On taking delivery of our new van Biggie Small we packed up (everything we thought we needed), planned some meals and hit the road. Due to Covid restrictions, we were only allowed to travel within our home country of Wales. Luckily for us Wales is home to some of the best and most remote landscapes that the UK has to offer.
We headed North from our home in Porthcawl towards the Brecon Beacons. Powys council allow you to park overnight for free between certain hours in all of their car parks. It is worth looking up on their website which car parks are suitable for vans/motorhomes however as the sizes massively vary. Being winter and leaving late in the day, we arrived in the dark and found a quiet spot along the river Usk just West of the town of Brecon itself. There were a few other vans spread out but the spot was very peaceful - the only sound was the rushing water from a nearby weir up the river. We took the dogs for a quick walk along the river with our head torches before settling into bed to watch Netflix. We had no phone signal at this spot but thankfully our onboard WiFi antenna was enough to pull in a few MB so we could stream some shows. Fast forward to the next few nights where even the external antenna was not enough to get a signal in the black spot that is Mid Wales, and that brings us to our first learning.
Pre-download any shows, music, or podcasts you want for your trip, you can't always rely on having a signal in remote locations.
First thing in the morning we made a couple of hot drinks on the Thetford Triplex. This is a three burner gas hob and oven in one and we really rate this for anyone who plans to cook often in their vans. From Brecon we then drove North again towards Elan Valley where we were planning to spend the next few days walking and finding some new spots. The weather forecast was very typical of autumnal Wales (sun, wind, rain, sun, wind, rain).
Having not driven the van over the several months of the conversion period, it was fortunate that the single width tracks were empty on our way into the Elan Valley. One of our favorite spots in the estate and our firsts stop was Crag Goch dam. It was grey and blustery, but we took the dogs for a walk down one of the nearby trails until they were able to gain access to the river below for a drink and paddle. From the bottom you can only go up, we hiked back up past the van, across the dam, and up to a viewpoint where we attempted a family portrait with Biggie Small in the background.
The next day we ventured out early on a woodland walk. Despite missing the best that autumn has to offer, there were still enough burnt orange leaves and foliage scattered on the trails to give us some seasonal vibes. On returning to the van we made some lunch and drove to the next spot. The Elan estate offers a wide variety of hilltop, river, or woodland terrain for walking so there is something for everyone to enjoy. Many of the most scenic spots are also very accessible from the road or car parks without having to mission too far. During our third night in the van, we had some of the heaviest rain we have ever experienced, it was relentless for hours and the sound was amplified by effectively sleeping inside a steel box. We considered that the rain test for the van and good news - no leaks.
Once again it was time to move on, and we headed further North into an area of Wales we have not previously explored. Being new to vanlife and not knowing how accurate the gauge for the LPG/Autogas was we took a detour to a fill station which we found using the app MyLPG.eu. It turns out the gauge is accurate and we had over half a tank left. A short drive from the garage with some impressive single tracks roads and a pretty hairy switch back and we arrived at Montgomery Castle.
'Commenced around 1223 on the orders of Henry III in response to the growing power of Welsh native prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), Montgomery’s stone castle replaced a nearby wooden fort known as Hen Domen. Perched on its rocky ridge, this new fortress was significantly sturdier and more sophisticated, with a stone inner ward, well, deep defensive ditches crossed by drawbridges and walled town.' Source Cadw
After visiting the castle we traveled towards the Clywedog Reservoir to find a quiet park up for the night. On arrival, it was super windy and very cold. Two of the spots we drove to were fairly exposed and as the sun dipped below the horizon we were keen to find somewhere sharpish to settle down. On chancing a single track to nowhere we stumbled across a small park at the edge of the woods and next to Bryntail Lead Mines. We had a fantastic night's sleep nestled between the trees at the bottom of the valley away from the harsh weather on higher ground. The Bryntail Lead Mines also made a fantastic enclosure for Rory and Jeannie to run around in, although the fast-flowing rapids running along the bottom of the hill had us concerned for Rory whose clumsy tendencies see her often 'falling' into water. That morning we drove a little further up the road where we attempted a rather inconspicuous trail around one of the spits of land on the reservoir. After several wrong turns and some changeable weather we managed a good few hours rambling around in the (mostly) sunshine. The main camera stayed in the van for this hike but I snapped a nice pano on the iPhone on the way around.
As we had crept further North than originally anticipated we had to cover some ground to get back towards home for our last night. We set our destination to 'Lauras Diner' in the Brecon Beacons to grab a massive vegan burger and chips. Laura has had a mobile food stall on the road North out of Penderyn for a few years now. She is super friendly and accommodates any dietary types so definitely worth a visit. From Laura's 15 minutes of singletrack 'roads' in sideways rain took us to a quiet spot near Blaen llia for the night. We didn't know the area that well and were slightly nervous about our proximity to a fast-flowing river with the amount of water pouring down from the hillside but we had no issues.
What we have learned from our first trip
1. Pre download content you think you want to watch/listen to whilst on the road when you have access to a reliable network.
2. The LPG gauges and markings are accurate so it is easy to plan and monitor gas usage.
3. Fresh water is our most valuable resource. We had what felt like infinite electricity, even in winter. This is provided from our 360ah Lithium battery bank, 540W solar, and a battery to battery charger whilst driving.
4. The Natures Head compost toilet was an excellent choice for us staying off grid. The urine tank needed emptying after 2-3 days of full time use and the solids tank easily would last several weeks.
5. The heater vent into the bathroom is an excellent addition. We used this every night for drying shoes/dog harnesses and tea towels. We have a temperature sensor in the living area and bathroom which shows the cubicle can get over 10 degrees centigrade/50 fahrenheit hotter than the main area.