A Cyclist’s Love Affair with Wales and the Mawddach

The Editor is delighted to feature this wonderful memoir by the celebrated champion international cyclist and rally and racing car driver, Peter Procter.

Peter was born in Yorkshire in 1930, and as the nephew of Anne Loris Hill visited Blaen-cwm-mynach several times during and after the Second World War. Here he describes how it was on the trips to the Mawddach that he developed his climb crunching prowess in the saddle which helped him win the British championship in 1951.

Peter’s autobiography Pedals and Pistons is eagerly anticipated.

By Peter Procter

As a young boy, I spent several wonderful hot summers during the Second World War at my Aunt Anne’s rented farmhouse, Blaen-y-Cwm, high in the hills above the Mawddach in a hidden valley, the memories of which have stayed with me for the rest of my life. Overlooked by the mountains of Y Garn and Diffwys and facing Cadair Idris, the house was at the centre of a wonderful adventure playground for me: Bathing in the stream that passed close to the house, which had no running water other than a sink in the kitchen, fishing in the lake above, collecting bilberries and climbing mountains close by are the fond memories that have stayed with me throughout a long life. 

Living in Yorkshire and close to the Yorkshire Dales towards the end of the war, my best friend Edie Wright and I would ride our heavy cycles, generally used for going to school, to venture into the Dales, often staying overnight and camping rough, sometimes sleeping in a barn on top of the hay. Still, we often thought about cycling to Wales. One day I persuaded my friend to join me on what turned out to be a great adventure and the renewal of my love for Wales.

We were both fifteen years old when we planned our first “tour”. It looked so straightforward: Draw a line on the map and follow the nearest route to it. All those wonderful sounding names would appear, such as Betws-Y-Coed, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and many others, although I was familiar with some such as Dolgellau and Penmaenpool and I even learnt to say the longest name in Wales, Llanfairpwllgwyngyll etc, which I can still repeat today. We would learn very quickly that the old saying the longest way round is the shortest way home is very true when living in the hills and mountains, as our routes would always appear to take us over the steepest hills. 

Starting near Bradford in West Yorkshire, our route would take us to Chester -80 miles, where we would stay in a Youth Hostel (YH), then on to Llanberis via  Caernarfon -90 miles (B&B) -then Dolgellau (B&B) for two nights – a barn somewhere between Dolgellau and a Warwick B&B, total 130 miles – thence Lincoln (YH) 89 miles- York (YH) 80 miles and finally home 42 miles, a total of some 550 miles plus many more on our days off.

We were determined to visit castles on our tour, so our route included Conway, Caernarfon, Harlech, Warwick and Lincoln, so we had undoubtedly educated ourselves in so many ways.   

We started in bad weather that never left us for the whole trip, and our heavy bikes, with hefty saddlebags attached, were not ideal for long days in the saddle, and we were very late arriving in the youth hostel in Chester. A strong westerly wind and rain slowed our following day’s ride to Llanberis, but a three-night stop with climbs up Mount Snowden was a great joy. We were surprised to find our pub B&B allowed us to drink beer, and we would both remember feeling very queasy on fish and chips and a pint of beer at 15 years old: a lesson well learnt.

We had arranged to stay with my aunt at Blaen-Y-Cwm for two nights, and it was so good to see the farm again and show my friend all the places I had explored in the past. My Aunt fed us so well with food that replenished our spirits, as food in 1939 was rationed and not very good in pubs and Cafes. For one meal, all we could afford on our tight budget was egg on toast which turned out to be dried egg powder, possibly the worst food I have ever eaten. We were often wet through with the constant rain, and I remember our “dinner” in our stay in the barn was a loaf of bread and a small tin of potted fish paste- part of the tapestry of life, I suppose!

Early in our adventure, we came to realise that we had plotted a route that was frequently the shortest but often over the worst terrain, so our progress was slower than it could have been, but we had to make the best of it. However, towards the end of our adventure and leaving Lincoln, we faced a howling gale and an 80 miles ride to York. Although on a tight budget but knowing that Lincoln was on a good train line to York, we spent our last money on rail tickets and arrived in York in style. I always remember the youth hostel as it had Georgian windows with their many glass pains, and the task we were given was to clean all the downstairs glass before we could leave the following day. However, realising that this was unfair and would have taken hours, we sneaked off when we felt we had done our penance to ride home.  

Tired but much fitter than when we had set out, we were determined to visit Wales again, and so for the following few Easter holidays, we would return, but on a new bike. 

Little did I realise it at the time, but these adventures would be the foundation for a short but quite successful career as an international cyclist years later, but that is another story. 

On our return, I started to think about a change of transport, for I realised that my old school cycle was not ideal for serious cycling, and having started working, I raised funds to buy a beautiful Claud Butler tandem. Edie and I soon found that we could ride much longer distances, and so, on our next visit to Wales, we missed out the stop in Chester and rode straight to Llanberis. The Easter break was only four days long, so we just revisited some of our favourite places in the time we had, and we would repeat this for some years. We never forgot those happy and carefree days of our youth and about which we would often reminisce years later.

There came a time in my life when the love affair with Wales came a little under pressure when I had to do two years of National Service in the Army—stationed at first at Oswestry where I had to carry out eight weeks of “square bashing”, as the drill was called. Then it was on to Rhyl for continuation training for the Korean War. Many nights were spent sleeping rough on manoeuvres on the hills above Tonfanau, and although it was hard work at times, I have to say I loved it. After all the training, I was posted to Formby in Lancashire, and I found that all that cycling in Wales had paid off, and I spent the next two years in the saddle racing for the Army.

Since those days, I have visited Wales many times, and I have taken my wife to show her Blaen-Y-Cwm, although not for some years now.  I am so grateful to my Aunt Anne for introducing me to Wales and that beautiful secret valley over the Mawddach.     

11 November 2021                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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