and Barry Hillier, Director of Holyhead Maritime Museum whose support, advice and following of the adventure has been invaluable.

I began my story with quotes from Charles Dickens to paint a picture of life in the early 1800s.His marvellous description of Holyhead harbour brings this story to an end:

There they lay, alongside each other; shoals of passengers and heaps of luggage proceeding hurriedly on board. Labyrinths of tackle, idle sails, sunken piles, with ugly lodgings for the water-rat within their mud-discoloured nooks; church steeples, warehouses, house-roofs, arches, bridges, men and women, children, casks, cranes, boxes, horses, coaches, idlers, and hard-labourers;  In the midst of all this turmoil there was an incessant roar from the packet’s funnel, which quite expressed the surrounding scenes of perspiration and emotion.

Charles Dickens,Martin Chuzzlewitt, ch. 40

Cycling along the Harlech coaching route

My childhood memory of stagecoach travel is an image of John Wayne leaning from the window of a Wells Fargo Stagecoach rifle in hand, shooting at Geronimo and his band of Apache Indians. Yet the first recorded stagecoach ran from Edinburgh and quickly became the vehicle of choice for long distance travel that some writers refer to as a machine. Many stagecoach routes developed from well trodden paths made by drovers.

During lockdown I read ‘On the Trail of Welsh Drovers‘ by Twm Elias. He explained the routes from Harlech used by drovers to take cattle, sheep and geese to sell for the best prices in England. Whilst Shrewsbury was a popular market where high prices would be paid, even better prices were paid in London. The Harlech to London drover route became a stagecoach route used by Charles Darwin between Barmouth and Shrewsbury then Charles Dickens who frequently travelled from his London home to and beyond Shrewsbury.

The Shrewsbury Connection: How is Harlech Linked?

In the 13th century Welsh forces captured Shrewsbury and named it Amwythig – meaning ‘fortified town’. Edward 1st then brought Shrewsbury back under English control and subjected Wales to English rule. This was achieved by building a series of castles, including Castell Harlech which now has UNESCO World Heritage Status.

Castell Harlech

Harlech Castle gatehouse was used as a local assize. People sent to prison were walked in shackles to Shrewsbury gaol in the custody of drovers who were taking cattle, sheep and geese to sell at markets in Shrewsbury and beyond.

Pont Scethin

The 80-mile droving route crossed Pont Scethin, a stone packhorse bridge. Prisoners would sleep on cold, hard ground whilst drovers took hourly shifts to watch them, as well as the animals. 

In his book Twm Elias describes the routes taken to reach Shrewsbury from Harlech; one route went from Pont Scethin to Dolgellau, and onwards through Bwlch Oerddrws (the cold door pass) to Shrewsbury via Welshpool.

Other routes – namely those with less steep hills – followed Bwlch y Moch (gap of the pigs) or Bwlch Drws Ardudwy (the doorway to Ardudwy) to Bala, and then onwards to Shrewsbury via Corwen.

By the 1800s many sections of those well-trodden drover trails firstly became coaching routes and then in later years, roads.

In August 1829, a family of the name Hodgson wrote a diary recording a visit to Barmouth then described the stagecoach route to Shrewsbury via Welshpool that my bicycle ride would follow.

The Hodgsons paid 2d (2 old pence) a mile for a seat on the stagecoach roof. Their 80-mile journey cost 13 old shillings (13/-). A seat inside cost 4d a mile = £1-6s-8d for the full journey; data extracted from the currency converter on the National Archives website reveals todays equivalent value is £90:40p. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency

To compare the cost of stagecoach travel with the weekly income of local people I learned through a local social media appeal there was no such thing as an average wage. People accepted what they were given or were out of work. Local people informed me that those cutting hay earned 6d a day, a shepherd 2/6d per week, a seamstress 5/- a week and a bailiff on an estate 7/6d. Slate miners could earn 8/- a week but 8d was deducted as they had to pay for items used at work – candle, fuse and explosives. 

The modal weekly wage turned out to be 7/6p and the National Archives website reveals todays equivalent value is £25:43p. This shows the cost of stagecoach travel to Shrewsbury was over three times higher than the modal weekly wage of local people and therefore unaffordable. 

As the very wealthy owned their own coach and horses, coach travellers to Merionethshire included middle class tourists or artists, scientists and writers as evidenced by the Hodgson family, JMW Turner, Curnow Vosper, Charles Darwin and William Wordsworth using the stagecoach service to visit here.

