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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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!
I normally enjoy the moment I am in. If I am reading, engrossed in a project or out walking or cycling in the great outdoors I am completely focused and present. Although I get anxious about the future, I am not someone who generally wishes my time away, I know that every minute is precious and appreciate being alive and well every day … but these days I am experiencing a strong urge to hibernate until this melancholic winter is over.
Lancashire has now been placed in the highest category in the UK for coronavirus restrictions and we’re advised to stay confined to our county; much as I love Lancashire, I once again feel restrained. I am dreading this winter that will be a long calendar of missed get-togethers and celebrations. I am sure my partner will make it special but my forthcoming birthday will most likely be just the two of us. Christmas and New Year are not a big deal in our house but in normal years we do socialise and knowing I might not see my friends and family through December makes me weep. And then the dark days of January and February will roll in. These are difficult months at the best of times but this year I can feel them advancing like a heavy dark cloud. How will those months of long nights feel without occasional warm convivial evenings around a friend’s dining table drinking red wine, eating their fantastic food and laughing? Just wake me up in March when at least spring is springing.
I heard Simon Armitage on the radio for National Poetry Day talk about the ‘coronavirus rollercoaster,’ before he read his poem ‘Something Clicked.’ In the poem he considers some of the benefits of a pandemic such as not having to endure the commute now many people are working from home and having time to just sit and think and appreciate nature. Of course, this is the life I had been living from 2017 and retirement and while it is good to hear that some people are finding positives in this whole muddle my own rollercoaster has rushed mostly downhill with only small optimistic inclines.
I have tried to be realistic about coronavirus, knowing it will be with us for the long haul, the virus won’t be beaten or sent home with its tail between its legs. I hoped that we would find a way to manage and live with covid-19 among us. I thought we could live differently, make social distancing and good hygiene normal and perhaps invite our friends to our home one household at a time. I was optimistic and excited in June when we could drive away from home and walk in the hills again and on 4 July I was on a high at being allowed to go camping again. July was good, we met a few friends outdoors and went camping but by the end of the month it was clear that these less uneasy days weren’t going to last forever.
We grasped our chance and escaped to France in August, just in time to have to return and spend two hard weeks in quarantine. As well as thoroughly enjoying travelling in another country again, by fitting in a trip before the amounts of alcohol we can return with is limited [after Brexit] our cupboards are now full of red wine!
I always experience some dread as the cold dark months approach but I have been working on having a more positive attitude circulating in my head and in September I was learning to appreciate these days of colourful autumn colours, rainbows and stunning morning and evening light. We toured around Northumberland and Yorkshire in our campervan and walked up mountains until our legs ached in Scotland. We have met friends and our son and daughter-in-law for long walks, layering up to keep warm and hunkering down with a flask for a picnic and I was starting to feel happy and more balanced again. Having spent too long with only each other to chunter to about the state of the nation, it felt good to hear other people’s ideas and thoughts and really have a conversation in a way you can’t do as the internet freezes and falters the to-and-fro of real communication.
I am still wary of planning more than a week ahead at any time. So many lovely proposed meet ups and trips have been scuppered by the ever-changing rules and each blow sends me hurtling down that rollercoaster. Always an enthusiastic arranger of holidays, meet-ups and celebrations in the past the next few months look empty and bleak but at least I won’t have the disappointment of cancellation. I am learning to accept the gaps in my life, at least they are certain and when we do get the chance to snatch time away in our campervan or with friends it is a bonus.
We are being nudged back into isolation. I’m sure I am not alone in my feelings of despair and it is going to take a bit of effort to see the positives in this.
Something Clicked – Simon Armitage
Then something clicked
and the day quivered and rang like a question mark!
Why grit your teeth in the gridlock now the commute’s
a superfast hop and a skip from toothbrush to keyboard,
from bed-hair to screen-call?
