Hiking, Cycling & History: My Top Tips for Exploring inland Spain in a Campervan

Although I love exploring almost anywhere in Spain, it is inland Spain that draws me and continues to surprise and amaze me.  In inland Spain we have found great walking, fascinating history and spectacular sights.  It isn’t that we haven’t visited the Spanish coast; in 2009/10 we toured along the entire Mediterranean coast of Spain and the Atlantic coast to Portugal.  This was over winter and the coast certainly had the better weather, fantastic amenities and plenty of open campsites.  Now we travel at a warmer time of year we have tended to search out a different Spain away from the sea and have discovered some gems.

Below is a list of some of the wonderful places we have stayed at to help anyone else in their search and planning for a trip to Spain away from the costas.

Aranjuez south of Madrid

The only reason we had pitched up in Aranjuez was its easy connection by train to Madrid, so the lively and interesting town of Aranjuez took us by surprise.  With an ornate palace, large formal gardens modelled on Versailles, an attractive shopping centre and fascinating historical sites nearby there is more to do here than take the train into Madrid [although this is highly recommended].  Aranjuez was somewhere we stayed longer than we expected.

From the campsite, walk towards the town, cross a footbridge over the rio Tajo and you are in the Jardin del Principe.  These shady gardens, where red squirrels play and peacocks preen, are divided into different themed areas.  Another garden, The Jardin del Parterre, by the Palacio Real, an opulent pink and cream building, has fountains that spring to life to a timetable.  If you haven’t seen enough of gardens you can explore the Jardin de la Isla, a wooded garden with paths lined with box hedging, lofty plane trees, more peacocks and some extraordinary fountains.

A short drive away is Chinchón, a Los Pueblos más bonitos de España  set among acres of olive trees.  The big attraction in Chinchón is the circular Plaza Mayor surrounded by charming three storey wooden buildings with balconies, many of these laid out with tables for romantic dining.  The town is famous for garlic, wine and anise that can be more than 70% ABV and you can buy in one litre bottles.

We stayed at Aranjuez Camping – A large organised site about 1.5 km from the town with clean heated facilities and a supermarket

Alquézar, Aragon

We were in Alquézar at the same time as an Ultra Trail event and sweaty competitors were running challenging routes from 14 to 104 km through the hilly terrain.  On our first morning the runners were racing along the Ruta de las Pasarelas, the footbridges route and so this was temporarily closed.  No matter, as we could have coffee lazily watching the competitors arriving to power rock music at the finish line and look around the stunningly situated town and gaze into the gorge of the Rio Vero.  In a small bakery we found the local delicacy, the dobladillo, a pastry with honey and nuts that is perfect for a picnic.

The popular Ruta de las Pasarelas descends to the gorge where we paddled in the shallow water and ate our dobladillo before continuing on the sections of metal walkways that are bolted onto the cliffs at different heights.  It is slightly eerie walking high above the river on a mesh platform and we stopped often to enjoy the spectacular rocky scenery, spotting a kingfisher darting along the river.  The final viewing platform suspended high above olive and fig trees and agave plants gives you a chance to look back along the canyon.  After climbing back up to the town it is not unreasonable to have a cool beer in a cafe overlooking the gorge before exploring the narrow cobbled streets further.

The walking is stunning in the countryside around Alquézar and only limited by the time you have here.  On our second day we took the advice of the Tourist Office and followed the Ruta Quizans and Chimiachas, a 14 km walk to caves where rock art has been discovered.  On the hillside above the town we passed the Balsas de Basacol, a popular swimming pool in summer.  Walking on sandy paths through fragrant juniper and rosemary bushes, for much of the day we had magnificent views into the rio Vero gorge.  The cave at Quizans was somewhat disappointing but we carried on, descending down a limestone gorge to Chimiachas.   Metal steps helped us reach the exposed shallow cave where we found the painting of a beautiful red deer from between 8,000 – 3,000 BC that made the walking worthwhile.

We stayed at Alquézar Camping, Alquézar – Terraced sandy camping site with narrow access routes & trees for shade, small shop & cafe, some good facilities, near to lovely town & good walking.

Albarracín and Teruel, Aragon

The Mudéjar architecture in the city of Teruel is delightful and well worth exploring for at least a day.  We parked the campervan on one of the streets near the railway station and our first introduction to the city was the neo-Mudéjar staircase, the Escalinata, built in 1920.  This ornate stairway copies the Mudéjar style of red brick and coloured tiles.  After coffee in a smart nearby cafe we found the 14th century Torre de El Salvador.  This and other towers are a fusion of Muslim and Christian styles using red brick and green and white tiles.  Built with an inner and outer wall, the staircase climbs between the two walls with rooms on three floors, finishing in a bell tower that has great views over the city.  We also visited the cathedral with a wood Mudéjar techumbre ceiling from 1300 that depicts Islamic geometric images and gothic human images in brilliant colours.  In the Pasteleria Munoz we bought a delicious selection of cakes and chocolates.

The pleasant road to Albarracín passes through a green and craggy valley where we stopped to see some of the Roman aqueduct that alternates between canal and galleries cut through the cliffs.

The campsite at Albarracín is a short walk from the town but has a stunning view of Albarracín, huddled against the hillside, the castle walls climbing up the slopes.  In the mornings the sun came over the hill behind our ‘van and picked out every details of Albarracin.  The town is quite lovely, narrow pretty streets to get lost in and new interesting viewpoints around every corner.  Many of the houses have decorative bars on the windows, timber framing and interesting door knockers, I spotted one made up of three snakes.  In the main square we had coffee in a small cafe before climbing up to the walls, the south facing hillside a sun trap and busy with butterflies on the remaining autumn flowers.  The walls are dotted with towers and crag martins fly in and out of the cracks between the stones.  The views back over the roofs of Albarracín and to the castle are picture-box beautiful.  We walked by the cathedral and castle and then climbed down to the green and cool path by the river that curves around the rocky outcrop the town sits upon and followed this back to where we had started.  Back at the campsite, we watched the sun go down behind the town.

We took a walk through the maritime pine woodland where the trees have long needles, black bark and large pine cones and through the bouldering areas that many climbers come to the area for.  We found caves with rock art of figures and climbed up to a mirador with views across the red sandstone gorge.  On the way back to Albarracín we walked by abandoned farmhouses and came across a shepherd following his flock over a ridge.

