2020 & Camping Trips shoe-horned into 6 months [almost] of Freedom to Travel

2020 can’t really count as a full year in terms of camping! Thanks to Covid-19 and the various restrictions, we only had 173 nights [24 weeks and five days] when we were able to take our campervan, the Blue Bus, away for the night. Despite the lock downs, quarantine and tiers from March to the end of 2020 we managed to get away for 79 nights during the year in our campervan. Here in Lancashire our year looked like this:

  • Lock Down One 23/3/20 – 3/7/20 – 103 nights
  • Quarantine after our trip to France – 14 nights
  • Lancashire in Tier Three and national Lock Down Two 17/10/20 – 31/12/20 – 76 nights
  • A total of 193 nights when either campsites were closed or we were not allowed to use them.

Not everyone uses their campervan as much as we normally do. Of course, there are some owners who full-time or are hardly at home but for us 79 nights away is considerably less than we expected to be sleeping in our campervan in 2020 [we haven’t even used up the teabag stash we bought in February when we were getting ready for being away for over three months]. Our 2020 nights in the campervan is almost half the number of nights we were away in 2017 and in 2018. A ‘van is an expensive piece of kit and we don’t like to waste it. Since retirement we have used our Blue Bus over 100 nights in each year, including the year we moved house. When we were restricted by work we would usually be away for around 70+ nights, so 2020 felt a bit like being taken back in time.

Those 79 nights away were spent in 41 different campsites and overnight stops. We still don’t stay anywhere long! We have now spent 608 nights in our current Blue Bus and 1,325 nights in total in a campervan over the 15 years we have owned a ‘van.

With restrictions and constraints on our travel, the trips we did manage to make were all the more memorable and valued. I don’t think I will ever take the freedom to travel in our campervan for granted again. Out of those 79 nights, 16 were made in those carefree days BC days [Before Coronavirus]. In that time we had some short local holidays and got away to Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and Scotland. Of course, if I had known what was coming we would have been away more but, like many, I thought I had the year planned out. We were the last people to leave a Scottish campsite when Lock Down One began and that long drive through a shocked and anxious UK was a strange day.

After campsites re-opened on the 4th July [hurrah!] and then the VAT reduction was bought in, we took a number of fantastic trips. Staying local, camping in the Lake District was pure pleasure, Cheshire’s Delamere Forest delightful and the Yorkshire Dales always a favourite. We are lucky in the north-west of England to have so many beautiful places nearby.

More than usual in 2020, we spent our time walking and cycling, rarely visiting attractions. On a few occasions we met up with friends for socially distanced camping and hiking. This was the year when these social [and socially distanced] occasions with friends were rare and particularly precious times.

Mistakenly we thought things might be settling down and we headed further afield. We spent a fabulous few weeks on a circuit of Brittany through August [not a time of year we would normally have chosen but needs must] and found that France is even wonderful in the school holidays and that Brittany has some amazing and attractive corners on the coast and inland.

After France and staying home for quarantine we fitted in a trip to Scotland, discovering new places and re-discovering old haunts as we toured around the east coast and more Lake District and Yorkshire Dales trips. We knew that our days of being able to travel were numbered and that we would soon be confined to home again.

There were times within those restricted weeks when we could travel but not stay overnight. We took every opportunity to drive for up to an hour from home for a day trip and stretch our legs on some hills, rather than Morecambe’s Promenade. The Blue Bus came into its own on those trips too as we are self-sufficient and don’t need to use any other facilities..

At the moment none of us can go anywhere and planning feels too risky so I have no idea what 2021 has in store for us. I hope we will get to use our Blue Bus soon to create some more special memories.

2020 Spending Reviewed & The Covid-19 Factor Means Nothing is Normal

It is that time of the year again when I share how much money we have spent in the last 12 months, revealing our spending habits in all their profligacy. I divulge our expenditure for interest and accountability, as we aim to stay within a budget. Our spending is peculiar to us but any comments are gladly received.

Our budget remains at £27,000 a year for the fourth year running. This is now below the average UK household spending. The headline is that despite the strange year we have had our outgoings for 2020 came within budget [hurrah], although the headline doesn’t tell the whole story. As I said last year, our annual spending seems to go up and down like a rollercoaster, with alternating frugal years and expensive years. Sometimes it is our campervan that costs us a lot of money but 2020 was a year of home-making and healthcare.

It is just over twelve months since we moved to our Morecambe bungalow. The home improvements that are included in our 2020 spending are all things we would expect to carry out more than once in our [expected] remaining lifetime. These purchases include a new bedroom carpet to replace the grotty brown carpet from the 1980s that came with the bungalow and could tell a tale or two; new furniture to replace some that was second-hand 36 years ago, a new sofa bed [as we thought we would have visitors!] as well as smaller items like paint, varnish and brushes. More expensive home improvements which we consider one-off items are kept separate. So, on top of the budgeted expenditure in the usual categories, in 2020 we spent £13,300 on new windows and doors, resurfacing the drive and a new kitchen.

Not unsurprisingly our 2020 spending reflects the Covid-19 factor. The breakdown shows that we had less opportunities for experiences and spent more of our money on food in supermarkets and local shops.

Essentials – total £9,833 [38% of total spending] [2019 £7,721 / 35%]

Food – £4,703 [2019 £3,491] – In my experience food prices have increased in 2020 as we haven’t eaten anything different or developed an expensive taste in anything. We will have spent more as we have eaten mostly at home [sitting eating around a friend’s dining table is a distant memory]. We continue to use discount supermarkets for the majority of our shopping and generally cook from scratch.

