by Gar Cole
The date was Saturday 20th April, just 1 week before our first tour of the year and officially declared the hottest Easter Saturday on record. My spirits soared as I gave the Moggy a wash in the sunshine with the anticipation of more good weather to follow, and to be fair the following Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning were beautiful.
Then Storm Hannah decided to pay us a visit; I watched in almost disbelief as this monster headed right for the south coast of Wales and our tour destination predicted to hit it's peak on Friday evening.
Several of our regulars and a few locals wisely pulled out of the tour and I must confess I almost pulled the plug on the whole event. Spectactular as the scenery is, it's not much to look at in heavy rain and mist and those roads can be dangerous.
However the spirit of the weekend was revived by Brian, our 76 year-old Yorkshire sage who resides in Ireland with the following profound quote "I've paid fer them there ferry tickets and I'm going no matter what".
How could we ignore a call to battle like that? So I packed up the caravan with supplies in howling wind and rain on Thursday evening much to the amusement of neighbours; "Should have gone last week Gar, it was beautiful over Easter" they hollered. I don't think my muttered reply was very 'Christian'.
The drive down on Friday was interesting to say the least. After meeting up at the services with Ian 'Windy' Woodward and his son Jonathan 'Breezy' Woodward, we enjoyed a bucket-sized cup of Costa Coffee and I admired Ian's Zephyr and the matching caravan which looks great with the burgundy stripe and matching chrome script down the sides.
Once on the road however despite stabilizers both our caravans started swinging back and forth reminiscent of 2 fat bottoms in a hula hoop competition. Safety dictated a slow-down to 40 mph in places, which made us popular with other motorway users but thankfully after braving wind, the heads of the valleys roads and steep climbs we arrived on site some 3 hours later ( even if Ian overshot the entrance ) 😉
We were relieved to see the pitches were on a rock hard standing and not grass and quickly set about getting the caravans pitched, electric connected etc. The 3 of us then attempted to put the group Coleman shelter up, not easy in wind but we managed and took no chances, all 4 legs had 4 heavy duty pegs in them and extra guide ropes. We filled it with chairs, tables, lights and the all-important cooking stoves while cautiously watching the approaching black clouds and increasingly ominous whistling winds (and that was just the Woodward boys).
One of the things I most enjoy on our tours is cooking a basic evening supper for everyone, and one by one the weary travellers arrived:
These sensible folks had all booked hotels. Despite the shelter starting to flap a bit and the rain coming down fairly heavily we all remained dry inside enjoying home cooked choice of sausage n chicken cassoulet or sweet n sour chicken, followed by apple crumble n custard or chocolate brownies for desert. We're not exactly the Rolling Stones and after a few drinks we all retired to our abodes around 10pm to warm up and get a good nights sleep.
After a very rocky night for those of us on the campsite we awoke to a much calmer morning. The Coleman had survived the night with just a few guide ropes pulled out the ground. There was still a few hours to go before the tour started, so the smell of bacon cooking soon filled the air from several caravans.
At this point were were joined by the 'day trippers' - Mark Wilson and his father Keith in a stunning V12 E type Roadster and Phil Gunn and wife in a lovely mint green Triumph Stag. Printed directions handed out, I jumped in the Zephyr to be lead car with one walkie talkie and gave the other to Mike Peake who had unexpectedly turned up in his modern after originally saying he couldn't make it (he can't keep away really), so Mike was in Eric's Rover and I asked them to be last car so we could keep an eye on our convoy, but as with all the best laid plans they quickly go 'udders up'; the Zephyr pulled in for fuel within the first mile with us expecting the convoy to follow when they all sailed by one by one. So much for being the lead car! 😄.
I had picked Grawen campsite for its proximity to the National Park and within 5 minutes of leaving camp we were greeted with scenery that had us passengers taking shots out of the windows; the cultivated arable fields quickly giving way to much steeper wooded forests and narrower lanes with a canopy of trees giving that eerie dappled light.
Passing through several small hamlets with just a dozen or so houses, one shop and a pub we pushed on towards Sennybridge and the town of Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales' smallest town and home to the Heart of Wales micro brewery.
This award-winning stop was first on our list and was planned for group member Andy Perman (who likes his rare ales) but sadly couldn't make the trip due to oil seal failure on his Allegro driveshaft. We managed to catch up with the convoy as we arrived in the town and promptly parked (I suspect illegally) in front of the local fire station, ahem, but passing locals didn't seem to mind - it's the sort of small town where a cat stuck in a tree makes the local front page, so we created a bit of a stir.
