Welsh wanders

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Baz Hopson in his Series III Lightweight during the ascent, with some great cross-axle action : credit: © Neil Watterson
Martin Domoney joins up with a classic greenlane run along what is arguably Wales’ best known 4x4 route, Strata Florida

The last time I was sitting in a Land Rover, poised to drive what is probably the best greenlane in Wales, I was behind the wheel of my 300Tdi auto Discovery 1. I can’t believe that was four years ago – and it might have been longer, had a message not popped up on my Instagram feed asking if I wanted to join a classic greenlane run. It was sent by Adam Everall from West Wales Greenlaners and the trip was just a couple of days away. The weather looked favourable – so why not?

I guess the ‘why not?’ could have been the fact that I wouldn’t be able to leave Cambridgeshire until 5.00pm, and it was a Friday before a bank holiday weekend and even the M6 Toll was looking busy. And being a classic run, I had decided to take my V8-engined Series III pick-up; a vehicle not renowned for its long-distance comfort.

Still, despite a couple of minor hold-ups on the motorway network, the roads got smaller and became twistier as I chased the sun, watching it gradually disappear beyond the horizon. I knew it would be dark by the time I got to the campsite; hopefully the nearby pub would still be open for a cheeky pint before bed.

Strata Florida mixes rocky tracks with loads of river crossings

​​​​​​A quick route check showed me which petrol stations would be open along the route, and after refuelling at Welshpool, it was plain sailing to Penrhiw campsite at Ffair Rhos, where it was indeed dark when I arrived. A swathe of Japanese 4x4s flanked the gravel track down the centre of the campsite and I picked out a flattish spot at the bottom of the site to pitch my trusty cot-tent.

Landing with a squelch as I alighted the Land Rover, I soon realised why the other campers had left this spot empty – the water ran off the rest of the site and down to it. At least my tent sits off the ground; I just needed to remember to put my boots on before putting my feet on the deck in the morning. And thankfully the pub was still open!

 

Let’s get going

A warm sun beats down on the tent encouraging me to wake early – and it’s worth it to take in the views obscured by darkness the night before. A cloud inversion lingers above the Teifi valley 400 feet below and the sheep in the next field are happily munching grass, and talking (loudly) to each other.

Almost every vehicle in the campsite is a greenlaner. There’s a group from the Isle of Man Four Wheel Drive Club on a Welsh greenlane tour, some Scousers and a smattering of others. Having already driven the greenlane that we’re about to, they confirm that water levels on the Nant Gwinau and Afon Twyi are low – just as well, given the V8’s lack of waterproofing.  Richard, in a Discovery 3, is pitched next to me and is also looking to drive Strata Florida today, but didn’t fancy driving it solo – could he join our trip?

Baz and Julie Hopson, Series III Lightweight: “This was a lot different when I bought it six weeks ago,” laughs Baz. “It was roadworthy, but I’ve taken the front off and replaced the springs, dampers and bushes – it took me three days to get one of the bushes out. It’s got a standard 2¼-litre petrol engine and transmission and it did have side windows in the rear with a catflap and lower tailgate – but I sold them and replaced it with a side-hinged door. The rock sliders were off a Discovery that had been kicking around the workshop – I cut them down to fit. I’ve had Land Rovers before, but this is the first time I’ve been greenlaning – I’ll definitely do some more.”

​​​​​​

I break camp and chuck everything into Peli cases under a tarp in the pick-up bed, remove the door tops to make more of an immersive experience – hopefully not literally – and trundle on down to the car park at the abbey to meet up with the others.

They start to arrive in dribs and drabs and soon the car park is full of Land Rovers, from a Series I through to a new Defender. We’re split into groups and I have a quick chat with Andy Dawson who’s leading the first group in his fabulously prepared Discovery 1 – you’ll find out more in a future LRM. ‘‘I’ve heard the river levels are low, so we should be okay, even with the V8 today,’’ I mention. ‘‘It’s not the river crossings that are the problem,’’ he replies, ‘‘it’s the troughs – that’s where the deep water is. Here – give your distributor a quick spray of this,’’ he says, as he hands me a tin of spray grease from his side-locker.