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 57.2 sq mtrs [615.7 sq feet] bungalow – £4,463 [2019 £3,974] – The various lock downs and restrictive tiers mean who have been home more than ever and so using more gas and electric. Council tax and heating for the bungalow are both more expensive than the flat, but we no longer have service charges to pay. The improvements we have made to bring our bungalow into the 21st century will help save money on utilities.

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £667 [2019 £256] – There has been very little spending on tai chi classes in 2020 and this is mostly some expensive dental work and new specs.

In theory this is the minimum we need to survive a year, although it would be a strange year when we didn’t need / buy some stuff.

Stuff (electronics, newspapers and other kit) – £7,175 [27% of total spending] [2019 £3,151 / 14%]

Household spending [everything from glue, newspapers and books to hiring a sander, plants for the garden and parts for the bikes] – £6,189 [ 2019 £2,300] – Wow! We have clearly had too much time for DIY and nest building this year! In 2019 we were moving house and the only DIY we did was freshening up the paint for the sale of our flat. This is a big category, with furniture, carpet, cushions and pictures on the walls all thrown into it. I am uncomfortable buying stuff and we try and source antiques / junk / second-hand items when this is practical. Bargain purchases this year included an Edwardian What Not [yes really] for a kitchen wall to contrast with the shiny white units for £30, second-hand lined curtains for the large living room window for £25 and some second-hand cushion covers for £5.

Clothes & accessories – £986 [2019 £851] – I have never gone down the route of a clothes buying ban, preferring to stick to buying what I need, as something wears out. Pretty much all the clothes we bought in 2020 were hard-wearing hill walking kit and probably not most people’s idea of clothes shopping. I needed new boots, we bought new waterproof trousers, a fleece, wellies and some comfy walking shoes; these were all replacement items. Where we could we bought second-hand items, for example a men’s winter coat on Ebay was just £24. Even when you buy quality items they don’t last forever but our walking gear gets plenty of wear; my previous boots had walked a lot of miles over six years.

Experiences – £8,226 [31% of total spending] [2019 £10,952 / 48%]

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £2,834 [2019 £3,601] – The reason for this reduction in our holiday spending in 2020 is obvious and it isn’t because I have lost my wanderlust! In the north-west of England we have had travel restrictions for over six months of the year. We did get away a few times in the first three months of the year before the three months of lock down. We spent July taking trips to the Lake District, got to France in August and [after quarantine] thankfully managed to travel to Scotland in October. We have also paid for a holiday in a self-catering house in Scotland that has been moved to 2021 [fingers crossed].

Restaurants & cafes – £1,309 [2019 £2,418] – Despite using local cafes and restaurants when we can this year and having more takeaways than we would normally do to support local businesses this is much lower than normal. It is not particularly the food I miss, what I have really miss is seeing friends. In a normal year there are two old friends we would meet about eight times a year for drinks and a meal at a cost of about £500. Chatting over Zoom, although cheaper, hasn’t been the same. Interestingly, the reduction in our eating out spending is more or less off-set by the increase in our food spending.

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £2,093 [2019 £1,931] – Last year I wondered if our six year old Renault Master was saving up some expensive repairs for 2020. It hasn’t done too badly but needed some essentials like tyres and brakes replacing as well as the usual servicing, insurance and road tax.

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,227 [2019 £1,500 ] – We certainly haven’t put the miles across Europe on the campervan we would normally do.

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £403 [2019 £941] – Well what do you expect as for much of the year nothing was open. Live music is just a distant memory and the last football match we went to was a Morecambe FC match last Christmas. We have supported some arts events by buying tickets for online events and visited some RSPB reserves when we could.

Public transport costs – £360 [2019 £561] – Again, the pandemic effect has kept us at home much of the time.

Giving – £937 [4% of total spending] [2019 £654 / 3%]

Gifts & donations – £937 [2019 £654] – Another discretionary spending line that we try and keep under control but in 2020 we felt a need to be more generous. Many charities needed additional funding as events and places were closed and during the first lock down we sent cheering-up parcels to friends, as well as the usual birthday and Christmas gifts.

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2020 – £26,171 – Despite all the home-making we have done in 2020, we have stayed within our £27,000 budget. Hurrah!

Over my four years of retirement we have spent an average of £25,351 a year.

Our expenditure doesn’t all come from our savings. As well as my side hustle travel writing income [reduced in 2020 due to Covid-19], in 2020 my small NHS pension began. This is based on my many years of part-time and full-time NHS work and is the equivalent to 12 years NHS service. These both help to reduce what we take from the ever-diminishing savings pot. For me, saving for early retirement was never just about giving up work, it was also about us having the financial resilience to survive whatever ups and downs life threw at us.

Jägermeister & our Campervan: A Story of Christmas Generosity & Love

There are essentials food [?] items we always carry in our campervan; some bottles of red wine, Scottish oatcakes, Bahlsen Pick Ups, a jar of good pesto and pasta and in the fridge there is always a green square bottle of Jägermeister. This tradition began many years ago after a tour of Eastern Europe. As we travelled through different countries we bought and tasted local herbal liqueurs. The first was a homemade firewater a campsite owner generously shared while we watched the Champions League final in southern Germany. From there we moved through mysterious explosive Hungarian beverages and onto the medicinal yet ambrosial Becherovka from Karlovy Vary.

With practice, we acquired a taste for these liqueurs that remind me of having a spoonful of Venos cough medicine in childhood but with an added kick. As Jägermeister is the most easily available liqueur in the UK, it has become a permanent part of our campervan kit. Today we have even added two dark green Jägermeister shot glasses to our ritual.

Jägermeister have been producing their herbal liqueur since 1878. The result of a family vinegar business branching out, this unique drink made from 56 botanicals and with an ABV of 35% is created in Wolfenbüttel in Germany and in the UK is now widely available thanks to Jägerbombs where Jägermeister is added to an energy drink.

