Bothycation

Sometimes you just need to get away from it all. Sometimes you’re a tad ‘underfunded’ for a mini break. Those are the times when I like to grab a bivvy sack and find somewhere pleasant to go and get a terrible night’s sleep.

Poring over an OS map a few weeks ago I’d spotted a bothy symbol next to a lake high up in the Brecon Beacons, with what looked like a bike-accessible path up to it and a ridge isolating the lake. There was no streetview for the access path and few clues from online shots of the lake and bothy. I figured there’s only one way to find out and after staring at pictures of the lake for a couple of weeks, I was determined to head out and explore the second the weather pushed back into the teens.

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The ride over to Wales is one I’ve done endless times  – both on the way to and as part of audaxes and several times just ‘because it’s there’. I’ve got a fairly straightforward, flat, fast route that’ll get you to the Severn Bridge in about 200km from South West London and I flew across England at about 30-31kph, riding a tailwind and having an absolute blast.

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My plan was to get to the lake for sunset, so I’d kept the route fairly direct and on more direct, larger roads. Even so, Wales very quickly started eating into my average. It didn’t help that I’d also noticed, shortly after hitting my first proper climb of the ride, that my saddle was ridiculously low. My hamstrings and knees were screaming at me and when I got to the top I raised my saddle by a good 5cm before setting back out. Annoyingly, within about 20 minutes, the saddle had dropped again. This repeated for the remainder of the ride until I got thoroughly sick of pulling over and figured I’d just ride it out. It was a stupid decision off the back off another stupid decision which had led to the seatpost slipping in the first place.

My Bowman Layhams Disc has developed a random creak that emanates from the seat tube and the only way to silence it (I’ve tried all sorts) seems to be putting a little bit of grease on the seatpost. The second it rains, the creak comes back and you have to re-grease. Surprise surprise, it had rained the day before I was due to leave, so I greased the post – evidently I used far too much. Even trying to clean out the post and tube with roadside leaves didn’t help.

Between the faffing and losing speed to the terrain, I was starting to worry about hitting my sunset deadline. I was on the A40 and making good time, but knew I’d soon be pulling off into little side lanes and climbing to about 400 meters, before dropping back down and finally climbing the access road to the lake.

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Part of the fun of mapping out long routes is that all the climbs look like speed bumps and I generally make a point of not looking too closely. Climbing higher and higher and further from civilisation, I began to regret that decision. The area around the Usk Reservoir is stunning, but mileage is hard earned. I sat in my granny gear for what felt like hours on end, watching the miles very slowly tick down.

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Finally I passed a YHA – my marker for the final run in to the lake. The road dips incredibly sharply and rolls around a few hairpins. I was filled with dread for the next morning – no warm up, just a quick 10-15% climb to wake up the legs. Great. Worse was to come, however. The access path to the lake was insanely steep and composed of rough, loose gravel. In the granny gear, I could just about winch my way up at sub-walking speed. The second I tried to stand or put down a burst of power, however, the rear wheel would spin out and I’d have to put a foot down.

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The path also passes a small dam on the river, where the road is barred and big signs warn of CCTV and the terrible things they’ll do to trespassers. I figured it was safer taking the walking path – a narrow goat track hanging off the side of the mountain, full of rocks and with just about enough space for walking single file. I mashed my shins on my pedals and cursed my decision to come and explore this godforsaken hell hole. Screw riding. I’m walking.

Another 5 – 10 minutes and I was finally at the top. My god was it worth it. The lake is stunning, hidden from the world, remote and peaceful. The bothy was a little less inspiring. There are endless signs forbidding camping and the bothy feels like it’s been designed with the express intention of deterring you from spending any serious time there. It’s covered in graffiti and the local youths have clearly enjoyed some late nights there. I was getting a serious Blair Witch vibe and figured I’d avoid going in until I absolutely had to.

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I cracked open a beer, sat on the wall at the base of the lake and watched the sun slowly setting. I was waiting for a small group hanging out around the lake to leave so I could quickly chuck on my running shoes and climb the remainder of the mountain. Fortunately they scarpered just before it got dark and I had time to race up and drink in the view. I was truly in the middle of nowhere – from the very top you could just about make out the farm house at the base of the hill, but very little else.

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As night fell and the temperature dropped, I ate my dinner and lay back to watch the stars. Sadly it was too cloudy to see all that much, but I did spot the big dipper and managed to grab a shot on my phone using a very long exposure. Probably not a great picture in the grand scheme of things, but I was pretty impressed!

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Having put it off as long as possible, I beat a retreat into the bothy for a deeply unpleasant sleep. The tin roof groaned and popped all night, something was leaking and the bench was absolutely rock solid. By 4am (and a couple of hours’ sleep) I’d given up entirely and figured I’d get dressed and make a start on getting back down that gravel path. I was on slick road tyres, so I figured it’d be safer to walk. My choice was vindicated when I went to start rolling my bike and found the front tyre flat. Now out of tubes, knees creaking and thoroughly sick of gravel, I decided I’d ride to the nearest train station and re-assess the situation, but I really wasn’t feeling up to riding all the way home.

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Even the incredible sunrise as I was leaving didn’t manage to raise my spirits. My knees were cooked. Too long riding too low (when I got home I found the seat post had slipped by almost 10cm!) had done too much damage and I pretty much freewheeled downhill to Abergavenny and caught the first train home. A total cop out, but I did at least have to ride 70km to get there and another 10 at the other end, so not a complete waste and still a pretty magical experience and just the mental reset needed to escape the chaos of London.

Not long now until the Transatlantic Way, so good to have my first big ride of the year ticked off after the weather we’ve been having. Just a couple more set pieces to go – LWL & BCM – and then it’s the main event. Fingers crossed I can avoid being knocked off my bike or hit by a bus this year!

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