Day 2. Into Wales – Chepstow and its Castle

Chepstow Castle

Do you get that moment, perhaps when going on a walk, get out of the car, stretch, look at the hills you are intending to climb and a feeling of great relaxation spreads over you? It was one of those moments now perched on my bike at the apex of the Severn Bridge, looking way below into the muddy waters of the Severn and ahead at the hills and valleys of South Wales. Gave a shove and started freewheeling towards The Coach and Horses Inn in Chepstow. Had booked it beforehand, it was in the old part of the town, the reviews showed it to be a friendly place to stay and had WiFi. Walking in saw that all the beer pumps had Welsh brewed beer from Brains, was given a cheery welcome from both the barman and customers and was soon sitting down to the meal and, after a long day crossing most of England, this was well-deserved.

However, WiFi hardly worked in my room and it was explained that this was a 16th century coaching inn, had solid stone walls but there was good WiFi in the bar. It had been a long day, the bar was busy, a quick beer, bed and a prompt start in the morning seemed a much better idea.

After a good breakfast, decided to sort out the next night’s accommodation – got a shock, all the normal accommodation was full. It had seemed feasible, when researching beforehand, to choose somewhere to stay as I went along as there was plenty of available accommodation along the South Wales coast and it was out of season. I was intending to decide where to stay the next night based on the most interesting places and distance covered. Now, my position in the corner of the bar started getting more difficult as someone belonging to the pub or Brewery had arrived and an increasingly interesting conversation about the running of the pub was taking place and, embarrassingly, far more commercial information was being discussed than I ought to know so I upped sticks and headed through the historic town centre for the Tourist Office.

Chepstow has just been celebrating 950 years of history, on the banks of the Wye, the boundary between Wales and England. Its river crossing is guarded by the Castle. The original castle was built by the newly-created Earl of Hereford as a base for his advances into the Welsh kingdom of Gwent. His Great Tower still forms the basis of the castle today. The development of the coal and iron industries in the Valleys meant that prosperity moved west and Chepstow’s historic centre not significantly redeveloped.

The person managing the Tourist office proved very helped, a few checks on their accommodation site showed, to her surprise as well, that everywhere was full, but she was determined to find somewhere so suggested I started looking around the Castle while she continued. It is spectacularly perched above the river Wye. When I returned some time later she had not found any available accommodation but had the home and mobile number of a landlady in Caerleon who had left a message on both to say she had accommodation available tonight. Clutching these lifelines, I went to the topmost parts of castle and, after several tries, got through on the mobile number. The vacancy was confirmed, and I was on my way to Caerleon.

Day 1. Off to Wales

Into Wales

Lock the door, cross the road, down the path on to the Flitch Way, a former railway track now for public use leading to Braintree Station and also part of the Sustrans Cycle network. Intend to follow Route 4 from the Severn Bridge to St David’s, the most Western point in Wales.

Bikes and trains have a difficult relationship; bikes need to use trains, the train companies encouraged to accommodate bikes, but often seem reluctant. Not Abellio, though, a Dutch bike-friendly company which runs our train to London. It has put in new cycle racking at their stations and, ignoring some indignation, has converted some formerly first-class carriages by including a row of tip-up seats so space can be created for wheelchairs/pushchairs/bikes.

Stood with bike loaded with 4 panniers, tent and sleeping bag outside Liverpool Street Station apprehensively viewing the maelstrom which is the City, which needed to be crossed to the cycle super-highway along the Thames. There were scuttling pedestrians glued to phones, cyclists dashing everywhere. The trick, I discovered, was to become a “vehicle”, get well into the road and become part of the slow-moving traffic. It does not make you popular, but everyone can see you.

The super-highway is mostly separated from the traffic, its main problem along the Embankment being tourists obliviously wandering about taking photographs. Left the Embankment at The Houses of Parliament to connect to the cycle path along Birdcage Walk. Rounded the corner at the top – two large white horses were marching towards me so exchanged glances with the two mounted police and immediately decided it was now a horse path and shot into the tourists and stopped. A section of troops passed by and there were tourists were swanning everywhere: I had just missed the Changing of the Guard.

Escaped into the peace of Hyde Park, and had the pleasure of riding along the bank of the Serpentine where Ian has often taken me to see the wide variety of birds and their families. Then it was over the road to Paddington Station to join the crowd watching the destination board to see the allocation of platforms. Dashed to the Bristol train as the allocation was put up uncomfortably close to time of departure.

You have to book beforehand to take a bike on an express train and are also given a seat allocation: mine was coach J. When walking through the barrier I enquired where the bike store was; some deep thought and was told it was at the far end. The express stretched way out of sight around a curve in the platform but spotted the store fortunately just 20 yards from the barrier and secured the bike.

Staggered off down the platform carrying 4 panniers, bar bag, light hiking tent and sleeping bag. No sign of coach J and the lettering of the carriages lost their sequence. Tried to fight down growing panic when saw Porter – “Where is coach J”? “There isn’t one on the new trains, that was for an old train. Just get on here.” “But I’ve got a seat booked in J”, “GET ON!”. Collapsed puffed out into seat in nearly full carriage shortly followed by politely protesting English voice also wanting coach J and then saw large Scandinavian, being very firm in that Scandinavian manner, but quietening when she saw that the few remaining seats were being filled up. Her approach had some effect because, when the snack bar opened, a sheepish conductor arrived with a peace offering of a sandwich, muffin and drink which she, grumbling, accepted.

Had identified a local train from Bristol which went to Avonmouth and then continued along the bank of the Estuary in the direction of the Severn. Not only would this take me nearer the crossing, but it had the great advantage that I would not have to cycle though another city. At Bristol station I could find no indication where it left from until someone directed me to a siding in the invisible far reaches of the Station where a veteran two carriage diesel train arrived to eventually deposit me at a small station where the towers of the bridge beckoned me towards Wales.