Heaven is on a Harley to Harlech

Always fancied yourself as a bit of an `Easy Rider'? Nerys Lloyd- Pierce takes a dream machine down the byways of Wales

SLOWING TO negotiate the unfenced mountain road, the Harley's engine shifted tempo. The clattering roar of an open throttle, which sent sheep scurrying in panic, diminished to a throaty grumble. Ahead a twisting thread of tarmac wound up through a dramatic cleft in the hills where shreds of low cloud drifted. There, at the top, the bike surged forward again, releasing a torrent of deafening power that vibrated through to the bones of its passengers. Us.

Wales's spectacular and all-but deserted B roads offer thrilling riding country, but the prospect of touring on a hired Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster was touched by anxiety. I had last ridden pillion a decade earlier, when I was younger and less inclined to dwell on my mortality. Rob, my partner, hadn't ridden for 12 years and then only on a machine half the size. Yet the romantic appeal of burning into the sunset on a legend was enough to seduce us.

As it turned out, there was to be no question of roaring off into a florid sunset. This was Britain after all, and our trip took place on a weekend when the entire country was gripped in some of the worst weather of this washed-out summer.

Nevertheless, luck allowed us the luxury of enjoying our first evening's riding in the sunshine. Hill country whisked past us, wild briar and honeysuckle dripped from the hedgerows, grassy banks teemed with foxgloves, and small children waved as we rumbled through villages. By the time the weather turned foul, we had already taken to the Harley with the zeal of the converted.

Leaving the Talbot Inn in Tregaron the next morning - a blustery one - we headed off to nearby Strata Florida Abbey. Known in its heyday as the Westminster Abbey of Wales, it was sufficiently esteemed to get the Archbishop of Canterbury traipsing all the way down there in 1188, in the hope of drumming up support for the Third Crusade. The adjacent graveyard is the final resting place of lusty Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym and a local man's severed leg.

A small stone near the yew tree explains this: "The left leg and part of the thigh of Henry Hughes Cooper was cut off and interr'd here, June 18 1756'. A poem in the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse depicts the burial as a gleefully boozy affair. Cooper, having given the appendage a good send-off, ventured across the Atlantic in pursuit of better fortune.

Rain had set in by the time we passed through the deserted village of Pontrhydfendigaid, where a billboard for the Cambrian News announced "Dog Survives Waterfall Plunge". Intent on covering some ground, we made reverberating progress on empty mountain roads over the magnificent Abergwesyn pass and onward through the beautiful Elan Valley.

We pulled up in Machynlleth for a belated lunch at a friendly cafe run by the Centre for Alternative Technology. This small Mid-Wales town is also home to the Museum of Modern Art, Machynlleth. Never having made it to MOMA Manhattan I resolved to call in.

Housed in a sensitively renovated Wesleyan chapel, the gallery is home to some surprisingly inspirational visual art as well as being a centre for performing arts.

One of the nice things about riding a Harley-Davidson is that people are pleased to see you. They wave, they grin, they toot their horns in a friendly manner. We stopped for petrol and an elderly man walked purposefully over and inspected the bike. "There's nothing like a Harley-Davidson," he informed us. "Nothing on earth."

So what is it about Harleys? Dave Brims, owner of Metal Horse Tours and Rentals, who loaned us our Sportster and whose favourite Harleys live in his hall and sitting room, says that people are sold on the myth and kudos surrounding them.

"A Harley has cult status. Even people who don't ride motorbikes are fascinated by them," he explains. "In a sense, it's the Rolls Royce of bikes and lots of people dream of owning one."

Certainly, it's easy to see, even from a brief whirl on a hired machine, that riding one bestows status. The Harley is not a speed machine, but you can definitely cruise in style. From a practical point of view, Rob revelled in the bike's powerful high torque engine, and found the forgiving Sportster ideal for negotiating Wales's tightest bends.

Soggy and mud-spattered, we arrived at the family run Castle Cottage in Harlech, parked the bike in the yard next to the guinea pig's cage, and headed for a hot bath. Dinner proved to be worthy of a long day's riding: Salmon fishcakes with two sauces and homemade walnut bread, saddle of lamb with prunes, tarragon creme brulee followed by hand-made chocolates and coffee. I was worried I'd wake up in the morning with stretch marks.

If Sunday morning lacked rain, it made up for it in wind power. On the turrets of Harlech Castle the flags flapped manically and wind-whipped visitors shrieked and hollered as gusts buffeted them along the ramparts.

Built by Edward I in his quest to suppress the recalcitrant Welsh, this formidable fortress commands a spectacular view over coastal flatlands to the rugged peaks of Snowdonia.

Our circuitous route took us away from the coast again, along out-of- the-way roads skirting the Berwyn Mountains, to the softer but equally lovely country close to the Shropshire and Herefordshire border. Outside Hay-on-Wye, the world-famous town of books, we fished around in our leather jacket pockets for loose change to pay the toll for crossing the river. Toll bridges became a feature of our journey. The first spanning the yawning expanse of the Mawddach Estuary near Barmouth and the second straddling an attractive inlet outside Harlech. We rolled up at the Bear Hotel in Crickhowell that evening, where, despite our bedraggled appearance, our room was upgraded to one with a Jacuzzi.

Then came the day of reckoning. Hire yourself a Harley-Davidson, by all means. But don't imagine that parting with it is going to be easy.

FACT FILE

wales by harley

MOTORBIKING

Metal Horse Tours & Rentals, Goscar, Main Road, Knockholt, Sevenoaks, Kent TN14 7JJ (tel: 01959 532727). Harley-Davidsons are available for rental for experienced riders over 28 years of age. Daily rate from pounds 99; weekly rate from pounds 499.

Three-hour pillion trips around London on a Harley-Davidson of your choice are also available and include a visit to the Hard Rock Cafe (meal not included), price pounds 119.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Wales Tourist Board (tel: 01222 499909).

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