Packing Europe into our Campervan

Taking a photograph of our breakfast table for the #warcoffee community on Twitter [check out Yaroslava Antipina @strategywoman to get a feel for life in Kyiv during the war] I realised how many gorgeous and useful things we have in our campervan that are regular reminders of our happy travels around Europe. Of course, we drive a French Renault van but the European theme doesn’t stop there, we have picked up things we like and need in many different countries.

Our rustic wooden bread bowl in the photograph is used for our continental breakfasts and came from Slovakia, back when it was part of Czechoslovakia. We took a backpacking railway trip to the Tatras in 1992 and managed to squeeze this beautiful bowl into the rucksack, along with a bottle of Czech beer! It is perfect for breakfast and dinner bread.

Our honey of the day might be from Shropshire [we always pick up local honey when we are travelling] but the wooden honey spoon was bought in the idyllic Italian village of Sorano in southern Tuscany. We were visiting a friend who lived there at the time and she showed us the sights and took us into the town for a meal. Browsing around a shop packed full of wooden chopping boards and spoons I admired this honey spoon and she generously insisted on buying it for me. I am so glad I didn’t point out anything more expensive in the shop and feel sad that we have lost touch but I think of her everyday when I use the spoon.

When it comes to slicing those large crusty continental loaves we use a steak knife from a village shop in Slovenia. A bread knife isn’t something we have room for and the steak knife does the job. The glass plates with blue swirls are from one of those interesting French hypermarkets that I could browse around for hours and the jolly teacosy with the stylish red radish pattern is from Denmark. We slum it with teabags when we are camping but still use a teapot. Our camping teapot is from Blomus, a German company who make quality stuff that we grabbed as a second-hand bargain on Ebay. The handle folds down making it perfect for stowing in one of the cupboards in the campervan.

While my mug with the blue flowers is another Italian find from the beautiful Malcesine on Lake Garda and gives me pleasure everyday, Anthony’s mug is from the Serra da Estrela in Portugal. We enjoyed our time in this stunning mountainous area of Portugal so much it is lovely to have a reminder of it on a daily basis wherever we are. The tray our teapot sits on has a map of Salford that includes our former home. This was a thoughtful retirement gift from a friend so we could show people where we lived.

Our evening hot drink mugs [yes we have mugs for different drinks!] are Morecambe mugs, so we never forget where home is now! Mine has a picture of the Midland Hotel and Anthony’s has Morecambe in big colourful letters and Eric Morecambe’s iconic specs.

These are all small treasures that are both useful, hold precious memories and make me feel blessed. None of them cost us an arm and a leg but all of them are cherished.

A Dozen Scottish Campsites Tried & Tested 2022

In March and April this year we travelled around Scotland for four glorious weeks. For anyone I have to convince that Scotland is an amazing place to visit, I will just say that it snowed, it was sunny and occasionally it was wet and windy. If that doesn’t persuade you to go to Scotland, on this trip we saw golden eagles, red squirrels, seals, otters, siskins, red deer, dolphins, red kites and so much more wildlife. We climbed some mountains and walked some stunning miles of coastline.

Everyone looks for different things in a campsite. My priorities are a level pitch, a hot shower and peace and quiet. This is the list of where we stayed with comments:

Campsite name Comments
Tantallon Caravan and Camping Park, North Berwick This sloping site has amazing views over the Firth of the Forth and Bass Rock.  The showers and bathrooms are a high standard and the showers have hot water but there was no heating in March.  The wash up area is covered but outdoors.  The site is a short walk into North Berwick, an upmarket town and the Scottish Seabird Centre, which has plenty of fun, interactive and interesting displays.  The walk back is uphill through the golf course.
Silverburn Park Campsite, Leven This campsite has four level campervan pitches and is in peaceful setting in a park.  The sea and a sandy beach are just across the golf course.   You receive a friendly welcome and the facilities are good and clean.  It is about a half an hour walk into Leven and shops and a supermarket and a bit further to the charming coastal village of Lower Largo.  I have written a full review on the blog.  
Stonehaven Queen Elizabeth Park CAMC Site This is a favourite campsite of ours that is close to the beach and the harbour and near the centre of Stonehaven.  It wasn’t too busy on this visit.  The site is level and the facilities are excellent.
Fraserburgh Caravan Park This is a small level independent site that is right by the sea and if you are lucky to get one of the pitches overlooking the waves and the beach you will be happy!  Our welcome was friendly and the facilities are kept spotlessly clean.  The showers are good and hot and the only thing that let it down was the lack of heating.  It is a short walk to the busy fishing harbour, the small town and the Scottish Lighthouse Museum.  The latter is certainly worth a visit as it includes a chance to climb up an old lighthouse.  The walk along the sandy beach and dunes is fabulous too.
East Beach car park, Lossiemouth This level tarmac car park has toilets available nearby in the daytime.  It was quiet when we stayed here and there was just one other campervan there.  The town is pleasant and there are places to eat and drink nearby.  There is an honesty box in the toilets to pay what you can for using the facilities.
Rosemarkie Camping and Caravanning Club Site The position of this campsite is hard to beat, sitting on the coast of Chanonry Point.  We received a friendly welcome and got a sea view pitch!  The grass is a bit lumpy but we managed to get the campervan level.  The facilities were heated, the wash up is indoors but the showers are not the best and probably need an upgrade.  We saw dolphins from the point, went to the nearby coffee shop and walked up the Fairy Glen.
Dingwall C&CC Site We really liked this campsite.  The wardens are friendly, it isn’t too busy and the site is level and arranged in small cul de sacs.  The railway line runs next to the site and the first train might wake you.  The facilities were fine and had heating some of the time.  The town is very close with supermarkets and other shops, including a warren of a charity shop that is like an Aladdin’s Cave.  The short walk along the canal is great for stretching your legs. 
Camping Skye, Broadford This terraced slightly sloping site has open views, friendly and helpful people on reception & a modern facilities block.  There was heating in the facilities, hot showers and an indoor wash up area.  A ten minutes walk takes you to Broadford which has a supermarket, other shops and pizza place.
Skye C&CC site, Edinbane This gently sloping site sits on the loch side.  It has new owners this year and they were friendly and welcoming.  The facilities are fine but lack heating in wintery weather.  The lovely view over the loch from the indoor wash up area was very much appreciated.  The site also has some yurts and huts and there are cattle and hens around.  About 15 minutes walk away down the hill in Edinbane there is a pub and a posh (expensive) restaurant.  Otherwise, you have to drive from here or take the occasional bus to Dunvegan and Portree.
Glenbrittle Campsite This is a large site with a facilities block at one end.  The site is on the bay & has spectacular mountain views.  The facilities are small but they squeeze in six showers and the room was warm, mostly from others showering and the walls dripped with condensation.  The showers themselves were only lukewarm.  The wash up is under cover.  There is a small shop and cafe onsite, useful as the site is eight miles along a single-track road.  This is an expensive campsite if you want EHU and has no phone signal or wi-fi but it does have excellent access to the mountains.
Merkadale CL near Carbost This Certified Location for five vans is a gravel site alongside the Carbost Road.  It has free wi-fi and a functional facilities block with two toilets & one electric shower which was hot.  The pub, cafe and distillery in Carbost are about 15 minutes walk away.
Morvich CAMC Site This Caravan and Motorhome Club Site is a special place.  You receive a friendly welcome, it is peaceful, has good facilities and the wardens run a small shop for basics as there is nothing nearby.  You can climb mountains or walk in the forest directly from the site.  The Chocolates of Glenshiel shop and cafe nearby are worth a visit on your way there and if you drive towards Kyle, make sure you stop at Manuela’s Wee Bakery in Ardelve for some of their delicious bread and cakes.

