Flat-adders & MILFs:
Brit-stopping in Wales 2015
There is a scene in An American Werewolf in London when the two hitch-hiking American students seek shelter from the bitter night in the aptly-named Slaughtered Lamb pub. The moment they enter the bar time freezes: An errant dart lands in the wall; drinks remain undrunk; chatter is replaced with silence. Strangers in town! I know just how the yanks felt.
Just a few days into our Welsh odyssey and we happened to walk into the snug of a bar in deepest Cymru. The chap sizing up the 8-ball at the pool table cocked an eye in our direction; the conversation at the bar stopped dead as if a director had said 'cut.' Eyes bore into us from every direction. And we were only a couple of hours from home . . .
The trip had started with a night at the intriguingly named Devil's Bridge where a young Polish bar-tender couldn't take his eyes off our doggie Mr O. Half Pom, half-chihuahua he's a bit of a head-turner is O. As a Brit-stop destination Devil's Bridge seemed the ideal place for an overnight stay en route to Aberystwyth.
But the car park seemed awfully small. And it just so happened to overlook the sheer drop that is Devil's Bridge. Would we make it inside the tight space? I just hoped and prayed we wouldn't reverse too far back and find ourselves getting acquainted with the Devil quicker than anticipated. With a line of cars backing up we found ourselves blocking the pass as the missus (I'm banned from driving said motorhome due to my 'crazy driving') attempted to squeeze our motorhome into the impossibly tight car park. In desperation I jumped out and ran into the bar.
'It's behind you' said the Polish barman and for one moment I expected the barflies to retort with, 'Oh not it isn't.' It was that sort of day. Then he uttered a phrase I definitely did not want to hear: 'You have to turn round. The big car park is 100 metres back up the road . . .'
Somehow we managed to execute a 7 point turn in the road and headed for the 'big' car park which was, just as the man had said, 'big' - space for at least 100 campervans. In the interests of stability we opted to stay at the lower end of the car park overhanging the beginning of the precipice. Thankfully, the handbrake did its job! Having a pint in the Victorian hotel which proudly overlooks the precipice in all its shabby elegance was a great way to spend the evening. The local farmers were certainly intrigued with O. If I had a pound for every time he's been compared to a fox . . .
Devil's Bridge itself is a spectacular precipice through which runs a cascading waterfall and where according to folklore a lady once made a pact with the Devil. Exploring the waterfall requires stamina and a good pair of walking boots. Oh and four quid. But it's well worth the money even if descending the 100 steps of Jacob's ladder came back to haunt my calves and thighs the following day.
Arriving in Aberystwyth is always a pleasure. It's a charming little town, like many in mid-Wales notable for its pastel coloured houses dating from Georgian times. For £6.50 you get to park your motorhome on the quayside for 24 hours. And a pleasant little quayside it is too. Fishing boats and yachts chug in and out while the campervan folk sit in (and out) of their vehicles swopping highway stories and offering advice. Meanwhile, it's just a short hop through the castle grounds to the bustling town centre.
'Batteries going!' For a writer who to his shame is completely reliant on his word processor in much the same way a painter and decorator relies on his brushes, hitting the road can be a traumatic affair. How the heck do I recharge my laptop? Yes I know all about solar panels, but have you seen the sheer amount of options out there? I've been dithering too long about solar. Can't make up my mind - suitcase? Roll-up? Powerbank? 80 or 100 Watts?
After a couple of hours tapping away on the quayside my useless battery is already down to 30%! There is only one thing to do: find a library. Sometimes, libraries are brilliant - they'll let me charge my power-sapping until full. Sometimes there's a tap on the shoulder: 'Sorry, we're not PAT tested, you'll have to stop . . .' Aberystwyth is one of the good ones. Forty-five minutes later I emerge with a full battery. I've just bought myself four hours of writing time! Until tomorrow . . .
On the way 'home' we happened to come across Abersytwyth's tiny indoor market. What's barra bri? thought I gazing at the menu outside a small café. 'Barra bri for two,' said I upon ascertaining that it's a kind of cake made with currents.
'Right,' said the proprietor, an older, rotund lady, 'but the price on the board is wrong. It's not 75p - it's a pound.'
'Ok, Barra Bri for two.' The dear old lady bustled off, probably chuckling to herself at how she had 'done over' two foreigners for 50 extra pence. As ever I always get my best ideas far too late. When the lady went off in the back to prepare our snack, we should have walked away leaving her with unsold slices of cake - an apt reward for her deviousness. 'If that's Welsh hospitality . . .' said I as we walked back to the camper. 'At her age too! You think she'd know better.'
After three nights on the quayside it was time to move off. We had chosen a Brit stop pub near Cardigan. Parked up in the pub's cramped car park we were debating if we had made the right choice after all. That's the trouble with Brit stops: only the basic information is supplied e.g. dog friendly, toilets, rubbish. The guide does not indicate some pretty important stuff: cleanliness, friendliness, safety etc. Reviews are sorely needed.
