One Friday in April we packed our bags for the week, packing only the essentials. Living in a van for a week was going to be cramped, it was our first time but we weren't kidding ourselves. We packed light! Once the car was loaded up with our supplies, Buster was strapped in and we were ready to go, we headed up to Gloucester to go and collect Amelia. Amelia was going to be our home for the week, a rather large Mercedes Sprinter. Considering I'd never even driven a van before, I still had a moment of 'oh man, can I even drive this thing?' but fear not, despite the initial blip in confidence I went on to love driving her!
We rented Amelia from Wanderlust Camping Co, who have created something really awesome here. A layout that not only has a kitchen area complete with sink, gas hobs and fridge, seating, pull out table and flushing toilet, but she sleeps 4 people too! We literally had everything we needed! Well, except a shower. The week before we went, the UK experienced a small slice of summer weather so with wild camping on the cards, we planned on showering in the stunning Welsh waterfalls. Well, that was just a dream. The first day we were hit with storm Hannah, experiencing 80pmph winds! After the first night and day, the weather calmed down but remained fairly cool for the whole week and we didn't see the sun much. We certainly wouldn't be showering in any waterfalls!
After collecting Amelia and running through how everything worked with the lovely Annah from Wanderlust Camping, we loaded all our stuff up and left our car safely with them. We had a plan of making a road trip around Wales. We absolutely love Wales. Please note the term plan I use very loosely! We wanted to visit the Brecon Beacons, the Gower, travel up along the Pembrokeshire Coast and finish in Snowdonia. In a week? Yes, I did underestimate the amount of driving it would involve so this plan changed as we went along. Also in this loose plan of ours we had no idea where we would sleep but wanted to wild camp in many of the beautiful spots Wales has to offer.
So off we went! First stop near to the Brecon Beacons we used an app called Park4night, which shares many places you can literally pull up and sleep for the night. We made our way towards Abergaveny and a lake side car park. It sounded wonderful and despite arriving in storm Hannah with the wind and rain against us, it really was. After settling down for the night, we put up all the window shades and put the kettle on. This was one of my favourite things about the van, we could have a cup of tea literally whenever we wanted! The heater didn't seem to be working as it should so we just decided to get wrapped up and get into bed. The storm was relentless and I didn't expect it was going to be a good nights sleep at all. Just to add to this, several cars turned up throughout the night with loud music, bright lights; even turning to face the van and flash their lights. We grew concerned about what type of car park we were in! This continued until around 4am when we dozed off and got up around 8am. Despite the lack of sleep, waking up in a remote location like this gave me that first taste of freedom. I stepped out the van and walked Buster around the lake while Carol got in touch with Wanderlust about the heating as we were convinced it must have been user error.... they came out to us within a couple of hours and kindly fixed it. It wasn't our fault after all but a small hole in the pipe. All sorted and the heating fired up, getting us nice and toasty in no time at all!
So, next stop; The Gower. We packed up the van and made our way to Rhossili. On route we stopped at a supermarket, parking in the furthest and emptiest area possible. I still wasn't too comfortable with this. Even now, that was the hardest part - parking! We stocked up on a few days worth of food supplies and then back on the road. Parking up in a National Trust car park at Worms head, the views were so stunning! By this point it was still super windy but the rain had stopped mostly, and even the sun was putting in a small appearance here and there. Walking along the beach we came across the ocean-stripped oak carcass of the Helvetia shipwreck. The remains are submerged in the sand and it turns out its one of the most photographed subjects in the Gower. Immediately my mind going to how best to photograph the wreck and I wanted the tide to come in. I imagined capturing the scene with waves lapping around the remains, however it wasn't meant to be as a tide that high wasn't on the cards that day. I still managed a few shots at sunset but not what I had visualised. When we go away, if things don't work out then I'll plan a revisit, however moving around in a van taught me that you only have that one opportunity so take it as it is. I did get some stunning shots watching the light and rain clouds move across the cliffs and the beach. I find moments like these quite mesmerising!
