Wales and I have history. It began on camping holidays in Pembrokeshire as a kid, then, as I discovered surfing, took me to sleeping in vans between waves on the Llŷn peninsula. The van made it easy to follow the surf and stay warm and dry at the same time: a safe space on wheels.
More recently I set off on another Welsh trip as part of my research for a new guidebook about offbeat campervan adventures in England and Wales. Rather than the sea, a river would be the focus this time – the Teifi, which I planned to follow from outdoorsy, hip Cardigan to the Teifi Pools, a series of high lakes in the Cambrian Mountains, at 455 metres above sea level, with fishing and canoeing stops along the way. It’s only about 70 miles from sea to source but it takes you from a tiny beach, through a stunning gorge that’s recovering from Wales’s industrial past and into one of the UK’s last wildernesses. My fishing partner Andy and I did it over three days but could have easily hung about for much longer.
The journey began at Mwnt, a tiny hamlet on Cardigan Bay outside the city, with a night at the brilliantly located Tŷ Gwyn Caravan and Camping Park. On the first morning, when I opened the blinds and squinted into the rising sun, I saw red-legged choughs pecking at the grass outside the van. Down the hill, the tiny Holy Cross church reflected golden light beneath Foel y Mwnt’s bracken-covered slopes. We breakfasted in the sun in Cardigan outside Stiwdio 3 Cafe before our first rendezvous with the river: canoeing the Cilgerran Gorge with Heritage Canoes (2 hrs, £40 adult). Backlit trees cast deep shadows over the water, making it appear black, unfathomable and wild, as the mist rose and we paddled silently, hoping for an otter sighting (none came). The steep sides of the gorge were densely wooded, the only sounds birdsong and the splosh of paddles in water.
We returned to Mwnt via the beach at Patch, on the north side of the river. Here, as instructed by the people serving us in the chippy, we drove down a tiny lane and on to the foreshore, where we scoffed our fish, chips and mushy peas, the salt tang of the estuary mingled with the vinegar as we sat in the van with the doors flung open.
Our communion with the water continued the following day. We headed out of Cardigan to Lampeter, following the river as closely as possible, passing the roaring rapids at Cenarth Falls. At Lampeter we bought fishing permits from the Llandysul Angling Association (from £10) and took to the river. We set up in a water meadow; woodpeckers knocked on a tree on the riverbank and buzzards swooped overhead. Despite a few takes there was little action besides a few tiny trout, but the peace and wildness of the river more than made up for the lack of fish. Whether we imagined those that got away or the flashes of the kingfisher zipping past is immaterial.
We continued upstream through Llanddewi Brefi (the village made famous by Little Britain) until we arrived at Ffair Rhos, a hamlet overlooking the valley and the last stop before the wilderness. Penrhiw Campsite (£5 a night), opposite the Teifi Inn, is fantastically rustic, with incredible views of mountains to the east and valley to the south. From here a tiny road heads off into the Cambrian Mountains and the river’s source, the Teifi Pools.
It’s a wild, empty place with a winding, switchbacking road that looks like a ribbon dropped on a lonely moor. We rose early to be at the pools as the morning mist turned to bright sunshine and the water to glass (fishing passes from £13, tregaronangling.com). We cast in vain into the deep, black water.
Views down to the valley revealed a patchwork of agriculture and “civilisation”. Up here there were no trees, just a sea of tufty sedges, gorse, heather and bracken. Our fishing luck was down again, but it didn’t matter. The pass allowed us to park the van for the day in Wales’s final, untamed wilderness. Beneath a deep blue sky, the mountains undulated like dunes, wagtails darted by the water’s edge and sheep stood on outcrops of rocks, bleating at each other across the reservoir. I’m used to driving through such places, but rarely stop – really stop – and immerse myself. Today, casting my line into the black, still water, I drank it all in.
We dawdled home the very long way, over the Cambrian mountains via the twisty Ystwyth Valley. From there we took a tight right at Elan Bridge on to the tiny but stunning road that follows the Craig Goch reservoir into the picture-perfect landscape to beat them all: the Elan Valley.
I’ve travelled all over Wales in my campervan. But this is one of my favourite routes. This journey is Wales as you imagine it: tiny, bumpy roads through undulating, empty upland with peaty brown rivers tumbling into deep pools below stone bridges. With hearts and waders full, but fishing bags empty – and glad to have added another chapter to the story of my love affair with Wales – I pointed the van towards home.
Three more of Martin’s top wild campervan routes
Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
The Forest of Bowland, a diminutive Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, isn’t as popular as its neighbours The Lakes and the North Yorkshire Moors – and that’s a good thing. A lonely moor at the mid-point of Britain, it’s great for cycling and exploring on foot.
I set off from Clitheroe, heading to the heart of the AONB in Slaidburn (good walking) and then taking a route through Dunsop Bridge and the Trough of Bowland to Caton and Bentham before making my way back to Slaidburn via the beautiful pass at the Cross of Greet. As epic road trips go it wasn’t the longest I’ve ever done, just about 60 miles, but it didn’t disappoint – taking in moorland, a gorge, and ancient wooded dales. A hike from Dunsop Bridge on to the moor and the Whitendale Hanging Stones is a must. Places to stay include the Clitheroe Camping and Caravanning Club site on the banks of the Ribble and Halsteads Farm, a working farm with basic but good facilities.
Spurn Head and the Humber
From the Humber Bridge to Bempton Cliffs, east Yorkshire, the coastal route is around 88 miles – worthy of a mini-adventure, particularly for birdwatchers and lovers of wilderness and history. Stops along the way include Spurn Head, a spit of land that snakes out into the Humber estuary, a little forgotten these days, after the MOD left and nature moved in. The nature reserve at the top of Spurn Head is navigable only on foot or by bike (we cycled and were alone). We headed north to Withernsea and Hornsea and on to bustling Bridlington and Flamborough, and then the RSPB reserve at Bempton. Suggested campsites include Sandalwood on the outskirts of Easington (a 10-mile round-trip cycle to Spurn) and Cayton Bay Caravan and Motorhome Club Site up the coast from Flamborough.
Starting at Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, it’s just 75 miles to Berwick in Northumberland but the route takes in incredible beaches, castles and beguiling towns and villages – we took our time and stretched it out over five days. Highlights include Blyth (beach, beach huts, ice-cream), Alnmouth and Bamburgh, with its famous castle. Despite summer crowds there are still empty places to discover. A short walk through dune slacks and marram grass near Beadnell Bay rewarded us with a tiny wild cove. We missed the hordes at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne by waiting for a day when the tide had been in all day (so “trapping” day trippers). When the water drew back, the crowds rushed away and we drove over the last droplets of high water to enjoy a glorious, silent evening exploring one of Northumberland’s favourite attractions. Recommended places to say include Budle Farm near Bamburgh on Budle Bay (no website, just turn up and text the owner on 07707 299430), Beadnell Bay Camping and Caravan Club Site, on the coast, popular but vast and Berwick Motorhome and Caravan Club Site, overlooking the sea.
Martin Dorey’s Off the Beaten Track: England and Wales: Wild Drives and Offbeat Adventures by Camper Van and Motorhome, is published by Conway (£20, available from the Guardian Bookshop at £17.40). Martin is also author of the Take the Slow Road series, which features inspirational journeys by campervan and motorhome in Scotland, England and Wales, Ireland and France