Meeting a personal guide to the Spanish Civil War

10.28.2018 Morata and Chinchon (14)
The Civil War memorial above Morata de Tajuna

Looking over hundreds of olive trees, fringed by fragrant thyme and rosemary, it was hard for me to cast my mind back to the bloody scenes in February 1937.  We were south of Madrid at the site of the Battle of Jarama and between 1937 and the end of the Spanish Civil War around 15,000 people from the Nationalist and Republican sides lost their lives here.

We had driven our much loved campervan along more gravel tracks during our seven weeks in Spain than the ‘van had been on for all of it’s previous three and a half years and every time we were searching out something relating to the Spanish Civil War.  Off-road driving was starting to become the norm and the blue of the ‘van was disappearing until a layer of dust.

It was a sunny but breezy Sunday morning when we bounced down the tracks above Morata de Tajuna looking for an insignificant memorial to the International Brigades who had fought in the battle for Madrid.  It was a Sunday morning and on the tarmac roads we had passed hundreds of cyclists in large groups and on their own, all out for a ride, this is clearly a Spanish thing.

After parking up we stood looking at the slightly disappointing memorial of rocks and rusting tins and other debris.  This isn’t the stunning clenched fist memorial in the photograph and I was struggling to take much from it as we tried to read the faded plaque.  I guessed it related to the Spanish Civil War but couldn’t be sure.  Then a knight in shining armour / cyclist pulled up and said, ‘I guess you are from the British van’ in excellent English.  Remarking on his fantastic grasp of our native tongue he explained his mixed European heritage and that he had lived in the UK for around 15-years but now lived near to this hill of olive groves.  He explained that cycling around the area every week he became interested in the history and had done some research.

He told we were standing on Suicide Hill and the Republican 15th Brigade, including the British Battalion [not all of them were from Britain], were killed in huge numbers over three days of fierce fighting here in February 1937.  A few of the 500 – 600 men in the British Battalion had seen previous combat but many had never fired their weapons and ill equipped, unprepared and newly trained, these volunteers faced an attack from Franco’s elite Nationalist Army of 40,000 experienced troops that were well armed, had some air support and tanks.  The Nationalists had control of most of the main roads to Madrid and had a clear objective to cut the Madrid to Valencia road, thus circling and isolating Madrid and forcing its surrender.

The numbers and certainly names of the soldiers who died here are mostly unknown.  It is estimated 600 British soldiers fought for the Republicans at Jarama and many died on the first day of fighting.   Remarkably, although so many lost their lives, courage and conviction enabled the Republicans to more or less hold their positions and after three days of desperate fighting the two armies dug in here until the last days of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.  The name Suicide Hill started to make sense.

Our guide told us that on his regular cycle rides he passes the remnants of old trenches among these olive groves and bullet holes are still visible on the tree trunks.  This is a landscape still scarred by the war but does not receive the huge numbers of visitors seen at the World War One battle areas.  After sharing the history of Suicide Hill, he pointed us in the direction of the stunning memorial in the photograph and recommended the small and moving museum in Morata de Tajuna at Mesón El Cid and open at the weekends 12.00 – 14.00.  If you’re passing I recommend you take a look.







Dirty Old Town: #surprisingsalford #34

Gas holders Nov 2018 (6)
The new local history board and the remaining gas holder

‘I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town’

Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl wrote ‘Dirty Old Town’ in 1949 about Salford.  The gas works wall encloses the gas holders that have stood between Liverpool Street and Regent Road for around 150 years.  I can see them from our kitchen window and often find myself humming the tune but not for much longer; these familiar landmarks are in the process of being  dismantled.  The ‘gas works wall’ will remain and this now has a board that records the memories of local people and the history of the gas works and the area.

On Friday 15 November a small group of us gathered to see the new board, meet some of the people involved and have a chance to get up close and personal with the remaining gas holder.  As we walked over to the site from home I said, ‘Surely we will get to sing the song.’  It almost didn’t happen but someone else was keen and standing in the chilly November air we all managed to remember the words to the first verse.

The memories of local people bring the industrial landscape of Salford alive.  Today this part of Salford is an odd mixture of recycling plants and car show rooms but once housing, shops, pubs and cinemas crowded around four gasometers and a power station.  Built in 1869 and 1879 the gasometers have not been used since the 1960s.  We donned hard hats and fluorescent jackets, walked up to the remaining metal gas holder structure and peered into the hole that is gradually being filled before the surrounding structure is removed.  Although functional, there is a charm in these gas holder and I admired the detail on the columns and the crisscross pattern of the structure.  I will miss them.