Vosper’s painting of Salem has been written about in an earlier bicycle blog and Turners watercolour painting of the Mawddach estuary is displayed at the Tate art gallery in LondonWilliam Wordsworth wrote:

The gentleness of heaven is on the sea” 

The Influence of the Welsh Landscape on Charles Darwin

Visitors may have been drawn to our area by Flintshire-born naturalist and travel writer, Thomas Pennant. His published accounts described far-reaching views, bird life, plants and rock formations. This certainly influenced Charles Darwin’s visit in 1831 as he stayed in Snowdonia for several weeks studying the birds, plants and rock formations that Thomas Pennant had written about.

On August 29th 1831, Darwin left Barmouth by stagecoach and returned home to Shrewsbury where a letter offered him the position of guest naturalist on HMS Beagle. That voyage led to his world famous theory in the published work: ‘On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection’ (1859).

How did Harlech’s coaching routes begin?

The 1800 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland created an urgent need to improve road and sea links between Westminster and Dublin. Both Holyhead in Ynys Môn and Porthdinllaen on the Llŷn Peninsula were earmarked as a possible location for sea crossings.

William Madocks formed the Porthdinllaen turnpike trust to fund local coaching routes that crossed the driveway of Plas Tan Yr Allt, his Tremadog home. This is now a highly appreciated country house offering exceptionally high standards of comfort and customer service.

Stagecoaches then crossed the estuary from Porthmadog along an earth sea wall appropriately named the Cob. My bicycle is resting against a post where a sturdy gate ensured users stopped to pay a toll. In later years the monies raised from here were donated to local charities. The last five pence toll was paid at 3pm on Saturday 29 March 2003.

The Cob Toll House and Gatepost

Despite toll monies being used to improve roads, toll gates were the scene of protests by farmers complaining about the cost they had to pay for moving livestock. Known as the Rebekah Riots from a passage in the Bible – Genesis 24 Verse 60 – where Rebekah had been encouraged to ‘possess the gate’, one such incident occurred on the outskirts of Porthmadog at the Penmorfa toll gate.

Although Holyhead was chosen for sea crossings to Dublin, our local road improvements supported a regular stagecoach service passing Lord Harlech’s 16th century home, Glyn Cywarch.

These road improvements also paved the way for the introduction of the ‘Express Mountaineer Stagecoach Service’ between Caernarfon and Barmouth via Harlech. The journey took 8 hours on alternate days (Sundays excepted) and Harlech became an important stagecoach centre.

The coach driver sat on a box seat so he could see over a team of 4 horses pulling the coach – the two closest to him known as wheelers, and the leading pair known as leaders. His skill reigned the team to start up, move, turn and stop in unison. Mail was carried in a box at the rear of the coach in the care of a guard. The guard was also responsible for blowing a horn that announced the coach was approaching or leaving a place.

In 1830 Baron Sir Robert Williames Vaughan funded the building of the Blue Lion coaching inn, built from the shell of Plas yn Harlech. Sir Robert was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Merioneth, lived in Nannau and was instrumental in the building work of Dolgellau gaol and courthouse. He employed Mr Daniel Parry to be the innkeeper of the Blue Lion and in 1833 Daniel placed this advertisement in the Merionethshire Herald newspaper:

BLUE LION INN, HARLECH, MERIONETHSHIRE. Daniel Parry begs respectfully to inform the Public, more particularly Tourists and families visiting this part of the Principality, that he has entered the above Inn which commands a fine view of the old Castle, the ruins of which still continue to attract strangers from various parts of the kingdom, the whole extent of Cardigan Bay (on a clear day!) and the Carnervonshire Mountains. GOOD STABLING AND LOCK-UP HOUSES, Wines, Spirits’

Stagecoaches entering Harlech town would have created a lot of noise; the distant sound of a horn giving a warning of their arrival would be followed by horses clip-clopping along Stryd Fawr pulling the creaking coach. They came to a standstill outside Llew Glas where the sound of passengers and their luggage getting off or on the coach combined with the background noise of an ostler detaching used horses and attaching a fresh team.

During the changeover of horses it was the responsibility of the coachman to hold the reigns of the lead horse while the ostler detached the used team and then attached the fresh team to the coach. The saying ‘hold your horses‘ comes from this practice. Not to do so could risk the lead horse trotting down the road pulling a driverless coach.

The detached team would be handed to a waterman who took the used horses to a nearby trough for a cooling drink of clean fresh water draining down the Rhinogau mountain range.