Silverburn Park Campsite, near Leven in Fife, Scotland

If you crave a small campsite that isn’t wall-to-wall caravans and motorhomes as far as the eye can see then Silverburn Park Campsite near Leven might be just the place for you. This small campsite is certainly a special place and with just four campervan pitches and it’s enviable location near to a long sandy beach it ticks so many boxes.

Everyone receives a friendly welcome at Silverburn Park and the calming and peaceful atmosphere envelopes you straight away. The member of staff we met was helpful and kind and the biscuit-coloured cat with a deep purr made us feel accepted. I was also very politely told how to pronounce Leven correctly, the e is long, like Leeven.

Silverburn Park has a story that you will want to explore if you visit and it is certainly much more than a campsite. The park is the former estate of the Russell family who planted many unusual trees in the park and you can take a stroll to see these. Gifted to Leven Town Council in the 1970s, the park has long been a popular place to visit for local people. In 2019 Fife Employment Access Trust (FEAT) took over the management of Silverburn Park and began to develop the site. They worked hard and a cafe and a campsite were opened the following year. FEAT, a mental health organisation that supports people back into work, now have plans to repurpose the old flax mill at Silverburn as a visitor centre and community hub. You can read more about their plans on their website.

The campervan pitches are hard standing surrounded by grass in a fenced area. The campsite has bathrooms with a toilet, sink and shower and a heated towel rail and there are dishwashing sinks. These facilities are a short walk from the campervan pitches and by the tent area. With the campervan pitches there are bins, fresh water and chemical toilet disposal. FEAT’s plans include adding more facilities and a camper’s kitchen with indoor washing up in the very near future. If you don’t have a campervan or tent, the site has three pods.

Cooking that evening, I could see Bass Rock out of the ‘van window across the golf course and gannets that were diving for fish in the sea. With the site to ourselves it was peaceful and this felt as close to wild camping as you can get on a campsite. 

During the daytime there are other visitors, workers and volunteers in the garden, on the allotment and in the workshop and cafe but we never felt crowded, it wasn’t noisy and everyone was friendly. In the evenings and early mornings the campers have Silverburn Park to themselves. Using the map I was given [see below] I explored the walled garden on a sunny morning when no one was around; a real treat and I spent ages watching the antics of the birds on the many feeders.

We had snow and sunshine on our visit and in the good weather we walked across the golf course onto the sweep of beach that stretches for miles. We turned left and walked a couple of miles along the sand with plenty of interesting shells and pebbles to the pretty coastal village of Lower Largo. Bass Rock continued to shimmer in the distance. As well as the gannets there were waders on the shore and cormorants on the rocks that jutted into the sea. In Lower Largo we had good coffee and cake in The Aurrie, a converted chapel and found the Robinson Crusoe statue high on the wall of a house.  Lower Largo was the birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, the castaway who inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel.  Lower Largo is perfect for a wander, particularly to find the collection of colourful and entertaining gates and sculptures with maritime themes.

Heading in the other direction we came to Leven and its small promenade and shops and a supermarket. We returned on a path through golf courses that wound among bright yellow gorse bushes with views across the Firth of the Forth.  We were soon back at Silverburn Park and, after passing a large pond and a deserted house, we followed a woodland trail around the walled garden back to our campervan.

I need to add a special thank you to Em from Vans for the Memories on YouTube and Twitter for the recommendation and inspiration for our visit to Silverburn Park.

I had taken a break from blogging while Russia was invading and bombing Ukraine. I am still unable to process this aggressive act but, unfortunately, the war is going on much longer than I hoped it would and, although in the light of what people are going through in Ukraine, my travels are insignificant I found myself really wanting to share this campsite with everyone. I’m not sure what this says about me and it probably makes me look indecisive and weak. Rest assured, I have not forgotten Ukraine and every day I continue to do what I can to support individuals living through the war.

