The Road Less Travelled | Hunting Waves on the Welsh Coast
Motoring journalist Leon Poultney finds out if the Land Rover Discovery Sport lives up to its adventurous billing
With ‘The Road Less Travelled’, we aim to cover cars a little differently: putting them through their paces by seeing if they can handle a real adventure. This month motoring journalist and keen surfer Leon Poultney heads to West Wales in the new Land Rover Discovery Sport, in search of secret spots and the ever-elusive empty waves.
The vegetation that lines the M27 motorway is withered and golden yellow – a sure sign that the south coast of the UK has received little in the way of precipitation for weeks on end.
It might be a common summer sight in central Europe, but it feels a little eerie as we crawl our way up from Dorset to the borders of Wales, as if a single errant fag butt could start the mother of all bush fires.
“The Discovery Sport has its nose pointed to the sky, as we scrabble for traction up pathways that would be difficult to walk on, let alone drive up”
But, as if on cue, the automatic windscreen wipers on the Discovery Sport we’re riding in spring into life as soon as we cross the border and head towards Welshpool. This is Wales after all, of course it’s raining.
The final hack of our bum-numbing six hour journey takes us along single lane roads that are irritatingly clogged by caravans, tractors and wayward sheep. But these are the risks associated with road-tripping to the outer reaches of Wales the weekend before the schools break up.
Having accepted these irritants as par for the course, we’ve decided to introduce an extra element of jeopardy to our journey – we’re going to hunt for surf during one of the longest flat spells the UK has seen in a while.
Risks vs. Rewards
Unless you are lucky enough to live in Hawaii, or the wave-strewn beaches of the Maldives, any surf trip involves a certain amount of chance.
In hindsight, the decision to go looking for swell in Wales in the middle of July is a bit stupid. But we have a back-up plan in the shape of Surf Snowdonia, the world’s first commercially viable mechanical wave pool.
Situated in the heart of Snowdonia’s slate peaks and thick forests, the groundbreaking artificial facility promises at least 12 waves per person, per hour, all for a highly reasonable £50.
Before we fall back on this manmade option however, we want to take the Land Rover Discovery Sport out in its more natural environment (mud, rocks and sheep shit) and attempt to locate a few of the remote beaches that are only accessible with all-wheel-drive and an Ordnance Survey map. Who knows what we might find?
With the surprisingly spacious seven-seat machine loaded up with boards, bags and a canine companion (a search for a last minute dog-sitter for Monty the bulldog was fruitless), we head up through the picturesque town of Betws-y-Coed.
A quick turning off the main road leads us up a gravel path that becomes increasingly steeper with every switchback. Several gates later and the Discovery Sport has its nose pointed to the sky, as we scrabble for traction up pathways that would be difficult to walk on, let alone drive up.
The 2.0-litre, 240hp petrol model we are piloting features Land Rover’s tried-and-tested Terrain Select technology, which adjusts the traction control and all-wheel-drive system to cope with a number of scenarios.
The car goes about scrabbling up loose hillsides with minimal fuss, and a few worrying bangs and crashes coming from the sensitive undercarriage area notwithstanding, we make it to the peak of a mountain range unscathed. From here, we can take a few photos and survey the scene.
We are a few miles away from the sea, but it’s clear from the thin air up here at our vantage point that the water is calm on both the north coast (Hell’s Mouth) and the Llyn Peninsula, with nothing in the way of tell-tale whitecaps that typically signify surf below.
Surfing the Sands
Despite feeling a pang of dissatisfaction at the sight of the flat-as-a-pancake Irish Sea, we throw the camera gear back in the perilously perched vehicle and head down to the beach.
A lack of waves and bored surfers is a powerful combination, as it typically leads to innovative solutions to pass the time. In our case, this involves making a beeline for the fabled Black Rock Sands, which is among a number of vast beachscapes where it is legal and totally safe to take a vehicle.
When we get there a couple of Volkswagen campervans are pitched up among some hatchbacks and well-worn family estates but we dash to the far end of the beach, where it is fantastically deserted – not another vehicle for as far as the eye can see.