It was seven years ago that I discovered that Melchior produced Jägermeister chocolates while browsing the internet for gifts. They were expensive but we were lucky to receive a box as a Christmas present. They were so rich and scrumptious we have included them on our present list to our son ever since but never had them again.

A strange choice for two vegetarians?

Jägermeister comes in a distinctive dark green bottle that is designed to be sturdy enough to survive being dropped and can fit in a large pocket of a hunting jacket. Jägermeister means master of the hunt, so the drink is an interesting choice for two vegetarians who are anti-hunting. The story goes that the logo comes from the legend of Saint Hubertus. Hubertus was a hunter but one night had a vision of a stag with a glowing cross between its antlers. This vision had a big effect on Hubertus and he became an advocate for a greater respect for nature and the story was chosen as the Jägermeister logo. I like to hang onto the respect for nature aspect of the legend and the almost unbreakable bottle is also perfect for a bumpy ride in a Blue Bus.

We have another connection with Jägermeister. My father-in-law was in the British Army and was stationed in Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony in Germany for some years and my partner lived there. We have visited the lovely town since and retain an emotional connection with Wolfenbüttel and its famous distillery.

The Christmas Spirit

Unbeknown to us, Melchior stopped making the boxes of Jägermeister chocolates some years ago. In ignorance, we continued to put it on our wish list. This year our son and daughter-in-law generously rose to the challenge of our Christmas gift list and decided to make their own. The internet is full of Jägermeister truffle recipes and so, with no experience of chocolate making, they piled in with the optimism of youth and created some simply gorgeous chocolates that were all the more mouthwatering because they were made with love for two demanding parents!

However much longer I live on this planet, I don’t think I will be able to say thank you enough times to them for indulging my taste buds and making my heart sing and my waistline bulge with this very special gift.

A Campervan Fire!

I am barely conscious before my first cup of tea at the best of times but on a recent camping trip to the Lake District I had to wake up pretty fast.  Anthony was still slumbering while I brewed our cuppa.  Deciding to warm up some breakfast rolls I pulled out the pots and pans that live inside our campervan’s oven and lit the gas to warm it up. I’m sure we’re not alone with this dual use of our campervan oven, it is both storage space and cooking apparatus.

Sitting enjoying my brew a few minutes later my comatose brain registered a burning smell. Getting up and opening the oven I was horrified to see actual flames!  As I turned off the oven and the gas, I realised I must have left the cloth we use to silence appliance-related rattles inside the oven when I had lit it. With flames still curling around the cloth I had to take action and fortunately adrenalin kicked in, over-riding the need for caffeine.

We have a fire extinguisher in our ‘van, but I realised that squirting this into the oven, although effective, would also be messy. We also carry an old but serviceable fire blanket that was discarded by a previous employer as being out of date.  Guessing this would be more effective for the small fire I had before me I tried to grab the fire blanket from its hook between the kitchen unit and the van’s back door.  Annoyingly it was stuck and I had to grab the ‘van keys and open the back door to free it, a commotion that abruptly woke my sleeping partner [interestingly the burning smell hadn’t woken him].  Trying to stay calm, I pulled the blanket out of its packing, not something I had ever done before, and stuffed it inside the oven, smothering the flames.

After waiting a minute or two and with no sign of further flames, I used the fire blanket to carefully remove the still smouldering cloth and I rolled it up into the fire blanket.  We put the bundle outside on our gravel pitch, well enough away from ours or anyone else’s ‘van. Recovering from the shock with another mug of tea, we discussed where else we could store the fire blanket so that it is more easily accessible should there ever be a next time.

The simple fire blanket stopped a stupid mistake becoming a disaster, although our Blue Bus reeked of the burning fires of hell for a few days.

If you are wondering, you may have read a shorter version of this escapade in a recent MMM.

Survival as a Travel Writer in 2020

2020 started ordinarily enough. We took our campervan away in January and February to various corners of the UK. In March, as we walked around charming Cheltenham, I noticed that the shops were running out of hand sanitiser and people were buying face masks. When Lock Down One came we were in Scotland and had to race back home to Lancashire feeling sad and frustrated. My pessimistic inner voice mithered inside my head, insisting that this coronavirus wasn’t going to leave our shores without a fight. A pandemic would surely be a long haul and I wasn’t sure I would come out the other end still working as a travel writer.

In March I wrote about these anxious lock down feelings. With no possibility of travel I had little else to write about and sharing my worries helped. Walking and cycling our local paths every day eased the anxiety and helpful and caring readers gave me support after my heartfelt and desperate post when I felt about as useless as one of those proverbial chocolate teapots.

I had planned a busy year of writing in 2020, penciling in more travel articles than ever. So much for plans! With little paid writing through the spring I had more time to spend on blog posts. I have continued to write regularly, although posted less than in 2019. I still prefer to write 600 – 800 word posts that readers don’t have to invest a stack of time ploughing through but in 2020 I have experimented with writing some longer posts. These are designed as detailed guides for an area, particularly for walkers and cyclists. This is information I haven’t had time to arrange and share before and from comments I have received these posts will be useful long-term. As I have got to know the corners of Morecambe and Lancaster I have shared my local knowledge on the blog too.

Since I started this blog five years ago the readers have steadily increased each month. Not surprisingly, there was less interest in a blog that focusses on travel early in the spring of 2020 and views plummeted in March. Readers gradually returned through June and I am quietly relieved that I’m not talking to myself and that the number of views over the year has held steady and reached slightly beyond 2019’s stats. That said, this blog is never about the numbers, what has been fantastic is the lovely comments and feedback I have received from readers, the blog has been a more interactive space in 2020 and with much less contact with actual people through the year this has been important.