A Privileged Traveller

It was about 16 years ago, in the days when I worked in a small office for a local charity. One of my two colleagues was a woman originally from Ukraine. She was always fun to be with, sent me New Year text messages long after I had left the charity and at lunch times we laughed together and talked about her home country over a shared jar of gherkins. This connection prompted me to read my first Andrey Kurkov novel, Death and the Penguin. This is the Ukrainian novelist’s best-known book and I was immediately hooked by his surreal, dark humour about life in post-Soviet Ukraine. Since those days I have gradually read every single one of Kurkov’s novels and although these are fiction, with each book I connected more and more with Ukraine and followed the ups and downs of this eastern European country. When it was published in English, I also read his Ukraine Diaries, which covers his observations of the pro-European protests of 2013 and the impeachment of Yanukovcyh in Kyiv as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

When we travelled around Hungary and Slovakia a few years ago I wondered if we should venture into Ukraine. I navigated our Blue Bus to the border and we took a walk and gazed across the lush Slovakian countryside to Ukraine but decided time and logistics were against us. I wondering when or if I would get there. The photograph at the top of this blog post is one of our campervan on that Slovakian road and my mind has wandered back to that place regularly since the 24 February 2022 as I imagine how much busier it is today as Ukrainians flee the war in their country and seek safety in Slovakia and other neighbouring countries.

The last Andrey Kurkov book I read was Grey Bees. If you get chance, get hold of this most recent of his novels and take yourself to Ukraine. My own mind often spends time with this country I have never visited. I listened to the news of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 with horror, shocked that there were few consequences for Russia, and I followed the news of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Grey Bees takes readers on a road trip with an elderly man and his bees, driving from an almost deserted village in the Grey Zone, the no-man’s-land between loyalist and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, to Crimea. It is a mythical novel, well observed and full of humour, humanity, hope and, of course, sadness.

As readers know, I enjoy travel and exploring new places. Being on the road is where I am happiest but I know that this happiness comes from a position of security. My privilege is boundless, not only is no one forcing me to leave my home, I always choose to leave, but I also know my home will most probably still be there when we return. I am certainly privileged in owning two homes, although only one of them has wheels! Watching the current destruction of Ukraine by Russia is heartbreaking. I can only bear witness as I have no words to add to the voices of the people of Ukraine who are speaking out against the invasion, fighting for their country and sharing their day-to-day experiences in war time. My Twitter feed is populated by tweets from Ukraine and cats, and occasionally Ukrainian cats! I want to stand side-by-side with the people of Ukraine and help them all I can but, beyond making donations, I feel helpless. I am proud of the swift reaction by Ukraine’s neighbours to give shelter to the refugees. I have so many friends and family who would not be here if the UK had not given refugees shelter in the past, including my own partner whose dad escaped from Poland after the Nazi invasion. I am deeply ashamed of the lack of care the UK has for Ukrainian refugees at the moment and I hope we find our kindness muscle very soon.

I am counting my blessings, feeling grateful for all the privileges I enjoy and I may be quiet on the blog for a little while as I have nothing to add. Slava Ukraini!

Hello Blog Readers!

Hello blog readers! I am so glad you have come along for the ride. I am certainly not a serious blogger; my blog posts are published irregularly and my subject matter is all over the place. I am happy if just a couple of people read my blog posts and I am amazed when it is often many more. My blog has had some ups and downs during the Covid-19 pandemic but once people were getting out and about again and starting to plan, 2021 was a pretty good year for attracting readers.

I would probably get more blog readers if I wasn’t a tad lazy. During 2021 I only publishing 36 blog posts, not even one a week! This was mainly because we were either in lockdown and there was nothing new to write about, or we were travelling and I didn’t have time to post or I was writing a travel article for a magazine and also didn’t have time to post! The posts I did write varied from recipes and what was going on at home to traveller tales as we toured all four nations of the UK in 2021, spending time in Scotland and England and making our first visit to Northern Ireland and returning to Wales after a gap of a few years. In 2021 we even spent a short time abroad when we crossed the border into Ireland!

I’ve been blogging since 2009 and, although I cringe when I read those early blog posts, I can see it was useful writing practice for becoming a campervan travel writer. I currently write two different blogs, this one and my memorial benches blog, but posting to both these blog has to take a back seat when I am working on a paid article.

My blog is put together via WordPress and this platform generates all sorts of data for those who are interested. On a wet day in January I checked the stats for 2021 and was interested to see that the post that received the most attention was one I wrote back in 2019 about our trip to the amazing Shetland Islands. Making a return trip to Shetland niggles in my mind regularly, so I am not surprised that other campervan and motorhome owners are planning trips to those northerly islands.

Next up in the rankings [down from number one in 2020] is a post from a few years ago about cooking with an essential piece of kit in our campervan, our RidgeMonkey grill. I am pleased to see that this wonderful cooking pan is gaining popularity and seeing plenty of sales, I wouldn’t be without mine.

Two travel writing posts have remained in the top five since I wrote them. One focusing on my thoughts on the quote, ‘Normality is a paved road; It’s comfortable to walk but no flowers grow‘ feels particularly relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic and I looked at this post again last year and added to it. During lockdown I couldn’t wait to leave the mundanity of normality behind! The second is titled, ‘One’s Destination is Never a Place but always a new way of seeing things.’ This is a Henry Miller quote and in the post I considered how travel keeps my wonderment muscle supple. Since I wrote this piece two years ago I have had to exercise those muscles closer to home and I have learnt that, although I don’t have to travel far to be filled with wonder, I continue to have a need to keep filling my life with new experiences.

