Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re in North Wales talking to Claire Copeman, who with her husband, Jim, runs Adventure Tours UK, a travel company that features all the outdoor pursuits that you can enjoy in the wilds of Snowdonia and elsewhere. That’s trail-running, coasteering, kayaking, river-bugging, canyoning, zip-wire, hiking, coasteering – a whole host of activities that visitors from other countries simply don’t realise that you can do in the UK. When they got married, Claire gave up her marketing job across the border in England and the couple decided to try and bring the world of adventure to Wales. It all began with mountain biking.
Claire I was late to mountain biking, actually. I started when I was about 28. I stumbled upon a mountain bike centre on a visit to Wales one day, and little did I know that several years later I would end up marrying the owner of the mountain bike centre.
Peter So that’s what brought you to Wales? That’s why you stayed in Wales anyway?
Claire It is, exactly. I took up mountain biking. I was coming here every weekend. I was always out in the hills in my spare time. Yes, I met my husband through it, got to know him, and eventually, a few years later, we got together and yes, I moved to Wales to join him. It made far more sense than him moving over the border to England where I was…I could travel for my career. But his career is fairly fixed in the hills here in North Wales and I was coming here every weekend anyway to enjoy it. So, yes, it was the right move for us and I’ve never looked back.
Peter Then you started Adventure Tours UK together?
Claire We did, yes.
Peter Tell us about that.
Claire It was it a number of strange coincidences, I guess. It stemmed really from our wedding actually is where it all began – Adventure Tours UK. Friends of ours were visiting from Denmark for the wedding and we took them out whilst they were here to explore round Wales and show them the area. They were blown away by it and it made us stop and think actually about where we live and how incredibly beautiful it is. But it also made us think how little people know about Wales. Both those Danes had lived and worked in England, they’d travelled in Scotland, but they didn’t know Wales existed. That made us stop and think.
At the time, I was actually having a bit of a tough time in my career in marketing, and I had taken the opportunity, at the same time as I was getting married, I took the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy. So there was some fairly large life changes happening at that time. Then this seed was planted for ‘we should do adventure holidays in Wales,’ and I started to mull that over and think, ‘That sounds fantastic, actually. Why not?’
Felice How many people come to Wales next to the whole of the UK? Is it a big percentage?
Claire No, it’s not. It’s really not, actually. That’s one of the the key stats that I found when I was researching the business and thinking about whether we should set up and was there an opportunity, was the demand for it? We found some data from Visit Britain which showed that in 2018 there was around 38 million international visitors into the UK. But of those, only two percent made it to Wales, which I just found absolutely astonishing. Wales deserves so much more representation than that and it’s something that we really want to change if we can.
Peter And the idea was to bring in incoming tourists from other countries and give them a holiday in Wales? Not British tourists at this stage?
Claire Absolutely. That’s why we really viewed it as an inbound tour operator, as I now know it’s called. But yes, we basically wanted to shine a light on Wales and the UK as a whole, really, as an adventure destination, because we have always experienced mountain biking, trail running, hiking, surfing, all these different activities that we do here. We know that the UK is brilliant for them.
Yes, we like to go abroad on holidays and do them, but actually we spend the other 50 weeks of the year doing them here in the UK and we realised that other people around the world didn’t see the UK in that light…or see Wales in that light. They thought about coming here to go to cities and to go sightseeing, to go to Premiership football matches – all the things that I don’t find particularly interesting about the UK, if I’m honest and I think there’s far more that can be done here. So, yes, we wanted to bring the world to Wales and show people what it’s really all about.
Peter So how did you publicise this?
Claire So the first thing we did was obviously we created the brand, we created our website, we launched our website back in December, 2018, so only about two and a half years ago. From there we started to build our social media profiles – Instagram and through Facebook. We did some online advertising as well, and we used our connections in Denmark to actually get the ball rolling. So our friends in Denmark were helping us to reach travel agents in Denmark and to their friends and to magazines. So we actually very much started targeting a Scandinavian audience really.