We stayed at Camping Ciudad de Albarracin – A terraced site about 1.5 km from the town, with gravel pitches, some in full sun and clean facilities.

Valderrobres and the Matarraña area and the Parc Natural dels Ports in Aragon

We visited this hilly area for the cycling and had a fantastic time exploring the rural tracks and old railway line that is now a cycle route.  Popular with Spanish visitors, we met few other foreign tourists in this area and felt as if we had come off the beaten track and found a gem of an area.  You are near to Tortosa and not far from the coast and this makes it an excellent excursion from the costas to get a feel for Spain with a different vibe.

The Matarraña is a rural area with fields of olives and almonds and, being well-known for its pork, there are plenty of industrial pig units.  Picturesque hilltop towns dot the landscape, each one dominated by a church.

We liked Camping El Roble in Valderrobres, although getting onto the cycle path did involve firstly paddling over the river.  There are stepping stones and if you can manage these while carrying a bike then you are a better person than me.  Once on the camino natural or track it is an easy ride into Valderrobres where there are shops and cafes and a castle.  We cycled from Valderrobres steeply uphill to Beceite but found that the track became too rough for our hybrid bikes and so we joined the road.  In the sleepy village of Beceite we took a narrow road to the Embalse de Pena that undulated through olive and almond trees, occasionally we saw someone checking the olive trees that would soon be ready to harvest.  From the reservoir the road became more pot holed as it followed the river through pine woods, passing occasional abandoned buildings until we joined the road back to Valderrobres after 18 km of pleasant cycling.

Our second cycle ride from Camping El Roble was around 28 km.  This time turning left on the camino natural we headed for Torre del Compte following the rio Matarraña through olive trees and by abandoned houses and stone huts.  Reaching a road we cycled steeply up to Torre del Compte where we found a cafe for coffee before checking out this small pretty town.  The road to the Via Verde took us downhill passing an Iberian burial chamber.  We reached the old railway line that is now the Val del Zafán Via Verde [literally green way] and found a picnic spot for lunch before continuing 7 km to Valderrobres old station.  The Via Verde has a good gravel surface and a steady gradient uphill all the way but with a head wind it was a bit of an endurance test.  Valderrobres station is some distance from the town; an undulating minor road took us there.  We stopped at the castle and then walked down through charming narrow streets, many of them stepped and lined with stone houses with small balconies and deep eaves, some painted an attractive powder blue.

We moved a short distance to Arnes for some more cycling in the dels Ports.  It was a bank holiday weekend and on the Friday evening the site filled up with Spanish families and groups of young people here for walking and climbing.  Arnes is a small town of warm stone buildings and a short walk from the campsite.  There is a bakery and grocery store for basics.

Cycling out of the campsite we were soon on the Via Verde and enjoyed 34 km of traffic-free cycling to Bot and back.  The track to the Via Verde goes steeply down to a bathing pool on the rio Algars, where we spotted a cray fish in the shallow water, before ascending to Arnes station.  Here we joined hordes of happy cyclists, all enjoying the sunshine and countryside.  The track is gently downhill and has a lot of tunnels with varying amounts of lighting, so your own lights are a must, although other cyclists will help you out if, like us, you have forgotten to bring yours!  The cafe at Bot was doing a roaring trade.

On another day we drove from Arnes to the village of El Pinell de Brai, home to the ornate Catedral del Vi, built in 1922 and designed by a student of Gaudi [where we parked our campervan].  This wonderful church-like building is decorated with tiles of images of wine drinkers.  We bought a couple of bottles of excellent wine from the shop, then set off on a glorious day of walking on the 12 km long Vall Closa walk which is way-marked from the village.  This takes you through a battle ground from the Spanish Civil War and has information boards in English which I found fascinating.  If the history of the area doesn’t interest you, then you can just enjoy the craggy and wooded scenery, although I challenge anyone not to be moved by the woodland memorial to dead soldiers.

We also drove to Corbera d’Ebre, parking on the main street.  Here is the 115 Dies [days] museum which tells the story of the Battle of the Ebro over 115 days from 25 July to 16 November 1938.  The museum explains the complications of the Spanish Civil War very well with interactive maps of how the front line moved each day and static displays of armaments, uniforms and an abandoned house.  The information was in Castillian and Catalonian but we had a booklet with English translations.  Later we walked up to the old town which was destroyed during the fighting and left as a ruin as a symbol of remembrance.  For a small fee we wandered the ruined streets and into the roofless church, thinking about the people that had called these houses home and how they felt seeing them destroyed in just a few days.  The Alphabet of Freedom are letter sculptures dotted among the ruins.  After this sombre visit we drove the short distance to the charming riverside town of Miravet, picturesquely topped by a castle.

We stayed at Camping El Roble, Valderrobres – A small gravel site by the road with a friendly and helpful owner, modern facilities, good hot showers and marked good-size pitches.

Camping Els Ports, Arnes – Large site with marked pitches and good facilities, 1 km from small town, the site is alongside a main road & there is some noise.

The free aire by the cellar in El Masroig – a small car park.  You can buy wine from local wine producers during shop hours.

Sierra de Gredos, Central Spain

It was September and although the days were warm and sunny, the mornings were chilly in the Sierra de Gredos and this encouraged lazy starts to the day.  We spent a pleasurable day cycling along the old drove road by the campsite, following the rio Tormes.  This old road varied from tarmac to gravel and was mostly fine for cycling for some distance through woods and pasture.  As the track became steeper we resorted to walking, walled fields of long horned cattle either side of us.  At a viewpoint we had lunch watching griffon vultures soaring overhead.  Returning to the valley we cycled up a 15% steep road to the villages of Navarredonda de Gredos and Barajas, where we had a deserved beer in a bar and talked to the local fire fighters.   Returning to the campsite we stopped at Las Chorreras, refreshing waterfalls and shallow pools among a confusion of granite boulders, perfect for paddling or bathing.

We drove to the end of the road and the large car park at La Plataforma in the Sierra de Gredos.  We were here to walk the 13 km return trail to the stunningly situated Laguna Grande, the most popular hike in this area.  The well-graded ascending path through the desolate high pasture is mostly made of stone sets and passes two fresh water springs.  The Gredos is home to 5,000-8,000 ibex and these are easy to spot and we saw a short-toed eagle that circled and landed on a crag.

