Into the valleys: an off-road cycle ride through south Wales

After a winter lockdown riding the same old roads within a few miles of home, I am desperate to explore somewhere new and a little further afield. Going somewhere by train and riding home is a simple format for a bike tour, so I hop on a train from Abergavenny to Swansea, on the far side of the south Wales valleys, with no plan other than to spend a couple of days riding back.

welsh valleys map

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen the sea, so I head for the beach. From there I pass through the marina and its swanky waterside developments, and then on to the towpath of Tennant canal. Built to move coal from mines inland to Swansea’s docks, the canal runs beside Crymlyn Bog, a wetland that has somehow survived years of abuse from a nearby oil refinery and power station. Furry, yellow-tinged pussy willow and delicate hazel catkins glow in the bright sunshine of a fresh spring morning. I hear a splash up ahead and watch as an enormous heron glides silently away, its wings almost spanning the width of the canal.

The high-level road bridge across the River Neath has a dedicated cycleway and I then follow the canal into Neath to seek out the remains of its 800-year-old abbey. This was once the largest monastery in Wales, but the growth of copper and iron smelting in the area somehow led to the abbey being buried five metres deep in slag and other debris, until local volunteers dug it out in the 1920s. I find a sheltered spot on the grass beneath what was once the south transept and eat my lunch in the sunshine.

The Tennant canal between Swansea and Neath
The Tennant canal between Swansea and Neath

From Neath back to Abergavenny I will follow Sustrans national cycle route 46, which shadows the A465 Heads of the Valleys road, the dual carriageway that marks the divide between south and mid Wales. To the north lie the wild uplands and glacier-sculpted peaks of the Brecon Beacons. To the south is the industrial geography of the valleys: long, densely populated valley floors separated by wild, windswept moors, and everywhere the remnants of the iron, coal and steel industries that made and used to define this part of Wales.

The canal ends at Glynneath, and so does the easy riding. My legs protest on the climb out of the valley, which seems to go on for ever. After freewheeling down the other side, I stop at the rusting gates of Tower Colliery, the last deep mine in Wales, which closed in 2008. Now there’s light industry, housing and leisure, with a zipwire ride from the top of the mountain and a mining-themed rollercoaster.

I realise I have time to add a few more miles to my day with a detour into the Brecon Beacons national park. I ride through an industrial estate on the edge off Hirwaun, under the dual carriageway and suddenly I’m climbing up a narrow lane under a canopy of sessile oak trees. From the top I can make out the silhouettes of Pen-y-Fan and Corn Du.

These abrupt changes of scene – from urban, industrial and at times pretty run-down, to open countryside and mountain skylines – are part of the unique character of the valleys. And cycling is by far the best way to explore, not just on the waymarked routes but also on the much larger network of lanes, tracks, byways and old tramways.

Open countryside on the road to Penderyn
Open countryside on the road to Penderyn

The little village of Penderyn seems a world away from the industrial estates of Hirwaun: stout stone cottages, an old church, a couple of good pubs and a distillery that produces a Welsh single malt whisky from the spring water of the Brecon Beacons. In the golden hour of late afternoon, I keep climbing until I find a gravel track through a forest that will hopefully get me to Merthyr Tydfil without using the busy A470. After improvising my way across the deep gorge of the River Taff, I emerge into the hillside village of Cefn-coed-y-cymmer on the edge of Merthyr.

I’m staying at the Grange, a cycling-oriented guesthouse owned and run by Gethin and Nikki Pearson. They met in London and both got into cycling while commuting to work by bike. After years in soul-sapping corporate jobs they upped sticks for Wales (Gethin is originally from Newport) and run “the kind of place we’d like to stay at”. The location couldn’t be better: at the halfway point on the popular Taff Trail between Cardiff and Brecon, and a 10-minute ride from Bike Park Wales, one of the UK’s top mountain bike trail centres.