After sunset we knew we would need to get somewhere to sleep before it actually got dark. This car park was out of the question, it clearly said no overnight stays and was so open we thought someone might come and move us on. So we hit the road and headed away from Rhossili and towards Swansea. With nothing in mind apart from looking out for a good car park, layby, anything that looked like it suited us. Just when it was getting dark and my concern was growing, we came across a lane that led to a woodland car park. The lane was lined with wild garlic and it smelt divine. Perfect. I could already imagine getting to wake up here! We drove into the small car park where there were two other vans and parked up alongside. We walked Buster around the area with a torch in hand and could make out something going on further up in the field, sounded like kids so maybe a youth hostel in the distance or something. We shut the van up for the night and pulled out our bed. Getting to use the heating now was just amazing too by the way - it was warm within a few minutes! Just as we were snuggling down for the night 3 cars arrive. 1 parks directly in front, 1 to the side and 1 to the other side but a little further off. Lads get out being quite loud and Carol sees something which will petrify us for the next 20 minutes. Carol sees the lads dragging someone out of the car and into the woodland. That's it, we decide we need to leave - were we safe? We decide to pull the shades off the windows and start the engine, being ready to leave if we need to. We spot 3 guys coming down from the field alongside with lamps and they come to the window with one of the asking if we were ok. They were running a scout campsite (which is obviously what we had heard earlier on!) and had heard the commotion going on and saw us arrive earlier and wanted to check we were alright. We said honestly we were a little freaked out and ready to move on, when they said stay and they would go and find out what's happening. They came back a few minutes later and said the lads were all mucking about smoking weed in the woods and what we had seen was purely innocent. They said they would keep it down and move on shortly. Putting our minds at rest, it made us realise how paranoid we were. Was wild camping for us if we were going to freak out at every little thing! It made me wander just how safe we were, or were we fine and our minds were just working overtime? We didn't know the area, had no idea where we would go if we did need a swift exit in the night. Its things we hadn't really thought about before the trip. Perhaps we should have planned more! Anyway, the guys said they were up by the camp fire and if we needed them could head up. Such lovely guys and they may never know how much safer this made us feel, thanks to the kindness of strangers we managed to sleep that night.
Now following the worst bit about wild camping, the best bit. Waking up to birdsong, we stepped out the van for a wander around. All my senses were hit with ancient woodland, bluebells and wild garlic. It made all the concerns of the night before disappear. Turns out we had stumbled upon Parc le Breos, an ancient woodland south of the Gower Peninsula, about eight miles west of Swansea. The place was littered with caves, an old kiln in the rock face and an ancient burial ground. My favourite bit was the Cathole Cave, which was used by hunters and gathers dating back circa 28,000 BC. Animal remains were found here such as red fox, arctic fox, brown bear, tundra vole, reindeer as well as some really suprising ones including mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, red deer and giant deer, as well as human remains and tools. History fascinates me and to climb up into this cave and stand there knowing what would have been going on around me was completely mind blowing! What an awesome discovery on our adventure!
So back to the van and to think about our day. We were heading to South Pembrokeshire and needed a base for 2 nights. After the questions of our security over the last couple of nights we decided to have a look on pitchup.com; looking for a quiet and non conventional campsite. We came across Wynd Hill Hideaway; a quiet and peaceful hideaway, a stones throw from Manorbier village. Perfect. We paid a small deposit through the website and secured our booking, safe in the knowledge we would be getting a great nights sleep.
We headed to a location I had seen many pictures of and wanted to visit for ages; The Green Bridge of Wales. The Bridge is actually a natural limestone arch created when the sea eroded the central region of the rock away. Eventually the top of the arch will also be worn away and collapse into the sea, leaving a stack similar to the nearby Stack Rocks. I took a picture and compared it to one I'd seen from a few years ago and you can see a huge chunk missing, thanks to Storm Brian in October 2017. Makes you wonder what it will look like after a few more storms giving it a battering. Anyway, we pulled up after driving through military land (worth mentioning here, its only open at weekends due to the location!) and we were surprised how short the walk was from the van. We explored the coastline along the bridge and the stacks and it was just so awesome! The weather was very miserable despite the wind dropping, so I took a few moody long exposures along the way. It was also fascinating watching all the sea birds coming in and nesting on the stacks, completely covering them! I found out these are Guillemots and they come in the same day every year for nesting, as a man stopped for a chat along the way. Its always great talking to locals and getting to share in their knowledge. We also spotted an Atlantic grey seal down at the base of the rocks too! Time to head back to the van for a cup of tea and biscuits... like I said, this is my fave bit about vanlife!
Time to head to Wynd Hill campsite where we were met by the lovely Llinos who gave us a run down of what could be explored locally. Church door cove and Manobier Castle caught my attention immediately. Manobier Castle was Cair Paravel in the 80's version of The Chronicles of Narnia! My childhood fantasy of going to visit the castle would finally be a possibility; how random as I didn't even know anything about Manobier before but it was going to be perfect! Photography wise, the conditions weren't great for me but I was learning this didn't matter. Just to be able to explore these new places with Carol and Buster was awesome. What wasn't awesome was having to carry Buster up and down the stairs at Church door cove which there were lots of! A few weeks before this trip, Buster ruptured his cruciate ligament and the surgery was scheduled for our return. It was difficult at times but anything for my boy - he was always going to be coming with us! Then there is Cair Paravel, I mean Manobier castle.... just awesome seeing the grounds, the courtyard where everyone was turned to stone by the white witch who froze Narnia into 100 years of winter! Also the views from the beach were incredible too where went for a wander. Anyway back to the campsite and they had a small shower block! Yes, we could get properly freshened up rather than a wash at the sink! With only one other couple on the site who had their own shower we were onto a winner. We cleaned up and got warm and cooked ourselves a lovely pasta dinner before chilling out watching the day turn to night from the van. Oh and the site had an outside, sheltered washing up area with bins for rubbish and recycling - it made things so much easier!
