South Wales: Adventure at your own speed
The hills and shores of Carmarthenshire provide the perfect territory for mountain biking and kayaking, says Chris Moran
Saturday 15 October 2011
Five years ago George and Louise Rashbrook left London to take over the Black Lion in Abergorlech, an oak-beamed pub with an idyllic beer garden overlooking a medieval stone bridge. The pub came with some cottages, which they now rent to the growing number of people like me who come for a weekend of adventure in their Carmarthenshire village.
"We moved here so the kids could grow up in a nice place," says George, as we watch a tractor negotiate its way over the narrow stone arches. "Nothing new in that I guess, but wow, it was a great move."
Their relocation neatly coincided with the Forestry Commission, Visit Wales and the EU combining budgets to create a world-class mountain-biking trail centre in Brechfa Forest, right on Abergorlech's doorstep. The trails are colour-graded for technical difficulty and athletic stamina, and fan out through the ancient forest. "Brechfa is amazing," says George. "The kids love riding there, we love it, and it brings in people from all over the country. The pub is buzzing."
Carmarthenshire is the lesser-known adventure spot in South Wales; the Devon to Pembrokeshire's Cornwall. It describes itself as "The Garden of Wales". Less touristy than its neighbour, it's also closer to the main population centres in England. It also happens to be blessed with the perfect attributes for a range of up and coming sports: fast-flowing and exceptionally clean rivers to swim, canoe or raft down; the wild Brecon Beacons to walk and run over; expanses of sea and sand that capture the wind and waves; and wooded hills to hike or cycle over.
I meet Rowan Sorrell, who helped build Brechfa's trails, and we hit the red-graded "Gorlech" trail, a 12-mile loop which twists and turns like a rollercoaster through the woods. "We built them for all standards of rider," says Rowan. "Good riders can push themselves and go as fast as they can, but on every run there's something for beginners. We made everything roll-able."
"Roll-able" means you don't have to jump over the lumps. And what lumps there are: using rocks and timber from the forest, Rowan and his team have an intuitive feel for how a bike should ride through the contours. The corners are banked so you can lean the bike and keep off the brakes, and straight sections have jumps and rollers that can throw you high into the air if you hit them with speed. Go slowly, and they're as easy as rolling off a kerb.
Later, we lean our bikes against the wall of the Black Lion (next to a sign claiming "muddy bikes welcome"), and sip some cold Cokes in the beer garden. "Don't worry about the bikes," says Rowan, "They won't get stolen around here."
Later that afternoon, landlady Louise suggests a trip up to the lake at Llyn Y Fan Fach, half an hour's cross-country drive from Abergorlach. I follow a course down hedge-lined lanes, passing signs offering eggs for £1 a dozen (use the honesty box) and a farm gate advertising sheepdog puppies for sale.
When the road runs out, the Brecon Beacons begin. After a two-hour hike followed by a scramble up a steep slope I find myself at the top of Bannau Sir Gaer, a 2,457-foot peak with views stretching from Cardiff to Tenby. The foreground hills are a vibrant green, and the Bristol Channel reflects the sunset in the distance. Behind me the Black Mountains complete the stunning panorama.
The next day I head for Llandysul Paddlers, an outdoor adventure centre on the banks of the River Teifi, which is run by Gareth Bryant, a former Welsh canoeing champion. The centre specialises in taking people down the clear waters of the Teifi in rafts, canoes and kayaks, or for open-water swimming. When I arrive, their adjoining campsite is a sea of camouflage tents: the army is staging a small canoeing competition and has decamped to the river.
After a quick assessment on Llandysul Paddler's practice lake, I'm cleared for river rapid take off. I "seal launch" from the bank, sitting in the kayak and sliding down the grass into the river. Then it's straight into the rapids. "If you paddle faster than the water then you're in control," says Griff, my guide for the day, who shows me how it's done. I row into the whitewater and use the oar like a rudder to control the direction. There's undoubted danger, but the water looks inviting.
That afternoon I head to Pendine Sands, a seven-mile stretch of beach washed perfectly flat by every outgoing tide. Dylan Thomas described it as a "yellow coldness going away into the distance of the sea". In the 1920s it was where Malcolm Campbell and JG Parry-Thomas contested the world land speed record.
Today, Morfa Bay Adventures is one of the few businesses allowed to open the throttle on the sands, though its wind-powered land yachts, speedy as they are, can't match the 170mph racked up by those racers of old. On the day I visit the wind isn't blowing, and so with my new-found kayaking skills we take to the sea instead and explore the caves and sea cliffs around Gilman Point to a hidden cove with a pebble beach. Jono Owen, an instructor for Morfa Bay, is clearly entranced by the area. "I did my teaching degree in London," he says as we try to kayak-surf some small waves back to the beach. "But I couldn't help being drawn back here. I don't know from day to day whether I'll be coasteering, surfing or kite surfing. I can't complain though," he says, surveying the scenery. "It's not a bad office, is it?"
Travel essentials: Carmarthenshire
* Arriva Trains Wales serves Carmarthen; connect from the rest of the network at Swansea or Newport (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).
* The writer stayed at The Black Lion's Cothi View Holiday Cottage (01558 685271; blion.co.uk) in Abergorlech. Weekend rental from £260; sleeps six.
* Brechfa mountain bike trails open daily, free.
* Merlin Cycle Tours (01554 756603; merlincycletours. co.uk) offers bike hire from £20 a day and can deliver bikes to the Black Lion.
* Llandysul Paddlers' "Run the Rapids" whitewater kayaking session costs £25 for half a day, including equipment hire and guiding.
* Morfa Bay Adventures (01994 453588; morfabay. com) offers a half-day of sea kayaking for £30 including equipment and instruction.
* 01267 231557; discover carmarthenshire.com
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