Gethin knocks up a homemade burger, which I wash down with a beer from the Grey Trees brewery over the hill in Aberdare. If the aim is to strike a balance between the comforts of a smart B&B and the informality of a ski chalet, while also providing everything you could want on the bike front, the Grange gets it just right.

The next morning we sit in the garden under a flowering magnolia tree and look across to the elegantly curved Cefn Coed viaduct. I set off on the old railway line through a steep, wooded valley. At Dowlais Top I stop to look out across what was once a flaming, smoking expanse of furnaces and forges running day and night. Merthyr made the cannonballs that sank Napoleon’s fleet and the railways that girdled the globe.

The steelworks are long gone, but on the hillside beyond is the giant black hole of Ffos-y-fran, Britain’s biggest opencast coalmine, where bulldozers are digging through a layer cake of rock and coal. Coal dust, noise and traffic are a serious blight on the neighbourhoods nearby. The mine is setting aside a share of the profits to restore the heavily worked landscape to a more natural state, though there are debates on whether this is enough. Most of the coal from Ffos-y-fran goes to the Tata steelworks at Port Talbot, a major employer but responsible for an estimated 15% of all Wales’s carbon emissions. Without the huge investment required to decarbonise, steel production will still need coal, whether from Wales or elsewhere.

I watch a snowstorm drift across the valley until I’m suddenly in a whiteout. Adding a few warm layers, I continue east on a cycleway squeezed between the dual carriageway and an Asda superstore. Crossing the Rhymney valley I climb Bryn Oer (the aptly named “cold hill”). There’s a small windfarm at the top, and the turbines are spinning fast in the arctic air with a relentless whump-whump-whump sound.

The author pushing his bike over rough ground to the Chartist Cave
The author pushing his bike over rough ground to the Chartist Cave

From here I leave route 46 to head north on to Llangynidr mountain. I am in search of the Chartist Cave where, in 1839, local activists prepared and stockpiled their weapons before a march on Newport in the cause of democratic rights for working men. Police killed about 20 of the thousands who took to the streets and the ringleaders were tried for treason and transported to penal colonies in Australia.

Though it is marked on my map, the cave is a mile from the road and I have to push my bike across the rough ground. It’s blowing a gale and starting to snow again, and I begin to wonder if my map reading will be up to the job. Eventually I see the low, arched mouth of the cave and a commemorative plaque that confirms I’m in the right place.

It is a relief to be out of the wind. I put on my head torch to venture deeper and crawl through a narrow slot into a larger chamber. I’ve heard it goes on for more than 400 metres underground but I’m scared to venture too far in case I can’t find my way out again.

The Chartists who hid their guns and pikes in that cave are part of a proud history of radical politics in the valleys, which also includes early experiments in progressive education at the Dowlais ironworks, Keir Hardie’s election as Britain’s first Labour MP in Merthyr, and Tredegar’s favourite son Aneurin Bevan taking his town’s medical aid society as his blueprint for the NHS. The valleys have made an outsized contribution to modern Britain, not just in industry but in ideas.

Snow at the Chartist Cave, Mynydd Llangynidr
Snow at the Chartist Cave, Mynydd Llangynidr

Between Tredegar and Brynmawr Route 46 is on a series of new traffic-free cycleways beside the recently upgraded Heads of the Valleys road. The most thrilling of them is the glorious descent to the new Gateway Bridge at the top of the Clydach gorge. A deep ravine of caves, waterfalls, ancient beech woodland and hundreds of rare species of plants and insects is not a natural location for a dual carriageway.

Aside from the ecological impacts, the new road has gone way over budget, though the result is some impressive civil engineering. But for cyclists, the way down the gorge is utterly charming, on the trackbed of an old railway line that clings to cliff faces and leaps across brooks on stone viaducts. It is a beautiful end to my journey along the Heads of the Valleys, just one route in a unique, richly varied yet often overlooked landscape that offers unlimited possibilities for exploring by bike.

Jack Thurston is the author of the Lost Lanes series of cycling guidebooks. Accommodation was provided by the Grange, which has doubles from £85 B&B

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