'Can I help you?' said a voice trying but failing to conceal a heavy note of sarcasm.
'We're Brit-stoppers,' said I brightly, peering out of the side door. The woman who met my gaze did not exactly exude hospitality.
'You've been here almost an hour. And you haven't come into the pub.'
'Sorry,' said I, 'We've had a long journey. Just sorting things out.' The etiquette of Brit-stops says one should always introduce oneself to one's hosts upon arrival, something we had not yet done. But there was something about the place - the cramped car park, the shoddy paintwork, the country and western music blaring out. I had a bad feeling. We had actually been debating whether to leave the moment we had been interrupted.
'Well you should have phoned ahead like the guide says.'
'So you are in the Brit-stop scheme?' replied I anxious to at least establish this basic fact.
'No,' firmly replied mein host, 'We're not in it anymore.'
'Oh. But you're still listed as part of the scheme in the latest edition.' I said this as innocently as possible, but there was no denying the needle twixt myself and the woman whom I took to be the pub landlady. She was getting feisty.
'I've already said, we're not in the scheme anymore.'
'So why would we phone ahead?' It was a reasonable point. Some hostelries do indeed require Brit-stoppers to phone ahead. But if the lady's pub was no longer in the scheme (despite being listed in the guide) then why on earth would Brit-stoppers phone ahead? Before this perplexing mystery could be solved the lady snorted, mumbled something incoherent and left us to it.
After some of the locals had come out to move their cars we managed to reverse out of the car park and happily left the place behind and the 'Welsh dragon' guarding it. That's another problem with Brit-stops: although there is supposed to be no obligation some of the licencees clearly expect motor caravaners to spend their cash on food and drink. But not all of us are affluent retirees swanning around the UK on our gilt-edged pensions - far from it. My guess however is that it's a notion that the publishers of Brit-Stops don't do much to dispel. After all, why offer your pub as a stopover for free? What's in it for you?
And so at 9' o clock in the evening we started looking for an overnight stay. At this point we found the Brit-stop described at the start of this account. Is this book worth the yearly £30 fee? Let's just say the jury is currently out on that one . . .
Next day we rapidly headed towards St David's. Approaching the city we spied a sign for 'whitesands.' It sounded intriguing. On a whim we followed the road down a mile or so to a superb stretch of beach where suffers surfed the turquoise waves and where, much to our irritation, dogs were not allowed between March and September. A nation of dog lovers. Grrrr!
Close to the beach we spied a field with a lone camper van. A small sign announced the place to be 'Towyn campsite.' We've all heard of glamping, well this place was the polar opposite to that: think Carry on Camping cerca 1972. No showers and no electric hook-ups. But it did have a tiny toilet block (two toilets, no loo roll) and a water tap. What it lacked in amenities however it more than made up for in some splendid countryside and fantastic views of the beach and headland called St David's Head. And all for £10 a night. Beggars, can't be choosers.
Soaking up the hot evening sun to a Cat Stevens' medley a middle-aged chap was dozing on a lounger outside his camper van. With the exception of a tent some way down the field the campsite was all his. The bucket next to him, brimful of water, contained a bottle of red chilling nicely. 'How do!' said I, mindful that I was interrupting some serious chillaxing.
Having got the low down from Brian, a single chap from up north, we decided this was the spot for us. Three nights later we would finally prise ourselves away from this charming, rustic site but it wasn't easy. Okay, so the lack of bog roll and hook-up might daunt some, but not us. Or Brian. Those sunsets over whitesands are to die for. And oh that peace and tranquillity . . .
Recently divorced Brian told us he had decided to 'live the dream.' Peering into his converted work's van he meant every word: from the squishy mattress, collection of wine bottles and copy of a book entitled 'Foraging for Food' he was as good as his word. Brown as a nut, Brian spent his days exploring the countryside around St Davids. 'I'll be back at work next week,' he told us glumly, 'but I'll definitely be back in August.' Brian is an example of a growing phenomenon we have noticed: divorced males in camper vans. Trust me, they are everywhere.
Glimpsing what looked like a very flattened snake in the road beyond the campsite came as quite a shock. 'They have snakes . . . in Wales?' And this one, curled back upon itself, must have been well over 2 foot in length. Judging by the way the poor thing was embedded in the road, the end must have come mercifully quickly.
St Davids itself is rather underwhelming. Take away its impressive cathedral and the smallest city in Britain doesn't have too much to recommend it - not even an Aldi! Less than two miles from the campsite, walks to the city were pleasant enough, but we soon found ourselves wondering what to do there. While the cathedral is free, entry to the Bishop's Palace is another £4.
One morning we scrambled up the peak which overlooks Whitesands and where the foundations of a WWII lookout post can be discerned. This is the place where, many moons ago, an American bomber crashed killing all its crew. According to Brian last year a walker found a lighter belonging to one of the deceased pilots. It must have been sitting there for over seventy years waiting to be discovered.