The former Llew Glas coaching inn

Now once more trading as the Plas this Georgian building features a double entrance door flanked by long bowed windows with numerous sash windows on the upper floors.

The 1800s property tax was based on how many windows a building had. A flat rate of 2/- per annum was levied on every property with an additional charge for more than 10 windows. As the Llew Glas was constructed with over 20 windows the owners would pay an additional 8/- a year.

According to the Pigots 1831 commercial directory for Harlech, the Llew Glas (Blue Lion) was a posting house for our town:

Coaching inns were profitable businesses that benefited from three income streams:

  • Firstly as a staging post that hired fresh horses for coaches to reach the next stage post.
  • Secondly from coach passengers who paid for tickets, food and drink. Some coach passengers paid to stay overnight.
  • Thirdly from the Royal Mail: coaching inns were used as a post office.

Coaching inns were a vital link for the postal service and quick turnovers were critical as the Royal Mail levied fines for lengthy delays. Experienced ostlers completed the exchange of horses within 3 or 4 minutes.

When used horses had finished their cooling drink the waterman walked them into the stable yard across the road from the Llew Glas to rest, eat and be cared for.

The former Llew Glas stables and yard

These days a hugely popular and friendly Welsh Café continues the tradition of being a place to rest and refresh. It has kept the historic ‘Llew Glas’ (Blue Lion) name. Blue might represent the sea, an appropriate colour for our coastal town or maybe the night sky, depicting the lion which is a nocturnal creature symbolising strength and power.

The journey begins

Early in the morning of Thursday July 30th:my bicycle ride to Shrewsbury left Harlech and called at the next stagecoach stop 10 miles away in Barmouth, passing numerous milestones that were a legal requirement during the age of stagecoach travel.

The Harlech to Barmouth Milestone

This prominent and well preserved milestone is set into a dry stone wall below Caffi Cymunedol in Dyffryn Ardudwy. It reads Harlech 5 miles, Barmouth 5 miles.

Before roman times the Welsh mile was equal to 3 English miles and a Gaelic calendar was in use with each week consisting of 8 nights creating the word ‘wythnos‘; the romans introduced a 7 day week and Edward 1st introduced the English mile.

The function of milestones:

  • Informed travellers of direction and distances.
  • Verified the miles of stagecoach travel passengers had paid for.
  • Confirmed the accuracy of charges to coaching proprietors who hired horses to pull their coach over an agreed distance.
  • Calculated postal charges until the 1840 Penny Black stamp signalled a standard postal rate.
  • Became a legal requirement on turnpike roads as all users were charged by the mile.

The name turnpike comes from the spiked barrier placed at the toll gate that ensured road users would stop and pay to pass through. Turnpike trusts used those payments to fund road maintenance and new roads. Stagecoaches paid in advance and the guard would blow a horn as a signal for the gate keeper to move the barrier for the coach to pass without stopping.

Beyond Dyffryn Ardudwy is the turn-off to Pont Scethin. Although it has been written that coaches crossed Pont Scethin I continued along the former turnpike road to reach the Barmouth stage post.

Gwesty Cors y Gedol

According to the Hodgson diary their stagecoach journey from here to Shrewsbury took 16 hours and covered a distance of 80 miles. From that information I calculated that the coach moved at an arithmetic mean speed of 5 miles an hour.

The former hotel stage post has now been converted into apartments and shops. People can be forgiven for not recognising its original purpose and being unaware that Charles Darwin had travelled on a coach which – 200 years ago – waited in place of the car that my bicycle leans against.

Cors y Gedol 200 years later

With fresh horses, the coach continued to the next stage post in Dolgellau. Standard operating procedures were for a coach to travel at staged intervals of 10 to 12 miles then stop for the horses to be exchanged with a fresh team. This routine protected horses from exhaustion and enabled coach passengers to travel long distances across the country at a constant speed in stages, hence the reason for coaches being called stagecoaches.

The Dolgellau Stage Post

Whilst all sorts of horses and mules were used for coach work, people informed me that strong 17 hand Irish draft horses would be stabled here for use over the mountainous road that lay ahead.

Despite the strength of these horses, the effort of pulling a stagecoach weighing over a ton uphill for 5 miles to reach the cold door pass summit and then arrest its’ 5 mile descent was both strenuous and dangerous.

