Thursday, 20 June 2013

Expedition Centre Experience with Nick Sanders & Nick Plumb

“Are you happy with your lot Ray?” Asked Nick in the Owl’s Nest car park, whilst the rest of the guys polished off their ‘Full English’ breakfast’s. I’d eaten my  cheese burger already. I like to be different plus, not even I can cope with two Full English breakfasts in one morning.

“I am Nick, Europe suits me just fine”

“Are you really?”

“Yes!  There’s still many places I want to visit, plus it means I’m never more than 24 hours from home”

Nick searched my face for an explanation, there was non forthcoming!

It was last minute , (well 3  days previous actually but who cares) that I got the nod from Jeannie to book a B&B for the Thursday night. Unsure of the mileage we would be covering on Friday, I thought better of getting up at 0300 hours to ride the 4 hours to Touratech Head Office in Ystradgynlais in South Wales. 

Now if you have just passed your test or you are a veteran biker who just wants to renew your belief in 'biking' then I urge you to just take a ride through the centre of Wales. I had forgotten what a wonderful feeling it is to ride my bike as if on a downhill slalom course. The A483 is simply stunning. From the quality the roads surface to the way it twists and turns through the forever changing landscape, it is an unbelievable place to ride. One minute your being buffeted by the wind riding past miles of open fields. The next you are twisting and turning through hill climbs up towards the Brecon Beacons where the mountain scenery is enough to take your breath away.

Calling into the Motor Museum at Llangollen turned out to be a stroke of genius. I arrived with fingers like semi thawed ‘chipolata’ sausages that had been taken out the freezer the night before. My Klim gloves were soaked due to the deluge I'd just ridden through all the way down from Manchester. Still the Dainese Bike Gear had kept me warm and dry in the massively fluctuating weather conditions. For one brief moment as Jeannie had said goodbye on the drive the sun had stuck it’s head through the clouds. That was to be the last I woulds see of the heart warming orange sphere until it eventually reemerged as I dismounted in front of the museum doors.

Another one in the bag for the
"Grim Riders Motorcycle Museum Challenge Ride"

How best do I describe the museum to you? Well, it's a sort of an 'Rich old mans garage’ really. About the size of a small factory it’s tucked away some 150 yards off the A542 heading out of Llangollen. If your planning to call in be prepared for 50 yards of dirt track with front wheel swallowing pot holes full of rain water. 

The sign read £4 entry with last admittance at 1630 hours just half an hour before closing time having opened at 1100 hours. I jumped when one of the exhibits I was looking at very slowly got up out of the chair near the window and moved towards a high stool behind what turned out to be the counter. Jumping a second time when the other male exhibit nodded in my direction! I honestly thought the old couple where part of a displays! The lady was very nice though which gave my heart time to calm down a little. 

The place is rammed with old motorbikes, bike parts, about a dozen cars, a few remote control planes strapped to the ceiling and loads of motoring 'memorabilia'. If your ever passing and see the signs for the Motor Museum personally I'd advise you to call in and take a look. Make sure you have your camera with you mind, as there’s lots to see. 

What a small world it is!

I spent an interesting 45 minutes wandering around the museum. This gave my gloves plenty of time to dry out on the seat outside. With my 'chipolata’ fingers now thoroughly  thawed I bid fair well to the moving exhibits and continued my journey South, bathed in glorious sunshine, perfect.

With the temperature gauge now showing an impressive 17 degrees, up from 10 I could see the steam rising from my jacket as I rode down to the B&B. Being in no rush it gave me all the time in the world to take everything in as the ever twisting A483 turned into the River Wye crossing A470 I was already having a ball and  the fun was yet to start.

Pulling over to take a picture of the Ystradgynlais Arms at 1710 hours I could feel the anticipation of tomorrow already rising within me. Once unpacked, I had a nice hot shower. The pint of Rev James cask ale was rather special, not really the best drink to compliment the traditional Prawn Cocktail followed by the Hickory Chicken which I had chose for my evening meal but nice all the same.

Arriving at the Touratech Head Office at 0805 hours some 25 minutes early just goes to show how exited I was about the day ahead. The weather was overcast but the sun was trying its damnedest to burst through the grey clouds overhead. Not that I gave a damn about something as trivial as the weather. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment” simples!

Nick Plumb arrived at about 0725 hours, parked up out front, introduced himself and asked me to bring my bike around to the front of the shop, he then opened up.  Two minutes later a few more guys arrived all on BMW GSA's, after a couple of photographs I joined the others inside.  

