Finding sponsorship opportunities when you’re writing about the great outdoors is pretty tricky. Chances don’t come around all that frequently, so when I was approached by UK outdoor clothing and equipment store Mountain Warehouse, I have to admit to feeling pretty chuffed! A lovely chap named Daniel emailed me and asked if I was planning any outdoor excursions or activities in the next few months, and luckily for both of us, I was!
Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember that last year, my friend Judi and I had a Scottish camping and hiking adventure in Loch Lomond. Since that trip we’ve been discussing where we should go next, and when Judi suggested Wales it didn’t take much persuasion on her behalf for me to say yes. Except this time, it would be a little different.
Instead of just the two of us, we’d be taking a whole crew along for the ride!
So, have you got the campfire roaring? Mug of hot chocolate? Marshmallows to roast? Good, because I’m ready to share with you the epic story of what happened when three scout leaders, an architect and a blogger went away on a camping adventure in Wales. Kinda sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it? Well, I promise you, it’s anything but that!
Are you sitting comfortably? Let’s begin.
The five of us left London after rush hour on Friday night, packed like sardines into Judi’s trusty car, Seamus. His cavernous boot just about managed to swallow up five big bags, two tents, a cooking stove, five pairs of walking boots, roll mats, sleeping bags, backpacks and an entire supermarket full of budget delights - enough bagels to sink a battleship!
We arrived at the campsite after midnight in the pouring rain. With head torches strapped on top of our waterproof hoods we must have looked a funny sight as we erected the pair of tents in in the dark, took a group visit to the toilet block and then returned to climb into our sleeping bags for some much needed shut-eye as the rain hammered down outside.
But when we awoke the next morning, the weather couldn’t have been more different! The landscape was bathed in sunlight and the rain had passed during the night. The sun welcomed us as, one by one, we climbed out of our tents and said hello the Welsh countryside.
I couldn’t help but giggle when Annie emerged from our tent still wearing her head torch from the night before. She denied having slept with it on, but I wasn’t so sure… look at that face!
We’d scoped out our campsite beforehand on Cool Camping, and chosen Tyllwd for its supposed remoteness. The description was spot on! Aside from a caravan that belonged to the owners of the site, the rest of the field was completely empty and we were free to enjoy the beautiful views and sounds of the rushing stream without interruption.
… well, that’s not strictly true. The weekend we’d chosen for our campfest extravaganza also turned out to be the same one that every biker in the UK had chosen to dust off their leathers, oil their bike engines and hit the road. Whilst we ate breakfast a group of five zoomed past… then ten… then twenty… and it felt like we were going to be waving forever!
Still, at least they were friendly and waved back.
Annie poured over several maps whilst she drank her morning coffee (“I can’t believe we’re on the corner of three different ones!”) and planned our hiking route for the day whilst the rest of us tucked into Rachel’s carbtastic brekkie of brioche, bagels and pancakes.
And then it was a quick stop-off at the drive-through water point before heading for the Hafod Estate in the Ystwyth valley, and the beginning of the day’s adventures.
You have no idea how hard it was to stop every picture in this post looking like it’s been lifted straight out of a women’s walking club magazine! I have to admit though, we did have a moment where we all smugly agreed that we’d nailed the co-ordinating outdoor gear without looking like total newbies… not a single pink jacket or fleece in sight!
We chose the aptly named Lady’s Walk, which forms part of the Hafod Estate circular trail. This part of the country is recognised as “one of the most important and influential picturesque landscapes of the late eighteenth century in Europe”. What an accolade!
The trail took us on a winding walk through the woods, and in turn let us take in some gorgeous views of Peiran Falls. We stepped right down onto a huge rocky slab wedged in the stream, all stopping to take pictures as the water rushed past.
Judi and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to snap a selfie in our new Mountain Warehouse hats, a kind gift to keep the sun off our faces on what was turning out to be a surprisingly warm day! I kept mine glued to my head all day long, determined to avoid getting the strange sunburn lines I left my Cumbrian camping trip with last year.
No one wants Bradley Wiggins-style sunburn sideburns, trust me.
As Annie lead the way with her eyes glued to the map, the rest of us enjoyed the scenery.
Under the shade of the trees, the breeze kept us cool as we followed the trail.