As the stagecoach neared the steepest point its passengers were obliged to dismount, lightening the load horses had to pull. By doing so they were at most risk of  highway robbery from the notorious Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy, the red bandits of Mawddwy.

The Summit of Bwlch Oerddrws

A joy of cycling is the ability to notice objects that are missed when driving, including 25 stone blocks close to the summit that were built here to act as an anti-tank defence to a perceived threat of German invasion from Ireland in 1940.  Official documents explain:

‘These form part of Western Command Stop Line No. 21, which ran from Rhyl to Machynlleth. This local topography forms a steep-sided, narrow and easily defended gorge’. 

Nowadays the blocks provide a wonderful shelter for sheep from prevailing winds howling through the cold door pass.

Once the coach reached the summit its passengers got back on board for a controlled descent that involved the driver and guard to take a series of actions:

At the front of the coach its driver used a lever that applied a block to the outer rim of the front wheels known as a slipper brake. Secondly he would reign the wheeler horses to step back. By doing so they would apply force against the pole they were attached to, pushing it into the descending coach preventing it from running into them.

At the rear of the coach its guard would apply chains attached to used horse shoes that he hooked into the spoke of the rear wheels. By preventing them turning this acted as a brake (the term ‘brake shoes’ continues to this day).

Brake (Horse) shoe

He then used a ‘C’ shaped device as a wedge to keep the wheels still. Even-so, the coach could still slide downhill giving rise to the saying ‘applying the skids‘.

According to the Hodgson diary, the Mallwyd Inn was kept by the son of the landlord of Gwesty Cons y Gedol. Prior to this it was known as the Peniarth Arms, owned by the William -Wynne family of Llanegryn, then the Bury’s Hotel. It is now called the Brigands Inn, named to immortalise Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy whose numbers resembled a small army – over 80 of them were executed for highway robbery.

The field where I stood to take this photograph is mentioned in Arthurial legend as being the scene of a bloody battle. It is also known that highway robbers included Yeomans, former landowners from the Shrewsbury area.

The Brigands Inn formerly known as the Mallwyd Inn

Passengers bound for Shrewsbury got off here and joined a different coach that travelled to Shrewsbury from Aberystwyth. The coach they had been using continued with fresh horses to Aberystwyth, returning to Dolgellau along the coastal road.

I continued to cycle along the stagecoach route reaching the next stage post 11 miles away:

The Cann Office

The naming of inns has been a legal requirement for hundreds of years and as the majority of people in the 1800s could not read, pictures were used.

This inn sign combines the two purposes of coaching inns with the picture of 3 tankards or canns of ale. ‘Cann’ is an old English name for a drinking vessel, ‘Office’ reflects the use of a coaching inn as a post office. Ale is beer made without the addition of hops.

An hour later, I arrived in Llanfair Caereinion High Street and stopped at the Goat Hotel stage post that is presently undergoing some renovation work.

The Goat Hotel

I sat on a bench opposite the Goat for lunch and wondered whether Charles Darwin had lunched here. Mind you, eating fresh meals at a coaching inn was never guaranteed. Some passengers would have ordered and paid for a meal then left before it was served or finished because their coach was leaving. It has been written that some coaching inns charged a new customer for a meal then served the leftover food that a previous customer didn’t have time to eat.

My visit was equally frustrating. I left my thermos flask on the bench seat and didn’t realise what I had done until an hours’ ride later.

During meal breaks the driver and guard remained on the coach. Stories suggest a legendary yard of ale would be passed to them but it is more likely they drunk from a hip flask. When the guard blew his horn, passengers had to get aboard straight away as those that didn’t were left behind.

A few miles later I passed signage for Powis Castle and thought about the massive social changes that occurred in the 1800s. In the first half of that century, the low wages of people were due in no small measure to the cost of the Napoleonic wars. Then the Industrial Revolution saw people move into towns for work with improved wages. Yet where did the money come from in the first place to build these factories and make the machinery needed for the Industrial Revolution?

Powis Castle houses a collection of items obtained from India by Robert Clive (Clive of India). I know that Robert Clive was in charge of soldiers from the British East India Company who made fortunes from India. I wonder where such fortunes were invested by the British, given the stark increase in poverty in India…

The Welshpool Stage Post

Shortly afterwards I arrived in Welshpool where Darwin’s stagecoach stopped at the Royal Oak. In addition to being a stage post for coaches coming from Wales, the Royal Oak refreshed horses and passengers on the Ludlow and Chester coaching route. Royal Oak was used as a metaphor for the strength of the monarchy.

