Riding the Trans Cambrian Way

by Richard Jones

Riding into the car park at Machynlleth Station, the instant I saw my car I was hit by an overwhelming feeling of despair.

My car keys. They were still in my luggage, back at the pub in Dylife we’d departed into the snow that morning. We were supposed to be driving back there now to collect our bags and return home.

Instead, we were cold, wet and tired after four days of mountain biking, stuck in a car park with our warm, dry kit locked inside a car we couldn’t drive.

A good, but doomed, plan

Four days earlier, my riding partner, Ben, had driven to Knighton with the bikes and gear in his car, while I’d driven down to Machynlleth, left my car at the station and taken a train back to Knighton, via Shrewsbury and then the single-carriage train on the Heart of Wales Line.

This was all to make it easier to get back after 100 miles of mountain biking across Wales, from the English border to the Irish Sea, on the Trans Cambrian Way. And it would have worked brilliantly… had I remembered to pack the car keys that last day.

Two mountain bikers out on the Trans Cambrian Way, surrounded by open hills

Starting out along the Trans Cambrian Way

The Trans Cambrian Way can be ridden in three days (or two if you’re particularly hardcore!) but we were setting out in November and I needed to be taking photos and writing notes for the route guide, so four days it was. Snaking out ahead of us, the route would take us through the centre of Wales, around the lakes of the Elan Valley, through forests and across the wild and remote landscape of Mid Wales as we crossed the Cambrian Mountains.

After a particularly rainy Autumn, we knew we’d encounter wet trails, but the sun was shining on the first morning and we departed Knighton along the road towards Knucklas looking forward to the route ahead. Once around the castle and after following a bridleway across a few fields, we dropped via a minor road to reach the start of the first testing climb: a long haul up towards Beacon Hill.

Cycling the Trans Cambrian Way with patchwork green fields in the background Riding a wooded lane covered with autumn leaves Riding to a countryside gate on the Trans Cambrian Way

The wet, muddy ground saw us both off and pushing for a short distance, but we were soon onto a better surface and into a rhythm to summit the climb and join Glyndŵr’s Way, which the Trans Cambrian Way links with numerous times over the course of its journey.

The track meandered across the higher ground, crossing a couple of fords that we attempted (i.e. failed!) to manual through, before joining a lane that took us on a long descent into Llanbadarn Fynydd. We crossed the road and eyed up another ford ahead — a much deeper crossing than the previous ones — but, spotting a bridge across the river on the map, we opted to take that way round and maintain dry feet for a while longer!

Mountain Biking the Trans Cambrian Way across desolate moorland
Cycling down to a fork in the Trans Cambrian Way, woods to one side and moor to the other Splashing through a puddle across the bridleway

Further on, we approached the hamlet of Bwlch-y-sarnau, where the little community centre has a cafe (self-service with an honesty box on the day we visited) that’s a great place to stop for a break. From here we weren’t too far from our destination for the day at Elan Village, and we rode on through Rhayader and down to our hotel along the cycle route that runs adjacent to the Elan River.

Bikes washed down and stored away, our hosts at the Elan Valley Hotel offered to wash our kit. We were soon in the bar, warming nicely in front of the fire.

A panoramic shot of a cyclist riding along the road with an impressive viaduct in the background

Riding through the Elan Valley

Day two soon saw us at the foot of the amusingly named ‘Puke Hill’, which we slogged up before a good downhill the other side that brought us alongside the southern end of Caban-coch Reservoir, where we followed the course of the River Claerwen.

This section had seen the river overflow across the trail and some diversions were required to avoid the deepest water. The ford crossing by the Claerwen Reservoir dam looked more like a swim! Again, a usefully appointed footbridge enabled us to avoid suffering that crossing and we soon climbed to the dam itself.

Mountain biker splashes through an overflowing river on the Trans Cambrian Way Cycling across a plank over a river A cyclist rides along the Trans Cambrian Way with the Claerwen Reservoir below

Here starts a six-mile trail alongside the reservoir — nowhere is it technical as it undulates alongside the glimmering water, but we were bathed in sunshine in what felt like the middle of nowhere, and it was glorious!

