Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel – Offa the beaten track
Gravel Union On
17 August 2020
In our latest Travel Gravel adventure, Olly heads to his native Welsh Marches region in search of ancient gravel routes, winnet sticks and ice-cold drinks.
If you did a survey of British citizens and visitors and asked them to name a historical figure, famous for an impressive feat of engineering built to define a section of the British Isles, my unscientific guess is that 99% would think of the Roman emperor Hadrian and “his” wall. This structure was thought to been built in around 6 years from AD122 to AD128 and was constructed close to the current line of the English-Scottish border, most likely to keep the marauding Celts from attacking areas to the south.
If, however, you head 300kms south-west, Hadrian has a later (and much less well known) rival in the form of Offa, King of Mercia, who constructed an earth dyke nearly twice as long as Hadrian’s wall, which runs roughly north-south along the English-Welsh border. The dyke was built sometime between AD430 and AD651 and is much less visually impressive than Hadrian’s wall, but from a gravelly perspective, actually much more interesting.
Whilst legal access to off-road trails on a gravel bike to the area close to Hadrian’s wall is pretty limited (most of the adjacent trails are footpaths which under current English law are off-limits), a lot of the route of Offa’s Dyke is legally defined as a bridleway which means it’s ‘game on’ for gravel riding.
The Covid19 lockdown in the UK (like most places) meant travel was severely limited, but with restrictions now softening and the ability to book overnight accommodation reinstated, a trip to the Welsh Marches (where I spent my formative years) was carefully and rapidly planned.
With the UK Gravel Union office located in the north-east of England, I’ve become acclimatised to the less-than-tropical weather that we get here – summer highs of low/mid-20s C are normal and there’s generally a sea breeze (or cloud cover) to keep the temperatures down. Looking at the long range weather forecast for the Welsh Marches for our trip and a predicted high temperature of mid-30s was somewhat of a shock, but a day of riding under blue skies with bone-dry trails sounded perfect and would make it feel even more like a holiday.
I’d planned a route based on a mix of “road” and gravel trails. I put “road” in inverted commas because the local lanes in the Welsh border region probably wouldn’t fit into many people’s typical definition of a road. With some careful route choice, you can find miles and miles (and miles) of lanes which are only just wide enough for a car to pass down without brushing both their wing mirrors at the same time and where the road will have either grass, mud, gravel or moss growing up the middle. The kind of roads where you are likely to meet a herd of sheep stood in the middle of them and will encounter significantly more agricultural vehicles than any other type. In other words, the perfect type of road for keen gravellistas.
On paper, our route wasn’t that challenging – around 70kms and 1700ms of climbing but a planned route is never exactly how you expect it to be and a combination of high temperatures and some short, punchy climbs (one section topped out at over 25% according to my Wahoo Roam) meant it was actually plenty challenging enough. I’d planned in about 20% of real-gravelTM but the ‘road’ sections were so gnarly in places that it felt more off-road than on-road for a lot of the route.
“I need to find a winnet stick” said my wife. A winnet, clegnut or dangleberry (I would strongly advise against googling any of these terms…) are bits of poo that are frequently found around the bottom of a sheep. When you ride in Welsh Border country, sheep are absolutely everywhere. And sadly, so is the evidence that you’re in sheep country. After one gravel climb which passed right through the middle of an incredibly isolated Welsh hill farm, the sheep droppings were so numerous that we ended up with winnets clogging up our bikes. My wife’s bike, which has less generous winnet-capacity than mine, had filled up so comprehensively that her rear wheel would barely rotate. We had to stop and find some small pieces of wood to de-winnet our bikes. There’s nothing worse than your gravel bike being clogged with clegnuts, we decided.
The Welsh Marches are positively littered with ancient rights of way. Frequently old drover’s roads, used to move sheep and cattle from high summer pastures to lower and warmer winter grazing, or from farm to market in the era before vehicle transport, a lot of these trails are legal for bike access and provide absolutely perfect off-road riding. Frequently with a firm gravel/crushed stone/bedrock base and often lined with ancient hawthorn hedges to provide shade, they felt like gravel nirvana to us. As I’d spent more than 15 years riding in the area during the 1990s and early 2000s, I knew it pretty well and so put in some old favourites. But I also added some unknown sections, based solely on map and satellite image research.
Putting in ‘blind’ sections of trail is fine when you’re riding by yourself (as if the trail turns out to be rubbish, no-one will judge you and you can just chalk it up to experience), but if you’re riding with your better-half, then you need to be pretty damn sure the trail will be a) rideable and b) fun otherwise teddies are potentially going to be thrown out of the pram and you will burn through your collection of brownie points and mental get-out-of-jail-free cards before you know it. Fortunately, excluding the aforementioned >25% gradient climb, my research paid off and the route was just the right mix of challenging versus fun. The perfect weather and great views, whilst by no-means stunning high-altitude mountain scenery, gave the whole thing suitable holiday ‘feels’.
“If you just knock on the door, the owner was inside a few minutes ago, so should let you in” said one of the pair of e-MTBers sat under a sunshade sipping a cold bottle of local cider. It was mid-afternoon and we had got down to the lukewarm dregs of our last bottles. A combination of high temperatures, tougher climbs than we were anticipating and the incredibly rural nature of the area meant that we’d burnt through our water and not found anywhere to top up - even the old Audax riders’ tip of rural churches, which frequently have an outside tap, had failed to provide the goods. So, as we flew down into Painscastle and I spotted the pub sunshades outside on a flagstone terrace, we did a sharp left turn and parked up our gravel bikes.
Having obviously turned into a soft-skinned townie, I had completely forgotten that rural pubs often close mid-afternoon and we had arrived a few minutes after the 2.30pm cut-off. Fortunately, I’d also forgotten how welcoming most rural landlords are and despite the fact that we were late, he re-opened his till, poured us pints of ice-cold liquid refreshment, topped up our bike bottles with fresh water and rifled through his crisp box to keep our salt levels at optimum. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend this place for all your early-afternoon cold beverage requirements.
The map profile showed a sting in the tail with one final climb before a fast, steep and twisty tarmac descent back to the market town of Hay-on-Wye, but suitably full of cold drinks and crisps, the climb was nothing like as hideous as we’d imagined and the final views before descending back into Hay and the cold, luxurious embrace of a local sheep’s milk ice cream made up for the temporary pain in our legs.
The Welsh Marches probably aren’t on many gravellers’ trail riding radar, which is a real shame as the area has so much potential for mixed-surface riding.
Just don’t forget to pack your winnet stick.