The brewery proved harder to find than first thought with the satnav taking us to a car park behind some shops??? Turning on my best smile and trying not to frighten her, I accosted a local lady for directions to the elusive watering hole.
Lo and behold - it turns out the brewery is located inside the charmingly olde worlde 'Neuadd Arms Hotel'. Well it would have been rude not to go inside and sample what was on offer, however a few of the ladies had food on their minds and disappeared to a local shop only to return armed with bags of cakes, doughnuts and other assorted goodies.
We were so impressed with what they were munching that we all vowed to also join slimming world once we were home on Monday.
The Neuadd Arms is one of those places that almost hugs you as you enter, charming if slightly worn wooden bars and stairways, friendly collie dogs wandering around, soft leather sofas in front of huge open fires with logs cracking inside. Having been a hotel since the 1780s it has some amazing memorabilia on the walls and frame after frame of locals who had won the local 'Bog snorkelling ' championship (I kid you not ).
Now here's where fate intervened; the landlord had heard from a local that Nick's Jensen had just parked outside. By remarkable coincidence the landlord owned a Jensen CV8 and he and his wife welcomed us all with open arms.
Nick works for Everards brewery so he knows a good ale or 2. We were surprised at the strength of the brews on offer with most averaging at 6.5% with the toe curlers rated over 10%. Naturally we all sampled various brews (including me who doesn't drink at all), but their Brecon gold cider was beautiful and potent at 6.4%.
Nick pronounced it a good and balanced beer and everyone enjoyed their drinks except Ian Woodward who had a cup of tea in a china cup (because he's a big girls blouse). We had expected to maybe just see a small counter selling beers but our man Nick talked the owner into giving us a full tour of the micro brewery. It turns out to be located in a converted barn in the rear garden of the hotel with three holiday chalets above on the second floor. He proceeded to give us a very thorough and interesting talk on the brewing process; he didn't even flinch (much) when Jo our resident lawyer started questioning him on how he declared the tax on each batch ( can't take em anywhere 😂 )
Bidding our new friends farewell and dragging Nick and Jo out as they were tempted to forego the tour in order to stay and continue sampling what the Neuadd Arms had to offer, back on the road the satnav was programmed to take us to Lynn Brianne Dam via the infamous Devils Staircase road, which was voted one of the top 5 best driving roads in the UK. It's also in the top 5 most dangerous roads.
The satnav displayed lone unnamed roads with ominous warnings that they were not suitable for larger vehicles or caravans (yikes Scooby, let's turn back!). After taking the lead in the Zephyr the scenery increased in beauty at the same rate as the roads became more challenging. As we approached the tiny hamlet of Abergwesyn we were on single track roads with few passing places.
Large areas of the forest had been felled by the Forestry Commission but lots of trees had been upended by yesterday's storm Hannah. We gingerly avoided large puddles and fallen branches as we increased in height through a deep valley with breathtaking views, so good in fact we stopped and jumped out for photos. Braving the winds and steep cliff edges just a few feet from the roads edges, our convoy stopped for 15 minutes and we never saw another car approach in either direction. It felt very remote and being a city boy I loved it - no sign of other humans anywhere except our convoy. I even braved climbing a rocky outcrop to get good photos but soon discovered I'm no mountain goat after slipping twice.
Reluctantly we left this mountain that so resembled something out of a Tolkien novel. Soon we saw the signs for the descent I'd warned everyone about, "25% use first gear' it warned us. All the cars performed brilliantly down this twisting steep mountain road with no crash barriers and in places drops of over 100ft. Congrats to all the drivers for keeping a cool head; the road levelled out in the bottom of yet another picturesque valley, however in 3 places this one crossed the river we had been driving alongside.
The little bridges were barely above the water level normally, but following last night's storms they were in full flood with just the posts and metal pipes marking out the actual roadway over the bridge. Being the big kids we are we stopped and primed cameras and dashcams ready to record. The first one wasnt too daunting with maybe just over 4 inches of water flooding over the bridge deck.
We splashed through like extras from Jurassic Park, all cars through we made our way to the next one and promptly halted. The second crossing looked very foreboding and considerably deeper, much less of the bridge side markers were visible and nervous swearing could be heard muttering from the open windows of the cars. A modern 'soft roader' approaching from the other direction paused for several minutes before the driver braved the crossing. We estimated from the vehicles submerged wheels that it was at least a foot deep this time 😮
Feeling less cocky this time, we led the intrepid convoy through the water with it splashing up the sides of the doors in quite spectacular fashion. Things got very windy inside the Woodward vehicle but we made it through, rounded a corner and eyeballed crossing number 3.
