Until this summer, all was quiet along Ffordd Pen Llech. On paper, the winding lane offers the most direct route from the train station up to the busy high street in Harlech, a coastal town in north Wales known for its medieval castle. But locals tend to avoid it for reasons that become clear as I cycle past a caravan park, turn right and curse at the sight ahead.
The road is ridiculously steep — steep enough that earlier this summer Guinness World Records awarded it the title “steepest street in the world”. Ffordd Pen Llech rises over 50 metres along its 322-metre length, disappearing round its first bend like a blacktop helter skelter. Cars are forbidden from going up it and tourists are directed to Twtil, a gentler route up to the high street. Descending drivers, who are few and far between, pump the brakes in fear.
Yet on a Sunday morning in August, a few weeks after the award, Ffordd Pen Lech hums with life. Children watch their father approach the first bend on a mountain bike (gravity soon defeats him). Teenaged tourists from the Middle East hobble down in flip-flops. I weave through the curious crowds as I rise out of my saddle, lean forward over my bars like a gurning ship’s figurehead, and pedal, pedal, pedal.
To verify its record, Guinness requests evidence of a road’s average gradient along its steepest 10-metre stretch. For more than three decades, it had awarded the honour to Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand, a straight ramp that hits 35 per cent near the top (a 45-degree slope is 100 per cent). It draws so many tourists to Dunedin’s northern suburbs that a public toilet had to be installed in 2016. For years Cadbury has hosted an annual Jaffa Race, in which thousands of little chocolate balls are rolled down the hill.
But in January, news broke that Harlech was plotting to take the title. “I’d picked up my paper and was driving down the hill to my house,” recalls Gwyn Headley, a Welsh businessman whose obsession with architectural follies earned him a place in the 2015 book Dull Men Of Great Britain. “I’ve got four-wheel drive and all four wheels locked and I slid about six feet. I knew it was steep, but I hadn’t realised just how steep.”
The street was already known as Britain’s steepest but, when he got home, Headley noted with surprise that its Wikipedia page recorded a gradient of 37 per cent — steeper than Baldwin Street. He mentioned the discrepancy to Sarah Badham, who grew up in Harlech. A community Facebook page she runs rallied behind a campaign for recognition.
Guinness told the pair the local authority would need to organise a survey. Gwynedd Council dispatched a surveyor. The new data, which Guinness accepted, confirmed a gradient of 37 per cent. Headley and Badham were elated and a local “samba reggae” drum band joined a street party in July to celebrate. But the pair did not expect much to change in Harlech. Nor were they prepared for Dunedin’s response.
The steepest bit of Ffordd Pen Llech arrives quickly, covering the first bend. I can barely summon enough leg power to keep turning my rear wheel, while also battling to keep my front wheel in contact with the road. My heart rate soars. No planner would design such a sadistic road today; Ffordd Pen Lech evolved as a footpath centuries before the arrival of Tarmac, bicycles or the chroniclers of ultimately pointless records.
But some records capture the imagination, exciting eccentrics and stirring pride in places that might otherwise forget to shout about themselves. As Headley and Badham gave dozens of TV interviews, startled by global interest, Dunedin mourned a chunk of its civic identity. A cartoon in the national Otago Daily Times, which is based in Dunedin, parodied an 18th-century English nursery rhyme that depicts the Welsh as thieves: “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief; Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef.” In the cartoon, Taffy, who has uprooted Baldwin Street’s road sign like a leek, “stole our steepest street”.
“We had just lost the cricket World Cup to England so when I heard we’d also lost bloody Baldwin Street, I did a full John McEnroe round the office,” says Toby Stoff, a voluble Dunedin surveyor who once ended up in hospital with a collapsed lung after a foot race up Baldwin Street. The city had also been hit by a series of industrial closures. Mondelez, which owns Cadbury, shut its chocolate factory there last year; the future of the Jaffa Race was already in doubt when Harlech took Dunedin’s crown.
Now the city is fighting back — and crying foul. A crowdfunded mission is under way to send Stoff to Harlech next month. He insists Ffordd Pen Llech was wrongly measured along the inside of its bend. As any cyclist knows, bends are much steeper on the inside. “It was screamingly obvious to me when I saw photos of the survey being done,” Stoff says. “In all road design manuals, you prepare a gradient on the centre line. It’s like engineering 101.”
Stoff will use his theodolite to measure the same 10-metre stretch along the middle of the road, where he expects the gradient to be gentler than Baldwin Street’s. He plans to publish a review in the New Zealand Surveyor journal. Even if it includes compelling data, he expects “getting Guinness to change its mind will be like pushing shit uphill with a pointy stick”.
In a relatively humourless response, Guinness confirms the inside of the bend was measured but says it has no plans to take back the award. “We seek the advice of experts in their field to help us establish optimum methodology,” it added in a statement. “We very much welcome any feedback which we will take into consideration as part of our ongoing reviews.”
I take the record-breaking bend close to the inside as I continue my ascent. Panting has by now been joined by grunting in a strange masochistic chorus. At a little cottage opposite the castle café, not far from the top, Myfanwy Jones has become used to such spectacles. The 84-year-old used to run Gwyndy Stores, a little shop on the high street at the top of the hill. She still walks up the final bit of the street but has only attempted hiking the whole hill once in 20 years of living here. “I can’t remember when it was but I know I said, ‘I’m not doing this again’,” she tells me.