From Welshpool the final stage post before reaching Shrewsbury is in a village named Halfway House. This road is too dangerous for cyclists; it is narrow, fast, carries a high volume of vehicles and ends at a busy roundabout at the equally perilous A5. Putting my safety first I covered the remaining 15 miles by train. 

30 minutes later I arrived at Shrewsbury gaol, the destination for prisoners who had walked here from Harlech. For some a sentence of capital punishment may have been given; such as Samual Thomas for killing a cow, or William Jones for highway robbery – both executed here in 1790. 

The Dana (Shrewsbury Gaol)

The gaol has been closed for several years and today’s prison is a tourist attraction used as a television location for Coronation Street and Detective Bancroft.

200 years ago, prisoners in shackles took 4 days to walk here. Darwin’s stagecoach took 16 hours, having stopped at 6 stage posts using 24 different horses. Today’s bicycle ride – using the pedal power of a pensioner – covered a distance of 80.6 miles and took me 9 hours. The shorter journey time reflects improved road surfaces and a lighter weight being conveyed across the route.

Sightseeing in Shrewsbury

I began with a leisurely bicycle ride alongside the River Severn to ‘Quantum Leap’ which serves to remind visitors that Charles Darwin was born and educated in Shrewsbury. 

The Quantum Structure

Darwin’s thoughts on ‘The Origin of the Species by means of Natural Selection’ (1859) challenged traditional teachings about the origin of mankind. Those who accepted his theory made a quantum leap from traditional religious beliefs and is the reason of the name for and design of this structure.

The Original Shrewsbury School attended by Darwin

When Darwin was a pupil at Shrewsbury School it was located in the town centre and that building is now owned by the council. Unfortunately I was preoccupied with taking this photograph and failed to look at the entrance door to find out the building’s present use.

Darwin’s childhood is said to have been spent playing amongst rocks and fishing for newts in nearby Quarry Park overlooked by St Chad’s Church where he was baptised…so off I went to have a look.

Towards the end of the 1800s Shrewsbury School moved to the outskirts of town, so I cycled there to see a statue of Darwin as the young 22yr old who went on to change people’s outlook on life.

This amazing sculpture has been crafted with examples of creatures and birds from the Galápagos Islands; by enlarging the above photos a finch can be seen in bottom right picture standing by Darwins foot. The finch is often cited in support of his theory about evolution. The ‘Sally Lightfoot Crab’ can be seen in the top right photo. This is one of the few saltwater crab species that inhabits the Galápagos Islands sharing sea-side rocks with the marine iguana that has been included.

Alumni from Shrewsbury School are known as Old Salopians and include former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Michael Heseltine, Sir Colin McColl, a former Head of the British Intelligence Service, and Will Hodson.

Will is a cycling hero. In 2015 he set out from this statue to cycle around the world crossing 7 continents raising awareness and money for Parkinson’s Disease charities.

A few weeks ago I made contact with him. He had reached Japan, then paused this epic journey in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic to return home and support his parents.

Will expects to complete his around the world bicycle trip in 2022 and progress can be followed here:https://www.facebook.com/pg/supercyclingman .

I had started this bicycle ride from the Blue Lion in Harlech and ended it outside the front door of another Lion, the Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury.

The Lion Hotel Shrewsbury

It was from this doorstep that Charles Darwin boarded a faster stagecoach called the Wonder, so-named in recognition of its ability to complete the 158-mile route to London in just 1 day.

Next year I will cycle along that fascinating route and write about its other famous passenger, Charles Dickens and also tell the mail coach story from London to Holyhead.

Ride to Rhyd

A steep climb from the Oakeley Arms to reach Llyn Mair
Bridge for the Ffestiniog narrow gauge railway to Tan Y Bwlch
Coastal views from Rhyd
Rhyd
Mountain views from the road to Garreg
Gorsaf Reilffordd Penrhyn
Bakery Crossing
Home sweet Home

A visit to Siân Owen

Capel Salem, Llanbedr

18 months ago I attended a talk about the artist Curnow Vosper. His watercolour painting of worshipers inside Capel Salem included a lady wearing a stovepipe hat and shawl which later became the image of Welsh national dress. Her name was Siân Owen.

This autumn adventure began at Capel Salem to photograph the box pews where subjects for his painting known as ‘Salem‘ positioned themselves.

Whilst Vospers painting was 111 years ago the box pews remain positioned below a wall clock that had stopped just before 10 o’clock.