A remarkable post that remains popular is one from my long-running Surprising Salford series. This is a post about the astonishing and amusing Gnome Island. This island of gnomes [what else] in Salford Quays received little attention from the public until the new tram line to the Trafford Centre opened and suddenly it was much easier to see the gnomes from the stop near Old Trafford and, if you search for Gnome Island in Salford my blog is one of the few resources that pops up. I am glad Gnome Island hasn’t been cleared away by the corporate giants around Salford Quays and that its creator remains, as far as I know, a mystery. If you’re in Manchester or Salford go and take a look.

The pages where visitors can download articles I have had published in MMM and Campervan Mag are also always popular too and the lists just keep getting longer. The top download for 2021 was my fun piece I wrote from our campervan’s point of view about a trip to Wharfedale meeting the Blue Bus’ siblings [other Devon Conversions vans] and fellow campervans. This was published in Campervan Mag during 2021. Writing this piece was a blast and maybe this comes through in the words and is why people enjoy reading it. The second most popular download was the RidgeMonkey article in Campervan Mag. After that it is my reports on our Devon Tempest in MMM and Campervan Mag that attract most readers who, presumably, are researching what campervan to buy.

I am hoping that 2022 takes me, my partner and our Blue Bus to some fabulous places in the UK and across the Channel. I have no goal for the number of posts I will write on my blogs but I hope you keep reading about the things that inspire me and enjoy joining me back on the road.

Seven Lessons that made me a Saver not an Investor

As the last of our savings accounts with an interest rate over 1% matures and the cost of living in the UK keeps on rising, I have been checking out our financial position. We are all a product of our past experiences in some way and for me various life lessons put me on a purposeful and cautious journey to financial independence and early retirement [FIRE]. This journey did not involve taking risks with money; secure savings, rather than investment, was our mantra as we worked towards a goal. The FIRE community is packed with people that gainfully invest their money but my own seven life lessons led me to saving in building societies, Individual Savings Accounts and other yawningly dull and dependable accounts.

Lesson One: A broken washing machine

In my early twenties I lived on my own in a rented house, only ever one pay day away from destitution. Life improved when we got married in so many ways, including financially, but still for the first three years we muddled along with below average income and nothing in the savings pot. Then the second-hand washing machine we had inherited from a relative died. Annoying at the best of times, this felt catastrophic while we still had a child in nappies. Even in the 1980s we were environmentally conscious and we used washable and reusable cloth terry squares for our baby and dried these on the line [no tumble drier]. Washing nappies by hand was tough and it was an anxious few weeks until we managed to borrow the £250 we needed to buy a new washing machine.

Not wanting to be in that situation again the washing machine savings fund came into being. We did without and built up and kept £300 in a savings account for the next twenty years or so [long after we were washing nappies] as a security blanket.

Lesson Two: Campervans are fun!

Back in 2005 we made the life-changing purchase of our first blue campervan. Nothing was ever the same again and by the following year we knew we wanted to have a campervan gap year. Saving for this went way beyond the washing machine fund; this was big!

By 2005 we were both earning UK average salaries, our mortgage was small, our son was grown and would soon be finishing university and borrowing to buy a second-hand campervan became possible. This loan was paid off when I received redundancy pay the following year and we extended the mortgage for campervan number two. I took on multiple jobs and we became extreme savers with a clear goal to have a gap year. In the first of many spreadsheets, I began tracking our spending and savings from earnings and Ebay sales as we de-cluttered.

Lesson Three: A grown-up gap year

Having squirrelled away as much money as we thought we needed, we waved farewell to England in the spring of 2009. Our year travelling in our second blue campervan was fantastic and another huge life-changing event. We returned to Salford in 2010 having learned that early retirement was the only way we could have the freedom to travel we yearned for. We came up with a plan, secured new jobs and embarked on an even bigger saving journey with steely determination and an even more elaborate spreadsheet. Our single goal was to retire as soon as we could afford to.

Lesson Four: Banks are not always secure

We have avoided the ‘big banks’ since becoming aware of their role in debt and poverty in the global south in the 1980s. Despite the fashion for demutualisation of building societies a few remain and these are where we put our money. Although the failure of Northern Rock in 2008 only affected us lightly it did result in a ramping up of my cautiousness. Building societies are not squeaky clean but we are more comfortable with their structure and ethos. From 2010 until 2017 our ever-growing savings pots were recorded on those increasingly complex spreadsheets as we sought out the best interest rates in building societies, the government savings bank NS&I and the Co-operative Bank, spreading our cash around to limit the risk. We had a long-term plan and could tie-up money for many years and this allowed us to take advantage of reasonable interest rates.

Lesson Five: The cost of living increases

To anyone who was around in the 1970s and 80s, inflation is nothing new. With almost five years of retirement behind us the savings pots are decreasing. Now that inflation in the UK is officially over 5% and rising and our money earning little interest, we are losing value big time. I like to think savers should be able to expect their savings to ‘earn’ at least as much as inflation, staying steady rather than taking steps backwards but I have had to tweak the spreadsheet and budget to reflect these losses.

Fortunately for us this loss isn’t catastrophic as we have spent under our budget for four of the five years since we finished work. We hope that this surplus, along with my ad-hoc travel writing earnings over these years [never included in the budget] have left us with enough wiggle room to cope with an increasingly uncertain future but it does depend how bad it gets.

Lesson Six: Everyone deserves a home

Investing in housing has been popular in the UK and seen as a safe way of increasing the value of your money. Once we had sufficient funds to cover our spending for the years until our pensions paid out we could have used our savings to purchase one or two houses and become landlords, using the rent as our income. Getting our own buy-to-let might have been a wise investment decision but being a landlord is not who we are. Everyone deserves a house that feels like home and yet in my working life with homeless and vulnerable people I have learnt that many people don’t have that security. The UK’s enthusiasm for housing as an investment has inflated prices, excluded first-time buyers from the housing market and skewed the type of new properties built. I am grateful for the riches I have and count my blessings that I have a home, I am not greedy for more.