Felice So how does it work? Do you organise accommodation or just the sports that people do?
Claire Everything. I hate the phrase ‘package holiday’, but essentially it is an adventure package. We look after everything for people. So it’s the accommodation, it’s the transport, it’s the activities and it’s the guides as well. People can just come to us and book everything in one place. Most of what we do are small group tours, which are perfect for solo travellers, but we get couples and families booking on them as well, actually. But most things are groups of between six and 15 people at most with lots of individuals booking onto them. It’s a really nice way for people to not just try new activities and explore the area, but to meet new people as well. We do family breaks, too, but most of it is people booking onto these small group tours.
Peter At the beginning, did you get lots of different nationalities, or mostly Scandinavian?
Claire As I say, we were really talking to Denmark and Sweden quite heavily and then we started to notice that a lot of Americans were starting to get in touch with us and Canadians as well. So early 2020 was our first year. of things were really starting to pick up and we had inquiries from all over the world. We had Dutch people coming on our trail-running camps, we had Belgians getting in touch about hiking holidays and yes, Canadians joining us for an epic mountain experience. It was really exciting having all these people from around the world wanting to come and visit little old Wales.
Peter Just for the moment it’s the domestic market only?
Claire Absolutely. Like many people in travel, we’ve had to change quite significantly what we do. The core of what we do remains true to what we set out to achieve, but now, instead of talking to the world we’re now talking to the UK, we’re talking to people who live here in Great Britain and who are looking to travel closer to home now.
Felice Hopefully in the future, other people will come as well from other countries again?
Claire Absolutely. I think certainly next year onwards, that will start to return very quickly. Even this year, potentially we already have some people from North America who’ve booked onto trips later this year. So some people are being very optimistic about it, which is great. Hopefully that optimism is well placed and we can all share it. But yes, for now, mostly British people and international, I think probably from next year onwards.
Felice So do people do one sport for the whole week or do they vary, have different things every day? How does that work?
Claire We do a real mix of trips. So we have multi-activity trips, which is where people join us for five to eight days and they do a whole variety of experiences. So the Adventure North Wales is our eight-day flagship trip, if you like. It’s a fantastic experience and people get to try a whole range of things.
We take them out canyoning, coasteering, we do river-bugging, we take them hiking through Snowdonia, we go kayaking with them as well. We spend the night in an off-grid bunkhouse; most of the accommodation is beautiful four-star boutique hotels, but we have often one night in really unique accommodation to add to the experience. Then we also do things like our trail-running camp, which is one activity. It’s all about the trail- running.
Felice Is trail-running something you do yourself?
Claire It is, yes. I love trail-running actually, although I’m a mountain biker at heart. Several years ago my old dog became very poorly and lost his leg, unfortunately, so he couldn’t come biking with me any longer. He still was very active and wanted to get out there, so I found that running was a pace he could keep up with. So he’s the reason I started trail-running and instead of mountain biking together, we would hit the trails running together instead.
Felice Where do you do the trail-running?
Claire All over. I’m very lucky with where I live here in northeast Wales. We live on the edge of what’s called the Clwydian Range, which is a beautiful hill range – it’s all limestone outcrops and heather-clad moors. So I’m very lucky that I can run from my front door and experience some amazing wild trails, or I can drive to nearby Snowdonia and run through the mountains there. So I’m lucky that I can have a lot of options from home.
Felice So when people come trail-running, do you send them a list of things that they need or do you provide those things?
Claire Everybody who books on any trip gets a full list, so usually about three to four weeks before that trip will send out the full list so they know exactly what they need to to prepare for the trip. It gives them time to buy anything if they don’t already have it, and we can make recommendations for what they need.
Peter Now, I know about trail-running, but run me through the other sports you mentioned because I don’t know what all of those are? Coasteering – what’s that?
Claire So coasteering was born here in Wales, is actually from South Wales originally, but it’s basically traversing around the cliffs on the coast where you leap into the sea, you swim across small inlets, you climb the rocks out the other side, especially climbing and scrambling and jumping into the sea. It’s just a very fun way of travelling around the coastline.