Richard joins Andy’s group and they drive off. We hang around giving him a good head start. We’ll be going slower as we need to get photos, and have a ‘pathfinder’ group of three vehicles – Duncan McAlpine in his V8 200-series Discovery, me in the V8 Series III and Tim Cashman and friend Neil White in Tim’s recently rebuilt Series I. Following behind us is Baz Hopson in another recently finished vehicle, a Lightweight, Stuart Harries in an ex-military police 109in, Mark Benney in his Series IIA Marshall ambulance and Simon and Caroline Jefferson in their Defender L663.

Mark Benney, 1971 Series IIA Marshal Ambulance: “I was looking for a Defender and spotted this. It was a non-runner in Redruth in Cornwall, so I travelled down with a tool kit, got it running and drove it home! I’ve had it a year now and I’d quite like to take it to Africa – if not, I’ll do some touring in Europe. I’m currently modifying the back to sleep in it. It’s only done 14,000 miles from new and the chassis is brilliant – I need to sort out the bulkhead top, though. I’ve rewired most of the electrics, replaced the carb and ignition, but the mechanicals have been fine. And I’ve fitted the Davanti Terratoura tyres, which have proved to be brilliant on- and off-road.”

We head off to the start of the lane. If you’ve not driven if before, you may think you follow the stone forestry track, but the right-of-way runs alongside it to the left. Like most of the lane, it’s a single-track affair, with rocks and roots producing an undulating surface, and ruts to keep you in line. The difference in wheel track between the older Series Land Rovers and the newer models is evident – Tim’s Series I seems to have plenty of space on the lane; Simon’s Defender less so.

A bit deflated

A couple of small puddles wet the tyres, but it’s after crossing the stone road that we meet our first trough of the lane – about axle deep; nothing to worry about – then it’s a decent climb up the side of a hill, where Simon's 110 picks up a puncture.

One of the corners has a rocky crossaxle. Duncan – with his long-travel coil springs – makes it look easy. The heavy-duty rear springs on my 109 make it trickier and I’m lifting a wheel well before I should be and I’m forced to re-evaluate my line a couple of times before I clear it. This crossaxle is the perfect place to change the Defender’s wheel without having to resort to jacking it up. Simon drives it into place with the wheel waggling and Adam and Ross Farrell get onto removing and replacing it. Let’s hope he doesn’t get another puncture – none of the other spares we have with us will fit.

Simon and Caroline Jefferson, 2020 Defender 110: “We try to get out and get the car in its natural environment,” explains Simon. “We own PowerfulUK, making accessories for the Land Rovers and you have to use the vehicles to see what they’re like and test the products. There are a lot of companies that make accessories more focused on styling – we make ours for people who go greenlaning and want to explore more of the vehicles’ capabilities.

”It’s only by owning the vehicles, talking to people and listening, do you find out what the problems are, and the things you can make. This is the first real test for our winch hook holder. It’s a genuine Land Rover winch, but I’ve just found that the position of the hook holder means the winch rope obscures the front camera – so we’re going to have to work out a solution for that.”

 

A solo Jeep has caught up with the group and trundles along behind us. There isn’t really any room to pass, but they’re happy enough: ‘‘We’re enjoying watching the oldies on the obstacles,” they insist.

When it’s sunny, this is a fantastic place to be. You’re treated to superb views across the valley to the west – not that the drivers can really enjoy it – and the route is punctuated by rocky sections and troughs and more crossaxles to catch the inattentive.

We reach another stone road and pull over to let the Jeep past. And it’s a good job we did. Duncan plunges into the next trough and his engine splutters to a halt. He’s the lead vehicle, so we’ll have to pull him backwards. I’m second vehicle and although I could drive into the water and attach a tow-rope, we could then be in the position where we have two immobile Land Rovers. So I pay out the rope on my Warn 8274 winch and we clip it onto the Discovery’s tow ball – it’s not actually stuck, just immobile, so the forces won’t be huge.

