Marcin Bialoblocki and Billy Whenman at Carmarthenshire’s Gelli Aur Country Park
Visitors can still try their hand at panning for gold in deepest West Wales. With a history stretching back an incredible 2,000 years, the Dolaucothi Gold Mine is now one of Carmarthenshire’s glittering tourism gems.
It is Britain’s only known Roman gold mine and represents a rare opportunity to explore the UK’s lost gold mining heritage. It’s run by the National Trust and is situated in the quiet and rather exquisite village of Pumsaint, not far from the university college town of Lampeter.
Our guides from The Merlin Ride said the mine was well worth a visit – with special mentions for the underground tours and cakes in the tea room – but, sadly, we had to give it a miss as we were only around 40 miles into the challenge of a thoroughly varied 112-mile route.
We had to push on but were left discussing how our brush with ancient wealth prospecting summed up the rich variety of landmarks, highlights and talking points on this incredible route. On a road ride that takes in coast, country, testing climbs, thrilling descents, thick forestry and exposed hilltops, the history of this area is almost tangible.
Bialoblocki and Whenman test Carmarthenshire’s new sportive
There’s a choice of three rides – from 50 to 112 miles – and those wise enough to enter will encounter everything from traditional Welsh mining communities to ancient castles on towering rocky outcrops. There’s a beautifully evocative ancient abbey and towns steeped in a history that ranges from Merlin, the magician at the court of King Arthur to Ray Gravell, the late rugby legend who performed for the British Lions, Wales’ golden-era 1970s teams and for his local club Llanelli.
Riders who wish to take their families there for a lively change of scenery will find their relatives will not be disappointed. Our own favourite sights included Kidwelly’s famed Norman castle with its expansive views over the shimmering Bristol Channel and rugby’s legendary Stradey Park where, in 1972, Llanelli RFC beat the New Zealand All Blacks.
Merlin Ride co-organiser Peter Jones told us: “Some of the backdrops will be exceptionally breathtaking – the closest Wales will get to the awesome Pyrenees stages of the Tour de France. It’s the first time there’s been a tour of Carmarthenshire and we’ve ensured that many aspects of this glorious county will be experienced.
“One minute you’re plunging down an Alpine-style valley, the next you’re winding through a thickly wooded riverside. Then you’re on a long, flat coastal stretch.”
The Merlin Ride takes place on June 22 and sponsors include Wilier cycles, locally-based County Cycles and Carmarthenshire Council. Carmarthenshire Local Health Board and the Llanelli Scarlets rugby club have backed the event. Profits from the Merlin Ride will go to Macmillan Cancer Support and the Wales Air Ambulance.
Peter hatched the idea with keen amateur cyclist Phil Edwards, a manager with the Carmarthenshire Local Health Board. Phil told us: “There are already some fine Welsh cycling events, including the Dragon Ride between Bridgend and the Brecon Beacons, the Tour of Pembrokeshire and the Gran Fondo Cymru in North Wales.
“But we wanted one on home soil. Carmarthenshire’s such an awe-inspiring place that it easily lends itself to hosting events as ambitious as this. Landmarks en route highlight the area’s history.”
For Mr Edwards, the highlight is the incredible descent from over 600m on the A4069 through the Beacons. This leads riders from the top of the Black Mountain all the way down to picturesque Llangadog. The Black Mountain is the highest point in Carmarthenshire and the ride down is truly exhilarating. In four or five miles we negotiated everything from winding roads hugging the steep contours to narrow bridges crossing over small streams – it’s unique.
Our experience – as well as the breathtaking nature of key elements of the ride – was that consideration has been given to identifying routes that allow riders to warm up before engaging on intense climbs. There are plenty of roads with the capacity to take bunch riding and a route that requires periods of intense activity followed by periods of light activity to allow for rest and recovery.
Local services such as shops and toilets seem plentiful and there are sections where riders will benefit from natural shade.
Stop off for a coffee at the gold mine, if you like, but we recommend that it’s only a quick stop-off – there’s an enormous amount to see elsewhere on this fabulous sportive.
The Merlin Ride takes place on 22 June 2008,starting from Gelli Aur Country Park, near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, SA32 8LS from 8am. Entry fee £25.
Three routes: The Druid – 50 miles; The Merlin 1 – 70 miles, The Merlin 2 – 112 miles.
Several feeding stations – identified to ensure all participants remain hydrated and fit to continue the event.
Medical support Throughout the route.
The event is non profit-making with all profits being distributed between the Wales Air Ambulance and Macmillan Cancer Support.
The event is being supported by Carmarthenshire Council, Carmarthenshire Local Health Board, The Welsh Assembly Government, Cycle maker Wilier and Carmarthen Motor Cycle Club.
On departure riders will leave Gelli Aur Country Park and journey on the A483 to the centre of Ammanford. From here they will travel up through the Amman Valley to Brynamman on the A474 and via the A4069 onto the Brecon Beacons upland range including the Black Mountain which rises to 616m.
Riders then descend into the Towy Valley. The road is open onto the steep mountain side and hugs the contours. Riders will negotiate hairpin bends as they head for the peaceful farming village of Llangadog. There’s a feeding station at The Red Lion Hotel.
After the short break riders join the A40 before joining the A482 heading towards Pumsaint, the home of the Dolaucothi Gold Mine. The route turns onto the B4302 towards Talley and it’s at this point that Druid riders part company with the Merlin riders. To complete their 50-mile journey they will continue on the B4302 to Llandeilo.
Kidwelly Castle – one of the Merlin Ride attractions
Merlin 1 & 2 riders continue to Llansawel, Abergorlech and Brechfa on the B4310, taking in the dramatic scenery of the Cothi Valley. The ride gently loops through a broad vale, an avenue of rich farmland dotted with comfortable country villages. This road will tighten in places with double bends and humpback bridges; riders will have to take special caution.
Whilst refuelling at Abergorlech, cyclists will be in the heart of mountain biking country. The nearby Gorlech Trail is a demanding route and in 2006 was the first of three trails to be developed in the 7,000-hectare Brechfa Forest.
From Brechfa there’s a significant climb to Horeb, with wide open bends contouring the valley side. From Horeb riders will experience a long, fast descent. At the junction of the B4300 (feeding station) near Nantgaredig the two Merlin rides will part, Merlin 1 following the B4300 back to Llandeilo, through the mature Towy Valley with its views towards the Black Mountain range and passing through historical sites such as Dryslwyn Castle, Paxton’s Tower and Gelli Aur.
Merlin 2, meanwhile, will follow the Towy Valley to Carmarthen and travel on to the A484 to Kidwelly, famous for its Norman castle and close to the home to the late Ray Gravell, Eisteddfod bard, British Lion and Welsh rugby International.
The route now travels alongside the award-winning Millennium Coastal Park. At Llanelli’s Sandy Water Park Festival Field riders will be afforded another opportunity of a refreshment stop before the final leg of the event is commenced.
To mark the start of the last leg, riders will have to experience a short, steep climb out of Llanelli, and onto the B4308 passing close to Stradey Park, for almost 130 years the home the Llanelli rugby.
Riders climb Pembrey Mountain and head down into the Gwendraeth Valley, from Drefach riders will journey on the B4310 to Llanddarog for the last feeding station before climbing up the A476 to Carmel with panoramic views towards Ammanford and the Black Mountain. The final descent heads into the valley full of legends of Arthur and Merlin to enjoy views of Carreg Cennen Castle, perched on its craggy outcrop. Riders now swoop to the finish at Gelli Aur Country Park.