The next day was actually mine and Carols 11th anniversary of being together (7 married) and the whole reason for this trip. We decided to head into Tenby, where we found a large car park which made things very easy for me! First stop was a coffee shop where I enjoyed a soya latte, my first one in days! Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love my coffee... Recharged we went for a wander around taking in the seaside town. It was our first visit to this beautiful town and there was so much to see within the medieval walls. We even found a vegan restaurant for lunch; The Fuchsia Caffe. I had an awesome breakfast and Carol had a pie. Both were so good we kept stealing each others! Meanwhile Buster was given some treats by the staff and he relaxed underneath the table, occasssionally getting in people's way just to get a stroke on the way past.
After these couple of days we realised it just wasn't going to make sense travelling north and perhaps we should visit our most favourite place in the whole of Wales, the Brecon Beacons. We underestimated the amount of driving involved on the trip and always said our plans would be kept quite loose so we can just go with what felt right. Ok so the Brecon's it would be and with just a couple of days left before having to return Amelia we decided to look for another site and just on the outskirts we settled on Blossom Park, back near Abergaveny where we began this trip. Again we made the booking on pitchup.com and went about our day. We had been to the Brecons Visitor in the past and knew just how good their food was so we headed straight there. It was a long drive and we just made it in time for lunch. If you ever get to visit here I'd really recommend it. Views overlooking Pen y Fan and its neighbours and a great selection of tasty meals to suit everyone. We were pleased to see their vegan options had expanded since our last visit - so much to chose from!
From here we knew we wanted to take in as much of the rugged nature of the Brecons that we could. First stop was a waterfall and knowing the easy parking and walk at Henryd falls, this is where we would head. This splendid walk in the national park takes in some beautiful woodland along the route to the falls which are the highest in South Wales at 90 feet. I'm always in awe of these waterfalls, perhaps as we have nothing like it down here in Dorset! After this you can guess what we did next... yes it was tea in the van! haha. Then onto find the campsite to get settled in for the night. The site owner was friendly and the site had everything we needed, but it was much busier than the previous site. It was in an orchard which was beautiful and the trees seperated the pitches making you feel like you had your own space, but it was quite cramped. It was just a base to sleep for a couple of nights, so didn't really matter but it wasn't very 'us'.
We often choose our locations based on food, so after Carol doing some research on the Happy Cow website, she found a veggie and vegan place in Crickhowell. Just a 30 min drive from us so off we went the next day. The drive was a beautiful one and passed so many wonderful welsh scenes on the way. Upon arrival in the town I realised what a parking nightmare it was. The small town pay and display was packed and had no areas suitable for a long wheel base sprinter! We drove around and eventually found a road side parking spot, it was an hour only but we fit! we just had to eat fast haha. Anyway once we sat down for lunch it was all forgotten. Brownies and Brunch had an all day brunch menu which was super tasty and Buster was welcomed too.
A drive around the Monmouthshire hill sides and onto the Brecon Beacons was the order of the day. We spent lots of time pulling over taking it all in, including a fairly long stop alongside views of Pen y Fan to drink tea and eat our amazing cake we got to take away from Brownies and Brunch - super tasty!
So with it being our final afternoon what to do... another waterfall of course! We visited Sgwd gladuwis falls. The walk along the riverside littered with bluebells and wild garlic was just amazing. It was becoming a common view in Wales but one we certainly weren't taking for granted. We read up on the legend of the falls which always fascinates me. You will find there is always a legend or a tale around the waterfalls and lakes of Wales. This one was about the legend of Gwladus, the princess whose name has been given to the falls. She was said to have been one of the 24 daughters of Brychan of Brycheiniog, a fifth century prince, the beautiful, young Gwladus fell in love with a young man of the name of Einion. The legend has it that sadly the relationship was never allowed to develop due to her father, and Gwladus, tormented with sadness for her unrequited love, mysteriously became immortalised as she jumped into the river, her spirit flowing freely as this serene waterfall. As for Einion, he too followed her, jumping in and becoming immortalised in the form of a waterfall further upstream, a tall crooked cascade over the rocky levels which finally drops 20m into the pool below. Although Gwladus could never be with her lover in life, in immortality their spirits flow together for all eternity in the pool below Sgwd Gwladus. This particular walk was my fave of the whole trip, surrounded by wild waters and flowers the whole way; and afterwards we had some awesome food in the Old White Horse Inn - it was just the most perfect day!
This is where the adventure ends and the next morning we headed back to Wanderlust to drop Amelia off. What a pleasure she was, we had a fantastic time!
The trip didn't always go to plan and what happens when this trip you've had planned doesn't look the way you want? Let go, forget expectations and just go with it! This trip is exactly what we wanted and we learned so much from it.
Whats next? Well, next up are the areas of North Wales which we didn't make it to and then hopefully even Scotland! Van life sure gives you such a sense of freedom and something we definitely want to feel more of!
Thanks for reading and as always, I'll finish with some of my fave pics from the trip.