Sally Middlemiss is eCommerce Director at Rutland Cycling, as well as a British Cycling Ride Leader and Breeze Champion. In early October, Sally and her friend Sarah rode down the length of Wales from Holyhead in the north to Chepstow in the south over the course of four days, following the National Cycle Network.
- Follows National Cycle Network Route 8, then Route 42, down the whole length of Wales
- Start point: Holyhead
- End point: Chepstow
- Distance: 241 miles
- Terrain: undulating, along mostly minor roads; some traffic-free and off-road sections (muddy in places). Some very steep hill sections, on narrow roads. Described by Sustrans as one of its toughest long-distance routes.
Day 1: Holyhead to Garndolbenmaen (near Porthmadog) - 62 miles
A good first day's ride, introducing us Rutlanders to the undulations of the Welsh landscape. Definitely the starter for the main courses to come!
Setting off from the Tourist Information Centre in Holyhead, we rode across Anglesey along quiet, winding lanes. After a short detour into the town with the world's longest name (Llanfairpwllgwyngyll...you know the one!) for lunch, we crossed the Menai Bridge, then joined the Lon Las Menai cycle path into Caernarfon, enjoying scenic, traffic-free cycle paths through the woods, following the railway line. The final section to Garndolbenmaen was more undulating, along quiet, minor roads.
Day 2: Garndolbenmaen to Machynlleth - 51 miles
A memorable, varied day's cycling, taking in seaside promenades, pretty wooded trails and dramatic mountain passes.
Our day began with a gentle descent into Porthmadog, where we stopped for a quick breakfast before heading into Snowdonia. This was a challenging day, with some steep climbs along narrow, winding roads, rewarded with spectacular views. We opted to pick up a sandwich in Llanfair, then stop for a quick picnic lunch on a hillside overlooking the sea near Llwynion Fechan. After cycling along the cycle path next to the main road, we joined the promenade through Barmouth, with stunning views of its wide, expansive beach with pale golden sand. Heading out of Barmouth over the wooden foot/train bridge, we then rode along the traffic-free Lon Mawddach trail, tracing the edge of the estuary into Dolgellau. From here to Machynlleth was an undulating minor road (at times a path), very quiet and with more scenic views to enjoy.
Day 3: Machynlleth to Hay-on-Wye - 74 miles
An epic ride: lots of climbing, more fabulous views and a welcome, gentle descent into Hay-on-Wye.
We set off early and after a couple of miles to warm up, started the climb up to Bryn y Fedwen, the highest point on Route 8. The ascent was narrow and winding in places, with a couple of steep sections. The morning was slow going, and by lunchtime we had only made it as far as Llangurig, so we grabbed a quick snack and some provisions for the rest of the day. The terrain continued to be undulating all day and given the wet, muddy conditions in early October, we opted for the alternative road route along the A470, between Llanwrthwl and Newbridge-on-Wye. To our great relief, this was a smooth, fast road, mainly downhill, and meant that we were able to make up valuable time and complete the ride in daylight. Stopping in Builth Wells for a welcome coffee and cake, we continued along mainly flat, quiet B roads for the remainder of the afternoon, along the Wye Valley and down into Hay-on-Wye.
Day 4: Hay-on-Wye to Chepstow - 54 miles
Another scenic route with more challenging climbs, including the Gospel Pass, then largely downhill to the finish in Chepstow.
It took us a couple of attempts to find the route out of Hay-on-Wye (look for Forest Road, just past the Swan Hotel). The climb up to the Gospel Pass started immediately. The road was very narrow in places and we had to stop a couple of times to let tractors past. This was another challenging climb, with steep sections. Though very windy and exposed near the top, we enjoyed spectacular, 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape. It's worth noting that there is a false summit: the road flattens out after 5 miles of climbing and there is a car park, where we stopped for a photo...but the climb continues about 0.5 miles further on, for another 1.5 miles. This final section was quite steep, but nothing worse than we'd already done by this point! Dropping down, the pass is very steep in places, so we took it steady. From here to Abergavenny it was largely downhill, with a small climb after Stanton. In Usk, we stocked up on the Jelly Babies we'd been dreaming about all day and geared up for the final push, a short, steep climb near Newhouse. The final section was largely downhill, apart from one last climb near Mounton. On the approach to Chepstow, we enjoyed lovely late afternoon views of the Severn, before heading to the Castle, the official finish point!
Travel and accommodation
Train out: Stamford to Holyhead
Train back:Chepstow to Stamford
We bought a 'Two Together' railcard to save 1/3 of the cost.
We stayed in B&Bs, a hostel and a self-catering cottage. All our accommodation was great - welcoming, comfortable and cycle friendly.
- Holyhead - Witchingham B&B https://www.witchinghambandb.com/
- Garndolbenmaen - Cwn Pennant Hostel https://www.cwmpennanthostel.com/
- Machynlleth - The White Lion Hotel https://www.whitelionhotel.co.uk/
- Hay-on-Wye - The Bridge B&B https://www.thebridgehay.co.uk/
- Chepstow - Sedbury Farm Cottages, Sedbury https://www.chepstowcottages.co.uk/
Kit list and top tips
Road bikes aren't best suited to this route. A rugged touring / adventure bike, with low gears and good disc brakes, is ideal. We were pleased we'd had our bikes serviced and checked, as the hilly and off-road sections put a lot of strain on the bikes.
Sally's bike: Genesis Croix de Fer
Sarah's bike: Liv Invite
Basically, it's advisable to do some! This is a hilly, challenging route.
Map & route planning
Though the route is well waymarked, the two Sustrans route maps (https://shop.sustrans.org.uk/maps) are invaluable. Attaching a map holder to your handlebars keeps your map handy. Treat the elevation profiles as a rough guide, rather than anything too exact - they tend to smooth out the short, steep climbs! Having Google Maps on your phone is also helpful, especially going through larger towns (though you can't rely on it, as signal can be poor). Setting off early takes the pressure off, in case of any mechanicals, and it's worth planning where you'll stop for refreshments, as some sections are remote.
Tech and equipment
We both took Garmins. We found the compass on my Garmin Edge Touring particularly helpful, especially when passing through towns, where the route can be tricky to follow. Good, bright front and rear lights are a must (I used the Exposure Axis front light and CatEye Rapid-X rear light). Other essentials: lock, water bottles, first aid kit, chargers and mounts, toiletries.
A good pump, spare inner tubes, patch kit, tyre levers, multi tool, cable ties, quick links, chain tool.
Ortlieb front rollers x2, which we fitted as rear panniers as they were more compact. Mine are now several years old and are still as good as new. Travel as light as you can - easier going for you and less strain on the bike.
Layers are essential. We took merino base layers, a windproof mid layer and a light, packable, waterproof top layer. Good quality tights with a chamois pad are essential too. I also appreciated my padded gloves. In case of heavy rain, we packed waterproof overtrousers, overshoes and gloves.
Take plenty of snacks each day, as many sections of the route are remote.