Why wrestle with glitches and gremlins
or tussle with gubbins and gismos, or idle and churn
in the swirling pit of the buffering wheel
now you’re fine-tuning the senses, enrolling for real life,
getting to grips with arts and crafts
that were only a keystroke away all along –
you’re a rhythm guitar, a poem, a garden, a song.
You’ve learned to cook –
you’re a Sunday roast, a multigrain loaf, a recipe book!
Why be garbled and scrambled again
now you’re mindful, resourceful, neighbourly, human?
Now you’re curious. Fruitful. Meaningful. Tuneful.
And why twiddle your thumbs, though sometimes it’s good
to kick back, to noodle and doodle
letting dreams swim into pin-sharp-focus,
meander through luminous moments. Why stall,
why settle for knowledge arriving granule by granule?
No more fishing for news with a butterfly net,
doing the human aerial. You’re bright of late, ideas hitching
and switching from one domain to the next,
thoughts swiping from subject to subject, planet to planet,
globetrotting the universe. And you’re riding a bike –
you’re a walk, a hike, a mountain, a lake.
It’s a new world – you’re at school in the kitchen,
at work in the attic, in Ancient Rome in the lounge,
on Mars in the basement. Why tear out your hair
while the present dithers and loads, you deserve
to lean on the airwaves and not fall over,
to feel the hub of your heart’s heart
pulsating and purring with life’s signal.
So you’re right here this minute being your best being.
And now you’ve hooked up
with the all-thinking all-feeling all-doing version of you
In 1985 we were both young, married and still child-free but didn’t own a campervan. We did have a small tent and in that spring we carried it across Scotland from coast to coast on what was then called The Great Outdoors Ultimate Challenge, run by The Great Outdoors magazine and sponsored by Ultimate, who made lightweight tents. Just being able to be a part of this hiking expedition was tough, never mind the days of backpacking across remote Scottish glens and mountains. Our application for the Ultimate Challenge had to demonstrate our ability to backpack day after day, map read and survive in Scotland’s rugged terrain and in those days only 250 lucky participants were chosen. Once through the selection we had to submit a plan [by post] of our self-supported route for comments,. Although everyone finishes their challenge in Montrose, the west coast starting points vary and each route is unique.
The Great Outdoors established a self-supported Scottish coast-to-coast hike in 1980 and it is still going strong, although for obvious reasons 2020 didn’t happen. The walk is non-competitive, there are no prizes for reaching Montrose first and today people write blogs about their trips. The Great Outdoors Challenge writes, ‘Up to 2019, a total of 10013 crossing have been attempted with 8851 being completed – a remarkable achievement for a remarkable event.’ Mine is one of those 8,851 crossings.
An important part of our training and preparation for the challenge was eating Mars bars! In 1985 Mars had a promotion and eating enough gave us a discount on the National Express buses to and from Scotland. We left our Midlands home at 07.00 on a May morning with full rucksacks and full of excited anticipation after six months of planning. We arrived at our starting point of Oban on Scotland’s west coast in evening sunshine after an arduous journey of over twelve hours. On the coaches we were entertained by drivers, new to the route, who didn’t know the location of the bus station in the string of Yorkshire towns they stopped at! Without SatNav or online maps, they would look for road signs and even pull up and ask pedestrians the way.
Over the next memorable twelve days we carried our small Vango Mark Two tent, cooking equipment, food, clothing, camera, books and maps [my reading was Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles] from Oban across the notorious Rannoch Moor and through the Cairngorms to the east coast, sometimes in temperatures over 20C and sometimes in persistent rain. When we reached Montrose we were both grubbier, leaner and fitter.
Our recent trip to Montrose, Glen Clova and Glen Callater bought back heaps of memories of that unforgettable adventure. These memories flooded in as we parked near the Glen Clova Hotel and took the now well-made path up to Loch Brandy, a stunning example of a mountain corrie. Following the footsteps of our younger selves, we climbed up the indistinct path around the crags of the corrie to Green Hill. In 1985 we continued across these heathery bumps to Glen Esk, walking in thick low cloud and following a compass bearing between hummocks and lochans. I remember how ecstatic and relieved we were when we realised our navigation had been spot on and we reached the track at the Shieling of Saughs.
