This was always going to be a special trip, by virtue of it being our very first proper camping experience in ‘Hansel’. It was also stressful. We’d done a fair bit of camping in tents of various sizes in our lives, so some of it was already familiar to us, but the ins and outs of our new four-wheeled den was still a bit of a mystery.
So it was with some trepidation that we set off for Pen y Bont Touring Park, located in Bala, Wales. Initially, it was going to be a simple trip, just head somewhere, and take in the camper van experience. It ended up being a road biking trip somehow.
To be fair, centring the trip around an activity made choosing a destination miles easier. We decided we wanted to smash up a few of Wales’ hilly passes. After plotting some routes on Strava, we then picked a site that was well situated for them.
The art of packing
The days preceding this trip had our minds working overtime on that necessary evil: packing. We must’ve gathered stuff from every corner of the house. Camping equipment, clothing, bike-related gear, the list goes on. At this point, Hansel hadn’t yet been equipped with any of the items which now live permanently in the cupboards and drawers, so it was double the usual effort. ‘It’ll get slicker,’ became our catchphrase.
By the time we loaded everything in, and allocated everything a home, we were exhausted, but mega-excited. Especially since we now had a fridge. A fridge! No more worrying about whether the milk was on the turn, after a day in a cooler box furnished with sad, now-lukewarm ice blocks.
On the road
With it being Easter, it took a while to get to Bala. Hansel’s automatic gearbox came into its own in the stop-start traffic. We spent the whole journey asking each other whether some item or other had been packed. We worried constantly about negotiating the narrow, winding roads in our shiny new van. It was drizzling when we arrived and parked on the neat, grass pitch allocated. We didn’t care, we were delighted. We’d arrived!
Is that it…?
Then the fun started; our first van set up. For some reason, we got a bit obsessed with the order in which things were done, and then worried about whether we’d done it right. The pop top roof went up, the front seats were swivelled, the awning came out, we hooked up to the electric, we got the chairs and table out… ‘is that it?’ we asked. Although it’d been a clunky set up process, it all seemed too simple. After years of messing about pitching tents, this was an absolute cinch. Plenty of extra time to fuss over whether we’d done everything right. ‘It’ll get slicker’, we said.
Excellent, time for a beer. Or in my case, champagne. We were very much celebrating. As we supped our respective alcoholic beverages, we revelled in the newness of it all, and marvelled at the ease of set up. We luxuriated in our new-car-smelling shelter, and commented on how nice it was to sit in the warm, comfortable interior when it was wetter than an otter’s pocket outside.
It was also an opportunity to watch other people set up their vans. So much was new to us. We pointed out gear other people had which we’d never seen, and wondered what we were missing out on. One VW-owning couple came over to chat to us about our van. They were clearly stoked on theirs too, and were eager to share their knowledge.
Needless to say, we continued in this state of wonder throughout the evening, from cooking, to sleeping in our new bed. The whole thing was a brilliant adventure, transforming simple, mundane tasks into fun little events.
The evening passed quickly, and we were rudely awoken on Saturday by some very noisy geese with a lot to say. Never mind, we had a long day in the saddle ahead of us. After a piping hot brew, we geared up (easily – no more trying to wriggle into clothing lying down!), and set off.
The 53 mile route took in a number of hills in the welsh countryside, including the Horseshoe Pass. At roughly 4 miles long, and with a c5% average gradient, this pass is a lovely ascent with beautiful views. There wasn’t too much traffic that day, which is always a bonus, and the sun had graciously decided to show its face.
We also travelled along some very quiet, narrow lanes, with sharp, punishing gradients and stunning scenery. The route was amazing, and just a tiny fraction of the awesome roads that north Wales has to offer the hill-loving road biker. We got back to camp, tired, happy and (very) hungry.
On Easter Sunday, the clouds returned with a vengeance. A riding buddy of ours who lives nearby, Warren, had come to join us for the day’s ride. I took one look at the ominous, angry-looking sky and decided that my tired legs were more than happy to hold the fort back at camp. Ciaron and Warren plotted another nice, hilly route, and I waved them off with a smile.
Their punchy, 40 mile ride took in the infamous Bwlch y Groes, aka Hellfire Pass, the highest tarmacked pass in Wales apparently. Pictures never really do these things justice, but I have it on good authority that it is tough, especially when the weather isn’t really playing ball. The lads returned damp, cold and tired, I was glad to have sat this one out!
It wasn’t all about the riding, it was also about chips
Bike-riding aside, we took a stroll around the charming little town of Bala. Plenty of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from, but we stumped for some proper chippy chips, lovely job. The 15 minute walk from the campsite took us past the beautiful Llyn Tegid, aka Bala Lake, which on a chilly Easter Sunday, was all but deserted.
The campsite itself was pretty good. Nice, level grass pitches with clean facilities. The showers were of the 5-second-push-button variety, but they were nice and warm and clean. The staff were really helpful, quickly finding us an extension for our electric hook up, as ours didn’t quite reach.
Location-wise, it was fantastic for our purposes. Great access to decent road biking territory, walking distance to town, there was absolutely no need for us to consider using the van once we’d pitched up. Just don’t forget your 20 pence pieces if you want to dry your hair.
Thoughts on the trip
Our first proper camper van experience was amazing. We learned a lot, such as:
– It doesn’t matter what order you set everything up in, but it is important to find the most level part of the pitch (or have levelling ramps/chocks, which we don’t). Stuff rolling around everywhere is not cool.
– Make sure everything has a ‘home’, or prepare to be mega-frustrated when you can’t find stuff ever again.
– Your awning will fill up with water when it rains, so beware, as it WILL end up on your (unsuspecting husband’s) head.
– Geese don’t respect the fact that you need sleep, get over it.
I think we were both slightly relieved that it was a good, fun experience, and that it was all incredibly practical from a road biking aspect. As we packed up and drove home, we continued to chatter excitedly about where we’d head to next, and what we thought we’d do differently next time.
One thing’s for sure: it’ll get slicker!