How we got here can come later.
We’re here right now and for once the rain has paused.
Wales. Good with rain.
ArchieVan is parked up at the end of the car park at The Oxwich Bay Hotel.
Few car parks are romantic, but with a ridge of trees towering behind us and a thousand tweeting birds, this is as good a place as any for listening to the rain.
Take a few steps past the hotel and the full bay opens up.
A circlet beach stretches for at least two miles to the south, the distance only perceptible given the perspective of tiny people walking insect dogs further along the clean sand.
A few rooks peck around the car park where there’s waste to be sorted.
Oyster catchers and gulls hunt lug worms and sand eels on the gently sloping shore.
And for the people? At the unassuming beach restaurant starters are more expensive than I’d hope to pay for dinner, and the price of main courses approach some folk’s daily wage. But there’s a good view and hopefully those tiny dishes taste divine. Tonight we’ll dine on Kelvin’s Famous Sausage Casserole with Minty’s garlic cabbage.
Through the night the patter of rain varied between gentle and furious, washing our deep sleep with happy dreams from which we bounced feeling rested.
The woodland is lush with new washed greens, its floor white with wild garlic. This west facing bay is spared the storms that ravish our West Penwith home. Here trees grow to their full potential. The deciduous woodland lures me in. I long for a dry perch from where I could observe this place in detail, but dry is not something to hope for here.
VanLife. This might be just a week on the road near home, but immediately we settle back into the rhythm of early nights and early mornings, long walks and minds free of the pressures your home insists on.
After breakfast I lounge, typing some words as Minty clears the morning mess. This is not us falling into stereotyped roles, but our rule book states that the cook clears their own debris.
The last eight months moving between three homes seems but a memory. Can this travelling life be reality once again? Not yet, but we’ll make the most of these precious days.
Midday Saturday. Goldings. A thumping hangover reminds me that my alcohol tolerance is at an all time low. But we must set off. We must leave our friends at the caravan to enjoy their holiday and the wonder of the far west.
Soon we were seeing roads that were once familiar, but for the first time in eight months of lockdown.
The grease and salt of a McDonald’s, and the vitamins of several Beroccas, finally cured the end of life dread that had wracked me since waking. I felt the incapacity that I remember from Tsiporo misadventures in Greece, but this time from two lagers and half a bottle of fine red. How is a man to enjoy his drinking if such punishment awaits?
Mumbles. We must return to Mumbles when the rain is less persistent.
Off the beaten motorway.
Since leaving home in the 1980s my time has been split between Britain’s bigger cities and monthly trips back to the far west that I love. For many hours each month I’ve thundered the motorways in a variety of conveyances from National Express coaches (torture) to rattling Morris 1000s (I had three) and latterly rather refined Mercedes.
Now travelling at much lower speeds we’re finally discovering some of the beauty that lies just to the side of those three lane tarmac strips.
Taunton. Who’d have thought? Mention the town and my thoughts turn to Taunton Dean services, the almost exact halfway point between my Birmingham flat and mother’s in Redruth, and the first McDonald’s in a service station that I knew of.
On Saturday afternoon we wound around Taunton’s ring road and into the sleepy village of West Monkton, east of the Somerset town.
Constable may have studied the cows meandering down to sup from the tree lined ponds in these green green fields. The sense of peace here feels very English, yet at the same time so different to our home.
At the Monkton Inn dinner was a simple affair taken in part as thanks for our sylvan spot at the far corner of their car park where our deep sleep was gently lifted by the church bells on Sunday.
The word village speaks of cottages and small houses, but here most seem to live in huge gated manors, the only small dwellings house the staff required to keep these modern castles going. In Cheshire such a line would call to mind the vulgarity of new money, but in Somerset there’s a discretion that ensures serenity remains.
Gower to Pembrokeshire.
The Gower is unlike any part of Cornwall that I know. Its bays are as pretty, its beaches as clean, but The Gower is protected from the howling gales that rip through the far west, salt-burning every living thing. As a result its trees stand tall and straight, already clothed in pretty new leaves.
We knew that there was much beauty to explore around Tenby, but the rain kept falling and so we rolled on towards our evening stop west of St David’s, the smallest city in Britain.
Approaching the coast of Pembrokeshire everything felt more familiar.
The few trees all grow pointing the same way. It renders a wild feeling. Small hills are topped with rocky outcrops, they’re even called carns here, just like at home. Near the cliffs leaves are blackened by salty winds, and place names echo those we know and love. The accent is funny, but they probably say the same of mine.
St Justers to St Justinians.
