Daniel Fahey heads to Wales for a weekend of downhill mountain biking and gorge walking in Owain Glyndŵr country.
“It takes an ambulance 11 minutes to get here from Wrexham.”
I want to write that on a postcard and send it home. I should lick a stamp now. Sign off with something like: “Thanks for the luminous jacket, mum, it helped the paramedics spot me. Bring grapes.”
Badger told me about the ambulances. We were sat in the L-shaped, alpine-like hut of Oneplanet Adventure in Wales. Big plates of food steamed from the kitchen: generously-sized fishcakes, broad beef burgers, wads of bacon stacked in thick slices.
They were going to the tables of mud-smudged warriors; conquers of the 44km (27 miles) of purpose-built mountain bike trails here at Denbighshire’s Coed Llandegla Forest.
This centre, complete with bike shop and restless restaurant, is Badger’s burrow; he helped set the place up. What began as small bike hire shed has grown into a fully-fledged cycling hub, one that offers repairs, riding skills courses, freestyle trails and decent grub. I was having coffee.
“Do many people come off?” I asked Badger, savouring the last of my black brew.
“Yeah,” he told me, “lots.”
When I was young, I wanted to be a downhill racer. I bought the magazines and customised my mountain bike. Weekends blurred past. I broke bones and bent frames. I felt fearless. It all went into my school yearbook.
But now, nosing into the damp darkness of the trees like a truffle hog, it’s hard to beckon that bravery. The tread of my wide wheels feel the rough Red Trail; my instructor, Dan, edges trees and rounds roots. Safety comes first here: helmets must be worn, gloves should too. Riders must always take a mobile.
A leisurely slog up a trudging hill takes us past where you can spot the local black grouse, to the top of the woods.
“This is the good bit,” Dan says, smiling over the steep downhill before us. “You can go first.”
I bow into the throat of the forest. The track lips up then down, it spits wet dirt. The trail bends left, the bike curls with it. Even at this speed I can smell the trees; that rich scent of Sitka spruce. I should brake more often, but the bike guides me. We dunk and buck. I pull my steed close in the air.
Back in the glare of the sun, I bolt straight down Bob’s Sleigh Run, scything the countryside. My wheels judder over its boardwalks. My stomach flutters like a carrier bag over its whoop jumps. My heart rate is up, my pupils dilate. They stare at the route ahead, fingers wrapped ready over the brakes.
Inside the bowels of the woods, my steam runs out. I try to climb a switchback, but it’s too steep. My stallion rears and I have to push her to the top. Dan beats me to the summit.
“There’s a drop you’ll see that everyone goes off,” he says, pointing toward the twisting path below. “People see it and head straight for it. It’s like tunnel vision.” He looks back at me and motions me to go ahead. “Try to miss it.”
I set off at speed and my peripheral vision blurs into a palette of earthy colours. I flick left, wrap round a rollercoaster and down a steep slope. It rides up like a ramp and both my wheels leave the ground. I skirr through the air.
Then I see The Drop.
I’m hypnotised; heading honest for it. I spot the panicked gnaw of tyre treads. I brake. Lean right. Fill lungs.
“It takes an ambulance 11 minutes to get here from Wrexham.”
Gorge walking in Glyndŵr country
Wander deep into the Welsh valleys, where the River Dee still cuts with the sharpness of a sword, and you’ll come across the small, sleepy town of Corwen. It’s a handsome place: hanging baskets, white-washed dwellings, 6th century churches. Christmas lights still zigzag overhead; it’s too late for them to be taken down, too early for them to be turned on.
The town doesn’t have a true centre: it’s effectively scored by what’s known as the London Road, an old Roman route that Thomas Telford helped rebuild some 200 years ago. However, for the fierce bronze statue of man upon beast, blade raised, that sits near a bank and a butchers, Corwen is still the heart of Wales.
That effigy is of Owain Glyndŵr, leader of the Welsh Revolt in the 1400s. His face is still flush with anger; roaring his followers into battle. Heed the folklore of these hills and you’ll find the scars of his rage. It’s said that the dagger-shaped mark, above the south porch of the Church of Saints Mael and Sulien, is the imprint from Glyndŵr’s sword after he slung it from the crown of the Pen y Pigyn hill.
It’s Glyndŵr I think of when I’m clambering down a gorge a little further out of town. I imagine he didn’t need a helmet or life jacket when he made a path through these slopes. I don’t suppose he went down on his belly either.
“Face first, slide down on your stomach and push away from the rocks,” Pete is telling me. He’s the highly affable, long-haired instructor from Safe & Sounds Outdoors in nearby Llangollen. He’s already squeezed along the rock rabbet and slipped into the icy pool below.
It’s hard to say where exactly we are. We rumbled out of town in a hulking white van some 25 minutes ago, the cacophony of the engine made it hard for conversation. We could be anywhere in this nook of Wales. The valley is an adventurer’s dream: there are spots for climbing and abseiling, rivers to tackle by kayak and canoe.
We’re gorge walking; navigating the waters by climbing, leaping and, apparently, belly sliding. I claw over the crag above Pete, poise over it like a seesaw and use my toes to grip behind me. I can smell the damp rubber of my wetsuit. Feet up, I slither down the rock and whoosh into the water.
Moving on, Pete leads us deeper downstream where branches begin to barricade the sun’s strength. It’s unsteady underfoot as we go over a tree’s fallen limbs and through pinched pockets of rocks, where the gap is just slender enough to accommodate a person.
Then we’re confronted with our concluding challenge: a bound of blind faith from a ledge. Fly far enough to miss the hidden rocks, I’m told, and a plunge pool awaits. There’s silence except the scattering splashes of water falling from above.
With a cavernous gasp, I lunge into the unknown. I wonder how far we are from Wrexham Maelor Hospital now?
What to Know
How to get there
The nearest international airport to Corwen is Liverpool John Lennon Airport. There are no direct trains to the town, but the nearest networked train station is found 25 km (16 miles) away at Ruabon. The A5 is a major road from Telford with links across England.
Where to stay
Manorhaus in Llangollen is a chic townhouse that’s been stylishly converted into a boutique bolthole. The rooms are spacious, the beds luxurious and the food is simply divine. It’s the hot tub on the third floor terrace that steals the show, though, with its views over the valley.