Peter I imagine in Wales and indeed for all the other sports, you need a wetsuit most of the year?
Claire Yes, it is advised. And actually not just because of the because of the temperature, obviously when you’re bouncing around in the waves next to rocks, it’s good for protection as well on your body. But absolutely, you’d be brave to go in without a wetsuit.
Peter And then what were the other sports you mentioned?
Claire Canyoning was one of them, which is quite similar to coasteering in many ways, but it’s done inland in a river gorge. So that’s where you use the natural formation of the river gorge waterfalls, for example, sliding down waterfalls, jumping off rocks into plunge pools, finding little narrow gaps to slide through. So it’s really following the course of the river through a canyon.
Peter Then there was something bugging. I didn’t catch what that was.
Claire River-bugging is the one that nobody’s ever heard of. It’s a fairly new sport, it’s only available in a handful of places around the world actually. It’s almost like having a small individual inflatable vest and you lying face down on that raft and you have these giant neoprene gloves, a little bit like baseball gloves. So it’s like you have wet hands and you use your hands to paddle, paddle down the river and you take on small rapids and little waterfalls and drops on your individual canoe. It’s just fantastic fun.
Felice So do any of these things have dangers?
Claire I think there’s an element of risk with any kind of active outdoor sport like these, but obviously everything we do is all about the safety. It’s all about the guides that we work with, it’s the standard of the equipment, it’s making sure that we brief people correctly so they understand what to expect and how to get themselves out of trouble if they do find themselves in it – but everything is very well managed. So, yes, there is an intrinsic element of risk, but actually the reality of any kind of accidents happening is so slim because it’s so well managed.
Felice And you’ve had a few accidents yourself, I think?
Claire I have in my personal sporting life, yes, thankfully not in my work life. But yes, I’ve definitely had a few bumps and scrapes out running and out riding my bike over the years. Myself and Jim, my husband, we decided to enter an event together. He was always going off doing mountain bike events and I was quite envious of him doing that and I thought, you know what, I can do this as well. Let’s end to something together. So we did.
I spent months and months training for this huge coast-to-coast from Whitehaven all the way across to Scarborough, three days of mountain biking and camping in between. And on day two, just after lunch, maybe I was a bit delirious from my cheese sandwich. We set off on our bikes again and Jim was off ahead of me so I tried to catch up and I obviously rode a little faster than I perhaps should have done. Before I knew it, the handlebars spun out of my hands and I went over the bars and I landed in a heap on the trail and felt very sorry for myself as Jim came peddling back to my rescue. And we realised actually I’d hurt myself quite badly, so we spent probably a good hour or so on the trial side as he tried to clean me up and bandage my arm and got me back on my bike.
I carried on. I got all I made it all the way to the end. It was about another 50 kilometres that day to get to the end. I saw the medics back at the campsite and they took one look at my arm and said, ‘Absolutely no, we can’t help with that. You need to go to the hospital.’ So they sent me to the hospital down the road where I spent the rest of the evening getting cleaned up and stitched and bandaged and told to take care of myself. And I thought, well, yes, I will do, but I’ve got one more day of the event left to go.
The next morning I woke up in my tent feeling cold and stiff and very sore and very sorry for myself, but determined that I was going to finish this race. So I did the remaining 90 kilometres of cross-country riding on a mountain bike and there is a wonderful photo of me at the end, looking absolutely ghastly white, holding an ice cream and a medal that I’d earned for my efforts.
Felice I think there’s similarities between Snowdonia and Iceland. Can you tell me about those?
Claire Yes, absolutely. I was very lucky to go to Iceland a couple of years ago. Actually before we launched this business, we went to Iceland on just a short trip one winter…we actually went in late February time. It was beautifu, we’d wanted to go for such a long time and finally we had the opportunity and it was amazing. But we did find ourselves looking at these heather-clad moors and these mountains and the bilberry bushes all over the place and thinking ‘this is so similar to back home, it really is.’