We stayed at Camping Gredos, Hoyos del Espino – A sloping peaceful site where you are surrounded by the smell of pine trees.  Excellent hot showers.

Segovia, Central Spain

If Segovia only had the aqueduct it would still be worth visiting.  This impressive monument is Segovia’s must-see sight but wandering through this mostly traffic-free city we found much more.  We explored the Jewish quarter and visited a former synagogue and cemetery.  We followed the old walls and climbed to El Pinarillo, a delightful green space with unrivalled views back to Segovia and the Alcazar.  The cafeteria in the Alcazar has panoramic views over the countryside and we treated ourselves to tapas and beers there, watching birds of prey soaring over our heads.  At the Cathedral we paid for the tour of the Torre which was in Spanish so we missed the detail but it gave us access to the tower and there was a film with English sub-titles.

We stayed at Camping El Acuedecto, Segovia – On the edge of the city, marked pitches, buses to city, clean facilities & roomy showers.

Salamanca, north-west Spain

You need to know that I fell in love with Salamanca!  The day we arrived, our campsite reception told us there were fireworks in the city that evening, so we were soon cycling along the river into the city.  It was the annual fair and in the city there was music, processions and at 22.00 we stood in the crowds watching fireworks over the river.  Salamanca had welcomed us so warmly, I was smitten.

Over the next few days we explored again and again, seeing the Roman Bridge, the Cathedral and the elegant Plaza Mayor in daylight and relaxing and soaking in the buzz of this wonderful city that was busy with tourists, locals and students.  Salamanca is a delightful mix of narrow winding streets and bright plazas.  Around every corner are classical sandstone buildings that glowed pink in the bright sunshine and we sought out shady colonnades in the mid-day heat.  The university buildings are monumental in scale with intricate carvings and reliefs, some of them fun to find.  Under the colonnade of the Plaza Mayor we found Cafe Novelty, with more than 100 years of history this cafe has a statue of a former customer inside.

Away from the bustle, we rested in a cool green garden among the old walls and visited the calm of Convento de las Dueñas which has an unusual two-tiered five-sided cloister.  We came out with a box of delicious almond cakes made by the nuns which we shared with our neighbours on the campsite.

We stayed at Camping Don Quijte, Salamanca – A popular site with large level sandy pitches and a good cycle route to the city

Parque Natural del Canon del Rio Lobos, northern Spain

This stunning canyon offers different opportunities for walking.  We began by following Las Gullurias trail, a 9 km walk through fragrant woodland of juniper, lavender and thyme and over limestone.  The vegetation changed to thick pine trees as we approached the view point or mirador.  With a precipitous drop we had a spectacular view over the canyon, our eyes dazzled by the caves, pinnacles and limestone in different colours.  The calls of griffon vultures echoed around the canyon as they swept onto ledges to feed young.  After lunch we walked down to the floor of the canyon and the Ermita San Bartolome, scrambling up to peer through a rocky ‘window’ in the limestone that gave a view further up the canyon.

From the campsite we walked to Ucero Castle, crossing the river and taking a narrow stony path that broadened out to a soft grassy route.  Looking back we had expansive views of the limestone pinnacles and the canyon.  The castle sits above Ucero and has multiple walls and a tower that is fairly intact.

On another day we walked beyond the Ermita towards Hontaria del Pinar.  This part of the canyon is more lush, the crags are less dramatic but the canyon here is quieter and it has a beauty of its own.  The narrow rocky path follows the river, sometimes over stepping stones and occasionally there were pool covered in water lilies.    We watched large flocks of crag martins, with some house martins, high on the cliffs and as the air warmed griffon vultures appeared.

We stayed at Camping Carion del Rio Lobos, Ucero – Lots of shade under the trees, clean facilities

Monfrague National Park, Extremadura, western Spain

Monfrague National Park is rightly celebrated for bird watching and we certainly saw plenty of birds during our trips to this park.  We also enjoyed a number of walks in the national park.  The information centre and parking is in Vilareal de San Carlos and you can pick up a map in English here.  We drove to the viewpoint at Salto del Gitano to see the vultures circling around the impressive limestone crag and walked up to the Ermita and Castillo de Monfrague, an excellent viewpoint over the river and the national park.

We enjoyed two hikes, the 7.5 km green route and the 9 km yellow route.  Both started at Villarreal de San Carlos.  The circular green route took us to the top of Cerro Gimio and was a lovely way-marked trail.  The narrow path contoured the rounded hills and traversed the hillside, winding up and down through trees.  The craggy top of Cerro Gimio was a great viewpoint over the rio Tajo and we perched on the serrated ridge enjoying an airy lunch stop.  On the return section the trail took us along wooden walkways hanging over a gorge and through a shady canyon where we paddled to cool our hot feet.

The yellow [amarillo in Spanish] route was a contrasting walk.  We saw lots of deer on this route that had less shade as we hiked mostly through low-growing shrubs.  The path traverses the hillside above the river Tietar.  At Fuente Los Tres Caños, a shady picnic spot, there was a welcome cool spring.  Around La Tajadilla there are plenty of opportunities to see griffon vultures and black vultures.

We stayed at Camping Parque National Monfrague Malpartida de Plasencia – A large site a short drive from the national park.  The pitches have some shade and the facilities are good.

Caceres and Los Barruecos Monumento Natural, Extremadura, western Spain

Caceres is a popular city packed with sights and we enjoyed exploring it for a day.  Starting with coffee in one of the many cafes in either the sunny Plaza de San Juan or the elegant Plaza Mayor is a great way to begin your day and people watch for a while.  The Ciudad Monumental, the old walled city, is a traffic-free maze of narrow streets that are a pleasure to walk through.  Entered through impressive sandstone gates, inside are ornate buildings and winding lanes that offer new vistas at every corner.

About 20 km west of our campsite in Caceres is Los Barruecos Monumento Natural, a spectacular landscape of granite boulders that have eroded into weird shapes.  We parked our campervan and before exploring the granite boulders we visited the old wool washing station that is now a museum displaying the works of Wolf Vostell, a Spanish-German post-war artist who had strong connections with the area.  Here the installations ranged from a ‘class room’ of old TVs and other pieces that use cars, motorbikes, TVs and concrete to make a statement about the 1980s and 1990, all housed in beautiful old barns built for the 18th and 19th century wool washing complex.  Outside there is an extraordinary sculpture of cars in a totem pole arrangement with bits of aeroplane and adorned with a storks nest.