Mountain Warehouse also sent me some new walking boots, which I’ll admit to falling in love with straight away because they were called Swallow! They were quite lightweight and shaped like shoes rather than boots, so I was a bit worried as to how they would hold up when we started climbing hills, but I needn’t have worried.
They were perfectly adequate and very supportive, and seeing as I hadn’t taken any other footwear with me, I was relieved that I didn’t get a single blister all weekend!
And good job too, because then it was time to start climbing the hills. I don’t know about you, but I find walking long distances pretty easy. I walk for two hours a day just getting to work and home again, and I always feel like it would be no hassle to keep going.
There is a catch though. There are no hills.
Once you take me off the flat and start introducing grassy mountains, I’m useless. Remember my Ben Lomond excursion last year? Add in the fact that my legs are shorter than everyone else’s and you’ll often find me languishing at the back of the line, struggling.
I was in luck this time though, when Judi shared a top hiking tip. It turns out that if you bounce as you walk, springing upwards as you lift your feet, almost in a weird rocking motion, you literally power up mountains without a care in the world!
Amazed by this strange technique, I bounced my way up the hill and reached the summit in no time! I felt like the pressure was completely off my feet and the exercise shared instead with my arms, legs, thighs and even my core. Forget the gym, all your body really needs is ten minutes of Judi’s mad bouncing technique and your heart will be hammering!
Coming down off the hill, we weaved and wound our way back into the woodland area again, passing through Yr Bwa – the Arch – into the picturesque Elan Valley.
Built to mark the Golden Jubillee of George III in 1810 by Thomas Johnes, the original owner of the Hafod Estate, the Arch marks the point where the road across the Cambrians to Rhayader becomes the Mountain Road. Until only a couple of years ago the road ran right through the middle of this amazing structure!
We didn’t stop long for lunch, just enough time to empty our backpacks of food and drinks, before picking up the trail again with Annie at the helm, map in hand.
The views were just breathtaking as we looked out over the valley, getting our fill of clean, fresh Welsh air and admiring the endless variety of greens on display. I’m never ceased to be amazed at how nature manages to put them all together and create such a masterpiece.
Just try tell me this couldn’t be on the cover of Country Life magazine?
That evening, after a quick wash and brush up, the five of us bundled back into Seamus and headed for a local pub, which I unfortunately can’t for the life of me remember the name of now, but it was just the ticket for a Saturday evening out in the country: a great atmosphere and amazing food! We also took the opportunity to wish Hannah a proper happy birthday, as she’d turned 23 on the Friday and it had been difficult to celebrate in the back of the car!
Sunday dawned as bright and sunny as the day before, and with no need to rush anywhere we lazily left the tents and regrouped at the breakfast table, where Rachel once again had started prepping a delicious breakfast, complete with leftover carrot cake from Hannah’s birthday!
It was also the perfect opportunity to crack out the last of the equipment that Mountain Warehouse had sent our way: a very neat little gas stove that folded up in its own little case and as such got christened “the drill” because of its misleading appearance! After installing the gas canister and discovering that the Kampa Uni Stove came with its own ignition spark (“Oooh… ahhhh!) we got to work cooking eggs for those who wanted them.
Looking back now, I think “the drill” was definitely the success story of the camp. Being able to fold it back up into a carry case and use it without fiddling around with matches made it the perfect stove for a beginner and an excellent choice for the more hardcore camper. I’ve just lent it to Judi to take with her on a ten-day scout excursion to Jersey next week!
Ooh, and I nearly forgot to introduce this fella. Cliff the Climber surely must be the ideal companion for any outdoorsy person! He’s a tea strainer with an adjustable ice axe that fits on the rim of any sized mug or cup, allowing him to hang there happily in the hot water until you’ve brewed a much needed cuppa in the morning.
Cliff belonged to Rachel who kindly lent him to me, but tragically he seemed to be a bit incompatible with my rooibos tea, and leaked a few leaves into my mug. Still, he was such an adorable little chap that I forgave him in an instant.
My lovely cup of tea was rudely interrupted however, this time not by cheery bikers but by the sudden arrival of dark grey clouds. Not wanting to chance it, we ran for the tents and started to dismantle them as big plops of rain began to fall.
Unsurprisingly, as soon as we’d rushed around packing and piling everything back into Seamus’ boot, the clouds parted again and we were greeted by warm sun once more.