Duncan's Disco gets in a jam

Once out of the water and with the bonnet up, the electrics soon dry and when the engine is running smoothly again Duncan re-enters the trough, more gingerly this time, and makes it to the other side. The water is a couple of feet deep – not a problem with my 255/85 R16 Toyo Open Country mud terrains and military combat chassis, which combine to give me a couple of inches extra wading depth over standard. However, the water is a quarter of the way up the wing on Tim’s Series I, which is on 205 R16 tyres. Smooth driving and a gentle bow wave sees him through without a problem. The others follow through, with Simon raising the Defender high on its air suspension.

The base of the lane is firm and the surrounding ground is soft grassland, yet unfortunately some areas have been affected by morons driving off-piste. Impressions left by the tyres show that it’s four-wheelers with extreme pattern tyres who are the ones that aren’t competent enough drivers to stick to the route – it’s these people who are systematically destroying greenlaning, as we all get tarred by the same brush. “It didn’t used to be like this,” laments Adam, “this has only really happened in the past few years since the forestry work has happened.”

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The line of the route is mostly obvious, with a few way markers to guide the way, and we reach the centre area – where most people stop for a break – without encountering anyone else and devour our lunches.

 

Bomb-holes and river crossings

Duncan McAlpine, 1993 V8 Discovery 1: “The previous owner of this had used it for motorsport events and sold it to his neighbour before I bought it two years ago. When I found it, I thought it was too honest to not save it, so we made a deal. You don’t really see many V8-engined 200-series Discoverys any more, and being a late one, this has a 3.9-litre engine in it, which doesn’t appear on any lists.

”It didn’t come with any rear seats – the owner had taken them out to check for rust and left them in a shed and mice got to them, which is a shame as Sonar Blue interiors are a bit hard to come by. I’ve had to do a lot of welding to it recently – and drove it to work and back for a few months, but that cost me a fortune!”

 

More single track takes us down to the more identifiable sections of the greenlane. And we reach the bomb hole – a steep slab of solid rock. Duncan edges the Discovery over, and the standard tow-hitch drags on the rock as he levels out in the bottom, before the Disco climbs up. I follow in the Series III, then Tim in the Series I.

The Series I and Discovery are both on standard-size tyres – so it shows you don’t have to fit a lift kit and oversize tyres for greenlaning, even on a lane like this. In the second group, only Simon is willing to drive it which is fine – both the bomb-hole and the bypass are on the lane, so you’re not going off-piste by avoiding it.

Now we’re at the first of the main river crossings and this is where it can be difficult to work out the route. Strictly, you should follow the fence for the first crossing, then cross the river at almost right angles. But the topsoil has been eroded back to the rock, so people do drive diagonally. What is definitely not allowed is driving up and down the river.

Tim Cashman, 1954 Series I 86in: “This was more or less derelict when I bought it as a project in September 2020,” explains Tim, with fellow Series Land Rover owner Neil. “It had previously been built-up as a trialler – so has a 2¼-litre petrol engine, Series II gearbox and running gear – but it had been used for launching boats on a beach and the seawater had ruined it. The chassis was one of the few bits that was all right, but I had to strip the rest down to rebuild it.

“The biggest problem I found was that as I only have a single garage it was fine when the body was off – I could step through it, but as the body was built up, I had to push it out of the garage onto the drive to work on it, then push it back in. I’ve got a big tree in my front garden, so when I needed to paint parts, I hung them from the tree and sprayed them outside.”

Passing quad biker gets a soaking

There’s a group of greenlaners coming north and they pull to one side to let us pass, and we’re caught by a pair of quad bikers, who are getting wetter with every water crossing. We let them pass, but soon catch up with them as they eye up a deeper crossing further downstream. “You go first; you might push some of the water out…” one of them jokes. It’s a river – it’ll just refill.

The pine trees that typify the area form a wall clearly defining the boundary between the plantation and moorland. At some point these will be felled and when that happens, the lane – which has looked essentially the same for the past 30 years (I remember LRM contributor Nick Dimbleby’s photos from the mid-1990s) – will completely change.