From the mountains we drove the Blue Bus to the wide sweep of Montrose beach to evoke more memories. On this recent trip we were lucky and delighted to see a group of dolphins leaping out of the waves as we walked along the shoreline. Continuing along the beach I wondered what had happened to some of the people we had met on our Ultimate Challenge. The UC was a journey full of camaraderie as well as tough walking and it appears this is still an important aspect of the event. With no mobile phones in 1985 we were encouraged to ring HQ in Montrose from telephone boxes whenever we had the chance so that they knew we and others we had met were alive and well. My journal for the trip is full of the people we spoke to, the joy of sharing an amazing experience and a hint of awe for the experienced participants. On our last night in Montrose we partied in the Park Hotel until the small hours; an evening packed full of laughter and walker’s tales, all the pain of blisters, soggy wet clothing and deep weary agony forgotten.
On this year’s autumn trip, after some splendid coastal walking near Stonehaven, we left the sea for Deeside and had a fantastic day crammed with a medley of weather as we hiked up the popular Morven [871 m] on the eastern edges of the Cairngorms. October hit us with sleet, hail, sunshine and rainbows but we were blessed with a view from the summit to Lochnagar and Mount Keen. An unexpected surprise was a specially designed box in the summit shelter that holds a book and pen for walkers to write in and even postcards of the hill to purchase!
In 1985, after seven days walking we were at Blair Atholl and could stock up in the village shop. Our walk from there up the remote and attractive Glen Tilt is a privilege I will never forget. After the Falls of Tarf we planned to cross a stream but following heavy rain the gushing torrent was too fast to paddle across and too wide to jump. One of the marvelous things about backpacking, as with a campervan, is that you are carrying everything you need with you and can be flexible. After much deliberation we decided to camp overnight where we were on the grassy spot by the burn and the next day detour to Braemar. The morning dawned wild and wet and we struggled through miles of thick damp heather that hid ankle-bashing rocks to reach the six miles of tarmac to Braemar. A welcoming B&B owner whisked away our wet gear to dry it out and fortified us with much needed tea and cake and that evening we ate salad and chips [the only vegetarian option in these unenlightened times] for £1 each in the Fife Arms.
From Braemar we had another memorable day of walking along the historic Jock’s Road through Glen Callater; a route that played an important role in the rights of way walkers in Scotland have. After the good track the path became steeper and boggier at the end of the glen, taking us up to the featureless plateau before the lovely descent to Glen Doll and onto Glen Clova. Jock’s Road funnels many Ultimate Challengers from their varied starting points onto the same path as they get nearer to Montrose. My diary notes how sociable the walking was throughout that day, including meeting Bob Dawes one of five people to complete all of the first ten challenges.
We were once again in a reminiscing mood as we drove from Braemar to the car park at Auchallater. From here we travelled alongside our youthful bootsteps on the track up Glen Callater but this time turning off onto Carn nan Gabhar [834 m], a fairly easy Corbett between Glen Callater and the A93. The weather was kind to us, the autumn colours were stunning and we stayed cloud-free, although the higher mountains all had their tops in the murk. We saw red deer but most thrilling were the couple of mountain hares we spotted near the summit as we descended towards Callater Loch Lodge.
The welcome in Scotland is still a warm one, the scenery is still breathtaking and the weather still unpredictable. But many other things have changed in Scotland since 1985. In 2020 you’ll pay a bit more than the £1.20 [equivalent to about £3.60 today] it cost us to pitch our small tent at Tummel Bridge or even the £2.50 [equivalent to about £7.63] we paid at what is now called Blair Castle Caravan Park [although I notice it is only £12 for two backpackers in low season]. Thankfully, nowadays vegetarian backpackers don’t have to survive on a plateful of vegetables and you can feel fairly confident you will be able to enjoy a good vegetarian meal in most Scottish hotels and restaurants.