My other blog, Memorial Bench Stories, has had its best year ever! This is nothing to do with people being drawn to my writing, it is the power of the media. The blog and I were featured on Radio 4 in a piece about memorial benches in January and this directed new readers to that blog. I have been recording memorial benches that catch my eye since 2012 and that blog continues to be driven by respect and sympathy, the media interest won’t go to my head!

While I have been writing for MMM for many years, in the last couple of years I have also been paid for writing for Campervan Magazine. Looking back, in 2019 I wrote 16 articles for these two wonderful magazines, whereas in 2020 I have only managed to pull together nine [and four of those were pre-Covid-19 trips]. There is always a time-lag between my completion and submission of an article and publication so I have still seen quite a few articles published in 2020, although about four less than expected. Peering into my 2021 crystal ball it is clear that this side hustle income will not recover to 2019 levels at least in the medium-term.

2020 laid on many surprises but an exciting one was being asked to contribute to a book of world-wide cycling routes by a large international publisher. Writing for a book, rather than a magazine, was an interesting learning experience for me and I felt out of my depth at times trying to understand their lingo and ways of working. Although it only paid a similar amount to writing for magazines and so won’t make me rich, you can’t put a price on a new experience. The editing process distracted me through lock down, as my copy pinged to-and-fro between me and the editor, who ‘marked’ my writing with a big red pen [otherwise known as track changes]. This felt like being back at school and was often frustrating, particularly when I was being asked to change something back to the way it was the first time! I gritted my teeth and accepted the challenge. Unlike in a magazine, I also got the chance to proofread and comment on the final page layout, including the photographs chosen.

For the past six years most of my free time [in between campervan holidays and seeing friends] has been spent researching and planning the next trip, writing travel articles and blog posts and editing photographs. 2020 has given me more free time than I have ever had before. I haven’t learnt how to play the saxophone or become fluent in German in that time but I have read a lot [over 50 books] and got stuck into a lot of DIY and gardening. 2020 has given me the chance to experience proper retirement!

There is now news of the first vaccines, hints about rapid tests and I am starting to get hopeful that the freedom to travel will once again be something we can take for granted by the summer of 2021. I am hesitant to plan or book anything yet but I truly hope we will get to visit mainland Europe again. If not, I hope I will be allowed to find joy exploring the UK in our campervan. My fascination in uncovering interesting stories and histories and finding beauty in unlikely places hasn’t diminished but I’m still not sure if my short travel writing career will survive this interruption.

A Year Without Gluhwein

For over a decade, visiting the incredible Manchester Christmas Market has been an autumnal household tradition. Before we lived in Greater Manchester we would take the train into Manchester for a special day out. Once we lived in Salford, we would walk across the Irwell and potter around the market a number of times, usually starting with the opening day. The Christmas Market was always my number one choice to meet friends and soak up some festive atmosphere.

A mug of gluhwein isn’t cheap, so we will save some money this year but I will miss standing in the cold, people milling around me, my gloved hands wrapped around a mug of steaming hot gluhwein. The warming spicy wine is something that tastes best drunk outside surrounded by Christmas, it just doesn’t taste the same drunk at home. Part of the fun of drinking my gluhwein is having Rudolph, the festive singing reindeer, belting out Christmas songs above my head and Manchester’s Gothic town hall looking magnificent across the square.

On a weekday morning I would be one of the first visitors to the Christmas Market, taking the chance to browse the stalls and maybe even buy something. But mostly Manchester’s Christmas Market is about the food and drink. For a mid-morning snack I might buy a bag of warm, spicy nuts to nibble before finding a seat and treating myself to an alcoholic hot chocolate from the French stall on charming King Street. It is the next best thing to being in Paris.

In the afternoons, before the after-work rush, we will arrange to meet friends for gluhwein. After years of research I have found that the gluhwein varies across the many stalls and our favourite has become the drink from what we call the Rudolph stall. This stall always has prime position in Albert Square, provides malted milk biscuits to soak up your gluhwein and has the singing reindeer head above the counter. Their gluhwein isn’t too sweet and sickly, it tastes of alcohol and provides the much-anticipated inner glow. While I am happy with straight gluhwein, my partner likes to add rum to his gluhwein for that extra kick!

Before all the building work began we would often meet friends in the Alpine hut complex on Brazennose Street, for some reason always a quiet corner of the market even in the evenings. The crowds flock to Albert Square for the lights and conviviality and by contrast, Brazennose Street always had seats and even shelter, useful if rain was threatening. It was also quiet enough to facilitate talking without shouting. Unfortunately, this cosy spot served gluhwein so sweet it was like sipping hot Vimto, rather than anything alcoholic. This always fooled my brain into thinking it was harmless and I would find myself getting up for more refills than I should!

As the evening progressed all that gluhwein would make me hungry and I would head for the Bavarian käsespätzle stall in Albert Square. The glum owner was never happy to be in Manchester; while we waited for a new batch of käsespätzle to be cooked he would often complain about the high cost of his stall, the poor facilities and how much he missed home. He returned year after year so the trip must have made financial sense and eating a plateful of his delicious German version of macaroni cheese transported me right back to Germany where this dish is often the only vegetarian option on a menu.

It has been decided to cancel the Christmas Market in Manchester this year due to coronavirus. Certainly social distancing is all but impossible on a busy evening on the market. It is just another part of my life and year that has been taken away and I will really miss it. I will just have to keep watching and re-watching the beautiful Lego version in the video below.

