The Great Public Transport Race

Using different modes of transport, the Countryfile Magazine team travelled from Bristol to Machynlleth to put rural public transport to the test. Read on for the full report...

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The challenge


Public transport in rural areas has a reputation for being expensive, slow and infrequent. But it also has the potential to be a cheaper, more relaxing and environmentally friendly way to travel than by car. We wanted to put this to the test. So, on 4 May, the Countryfile Magazine team (and cyclists from Sustrans) raced from Bristol to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth. Read on for a taste of their adventure…

The team

Car: Dave Perrett, Production editor
Train: Jo Tinsley, Features editor
Bus: James Daniel, Designer
Bike: Richard Sanders from Sustrans, along with friends Max, Celia and Antony
Any means possible: Abigail Whyte, Editorial assistant


James, Abigail, Jo, Dave and Richard ready themselves for the big race…

The race

BIKE We’d spent the previous weekend at a bike race in Belgium. Using what we’d learnt about continental racing, we breakfasted on waffles and a paste made from crushed biscuits to prepare us for the day ahead.

BIKE Set off from my house in Bristol. It’s cold. Fully expecting roads to be deserted but they’re already busy. 6am is the new 7am, apparently. Pass a few other cyclists going to and from work; they are in no mood to respond to us shouting “what ho!” at them.


Team bike make an early start from Bristol

BIKE Making good progress. Just treated to a terrific view of the Severn Bridge. Lovely and sunny, but numb feet all around. Odd juxtaposition with proper rush hour traffic – I feel like a salmon that’s decided not to bother and has started swimming back downstream.


Amazing views of the Severn Estuary

TRAIN In an effort not to cheat, I take a tiny local train almost directly from my door. I stand, swaying and pressed against disgruntled commuters, and eavesdrop on a pair next to me as they discuss the state of public transport today: “They claim it’s an environmentally friendly option, then they pump heating into it,” one tuts. “They could retro-fit it, but I bet they won’t because it won’t make them any money.” Step off at Bristol Temple Meads, pleased not to be attempting the entire journey on this train.

ANY After a delay with air traffic control, I’m ready to board the microlite glider at Filton Airport, with Gordon Davis as my pilot. Palms are sweaty, but weather looks clear for a smooth flight.

ANY Flying 2,300ft over the Bristol Channel with the M48 suspension bridge on my right and the M4 bridge on my left. I can see lots of green hills in the distance, so I know we’re going in the right direction.


The same views, from above!

BIKE Made it to Usk. Second breakfast of raisin bread.

TRAIN Hop on the Bristol to Newport train. I’ve just seen on twitter that the cyclists have made it to Usk. Wonder where the car (my main rival) has got to.

CAR: I’m supposed to be leaving Bristol and heading for the Severn Bridge now, but the train I catch every day to get me into work is late. It’s a bad start, but I’m confident I’ll catch up once I’m on the road.

ANY A faultless landing at Nympsfield near Abergavenny, although we nearly took out a local journalist who didn’t realise how wide the wingspan of a glider is. Greeted by Luke from Drover Holidays, with a couple of electric bikes, and my fiancé Dan, who will be joining me for the rest of the race. Pose for a few snaps for the local gazette. Feeling smug – I’m bound to be ahead of everyone else.

BUS: Just caught my coach from Bristol bus station bound for Bridgend. The air is stuffy onboard but the journey is comfortable enough so far.


James sets out on his adventure by bus

CAR: Car picked up, I’m finally leaving Bristol. Slightly worried that Abigail is in Abergavenny already. Still, the roads out of Bristol are quiet and I’m cruising on the motorway within 10 minutes.

BUS: Crossing the Severn Bridge and heading into Wales. Driver generously pays toll – thought he might have asked for a whip-round.

TRAIN Start feeling concerned when the train keeps pausing. Check my ticket and notice I’ve been given an 11-minute changeover. We’re currently running 10 minutes late. My connection at Newport is going to be tight and I can’t afford to miss this train if I want to beat the car. Gather up all my things and poise myself at the door, ready for the platform dash.

BIKE South Wales is beautiful, rolling and green. I regret ever thinking that it just consisted of a motorway leading to some great mountain bike trails. One field of new wheat is so undulating, we all become hypnotised and stop to take pictures. Brief wrong turn as Celia follows some kittens.


“South Wales is beautiful, rolling and green.”

