The rain really started to fall when I arrived in Wales. The old fellas on the stoop don’t seem to notice, though, unless there’s a tourist there to joke with. “Fine Welsh weather,” was always my response: “Why would I come to Wales to see sunny weather? That’s not the real Wales, now is it?” And the misty summer rain, rolling like folds of grey wool over the hilltops, really was a fine sight to see. The dripping branches and sodden moss of the forest was a magical product of such a wet environment. Rainy weather – it’s just something you have to get used to. I was heading in the wrong direction for sunny beaches, anyway. Most days I’d just rock the nearly naked rainsuit; my sandals, my shorts, and my helmet, and I can get as soaked as I like. The rest of the gear is nice and dry under my scrap-o-tarp and inside the pannier rainflies. A bit cold during my lunchbreak, maybe, but at night inside my tent, with warm dry socks on – that’s the remedy if Welsh weather has you down. Anyway, unless you’re on a muddy cattle track(Wait… this isn’t mud!) you really do get used to it. Hey, I’m sure the Welsh farmers with their rubber Wellington boots(“wellies”) get used to even “cow mud.”
For a week or so I cycled into the intermittent downpours, through forests, across moors, and over mountains. Through quaint villages and rural estates, refilling waterbottles at the local pub and sneaking apples from the roadside orchards.
Besides the rain, the most dominant feature would have to be sheep. Wales has a lot of sheep. Lots of jokes involving sheep and shagging sheep. Sheep are everywhere. Sheep, sheep, sheep. There are sheep festivals and sheep-shearing competitions, shepherds on horses or ATVs herding sheep, border collies(aka Welsh collies) herding sheep, sheep wool lying in the road or caught on barbed wire, and tons and tons of sheep, spray-painted to mark the herd, wandering in expansive pastures. I’ve had to wait for sheep to cross the road, I’ve inadvertently chased escaped sheep, and I’ve even seen a sheep giving birth right on the shoulder. After being surrounded by wool, I must say, it is amazing stuff. For cycling in the rain, go with wool socks every time. I was also lucky enough to recieve a pillow-sized swatch of fluffy soft sheepskin, as further comfort in the rainy weather – it’s already a cherished piece of adventuring equipment.
Wales is a land of pagan witches and druids of ancient tradition. I still say the portly, nervous guy at the pub, the one with the crystal pendant, tie-dyed shirt, and spectacles, playing the dijeridoo, was a new-age wizard of some kind, or maybe an incognito faery ambassador. Some places you stand, you can’t help but notice the power in the land; the venerable wisdom of mother Earth permeating the air in every breath. Sure, the famous Welsh castles are old, and the ruined castles older still, but it’s the land that’s seen it all, the rivers and rocks and the ley-lines of yore. Even in the rain, especially in the rain, there’s some old magic out there in the hills of Wales.
There’s a big revival effort going on for Welsh history and culture. Every year there’s a big festival to celebrate all things traditionally Welsh called the Eisteddfod. Guys in day-glo vests in the street can be heard conversing casually in the olde tongue. Every traffic sign is written in both English and Welsh, and some signs are only in Welsh. It really sounds like an ancient tongue; watching someone speak it tends to bring the images of druids back to my mind. “Araf” means Slow – I saw that one a lot, painted on the road near dangerous curves – “I’m tryin’.” Watching snippets of the all-Welsh TV station was interesting, but I was only in the country for a short visit – not enough time to learn the language.
“We’re Welsh nationalists up here! We shoot the English when they come over – first line of defense!” –muddy boots farmer, owner of cyclophobic cattle herd
“Now was that really worth it?” –frowning elderly woman at stunning mountain-peak vista, after watching me finally reach the top
“Are you carrying anything you shouldn’t be carrying? I’m sure you have a knife to cut your bread, but…” –customs official, waking me up for the two a.m. ferry to Ireland