It dawned on me today for the first time that minor roads are invariably more hilly and therefore lead to slower cycling than do A-roads. This is quite a shameful admission for the oft-times winner of the King Edward VIth Grammar School John Motson prize for the Bleedin' Obvious. A-roads became A-roads precisely because they were the most popular routes between two places. And why were they more popular? Because people get there quicker.
So it was that on leaving Chepstow we took the left turn at St Arvans and then did lots of climbing as we travelled along the Devauden road. It's not just the slower cycling that slows you down (if you do half your journey at 4mph and the other half at the speed of light your average will still only be 8mph), but the need for more frequent rests, and the non-existent or, worse still, unclear road signs. So the 16 mile journey into Monmouth took about three hours.
It was a very enjoyable three hours. Again, the scenery was breath-taking and the Brecon Beacons beckoned from the west. We saw several buzzards and watched one as it soared above us for quite some minutes, displaying the wonderful patterns on the underside of its wings and another, gliding in stealth mode in woodland before alighting on a nearby ash tree. Jan took some photos of the wild flowers and as she did so, I noticed a vole scurrying around on the bank above her. I could tell at once it was a vole because it was quite at home on a very steep slope in spite of a total absence of gears (in-joke only understood by ACF members).
In Monmouth, we had coffee and started the long grind up the A466 towards Hereford. "Light vehicles only" said the road sign, so we half expected to be turned back by the police. However, we travailed and were rewarded by the rather grisly sight of a squashed polecat very close to the English border. This was the first I had ever seen, dead or alive.
There was a distinct pub dearth on this route, so we dived into the village shop at St Weonards (where do these saints get their names?) and caused a massive jump in the price of flapjack on the world markets. Suitably refreshed, we carried on.
Several times along the way, I thought I detected some unevenness from the rear wheel. I checked the spokes - all OK. The brakes were working perfectly, so the rims must have been alright, yet the nagging doubt remained that not all was well.
We joined the A49 for the last five miles into Hereford. It is a horrid road, but on that particular stretch, it is virtually all downhill, so we managed as many miles in fifteen minutes as had taken us at least an hour earlier in the day.
We liked Hereford. I came here for an interview in 1972 and had the Principal of the Teachers' Training College, Miss Eleanor Hipwell, not taken grave exception to my enormously long hair and straggly beard, I may well have been accepted and then I would never have met Janet! On this occasion too, we escaped the town's clutches with little difficulty and we were soon on the pleasant and mostly flat minor road through Sutton St Nicholas and Bodenham.
Shortly, we joined the A417, and the point at which it converges with the A49 was a nightmare. The road is narrow, exceedingly busy and thoroughly frightening. We took to wheeling the tandem on the wide grass verge rather than fight with the traffic, but soon we were on the B4361 towards Leominster.
Our stops were becoming more frequent as Janet was saddle-sore and was suffering from cramp in her right calf. As she was indulging in a little yoga practice, I had another look at the rear wheel which was still worrying me. The problem this time was immediately obvious: a series of tears in the wall of a virtually brand new (about 800 miles) tyre, no doubt courtesy of the dreadful Sustrans route yesterday. We had little more than ten miles left to do, so I decided we would carry on to Ludlow and change the tyre there.
The remainder of the journey was slow and uneventful and when we arrived at our digs at around 7:45, our host immediately gave me access to the garage for a fettling session. It was at this point that I realised I had committed the fettler's cardinal sin: I had never before removed the rear wheel from this bike. As luck would have it, everything was easy and within twenty minutes or so, I was test-driving the tandem. A quick shower later and we were foraging for a pub that served food at 8:50pm.
The first pub we tried sent us somewhere else and the second was no better, at least from the food aspect. However, they did serve Black Sheep and Timothy Taylor's Landlord, as well as another bitter called Hobson's. With a choice like this, we had to stay for a drink in any case, and were soon chatting to two very pleasant ladies about the best places to eat in Ludlow.
Now I'm not normally that adept at chatting up strange women in bars, particularly in my wife's company, but in the end, we joined Sharon and Jane (for that is who they were) for a second Indian in successive days, and a very convivial evening it was. So thanks, ladies, for your company and if you are ever unfortunate enough to stray into Southend, then please be our guests!