We followed the 7 km long green route around the two reservoirs, a walk that offers little shade on a hot day.  A kingfisher flew over the reservoir, we saw lapwings, little egrets and a heron, we were followed around by crested larks and spotted one hoopoe.  Near the cafe we watched azure winged magpies.  Many of the granite boulders have been given names and we searched out interesting shapes in the rocks.  Under a blue sky, the reflections in the still water of the reservoirs were stunning and we felt like we had been transported to a Pink Floyd album cover.

We stayed at Camping Cuidad de Caceres – Terraced site that is popular & large, each pitch with bathroom, some road noise.

Hecho, Aragon, Spanish Pyrenees

The Ordesa Valley is spectacular and justly popular and is a favourite place to visit for us but the nearby Hecho valley is a quieter and also worth a visit for some hiking.

Hecho is a pretty stone-built village with a maze of narrow streets, tightly packed houses with geraniums on the balconies and lots of cats to stop and fuss.  There is no sense of a main street and cafes, shops and a small supermarket are dotted randomly around the village.  From the village we walked on the GR15 to Collada Fuen d’a Cruz along a stony ravine busy with butterflies and crickets.  Views to the rocky crags opened out and we could see the village of Siresa and its abbey below.  We climbed steeply to the coll through pine trees on a well marked path with signs for distances and times.

On another day we cycled to Siresa, the next village, and onto Plan de Santana, where we left the bikes and took the old Roman road on the GR11 above Boca del Infierno.  This was a surprisingly lovely wide path with open views, edged with colourful flowers and butterflies.  It is a path to linger on and soak in the beauty of the landscape, the flowers and the wildlife.  In the woodland we came to a ruined castle before descending to the river.  Returning on the lane we had great views into the rocky chasm created by the river, the more adventurous can walk through the canyon.  Back in Hecho we had a glass of local beer at a sunny cafe.

We stayed at Camping Valle de Hecho, Hecho – a terraced and slightly neglected site in trees, close to the village and good walking from the site.

Aínsa, Aragon, south of the Pyrennes

Aínsa is an exquisitely preserved small town with narrow cobbled streets, views to distant mountains and an interesting line in door furniture including knockers shaped like a penis and testicles.

The campsite gave us a booklet with numerous local walks and we followed one to San Vicente de la Labuerda.  The booklet led us to expect an easy two-hour stroll but as the day wore on we realised the time was for one way only.  The undulating tracks were mostly through fragrant pine trees, often alongside steep sided gorges and we spotted red squirrels in the trees.  We were almost giving up when we had a distant view of a chapel and the views opened out on the final section to San Vicente de la Labuerda, a 12th century abbey.  As we sat in the shade of the abbey’s gate having our lunch we watched a lammergeier flying low over a deep gorge, soaring and casually twitching wing feathers to change direction.  We decided to return via Labuerda, picking up the path along the wide and beautiful river Cinca.

We drove a short distance for the short but dramatic trail along the Entremon Gorge, another walk in the campsite booklet.  The narrow and in places airy path has a precipitous drop in to the flooded gorge below.  In most cases there was a wire hand rail to help but not always.

We stayed at Camping Pena Montanesa, Ainsa – Large site with open views to mountains, information about walks, 2 km from Aínsa.

The Ojos Negros Cycle Route, Valencia

We enjoyed a mixture of cycling and walking around Navajas.  Anyone visiting here will want to walk to the steep-sided gorge for the waterfalls and fountains at the Salto de la Novia near the town.  We visited after a heavy rain storm and the river was muddy brown and the waterfalls spectacular.  We followed the goats, clambering over the opposite hillside to the falls for the view.  We also explored the wooded hill on the edge of the town around the Ermita de la Esperanza and found the 11th century Torre Arabe.

The Ojos Negros is 67 km of cycle route inland from Valencia and could be accessed directly from our campsite.  The cycle route climbs steadily uphill and has a good surface of either tarmac or gravel.  We cycled to Jerica and to Caudiel, a total of 15 km one-way.  In Jerica we walked through pretty narrow streets to the Torre Mudejar, an unusual tower with Islamic origins; crag martins flew around the curious walled tower.  Caudiel is a hilltop town and climbing up to the church and square we were delighted to find a brass band playing and dancing to celebrate a saints day.  After watching the spectacle we set off back, resting to enjoy the view over the Pantano del Regaja reservoir on the way.

We stayed at Camping Altomira, Navajas near Segorbe – A terraced campsite by a small village with views from higher levels and an excellent restaurant.

 

My year of walking 2,019 km in 2019

This post isn’t about a New Year resolution [I don’t do these] but it is about my 2019 walking target.  Friends would generally describe me as an active person but just over 12 months ago I realised I had no idea how far I walked in a year.  So, at the beginning of 2019 I set myself a target of walking 2,019 km during 2019.  I thought this wouldn’t be too demanding but really had no idea how it would pan out and as the year rolled on I became surprised how challenging it was to reach that mileage.  Half way through the year I reported that I was over target, having walked 60.5 km more than 1,009.5 I needed to have walked at that point.  Maybe I sat back a little in the second half of the year and perhaps moving house messed up my routine but it was touch and go whether I would reach 2,019 km before the end of 31 December 2019.  But I got there and after some long winter walks actually walked 2,073 km in 2019!

I didn’t count walking around our home or nipping out to the shops as part of my 2,019 km, this was not a step counting exercise and distance was only counted when I had kitted up for a walk.  It was okay if this was a utility walk such as to the supermarket or to an appointment, the important thing was that I had chosen to walk rather than cycle, take the bus or drive.  My partner has joined me on most of these walks but hasn’t quite reached 2,019 km himself.

