Day one

There was a dramatic sunrise as we departed Tenby, our initial destination Whitesands car park, the closest we could drive to St. David’s Head. Our delight was soon dashed, by the time we were driving past Pembroke Castle the first spots of rain dotted Riley Blue’s windscreen.  Beyond Haverfordwest the sky darkened further, the cloud base lowered and we glanced at each other, a wry smile on our faces. Riley Blue’s wipers swished from side to side, vainly trying to clear the screen.

Leaving St David’s we forked left on the B4583 towards Whitesands having taken in a little of Wales’ smallest city though not even catching a glimpse of its cathedral as we negotiated its one-way system. A further left turn and in two miles we arrived at an almost deserted Maes Parcd Traeth Mavr (Whitesands Car Park) to disappoint an eager parking attendant with, “We’re not stopping, just turning round…”

He retreated to the dry of his kiosk, I spun Riley Blue around and we were off. No photos as it was raining even harder – Gael doesn’t like rain. We
re-traced our route to the fork, this time turning left in the direction of Fishguard to dive right within a couple of hundred yards on Ffos Y Mynach. The first few miles were open country, with good visibility and we settled in to our familiar routine: Gael reading the road book, giving distances to the next junction and the way in which to turn, repeating them as we arrived then re-setting the trip meter. Me? All I had to do was to listen and turn the steering wheel in the appropriate direction.

A few words about the trip meter. We use the Android phone app: ‘Gpstrip’. It shows overall distance travelled, the intermediate distance i.e. between turns, actual speed, average speed, real time, time travelled and map reference. For this trip, only the first three would be needed. It’s not perfect but it’s free. We like free.

We skirted the disused RAF St David’s airfield, a coastal command base during WW2, operating Fortress, Halifax and Liberator bombers and still in use until the 1990s. The road dipped and we crossed the first of many stone bridges, this one over the River Solva, to climb up and out of the river valley.

Almost immediately we skirted another airfield, previously RAF Brawdy, since 1995 Cawdor Barracks, the army’s main electronic warfare base.  The lanes (we were yet to sample a Welsh B road) were narrow, often steep sided, over-hung by trees and frequently poorly surfaced with badly patched pot holes.  Who in their right mind would drive a 57 year old car along them? As far as we could see most local people drove a tractor or well used pickup, both far better suited to the lanes we were driving on. The occasional sheep raised its head and bleated as we disturbed its grazing. Things could only get better, couldn’t they?

Rain continued to fall and in Riley Blue the conversation… there was little of it. We ducked under the A40 at Casblaidd (Wolfscastle), crossed the B4329 and plunged in to a narrow gap between high hedges past a sign that warned: ‘Unsuitable for Long Vehicles’. Not a problem, a Riley One-Point-Five is only 12’ 9” long and 5’ 1” high. Remember that height, it’ll be important later in the day. Gael was making a valiant attempt at Welsh village names, some of which looked faintly Scottish,  Maenclochog for example, but it wasn’t a problem as I glanced at the finger posts as we passed and all became clear.

We rattled onwards through Meidrum. Riley Blue has lots of rattles. They’re difficult to eliminate from an old car so we’ve never tried, they’re part of its character. We headed south-east now, towards Carmarthen and our first pit stop. We’d previously called at the Tesco Superstore there for fuel and knew it was on our route so now took the opportunity to fill Riley Blue’s seven gallon (32 litre) tank, have a bacon butty and make use of other the store’s facilities. The fuel would easily take us to Bicester Tesco about 180 miles further along our route. It was, by the way, still raining.

We joined the queue of traffic waiting to cross the River Tywi (Towy) then crossed the A40 (again) to take the B4300 Capel Dewi road to FFairfach. It’s 14 miles of reasonably well surfaced B road with some decent swooping bends and was largely free of traffic, just local cars or visitors to the National Botanic Garden of Wales a few miles to the south. Rolling along at a respectable rate we made good progress, catching an occasional glimpse of the Towy to our left through the trees – the day was looking up though the rain persisted.

Soon after we left Ffairfach the landscape changed, we had reached the western end of the Brecon Beacons. The route I’d planned zig-zaged along narrow lanes and through isolated farms to Gwynfe with a couple of steep uphill hairpin bends thrown, just for a laugh. We then climbed past Twynllanan and soon after passing the Red Kite Feeding Station rattled over a grid and (deep joy) there was an arrow straight road stretching into the distance before us.

We were a thousand feet up on the Usk Reservoir Road. Despite the low cloud the Black Mountains could be seen to our right with the reservoir coming into view on our left. The day was improving, the rain had almost stopped. Though the road was straight and the temptation to ‘give it beans’ was making my right leg twitch, I resisted. I’d learned that what may appear to be a flat rural road often wasn’t and a straight this length was likely to have several hidden dips and crests to catch out the unwary. It was, however, a ‘medium-risk’ stretch and we reached the other end without grounding too heavily.

Riley Blue had already suffered two cracked sumps on previous trips and my supply of replacements was exhausted. This time I have taken precautions; Riley Blue had been fitted with a sump guard!  A copy of the one fitted to the works rally One-Point-Fives of the 1950s and 60s, it was made by Steve McKie in Chesterfield and was being thoroughly tested on this trip. We shall, by the time we have returned home, consider it money very well spent.