Beyond the reservoir, we rode above a series of smaller lakes, with the sunbeams casting beautiful light onto the water and surrounding hills, and the dams giving an impression of giant infinity pools.

A cyclist stops to squeeze out a sock after a particularly wet section of the Trans Cambrian Way Cycling along a hardpacked grit road alongside a lake

We stopped to take in the view, but soon pushed on. The route turned northwards, cresting a hill at nearly 500m and racing down to some farm buildings. Here we were off west again along singletrack, excellent even on the wet surface, and we soon dropped into Pont-rhyd-y-groes at the end of our second day.

Once more we received an excellent welcome and, with the bikes washed down, we were cleaned up and in the pub for ‘chip shop night’ — great timing! I even got a pasty to take with me the next day!

Dramatic lighting streams down over the wilderness and a distant lake on the Trans Cambrian Way

Day Three

That morning, we climbed back up the descent we came down the previous day, reminding our legs of the miles in them already. Once off-road again, we nearly missed the trail behind a farm, but soon found ourselves racing down singletrack to the waterfalls at Dologau, where we picked up the succinctly named Borth to Devil’s Bridge to Pontrhydfendigaid Trail.

A road section took us through the steep-sided valley of Cwmystwyth, a stunning journey with waterfalls cascading down either side as we passed through the old mine works. At the other end, where the road swings right, we continued onwards along the 818 cycle route, a long climb into the wilderness, carefully following the ribbon of tarmac in the centre of the crumbling old road.

A brief stretch of road cycling on the Trans Cambrian Way Valley views from the Trans Cambrian Way

Diving down the other side, we reached a turn that took us across two deep-looking fords. After a little procrastination I went for it, clearing the first one but hitting a rock in the middle of the second and almost going over my bars. As I stood, almost knee-deep in the water, I spotted Ben making his way across the footbridge that we should have taken, clearly signed just before the turn I’d made! The rest of the day’s ride was to be made with very wet feet then!

We climbed steadily below a wind farm and the trail turned to head back east on a well-surfaced fire road that soon has us racing each other down to where it meets a minor road and into the Wye Valley. Some will head for a night at Llangurig here, but we continued onwards into Hafren Forest, close to the source of both the rivers Wye and Severn, and skirted the edge of another reservoir (Llyn Clywedog) at Staylittle.

Cycling along a grassed-over byway along the Trans Cambrian Way

A steady climb took us up through a farm and back onto Glyndŵr’s Way where, a little before the hill summit, we raced down a great track to ‘Y Star Inn’ at Dylife. On arrival, the pub was all locked up and no-one was home.

Closed accommodation on our cycling holiday - cyclist peering into a locked-up pubAs the sun dipped down behind the hill opposite, the temperature fell sharply and I was slightly concerned as we began to feel the cold in our ride wear. However, my fears proved unfounded as a 4x4 tootled up the lane and we were let into the pub to get changed and warm ourselves up again.

Snow storms and forgotten keys

To allow us plenty of time to return home, the final day was our shortest one. We woke in the morning and Ben suggested having a look out of the window. What had been a glorious vista of many shades of green had turned white under blizzard conditions. We gulped down breakfast and headed out into the cold, unaware of the whole car keys disaster that awaited us at the end!

A snow storm blankets the Trans Cambrian Way with white A mountain biker riding the Trans Cambrian Way in a blizzard A cyclist takes a spill in the snow

Navigation in the snow was made much easier as the route joined the clearly signed Glyndŵr’s Way once more. The descent below Foel Fadian was brilliant, despite us both sliding off as we tried to round a bend going slightly faster than we should have been.

Soon we were below the snow line and everywhere turned green once more. We contemplated crossing another rather deep-looking ford over the Hengwm river, before sensibly opting for the bridge to the right and following the trail above the river to another lane.