This looked even deeper than the previous one; the water was flowing at a faster rate plus once you had made it across, the road almost immediately started the 25% opposite climb to the earlier descent. Having forewarned Ian the slope carried on for nearly a mile I told him to not lift off. Naturally Ian's a very good driver and the Zephyr was in first gear, flat out pulling 3 fat blokes up a 25% incline at 8 mph. Several minutes later we levelled out on the summit and stopped to see if everyone had made it.
We noticed at this point that 4 cars were missing including Brian's Triumph which Mike had jumped into and was acting as rear car. We had zero phone signal, so I grabbed the walkie talkie and tried to reach Mike 'come in fat bloke, everything ok at the back of the convoy?'. Eric who was standing by me then says in his gentle Scottish tone 'are ye tryin to reach Mike on that thing?' Yes I nodded, 'aye well you see, the thing is Mike is in Brian's car but he's left the walkie talkie in mine'. "#$£¥*&£#****!" clean translation "Oh bless my soul that's unfortunate").
As we pondered going back on a rescue mission Jo emerged from the Jensen with delicious goodies she had made and brought along. Nick informed us that much munching had been going on and the Jensen was basically a '7.2 litre mobile picnic'.
Luckily the missing 4 cars heroically arrived at the summit, despite making it through the last flood both the Ital and Triumph saloon couldn't make it up the mountain at first with clutch slip. We surmised some river water must have gotten into the clutch covers during the crossing. Happily after around 10 minutes of drying out in the increasingly warm sunshine all cars were fit to proceed as we hunted down the elusive dam - hey it's only 220ft of concrete wall so how hard could it be to find?
The unknown road that the satnav said it was on announced we had arrived but we saw nothing but forested hillsides full of beautiful bluebells and the odd sheep. Pleasant as this road was after 4 miles of nothing I declared we had missed it and ordered a full turnaround when I spotted a sign for Lynn Brianne back in the direction we had come - no indication of how far it was but we all managed to turn around one of those tiny triangle junctions you get in the country.
Not wanting to take any chances I spotted a pair of local ladies walking along the road and asked Ian to pull over. They appeared to be mother and daughter and may have felt slightly unnerved at a bunch of blokes in old cars pulling up beside them, so I adorned my best cheesy smile and asked the mom for directions.
The daughter was a very attractive country type in black jodhpur-style tight shorts and boots,. Just as I was about to take in the directions from the mother, Ian and Jonathan turned into Benny Hill and Frankie Howard 'phwoarrr look at that, oww stop it, corr Matron, get a photo quick'. It's not easy trying to listen to directions, not laugh and ignore the innuendo coming into my right ear all at once but somehow I managed while biting my lip. Directions got, we pulled away as I filled the car with language that shocked even Ian, before myself succumbing to childish laughter. I made the situation worse by saying she had 'paid £3 for those shorts but was chewing £1.50 worth with her bottom'. Ian's face turned red with laughter and I did fear for a second we were going over the cliff.
Fortunately Mike now was in possession of the second walkie talkie but unfortunately messaged me the following ' come in Fat Controller, we have a puncture and need assistance'. The Zephyr headed back to help as the rest carried on to the Dam. Breezy Woodward soon had the tyre swapped and we made the final trip to the Dam.
Iin our defence the tiny road leading to it has no sign posts and you can't see the Dam from the road. Once arrived we parked in line in the Dam car park and enjoyed the magnificent views while the wind nearly tore our eyebrows off, but we had made it through some very challenging terrain and it felt really good.
It was at this point the day trippers went their separate ways. The journey back to Merthyr passed without incident except for the rear tyre shredding itself in spectacular fashion on Darren's Ital. Luckily being in convoy a few folk stopped and we were on our way again within 15 mins.
A fabulous days driving and a big thank you to everyone who braved the forecast to join us. Afterwards we headed for a Chinese buffet and a few drinks to round off the day.
Normally I'd end the blog there as on Sunday we just visited the Brecon mountain railway, however while we were there another driving group arrived and turned the car park into an impromptu and quite impressive car show; it was a real bonus with lots of ooohs, ahhhs and misty-eyed looks.
Bring on the next tour in the Cotswold Hills on Whitsun weekend 😀
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