TRAIN Missed it. As I aimlessly wander up and down the platform, trying to figure out the new layout (a kind lady finally points me in the right direction), a tannoy informs me that one train from Cardiff is currently delayed by 56 minutes due to animals on the line. I sneakily hope Dave is stuck behind a herd of sheep as I try to figure out how to make up lost time.


Spot the missing train…

CAR: I’m on the Severn Bridge, leaving England to heading into Wales. The toll costs £5.70 this way, which adds to the total costs of the journey, but it’s free on the way back.

ANY After 15 minutes cycling up a tiny lane, I have to stop for a phone interview with BBC Radio Wales. Mustn’t sound too worn out.

TRAIN The next connecting train to Machynlleth is in exactly two hours. As a former commuter from Cardiff, I feel I’ve spent more than my fair share of time waiting at Newport station, so right now I’m open to ideas. I tweet about my missed train and a whole host of suggestions (and one offer of a cup of tea) come flooding in. Decide to hop on the next train to Shrewsbury and spend my spare two hours there instead (@hellofromtnorth says Shrewsbury Castle is a nice spot for a picnic).

TRAIN Grab a window seat, then check with the conductor that it’s OK to break my journey in Shrewsbury. Technically it’s not, but he says the barrier guys will be happy to let me through. Sit back and enjoy a nice cup of tea. After the fraught start, I’m feeling quite chilled.

BUS: The coach winds its way into Cardiff. The tourists press their faces to the window as we pass Cardiff Castle and the Millenniums Stadium.

ANY Something’s wrong. Surely cycling an electric bike shouldn’t be this much hard work? Why are Dan and Luke miles ahead of me?


Abigail learns the first thing you need to know about an electric bike – how to turn it on

BIKE Passed a sign for the brilliantly named “Pantygelli” – an extreme form of saddle soreness, or maybe a remedy?

CAR: Cruising through the Brecon Beacons. The scenery is stunning. I wish I were a passenger not a driver so I could see more.

TRAIN We’re zipping through fields of dazzling rapeseed now, with white flowered hedgerows and tractor furrows through the fields. It’s strange to think that my fellow racers are digging deeper into Wales, while I’m speeding along the border.


Whipping past acres of rape seed fields on the way to Shrewsbury

BUS: Arrive in Bridgend, at a rather uninspiring, out-of-town shopping centre. Looking for signs of the next bus I should catch, but nothing is evident on the timetable at the stop. This journey may not be as simple as first thought…

BIKE Made it to the beautiful ruins at Llanthony Priory. Can’t resist stopping in the secret underground pub for a quick snack . The lady from the pub told us that she’d driven past us on our way up and had made sure they were open for 11:00. She tells us that the place to go in Mach is the Milk Bar, which sounds very Clockwork Orange.


Llanthony Priory has a secret underground pub

ANY Problem solved – my bike wasn’t switched on. I’m now zipping down the back roads like a bat out of hell. Beautiful views of Skirrid. Just spoke to Jo – she’s missed her train from Newport (ha!).

BUS: Have decided to ask the staff at a nearby tourist information booth for help. Staff insist the service I want to catch will be running, despite any information at the stop. They helpfully give me a printout of the timetable and offer a hearty endorsement of my chosen journey: “Ooh, that’s the scenic route – going out to the coast before heading up toward Ceredigion.” Let’s see if they’re right.

TRAIN Still gently chugging through the countryside, just passing Leominster. All is calm on the train. Most passengers are just watching the fields wash by.

BUS: With an air of inevitability my bus to Aberysytwyth has arrived.

BIKE Round a corner four-abreast and come across a herd of sheep. Luckily a shepherd on a quad bike diverts them into a field before we run into them.

CAR I stop on the A470 just outside Builth Wells for refreshment and an interview with BBC Radio Wales. I’m making good time – the A-roads have been mainly clear. The driving is easy and I’m on course to arrive at 12.30. However, when I check Twitter, I see that Jo (travelling by train and my nearest rival), has been delayed by two hours, so I decide to stop a few more times to take in the views. I have the cautionary tale of the Hare and the Tortoise at the back of my mind, but I’m convinced that even if I were to stop for another hour, I’ll still comfortably get to Machynlleth first.

ANY Arrived safely at Tir y Nant in the Llanbedr Valley for the next leg of the journey. Pee and coffee stop.

TRAIN Arrive at Shrewsbury. Having followed my progress on Twitter, my mum (who lives just over the border near Montgomery) makes a surprise visit and is waiting on the platform. Happily amble over to Shrewsbury Castle for a picnic in the sun.