With traction control switched off and the Discovery Sport set to its ‘dynamic’ mode, we have the opportunity to indulge in a little bit of automotive tomfoolery – the rear wheels kicking up rooster tails of sand as we rag it through some frankly silly power slides.
Part of Wales’ charm is the sense of isolation and the feeling that no matter how many caravans you get stuck behind, you can always find a spot where other humans can’t be bothered to venture.
The Llyn Peninsula is the perfect example of this, with beaches at Aberdaron, Porthor and Porth Colmon rewarding those who can handle the slow, meandering access roads with epic, empty views.
Alas, there is only so much idiocy one idyllic beach can handle. So, our lust for power slides sated, we ring up Surf Snowdonia and opt for the back-up plan. After all, the trip would be wasted if we didn’t catch at least one wave, be it natural or man-made.
Fruits of the Wave Garden
Surf Snowdonia first opened its doors in 2015, when it was the first public facility made with the Basque-developed Wavegarden technology.
Built on the site of a redundant aluminium works, the £12m project saw a bespoke artificial lagoon created in the middle of the beautiful Conwy Valley.
Regular surfers will likely be familiar with the facility. It made quite the splash when it first launched, but Andy Ainscough, managing director of Surf Snowdonia, will be the first to admit it wasn’t without its hiccups.
The technology uses a large underwater wave foil pulled at speed for the length of the 300m lagoon. Contours in the bed of the pool help cajole the wave into a surfable shape, while special porous grid sheeting on the lagoon’s shore helps dissipate the wave’s energy and restore calm to the pool so the wave foil can run again.
Ainscough explains over a cold, post-surf pint that it took years for the Wavegarden technology to come to fruition, and months of tweaking during the run up to launch.
But the site is now running at full speed and expanding to include more activities, as well as places to stay and eat.
The wave itself is a tricky thing to master, as despite the consistent shape and strength of the waves, finding the perfect take-off spot isn’t instantly obvious.
Paddling with your shoulder brushing the wave foil’s protective fencing, and then turning in towards this mesh of metal to create speed and perform turns feels counter-intuitive. But it soon starts to click and once you’ve got it, the waves just keep coming.
After a few embarrassing fruitless paddles, we enjoyed almost two hours of uncrowded, perfectly predictable, grin-inducing waves. Flat conditions were more than made up for.
Resting Weary Limbs
A long flat spell, hot weather and overindulgence at the BBQ leads to surf fitness rapidly exiting stage left, and it’s amazing how heavy arms and shoulders can feel after just a couple of hours in the water – even if the surf that doesn’t pose the same hazards as you’d find in open water.
There are plenty of excellent Bed & Breakfasts to choose from in the Snowdonia region, but we decide to plump for unique accommodation that has been carved from the natural rock faces of the Barmouth area.
Loading boards back into the Discovery Sport, we drive the hour and a half through the stunning Snowdonia National Park to Coes Faen, a luxury spa retreat owned and founded by Richard Parry-Jones, an automotive engineer by training, and his wife Sara. The couple have used natural materials, modern wood and glass to seamlessly blend the complex of rooms, restaurant and spa with the natural surroundings.
There’s a cosy snug for enjoying a few pre-dinner drinks from an extensive list of local spirits and selected beers, while the restaurant draws its inspiration from the owner’s love of Tuscany and Italian gastronomy.
Even the dog managed to get a good night’s sleep, thanks to the addition of a pet-friendly room. The Coes Faen logo itself draws inspiration from the area’s once thriving ship-building trade. Although that has long disappeared, the industry that Coes Faen represents, adventure tourism, is stepping in to take its place.
If you’re on the hunt of wild landscapes, adrenaline-pumping pursuits and expansive beaches, you don’t need to drive to the ends of the earth. It’s all right there in West Wales.
Natural surf might be hard to rely on, but that’s all part of the charm – missing out this time means we’ll have to return.
Leon Poultney is a freelance motoring journalist, based in London. Keep up with him on Twitter.