Bike to The Future ’23 Tour – Part 5
What you need after an unscheduled boozy night and (relatively) early start is a gentle cycle to get the limbs warmed up. What we actually got was a ridiculous, gut-wrenching climb out of Chepstow, followed by a prolonged slog up into the surrounding hills. Luckily, we’d fueled up on the well-labeled help-yourself breakfast (‘plates HERE’; ‘milk in fridge’ DO NOT use this dish washer’, etc.etc.) at the hostel.
Our assumption that the hills would abate once we left the vicinity of Chepstow were unfounded. However, the scenery was very pleasant and we were mainly traveling on quiet lanes. So, we could enjoy the challenges without the addition of lungfuls of diesel or meaningful hand gestures from passing motorists. Once again, there was an abundance of wild spring flowers (absolutely no idea which) and an accompaniment of buzzards, kestrels and a solitary red kite.
Coming into Cardiff (or, as railway announcements would have it ‘arriving into’ – grrrrrr), we were relieved to find a good supply of cycleways to help navigate the busier approach roads. It transpired I’d selected ‘Cardiff Castle’ rather than ‘Cardiff Central’ when plotting the route. But no matter: the two are not far from one another – and the castle park made for a pleasant diversion.
We’d made good time, so had the opportunity of a coffee and cake in the ‘plaza’ (bit of cobbled pavement with chain-cafe chairs and tables strewn about) outside the station. Then came the easy part. Our itinerary meant we had no option but to take a train from Cardiff to Haverfordwest in time for the gig this evening.
Unfortunately, this ‘easy part’ was anything but. Today was a strike day. We knew that. We’d naively imagined the lack of connecting services would mean fewer passengers. What we’d not reckoned on was the fact this line is shared by Great Western Railways’ services to Port Talbot and Swansea. And that ‘rail provider’ was on strike.
Barricade of Baby Buggies
So, all the passengers who would normally travel by Great Western’s inter-city-style multi-carriage trains, now had to cram onto the ageing two-coach affair that normally serves minor stations to Haverfordwest. To say this was not a good fit would be a dereliction of descriptive duties. As the train pulled into Cardiff, it was already full. And another two train-loads worth of travelers were waiting to board.
Rob and I approached the doors to the portion of the train marked for cycle storage (which we’d pre-booked). That section was already full: cordoned off by a barricade of baby buggies and strollers. In addition, the door area was crowded. And around twenty extra people were eagerly trying to insert themselves into this ‘space’.
Given Up Hope
Faced with the impossibility of this situation, I moved towards the far end of the train, where I – wrongly – assumed there may be more room. Once I’d recognised the futility of that maneouvre, I returned to find Rob now wedged into the first carriage. Through sheer will power and force of personality, he’d somehow got himself and his bike in among the scrum. An elderly passenger was more or less impaled on Rob’s handlebar, his rear wheel was held in place by the legs of a standing occupant.
Seeing me still on the platform, with the train’s departure imminent, Rob pleaded with the other train ‘customers’. Against all odds, he persuaded them to compress in either direction, away from the doors, sufficiently for me to wedge myself and my heavily-laden bike in between the mess of limbs, suitcases and child-paraphernalia. I’d honestly given up hope and was wondering how Rob would manage a solo performance of songs for which only the bass and violin parts, plus the odd backing vocal, were known to him.
Once the train got moving and a little air flowed through the open windows, the atmosphere became quite convivial. To be honest, when you’re pressed so closely to strangers for a prolonged period, it would be hard – nay impolite – not to engage in some kind of conversation. Unless, of course, you are on London Transport.
One exception to this good-naturedness was a fellow who took it upon himself to berate the guard. The guard in question rightly suggested people should move further along the carriage, after a few lucky souls had escaped but others needed to replace them. Our be-tattooed – and rather menacing – cohabitant didn’t seem like someone to mess with. So, the rest of us bravely kept quiet. The guard could perhaps have been a little more conciliatory but, thankfully, there were about thirty people separating the two would-be combatants.
Doctor Marten’s Boots
Eventually, having passed the main stop-off points for most passengers, things became less crammed. We even managed to sit down for the final few stops. And had a pleasant conversation with one woman I’d earlier heard complaining about bikes on trains. Rob won her over by asking what was in her ‘Doc Martens’ bag. It turned out it contained… Doc Martens. Who knew?
And then it was just a small matter of scaling the steep hill to the top of Haverfordwest’s old town. Here, somewhat disheveled and out of breath, we were greeted outside the Pembroke Yeoman by friendly locals, who appeared to be awaiting our arrival. They showed us where to stow the bikes before I ventured inside to find our host, Jess.
I’d met Jess before, having played this wonderful establishment a few years back with Rivers of England. Jess is one of a kind. She now single-handedly runs The Pembroke Yeoman: a community centre, social services, creative hub and drinking oasis rolled into one. Despite numerous setbacks, Jess has kept going. She now keeps reduced hours but still serves locally brewed beers and hosts regular music events.
We’d arranged to stay the night and Jess already had food prepared for us, so we could replenish our energy reserves before setting up for the gig. Such little touches of hospitality and generosity can make all the difference to a traveling musician. In mainland Europe, they remain the norm but this side of the channel you need to search a little to find them. But the good guys are still there. Both their regulars and the musicians that entertain them know who and where they are. Long may they continue.
Receptive & Appreciative
Thus refreshed, we quickly set up and were ready in time for the scheduled start. It turned out another local venue also had a music event on this evening. So, the numbers weren’t what they might have been. But that made no difference to those who were there. They were incredibly receptive and appreciative and we all had a wonderful evening.
One local declared “I don’t normally like music – but you’re really good, so I’m sticking around!”.
We’ll take that.