15 years in the campervan community

Lock Down Two gave me a bit of time to look back on our happy campervan years. I would describe myself as a campervan enthusiast rather than expert, so I was surprised when we realised that we had now owned a campervan for 15 years. We still have plenty to learn about the art of owning a house on wheels but, after so long, we must know more than we did back in 2005 when we were campervan virgins. In that 15 years three different campervans have captured my heart and joined us on our holidays. Each one has been blue and each one slightly longer in length than the last. In those 15 years we have put 1,319 camping nights under our belts, staying on over 700 different campsites and other overnight spots.

Owning a campervan was a dream for me from being a young teenager. It remained on my wish list for many years, as even second-hand they are an expensive purchase. I was in my 40s before we were in a secure enough financial position to buy our first campervan and even then we had to re-mortgage the house to buy a second-hand six year old ‘van! This first campervan was blue and somehow that felt right and set the trend for the following two.

We were nervous choosing that first ‘van, not really having a clue what we were doing. We spent many fun-filled hours looking around motorhome sales areas in the north-west before eventually buying from Todds, near our home in Preston. The discreet expertise of the Todd’s staff reassured us as we took a deep breath and parted with our cash. After viewing campervans with a variety of layouts and lengths, some with bathrooms, some without, we decided to keep it simple and chose a reliable Volkswagen with a straightforward layout. It was a short-wheel base VW T4 with a high top and a traditional rock ‘n’ roll bed and side kitchen. We knew this first ‘van was a testing-the-water sort of purchase, rather than a forever campervan and it gave us the chance to see if vanlife would live up to our expectations.

We took this first ‘van to Scotland, of course, around England and to Germany. Quite quickly we bought a driveaway awning to give us a bit more space and the ‘van transformed our festival experience when we spent the weekend at the Hurricane Festival in northern Germany. Having our very own home on wheels to escape to and relax in, away from the bustle of the festival, was heavenly.

We learnt a lot owning that first ‘van and never regretted starting with a simple conversion. We didn’t have to get into the intricacies of water heaters, refillable gas cylinders and complex bed making. All these things would have obscured the pure excitement of being campervan owners. The VW allowed us to make mistakes, read more about owning a ‘van and talk to other campers, learning at our own pace.

We returned from a trip to Salisbury in Blue Bus One with a more practical understanding of campervan electrics. It was February and we didn’t have a hook-up. With temperatures below zero the blown air heating was keeping us warm and toasty as we played cards into the evening. Everything was fine until the leisure battery ran out of juice! Even wearing layers and cuddling under the duvet we had a cold night. This particular mistake taught us that for winter camping we needed a diesel or gas heater, we also learnt that the hassle of putting an awning up and down wasn’t for us and that the freedom to travel where we wanted suited us very well.

Despite the lessons learnt, we were still really campervan rookies when just 18 months later we were buying a brand new Sundowner direct from Devon Conversion. Our knowledge had moved on, we were clearer about what we wanted and had a spreadsheet of essentials and nice-to-have features. We stayed with the reliable VW but this time picked a long-wheel base, needing a bigger loan on our mortgage! By now our plan for travelling for 12 months around Europe had begun to hatch and this ‘van was purchased with that trip in mind.

Our first trip in Blue Bus Two was a tour around Poland and the following year a campsite owner in France said, ‘You are the people in the Blue Bus,’ and the name stuck. We travelled 80,000 in our second campervan, from Poland to Portugal and Slovenia to Spain and we spent 678 nights sleeping in its comfy beds and living under its roof. So many memories are tied up with that ‘van, it is no surprise I wept the day we said goodbye to it! I hope whoever owns it now showers it with even half as much affection.

The Sundowner was only 5.3m long but its clever layout made great use of the small space, with no bathroom but a toilet. At the time having four travel seats was essential as our son and daughter-in-law often needed a lift and this limited our choice of layout. By the time we bought our third ‘van they were more independent meaning this wasn’t an issue and we could upgrade to a ‘proper’ ‘van with a bathroom.

We had taken the VW T5 as large as we could, so we had to look for a different base van for Blue Bus Three. Both of our VW campervans are still on the road somewhere, a testament to the reliability of the T4 and T5 and we always look out for them when we are on the road in the hope that we will have a reunion one day. The elegant shape of the VW limits what can be fitted inside, although there are conversions with bathrooms. After plenty of consideration and more lists we decided to move onto a French classic, the Renault Master.

By now, with ten years of living the campervanning dream under our belt we thought we knew what we were doing. We have nothing but praise for the conversions Devon produce at a reasonable price and we like dealing with a small converter that is willing to offer some flexibility on their standard layouts. Other converters were considered and we spent an exhausting day at one of the motorhome shows, climbing in and out of different ‘vans, sitting in them and talking to the sales people. We spent evenings pouring over a spreadsheet, considering the pros and cons of different options before deciding on a Devon Tempest. We were certain we didn’t want to go large and the Devon Tempest gave us a 5.4 m long ‘van with a layout we were confident we could live in.

Our Renault Master seems enormous to us. We have now owned it for five years and have been regularly grateful for the bathroom, but in 2020 it really came into its own. The Tempest was also our first experience of a side sofa with a view out of the sliding door, a feature that we really love. The big Renault sliding door lets the sun in and even on cooler days we can sit in the shelter of the ‘van and be cosy on the sofa.

A big part of the joy of owning a campervan is the people you meet on the road. During our year travelling around Europe we met many fantastic people, some of which have remained friends. Having owned two Devon Conversions campervans we have been a part of the Devon Motorhomes Owners Group on Facebook [and initially on Yahoo Groups] from the beginning. If you have a negative opinion of Facebook I don’t blame you, even the most harmless posts can unexpectedly veer off into a negative direction very quickly, but the Devon Owners group is a refreshing exception. Everyone is friendly, polite, helpful and the group makes having a Facebook account worthwhile. As well as virtual conversations, the Devon Owners generally have two or three meet ups a year, always sociable and fun occasions and thanks to our campervan we have made some good friends.

