There were two impressive cycling achievements at this year’s Barmouth gathering: one of the group travelling there by bike from Liverpool (Paul Devlin: 91 miles); and somebody (me!) making a successful ascent of what has been officially declared this year as the steepest road in the world.
Paul had made his epic journey with a friend, Ged Edwards, who, it turned out, had several connections with our group, which was celebrating it’s 20th anniversary of getting together for the first week in August at the Jesuit House in North Wales in its stunning location overlooking Cardigan Bay. It all began as a Millenium reunion for people who’d met in the 1980s through the Sheffield University Catholic Society and SVP (St Vincent de Paul Society), plus partners and offspring. Ged works for CAFOD and has just been seconded to CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network), of which Irish Chaplaincy is a member, so he and I knew a few people in common, including Sean Ryan of Caritas Salford (mentioned before in this blog!) who is the national lead for the Community Sponsorship Scheme. It was through leading this scheme in their local parish in Rainhill that Paul and Ged had become friends, and they had received valuable help from Sean in their hard work, over years and involving many people, to welcome a Syrian refugee family. The family came at the end of July, mum and dad and three boys, and they were all smiling radiantly in the photos of their arrival at Manchester airport that were posted on our ‘Barmouth Blues’ WhatsApp group, having finally been able to leave a refugee camp for a new life.
We were getting a little concerned on the first day of the holiday when Paul and Ged, who’d been on their bikes since 7am, hadn’t arrived by 9.45pm, and with darkness descending. It transpired that they’d reached the house an hour earlier but finding that they’d ‘only’ done 91 miles kept going up the road towards Harlech and back, to find they’d got to 99 miles, so did a little lap of Barmouth sea-front to clock up the magical ton. Perhaps you need to be somebody who indulges in extreme sports to fully appreciate why, after spending 12 hours in the saddle with your body screaming with pain, you would choose to keep going for a further hour! I would have done exactly the same in that situation!
Speaking of Harlech, that was the scene for my own bit of extreme sport, namely attempting to cycle up a road to the castle with an average gradient of 22% (according to the book ‘Britain’s steepest cycling climbs’) and reaching almost 40% in places. I’d done a bit of training for it the week before, although there’s nothing around Canterbury (or anywhere in the world for that matter!) that comes close to that level of steepness. And the day before I’d done a recce by cycling down the street in question (scary even when going slowly!). On the day of the attempt I had a support team in the form of Paul Crilley who was waiting for me half way up the hill to warn of any cars coming down (an added challenge is having to go the wrong way up a one-way street!). I was in luck: the road had just been closed to traffic for the day for a pipe replacement and I thought ‘it’s now or never’. I said a couple of Hail Marys and went for it. I made it up the first and steepest section (looks almost vertical when you see it from the bottom!) and just kept going. Three people walking (very slowly!) up the hill cheered me on, so too the workmen further up and when I reached the top I felt so pleased with myself.
It was one of the highlights for me of Barmouth 2019, another being the early morning run on the beach followed by a dip in the sea (not quite as cold as it’s been in past years). The concert night is also great fun. Young and old take a turn and it was lovely to have some absent friends in Ireland with us via some kind of amazing modern technology and even singing with us (with a slight time lag!). A staple of the evening is ‘500 Miles’ performed (particularly well this year, I thought) by Tony and me; so too the men’s obligatory rendition of Chris de Burgh’s 80s classic ‘Patricia the Stripper’.
The week flies by and then it’s time to pack and to clean the house and go our separate ways. It’s back to work or Uni. or school or wherever. Life goes on. But how lovely it is to have a chance, at least for a week, to be with old friends in a beautiful place, eating well (a different family producing a feast every evening), having fun, and doing a bit of extreme sport besides. Only a year to go till Barmouth 2020…
PS another regular feature of the concert night is the song I wrote after Barmouth 2013, ‘(I Ain’t got no) Barmouth Blues’, and here’s the chorus:
Well I ain’t got no Barmouth blues
If I want a summer hol. there’s no other place I’ll choose
I like to hang out with my friends with whom I’m growing old and grey
No, I ain’t go no Barmouth blues
And I don’t want no Caribbean cruise
I’ll spend my days just sitting looking out at that bay