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Travel: It's never too late for a cycling holiday (thanks to e-bikes)

A self-guided cycling tour winds through England and Wales

The rain drips from my bike helmet and the wind blows it into my squinting eyes. The hills of Wales are a verdant blur, the sheep look more wet than woolly and the famed gardens boast drooping hollyhocks, while the locals are decked out in their “wellies” and Gore-Tex.

This is day two of Freedom Trek’s self-guided cycling trip with my two adult daughters in Herefordshire, a pastoral route that swings in and out of Wales and England, famous for its gardens, antique bookstores, and picturesque black and white villages. (

As we huff and puff over Brilly Mountain (the wind not at our backs), I wonder if my daughters are still speaking to me. You see, I’m not labouring quite as hard as they are, as I’m on an e-bike. Each time I pass them on hills (they are both excellent cyclists), and wait under a tree for them, I feel as if I should apologize.

Over the years, we’ve done several cycling trips together. However, I’m closing in on 80 and this day proves the e-bike’s extra power was a good idea. Happily, we didn’t raise sissies in our family and both girls assure me they are doing fine, although this is not what we bargained for in July. (Of course, we had packed raingear; we just didn’t expect to need it.)

Hours and 54 kilometres later, thankfully under a blue sky, we pedal into Hay-on-Wye, yet another picture-perfect village noted for its cornucopia of bookstores and its annual literary festival. (Held in late May, the 35-year-old event has been described by Bill Clinton as “Woodstock of the mind.”) We settle into The Firs, a charming B&B, for two nights. We dry out, wander book stores and pubs — what a great combo! — and do an easy circle ride the next day.

We cycle cozy country lanes tucked between hedgerows; we never tire of the pastoral beauty around us. Farms have an elegance here, many with stately manor houses surrounded by a patchwork of fields and forests. Some cottages border the roadway, all with illustrious gardens — fragrant with lavender and roses, lush greenery and, as we cycle by, bursts of blurry hydrangea dot the roadside.

Sleepy hamlets is an understatement. Take Almeley, for example: There are a few homes, a church and graveyard, and a pub. It was here that we get lost. The Freedom Treks’ trip we are on boasts several National Trust properties, gardens and castles and in this case, we are looking for our route to a water garden.

Several false attempts take us on meandering lanes, one leads to a farmyard. I meet a friendly woman with a dog, and we have a nice chat but she isn’t sure how to reach the gardens. If you are on a self-guided trip, it’s not unusual to occasionally puzzle over the route, one problem being that everyone deciphers directions differently.

However, to me — I’ve cycled in 10 countries — self-guided is the best of both worlds. This mode of holiday hearkens back to backpacking days as you have the freedom of independence coupled with the convenience of having accommodation booked and your bags moved. You are provided with written information plus a map of each day’s route and an emergency contact is available. First-class bikes are provided and I’ve yet to stop a local, in any country, who doesn’t want to visit and hopefully help.

As we were leaving a tearoom one sunny day, a local jumped out of his van and ran over to tell us how wonderful cycling was. He jokingly explained that in his “slimmer” days, he had raced bikes and now his daughter was the cyclist in the family. He barely paused to take a breath, wished us well and hopped back in his van.

In Almeley, while I was exploring, my daughters encountered the friendly pub owner, whose establishment was closed but he took time to direct us back to the main road. We pedalled on to Westonbury Mill Water Gardens. After a visit to the tearoom, we wandered a lush garden beside meandering streams and peaceful ponds. The industrious owners have highlighted the greenery with some unique structures — a stone watermill, a giant water-powered cuckoo clock and an amazing dome constructed of 5,000 wine bottles.

We pedalled on to Weobley, in the heart of Herefordshire’s famed black and white villages— some of the picturesque half-timbered buildings date from the 1400s — and checked into Ye Olde Salutation Inn. We settled into the bar for a late lunch and I thought we had stepped into the pub from Heartbeat. (Knowledge Network’s ongoing 1950s comedy/drama.) Locals wandered in and there was ongoing chatter, often about the weather and townspeople, who was doing what. This was clearly the heart of the village.

While all of this sounds folksy, there was nothing down-home about the food. Jamie Oliver-type menu items were served at the Salutation (known as ‘the Sal’ to the locals), and during our two days staying there we happily pedalled back, looking forward to our next meal. Every place we visited, the food, whether in a tearoom, a pub or a dining room, was enjoyable. My favourite was the Sal.

On our last day, a highlight was a visit to Croft Castle. Today a National Trust property, set on a high hill surrounded by parkland, its history dates to 1085. It has survived many transformations — the medieval castle was pulled down in 1570 and replaced in Elizabethan style; it served as a girls’ school during the Second World War. Today, it portrays a Georgian style stateliness with none of the rooms roped off, and the history is related in an excellent video.

With beautiful countryside, fabulous food and lodgings, and enough hills to challenge us, we soon forgot our two soggy days. However, the real bonus on this 200-km trip was the quality mom/daughter time together. Away from our everyday world, we reveled in the peacefulness and friendliness of Wales and England. And thanks to an e-bike, this almost-octogenarian could more than keep up.