A cyclist in the distance, dwarfed by the wooded and grassy hillside of the Trans Cambrian Way

Cycling through deep water across a byway Riding a long, thin bridleway between autumn trees

The next off-road section had a sign on a telegraph pole: ‘Mach 2’, one of the original MTB trails from Machynlleth, and we knew we were getting closer to the end. We followed the track and, despite almost going wrong at the next junction, managed to realise in time which direction Glyndŵr’s Way was heading (up the hill, of course!) and head for the summit, which turned into an excellent trail despite the wet, grassy surface.

We met a runner coming the opposite way and stopped for a chat, realising that we’d hardly seen anybody on the trail in the past four days!

A mountain biker summits a slight slope on the Trans Cambrian Way

We left Glyndŵr’s Way for the last time as we emerged onto the road, and the final section saw us cruising downhill to the A487, where the official end of the route waits at Dovey Railway Station. Instead, we hung a right here and followed the cycle path north into Machynlleth and the sanctuary of the car…

...where, despite my initial tantrum in the car park and a lasting urge to throttle myself, we needed to find a solution to our problem.

The missing keys

Across the way sat Mach Taxis, who I thought might be able to pick up our luggage from Dylife, including the absent car key. But there was nobody there.

Next door we found Lloyds Coaches, a hive of activity, but they reported that a taxi wouldn’t get up to the pub because of the snow.

“Hang on though,” said the chap in the office, “I’ll give my mate Thomas a call. He’s a farmer up near the pub — maybe he’ll bring it down.”

And sure enough, as I shivered and dripped, he put me through to Thomas on the phone, who told me, sure, he’ll bring it down for me, although he’ll be about an hour. I thanked him profusely and asked about payment, but he didn’t want payment, it’s fine, he’ll bring it down!

So we headed into the town to grab a coffee and cake in the excellent Tŷ Medi cafe, apologising for the water trickling off us onto their floor, before returning to the coach station.

Thomas turned up in his 4x4 complete with our luggage and we stood around chatting for ages, until he told us that we were shivering far too much and should get back to the car. I had to force him to take money for saving us! Keys in hand, we cycled around the corner and eagerly changed into dry, warm clothes before heading back to Knighton for Ben’s car and setting off home.

Cycling the Trans Cambrian Way

Two cyclists pose with their mountain bikes beneath a dam on the Trans Cambrian Way

Four days of riding through the heart of Wales proved brilliant, with a wide variation of weather and landscapes. We rode into the wilderness, though a quite brilliant landscape from the English border almost to the Irish sea, and the feeling is fantastic. The people we met were wonderful, welcoming and, in Thomas, heroic.

If the idea of disappearing for a few days appeals, then the Trans Cambrian Way is exactly the adventure for you! 

Check out our Trans Cambrian Way itineraries

Contours Holidays pride ourselves on our expert knowledge of the UK’s trails. We regularly set out to check our routes and directions and to make improvements on the holidays we offer. You can find several write-ups of staff expeditions in our Trail Diaries.

Originally published 03/02/20

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Ride the Trans Cambrian Way

  • Tour high above the endless hills of Wales, with staggering emptiness in all directions.

  • Blast through the Elan Valley, with its great descents over enormous reservoirs and the odd ford in the mix.

  • Complete a trail that’s just over 100 miles long and crosses Wales from border to coast.

Ride the Trans Cambrian Way

© Contours Walking Holidays Trans Cambrian Way map
Knighton/Dovey Junction
102 miles (163 km)
19th March to 31st October

Ride the Trans Cambrian Way

Code Tour Duration Difficulty Price per person
C-TCW-MB1 From Knighton to Dovey Junction (for Machynlleth) 3 nights, 2 days riding Strenuous £435
C-TCW-MB2 From Knighton to Dovey Junction (for Machynlleth) 4 nights, 3 days riding Demanding £555
C-TCW-MB3 From Knighton to Dovey Junction (for Machynlleth) 5 nights, 4 days riding Moderate / Demanding £685