2,019 km averages out as around 5.5 km each day.  Not a great distance but I found that to reach the target there was no chance to let up.  Yes, there were days when I walked 20 km but there were other days when other activities got in the way and I didn’t walk anywhere at all.  A couple of days like that and a long walk counted for little and I needed to catch up.  There were a staggering 56 days when I didn’t go outside and put one foot in front of the other.  In the first half of the year I had 30 none-walking days and 26 days in the second half as by December I was dashing out every day to ensure I reached the target!  Of course, on some of these apparently inactive days i might have been to my tai chi class or more recently packing and unpacking boxes or gardening; but there were days when we were driving or I was writing at home and being fairly inactive.  I know that I feel happier if I have got outside and taken some exercise and certainly if I am writing it is a break from staring at the laptop and it helps my brain to focus and come up with new ideas.

Most of the distance was either around Salford or, more recently, Morecambe but there were plenty of memorable days out in other places, here are a few highlights:

  • Climbing Ben Nevis wasn’t my longest day of walking at 17 km but with all that altitude to climb it was the toughest day and the most emotional.
  • Walking with friends is always special and provides me with good memories.  We have had some fantastic walking days with other people in Wharfedale, the Lake District, Scotland and Anglesey in all sorts of weather from wet to almost hot!
  • The coastal walking in Shetland was unbeatable and well organised and during our spring holiday there we clocked up 127.5 km on these stunning islands.
  • Walking from Eastbourne to Beachy Head on a warm February day was an unforgettable experience and sitting on the cliffs as a peregrine falcon landed next to us was a bonus.
  • We walked around Rivington Pike in Lancashire on a couple of occasions, both blue-sky winter days that were perfect.
  • The two longest walks were both 21 km and were  both summer walks but on both occasions there was more drizzle than sunshine!  The first was around the green hilly land around Hexham in the north of England through lush dripping forests.  The second was up and down the Derbyshire dales around Longnor on what I had sold to my partner as a pub crawl but turned out to be more of a walk between closed country pubs!
  • On one pavement bashing day I wore through some shoe leather walking 18.5 km around Salford and Manchester, mostly to hand deliver a parcel someone had purchased on Ebay [they left very good feedback!]
  • Dodd in the Lake District is only a small hill but on the January day we climbed it there was enough snow for a snowball fight!
  • One of my favourite walks in Salford is around Salford Quays and Media City.  Having recorded all my walks for the year I can see I did this on 28 different occasions between January to November 2019.  Now we have moved my favourite walk is down to Morecambe Bay, a handy 6 km circuit.

What about 2020?  As much as I have found it fascinating to keep a check on my mileage for the year I will not be setting a walking target again.  As the year moved on it had started to feel a bit tiresome to keep working out distances I had walked and make a note and I won’t miss being free of that.  I know there are good apps that will record distances but I don’t necessarily trust their accuracy, particularly in the mountains.  Another reason for making this target a one-off is cycling.  Our bikes have languished in the shed gathering dust for much of the year and we are looking forward to getting out and exploring the fantastic cycle routes around our new home in Morecambe now we don’t have to keep walking and walking and walking.  My partner has threatened to set a demanding cycling target for 2020 but I think / hope he is joking!

 

 

 

 

2019 spending £22,478 / year: Our most frugal year & below household average

05.29.2019 Eshaness (1)
Is there a pot of gold?

2019 has been an unusual year with no trips abroad in our campervan and a house move.  We have stayed alive and healthy and we spent two months touring Scotland in our campervan, learning to love that country even more and visiting Shetland for the first time, leaving a little bit of our hearts there.  Financially it has been good too.  We have stayed within budget; in 2019 our household spending was as low as £22,428.  The ONS calculate that the average household in the north-west of England spent £26,062 a year in 2017-2018.  Of course, this average will include large families and single-person households, households that have expensive hobbies [like a campervan], those who are home all day and people who have little money or are super-frugal.  Although we don’t consider ourselves to be average, we generally aim to spend less than this average.  I had hoped that our frugal fail in 2018 was a blip [we spent over £28,000] and it certainly seems that we have got back on track in 2019.

annual spending graph
Our household spending from 2010 to 2019

Despite the rigour of my spreadsheets, our annual spending creates a graph that looks like a roller coaster and this does make a bit of a joke of the budgeting we do.  Over the last nine years our spending has ranged over £6,000 from £21,972 to £28,107, not allowing for inflation.  All this information really tells me is there are expensive years and cheaper years and that our budget for 2020 of around £26,000 doesn’t look too unrealistic.  What is interesting is that our 2019 spending of £22,428 is our next to lowest spending year [and a rough online inflation calculator suggests that £21,972 in 2011 is now the equivalent of over £27,000] so for us 2019 has been a frugal year.

This household spending does gloss over the £36,000 plus that has disappeared from our savings and been spent on our recent house move and the improvements to bring our 1960s bungalow into the 21st century.  It seemed fair to leave out these one-off costs as they would have massively skewed the figures but it also seemed best to fess up about this spending here.  Of course before we took the plunge of moving we did the sums and, although when our pensions start paying in 2026 we will have considerably less savings in the bank, we felt it was an outlay that was manageable … but time will tell.  The move became essential for our well-being and we are reasonably comfortable that we will have enough of an emergency fund to take us into our old age.  Who knows what will happen with the cost of care by the time we are in our 80s and whether we will need any.  We certainly won’t have much money spare for anything expensive but we live in hope that a fair system will be in place by then.

Our own expensive hobby of running a campervan and having lots of holidays continues and this is generally our downfall.  If we never went anywhere our spending would be much lower!  Everyone spends their money in their own way, this is how our 2019 spending pans out:

Essentials – total £7,721 [35% of total spending] [2018 £9,654 / 34%]

Food – £3,491 [2018 £3,870] – This is an essential but also an easy area to control and after the shock of 2018 we have been careful to use the cheaper supermarkets.  We cook mostly from scratch, including making bread, only ever buy what we need and rarely waste anything.  We now have a garden but don’t expect to start growing food, as this doesn’t really work with taking a long holiday.

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 58 sq mtrs [624 sq feet] flat for 10 months & a 2-bed 57.2 sq mtrs [615.7 sq feet] bungalow for 2 months – £3,974 [2018 £4,841] – We have been home more than previous years but try and restrain our use of the heating and water.  Our bungalow is more expensive to run in terms of utilities than the flat, despite good insulation, so watch this space for 2020.  But a big plus of not living in a flat is that we no longer have service charges of over £1,000/year!  On the flip-side we are now responsible for the upkeep of our four walls and roof, not to mention a garden, this feels a bit daunting just at the moment.