A short detour north to cross the A40 (yet again) found us skirting the southern fringes of the 37,000 acre Sennybridge Training Area. It’s a shame our route wasn’t through it as there are some good roads to be enjoyed when the red flags weren’t flying. We dipped into Brecon, just to have a quick nosey, then took a single track, little used short cut under the A470 onto the B4558, a good road running roughly parallel to the River Usk where we both enjoy a 14 mile long respite from reading and reacting to tulip diagrams.

Turning right on the B4560 we climbed Mynydd Llangynidr. Carry on along this road and we would have ended up in Ebbw Vale but our route took a side road on the left, a fast downhill side road with superb views to the north and to Crickhowell over in the east. This wonderful road ended, abruptly, in the village of Llangattock where a sharp right turn found us ascending again on Hillside Road which, as the cottages and houses ended, hopped over the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal , narrowing to a single car width lane winding its way through woods and between fields, gradually climbing once more. We couldn’t see into the fields as the hedges were high but evidence on the road suggested woolly four legged residents.

After a right turn at Dan Y Parc the lane narrowed even further, Riley Blue’s wing mirrors brushed the hedges. The surface became rougher, there was a mossy green stripe down the centre and the sump guard really earned its keep with rocks rattling under the car.  Then, at Llanelly, we forked right at the church, ignored the ‘No motors except for access’ sign and dropped down the hillside. As we did so bungalows and houses with neatly mown lawns and carefully trimmed shrubs appeared on either side, set back further and further and with increasingly larger front gardens as we descended steeply towards the A465 which we needed to cross. We are in the Clydach Gorge, one of Wales’ earliest industrial sites.

Sneaking under the A465, the busy Heads of the Valleys Road, driving uphill through Clydach village we missed a turning. There was supposed to be a telephone kiosk at a fork in the road but there wasn’t. After continuing uphill for a short distance I decided the left fork we didn’t take is the left fork we should have taken. My decision proved correct and we cautiously negotiated the narrow wooded lanes taking left or right forks as we went. We met, slowed for and waved at a few dog walkers. Most returned the wave with one elderly chap almost lifting his dog off its feet as he dragged it onto the verge even though we are crawling past at snail’s pace.

Previously I mentioned the height of a One-Point-Five and that it would be worth remembering. Now is the time to search your memory (it’s 5’ 1”). We’re now descending to join the B4246 that will take us to Abergavenny. Before we could we have to pass under a very low bridge and I am grateful we didn’t have a roof box on Riley Blue. The height warning on the bridge (it passes under the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal) is 5’ 6”; we had about five inches clearance.

We re-crossed the Heads of the Valleys Road and decide we’ve earned a break. Within a short distance is a Waitrose; that would do. No fuel needed for Riley Blue as we’ve only travelled 125 miles from the start and had topped up in Carmarthen, 70 miles back. Instead sandwiches are munched, tea drunk and once again the facilities utilised.

From Abergavenny we took the B4521, the Old Ross Road. That’s right, Ross on Wye, England. The weather had improved, the road was now dry and for the time being, Riley Blue’s sump guard is not required. It’s now early afternoon, we’re in good spirits and enjoying the drive; there are 13.5 easy miles before our next turning. During those 13.5 miles we crossed into England though neither of us remembers the exact place. If there was a sign, we didn’t spot it.

At Broad Oak our route took us northwards in search of a bridge over the River Wye, one that wasn’t on an A road. The rolling landscape was increasingly arable but the lanes are still narrow and the tractors using them are huge. We meet several, their tyres taller than Riley Blue. One was indulging in that popular rural pastime of hedge flailing, scattering thorny twigs in our path for several hundred yards. We had no alternative but to risk punctures by driving over them. All four tyres were still air tight as we crossed the Wye at Hoarwithy, soon afterwards driving along a tree lined avenue past Fawley Court, available for rent, sleeps 32, has an indoor pool and looks totally spiffing. We are in rural Herefordshire; unspoilt and reminiscent of Victorian farming watercolours.

We circled to the south on the B4224, switched to the B4221 at Upton Bishop, passed over the M50 through Newent to leave on the Tewkesbury Road towards another river crossing, this time over the Severn near Apperley. We’d covered 160 miles, not a huge distance and far fewer than we’d driven on many occasions before but fatigue was creeping over us. Travelling in Riley Blue gives us huge enjoyment but the complexity of our route required non-stop concentration and we were both looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

Across the A38, over the M5 and the end was almost in sight. We turned through Stoke Orchard from where was just a few miles to Bishop’s Cleeve, up Cleeve Hill, through Winchcombe (sharp right at white building, narrow!) then a meander over the Cotswolds through Guiting Power and along the B4068; Stow-on-the-Wold was within reach.

One last A road, the A429, to be crossed and we arrived at our B&B for the night. It was a welcome sight and while Gael had a chat with Sarah, our host, I checked over Riley Blue. Everything was where it should be, nothing had fallen off and there were no signs of any leaks; our little blue Riley had performed fantastically well.

According to our road book we should have driven 200.6 miles; we were a few over that due to a closed road somewhere I don’t remember. I had calculated on a seven hour driving time, we took seven hours and four minutes. I call that pretty good going.