Discover more from Britain By Thumb
Chapter 62: A Slope and Two Wheels
Brecon to Machynlleth
Joe stretched a pale arm behind my seat and yanked out an AA map. “Here,” he said. His lilting Welsh accent meant it sounded like h’yer. He passed me the map, crumpled and dried out. Joe only ever used AA maps and today he was driving to Machynlleth. It took me a few attempts to pronounce it correctly, to get the chhlll sounds rolling in the sides of the mouth. Joe didn’t really know where it was, somewhere near Aberystwyth he thought, but he knew exactly how to get there.
Joe was a gentle man, verging on shy. He was going mountain biking in Machynlleth with some friends. It was a passion of his and his small white van was stacked full of bikes and wheels and now my rucksack was crammed in there too. He had thin spiky hair and a round hole in his earlobe. His arm had two tattoos on, quite large, and he had friendly eyes. He worked as a steel welder building 3D printers.
“Yeah,” he said cheerfully, his voice had an inquisitiveness about it, “They’re about the size of a fridge-freezer, I’d say. It can print something within a microwave kind of size?” The printers could print anything you liked and he dreaded to think how much it would cost to buy one. I asked how they worked and Joe wasn’t too sure but said they put down a layer of powder which is melted by a laser, building whatever you want, layer by layer. These printers were particularly useful for making prosthetic limbs. They were sterile you see.
Joe lived outside Cardiff in a small village. He half-owned a house but the other half was owned by his ex and things had become complicated. He’s renting now and most of his wage went on paying it. He was toying with the idea of buying a van to live in it for a year or so. Then he could save up and buy a place of his own. He wasn’t someone who needed a lot of comforts, but he had a five-year-old to think about too.
“People are always complaining about the prices of everything going up,” he said, referring to the bungalow his parents sold and replaced with a five-bedroom house, “but I can’t be bothered with that. It’s going up and there’s nothing you can do about it. No point complaining like. You just got to save where you can.”
We talked about London and he said he’d been three times. He didn’t like it. He found it overwhelming. “Maybe I don’t like people that much,” he mused. He told me that he worked in a bike shop for ten years. “That was good that were, but the public wears thin on you after a while."
He told me about his village and the friends he’d had growing up. Most had moved away now. He told me about one who moved to Bristol and fallen out of contact. Joe thought he was married now. His parents were still in Wales, but Joe said he’d lost contact with all his friends there. We agreed these things were the natural course but there’s nothing quite as nostalgic or sad as a friendship finished and lost.
The valleys we wove through were tight and mighty, the forests thick and dark. Beautiful green oaks owned the fields and caught the occasional burst of evening sun. Mostly though the rain was unceasing.
We chatted amiably about not much for an hour or two. Brexit came up and we agreed it was mad. Joe didn’t like reading the news: “It’s all bad so what’s the point? Better to be in the moment, I always think like.”
There was a point when he nearly dropped me in the Elan Valley. It was apparently a good tourist spot and the reservoir was well worth seeing. I decided though that in weather like this, a wide open valley without a tree in sight was the last thing I felt like seeing. I’d find a place to camp in Machynlleth. Maybe the weather would be better up there.
It wasn’t. In fact it was worse. Great spears of heavy rain barraged the windscreen and leapt off the tarmac making the road look like it was vibrating. We tried to work out where I could camp. Joe was positive and thought I could find a dry spot under a bridge. He suggested hopefully that I ask a farmer to sleep in their barn. I floated the idea of finding a room in a pub but Joe was sure I’d find somewhere to pitch a tent. Rooms were so expensive.
We pulled into the town as it got dark. The rain was still unswerving. It was one of those evenings that seemed to lean steadily heavier on a place until it had smothered it completely. The thought of walking randomly out of town in the hope of finding a farmhouse was not appealing. I made for the nearest pub instead.
There was one room left and it was only £60. The pub was an ancient coaching inn with low curved beams. People ducked on their way to the bar. It was busy, full of the noise of punters, muffled by the dark red carpet and cushion-back chairs. There was a slightly acidic smell of spilt beer. I dropped my bag and put on some dry clothes, relieved to have a bed. I was tired after a long wet day. It felt a long time since I’d been packing my tent on the beach by St Govan’s, the other side of Wales, but it had only been that morning. The bed squeaked and sprung as I sat on it and there were flowers on the blanket and wallpaper.
20 minutes later I walked back into the bar and bumped straight into Joe. He’d changed out of his vest and shorts and was wearing skinny black jeans.
“Ahh hello!” He said as we laughed at the coincidence. I’d not had the mettle to find a farmer or a bridge I explained. I looked through the window outside. The rain had stopped. He told me he and his friends always meet here when they go biking. They were just over there and I should join them. He said he’d stay the night in the car park in his van but I told him there was a spare bed in my room. I’d love to repay the favour, give a bit back to the hitchhiking world. It would be warmer and more comfortable than the van. He said he’d take me up on it.
Joe introduced me to his friends and I sat next to John. He had long straggly hair and spoke in short syllables sent out with short nods and a fixed half smile. He was wearing a black T-shirt of what looked like a metal band. John said he worked for a design company. He’d use software to create odd bespoke things like a prop for a room in Disneyland Abu Dhabi. He showed me a design for something to hold golf clubs. He called them golf bats. He didn’t strike me as a golfer.
John was a mountain biking fanatic. He and Joe discussed bikes and tires, suspension forks, trail times and the plan for the morning. John was on the trails at least twice a week. He had only just recovered from having his elbow reconstructed. A few years ago he broke his back. He told me about it with awkward pride and his black eyes looked intense.
We all went outside to look at his new bike. He slid back the door to the van and pulled it out. Joe admired it, eyeing all the different parts, squeezing the tyres and pressing the handlebars, testing the suspension. He admitted he’d like one of those if he could afford it. Then he got his out. It was orange and the huge wheels and slanted suspension gave it a snarling air.
Then John went up to bed and Joe and I stayed at the bar as it steadily cleared out. The local ale was good and we were there til the bell rang. Joe said John lived on his own and biking was his passion. He struggled to tie down a job because he was constantly injured. He’d be laid up in hospital with a break for several weeks a year.
Joe loved it too, though he was less fanatical. He’d been having a tricky time recently and biking was a release. The beers meant we chatted more freely than in the car. The house he and his ex owned was becoming more and more stressful. She was refusing to let him have his half of it. “It’s strange,” he confided, “for so long we got along so well and now she’s gone malicious or something.” Joe didn’t know what it was or why. He couldn’t see how people could change so much, or maybe they were always like that, neither of us knew. He said the whole thing made him not worry about money. “Money’s the root of all evil,” he said. He didn’t mind anymore if he lost everything on the house. He just wanted to move on.
“Mountain biking’s my zen,” he said, telling me about the thrill of the ride, the clack clack of the wheels bouncing over roots and the soaring sense of flying up a ramp, bursting into the air. “I’ve just got to keep myself happy first and foremost,” he said, “All I need is a slope and a couple of wheels. That’s all I need to be happy.”
I hope you enjoyed chapter 62. If so please like, subscribe and share with your friends.