His watercolour was brought by Lord Leverhulme and is now displayed in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight. So I decided to cycle there and visit Siân Owen.

The Plan

My last bicycle ride to Merseyside was 4 years ago when I cycled 85 miles in a day to ‘prove I could do it’ – a journey of endurance not enjoyment. That visit was to be part of the 125th anniversary celebrations for the Cunard shipping line.

Todays journey would be at a very leisurely pace taking 3 days with late morning starts and early afternoon finishes; day 1 ends in Llandudno. Day 2 ends with an overnight stay in Port Sunlight where on day 3 I planned to visit Siân Owen.

Day 1 Monday October 14th

This afternoon I set out from home to cycle over the Crimea Pass. A steady 7 – 13% uphill gradient to and beyond Blaenau Ffestiniog is rewarded by a lengthy descent towards to Betws-y-Coed and Llandudno.

Although there weren’t many vehicles driving over the Crimea Pass most of them were driving at a Charge of the Light Brigade speed.

From Betws-y-Coed I joined the busy A470. Sadly this road has been the scene of several very nasty accidents and ends at a double roundabout under the A55 that I consider to be too dangerous for pedal cyclists.

After cycling along a dirt track at the side of the A470 I joined a pavement that ran to the outskirts of Llanrwst. Here I diverted off the A470 to cross over the 3 arched bridge and onto Trefriw. Cycling through it seemed a much prettier village than I ever appreciate when driving this way.

A short distance later I arrived in Conwy with its magnificent castle and premises of Drew Pritchard Antiques.

Instead of watching the 6pm news I watch Drew and his team in ‘Salvage Hunters’. How on earth he remains calm and composed when dealing with people who invite him to buy and then change their minds about selling beggars belief.

From here I cycled out of Conwy and crossed a bridge from the castle to follow a marvellous traffic free coastal path around Deganwy to reach the North Shore at Llandudno. My journey then took me along quiet back roads to the Promenade on the sea front for an overnight stay at the Imperial.

Day 2: Tuesday October 15th

From Llandudno promenade the sea views are of Gwynt y Môr (meaning wind of the sea) off- shore wind farm.

The wind farm is quite some distance from land and like good children, can be seen but not heard.

Most of todays cycling followed the coast from Llandudno on National Cycle Route 5 to beyond Prestatyn. The weather was perfect for a very easy day in the saddle; no noticeable wind, a cool, dry and sunny day. To my left the sea and to the right a railway line. For roughly an hour I was pedalling along flat ground seeing nobody; gosh, cycling here was really dull and boring.

Relief came shortly after Prestatyn when NCR5 bears away from the coast towards Holywell for some moderate hill climbing with homes and shops to see. I celebrated at a cafe for coffee and slab of chocolate cake – yummy.

From here I picked up NCR 568 to cycle through Deeside and its marshes, exiting the cycle route on the west coast of Wirral peninsular. I then cycled across land to the eastern edge of the Wirral and stayed overnight at the Bridge Inn, Port Sunlight.

The following day CCTV caught me getting dressed

Day 3: Wednesday October 16th

After a hearty breakfast I cycled around Port Sunlight village. Its really pretty and the museum is well worth a visit. I brought a fridge magnet souvenir and block of Vinola Soap in the packaging of RMS Titanic. This soap was once purchased by the White Star Line for use in passenger cabins on the Titanic.

I’m now using the soap at home. Not only is it creamy, the bathroom is now filled with a wonderful aroma of vanilla.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery is opposite the museum, My reason for cycling the best part of 100 miles to reach here was to see Siân Owen. She was overjoyed to see me:

Siân was the central figure in the Vosper painting known as ‘Salam’. A 2nd version is displayed in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.

Today I was looking at Vospers original watercolour that was sold to Lord Leverhume who had millions of prints made.

Those who brought Port Sunlight soap would collect soap wrappers and exchange them for a Salem print – an incentive for brand loyalty that also increased the sales of his soap.

The wall clock in this painting was the same clock I photographed inside Salem Chapel. For the story of this clocks time and details about the people in Vospers’ painting, simply click on this link: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ladylever/collections/paintings/gallery4/salem.aspx

As a consequence of so many households owning this print the image of women wearing a shawl and black stovepipe hat was thought to be the National Dress of Wales. It subsequently became a device for tourism, national pride and nowadays Welsh identity – frequently worn by children on St Davis day.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my journey.