Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Red Kite Central

Many centuries ago the Red Kite was a common sight in both town and country, an opportunistic scavenger rather than predator due to its light build though it can take small prey. Despite this it was classed as vermin with a price on its head and numbers fell. With sporting estates on the rise in the 18th and 19th centuries they were the subject of further persecution and by the end of the 19th century the bird was extinct in England and Scotland. Wales has probably always been the main centre of their distribution: the Welsh for Kite is "barcud" and it's a common part of the names of natural features in the same way that there are over fifty Raven Crags in the Lake District.

By the 1930s there only an estimated 20 birds left in mid Wales. In a rather bizarre twist landowners and gamekeepers realising that the bird was about to become extinct began to protect it. By the 1970s numbers had slowly risen and a genetic survey of all the known birds suggested that they were all descended from a single breeding female, a very lucky escape. In an effort to increase bloodline, numbers and spread birds were introduced from the continent so that today there are several populations around the country though mid Wales is still the heartland of its distribution.

The kite is a pretty large bird, there aren't many UK birds that are larger, a grown adult has about the same wingspan of a heron, about 1.8m, so they are quite impressive to view close up. Rhaeadr is home to the Red Kite Centre where food is put out daily for them, let's just say that if you visit and don't see a kite then you really aren't looking as they are as common as crows in the skies.

All this is by way of introducing a long weekend mountain biking in mid Wales! Despite having lived in North Wales for nine years, I'd only ever passed through on my way to Cardiff. I'd not done anything in the area: no biking, no climbing not even any walking though I've a very vague memory of visiting the Elan Valley dams as a kid on a family holiday.

Friday didn't start out too well, we had torrential rain for most of the way down and this didn't really give up until mid-afternoon. Taking advantage of this we nipped out on one of the shorter rides in the Wales MTB guidebook, the Claerwen Valley loop. For the supposed grade (easy) this was pretty tough and there were several sections where we needed to walk and hike a bike. Hopefully this wasn't a sign of things to come.

Riding towards the Claerwen dam. A few "wet" sections ahead.

Pulling up through the bracken on the first climb out of Rhaeadr.

Saturday morning dawned with yet more rain though it was forecast to clear up during the day. By about 1100 we couldn't put it off any longer so headed down in to the town of Rhaeadr to do a loop on the hills between there and the Elan Valley. By the time we'd got a mile out of town it was boiling so off with the waterproofs and in to the first climb of the day. Again this was graded blue but required a bit of walking over rock steps. After a river crossing (interesting) and a road climb there was more uphill, made interesting by the local habit of removing sign posts.

Once on the top of the hill there was a really pleasant track heading over towards the Elan reservoirs before a cut back towards an ascent graded black in the book and described as "ten minutes of pushing". Oh Dear. Three minutes of riding and about 30 seconds of pushing later and it's done. Hmm, I haven't got that much better in the space of three kilometres. The next descent was a cracker, good track interspersed with rocky steps, unfortunately over all too quickly.

Beginning the descent down Y Gurn.

What followed was twenty minutes of hike-a-bike, yep - another blue graded ascent. After a (ahem) slight detour we found the main descent of the day down to the Elan Valley. Graded black it wasn't that bad apart from a couple of short sections maybe twenty metres in total.

Descending to the Elan Valley.
A short section on the road then we followed the Elan Valley trail to gain the upper reservoir from where a long red graded climb led back on to the moor tops. Nowhere difficult, it was just a matter of keeping the pedals turning. An easy, lovely descent, a bit of road then a long ridge led back to Rhaeadr.

One of the classic pieces of single track is the Doethie Valley. One problem: it really is the middle of nowhere. Even from close by it takes over an hour to drive to the start of the ride at Llyn Brianne. There's a lot of fire road to start but then things start with a vengeance with the climb up from Soar y Mynedd. Several signs indicating that the "road"(it's an unclassified country road) is closed along with locked gates aren't encouraging.

Descending to Soar y Mynydd

There was no way I was good enough to climb the track on the bike so it's push time. Eventually the angle eases and it's back on the bike and the descent on the other side shows why it's shut with 2 metre deep gullies running for hundreds of metres. Then it's a left turn and the track down the Afon Doethie begins.

Starting down the Afon Doethie amongst the bracken

Due to us riding this later in the year the bracken was in full growth and in many points it was more akin to skiing in deep powder although a strange green snow and you just had to trust that the track was still there beneath your wheels. Some people (strange people) moan that there's boggy bits and horror of horrors, gates that mean the ride isn't that good but this is a track that happens to be rideable by bike rather than designed with bikes in mind.

At one point we lose the track completely, there's no indication in the bracken as to it's whereabouts and we eventually stumble back on line. About halfway down the valley, Cath takes a potentially nasty tumble, managing to fall at one of the few points where the enclosing bracken wouldn't cushion your fall. Proceeding at an easier pace the riding still requires attention as there's an ever present drop to the stream to the right.
There's a lot of this!
There's a short rocky section which we walk as a fall here would have interesting consequences but it's the only really difficult part of the ride. Slowly the ride becomes gentler then we are in to fields and then a farmyard. All that's left is a long steady pull back up to the reservoir. 

One of the best singletracks in the UK? I'm not sure about that but I'd like to ride it earlier in the year when the bracken isn't so high.

For our last day we headed east for a ride on our way home. To the north of New Radnor is a small group of steep sided hills - the Radnor Forest. Now mainly clear of woodland they are splendidly isolated and there's great views from the tops.

The route started with one of the steepest roads I've ever ridden, it must have been 25% for nearly a kilometre, it was a struggle to keep moving whilst keeping the front wheel on the deck. Even when the tarmac ended the grass track was still steep. You've guessed - the guidebook gave it blue!

Great views from the summit plateau.

After another steep climb that I was sure I was going to have to walk but managed not to there was a bit of forestry fire road then it was out on to the plateau. The guidebook's boggy section was nearly dry thanks to the previous dry weather then it's a great descent before another steep ascent. This was all rideable and led back on to the plateau towards the curiously named Three Riggles. 

Contouring round the Three Riggles

This was another singletrack contouring round a steep valley but considerably easier than the Afon Doethie. All that was left was the final descent which was a blast down an old cart track with the fence bounding a firing range on our left.

Starting the final descent.
So, all in all a nice little break. Some good riding and some great riding. There's a few rides  still to do and I'd like to do the Afon Doethie again without the bracken.

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