Julian Challis embarks on a spectacular journey following the length of the Trans Euro Trail through Wales
As celebratory meals go, you can’t beat a big blowout at an Indian restaurant, and tonight we are in the mood to celebrate. We’ve just completed nearly 500 miles and four days of fantastic riding along the Trans Euro Trail (TET) through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Great Britain. We’ve forded rivers, we’ve scrabbled up rocky trails, and we’ve blasted along sweeping tarmac roads. This has been one hell of a trip.
If you are a regular ABR reader, you will have doubtless seen the story in issue 56 of the magazine recounting my trip across the north of England following the UK Trans Euro Trail (TET) from Kendal to Newcastle. But just a few short months earlier, I had taken on the Welsh leg of this incredible route.
The TET is a wonderful gift to the adventure riding community, and although not all of the UK’s 2,000-mile route along trails and quieter roads may be suitable for heftier adventure bikes, there’s enough variety to keep us all happy. Which is why we find ourselves bright and early at a BP petrol station in Chepstow.
Our band is a small one to start with, my mate Matt and I being joined by another friend Chris, who is our local Trail Riders Fellowship (TRF) Rights of Way expert. We’re going to be joined by a few others at the weekend, but being a Friday, it’s just the three of us to start the trip.
For the bikes, we’ve all taken the small trail bike route rather than riding the larger adventure bikes that usually feature in ABR. According to the TET website, the route is designed for small to mid-size bikes, and as the trip would later prove, muscling a bigger bike over some of the trails in Wales can present some challenges. Matt is riding his SWM RS 300 R and Chris is on a Honda CRF250X, which although mechanically sound, is kept almost permanently dirty. I’m on my KTM 250 EXC which, unlike the Honda, is glittering in the morning sunshine.
Off and away
We leave Chepstow, and after a brief blast on some lovely local roads, we hit the first of the lanes. The TET is about 60/40 road to off-road, and as we are quite close to our homes in Bristol, we’ve ridden the first dozen or so lanes many times before. The route heads further west and onto some new and unfamiliar lanes as we travel into Wales towards Newport.
Dropping down we briefly pass through Caerleon before turning north to the mountain above Cwmbran, picking up some glorious trails that start on the outskirts and rise above the town. After crossing the top of the mountain, we pick up a viciously steep rocky downhill section that has me convinced that taking the KTM was the correct decision. What a lane!
After a lunch stop, we continue to slice through the Rhondda, at one point taking a trail that actually runs right down the centre of Rhondda Golf Club’s stunning course high above terraced homes. Continuing on, we head away from the hills for a while and drop down to within sight of the coast as we travel past Port Talbot. We stop for photos, our view beautifully bisected by the geography. On one side is the belching chimneys of the steelworks, on the other the tranquil beauty of the Gower Peninsula. Pressing on, we refuel and grab a coffee in Neath before heading north again, passing the birthplace of the actor Richard Burton.
After a bit more roadwork and a really tough woodland climb, the route then takes us to Sarn Helen, an old Roman road that will lead us almost all the way to our evening’s destination. It’s a glorious mix of rocky climbs, fast forest trails, deep ruts, and even deeper puddles, with stunning views towards the coast behind us and the Brecon Beacons National Park ahead. With the sun going down, we eventually leave the dense forestry and within half an hour we’re parking up outside The Bull in Llandovery, our lodgings for the night.
Despite promises of secure parking, we end up having to chain our bikes up opposite the hotel, putting Chris’s scrappy looking Honda on the outside to put off potential thieves. After a shower, it’s steak and chips washed down with arguably too many pints of The Rev. James ale before calling it a night.
Five hit the trails
Bright and early the next morning, the sun is streaming into our tiny room, and with three men and a ton of sweaty kit, there’s a distinctly fusty tang to the air. After an obligatory full Welsh breakfast, we head out to the bikes and we are almost simultaneously joined by two additional riders who hadn’t been able to escape work on the Friday.
Paul is on a KTM 250 EXC-F and is dressed in regulation trail riding kit, but as for John, he’s on a totally different page. He is mounted on a Honda CB500X, a bike that definitely lacks both the agility and off-road credentials of the other machines. And, matching the potential challenges of his bike, he’s teamed it up with a similarly left-field choice in riding attire of an open-face road helmet, ankle-length casual boots, white jeans, and a leather jacket.
We head out of town and fairly promptly onto the trails. Again, it’s an area we’ve ridden many times before, usually staying at the trail-rider friendly Llanerchindda Farm or camping by the river in Rhayader. The route is a glorious mix of forestry tracks and sweeping roads through incredibly beautiful valleys which eventually lead us to the Strata Florida trail. The first part follows a gravel track through numerous whoops and deep puddles, and on the trail bikes, it’s joyful stuff. However, when we reach the forest that leads to the numerous river crossings, the 10-minute wait for John and his Honda suggest that he’s not finding it quite so joyful. When he eventually arrives, he’s still keen to do the section, but we have to point out that the CB500X may not rise to the challenge.
