It is Wednesday at around 7pm on a hot June evening, and I’ve just arrived at Dolgoch, a small, squat whitewashed 17th century shepherds hut nestled deep in a valley in mid-wales.
I can hear laughter as I creep through the front door that has been propped open. It’s cool inside, with low ceilings and tiny windows. In the small garden, the group (whom I’ve never met) has gathered around a barbeque. There’s a flurry of activity; names, faces, hugs and a mug filled with wine and fruit pressed into my hands. I feel my shoulders relax.
I’m ragged with tiredness and frayed at the edges, but everyone here is so interesting. Stefan from Pannier, who I’ll learn seems able to create art out of anything; excitable, lively Monet who is interested in everything and seems wonderfully wild and adventurous; Katherine, who is warm and calm and makes space for you to breathe yourself into. There’s Jay, who is like that kid in your class trying to catch your eye as you’re getting shouted at by your teacher and make you laugh; Luke, who is helping Stefan and runs Outdoor Provisions, draws people together in his playfulness; Rich and Claire of Fjallraven - both of whom I suspect I could talk to for years and never fully plum the depths of their expertise; Matt, a journalist who feels instantly as if you’ve been friends with for years, and a second Matt - our photographer - who would process to flit with unbounded energy between us to tease out the story of our trip. When we eventually wander up to the dormitory rooms in the stuffy attic, my head is buzzing with the small glimpses of their world.
The morning yawns into a swell of activity, of questions about how we slept (‘not well,’ I say, ‘but I never sleep well’) and the busyness of a breakfast. We stand at the windows, toast in hand, looking over the hills at the swirls of midges and pull faces at one another. ‘I’m sure they’ll burn off,’ someone says.
Maps are unfurled; I pour over one with disoriented eyes before realising I am looking in the wrong section. Katherine traces the route with her finger, indicating bits of the route she’d ridden before. ‘This bit here,’ she points, ‘has the most beautiful wild swimming spot.’ The route will take us through the Cambrian mountains, following part of the trans Cambrian way and drop us into the adjacent Elan Valley trail as we work our way into Rhayader for dinner. If I complete it, it will be the longest route I have ever done on gravel. We have one last coffee, and everyone laughs at Luke’s outfit.