We have also never maximised the profit on our housing by pushing ourselves to have a big and bigger mortgage. We purchased our first home when we married in the mid-1980s for £13,500. The purchase was completed the day before our wedding day and with the energy of youth we married in the morning and moved across the country in the afternoon, waving to our two dozen guests from a hired Luton van full of our sticks of furniture! The small terraced house was affordable [our household income was around £6,000/year], comfortable and occasionally a headache but it was never an investment.

Moving north, we stayed in our Lancashire semi-detached house for over 20 years. To ‘maximise’ our ‘investment’ we could have taken advantage of our higher incomes and moved to a more expensive property as we reached our 40s. Our home was in the cheap-end of town but we liked where we lived and the mortgage was affordable, allowing us to enjoy a good quality of life. We still benefitted from the exorbitant rise in house prices when we sold it but by not actively playing the housing-market game and staying in a ‘cheap’ house we are now locked into the lower end of the housing market.

Lesson Seven: Sell, sell, sell

In the 1980s the Conservative government sold and privatised companies that I thought I already owned. We didn’t buy any of these get-rich-quick shares for utility companies but watching the scramble for a fast buck we added company shares into the best-avoided category.

I am clearly risk averse but in the 1980s I learnt that these investments were considered a route to wealth. We have saved to secure sufficient funds to be able to walk away from the straight-jacket of nine-to-five working and travel. Although I understand that by many people’s standards we are rich, I have never aspired to be wealthy and our money is diminishing rather than growing, as we work towards leaving this world with little or nothing.

Being comfortable with your own financial decisions

I guess if you want to free yourself from the necessity of employment in your 30s and 40s, you need firstly a high income and secondly you need to invest and achieve interest rates higher than inflation. Everyone makes their own choices, based on their life experiences and my own life lessons have left me valuing my good fortune and hesitant to squander that good fortune through risky behaviour. Fairness underpins everything we do and I hope I don’t lose sight of how lucky we are to have enough money to make choices about how we spend it.

Our wedding day self-drive removal van

Using our Campervan in Winter: Tips for Keeping Cosy

Camping in our campervan, known affectionately as the Blue Bus, is a year-round hobby. Our ‘van is where I am most happy and I need regular nights away to keep my contentment equilibrium in balance. We also spent a lot of money buying our ‘van and it feels like a waste to only use it from Spring to Autumn.

It is frustrating that so many campsites close in the colder months of the year. I appreciate that campsite owners might need some downtime so that they can go on holiday themselves or carry out maintenance but there should be a rota! It is also clear that there are campsites that just don’t have the facilities for cold and wet weather camping because they either have grass pitches or facility blocks with no heating [although this doesn’t stop some opening]. In winter we will happily use a warm shower block but a Certified Location with no facilities is often a good place to stay as this means we have no expectations of getting a roomy hot shower and we just use our onboard facilities.

Water Matters

We drain the water out of our campervan as soon as the weather gets near to chilly, usually in November. We don’t fill the underfloor tank again until spring, unless we are on a site with no facilities, or we plan to be away for more than three or four days and the weather forecast suggests it won’t be below freezing. Our Truma boiler dumps the water when it detects temperatures below 3C when the campervan isn’t in use and, as I live my life constantly thinking of ways to save water, just throwing away litres of this precious liquid really goes against the grain. For our short winter camping trips, when we are using onsite facilities, we use water from a portable 10l container. This holds enough for drinks, cooking and washing for one day. If we don’t have on-site showers and are just away for a couple of nights we will boil the kettle and crank the heating up for a full wash at the sink.

Head to Toe Warmth

It is easy to keep warm in our campervan, although its insulation isn’t brilliant. In the winter we put extra carpets on our ‘van’s vinyl floor, as this makes a massive difference to how warm it feels. We have cosy Heat Holder slipper socks to wear inside our Blue Bus that keep our toes toasty. Our Truma heater works on gas, electric or both and this keeps the ‘van as hot as you could want it. For extra hygge, we have some soft woollen blankets and even a small hot water bottle. In October we change to our thicker 10.5 tog duvets and we will use these until March. Along with the blankets and silk sleeping bag liners as back up, this is usually enough for even the coldest night when we are chipping ice off the inside of the ‘van windows. Just occasionally we have used sleeping bags plus duvets! At night, if it is very cold we will keep the heating on low through the night and along with snuggly pyjamas might wear a hat to protect every bit of us from the cold!

Drying Gear

In winter, more than summer, it is important to have outdoor gear that will keep you warm and dry. We like to get out and stretch our legs and explore while we are away and this is more fun if you are not going to return to your campervan or motorhome soaking wet and cold. Many people can dry their wet outer layer in their bathroom, if they have a heating vent. Our bathroom doesn’t have heating but what we do find useful for drying wet weather gear is a row of four plastic hooks that fits between the two shelves above the passenger and driver seat [where a rear view mirror would be if we had one]. Waterproofs can hang here between the cab seats and drip onto the cab floor and gradually dry. This is the sort of thing I mean. If we need it, we also carry a low wattage fan heater to dry our kit.

Boots or wellingtons can get wet and / or muddy in winter and be a pain to store in a small campervan. Our solution is large zipped bags. We have a large wellington bag that fits two pairs and a ski boot bag that fits both our walking boots in. This means the muddy footwear can be shoved in the bag, zipped away, stored on the front seats and forgotten about until the next day or when we get home. If we have any newspaper, we will roll it up inside the boots to soak up the moisture. If possible we would prefer to allow the boots to dry out if they have got soggy during the day but we tend to prioritise the clothing and leave the boots to dry slowly overnight, so they aren’t cluttering up the space in the ‘van during the evening.