All the photographs I have added to this blog post are from our 1985 Ultimate Challenge. You can see we both had more hair in those days, we were still wearing walking breeches and check shirts but my cagoule did contain some Gore-Tex.
During our 2020 campervan trip we stayed at a mixture of remote wild camping spots and Caravan and Motorhome Club sites [Forfar, Stonehaven and Banchory].
An adult-only campsite on a regular bus route to Cheltenham and Gloucester is a great place for a couple wanting an urban break full of historical interest, entertainment and stunning places to eat. Briarfields is on the edge of Cheltenham and is open all year round so, like us, you can visit out of season. The site is enclosed by trees and has good-sized pitches and clean facilities. With buses from the entrance, the background road noise is a small price to pay for the convenience of being able to easily visit the historic town of Cheltenham and the city of Gloucester.
You get off the bus in Cheltenham near to the brilliant white Regency buildings of The Royal Crescent. I had a copy of David Elder’s Cheltenham Heritage Walks guide book with me and we set off on some of the nine themed walks in this book.
If it is a fine day then the perfect thing to do in Cheltenham is to walk to some of its parks and gardens. A highlight of your tour will be Pittville Park, about 15 minutes walk from the town centre that gives you chance to admire the large Regency houses and green squares you will pass on the way. With a duck pond, a boating lake, a playground and cafe and on the hill the stately Pump Rooms, Pittville is an lovely park. The elegant columned Pump Rooms has a domed roof and inside there is a tap where you can still sample Cheltenham’s water.
It isn’t my favourite thing to do, unless I actually need something, but even I can recognise that Cheltenham has a great shopping centre. Whether you are like me and don’t get beyond window shopping or do the real thing it is worth keeping an eye out for some of the statues among the shops and follow Cheltenham’s story through its art. The Minotaur and The Hare [in the photo at the top] is easy to find but look carefully and you might spot some of the small pigeon statues too. These remember the role of this humble bird in Cheltenham’s history when a local farmer spotted pigeons pecking at salt deposits at the mineral spring on his land. In the Regent Arcade you will want to check the time and watch The Wishing Fish Clock on the hour or half hour. This colourful and fun tall clock with a goose, golden eggs and other animals, has a fish hanging below the clock that blows bubbles to the tune, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles.’ The Imperial Gardens near to the centre are where you will find the statue to Gustav Holst and Cheltenham also has a museum to this composer who was born in the town.
Walking further, on the edge of the town we found Sandford Park. This has none of the grandeur of Pittville Park but offers a respite from the bustle of the town and has a pretty stream running through it and more statues.
We visited The Wilson to find out more about Edward Wilson, the local polar explorer and artist who took part in two Antarctic expeditions with Scott. Wilson, Scott and Henry Robertson Bowers died in a blizzard around 29 March 1912 still 148 miles from their base camp and just eleven miles from a food stash. As well as the room to Edward Wilson the gallery has paintings, and some stunning and elegant arts and crafts furniture that I would certainly buy if I had lots of money.
Taking the bus in the opposite direction our first stop in Gloucester was the Cathedral and this is surely a must-do for anyone in the city. We took one of the tours the cathedral offers and found it was a great way to get much more out of our visit and understand the layers of history in this beautiful building. As well as Edward II’s tomb, you will gaze in awe at the medieval east window that is the size of a tennis court and enjoy the elegant cloisters that are popular film and TV locations. If these tours are running when you are there I would recommend you join in. Afterwards we climbed the steps to the Tribune Gallery to get a whole new perspective on the building.
Walking to Gloucester Docks we had coffee and croissants in an Italian cafe where the chocolate croissant came not just with a chocolate filling but also a chocolate topping. Outside a group of Vespa owners were congregating by the water and comparing their scooters. With the sun shining we could have been in Italy!