We have now spent over 600 nights in Blue Bus Three. It has had its problems but has taken us to Greece and Germany, Croatia and Shetland and we have no plans to change it. With the proposals to phase out diesel and petrol engines I wonder if Blue Bus Four will be all electric.

Walking & Camping in the Écrins Mountains of France

A hill walker’s paradise, the Écrins Mountains has an abundance of wildflowers, charming mountain villages and traditional houses, beautiful wall-painted sundials and so much more.  It is fair to say it is one of my favourite parts of France.  The mountains of the Écrins National Park top 4,000 m and, with no roads crossing the central peaks, accessing the unsurpassed mountain walking, the prettiest villages and flower-rich Alpine meadows often involves driving on minor roads that wind steeply up deep-cut valleys.

Below are some of my favourite walks in the Écrins, although I hope to return and discover more soon.  The walks follow an anti-clockwise route around the central mountains, starting with the western valleys.  The campsites we stayed at are listed at the end of the post.

La-Chapellle-en-Valgaudemar

La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar is a small attractive village  that nestles among the mountains and is reached from the N85 north of Gap.  We stayed overnight at the campsite and woke to low cloud shrouding the mountains but it was dry as we set off walking from the village up the hillside to Les Portes.

The steep narrow path isn’t long [we were walking for about 45 minutes] but it crams in everything you would expect from a mountain walk into that short space.  You will walk through green Alpine meadows, lush woodland and areas of rocky scree, see plenty of colourful wild flowers and have views across the valley and to higher mountains.  It was early June when we visited and we identified many varieties of orchids as well as cranesbill, cowslips, globe flowers, tiny pansies and tall erect white asphodels.

At Portes des Oules we stood on the bridge looking down on the gushing waterfall as it rushed down a narrow gorge.  The pretty hamlet at Portes des Oules has some houses with thatched roofs, their tall chimneys jutting into the sky, apparently to help prevent fires.

Embrun and The Foret Domaniale de Mont Guillaume

Turning left in Gap we took the road towards Embrun and found a pitch at Camping la Vieille Ferme which is conveniently located for the impressive rock-perched town.  As dark descended, scops owls flew through the warm air, the quiet broken by their haunting calls.

We enjoyed a wonderful 14 km walk from here.  After walking into the town and enjoying the views, admiring the old town and having coffee in one of the many cafes, we climbed the hillside along a narrow road and track towards Calayère.  As we walked swallowtail butterflies followed us from flower to flower and a cuckoo called from the woodland.  We climbed higher on the minor road to Le Chateau de Calayère where we rested and watched a couple of donkeys in a field and drank in the mountain panorama.

A delightful green lane surrounded by flower meadows took us into the La forêt domaniale de Mont-Guillaume where we picked up a steep narrow path back down the hill.  In the afternoon heat the shady woodland was welcome as we followed the stream back to Embrun.

Mont Dauphin and the Marmots

Between Embrun and Briançon and below Mont Dauphin there is a marmot community and whenever we pass this way we stop to see these charming animals.  Although being so accessible they are willing to tolerate humans to some extent, we try and treat them with respect and not cause alarm.

After dawdling along the short trail around the marmot area we drove up to the fortified town of Mont Dauphin which sits above the gorge with craggy escarpments on three sides.  We crossed two moats and walked through the immense and complex defensive walls into the walled village.  Built by Vauban at the end of the 17th century this is a remarkably well preserved group of buildings.  The grid of streets are lined with pretty houses and from the walls the views along the valley are spectacular.

On a previous visit to Mont Dauphin we were camping near Guillestre and enjoyed a memorable walk from there that followed a stunning and airy path below the fortified village but high above the river.

Vallouise

Turn off the main road between Embrun and Briançon at L’Argentière-la-Bessée and follow the valley road for about 10 km to Vallouise.  We have fond memories of the campsite at Vallouise when it was a municipal site.  Now part of a chain it has lost some of the rustic charm it had but the village of Vallouise, with gorgeous houses, many decorated with ornate sundials and a central square, is still delightful.  The village is named in homage to Louis XI, remembering that in the 15th century he briefly stopped the persecution of local people.  There are lovely walks from the village but you might want to drive further up the valley for some spectacular mountain walking.

Pre de Madame Carle and the Glacier Noir path

It is a further 22 km or so from Vallouise to the end of the road and the large car park at Pre de Madame Carle but well worth the drive.  From here there are a number of fantastic walks including the Glacier Noir.  If you are looking for isolation, a bit of excitement and stunning scenery then this is your path.

At first the path zig-zags uphill but eventually you reach the narrow lateral moraine ridge that climbs steadily upwards on the north side of the glacier.  We felt privileged to have this fantastic and airy route to ourselves.  The path varies in width but is never more than a metre wide and sometimes narrower and the rock and gravel moraine slopes steeply down to the glacier on one side, while the other slope is grassier and less steep; this latter direction is the way to fall!

We walked among a dramatic landscape with dark crags around us and plenty of snow.  The tranquility was only broken by the sound of occasional falling rocks.  As we climbed higher we could hear the waterfalls at the head of the glacier.  These thundered loudly periodically as if a sluice gate was being opened and closed.  At first glance this appears to be a bleak and desolate landscape, but look closely and you will see tiny flowers surviving in the rocky moraine.  I found a cluster of tiny forget-me-nots, bright pink primula and azaleas bushes which were not yet in flower.  Marmots pottered confidently on the path in front of us, flicking their tails and moving quickly and easily on the steep terrain.  Chamois crossed our paths and sat watching us from the banks of snow.  This was heavenly.

