Off to the wilds off North Wales for our next meet, in Llangollen, to be precise. Seven bikes carrying 10 people met up at various points in Ireland on the trip down to Dunleary, wondering where the sun had gone, but as the ship crossed the Irish Sea the cloud dissipated and we zoomed off the boat into a sun-kissed Holyhead. We were blown and buffetted across Anglessey — boy, is that a site that could usefully employ a wind-farm — before continuing our journey across Wales.
Ah, Wales, where it is possible to drive for miles without passing a single vowel! A stop for tea in a proper mug at a wayside caravan, plus another stop for fuel (apparently Llangollen has no petrol station, despite being such a big tourist location and the centre of the annual Eisteddfodd song festival each July) and we soon covered the 90 miles to our destination at the historic Hand Hotel. This is a 17th-century coaching inn that claims Wordsworth, Churchill and Darwin as previous guests, as well as its current ghost.
May the Fourth Be With You
We were trying out some new gear: well, it was May the Fourth be with you day, so our white helmets with black visors looked suitably stormtrooper-ish. To carry the spare visors we had bum-bags — more hip-bags, really, as they sit on your side, given the curvature of visors, which provide an instant handbag to hold mobile, purse and ciggies, as well as a front pocket for travel documentation and toll fees. Most excellent!
The journey took us through some gorgeous parts of Snowdonia (I can never say that without doing it in the style of that operatic bull from the cough medicine ad). The predominantly yellow flora of earlier spring had now been replaced by the more vivid colours of bluebells, poppies and red campions, while the dandelion flowers had almost all now turned to seedy balls, allowing me to recite one of my favourtie poems:
The dandelion puff is a very queer clock
It doesn't say tick, and it doesn't say tock.
It hasn't got a cuckoo: it hasn't got a chime
And I really don't think it can tell me the time!
Llangollen is on the Welsh Dee, and the hills and valleys around it are nothing short of breathtaking, with waterfalls and little streams gurgling through the gorgeous gorges.
Speed, Bonny Bike
Bikes from all over these islands started to arrive in the car park, and the prize for most impressive arrival definitely went to Johnny from Skye, who was wearing a full Buchanan tartan kilt, complete with sporran. We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with old friends, supping beers in the sunshine by the river.
The eateries in Llangollen include a steakhouse and a Chinese, but we opted for an Indian and I think nabbed the last available table in the place. While 'smirting' (smoking and flirting outside) I got chatting to a stag party who thought they'd booked a table for 20 and were now resigned to going for a kebab. Not much hardship there, then! I asked what they were doing stagging in Wales, instead of the more glamorous Prague or Barcelona that seem to be the norm these days. They explained that they had a whole weekend of adventure stuff ahead of them: kayaking, abseiling, etc. There's certainly plenty of outdoor activities to be had round here, as well as many interesting and historic railway lines. It is possible to get to the top of Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales, by train.
Back in the pub, Johnny's bush hat began to go a-wandering on its own, as hats tend to do, and ended up firmly planted on my head. Since it fitted me perfectly he said I could keep it, the sweetie! (J, that's several pints I owe ya next time!) The evening entertainment (why is it always one man and his organ?) arrived, and by bedtime we put our earplugs to good use to drown out the continuing revelry.
I Am a Free Man
Saturday morning dawned on 108 bikes in the car park. Which run to do? There was the roads-ride — 240 miles on tarmac, but in a group of about 40 riders. Sounded long, and potentially frustrating not being able to stop where you liked. A small group of plucky off-road riders headed into the forests to get mucky, while another 20 were keen to try riding across some nearby fords. We considered tagging along on that one to laugh at everybody getting wet, but a quick perusal of my trusty map showed me that Portmeirion was nearby, so we elected to re-enact our Prisoner fantasies and set off there on our own. See, GPSes are all very well if you know where you want to go, but you can't beat a good old fashioned pore over a paper map!
Portmeirion is absolutely beautiful — created by Sir William Clough-Ellis as an example of how a model village could look, it contains delicately crafted and painted cottages, amusing follies and some of the most unusual flowering shrubs I've ever come across. We met up with a fellow biker and had an extremely civilised lunch at the Italian café. Leather trousers with knee armour and biker boots aren't the most comfortable walking apparel, so gentle pottering through the shops selling Portmeirion pottery (set up by Ellis' daughter) was in order before heading back to the hotel. On the return journey the GPS was beeping almost constantly (annoying, isn't it?) to warn of speed cameras and another biker at a junction taught me one of the international signs to indicate that traffic cops were in the vicinity.
More new gear! I'd bought a pair of Draggin jeans off one of the other attendees. These are very clever: denim lined with kevlar, with knee protectors velcroed into the correct position. I'm looking forward to taking them abroad in the summer, where on arrival in whatever French village we find ourselves I can whip out the knee pads and stroll around in a comfortable and stylish pair of jeans.
The evening's supported charity was the local mountain rescue team. I asked one of the rangers my standard 'What's the best and worst part of your job?' The sobering reply was the difference between finding someone alive or dead, which serves as a reminder of how valuable the work of these guys is.
That's easy for you to say!
We'd intended to visit Caernarvon Castle on the way home on Sunday, but got side-tracked by custom made earplugs. The construction of these, the last word in ear protection, involves syringing some silicon into your ear, letting it harden, and then sending it off for coating and smoothing. Oh, and the most important bit of course: choosing what colour. Tempted by orange-and-black since he usually has Tigger-mode engaged on these weekends, Dai in the end plumped for yellow-and-black to match new hi-viz jacket. I took a very interesting set of photos of the whole process, which is not something you see every day.
So we skipped the castle and headed instead for the railway station with the longest name in the UK: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, usually shortened on maps to Llanfairpwll Sta. I wanted to see if they could manage to fit that on a fridge magnet! On the way I was reminded of the wisdom of the saying 'There's no such thing as bad weather, only badly dressed people' as the rain started and my new Draggins felt decidedly chilly. Luckily enough we had raingear with us, again a new try-out for me, and one which had very beneficial results. A quick stop at the Chocolate House for restorative hot chocolate and delicious handmade truffles was most welcome, and then across the Menai Strait, turn left and into the famous station for a photo-op with bike under the sign. And yes, I did get a magnet with the name wrapped around a picture of lovely daffodils....