The Rhosson Ganol camp site is the best spot we’ve stopped at for a very long time. That’s compliment indeed given ArchieVan’s knack for finding beauty*.
Below us the twin lifeboat stations of St Justinians launch directly into the treacherous sound between mainland and Ramsey Island where the reef that brings grief is wonderfully named The Bitches.
Ramsey is owned by the RSPB and is home to 1300 species of bird through the year, albeit short term B&B to most. Those common to the reserve include a large population of choughs whose squawking flight make us feel more at home.
The site is not empty, but far from as busy as they’d hope for this time of year. There’s room for 50 or more vans on generous pitches, but we have little company on our windy eerie.
We lay in bed watching the sun slowly sink for half an hour. Then carried on watching the colours of the sky, before sinking into the deepest sleep.
The Blue Lagoon.
It sounds like a seedy night club, but the Blue Lagoon at Aberiddy is a deep abandoned slate quarry that found new life as a tourist attraction after a channel was blasted through to the sea.
Today it hosts coasteering, kayaking, and a few rounds of the insane Red Bull Cliff Diving Championship, an event that’s more likely to be found on the flashy red cliffs of the Cote d’Azur.
A strong wind made standing on the edge for the essential photo a risky business. At 8 degrees the temperature didn’t tempt me into the water. That aside, the pretty vernacular cottages of the hamlet created a picture that couldn’t be more Welsh and our detour was well worth the winding lanes and much reversing.
We’re living the high life on this trip.
Two campsites in two nights.
The Bargoed Farm site is posh. It’s where the fancy motorhomes go to overnight.
£25 a sleep seems to be the going rate in Wales, but what you get varies widely.
Here there’s smart hard standing, a considered planting of trees, and even a hot tub at many pitches. OK, so the hot tub is completely over the top, but the smart approach makes up for there being limited views and no way to go for a walk from the site without risking life on the A487.
Curious that they close the loos at 8.30am for cleaning.
The Moody Cow restaurant at the site has a captive audience. Despite its mediocrity it was busy raking in the cash for the enterprising farmers who have transformed their acres into a lucrative business employing lots of young folk who’d otherwise have nowhere else local to work.
In case sitting around reading is a little too hectic for the campers there’s a fishing lake. I quite fancy the meditative side to fishing, but I don’t fancy catching anything.
There are so many places to stop and visit, but there are miles to cover too. Fortunately Minty has done her research and our chosen stop of Aberaeron is just the ticket.
A lady from the council explained to me that to find the English instructions for the parking machine I’d have to understand the Welsh, but not to worry because they don’t make sense anyway. She kindly took my card and procured a ticket that had already expired the moment I bought it. The £100 fine for not buying a ticket could be a big money spinner, if only there was someone to enforce it.
The town is a gem.
So much of built Wales feels downtrodden. Crossing Offa’s Dyke mirrors the experience you once got crossing from rich Germany into one of its eastern bloc neighbours. It’s largely a product of the dark slate houses that may not be slippery when wet, but they certainly look grim, and they’re almost permanently wet.
Aberaeron kicks that trend. Matching, but individual, Regency houses in bright colours line all the streets of the pretty port town, and the tourist buses flock there to see. Great looking restaurants and bars bustle with life and there are two common threads of conversation: how pretty the town is, and, did you manage to get a ticket from the parking machine.
After the best ice cream in Wales from The Hive, we wound through miles of lush countryside, with occasional glimpses of the sea, and the massive of Snowdonia now frequently in view.
To Maen Twrog.
Through Mac’s Cun Fluff and Dull Gallows, past the forest trails of Coed Y Brennan and now the hills soar all around us. There’s just one long descent until the little track appears to take us up to Y Warren and our friends’ spectacular home in the mountains.
Nearly twenty years ago Emma and Darren tried to buy the house next door to us at Tregiffian, and when that didn’t happen a whole new saga began in Cornwall, and for them in Wales.
Eventually they demolished an ugly ducking cold damp cottage and embarked on a five year build project that delivered more turns than a twisty thing before revealing the beauty that they live in now.
This grand proportioned house provides shelter from the savage weather that torments the mountains through much of the year. Its windows give on to the ever changing views of Moelwyn Bach, yet its surrounding of mature woodland means you have to climb high to see it from afar.
Today we are treated. Today the sun broke through early in the evening. A thousand birds tweet their serenades to ten thousand willow fluff fairies rising on the warm evening air.
The banter of old friends starts slowly, but soon we’re in the flow. We’ve done more with Emma and Darren. More projects shared. More mutual support.
There were fewer bottles discarded at the end of the night than might once have been the case, and perhaps we’ll remember more of what was said.