The Victorian warehouses at Gloucester Docks have been restored and this is a watery area of cafes and restaurants that is so pleasant to walk around. The National Waterways Museum is inside one of the huge warehouses on the Docks. Each floor has low ceilings and small windows and was designed to store cargoes that arrived here along the canal from Avonmouth and the River Severn. The oral history exhibits bring to life the hard work in all weathers of the workers on the barges.
The Jet Age Museum
Also accessible by bus from Briarfields, the Jet Age Museum has a mostly indoor collection of Gloster Aviation Company (GAC) planes, apparently the company changed its name from Gloucester as anyone outside England struggled to pronounce it! GAC built the Meteor, the RAFs first jet that saw service in the Second World War. GAC started life in Cheltenham and worked with Frank Whittle to build The Meteor, testing it in 1941 and flying with the RAF by 1943.
The museum is run by enthusiastic volunteers and is packed with information. You can concentrate on the planes or dig deeper into a particular aspect of aviation. Visitors can have a bit of a hands-on adventure climbing two ladders in and out of the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber, a cramped and stuffy place that isn’t for the claustrophobic. The five of us each had a crew member’s seat and our guide described what each of us would have been responsible for on a flight. Easier to get into and more comfortable was the BAE Trident, the first passenger aircraft with an automatic landing system, built by a local firm. There are smaller simulators for children too.
If you want to read more my travel article about this area that was published in MMM in November 2020 can be found in the list of MMM published articles.
Coronavirus has so many things to answer for. In the melee of real tragedies, one small thing popped up on the news this week that chipped another piece out of my heart. As if life isn’t bad enough for the north of England, locked down in a confusing array of different regulations that mean that many of us can’t even entertain a couple of friends two metres away in a garden, P&O Ferries announce they are ending the Hull to Zeebrugge route.
This news bought back so many memories of holidays that always began the moment we opened the bottle of red wine and proposed a toast to happy holidays in the P&O Four Seasons Buffet. Catching the ferry from Hull was such a leisurely affair. We would leave home after lunch and usually stop for a brew in our campervan overlooking the Humber before checking in. After finding our cabin in the maze of corridors [always with a window], we would climb on deck and watch the large ship making its sedate way through the lock at the port of Hull, eventually reaching the river Humber. In the Four Seasons restaurant we would hope to get a window seat so that we could watch the magnificent Spurn Point go by as we had our relaxing meal. The buffet might sound tacky but we were like children every time, enjoying the chance to try new and interesting combinations of food. While I would have numerous platefuls of different salads and cheeses, Anthony would add extra vegetables to his plateful of vegetable curry and then indulge in more than one pudding! As the restaurant cleared, we would chat to the waiting staff who always had interesting sailor’s stories Meanwhile, from Spurn Point the ship would leave the shelter of the Humber and we navigated into the will of the North Sea weather. By then we would be safely tucked up in our beds dreaming of the continent.
Waking up there was only time for a quick breakfast and before we knew it we were driving through the small port town of Zeebrugge and across Belgium via its motorway network. The Brussels ring road was always busy with traffic and sometimes we got lost but we were soon beyond its confusing junctions and on our way to France or Germany and further afield.
Occasionally we wouldn’t just race through the small country of Belgium, we would linger and explore some of its pretty corners, something we would never have done if we weren’t travelling to and from Zeebrugge. I have plenty of happy memories of fun and lovely places we have visited thanks to this ferry and have scattered some photographs in this post and many are in my travel article about Belgium [June 2017].
Sometimes we would have spare time on our last day and stop at a small Belgium town to explore before checking in at Zeebrugge. We have walked along the prom at Blankenberge, wandered around Zeebrugge itself and discovered gems like Veurne in rural Flanders. We picked Veurne randomly and found a small town with a beautifully preserved Grote Markt that was just right for some leg stretching before catching the ferry.
We have also stopped in the charming chic town of Spa and feasted on frites. The frites stall offered a bewildering row of different sauces to accompany their frites but traditional mayonnaise is always my preferred combination. Sitting in the park eating frites and watching the intricacies of a pétanque tournament was an unforgettable Belgian moment.