Col du Lauteret

We have driven over the Col du Lauteret [2,057 m] on the splendid road among snow-capped mountains a number of times but only once stopped for a walk.  From the col, the well-marked Sentier des Crevasses takes walkers straight into the high mountains as it traverses the valley side.  This path is abundant with wild flowers, alpine choughs circle overhead and vultures soar.  On the hillsides we heard the piercing alarm call of marmots and stopping to look we eventually spotted them on the hillside.  The views from the narrow but easy to follow path across to the immense La Meije are spectacular.

Walking as far as the Belvedere viewpoint is easy.  Beyond here the hillside becomes steeper and the rock more unstable.

Les Terraces, Chazelet, the Combe de Martignare and Notre Dame de la Roche chapel

Some of my favourite walks in the Écrins were completed from La Grave.  This attractive village, beyond the Col du Lauteret, huddles along the steep-sided valley below La Meije.  Its stone buildings and steep narrow streets ooze character.  The Romanche river runs along the valley below the village and it is surrounded by stunning Alpine scenery.  In the winter this is a popular skiing area.

A 12 km walk took us from La Grave to Les Terraces on a steep uphill path.  Les Terraces is a quiet village perched high on the mountainside, where stone houses with balconies have an enviable view.  Continuing on towards another sleepy village, Chazelet, we stopped to take in the views at the Oratoire de Chazelet, a stone shrine.  The summit of La Meije was peeking out of the cloud, below us was to La Grave and I looked up at the circling griffon vultures knowing I wasn’t brave enough to walk far along the ‘walk of faith’ or Le Perchoir that has been built like a gang-plank from the sheer rock face.  Chazelet is another picturesque village whose busiest season is winter.  From the village we carried on to Les Plagnes and the Combe de Martignare that was a stunning sea of white with narcissi.  Picking up a path back to Chazelet we descended the mountainside to the valley on a steep zig-zag path via the precariously sited Notre Dame de la Roche chapel.

Through mountain villages to L’Aiguillon at 2095m

The mountain villages of the Écrins are beautiful places to explore.  Once again from La Grave we set off for Ventelon and on to Les Hieres.  Beyond these villages the road became a track and we had excellent views looking up the valley.  We reached the stone houses of Hameau de Valfoide where nothing disturbed the tranquility except a hare that lolloped across the lane in front of us.

After passing the Torrent le Maurian we were on a path that was initially steep until it reached grassland full of pheasant’s eyes daffodils and butterflies.  It wasn’t far from here to the bench at L’Aiguillon at 2,095 m.  We sat enjoying the views to La Meije, high enough to still be in the clouds, and below us in the valley was La Grave.  We descended through more flower-rich meadows full of bird song, giving a wide berth to the large dog guarding the sheep [there are lots of signs about how to deal with these dogs].  Joining a road we walked back up hill to Lac du Pontet, a small mountain lake and followed a stream down to Villar d’Arene that is just off the main road.  Here we found a cafe and enjoyed beers and ice-cream in a sunny square before crossing the Romanche and walking through lovely fragrant larch forest where the ground was soft underfoot with a carpet of pine needles.  The path took us over a shoulder and then onto a track back to the campsite.

Le Bourg d’Arud, Venosc and Lac Lauvitel

Below the skiing resort of Les Deux Alpes and in the north of the Écrins is the village of Venosc.  From the nearby campsite we spent a lovely day on another perfect Alpine walk.

It is worth taking time to explore Venosc, a delightful village that has a cable car up to Les Deux Alpes and is packed with shops selling crafts and bijou cafes.

From Venosc, we took a path that followed a clear river through woodland to the hamlet of La Danchère.  Here we took the right-hand path up to Lac Lauvitel and into a floral paradise; there were so many wild flowers it was impossible to stop at them all.  The stony path was relentlessly steep and at one cascade we had to scramble over a plug of snow.  In the hot weather this was tiring work but worth it for the reward when we emerged at the blue lake surrounded by craggy mountains.  Around us was an amazing natural rock garden that we wandered through to a meadow and the lakeside.

We descended on what would have been the left-hand path from La Danchère.  This was equally steep!

Well done if you have kept reading this far, as I have saved my favourite walk to the last!

La Berarde and Refuge du Chatelleret at 2,232 m

The mountain village of La Berarde is about 20 km further along the narrow road from Venosc and is the end of the road.  La Berarde is a small village with a couple of cafes and shops.  We parked the Blue Bus here and under a cloudless sky walked 11 km to the Refuge du Chatelleret at 2,232 m and back.

The route starts steeply with zig-zags rising gently up the valley on a sandy path through low shrubs.  As we climbed higher the path became stonier and there was less vegetation.  We encountered lots of marmots, a few groups of chamois and so many butterflies.

Climbing steadily it took some time to reach the refuge, high in the valley and huddled underneath the massive of La Meije.  In early June the refuge wasn’t open but the guardian was busy getting it ready for the summer season.  The beauty of this valley is breathtaking.  We sat in solitude, surrounded by craggy mountains and with magnificent views down the u-shaped valley to the twin peaks above La Berarde.  Sitting in the sunshine we noticed a strange rainbow streak in the sky above one of these peaks.  This was a cloud iridescence that lasted for about 30 minutes, moving and changing shape and fragmenting.  An amazing phenomena I have never seen before.  The descent was the same way and just as lovely the other way round.  We stopped to refresh our feet in the cold water of the river on the way.  What a fantastic hike and a great end to our time in the Écrins.

Although many walks are well-marked, we took walking maps and the Cicerone guide to Écrins National Park to help with planning and completing our walks.

