On Thursday, in three Nottingham kitchens peanut butter and jam were slathered between slices of bread and stowed for the weekend.
On Saturday the wind whipped deep cumulous across a Welsh sky as we pedalled from the hotel car park. Our bikes were heavy with sleeping kit, wet weather gear and, among other provisions, the peanut butter sandwiches.
That night, would be our first sleep in a bothy. We’re anxious. We’re excited. We’re heading into the Welsh wilds. The Elan Valley is 70 square miles of nature reserve, where people are sparse and the dominating evidence of civilisation is the system of dams and reservoirs that work to slake the thirst of Birmingham.
The Claerwen Dam and Reservoir is the biggest by a long way. A pretender to the authentic Victorian heritage of the other dams, it is made of concrete and fitted with a brick facade. It looks equally magnificent. And it shoulders the reservoir with a Herculean majesty, the moist sheen on the brick face glistening like sweat from the exertion. Leaving its shelter to pedal the slate path around the reservoir’s circumference, the wind forced our heads down as it tore across the huge body of water. Only when we found stillness in one of the small estuaries could we look up to see the kites wheeling and the clouds, fluffy and floating unperturbed, across the cool blue sky.
There are no villages with shops or cafes or public houses on this route. But in the ruins of a Strata Florida, once a Cistercian Abbey, there is a small concern selling tickets, teas and ice creams. We rest there, washing down our snacks with coffee. It seems odd to relax in this civilised way – pouring milk into our coffees from a glazed pottery jug – because this is our excursion into the nature. But while the valley is undoubtedly untamed – tufty moorland concealing bogs and rocky outcrops, a complete absence of discernible pathways over land that rolls without a building to cut the horizon and not a single soul in sight – the evidence of man is still apparent. Hauntingly so. Obviously, there are the reservoirs serving thousands in the Midlands, but also sheep and lambs in legions, most marked with spray paint and all cropping at the grass on time borrowed. Then there’s the great belts of trees, planted in row after row and stretching for miles, an absolute contrast to the desolate remains of those that have been felled.
We pedalled into one such plantation. Moel Prysgau, the bothy, was in there somewhere.
Having tiptoed across a stream, the rumble of engines tore open the silence. A group of motor-cross bikes were heading our way. We pulled our own bikes to the side of the trail, until rider after rider bounced through the shallow stream, fat wheels and shocks pressing rocks into the stream bed, exhausts farting above the surface and leaving metallic rainbow trails in their wake. The riders nodded a greeting, cheeks squashed up beneath their eyes inside full face helmets.
We nodded back, but our thoughts were the same: I hope they’re not heading where we’re heading.
We left the fire road shortly after, dropping down a slate path into the trees before rolling over ruins to the front door of a building we recognised from photographs. Moel Prysgau was printed on a plaque on the wooden door. And we could still hear the furious combustion. The bikes were just a short way down stream; a rumbling threat. We pushed the front door of the bothy with an urgency, half expecting belongings or crates of beer on the other side. But no, a pile of branches and twigs were leant up in one corner, hand tools were strewn or leant up against other walls and a flat wooden platform that I guessed acted as a bed in bothy-land squatted in front of us. Behind the only internal door was what the Mountain Bothy Association refer to as ‘the snug’. A wood burning stove crouched on the hearth. On one side were more platforms. And opposite, a number of tables lined the wall under a single window. As a holiday let it was a dive, but as a sanctuary and place to rest after a day of travel it was everything we needed. We smiled and touched hands in a high-five. The bikers were forgotten.
The sun had set and we were huddled around the stove, cups of red wine in hand, when a large figure shut out the dying light from the window. We had visitors. Experienced bothying visitors, as it turned out. Haemish (with the help of some meths) turned our wavering flames into a roaring furnace before settling down to his bothy speciality; mackerel korma. By the glow from the stove and the flicker of the tea lights in the window, we listened as he and his partner, Sarah, recounted stories between mouthfuls of mackerel. When sleep finally came it was amid a smog of wood smoke, tainted with fish and sweet spice.
The morning brought a fairy tale kingdom. Everything – fir branches, bark, moss, grass, the bridge across the stream, the new corrugated roof that sheltered us – was encrusted with ice crystals. And for a good while, breakfast was forgotten in favour of photographing this new world.
But by the time the sun’s rays came to melt it all away we were ready to begin our journey home. Somehow, the path and the stream leaving the plantation were entangled, so every 100 metres or so we would come to another crossing. Wet feet were inevitable. For all of us, it was a long pedal home. For Scott, it was a long soggy one. The miles clicked slowly by and our passing was marked by little more than a ewe’s jaw frozen mid-chew or the thrust of a lamb’s head as it sought comfort at her teat. Our food was less comforting. We pedalled into mirages of small cafes that served hot drinks and savoury snacks and had a peanut free policy. Instead we found ourselves on a hillside, a lake below and squashed peanut butter sandwiches – or other peanut derived products – in our hands. Scott pulled out a Cliff Bar – peanut – unpeeling the wrapper to find something the shape of a light brown torpedo embedded with pale nuts. He winced and replaced it.
Between the hills and our luggage, we were spent when we rolled into the car park, 30 hours and around 50 miles later. And while my body was craving salt and white fish, it seemed far off because in other ways, I was full up. The emptiness that I am used to living with was not there. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I had all the things I had seen and touched and felt over the last 30 hours still fresh inside me, vivid and moving. And I felt gratitude. The trip had left an after taste far deeper than that of the smooth, salty crunch of a peanut.