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £256 [2018 £943] – We had no expensive spectacles or dental work this year, hurrah!  We were lucky to find another reasonably priced tai chi class in Morecambe, at £3 each a week this is manageable and we can afford to attend regularly.

Stuff (electronics, newspapers and other kit) – £3,151 [14% of total spending] [2018 £3,333 / 11%]

Household spending [everything from glue and newspapers to parts for the bikes and a new kettle] & miscellaneous un-identified items – £2,300 [ 2018 £2,364] – We are a long way from a no-spend year on stuff but I’m relieved that this spending line is similar to 2018 as I thought that moving house might have spiralled this into another realm as we splashed out on new [to us] curtains, gardening equipment and a Remoska oven.

Clothes & accessories – £851 [2018 £969] – I am really pleased this spending line is lower than last year, particularly when I take into account that over half of this is accounted for by new waterproof jackets.  We took a deep breath and bought quality so hope they will last for years and years – maybe until we die?

Experiences – £10,952 [48% of total spending] [2018 14.095 / 51%]

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £3,601 [2018 £4,681] – Our holiday spending is less than other years as [thanks to the house move] we didn’t get abroad but we did spend a fantastic two months touring Scotland.  Factor in the cost of the ferry to Spain in 2018 [about £900] and this line would have pretty much stayed the same; the ferries are really the biggest chunk of our holiday costs.  We spent only 108 nights away in our campervan, less than previous years [again due to the house move] but campsites in the UK are often more expensive than mainland Europe.  We took ourselves off for 10-days during the house buying process and returned to a pile of paperwork waiting to be signed, after that we hardly dared venture away.  This does include a splash-out weekend in a swanky Lake District hotel to celebrate a significant birthday.

Restaurants & cafes – £2,418  [2018 £2,963] – This is another chunk of spending that we can keep under control if we need to but we love meeting friends for meals out and sitting in friendly cafes.  So I am surprised [and pleased] this spending is lower than in 2019 as we seem to have been out with friends on plenty of occasions … but the numbers don’t lie!

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £1,931 [2018 £2,578] – I was excited to find that moving to Morecambe from Salford reduced our insurance costs on our campervan, although it is no longer parked in a gated car park!  2018 was an expensive year for our ‘van and in 2019 we didn’t take such a hit spending £800 on fixing things on our campervan to keep it on the road.  Our ‘van is almost five years old and has driven around 50,000 miles and among other things it needed new brakes and reversing sensors.  I think the ‘van might be saving everything up for 2020 though!

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,500 [2018 £1,937 ] – This is lower due to reduced campervan trips and lower mileage through the year.

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £941 [2018 £1,114] – A cheaper year but we have still had lots of fun experiences seeing bands, going to the football and getting face to face with a pine marten.

Transport costs included buses, trains & parking – £561 [2018 £670] – My target to walk 2,019 km in 2019 kept this number down as I was constantly choosing to walk rather than take the tram or bus.  We have spent more for the last two months of the year since moving to Morecambe, as not wishing to pollute the world more than we need to we have taken the train to Manchester on all but one occasion.

Giving – £654 [3% of total spending] [2018 £1,025 / 4%]

Gifts & donations – £654 [2018 £1,025] – Another discretionary spending line and we can only hope our family and friends understand why presents, although still thoughtful, have been small in 2019.

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2019 – £22,478 – staying comfortably within our £26,000 budget helps to give us some financial resilience for future years.

 

 

 

A 1940s tour around Morecambe Bay

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Vintage gifts

When we moved to Morecambe we received a whole pile of cards wishing us happiness in our new home and a few lovely gifts.  One of the most memorable gifts was from an old friend whose grandma had lived in Bolton-le-Sands on Morecambe Bay.  She generously gave us two items that had once belonged to her grandmother.

The old half-inch map for cyclists and motorists for the Lancaster District is a beautiful cloth map that has been unfolded and folded many times.  I enjoy looking at old maps and this one gives an interesting insight into how Morecambe grew in the latter half of the 20th century.  Our bungalow was built in the 1960s and the map shows the fields that were here before and Morecambe is shown as a fishing village and not the seaside resort it is now.   Inside the cardboard cover to the map are two adverts that give a glimpse into another world.  One is to Tranter’s First Class Temperance Hotel in Bridgewater Square and the other is for Dr J Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, a remedy for coughs, colds, consumption, bronchitis and asthma which will also cut short attacks of epilepsy and hysteria and makes claims as being useful for a wide range of illnesses from gout and cancer to toothache!

My friend’s other gift was , ‘The History of Morecambe Bay’ by Michael McDermott, an illustrated pamphlet from 1948.  In his forward, Michael McDermott tells us that, ‘For years it has been my custom to cycle along the coast, and thus come across many of the antiquities of the area.’  I am sure Michael McDermott also owned a copy of the old cloth map.

Michael McDermott begins by considering the origin of the name Morecambe [pronounced more – cam, the b and e are silent] and suggests the name may mean the bending shore or the beautiful haven or that it may derive from Mwr Cwm, meaning hollow in the hills.  Today, according to The Morecambe Bay Partnership, the name is from, Morikambe eischusis  [tidal flats in Greek].  This name was recorded on a map between the Solway and Ribble estuaries by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in 150 AD.

Michael McDermott’s journey around Morecambe Bay begins in Lancaster with the Romans and then follows the River Lune to the picturesque Sunderland Point and the gem that is Overton Church.  He then takes his reader by bicycle on to Heysham, which he describes as a ‘wooded headland’ with the stone coffins on the headland and he gives some details about the area’s links with St Patrick.

Moving north, Michael McDermott frustratingly doesn’t have much to say about Morecambe itself.  ‘Adjacent to Heysham we have the holiday resort of Morecambe, which has developed in the last hundred years from a small fishing village called Poulton-le-Sands. Morecambe has the usual theatres, fair-grounds and swimming-bath of a holiday resort, and beyond that is of little interest to us.’  So much has changed in Morecambe since 1948, with the fair and lido now gone and I would have been very interested to read about what the town was like 70 years ago.