Iceland’s absolutely incredible place but when we came back home, I think it was about a week later we were driving along the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia. We just thought, you don’t need to go all the way to Iceland and places. We do have these incredible wild spaces right here on our own doorstep. But Iceland is famous for it, Wales is not, and that’s what we want to change.
Peter It’s also a little bit less expensive in Wales than it is in Iceland.
Claire I think, anywhere is a little less expensive than Iceland! It’s a wonderful country but I remember the first day we had a flight of beer between us and some fish and chips and realised we’d already spent almost £100 and had a slight panic about what was in store for the rest of our stay.
Felice I think you had some really bad weather when you were in Iceland?
Claire As we stayed there over the few days that the temperature dropped and the wind was howling. I remember driving along and seeing all the magnificent waterfalls that Iceland is so famous for. I’d never seen a waterfall travel upwards into the sky, but it seemed every waterfall we saw was either at 90 degrees out or it was heading straight up into the sky. It was amazing to see.
Felice How incredible and of course, there are volcanoes there that aren’t in Wales.
Claire Well, this is true, although if you go back far enough in history, Wales was incredibly volcanic. So Snowdonia itself is formed by volcanoes from over 60 million years ago. If you go to Anglesey, the island off the very north of Wales, that has remnants of volcanic activity. So actually Wales does have a very strong history of volcanoes. So they might not be active at the moment, but they are here if you look hard enough
Felice Going back to your trips, what happens if people turn up with all the wrong kit? Can they still carry on?
Claire We do everything that we can do to make sure that people turn up with the right kit and they understand what’s expected of them because it’s very important to ensure their safety and their enjoyment. If you don’t turn up with good waterproofs and we’re out in the rain all day in the mountains, you’re simply not going to enjoy it. But if you have the right kit and the warm and you’re dry, you’ll love it. Likewise, if it’s a boiling hot day but you’ve forgotten your sun cream or sunhat or your water bottle, all of those things they either make or break your day.
Peter And presumably footway is really important?
Claire It’s really important, actually. Yes, especially if you’re out all day hiking, having good, steady, comfortable boots is an absolute must and again, ideally waterproof. It doesn’t always rain here, I must say, but we do always have to prepare for the worst. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s December or August that you’re travelling in…we all know what the UK is like. We need to be prepared for all eventualities. But if people don’t turn up with the right kit, we probably have bits and pieces we might be able to lend them ourselves, and there’s plenty of outdoor shops around here, so there’s always places we can recommend where they can go and pick up any bits they might have forgotten to pack.
Felice So how is a typical day go?
Claire That varies hugely. It really depends what that trip is. On any trip, we tend to have people arriving that afternoon, so usually the afternoon would be welcoming everybody. So, for example, our Wild Wellness Retreat is one of our favourite trips that we do and host that on a glamping site. So the first afternoon, usually from about four o’clock onwards, people will be arriving at the accommodation. We’re there to welcome them and to get them checked in and get them settled into what will be their home for the next few days.
Then usually early evening, around six o’clock, we’ll sit down with everybody, with the guide – whether it’s myself or one of our team – will welcome them and introduce them to each other. It’s important everybody starts to bond and to meet each other and to make friends. We’ll explain to them what to expect over the coming days. Hopefully there’s no surprises because they’ve chosen this holiday, hopefully they understand what they’re going to do, but it’s just nice to explain to everybody what to expect.
Then often we’ll have a welcome dinner together. So early that evening after the briefing, we’ll have a drink and we’ll have some dinner. And as I say, on the wellness retreat, for example, after dinner, we actually take them up to a little spot where we have a campfire and we have a local storyteller come and join us. That’s a really nice way to set the scene for those few days, to have a Welsh storyteller who tells her stories in English, but introduces the Welsh language and really shares some of the magical myths and legends that Wales is quite famous for.
Felice Tell us about the wellness retreat. You said it’s on a glamping site. What do people do when they’re there?