Long Winter Evenings

It is dark in winter as well as cold and the evenings can feel long. We either like to be within walking distance of a pub with a roaring fire or we make sure we have plenty of books, games and things to watch to entertain us during the evening. Dominoes is a favourite game and we always travel with a quiz book. Another favourite thing we share is that while the evening meal is being prepared and cooked the non-cook will read out loud, usually from a non-fiction book we are both interested in. We don’t have a TV in our campervan but we always take a laptop with downloaded programmes to keep us entertained. We are currently re-watching all the Parks and Recreation series and laughing at the jokes all over again!

Along with a glass of red wine, on cold winter evenings we often treat ourselves to a warming tipple and an essential in our campervan is Jägermeister. This German digestif is packed with herbs and spices that mean it must be good for you and it certainly reaches the parts other drinks can’t!

Winter Treats

Winter camping is a different experience than the summer and I certainly anticipate the warmth and lighter evenings impatiently. Even so, the winter brings its own special moments. A night of gentle snow falling on the van roof is precious, frost on the windows makes pretty patterns and sitting inside the Blue Bus watching deer pottering around a quiet campsite is unforgettable. At these times I remember that it is fun to be out all year.

2021 Spending Reviewed: Despite Rising Costs we Have Stayed Below Budget

It is the start of another year and time to share how much money we have spent in the last 12 months, revealing our spending habits in all of their immoderation. I divulge our expenditure for interest and accountability, as we aim to stay within the budget we set when we retired in 2017. Our spending is peculiar to us and comparisons are not always helpful but it does show you don’t need gold-plated pensions to have a good time. Any comments and observations are gladly received.

In 2017 we aimed to live on less than £27,000 a year for the foreseeable future and despite high inflation we spent under that figure for the fifth year running. In 2017, as new retirees, it was a generous amount for us that was around the average UK household spending but was less than we had spent while we were working. Although we had been tracking our spending for years, we didn’t really know how our retirement spending would pan out and, of course, as two vegetarians with no mortgage and a campervan there is nothing average about us! In 2020 we almost spent £27,000 but then there was nothing normal about 2020. In 2021 life was still strange but I am pleased that we have spent a comfortable £4,000+ below our budget. Our annual spending has tended to be a rollercoaster, with expensive years followed by frugal years and this trend, although it makes little sense, has continued.

As in previous years, expensive home improvements that we consider one-off are kept separate and not part of the headline figure. On top of the budgeted expenditure in the usual categories [see below], in 2021 we also spent £2,780 on new garage doors and a living room carpet. Even if this was included we would still have spent under £27,000, so I feel we have done pretty well. Our home improvements spending would have been more and we would have replaced our faded bathroom by now but have you tried getting a bathroom fitter recently?

Here is how our budget breaks down into my different categories:

Essentials – total £8,730 [38% of total spending] [2020 £9,833 / 38%]

Food – £4,142 [2020 £4,703] – We all know that prices have gone up in 2021 so I have closely monitored this spending line through the year and I am surprised it is lower than 2020. We continue to use discount supermarkets for the majority of our shopping and generally cook from scratch. The figures don’t lie and our supermarket spending seems to be inversely related to how much we spend in cafes and restaurants. In 2020 we hardly ate out at all and so food prepared at home was a bigger chunk of our costs. In 2021 we have spent more eating out so I suppose we could expect to spend less in our local supermarkets.

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 57.2 sq mtrs [615.7 sq feet] bungalow – £3,854 [2020 £4,463] – I am also pleasantly surprised that we spent less on our bills in 2021 than 2020 but there is an explanation that isn’t totally about being frugal. We now have two full years in the bungalow to compare our spending on this essentials category. In 2020 some bills were initially more as providers got used to the amount we would use, not realising how frugal we are! For example, our water bills started off at over £30 a month and have now settled down to £18 a month, a better reflection of what we use. We also paid more in Council Tax in 2020 as we had a few months when we didn’t pay anything in 2019 after moving. The January to April lockdown meant that we were home all the time, not something we would expect to do in a normal year. As soon as we were able we were away from mid-April to the end of June and so using no water or energy at home. We did manage to trim some of our bills in 2021 finding better deals for our mobile phones and our boiler servicing contract. In addition we complained to our previous boiler servicing company [British Gas] and received compensation after some shoddy service.

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £734 [2020 £667] – In lockdown we paid for some online tai chi classes to support our teacher and keep us healthy. In person classes re-started in September and we have attended when we can. Most of this money has been spent on new prescription specs and dental check ups.

The money we spend on the essentials above are, in theory, the minimum we need to survive, if nothing goes wrong or wears out and we didn’t own a campervan and never went anywhere!

Stuff (electronics, books, newspapers and other kit) – £3,170 [14% of total spending] [2020 £7,175 / 27%]

Household spending [everything from glue, newspapers and books to bird food, gardening stuff and parts for the bikes] – £2,506 [ 2020£6,189] 2020 was the year of DIY! 2021 has been more about getting out and about. When we do buy furniture we continue to try and buy second-hand and in 2021 we have sourced some fabulous items that will last the rest of our lifetimes. It is hard to call the G-Plan large chest of drawers a bargain at just under £200 but they are beautifully made and the drawers glide in place. A second-hand wine rack and a small cupboard were other good buys from our local GB Antiques emporium. We search out second-hand books in charity shops and the warren-like Pier Bookshop in Morecambe and, even better, when we can we borrow books from our local library for free!

Clothes & accessories – £664 [2020 £986] – Again, I am pleased we haven’t spent more in this category. There have been a couple of essential purchases. My partner wore his hiking boots up lots of hills but eventually the sole lost contact with the body of the boot. Some glue kept them together during our holiday in Ireland but we did have to purchase more this summer. We both also needed new walking shoes and after mine caused massive blisters and bruising on my feet I complained to the manufacturer. They sent me replacement shoes but I am not convinced they were faulty and think it is a design issue and I haven’t dared to wear them yet. In the meantime I had purchased a pair of Vivo Barefoot walking shoes. I love their shoes but hadn’t tried their more substantial styles before and I am really pleased with them. This palaver does mean I bought two pairs of walking shoes in 2021! More frugally, while we were in Ilkley this summer I spent some time in the excellent charity shops in this well-heeled town and purchased some good quality second hand items I needed, including a soft and floaty summery frock for a few quid that is perfect for the four or five days a year it is warm enough to wear such a thing.