Leaving Towyn campsite was not going to be easy. But after three days the endless sunshine had gone and in its place appeared a thick mass of grey cloud. The magical interlude was over. We headed south westwards past New Gale beach. A quick stop off in Haverfordwest for provisions allowed a whistle-stop tour of the town: steep, busy one-way system and a ruined castle.
Later that day we found ourselves at Milford Haven marina, a swanky development of eateries and gift shops. To our surprise overnight parking is not only allowed here but is also free - a ploy perhaps to bring in much needed custom to the many businesses which charge marina prices. And there were toilets too! And fresh water! Nirvana.
Laptop requiring immediate resuscitation I headed for the local library. Yes I could sign in as a temporary guest! As I signed the slip of paper with a suitable nom de plume I spied a large box behind the counter upon which was written what appeared to be an acronym: 'MILF.' A moment later I realised that this was of course Milford Haven library . . .
Marina apart the town of Milford Haven is nothing to write home about it. In fact it's a little shabby. But the views across the harbour compensate for the general air of drabness. Consulting Brit-stops, two days later we earmarked the Salutation Inn for a stopover, a convenient place to rest after a walk around the medieval town of Pembroke, birthplace of Henry VII.
'Is it open?'
'Looks like the landlord has done a runner,' I said appraising the pub's frontage from the passenger seat of our camper. Nothing stirred. The front door was shut; bolted shut we guessed. Ghostly.
Inside, a few glasses littered the bar area like props from a play come to the end of its run. At a time of the evening when the bar snug should have been alive with conversation there was nothing but silence. Had the licencees been abducted? Had they fled during the night? It felt like an episode of Sapphire and Steel - remember that? Eerie was the word.
Round the back a group of caravans hugged the small field which the guide had promised would supply electric hook-ups and running water. Works vans filled the small car park. Oddly, the guidebook had not mentioned anything about gypsy sites . . . We hit the road once more and this time our guide came up trumps.
Credit where it's due, if it had not been for Brit-stops we would never ever have seen the beautiful village of St Florence which lies just outside Tenby. Having found the Parsonage Inn and its car park we just had to have a walk around a village that could only be described as idyllic. It's the kind of place you dream of, an archetypal village replete with Norman church, one where you might just think yourself in a place where time has stood still. As dusk fell we walked around the narrow streets under a spell. For city dwellers like ourselves the silence was something else. And those cottages . . .
The next day it was time for Tenby. What can one say? Think lofty Scarborough meets Georgian Bath with a touch of Dublin's Temple Bar. This place is very steep, very colourful and very, very busy. Never have I seen so many places to eat or drink in such a small area and that includes Benidorm! If beaches are your thing, you'll love Tenby with its North and South beaches, both of which could truthfully be described as 'golden.'
Tenby also has loads of campsites. Some are even located within walking distance of the town. The first site we tried had a sign declaring that dogs had to be 'kept on very short leads' and under no circumstances could dogs be walked ANYWHERE on the site. We moved swiftly on.
At £25 per night, sitting high above the Tenby coast Meadow Farm campsite is not exactly cheap but is literally a ten minute walk from the famous resort. If you can forgive the slopes and the basic toilet/shower (thick spider's webs) facilities this is the ideal location to explore this fascinating town. The views over Tenby and its bay are splendid - provided you don’t find a huge campervan parked directly in front of your view, which is not the exception unfortunately but rather the rule in 'Tenby's best kept secret.' We had a hi-top and awning blocking most of our view. Others were not so 'lucky.'
One couple, munching away on some goodies, watched in horror as a dirty great big campervan reversed up in front of them blocking about 90% of their view of Tenby. About to munch on a blackened sausage the poor chap stopped dead in his tracks, suddenly aware that his lovely view of the bay had been cruelly taken away from him. Meanwhile the sausage hovered on his lips in limbo.
Twenty four hours in Tenby felt inadequate. But we were headed west towards the Gower peninsula. Places came and went, many of them nondescript like Carmarthen and Llanelli. We kept going. Three days from now rain and clouds were predicted. We wanted to reach the peninsula before the rains.
Attempting to find a Brit-stop at Oxwich bay our sat-nav led us a merry dance as the sun begin to dip at a rate of knots. Where was this infernal hotel? The roads started to become very narrow. The light started to fade. Eventually we stumbled upon our destination and even managed a walk along the nearby sandy beach where campfire glows and barbecue smoke greeted us.
Sipping a pint of Guinness in the hotel beer garden just yards from the beach was the perfect way to unwind after a hectic day which had started off with a Sunday morning stroll around Tenby. In earshot of the sea and its timeless rhythms, the hotel car park was spacious and quiet. We slept soundly.
After a visit to The Mumbles we headed northwards. The weather was changing rapidly. Brit Stops included a rugby club at Llandybie, a visitor centre at Craven Arms in Shropshire and a farm somewhere in the east Cheshire countryside. We also had time to visit the charming town of Brecon, have coffee in Shrewsbury before arriving at New Brighton, our final port of call.
Next day the heavens opened with a vengeance. We had made it back just in time.