With a grumpy look, John leaves us to return to the road and join us at the end. The four of us set out to tackle 20 or so river crossings through the valley and the numerous, and often more treacherous, deep puddles on the track. Paul hasn’t ridden here before but he learns quickly that the most important thing is to let someone else go first, and if they don’t fall off, follow the same route.
We emerge successfully and relatively dry from the section some 30 minutes later to join a still miffed John at Strata Florida Abbey for a welcome cup of tea. We head further north onto a truly stunning road that takes us alongside one of the many lakes and reservoirs that Mid Wales is famous for. Llyn Brianne is set in chocolate box beautiful scenery. It’s places like this that make riding in Wales so enjoyable.
The TET route loops round a few more lakes in the area, many of them are seriously depleted thanks to the extended hot spell across the UK, but compared to the common Welsh palate of unremitting rain, we’re happy to be hot for once.
Our destination of Machynlleth is still a distance away, so we make use of some fast road sections and cut out a few small loops in the trail to catch up a bit. Close to 7 pm, we eventually roll into Machynlleth and locate the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, but for reasons best known to himself, John has booked into another guest house. Bearing in mind he has no clothes to change into from the ones he’s worn all day, which by now are pretty grubby, we’re not complaining. We head for the hotel’s pizza restaurant before more The Rev. James ale and perhaps unwisely, quite a few malt whiskies.
Morning comes and our heads are definitely feeling a little woolly, but after a restorative breakfast, we wheel the bikes into the sunshine. John arrives from his distant lodgings and we head to the fuel station. We know the first lane is going to defeat him and the Honda so he peels off to join us later.
The first mile of the trail is fast and flowing as it climbs the hill to the north of the town, but it’s the river crossing followed by a series of rock steps which is going to be the problem. As team leader, Matt goes first but it’s hard to imagine a worse attempt as he crashes into the water, smacks into the first step, and then whisky throttles into the trees.
Chris and Paul choose the other side and scrabble up with more success, which leaves me to go with all eyes watching. And I bloody ace it, riding into the water, up the step, and out the other side without so much as a tyre spin. My glory is short-lived as a few hundred metres on I totally hash up the next set of steps and hit the deck.
We drop down again to meet with John for a joyful and rather beautiful set of roads and lanes as we wind our way towards Happy Valley, a challenging rocky trail that climbs and climbs over a craggy peak and up to a plateau at the top. John is trying his best on the low slung CB500X, but more and more we’re having to help him manhandle it over the rocks.
A zig-zag section eventually calls time on his progress, and while he loops round again, we take a far faster and more enjoyable blast over the rocks up to the top of the hill and back down the other side under the cloudless blue sky.
With the group together again, we make good progress through the epic scenery on our way towards Snowdonia National Park. The route sweeps up into the hills on a wonderful trail that eventually opens up to reveal an incredible vista across the bay to Barmouth. There’s a tiny railway bridge across the river that we’ve ridden before, and although it’s tempting to ride it again, there’s no time for diversions.
The TET sweeps in towards Dolgellau and then back towards the north Wales coast. The riding is truly inspirational today and you can see from the smiles on our faces just how much everybody is enjoying the ride. When we eventually locate our hotel in Ruabon at around 8 pm, we’ve precious little fuel and about the same levels of energy.
The last leg
The last day dawns. On the way out of the town, we pass by the vast Pontcysyllte Aqueduct towering over the valley, before a long and winding road takes us up the side of a vast hill to pick up a great selection of little lanes heading east. The landscape now is far less dramatic and the lanes far less technical, but not necessarily easy. One particularly overgrown one is littered with deep ruts and stinking puddles. Matt continues his bad luck streak by finding the deepest and smelliest. He emerges like he’s a prisoner on a dirty protest.
We stop for a quick pub lunch and then follow a series of roads that are occasionally interspersed with short lanes as we head to our final destination of Crewe. The former railway town is not exactly the most prestigious endpoint to our trip, but when we eventually stop the bikes outside our final hotel, it matters not one jot. It’s been a fantastic trip with excellent company and superb trails. The bikes have been as reliable as a selection of Swiss watches and the scenery has been some of the best in the world. What more do you want? Well, actually I could murder a beer and a curry.
So, What is the TET?
The Trans Euro Trail stretches almost 32,000 miles across most of Europe, from the top of Scandinavia, right down almost to the top of Africa. Put together by a group of motorcyclists with nothing more than a love of riding rather than any commercial motivation, it’s a truly outstanding achievement and an incredible gift to motorcyclists across the world. Simply by going to the website www.transeurotrail.org, you can pick the country you want to ride in, and with the click of a mouse, download a GPX trail of the route. You can do as much or as little as you want, safe in the knowledge that the routes will be legal, enjoyable, and a thoroughly rewarding ride.