This clearly isn’t the booklet to get a clear picture of Morecambe back in the 1940s but reading it aloud to each other we did learn about Torrisholme long barrow.  Michael McDermott writes, ‘The skulls found in barrows like this are peculiarly elongated in form, and the name given to the particular race who erected the long barrows is “the long-headed men.”  Some barrows are round – they were built by the “round-headed men.”‘  Now referred to as a Bronze Age Round Barrow, some suggest Torrisholme Barrow was the old law hill of the area before Lancaster Castle was built but no one refers to the people that built it as having particularly elongated heads!

Michael McDermott does give us a glimpse of the fishing industry that existed around Morecambe Bay.  He tells us that you would once have seen fishermen cleaning mussels on the promenade at Morecambe and at Bolton-le-Sands he meets Mr and Mrs Wilson who search for cockles in the bay in all weathers.  He describes the cockle beds and the ‘cram,’ a curved fork used to scoop up the cockles and a board with handles that was called a ‘jumbo’ and was used to bring the cockles to the surface.  He romanticises the hard work of these ‘fisher-folk,’ telling us, ‘Living close to nature as they do, the minds of the fisherfolk are totally free from the inhibitions that are the curse of an over-industrialised society, and their  spontaneous generosity, humour, and interest in simple things make their friendship a pleasure for all who are fortunate to come into contact with them.’

Much of the pamphlet gives readers the details about the route across the sands of Morecambe Bay.  Before the railway and good roads this was a frequently used, if perilous, way from Ulverston to Furness and Kents Bank to Arnside and Hest Bank.  There is still a Queen’s Guide to the Kent Sands living in the house on Cart Lane at Kents Bank and regular cross bay walks for charity occur in the summer and are a marvellous and safe day out.  Michael McDermott tells us that, ‘The post of Guide to the Sands is many centuries old, and was created by the Crown in 1337, after several people had lost their lives while making the crossing.’

The other method of traversing Morecambe Bay is also referred to in the pamphlet.  It seems that swimming across Morecambe Bay used to be a summer event that attracted many competitors.  The course from Grange to Morecambe was first completed in 1907 by “Professor” Stearne in three hours 45 minutes 41 seconds.  Due to changes in the waters of Morecambe Bay the swim was stopped in 1991.

Although out-of-date, this charming history booklet has told us about a number of places we didn’t know.  On the Cumbrian side of Morecambe Bay are the earth works of a motte and bailey castle on Adlingham’s Moat Hill.  In the 1940s this was thought to be another burial mound and Michael McDermott quite alarmingly writes, ‘In view of the many signs of early man which have been unearthed in this neighbourhood, there is no doubt that in the dim past this area was the most important part of the bay, and countless young girls must have been butchered in the exotic religious rights which the old heathens carried out at their stone circles and caves.’

While ideas about the activities of ancient people have changed considerably, Morecambe Bay remains an English gem that is well worth exploring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Writing That Tells a Story is not a Guidebook

2016 Oct Lake District (1)

I might often fail but I aim to be a travel writer that tells stories about places.  Pretty much each of my travel articles has a narrative thread through it and I work hard to weave travel information that is handy for the campervan and motorhome community through this story, along with history and fascinating facts so that the article is both inspiring and useful.

I find various ways of telling a story.  In some articles I have followed an earlier traveller, such as Bonnie Prince Charlie from Scotland to Derby [published May 2019] or Celia Fiennes on the Welsh border [published February 2017].  In other articles I have focused on local food.  I took this approach for a trip to Lancashire [February 2015] and found the atmospheric cave-like wine shop in Clitheroe.  More recently I visited the Conwy Honey Fair [August 2019] where everything related to honey can be purchased.  In Spain I tried to get under the skin of the Spanish Civil War in my December 2019 article.  Sometimes it is other writers that have inspired my trip; Alan Garner took me to Cheshire [November 2018], in Somerset and Devon [August 2018] I followed various authors and my latest MMM article to East Sussex explores the world of some of my favourite children’s authors.  At times I chase my own memories; my trip around familiar Staffordshire towns and villages was one such trip [July 2016].

I try to write something that readers will enjoy, that will entertain them and that they will want to read until the end because they are following my story.  On the way I will try to bring the place alive, maybe the smell of wood smoke in a Tuscan village, the taste of creamy ice-cream in Lancashire or the feel of the Orcadian wind in their hair.  Readers can join me in the thrill of trying different Belgian beers in a small friendly bar, my frustrations with the weather or getting lost and my enthusiasm when I find something truly unique.

Good travel writing isn’t about statistics and lists, the ten best things to do, the cheapest restaurant for authentic food or the most comfortable hotels.  While these things are useful once you are into the detail of planning your trip, for real inspiration I like to think readers want a story that paints a picture of a place.  Initially, fellow travellers want to know if that place has something to interest them.  They want to know if it is their kind of town or country and whether they might want to follow in my footsteps, making a trip that will become their own story.

My favourite travel writer is Dervla Murphy an inspirational author who writes intimate tales from unlikely places that bring both the place and the people alive.   Although inspirational, it is her warmth and interest in people that I want to follow her example of.  Every one of her books makes me feel as if I have walked or cycled alongside her on her journey.  In an interview in the Irish Examiner she modestly said,

“If I am to be remembered, I’d like to be remembered as someone who was interested in the ordinary people of whatever country I was in.”

I understand I will never achieve the brilliance of Dervla Murphy and that is fine, we all have to have people we look up to.  So long as I find stories hidden in the places I go to I will keep sharing them with readers.

To read any of my published travel articles head for the relevant page on the blog from the menu at the top.

 

 

The Archers: My Unfashionable Story of Country Folk

Tractor

Whenever we travel around Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire I feel as if I am in an episode of The Archers.  I will spot a Home Farm, a village green, a black-and-white timber-framed pub or a farm shop and I am immediately reminded of the fictional residents of Ambridge in Borsetshire that I know so well.

A couple of minutes past seven Sunday to Friday it is best not to disturb me.  If I am at home I will generally be listening to Radio Four and an episode of The Archers.  My relationship with this long running radio soap opera began as a child when The Archers had already been broadcast for about 20-years.  Since 1950 Radio Four has been telling the story of rural folk in a fictional village called Ambridge in Borsetshire.  When I began listening I lived with my parents in the English countryside.  Even then the drama of the southerners living in Ambridge was hardly recognisable.