Claire The wellness retreat is a really lovely, relaxed four-day experience. So, yes, we stay on a glamping site so everybody’s in beautiful canvas bell tents, with log fires in to keep them warm at night. And we do a nice combination of relaxing activities that help to reconnect them with nature and to an extent reconnect them with themselves as well, because you have time to just think and to relax. It just cuts out all that everyday rush that we’re also used to of phones pinging and emails going off and sitting in traffic and having music blaring – all of that is gone and it’s right back to basics.
It’s four days in a field, essentially. We start the day with yoga outdoors…a wonderfully relaxing yoga session together. We then take people out, stand paddle-boarding actually in the afternoon on the first day, which is a lovely relaxing activity to do. The meals are all done together, so we all eat outdoors when we can if the weather is good, if it’s not then we’ll we’ll sit in the house. But all the food is locally sourced, it’s freshly prepared. It’s actually quite plant-based food as well, so although there is meat available, it’s very much about light, clean food and just feeling we’re connected with the seasons because everything that we serve is seasonal.
Also one of the activities we do is foraging. So we take people out foraging and we teach them which plants are in season right now, which are edible, which also they shouldn’t touch. But it’s great getting people who have perhaps never tried foraging to pick leaves from a hawthorn bush and try eating them and realise actually you can eat these; to pick the berries from a hawthorn bush, for example, and you can eat those. They’re not the tastiest things I will say, but you can eat them. And it’s great to see people realising that there’s this whole natural larder all around them that they never knew they could tap into.
Then usually we will pick something, whatever’s in season. The last wellness retreat we did was in September and sloes were everywhere. So we picked lots and lots of sloes and we took them back to our camp and everybody made their own bottle of sloe gin to take away with them and loads of people had tried sloe gin before, they’d bought it in the supermarket, but they’ve never picked their own sloe berries and made it into gin themselves…ready to enjoy at Christmas a few months later. Actually it was lovely to get people’s stories at Christmas time, the people who’d been on the retreat and we’e now enjoying their own sloe gin that they’ve made.
Peter I’m a big fan of home-made sloe gin.
Claire It is wonderful.
Felice I love the sound of the foraging. Can you cook a whole meal from things that you’ve picked?
Claire You can if you’re very good at it. Yes, I would say you probably can with some store cupboard essentials, I would say. But, you know, at the moment wild garlic is in full season so I’m struggling to get through an evening meal without finding somewhere to put wild garlic into it, much to my husband’s dismay. I had a wild garlic fiorentina pizza the other night, which was amazing. But you can, it’s amazing how much is out there. Obviously, it’s more abundant certain times of the year than others, but all year round, there is food out there to be picked from the wild.
Felice Do you include mushrooms in your foraging?
Claire We tend not to eat them; we do look at them. We will show people the ones which we believe to be edible but I must admit, we do steer away generally from eating them on the courses because there is such such a risk around mushrooms.
Felice Yes, I could see a very serious situation where you kill off all your clients!
Claire Exactly. Best avoided generally. That said, we are actually looking to work with some specialist mushroom foragers, so hopefully that will be at some point a new trip coming into South Wales where we will be working with specialist mushroom foragers. And that’s all that they do, so they know the mushrooms inside out and we will be able to try them then.
Peter So do you run your courses all over Wales or just in the Northeast?
Claire We run them all over Wales, actually. So most of what you’ll find on our website currently is North Wales focused, but we have more and more coming up in South and Mid Wales. As well as our small group tours, you’ll see on the website we do tailor made breaks for families and for groups ,and with those we have complete flexibility to work anywhere and to deliver any kind of trip that we want. So we are constantly growing our network of partners because everything that we do is about working with local independent providers. We package everything together, but it’s all based around working with fantastic activity providers and fantastic accommodations. And as we grow and as we establish, our network of partners is expanding. So, yes, South and Mid Wales are very much an option now.
Felice We’re very keen on Wales and on our family holidays when our children were young were to Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire. The beaches are amazing, just like beaches in Cornwall, but with no one on them.