We decided to take the hint though, throwing the last few bits and bobs into the boot of the car and coercing it shut. As we drove out of the campsite and back into the valley, we tuned Seamus’ radio into BBC Cymru, whose presenters spoke to us in their soft, cosy accents and whose music formed the perfect backdrop to the next leg of our journey.
En route, we detoured to take a peek at the Mynach Falls and Devil’s Bridge at Ceredigion. We stopped at a car park where we came across this Land Rover chilling by itself in the sun. It didn’t look like it was going anywhere in a hurry, so we decided to give it a starring role in the Welsh camping extravaganza story and get our pose on like a bunch of farmer lads.
Hannah’s lad game was especially strong.
Devil’s Bridge spans the Mynach, a tributary of the River Rheidol, and is unusual in the fact that it actually comprises of three bridges, all on top of one another! The first was erected in the 11th century, the second was a stone construction added in 1753, and the final bridge that stands today is the iron bridge, built to carry heavier traffic over the river in 1901.
If you look at the left-hand picture here, you can just about make out the three bridges! Annie, Hannah and I climbed down a winding stone stairway known as Jacob’s Ladder to get to the bottom and snap endless photos of the falls and the hollowed rocks beneath the bridge that the water had shaped over time.
And if you fancy getting yourself totally immersed in Welsh legend, it’s well worth reading the story of how this beautiful place got its name.
And with a final wave to the rhaeadrau, it was time to make one final diversion on our way home. And I have to admit, I think we might have saved the best ’til last.
The sun was high in the sky by the time we reached the seaside town of Aberystwyth, and keen to show Belgian Hannah her first ever British beach, we didn’t waste much time parking Seamus on the high street and heading for the promenade.
I’d never been to Aberystwyth before, but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. Those of you been readers for a while will know how fond I am of beaches in the north of England, so I’m always biased when it comes to choosing where to spend a few hours by the sea!
But the water at Aberystwyth looked blue and crystal clear. It was a quaint-looking seafront, with beautiful pastel-coloured houses and a gorgeous backdrop of green hills. I was also pleased to see that all the tackiness I usually associate with “the Great British Seaside” was hidden away on the pier, with the natural beauty of the coast left to reign supreme.
By this point in the weekend, the five of us were so chilled out it didn’t take much for us to just lie on the sand and take it in turns to fall asleep in the sun. Determined to continue Hannah’s birthday celebrations, we cracked open a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne and mixed it with our cartons of Lidl orange juice to make bucks fizz, toasting a wonderful weekend.
Afterwards, Hannah, Rachel and Judi braved dipping their toes in the chilly sea before we all headed back up the sand to check out the pier.
Sometimes, there are just no words. Who honestly designs these things!?
And then it was time for the obligatory seaside ice-cream. These badboys are bubblegum flavoured, and Rachel, Annie and I went the whole hog and chose sherbet cones too! I mean, when else am I going to get the chance? I couldn’t resist having a go at an Ellen Degeneres Oscars-style selfie before we started demolishing them.
And, whilst ingesting an in comprehensible amount of sugar and E numbers, we finished our ice creams as we walked up the pier, through the town and back to Seamus one final time. We waved goodbye to Aberystwyth, with its pastel houses and friendly seaside, and began the long drive back to the big ‘ole smoke feeling refreshed in the way only a weekend out in the countryside can make you feel totally refreshed.
I can’t wait to do it all again very soon.
What I learned from my Welsh camping experience:
- The only thing better than taking one scout leader with you on a camping trip is taking three. You wouldn’t believe the gadgetry that pops up out of bags at breakfast time, and yes that is a waterproof map case thank you very much.
- If you burn a hole in your fleece jumper whilst trying to lift a pan off the stove, it just makes you a more authentic camper.
- Welsh sheep are easily the most carefree sheep in the UK, and will happily make mad dashes across the road and take it upon themselves to come and visit your campsite in the middle of the night just to make sure you’re “okay”.
- Anyone that spends longer than five minutes in the company of larger than life Northern Irish ringleader Judi K is almost guaranteed to leave the experience talking with her accent.
- The first rule of #girlcamp is “never stop talking about #girlcamp”.
A huge thank you to Mountain Warehouse for helping out with equipment and clothing for our adventure! Everything was used and to great success too. Here’s to many more #girlcamps in the future! Who knows where we’ll be next time…