Jones says her house is one of only three on the road of 16 properties that has not become a holiday home. The exodus has added to the street’s quietness, and Jones has enjoyed the new activity. “At first I thought, ‘oh dear, what have we let ourselves in for’, but I must say it’s been quite exciting,” she says. “Last week I opened my door and bumped into an Australian couple who wanted me to photograph them rolling Maltesers down the hill. Maltesers!”
At Seasons & Reasons general store and gift shop, owners Gerry and Janice Brookes haven’t stopped to breathe since Guinness blessed their street. They already had a range of “steepest street in Britain” keyrings and fridge magnets and swiftly asked their supplier to update them. Trade is up by a third. “The town needs a co-ordinator now to organise events,” Gerry says. “We need to keep the momentum going.”
Cyclists may help. Word of the record soon reached the sport’s niche hill-climbing community, which has hosted races across Britain for decades (The Catford Hill Climb Classic up Yorks Hill in Kent has been running since 1886). Ffordd Pen Llech had never been on the hill-climbing map; the one-way traffic puts off cyclists (technically riding up isn’t allowed but no one is being stopped). Early last month, Welsh Cycling closed the road for the first “Harlech Hell Climb”. More than 60 specialists went up one by one.
“It was the weirdest sensation,” says Dan Evans, a defence engineer from north Wales and two-time British hill-climbing champion. “Normally you have to think about pacing but this was so short you just had to grab the bars and push. It was over in a blur.” Evans, who had never climbed the Harlech hill until this year, came third in 58 seconds.
Recreational riders have also flocked to Harlech. Almost 1,000 riders have recorded a climb up Ffordd Pen Llech on the fitness-tracking app Strava — most of them in the past few weeks. It helps that it lies at the edge of Snowdonia National Park so can be incorporated in scenic itineraries; the 100km loop I have plotted, up over the hills from the lake at Bala, is breathtaking in several ways. After two minutes of gut busting, my attempt is coming to end; I can see the busy high street through sweat-splattered sunglasses and soon slump outside Seasons & Reasons.
A few minutes later, I roll gingerly back down to meet Sarah Badham at the record-breaking bend. “I’ve never seen so many people from all over the world here,” she says, clutching the framed Guinness certificate. She and Headley are too busy revelling in Harlech’s new pride and fame to fear Stoff’s manoeuvres (“All I know is our street is steeper,” Headley tells me).
As a child, Badham used to skateboard down the lower slope of Ffordd Pen Llech. Later she inherited a 19th-century watercolour of a shepherdess leading her flock down the road long before it was paved. “I took it with me when I lived in Northern Ireland for 20 years because I missed this place so much,” says Badham, who left Wales as a student. She came home to Harlech five years ago to settle here with her family. “I’ve always known this place is special,” she adds as yet more tourists totter by.
Five favourite European climbs: an expert selection
Simon Warren is the author of 13 books in the cult series “100 greatest cycling climbs”. Here he picks five favourites, in reverse order:
5. Newlands Pass, Cumbria, UK
Length: 1.9km. Height gain: 215m
When asked which UK climb is my favourite the one that always comes to mind first is Newlands Pass in the Lake District. What I love about Newlands is its sheer simplicity, a simple sliver of tarmac cutting a tortuous line up the pristine hillside bisecting an ocean of green. Long enough to make you grovel but not long enough to break your will, steep enough to properly test your muscles but not steep enough to make you swear, it is just about perfect.
4. Roque de Los Muchachos, La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain
Length: 41.8km. Height gain: 2,401m
The longest climb I have ever ridden and the one with the most spectacular views, Los Muchachos on the island of La Palma is a true beast. Forget the far more popular Mount Teide on Tenerife, take the ferry west and go ride a real monster. Rising from sea level to 2,400 metres, you pass through forests, rise above the clouds and cross volcanic tundra to arrive at the location of some of Europe’s largest observatories.
3. Alto de Gamoniteiro, Asturias, Spain
Length: 15.9km Height gain: 1,450m
This climb just gets better and better the further you ride — once at the summit you may be physically broken but you’ll be overcome by the scenery you’ve ridden through. Sitting in the heart of the Asturian mountains, it is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, the Alto de l’Angliru, but is a far more beautiful road. Starting from La Pola, you climb almost to the summit of Alto de La Cobertoria, then break right and weave through a wonderland of rugged, beautiful, upland scenery until you reach the transmitter towers and a stunning panorama.
2. Col de la Bonette, Alps, France
Length: 24km Height gain: 1,589m
I fell for the mighty Col de la Bonette the very first time I rode it, transfixed by its epic length, towering elevation and the sheer emptiness of its pristine slopes. All the giant southern Alpine passes are bound by their unspoilt scenery but the Bonette is the best. Climbing north to south from the town of Jausiers you face 24km of toil through some of the most perfect mountain scenery in France. The higher you climb, the sparser the vegetation until you reach the summit where nothing but tiny purple flowers grow from the dark grey rock. At the top of the world, isolated in the heart of the mountains, you stand in front of the road sign for Nice and the Cote d’Azur, 100km away and ALL downhill!
1. Colle del Nivolet, Piemonte, Italy
Length: 40.5km Height gain: 1,907m
This climb has been top of my list since the autumn of 2018, its combination of savage slopes and succulent bends, set in the most spellbinding scenery, set it apart from all others. Measuring 40km from bottom to top, the real steep slopes start in Noasca then pound your legs on ferocious gradients almost all the way to the sanctuary of the Lago Serrù dam. Now you’ve paid your dues, put the hard work in, you can soak up the majestic scenery as the pristine road winds round and above the azure lakes that nestle in the shadow of the surrounding peaks to enter the aptly named Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso.
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