Ffordd Pen Llech is the nearest you’ll get on a British road to downhill skiing on a bike. The narrow strip of tarmac careers down a hill at the side of Harlech Castle in north-west Wales, blundering in between picturesque stone cottages as if in a panic to get to the bottom. According to the Guinness Book of Records, as it was called in the days when it listed such things, this is Britain’s steepest road. The sign at the top starkly describes its gradient as 40%, or 1 in 2.5. Guinness fussily maintained it is only 34%, or 1 in 2.91.
Such figures are only a rough guide, because the angle of the surface varies so much during its pinball-like progress. At any rate, for most of its descent it’s too steep for comfort. At its most extreme point – the inside crook of the last hairpin, before the point at which a cabin crew would take their positions for landing – it may be as much as 50%, to judge by the pictures taken on our special expedition there. Cycling down Ffordd Pen Llech is like bringing a jumbo in to land at Kai Tak (Hong Kong’s old, famously awkward airport) using a pair of V-brakes; you’ll be sliding downhill even with both brakes full on, and expecting oxygen masks to descend any minute to the sound of beeps and klaxons.
The road is easy to find. It links Harlech’s main street up the hill (with the old town, castle and shops) with the plain below it (with the new town and housing developments). It starts just above the castle, between a bucket-and-spade gift shop, and jewellery emporium. An advert for a Indian restaurant points you down this vehicular assault course, whose effect on the unprepared driver may well be similar to that of an enthusiastically prepared vindaloo. Another very steep and winding road, Twtil, goes down from the same place down the other, south, side of the castle.
Ffordd Pen Llech (which means something like ‘Bluff Head Road’; in English it is referred to as ‘Llech Hill’) is also marked, in that space-hungry bilingual way of Welsh road signs that must be a boon the steel industry, Anaddas i fodur Unsuitable for motors. This doesn’t stop local cars from slaloming their way down. Once they get going, very little would. It’s also marked as a one-way street that way, but you’ll see the odd vehicle struggling upwards as well.
You do see cyclists taking on this tarmac flume. On our investigation we encountered two, one of them a local old boy in a flat cap, but could apprehend neither for an interview before they warp-factored off down into the distance. Locals tell you that the road’s one-eighty turns regularly jettison Merioneth’s over-ambitious cycling youth over the low walls into nettled thickets.
According to the tourist information office, Ffordd Pen Llech used to be the main route through the town, so they’re used to hills. Mums from the village nonchalantly walk their baby buggies up and down it, perhaps to accustom their offspring to rapid changes in atmospheric pressure.
Harlech’s celebrated castle – an awesome sight, especially from down below – is worth visiting, as armies have done through history. It’s seen geological battles too: the sea came up to the bottom of the cliff when it was built, but now the shoreline has receded half a mile. Had you hurtled down Ffordd Pen Llech on a 13th-century bicycle, you’d have ended up in the sea.
Of Harlech’s 1200-odd inhabitants, around two-thirds speak Welsh. Hang around when some of the kids fall off their bikes going down Ffordd Pen Llech and you’ll learn some useful colloquial phrases.