If you fancy a taste of Snowdonia you could do worse than to book into their AirBnB, seen here sheltering ArchieVan.
A week for Wales was never going to be enough.
Two nights with our friends wasn’t even sufficient for me to recover from too many windy miles in our house on wheels.
But the south west is calling and the road south was a beauty.
Around Llyn Celyn and through Bala, this is the softer side of the Snowdonia National Park, but still its wild and bleak, even on this the warmest day in weeks.
Eventually we’re over Offa’s Dyke and back in England, ticking off the beautiful Shropshire towns with their weathered brick and half timbered houses.
Park4Night found us a superb spot overlooking the Whitcliffe Common and across the River Teme to Ludlow, one of England’s finest towns.
Ludlow. What’s so good about Ludlow?
Holloway’s, the best hardware shop in the land, where your diarist has bought many an item harking from a gentler age.
Butchers with game hanging outside to announce their wares.
Independent shops with character and verve.
The quiet wealth that hides behind those ancient walls.
Its castle, besieged in the English civil war. Since besieged by Japanese, and everyone’s hoping they’ll soon return.
And Clearview Stoves – a house fine enough to charge entry, but in this case it’s also a shop where you can wander the many rooms, toasty from their well performing wares.
Our beauty spot overlooking the town was bound to be a night magnet for teens in their motors. They came, they revved, and they went. By midnight all was calm and our first wild camping this year was done.
The common, just across the clean clear river, was alive with birdsong this morning as Polly and I took an early stroll to enable a dash that might get us ahead of the bank holiday weekend queues on the M5. It didn’t quite succeed, but to be up early was rewarding.
Avoiding the already heavily trafficked M5 north of Bristol we meandered down the A49 through Leominster, Hereford and south to Monmouth.
The towns on this route may not actually be better than others in Dorset, Somerset or Devon, but the lack of urban sprawl makes the drive a joy, and the blossoming trees resplendent in new glossy leaves lifts the spirit still higher.
Eventually the M4 spewed us back over The Prince of Wales bridge and into the traffic we could no longer avoid. Even at 9am there were 7 junctions (and close to 70 miles) of queues.
Cornwall must be full already.
Lucky lane choices and the promise of afternoon sunshine kept us smiling. After less than an hour of slow stuff we were pulling into our last campsite for this trip. The Uphill Wharf, a couple of miles down the beach from Weston Super Mare, parks a small number of vans around its lake, its facilities are basic but ample, and we’ll be happy here for a while. We’re backed by a hill, and flanked by the Levels.
Weston Super Mare.
Oh good God, what happened here?
What should we expect? Faded Victorian glory? Like Scarborough perhaps?
First there’s the beach, several miles long and with a low water mark around a mile out. Gaze across first sand then mud and if you can see the sea then it can’t be low tide. Already this felt foreign, reminiscent of some of the Baltic beaches we’d visited on our tour.
That foreign feeling was enhanced by the Polish lad’s BMW club meet on the sand. Gleaming motors, all with engines running. Their intimidating burly owners consider the merits of each other’s pride. Metal. And flesh.
Perhaps too there was a fat lads’ fish and chip eating convention. I’ve never seen so many rather large folk tucking into the nation’s seaside treasure. And the trays of chips? Monsters of potato storage.
Then there were the monged out souls whose sad drug dependency fuels the story lines of British crime dramas. As scary in real life as on the TV screen. Especially upsetting were those children who were already parents to children of their own.
Meanwhile Asian lads race their insanely expensive cars.
Take an already obscene Range Rover to Kahn and drop another £100k on it, then cruise the streets in clothes that probably never see the inside of a washing machine, after all, what’s the point when you can wear new every day…
What did you say? I don’t understand? No. You’re right. I don’t. This is a different world.
We didn’t make it to Tropicana, the year round fairground on the prom. Our walking legs were flagging by then. I’m sure my open-minded acceptance of life’s rich cultural diversity would have found more to gasp at had we got there. This was where Banksy staged the sinister Dismaland, his take on the broken dreams of Disney – now that would have been a spectacle.
The Grand Pier? I’m sorry to say we didn’t make that either.
The housing stock looked rather as we hoped for. There are many beauties, and most in good repair. There’s probably a good side to Weston that we didn’t get to, but we may not rush back to see it.
The M5 is calling, and the fields of Goldings. Minty’s clients will be pleased to see her on Monday morning, and in the afternoon my taxi will ferry walkers back to their base.
We’ve had a taste of VanLife freedom.
And the taste was good indeed.
England (and Wales). In spring. What a wonderful thing.
- a pinch of luck, and a heap of diligent research by Minty.