Experiences – £9,517 [31% of total spending] [2020 £8,336 / 31%]

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £3,634 [2020 £2,834] – As well as plenty of nights on campsites, other holidays are in this category. Having had so many plans disrupted in 2020, we were determined to make the most of spending time with friends in 2021 and have had a couple of lovely weekends in hotels in the Lake District. In 2019 we paid for a self-catering cottage holiday with friends in Scotland for 2020. This was obviously postponed to 2021 and, due to another lockdown, has now been postponed to 2022. Is this a record for the longest wait for a holiday?

Restaurants & cafes – £2,225 [2020 £1,309] – After a woeful 2020, our 2021 spending in this category is nearer to our 2019 spending, although we haven’t got back to the regular meet ups and meals with friends in Manchester. We did manage a sociable night at Manchester’s Christmas Market and paying a small fortune for a mug of warming gluwein felt like a massive treat!

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £1,280 [2020 £2,093] – It has been a cheap year for the van. No doubt the Blue Bus is saving up for some expensive new parts it wants in 2022!

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,261 [2020 £1,227 ] – We travelled to northern Scotland and across Northern Ireland to Donegal but certainly haven’t put the miles across Europe on the campervan we would normally do.

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £589 [2020 £403] – By the autumn of 2021 we felt ready to attend events and gigs again. We attended a Manchester Literary Festival events and saw Chantel McGregor and Turbowolf live. I have missed live music and it was so amazing to immerse myself in it again for an evening. We have been to see Morecambe FC a couple of times too, where you win some and lose some. In the spring many venues weren’t open but by the time we travelled to Wales in September we could visit a bevy of castles.

Public transport costs – £528 [2020 £360] – Most of this is the cost of going to and from Manchester by train.

Giving – £1,352 [6% of total spending] [2020 £937 / 4%]

Gifts & donations – £1,351 [2020 £937] – Another discretionary spending line that we enjoy spending but try and keep under control. In terms of donations, we have given to some favourite local and national charities throughout the year. Our gift giving has been more extravagant in 2021 due to so many disappointments in 2020. The most expensive gift was treating our son and daughter-in-law to a weekend away in a Lake District hotel. The downside for them was that we came too! Time with them is very precious and worth every penny.

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2021 – £22,769 – I am very pleased we have kept the spending low this year and still enjoyed ourselves and will indulge in a small pat on the back!

Over my five years of retirement we have spent an average of £24,744 a year.

We are gradually spending our savings but our expenditure doesn’t all come from the money we have squirreled away. As well as my side hustle travel writing income, in 2020 my small NHS pension began. This is based on my many years of part-time and full-time NHS work and is the equivalent to 12 years NHS service. These both help to reduce what we take from the ever-diminishing savings pot. Although retiring early was fantastic, for me, saving was never just about being able to give up work before we were in our mid-60s, it was also about us having the financial resilience to survive whatever ups and downs life threw at us. Let’s hope we continue to stay afloat and thrive.

Camping the Night Away 118 times in a Campervan in 2021

In comparison to 2020, 2021 was a triumph! Okay, 2020 isn’t hard to beat but 2021 was certainly less of a disappointing camping year than 2020, mostly because we were only [although using the word only here isn’t right] in lockdown for 14 weeks from 1 January until 12 April. Those 14 weeks rolled slowly by in a blur of hot drinks, local walks and jigsaws. The day we could go camping again was momentous and on the first day of freedom we rolled into Burrs Country Park Caravan and Motorhome Club [CAMC] Site with plenty of other people who clearly were raring to get out and about.

In 2020, here in Lancashire we had less than 25 weeks when we were allowed to go camping. With the luxury of around 38 weeks to play with in 2021 we managed to fit in 118 marvellous nights away in the Blue Bus. Let’s hope in 2022 we have all 52 weeks to go out and play in!

Those 118 nights were in 59 different places and I didn’t need a calculator to figure that this is a very round average of two nights in each place. We always keep moving and the longest we stayed anywhere in 2021 were the five nights we spent at Buxton CAMC site. This was unusual and we mostly stayed two or three nights before moving on.

We travelled up and down the country for these 118 overnights but did have a tendency to travel up! Turning left onto the M6 and heading north is our default. We spent a month in Scotland in May and June and we took the ferry across to Ireland for three weeks in the summer, exploring Northern Ireland and County Donegal in Ireland. Our time in Donegal was our only trip abroad in 2021, so we had no chance to stock up on wine but we did spend some of our stash of Euros! Our trip around the peaceful lanes and stunning coastline of Donegal was a particularly memorable highlight of the year.

We did head south a few times, touring the Peak District for three weeks in the spring and spending a few nights in the handsome city of Cambridge. In the autumn we toured around Pembrokeshire and explored one of my favourite cities, Cardiff re-visiting old haunts and meeting up with old friends.

2021 had plenty of happy sociable times. We met up with friends with campervans on campsites, attended a Devon Owners meet in the autumn, met up with editors from MMM and Campervan Mag [one planned and one accidental] and we spent a lovely evening over a bottle of red with a fellow travel writer for those two magazines when we both found ourselves in Ullapool. In two of those instances it was the immediacy of Twitter that got us together, so social media isn’t all bad.