Campsites in the Écrins

Les Melezes Municipal Camping, La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar This grassy site has some trees and the ground is fairly hard.  The facilities are clean & the water hot.  The village is small with some shops but no bakery.  Lovely walks from the site.
Camping Vieille Ferme, Embrun A Dutch-run site near to a lovely town.  Some trees for shade but mostly sunny and marked grassy pitches.  Clean facilities and warm water.
Camping La Meije, La Grave A steep walk from the beautiful village & by the river,  this is a grassy site with trees, clean facilities and flowers.  The site is well maintained & has good views.  The showers are roomy with very hot water, the wash up undercover.  An all round excellent site.
Huttopia Vallouise Campsite This large rambling site has great views.  It is dotted with permanent erected tents & chalets.  The new toilet blocks are good and it has a pleasant reception area.  There are bakeries in the village.
Le Champ du Moulin Camping, Le Bourg d-Arud near Venosc The site has marked pitches, good views, a friendly welcome and a small shop where they sell morning bread.  Facilities are in the basement & are clean and warm & the showers are hot & roomy.  There is also a drying room.

Vegan Apple & Blueberry Cake

This is a perfect cake for damp autumn afternoons. I have been experimenting with this recipe for a few weeks now, trying to make a cake that isn’t too sweet but is tasty. This means we have munched our way through some delicious but slightly fragile versions of this cake until I managed to get the ratios right so that we had something with enough robustness to be picked up. Here is the recipe I am sticking with …

Recipe

  • 90 g of brown sugar
  • 100 g of margarine melted & cooled
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
  • 50 ml of milk [I use soya milk]
  • Half of a 270 g jar of apple sauce [I use Lidl]
  • 150 – 200 g of blueberries
  • 190 g of plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon or mixed spice

Optional topping – 1 teaspoon of brown sugar with a tablespoon of lemon juice or apple juice and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon or mixed spice

Method – Put the blueberries in a small bowl and mix with 20 g of the brown sugar. In a large bowl beat the cooled melted margarine with the remaining 70 g of the sugar.

Add the vanilla essence, milk and apple sauce to the bowl and mix well.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and cinnamon or mixed spice and fold into the wet ingredients.

Carefully mix the sugar-coated blueberries into the cake mixture.

Grease your baking tin. I use a 6″ square tin but have tried muffin tins and loaf tins too.

I bake in the Remoska for about 40 – 45 minutes. Otherwise, bake at 180C [gas mark 4] for about 45 minutes or longer, depending on your oven and the tin you have used. A skewer should come out clean when the cake is cooked and your kitchen will smell warm and inviting!

Cool in the tin and while it is still warm you can coat the top with a mixture of sugar, cinnamon / mixed spice and juice for a slightly crunchy sweet topping.

The Motoring Ombudsman made our Campervan happy!

Until fairly recently I hadn’t heard of The Motor Ombudsman (TMO), an organisation that is there to sort out disputes between customers and the automotive sector. In the past I have expressed a bit of scepticism about how effective these service ombudsmen are, but I have to hold my hand up and say they did [eventually] come up with the goods when we had an issue with Renault.

Our campervan conversion is on a Renault Master, a reliable work-horse sort of van that it would be reasonable to expect would keep chugging on for many miles. And yet, on our last trip to Spain ours let us down dramatically when the power steering suddenly failed in a Lidl car park in Guernica, having driven only 30 km from the ferry at Bilbao.  It turns out that without power steering it is a herculean effort to wrestle a Renault Master into a parking space! One telephone call and our breakdown kicked in and after a wait of a few hours in the mid-day sunshine we were taken on the back of a large lorry to a friendly garage [in the photograph] in a town near Bilbao. None of the mechanics spoke English, we hadn’t even got into the swing of Spanish after being in the country a few hours, but everyone smiled a lot.

At the time our van was only four years old and power steering was still covered under the warranty. We informed our breakdown about this but they weren’t keen to move us onto a Renault garage as they thought this could prolong the repair and our need for alternative accommodation. This was possibly true and we were eager to be back on the road.

After a nail-biting day and night, when we didn’t know if it was a big or a small issue, the problem with the power steering turned out to be a relatively simple electrical fault and the local garage had our campervan up and running by the afternoon of the next day. We were relieved to only have to stay one night in a hotel and there was a lot more smiling all round.

In the meantime we had spoken to our Manchester Renault garage who suggested that Renault UK might just reimburse the £130 the repair cost us as it was covered by the warranty in the UK.  When we returned home we contacted Renault, pointing out what good customers we had been at Renault Manchester, that the power steering should never have failed and how inconvenient this was on holiday. We hoped for an apology for the disruption and, knowing they had no obligation to pay us anything, a contribution to the cost we had incurred as a gesture of good will.  Instead Renault responded very curtly, stating that they were not required to pay for a repair carried out by a non-Renault garage.

We would have been happy with just a few quid to shut us up but Renault’s response was so dismissive and thoughtless we were pushed into standing up to the might of an international corporation, a bit like David fighting Goliath, and call in The Motoring Ombudsman.  The TMO took up our case and at first got the same uppity response from Renault. The TMO came back to us shrugging their shoulders in a Gallic way, saying there was no more they could do.

We were a trifle despondent to be beaten but didn’t think we had anywhere else to go. Then a few months later, quite mysteriously, TMO emailed us again to say they had reviewed our case [?] and were contacting Renault once more.  We didn’t hold our breath but this time, again mysteriously, they either caught Renault on a good day or maybe gave the case to someone more experienced. On this occasion Renault reacted in a more customer-focused manner and offered to fully meet the cost of the repair and added a little something for our inconvenience. Of course, we accepted!

It isn’t quite the victory of David over Goliath but we were grateful to be listened to and did say a big thank you to The Motor Ombudsman and to Renault!