First and last time
Yamaha out number BMW

The Touratech Head Office is simply unbelievable, I was in awe. What an amazing place, it felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. So many bikes kitted out to the hind teeth with every kind of Touratech accessory available. The Ducati Multistrada stood out against the entire BMW Adventure Bike range plus the solitary Yamaha XT660Z Tenere. Nick was using its big brother the Super Tenere XT1200Z so I had plenty of chance to view all the nice accessories available for my bike over the coming days. I even got chance to test the Touratech front seat which was very kind of you Nick. At least Mr T would not be the only Super Tenere in attendance today. 

The selection of equipment available in the shop is out of this world. Encompassing everything from covers and guards for all the delicate switches on the bikes to hefty bash plates, pannier's, top-boxes and lights to Satellite Navigation Systems mounted in bespoke holders.To finish off the interior of the shop there is a mezzanine where Nick has his Dakar Bike and gear. Throw in a nice selection of books and a selection of 'Overlander's' equipment including tents, sleeping bags, solar chargers, water purifiers and well you get the idea. 

It's not everyday you get to ride
with a 4 times Dakar Rider

Anyone who as ever flicked through the Touratech Catalogue will have an idea of what this company has to offer but seeing it all in the flesh is just mind blowing. Well it is if your a ‘Farkling’ bike nut  like me. Add to this a huge range of quality clothing and your coming close to a 'Bikers Utopia'.  I could have easily spent an absolute fortune without even breaking into a sweat and loved every second of it.  

Nick P (as I will have to distinguish him from Nick Sanders, Nick S, from now on) made us all a brew and introduced everyone to each other. After half an hour or so we were all putting our gear back on ready to head off to meet Nick S at a cafe somewhere towards the South West of the Brecon Beacons. The weather had taken a change for the worse and what had been the road had turned into a full blown stream. Luckily the weather changed yet again just as we walked outside. After the obligatory photo shoot we were on our way. 

Riding away from the shop we were soon winding our way along the southern part of the Brecon Beacons, twisting this way and that through so many unpronounceable named villages. There were 6 of us at this point as one guy was running late and one had pulled out at the last minute. I was really surprised as we rode past a police camera van at the side of the road heading into Cwmgarw. Nick P later told us that that was the first time he had ever seen a police camera van in all the years he had been riding in that area. 

Turning right at Brynaman we set off along the famous A4069 Black Mountain road which is now at position  3 in my all time top 10 favorite UK roads. With its sweeping s bends down into the Towy valley of Carmarthenshire, traveling North along the banks of the river Towy. The views over the village of Llangadog from the tops are spectacular. 

After a short wait at one particular junction Nick P headed back the way we had ridden to collect the late arrival, it turned out he had ridden over from London that morning. We all set off to the cafe some 10 minutes further North West of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

We arrived at the Owls Nest Tea Room Diner just off the A4069 South of Llandovery. The owner was a really nice guy who took a couple of photo's of our bikes before heading in to cook for us. I had a cheese burger with fried onions as I'd already eaten a Full English at 0700 hours at the B&B. 

As we were being served, Nick P arrived with the late comer and 2 minutes later Nick S walked in followed by another rider who was on a Pan European. So our group consisted of 10 bikes, 6 BMW’s, 3 Super Tenere's and 1 Honda Pan European. We were set!

“Why only, 24 hours from home Ray? Would you not like to go further?” Nick S continued

“It would be nice to go further but with Nordkapp still to visit, Ben and I have our hands full for now” I replied honestly.

Sat here reminiscing, I now realise it must have been an odd answer to receive. Especially coming from some one who was just about to spend the next three days riding around Wales with him. 

If you also take into consideration I have ridden to places like Gibraltar and Lithuania just for lunch and a photo, it just compounds further what an odd answer it was, but that is simply how my brain is wired.  If I receive a call from Jeannie asking me to come home, mentally I need to know I can get there within 24 hours. So OK I know, Lithuania took me 27 hours but that was not in response to a call from home. In addition I did take a nap at the side of the bike in a car park off the A1 near Grantham, as you do!

So what has all that got to do with spending a weekend in the presence of two of the most prolific motorcycle riders alive today,  well it’s this. Having a daughter with Cerebral Palsy puts untold strain onto every aspect of your life, from where you go to what you do. If Lilie Rose  cannot attend, take part or access is simply impossible then the Walton Family as a whole just do not bother. So to receive such a wonderful Father's Day Prize knowing all of this will help you understand how truly special this weekend away really was. Anyway I digress as ever, “Back to the job in hand Raymondo”.