Some sound advice leads Jo to a sunny picnic at Shrewsbury Castle

BIKE Crested Lord Hereford’s Knob, the highest point of our ride. A local entrepreneur has left an old fridge by the side of the road with ‘Eggs 4 Sale’ written on the side. Looking inside, it contains eggs in boxes and an honesty box.

CAR: While on the road to Rhayader, home of the famous red kite feeding station, a red kite swoops down 5m in front of my car to pick up some carrion. What a sight!

ANY I’m now perched on top of a gorgeous brown horse called Ellie, with Paul from Transwales as my guide. We’re just passing the Hermitage, an intriguing villa built in the early 19th century by John MacNamara of Llangoed for his secret mistress. I say.

BIKE Brilliant off-road descent down a mountainside. “We’re going down there?” I gasp, pointing incredulously at boulder-strewn Land Rover track. Going at an extremely hesitant pace, we make it down without pringling any wheels. Before anyone asks, we’re not on the National Cycling Network at this point. Short cuts that look good on a map do not always work. Back on track, we enjoy a wonderful descent on empty country roads.

CAR: I’ve arrived at Clywedog reservoir and it’s so beautiful that I decide to stop for a good 20 minutes to enjoy the views, walk around and take some photos.


Clywedog reservoir is worthy of a photo stop

BIKE Coffee by the riverside at Glasbury. We decided we were at the Jovi Point (“woah, we’re half way there”), but l think this is a bit optimistic.

BUS: Just dozed off. Couldn’t get away with that in the office, or if I was driving for that matter. Beautiful Carmarthenshire hills rolling past the window.

CAR: I’ve now arrived at the stunning Dylife Gorge, where I stop again for five minutes to take some more photos and enjoy the breathtaking view.


A clear lead gives Dave time to stop and enjoy views of the Dylife Gorge

CAR: The road now snakes over the northern edge of the Cambrian Mountains, and I enjoy the amazing surroundings on the road ahead before heading into Machynlleth.

BUS: Bus is packed – people getting on and off at the frequent villages we’re stopping at.

ANY I’m cantering down McNamara’s track in the Brecon Beacons. My foot did slip out of the stirrup momentarily, but I think I’m getting the hand of this. My antihistamine’s wearing off though – I’m allergic to horses and my nose is running.


Abigail is plodding on across the Brecon Beacons

CAR: I cross the finishing line at Machynlleth. The journey is over, and what a superb journey it has been. I can safely say that it was the most enjoyable drive I’ve ever undertaken.


The car crosses the finish line first – but will it be the ultimate winner?

TRAIN Pick up the final leg of the journey to Machynlleth. I’ve just heard that Dave has just arrived, so I might not be the first, but I’m hoping I’ll make up points with comfort, cost and CO2 emissions.

BUS: Nice day outside, but this bus is uncomfortably warm now.

BIKE Pass a sign to Painscastle. Cyclists describe periods of over exertion as a trip to the “Pain Cave” or the “Hurt Locker”. Fortunately, we turn away from the Painscastle.

ANY Arrive at Cwmfforest Riding Centre near Talgarth, give Ellie a drink of water and a pat goodbye. Alison shows me how to operate her B-Bug, a hydroelectric buggy.


Rain powered adventures in the B-bug

BUS: Feels like we’ve been stuck behind this tractor for ages.

TRAIN The hills are starting to rise up now – we’re definitely heading into Wales!

ANY Dan and I are zipping up Cockett Hill on a narrow lane in the B-bug. I want one of these for Christmas. Only downside is I keep swallowing flies.


The journey without a windscreen gets the thumbs up from Abigail

BIKE Stopped to admire someone’s tractor collection while Rich runs into the pub to re-fill an armful of water bottles – hydration is important.

ANY Lunch stop on the summit of Cockett Hill, with a glorious view of Llangorse Lake. Only just got phone signal and it looks like Dave and Jo have made it to the finish line. Must crack on in the B-Bug.

BIKE Cross over the river in Builth Wells. Attempt to take photos and send Tweets, but brain has slowed down and it turns into a large faff.

TRAIN Arrive in Machynlleth, where a rather smug Dave greets me with his car. Overall, the train journey has been a rather pleasant experience. Missing the Newport connection meant I was able to have a bit of an adventure.