Claire Absolutely. It is beautiful around there. And as you say, that’s the lovely thing, it’s so quiet. That’s actually something that we’re really keen to preserve ourselves – the last thing we want to do is to encourage over-tourism in any area. So responsible travel’s really important to us so that, as you say at the moment, you can enjoy those empty beaches to yourselves. But we honestly believe that if we all time things right and we plan things properly and we work together with local communities, we can preserve that whilst also establishing Wales on that tourism map.
Peter Well, people in England, but also in other countries have a belief that if you’re coming to England, you want to go to the seaside, you have to go to Devon and Cornwall. But that’s not true at all, is it? There are some really amazing beaches in Wales and the temperature can be fantastic. When our children were young, we went on four successive family holidays and the temperature never dropped below about 28 degrees every day – it was absolutely amazing. We did then go one year and it didn’t stop raining and it was about 12 degrees for a week.
Claire I guess your luck has to run out at some point . But yes, there are stunning beaches around here and obviously the temperature was ever so slightly more favourable sometimes in the south, but often actually there are some really beautiful spots all around the coast where you get these real sun traps. As I say, I think sometimes Wales is unfairly tarnished with this weather brush, that it’s, you know, wet and windy here. But that’s because we have so many mountains in certain parts, especially around North Wales. And if you’re in the shadow of those mountains or those hills, then naturally, yes, there is more rainfall.
Many years ago, we used to camp very regularly over on the West Coast of Wales and we’d often drive through wet and windy Snowdonia and we’d arrive at this tiny little campsite on the coast looking over to the peninsula. And it was just this beautiful sun trap, and we’d watch the sunset every time we went. We had amazing weather and it was just perfect for watching the sun set behind the sea.
Peter Then there’s a few sheep in Wales, too.
Claire There are indeed. I believe the the statistic is that sheep outnumber people three to one, it might even be four to one now – there’s a lot of sheep.
Felice We went to Powys a couple of years ago and it was a bit like Austria.
Peter It rained a lot, but we actually went there in October expecting it to rain and it didn’t disappoint us.
Claire I think one of the most beautiful things about Wales is that it’s such a small country and yet the landscape is so varied you know. As we talked earlier about the likeness between Iceland and parts of Wales and Austria and parts of Wales, and actually the reality is that in such a small space we have incredible imposing mountains, we have beautiful lush green rainforests – actually, it’s Celtic rainforest that covers much of Wales, you know, we just think of it as being woodlands but actually, looking back to the volcanoes and and that area, we have incredibly rich, lush rainforest around here. We’ve got incredible white sand beaches, beautiful rivers, we have every kind of landscape you could possibly want, which is why it’s so incredible for adventure.
Felice How is living where you do made you into the person you are today?
Claire That’s a really interesting question. I’ve always lived in the countryside, but as I say, for around 12 years now I’ve lived here in the hills of North Wales, and I think it has really connected me even more to the landscape and to the seasons. I think in particular, since starting Adventure Tours UK, it’s allowed me to really throw myself into that as well, because I’m no longer torn between countryside and city. I’m just purely in the countryside and loving every moment of it, and I think it’s allowed me to focus on the things that I really care about and what I’m really passionate about, which is outdoors, it’s sustainability, it’s getting people out of their comfort zone and trying something new. And I think this area has helped all of that come about for me.
Peter How can people find out more about your company and your different adventures?
Claire If you head over to our website, which is AdventureToursUK.com, on there you’ll find all of our small group adventure tours and also our contact details, as well as if you wanted to get in touch about the tailor made holidays we can work on for you. And also you’ll find us over on Facebook and Instagram.
Peter Claire Copeman, thank you very much for appearing on the show and we wish you the very best of luck with the Adventure Tours UK. Hopefully you’ll get lots of visitors from not just Scandinavia but from all over the world coming back this summer and next.
Claire Thank you so much, Peter and Felice. It’s been lovely to join me today. Thank you so much.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected].
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See also Powerboat Racing with Daisy and Sam Coleman who come from Wales!
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