Looking Good Guy's, Looking Good

With that we headed back into the cafe like a pair of ‘old mate’s’. You see that is just how Nick S made me feel. Like we had know each other for years. How does he do that? I’m not complaining that is for sure it is a very nice skill to have, whats more, I appreciated it.

After the obligatory photo shoot with half a dozen cameras, thanks once again to our cafe host the adventure began.

David,  James,  Gwynne, Tony,  Martin, Me, Nick P,  Guilherme, Nick S and Tony

With Nick S taking the lead we all followed on. Riding one of the most beautiful, leisurely rides I have ever had the pleasure of taking part in. I could ‘wax lyrical’ for 10,000 words or more about our route but on this occasion I will just opt to post up the Garmin track which will tell you all you need to know.

Now that's a Tour Route

A4069 Black Mountain Road

Stopping off at Pen Y Garreg gave us all time to get to know both Nick P and Nick S a little better. Photo’s abound but this is one shot I’m really quite happy with what’s more I think Caroline will agree, her chap looks rather pleased with life right at that moment. As for Nick P, well he looks like he just fancied a swim! 

The smile says it all!

Onwards and upwards, literally heading North we took coffee at ‘Devils Bridge’ which I got a little exited about initially as I thought we were having a  quick blast up to Kirby Lonsdale! “Get a grip Raymondo, your touring Wales with the two Nick’s. Why the hell would they want to shoot off up to Kirby bloody Lonsdale?”. 

It was well into late afternoon when we eventually arrived at the Expedition Centre after  weaving our way through miles upon miles of single track country lanes.

My first impression was one of “Bloody Hell Nick’ this places is absolutely stunning, why the hell would you want to invite a load of strangers into your perfect world?” Not that I voiced this opinion at the time but you just have to see the place to believe it exists.

A traditional Welsh partially whitewashed farm house set into the side of a hill, surrounded by nothing other than fields, sheep and stunning view. OK there is the odd cow or two pottering around but you get the idea. It is one of the most idilic locations I have ever visited. Even as you climb the winding dirt track through the field in front of the farm the whole place just wraps you in it’s arms and says “Welcome to our little piece of paradise in Wales”.

Honey we're home!

The farm is picture perfect and I really hope Nick, you do not mind me posting a few of the photo’s I took. Rest assured when I return with Ben I will bring my all new and improved camera because these photo’s just do not do your home justice and for that I apologise in advance.

A Stunning View from the Yurt over 

The Barn, if you can call it that, has been rebuilt from foundations up. Inside is the largest dining table I have ever seen which over sees the hub of the operation, Caroline's purpose built kitchen. This comes complete with sensuous cooking smells of home baked cakes and delicious herbs. There’s the all important ‘wet room’ tucked away in the corner. Further back we find Willow and Juno relaxing on the settees on the raised mezzanine accessed by open plan staircase.

I love that kitchen

The railings at the rear over looks the all important Nick Sanders Cinema, with three of his globe trotting motorbikes being harassed by table tennis ball abuse. Especially when we all took to the table to be thrashed by Willow and Juno, the resident table tennis pro’s. On arrival we were served home baked cakes which was delicious with coffee or tea. Sitting around the huge table gave us all chance to have a good natter. Once refreshed it was time to settle in and find somewhere to sleep. I say it like this as settling into the accommodation is an adventure in its self.

Now that's what I call
A Cinema

Spread across the whole area the accommodation is so diverse, its brilliant. The Yurt is tucked high up on the hill at the top of the ‘Stairway to Heaven” (well thats how I would describe it) up behind the farm house. There is a Timbuktu trailer cabin complete with double bed and an expedition truck which Nick P felt very at home in plus a couple of wooden lodges.

Insert Your Own Caption Here!

I chose the first wooden lodge out of the barn surrounded by aromatic raised herb bed with stunning views of the valley. One particular thing I have to mention about my room is the bedding, it was divine. I could have just curled up and gone to sleep there and then, sorry James but you really did draw the short straw as comfortable as you single bed may have been. 

Home from Home, Perfect

A little later when we had all unpacked and had showered, dinner was served and well what can I say. Caroline can cook and I mean really cook.  Fresh produce all the way from outside the front door. Home grown herbs and vegetables, local lamb, local cheese just about everything came from within a 30 mile radius even down to the ...... from the local estuary. Everything that left the kitchen was spot on. However at 2300 hours Nick S made an executive decision and politely as possible, advised us all to head to bed as tomorrow was going to be a ‘full on’ day of riding. Just how ‘full on’ I for one was not expecting!