Jo makes it to Machynlleth, just two hours late

ANY Oh no! We’ve taken a wrong turning and ended up in the village of Trefecca. Must turn back. And I must learn how to read a map. People are beeping at us because of our quirky little vehicle.

BUS: My bus is pulling into Aberystwyth, just as a Machynlleth bus is about to leave, can I make it?


Views of the coast from the bus journey

BUS: Managed to step straight on to the bus to Machynlleth. My conservative timetable had scheduled that I catch the next one. I’m an hour ahead of schedule – go bus!

ANY Phew! We’ve reached Groesffordd on the Brecon Canal, where Fred from Interactivities-UK will lead us in Canadian Canoes.

BUS: Where’s the best place to sit on a bus? I always seem to end up sitting above the wheel.

BIKE Second off-road section – a climb that would have been much more fun the other way round, and with fatter tyres, and if we hadn’t already ridden 80 miles.

ANY The canal is serene, and there are joggers on the towpath. I’m feeling sleepy.


Gentle paddling down the Brecon Canal

BUS Arrived in Machynlleth, just enough time for a quick bite to eat before hopping on the bus to CAT.

ANY I feel sad leaving the canoe behind, I was just getting into my stride. But now it’s time to take Mr Chips, a recycled chip fat powered car provided by Talybont on Usk energy, on an adventure to the coast.

BUS: There’s my bus to the small village of Pantperthog, the nearest to CAT, hopefully the driver knows where he’s going because I sure don’t.

BUS: The driver has kindly offered to take me directly to the CAT entrance after I confessed I didn’t know when to get off (a classic problem of bus travel)

BUS: Just met up with Jo (train) and now my race is over. Overall the bus journey wasn’t that hard, it enabled me to see some stunning countryside and compared favourably cost-wise with the other modes of transport, but I’m not sure how it’s going to fare in the grand reckoning.

ANY Just realised we’re running behind schedule and we’re going to miss our bus from Aberaeron to Aberystwyth. We’re going to have to take Mr Chips straight to Aberystwyth.

Mr Chips looks like a normal car from the outside

BIKE Oh dear, this isn’t good. Rich has managed to snap part of his bike that not only enables him to change gear; it’s essential to all forward motion. I’m wondering whose parents live the nearest so we can draft them into broom wagon duties (an affectionate term for the vehicle that sweeps up stranglers in a race). But wait! Rich is ferreting around in an old puncture tin and produces a spare for the part he’s just broken. He’s only been carrying it around for three years. A quick fettle and we’re moving disappointingly soon.

BIKE Our only puncture of the day, and it’s Rich again – the man is like an albatross around our necks! Only joking, the puncture is secretly welcomed and we all rest and start talking nonsense.

ANY Now at Aberystwyth train station. I’m hungry. Call Jo to check on food status, find out James has reached Machynlleth. The heat is on between me and the cyclists.

BIKE Final climb – the end is in sight. This is our Mont Ventoux – 20 minutes of continuous up, though an increasingly lunar landscape. Any interest we had in picturesque views has dwindled to nil as we grimly focus on the patch of tarmac just in front of our wheels. Finally we’re at the top, wind howling and sky darkening. Quick pause for a photo then we’re off, down a deserted road with an absolutely pristine surface for the final furlong.

Team bike reach the outskirts of Machynlleth

ANY My weary feet have touched ground at Machynlleth train station. Just hopping in a cab to the pub.

BIKE A raucous welcome party (courtesy of CAT) at Machynlleth’s clock tower made us feel like we’d finished a section of the Tour de France, except we wouldn’t be doing this every day for three weeks at three times the speed. And so on to the pub in a friendly convoy.

ANY Arrive at the pub for a well deserved pint.

Folk night at the Tafarn Dwynant in Ceinws

BIKE Arrive at the Tafarn Dwynant in Ceinws and there’s a crowd outside the pub, including our fellow contestants. My watch tells me it’s taken 14 hours and 22 minutes. The sense of achievement is massive. The tiny lounge is rammed with folk musicians. Beers are purchased, food is arranged and we settle in to enjoy a rousing sea shanty. We haven’t had a chance to get changed so we’re instantly recognisable as “the mad cyclists who rode there from Bristol”. Encouragement and support all round – we did it!

Read on for the results

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Special thanks to Crickhowell and Black Mountains Tourism, the Bristol and Gloucestershire Gliding Club, Drover Holidays, Trans Wales Trails, Interactivities-UK, B-Bug and Talybont-on-Usk Energy.