Belgian food is outstanding and on another occasion we discovered delicious ice-cream in Sint-Truiden. This wealthy and dapper town with high-class shops and tubs of colourful flowers has a splendid market place, dominated by the town hall. Ijssalon Venise is a smart and popular cafe in the square and it served up an excellent banana split with rich warm chocolate sauce. And all within striking distance of our ferry home.
I can’t really believe we won’t make this journey again and feel stupidly sad. Surely another ferry company will take the route on. The ferry always seemed busy, there were generally school groups, weekenders visiting Bruges, freight and other holidaymakers from the north of England and Scotland that can’t face tackling the long drive around the M25 to Dover. Crossing the Pennines to Hull and waking up in mainland Europe was such a relaxing start to our adventures.
This virus has taken away so much away it is hard to mourn everything but I find I am cursing coronavirus once again.
We spent three weeks touring Brittany in north-west France in August this year. We wouldn’t normally choose to travel during school holidays and August but, of course, nothing is normal in 2020. I’m kicking myself that we didn’t travel to France in early July but at that time we thought we could continue with our plan to go in September for the autumn. As it became increasingly clear that the situation was only going to get worse we bought our ferry date forward and we are so glad we did.
We opted to stay at campsites, rather than aires, on this trip. All but two of the sites listed below are around the beautiful coast and I think all of them were three star sites. Including local tourist taxes, the sites cost from €18 [ACSI discount rate as the season ended equivalent to £16.03] to €27.17 [£24.20] a night for high season and compared to the UK campsites these prices seemed reasonable. We didn’t go swimming but most of the campsites had a swimming pool, the sanitary blocks were open at all of them, hand sanitiser was widely available but not all the sites had soap for good hand washing.
The coast of Brittany is spectacular and we enjoyed walking and cycling along its cliffs and coves. Inland Brittany is a rural idyll dotted with pretty walled towns that are perfect for exploring.
Here is the list of where we stayed with my comments. You will notice I appreciate a good hot shower!
Level grassy site by a road, reasonable pitches but long cable needed. Facilities kept very clean, showers only warm but roomy and a good flow. Bread available and there is a lovely 8 km walk around the nearby island.
Large pine trees for shade over pitches of various sizes that are not necessarily level and some hedging. Showers are jets of hot water and a little cramped. Short walk to lovely beach, pretty bay and harbour and other longer walks.
Peaceful site with very large pitches marked by trees and hedges. A friendly and helpful welcome and maps for walks and local cycle routes. Only 4 showers, so sometimes there was an evening queue but hot water & clean. Lovely beach nearby and indoor pool on the site.
Terraced site with views on the edge of the old beautiful town of Locronan where there are bars, cafes and shops. Modern facilities block with hot and roomy showers and older block, both kept clean. A friendly welcome and information on local walks around the town and to the nearby woods. Indoor pool on the site.
Terraced site with some sea views, on a fantastic coastal cycle route in both directions. The facilities are dated, basic and fairly open to the elements but the showers are hot. Bread available at the friendly reception.
Small site with ACSI low season discount. Close to the town, beaches and a nature reserve. Pitches are hedged and large, the clean facilities have hot showers only spoilt by the short burst of water between button presses. Friendly welcome at reception, bread available and small grocery shop and bars and restaurants nearby.
Small cramped site by the canal and small village, no bread on site but bakery and shop nearby. The facilities are scruffy and showers only lukewarm. The site has a swimming pool and is popular with groups. Great flat cycling along the canal to pretty towns.
Large site with good-sized marked grassy pitches. Two beaches and headlands a short walk away and some sea views. The showers were roomy but the temperature of the water varied somewhat and I wouldn’t call them super-clean. Pizzas available from the snack bar and a pleasant beach-side bar and restaurant. Plenty of walks from the site in all directions. This site is expensive in high season but great value with the ACSI card.