Stuart Harries, 1984 Series III 109in: “One of my friends had a business building classic aircraft fuselages and owned this. When he decided to relocate his business, he couldn’t take this with him, so offered it to me. The cylinder head had been removed and it wasn’t in great condition – I paid £250 for the Land Rover and Sankey trailer and it cost me £450 to get it roadworthy. That was nine years ago, when Land Rovers were cheaper.

It was Bronze Green when I bought it, but I kept finding sand paint. I searched the military registration number (merlinarchive.uk) and I found that it had been a military police vehicle and had served with different regiments. I posted on one regiment website and had a response after 15 minutes saying it had served in Bosnia and the first Gulf War. I take it to shows and had a guy come up to me asking if it was the correct registration number – he drove it in Bosnia. I
co-ordinate the Pembrokeshire Military Vehicle group and dress the vehicle up for shows and put a donations bucket in front of it – last year we raised £500 for Macmillan Cancer Support.”

 

More troughs, rock slabs and river crossings follow until we reach the final one. This is where a tragic accident in 2008 claimed the life of Louise Ferreira when the Discovery she was travelling in was washed away as the driver tried to make the crossing during flooding after heavy rain. The water levels rise quickly after rain, so if you do follow in our wheel tracks and the levels are high, back out and leave it for another day. Or if you get to the crossing and find it is impassable, wait it out on the higher ground rather than risking it – the water levels not only rise but fall quickly, too.

The run back to tarmac is a smooth – well, relatively – track treating you to fine views along the valley. Newborn lambs gambol on the hillsides and there’s one small ford before the lane widens and we pull over to wait for the others to reach us. It’s been a great, relaxing drive and about as far removed from the rush to get to the campsite last night as can be.

If you so desire you can drive Strata Florida in an hour or so, but it’s taken us nearly four – we’ve made the most of it, enjoying the scenery and the driving, which is what greenlaning is all about. One thing is for sure – it won’t be another four years until I return.

West Wales Laners: We’ve been going for about two years,” explains Adam Everall. “Once Covid restrictions relaxed people wanted to explore more and we started running trips. Everyone wanted to be out with us and it’s grown from there. We do all sorts of special trips – pick-ups, classics like this – it’s been hard work, but worth it. There’s a good bunch of guys and we meet lots of nice people – we’re a group that gives everyone a chance to come along; we’re not a small clique.”

 

Strata Florida Abbey

Strata Florida is a Latinisation of the Welsh Ystrad Fflur, meaning Vale of Flowers, and the remains of the abbey the Cistercian monks used to inhabit sits at the north-western end of the greenlane. In its heyday the abbey was second only to St David’s as the most famous church in Wales and has stood beside the Afon Teifi since 1201. It played a significant role in Welsh history, with Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth making other Welsh leaders acknowledge his son Dafydd as his rightful successor around 1238. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII and some of the stonework was used to build Tŷ Abaty for local gentry. In the grounds of St Mary’s church alongside, there’s a headstone marking the burial spot of the left leg and thigh of Henry Hughes Cooper. After losing the limb in an accident in 1756 he had it interred and planned to be reunited with it on his death, but unfortunately he died in the US, so will forever be separated. Visit: cadw.gov.wales

 

LRM greenlane code

• Use only rights of way with known, proven or provable vehicular rights.
• Keep to the defined track. Only detour to pass immovable obstructions.
• Travel at a sensible speed – we recommend 12mph maximum. Your vehicle must be road-legal.
• Keep numbers low; it’s more fun in smaller groups. Stick to four vehicles in sensitive areas (National Parks and Salisbury Plain, for example) and up to six, where appropriate, in other areas.
• Avoid driving soft lanes in wet weather – they’ll just get churned up and could end up being closed.
• If a greenlane is too narrow for your Land Rover, don’t try to drive it. Some gateways are extremely narrow.
• Be courteous to other road users – pull over and stop your vehicle for other users, and switch off your engine for horses.
• Leave gates how you have found them – if closed, re-close. If propped open, leave open. If it’s unpropped and swinging, it is better to close it.
• Keep pets under control and report any injured animals to the farmer.
• Don’t drop litter – and, if possible, pick up any litter you see.
• Only drive fords if it is safe to do so – there is always another way.

 

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