Those 118 overnights range from a lay-by in Scotland to a campsite with a heated indoor swimming pool, from simple Certified Locations and campsites where the facilities remained closed to sites that have sanitary blocks with underfloor heating. They also spanned the price ranges, from nothing to a staggering £40.50 a night [due to the pool and it was a birthday weekend]. I like the variety of places our campervans takes us to, from peaceful spots to being among rows of other ‘vans on a club site. We have had huge pitches, such as at The Paddock overlooking Rutland Water where our nearest neighours were not even in shouting distance and we could bird watch from our pitch and we have stayed on pub car parks hemmed in by cars and both sides. At Barrow upon Humber we had the idyllic small site to ourselves whereas at the popular Tollymore Forest Park near Newcastle in Northern Ireland we were almost bumper to bumper with vans packed with families enjoying the sunshine.

The graph below shows the ups and downs of our campervan years. Not surprisingly the most nights we spent in our campervan was 2009, when we were living in the ‘van full time from April and into 2010. Work got in the way of our camping trips until 2017 when the number of overnights took a leap following our retirement. 2017 was only disrupted by the Blue Bus being off the road for over two months after the Greek tragedy. Everything went fairly smoothly in 2018 [apart from the power steering giving up the ghost in northern Spain] and we made the most of our freedom to travel with 155 nights away in the ‘van. In 2019 moving house disrupted our flow and then Covid-19 messed up everyone’s lives. If in 2019 we had known what was on the horizon the following year we would probably have travelled more but we thought there were certainties and the trips we wanted to do could wait until the following year! If I have learnt one thing from Covid-19 it is to never put anything off again.

Happy travelling in 2022 everyone!

The number of overnights in our three campervans by year

Keeping our Brain Cells Nimble with some Heavy Lifting

We live in a bungalow. One of the wonderful things of living on one floor, either a flat or a bungalow, is that you have more freedom to decide what function your rooms will have and plan a layout that works for you. If you want to use your largest room as a mega-size bedroom to try on ballgowns you can do that; if you want a small cosy TV room you can do that too.

Our Morecambe bungalow has three rooms, plus a kitchen and bathroom, so there aren’t limitless options. We are conventional and use the biggest room as our living room. The other two rooms are identical and on opposing sides of the bungalow. When we moved in we chose to use one of these as our bedroom and the other as our Everything-else room. The Everything-else room is a study or workroom for the two of us and also a spare bedroom for the few times we have guests staying over and a dining room when we are entertaining [we eat in the kitchen when it is just us two]. We haven’t had many dinner parties through Covid-19 but BC [Before Covid] friends and our book group would regularly come and eat at our house. Book group meant sitting eight people around a dining table to eat and talk comfortably and, to a large extent, these once or twice a year events dictated the furniture and layout of that room.

During lockdowns our book group became an online experience and now, even though we are meeting in person, as another member has also left Greater Manchester for Yorkshire, the group has become more widely geographically distributed than it was when it began. Having decided that Yorkshire and North Lancashire were too far apart, it was agreed to restrict meetings to the Manchester middle ground. For us, this decision has opened up options for the layout of our Everything-else room.

I like changing what we store in cupboards and moving furniture around and so I am perhaps overly enthusiastic about going even further and changing rooms! After two years living with one layout we began to mull over whether we had got the use of the two identical rooms the wrong way round. Fed up with being woken up from our slumbers by the noise of the bin lorry at seven in the morning and wanting a more interesting view when we were working at laptops in the Everything-else room, it began to make sense to flip around the function of these two rooms.

As I’ve said, the rooms are identical in shape and size but that is where the similarities end, in aspect they couldn’t be more different. One gets the morning sun, overlooks the garden and is a cooler room, whereas the other looks over our [not very busy] road, gets to see the stunning Morecambe sunsets and is a much warmer room. Moving them around would be easy wouldn’t it? All we had to do was put the furniture in the same places in the opposite room.

We have no nine-to-five jobs to take up our time and I was in a travel writing lull so this was an ideal time to make this moving plan a reality. We procrastinated for quite a few weeks while we established this wasn’t just a whim and, although still enthusiastic, I slowly began to realise how much work it would involve. We talked about the difficulties in our way and the pros and cons of the different rooms and how the move would work. Mostly I thought about how lovely it would be to be able to sit in bed with my morning mug of tea watching the birds in the garden and how appealing having a warmer Everything-else room was when I am writing and editing. Weeks went by and we did nothing.

Eventually, we could talk no longer and we put two rainy days aside for the moving of the furniture. In a small bungalow and with our bed and a double futon to move, this was like completing a large Rubik’s Cube! These are not big rooms and we had to think ahead and move pieces of furniture to a holding space before we could move another into its space. We started with the two biggest pieces of furniture, taking apart our bed and the futon. We swapped these two over by juggling them between the old room, the living room, the hallway and into the new room. We had a night in our ‘new’ bedroom with half the bedroom furniture and half of the Everything-else room furniture. In our new quieter and darker [no street lighting] room and after a day lugging heavy furniture around we slept like logs until an hour later than usual!

The next day after more carrying of chests of drawers and cupboards our new bedroom was soon a mirror image of the old bedroom. The Everything-else room took a bit longer to complete as we tried out different layouts. Now we no longer need to leave space to allow us to extend the dining tables for eight people we had much more freedom to set up the room to suit us. By the late afternoon the furniture was in place and we were able to kick back our heels and enjoy our handiwork.

Of course, as furniture was shifted, the stuff we stored in the drawers and cupboards also moved. I believe that these changes keep our brains nimble as we not only have to remember which room to go in and why we are there, we also have to remember which drawer or cupboard we have stored things in! You’ll not be surprised to read that we’ve both found ourselves heading into the wrong room once or twice!

The only trace of our moving experience are the feet imprints of the previous furniture in the carpets. Teasing these out is the next household task!

The photograph I have used isn’t one of mine, it is by Eduard Militaru on Unsplash