Even though I have been a city dweller for over 30 years, I still listen to this rural soap opera.  I have had breaks when we travelled for a year and on our extended holidays but it is easy to pick up, nothing changes so much in Ambridge that I can’t follow the new story lines.

One of the reasons I like the Archers is because stories unfold over months or even years.  There is plenty of drama [perhaps too much these day] but it does at least have a realistic time-scale.  I am usually cooking when the programme is aired in the evening and being radio I can listen and cook at the same time, giving about half my brain to the story.

The high-emotion story lines are not what I enjoy about The Archers, it is the everyday that appeals to me.  I want to take a short peak into the lives of people I have grown up with over the years and check in with how they are doing without feeling traumatised.  The Grundy’s are having trouble getting their elderly cider press to work, one of the cows is poorly at Brookfield and Hilda the cat is missing, these are the stories that work for me.  There is a warmth and gentleness about these stories in today’s world.  Peculiar to radio, The Archers can have silent characters, people who are referred to but never heard,  Derek Fletcher and the Sabrina Thwaite are just two personalities that add colour without being heard.

While often listening is comfortingly uneventful, there have been a number of big issue story lines recently that have put off listeners who don’t want distressing stories to interfere with the rural idyll.   Family squabbles and neighbourly disputes are the bread and butter of The Archers liberally dotted with fun and games at the Flower and Produce Show or the Christmas Panto.  Without these The Archers is nothing and when the easy companionable humour and neighbourliness disappears I will switch off for good.   I hope the dedicated team of scriptwriters continue to write gentle and amusing stories so I can relax and not have my imaginary world rocked!

Although radio drama leaves so much to the imagination, I enjoy exploring the counties I associate it with to add substance to the pictures in my head.   A bit of research reveals that Cutnall Green in Worcestershire could be the fictional village of Ambridge, it has a shop and nearby pub, a cricket team and is surrounded by farmland.  Other contenders are Inkberrow and Hanbury, both also in Worcestershire.  While Inkberrow has its own timber-framed pub, called The Old Bull and a village green, Hanbury has Summerhill Farm, thought to be the model for Brookfield, and Hanbury Hall, which has some resemblance to Lower Loxley Hall.  St. Mary the Virgin church in Hanbury has been used for Ambridge weddings.  I can see a more focused trip to visit these villages forming in the Archer’s half of my brain!

 

 

Southport: A no-sweat campervan trip

Southport and Formby (Nov 2019)
The woods at Formby

I wonder if every campervan or motorhome owner has at least one no-sweat place.  These are camping trips to somewhere familiar and where no planning or research is needed.  You don’t have to think about what you will do when you get there, you just have a day or two free, you need a break and after a short drive you can park up the campervan, motorhome or caravan and immediately relax.  We have a number of these places and Southport is one of them that we often visit in the winter months.

There are a couple of options for parking your campervan when staying in Southport.  The Caravan and Motorhome Club Site tends to be our preferred option as we seek peace and quiet.  Since it’s refurbishment some years ago this site has plenty of space and two sanitary blocks and is only a few minutes walk from the town.  The other option is the car park next to Pleasureland funfair.  This level hard-standing area is free or £3 for a hook-up and a good budget option but it can be crowded and noisy.

Southport has a long promenade and walking along here is my top favourite thing to do and we will usually get out to do this as soon as our arrival brew is finished.  The sands are vast at Southport and the sea can seem a long way away and looking to the west you get a sense of space that is stunning.  We will usually take in the 1,000 metre long pier too if it is open and stand above the sands.  In winter we will look out for waders along the shoreline or we might wait for one of Southport’s spectacular sunsets.  The end of the Marine Lake is a good place to take an about turn and follow the inland shore of the lake, occasionally stopping to watch the ducks and swans and taking a wander through King’s Gardens.

Our next stop will be the town centre.  A stroll under the wrought-iron canopies of Lord Street is a real Southport experience.  We are not big on shopping but if you are then there is plenty here to look around.  We usually look for a cafe and last time we visited we warmed up in Remedy, an independent cafe.  The cafe is situated in a mock-Victorian glass house in the gardens in front of the Town Hall.  It is a cosy and relaxing cafe where on a winter’s afternoon you can snuggle up with a hot chocolate spiced up with your choice of alcohol and read a newspaper or choose a board game.  We people watched and had a spirited couple of games of dominoes.

On our next walk we will take in Victoria Park, a large green space near to the campsite and follow the Queen’s Jubilee Nature Trail, an interesting area of old sand dunes and bushes.

Trips to Southport are generally on the spur of the moment.  Most recently we were so stressed by our house moving we packed and went on a whim.  We never plan to be there for a particular event but there is often something going on in Southport.  Our visits have coincided with firework displays, the Christmas lights switch on and in the summer months we have visited the popular flower show.  Southport also has attractions such as Pleasureland, the British Lawnmower Museum and a Model Railway Village.

When we have taken our bicycles to Southport we have followed the cycle route south down the coast and into the woodland around Formby.  The cycle path is noisy along the busy main road but once you are among the trees it is blissful.  The sandy paths meander up and down the old dunes, through tall pine trees.  When we don’t have the bikes we park the ‘van in one of the spacious National Trust car parks [we are not members and so have to pay the £7.50] and take a walk through this wonderful area.

If you have never been to Formby before I almost envy you that first sight of the long sweep of beach, backed by sand dunes and coastal pinewoods.  The scenery and the wildlife here is very special and it is the perfect place for a walk or just to sit.  In spring you might spot a great crested newt in one of the ponds among the dunes and in the summer there are plenty of butterflies.  Many people come to Formby because this is a stronghold of red squirrels and these are here all year round but recently it has become more difficult to see them.  Squirrel pox is a highly infectious disease that has been found among this threatened group of red squirrels and the National Trust are discouraging visitors from feeding the squirrels as this brings them together and helps the infection spread.  But stay a while and you might be lucky and spot one of these beautiful animals.

The National Trust provide a map showing different trails of various lengths around Formby and there are toilets and usually a refreshment van near the main car park.  The beach is always a magnet for visitors and you rarely have it to yourself but there is enough room for everyone.  If you seek solitude then follow one of the less trodden paths and you will soon discover your own Formby.

Tell me your own no-sweat campervan trips.