Mint Tea any one?

Saturday saw us up at 0730 hours, well some of us that is! Tony arrived whilst we were eating our freshly prepared breakfast of porridge, croissant topped with ham, bacon sandwiches, I plumbed for a BLT with lettuce which I picked myself from outside my bedroom door. Now who else can say that about their breakfast on Saturday morning?

The group split into two with Nick P and Tony taking myself and three others ‘off road’ riding on Nick S supplied Yamaha XT660X. After a relaxed discussion about where we were going Tony took over the group. First off we were to head to a forest track where Tony would asses our off road riding skill level. After which we would head out onto a few green lanes and take it from there. Here’s a few photo’s and a video to give you just a taste of what we got up to. Needles to say I had an absolute ball and thanks to Nick P and Tony picked up some really useful tips and skills. Now who says you can not teach an old dog new tricks? You’re wrong because you can, as long as the ‘old dog’ wants to learn that is.

Light Off Road Riding, Bring It On!

Nick doing his stuff
And Yes we all rode down there!

Playing in puddles as never been so much fun
Tony how dare you swear!

The morning just flew by and before we were expecting it we were heading back to base to switch with the other half of the group who were out touring the North of Wales with Nick S.

After a light lunch again prepared by our wonderful hostess Caroline we had had a couple of games of table tennis whilst Nick S found a new route back to base.

Having had such a buzz on the 660’s getting back onto Mr T and heading out with Nick S could have slipped down a gear. But how can it? I’m riding with Nick bloody Sanders for **** sake! What this man does not know about long distance biking can be written on the back of a postage stamp.

The loop of North Wales and Snowdonia National Park was brilliant right down to visiting Eric’s Cafe. Nick S was keen to gather as much feedback on our stay as possible as we were the very first group to attend the Expedition Centre Experience. From what I could gather we all felt the only thing that could do with tweaking was the off road riding split day. Rather than half a day we all felt a full day with Nick P and Tony and a full day with Nick S would have been a slight improvement. 

All too soon we were back at base but in reality it was well past 2000 hours and dinner was awaiting our attention. The evening flowed just as Friday night had done. Sat in the cinema watching exerts from Nick S book at midnight was a perfect way to round off a brilliant days riding. 

Sadly Sunday was to be our last ride out up around Lake Vyrnwy. Caroline came with us on the back of Nick S. That was after yet another delicious breakfast of croissants topped with ham, tomato and cheese finished under the grill and yet another two cups of coffee.

Time to leave

All too soon we were pulling into the hotel car park, dismounting and heading through a very luxurious hotel reception and lounge onto the balcony with a back drop of Lake Vyrnwy. The weekend was drawing to a close. I felt a little pang of disappointment at that exact minute. I would have loved to have shared the whole experience with Ben and Jeannie but life is not like that and sometimes you just have to get stuck in on your own.

Thank you to our hosts
Caroline, Nick and Nick

Spending 3 days away from home meant major organisation, calling in paid help for Friday morning. All of Lilie Rose’s personal cares rested on Jeannie’ shoulders as we get no help what so ever from any quarter, thats just life I’m afraid to say. So Jeannie, for sorting everything out and for holding the fort whilst I was away having fun, thank you so very much. 

The weekend was an absolutely wonderful Fathers Day Prize. The Expedition Centre Experience with Nick Sanders and Nick Plumb has to be the highlight of 2013 for me personally. Now who would have thought that coming from some one who often describes himself as “Does not mix well with others” Not me that is for certain!

Can I just pass on a huge personal thank you to all involved, Nick Plumb, Nick Sanders, Caroline, Willow, Juno, Tony, Tony C, Tony H, Guilherme, James, David, Gwynne and Martin without whom the weekend would not have been half as enjoyable as it was.

As a foot note, yes there were 7 other guests who I attended the centre. I have purposely not mentioned any of them during the write up for one simple reason. I would hate to have offend anyone in any way shape or form. Having  learned the hard way from previous write ups it can happen all too easily. Please accept my apologies for this decision but rest assured if any of you ever find yourselves in the Rochdale / Manchester area our doors are always open to you. Just drop me a line and there is always a room and garage space available for you. That applies to you too Nick, Nick and Tony. 

You were all great and and I really enjoyed the camaraderie over the all too short 3 days. Feel free to stay in touch and I wish you all the very best for the future. 

“Ride well, Stay safe”

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