From the work of the community artists who recorded the memories of local people I learnt that there is a railway tunnel underneath West Egerton Street and from Les’ story I found out just how close this part of Salford came to being blown sky high:

‘An incendiary bomb landed on top of the gasometers during WW2.  It was moved by an auxiliary fireman.  He managed to put it out and save the area from being blown up.  He was awarded the George Medal.’  Les

How to be an award winning travel writer

The Caravan Writers’ Guild Douglas King Award crystal glass trophy

‘How did you get into journalism,’ Terry Owen, the former Secretary of the Caravan Writers’ Guild asked me.   I was visiting Terry and Alison to collect the crystal glass trophy I had won for the Douglas King Award for written journalism.  Terry’s question was a good one that deserved a better answer than the waffle I came up with on the hoof.  What I did say is that I have been practising and improving my writing for a long time.  The night school class I took in English Literature in the 1980s got my fingers itching and I learnt from others while I worked on an alternative local magazine, Preston Other Paper.  Studying for a degree in Geography and Environmental Management and a higher degree in Applied Public Health and keeping my first blog from 2009 helped to hone my writing skills so that in 2011 I was ready to dip my toe in to being paid for writing about life in a campervan.  My journey to winning the Douglas King Award has been a long one and I continue to strive to ensure that my travel articles are entertaining, accurate and informative.

I  write travel articles because my friends don’t always want to listen to my stories of my travels and the need to share the beautiful places I visit is strong.  These travel articles are not aimed at my friends, my audience, the campervan and motorhome owner [or potential owner], is always at the forefront of my mind.  In practice this means that my travel articles are not only the story of tours we have completed in our own ‘van, they include practical information about places you can park a long vehicle, where campsites or wild camping spots are and the state of the roads.

As well as improving my craft and remembering my audience I thoroughly research the area I am exploring.  Typically, I always learn more snippets of information than I can fit in to one travel article but part of the art of a writer is knowing what fits the story you are telling and what might be fascinating but is a digression and needs to be ditched.

I like to weave a thread through my stories as this helps them to hang together so that they are more than a list of places we visited.  This thread might be something personal such as a childhood memory or a visit to an area that has long been on my wish list.  For other articles I might concentrate on the weather or the local food.  Sometimes the narrative emerges from the research and I might link together literary connections or historical sites.

I am chuffed to bits when people I meet or on social media tell me how much they like a particular travel article I have written but winning an award for my journalism is a different level of recognition that has blown me away.  It is such an honour to have my writing appreciated and judged to be award winning by other professionals and I still have an inner glow from having won.

I entered the Douglas King Award for the first time a few years ago and in August this year I thought i would give it another go.  Checking through my articles that had been published in the preceding twelve months I chose to submit the article about a tour of Scotland’s beautiful west coast, published in MMM in January 2018 and a piece I was proud of.  You can find the article in the list of my MMM articles if you want to have a read.

In September we had just arrived in Spain and I got a call to tell me that I was short-listed for the award; I was over the moon at receiving this recognition for my writing but certainly didn’t expect to hear anything more.  So imagine my elation when the following month I heard that the judges had decided that my article was good enough to be declared the winner!  The judges thought the piece was a, ‘Beautiful descriptive feature’ which certainly goes to prove that you don’t need perfect weather to write a good travel article, which must be a comfort to many UK based journalists.  We were in the lovely Spanish coastal town of Peñíscola when I received this news and so I unfortunately missed the glittering presentation evening.  I was both delighted and astounded to win and only Mr BOTRA got to see my blushes.

The Caravan Writers Guild covered the award on their website and MMM published a news story.  It was a particularly big night for MMM as the magazine scooped two awards at the October presentation evening with their Road Test Editor also winning the John Wickersham Award for Video.

Both the Caravan Writers’ Guild’s awards are open to non-members and they manage these awards efficiently and courteously with the aim of encouraging excellence within the sector.  Membership is available to those who have been writing and published for at least a year, so if you’re a motorhome or caravan journalist writing in print, on a blog or producing a vlog then give joining the Guild a thought and maybe enter a piece yourself in 2019.

Receiving the Douglas King Award from Alison Owen [photograph taken by Terry Owen]



Arran: My first encounter with this lovely island

The dramatic landscape of Goat Fell on Arran

The internet suggests there are up to 5,000 islands around Great Britain, although the exact number seems to be hard to be sure of and there are certainly plenty of these I have never heard of, let alone visited.  Another source gave a figure of 82 islands that measure more than 5 sq km.  This is still a higher number than I might have guessed at and one that made me ashamed of how few of our islands I have taken the trouble to get to.  It was time to visit an island and an autumn trip to Arran, off the south-west coast of Scotland was planned.

Goodness knows why I have never been before as we found so much that delighted us on Arran.  The craggy mountains around Goat Fell are perfect walking country; Glen Sannox is simply stunning; the stone circles at Machrie Moor are impressive and fascinating; the coastline near Blackwaterfoot  and the walk through boulders to the basalt cliffs of The Doon is stunning and the sheltered bay at Lochranza is picture perfect.  I loved pretty much everything about the island.

Thanks to the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on Scottish ferries, getting to Arran is now more affordable and it was just over £45 return for our 5.4 metre long campervan.  We needed to have a frugal holiday due to our expensive year but also like to support campsites and so we stayed on three of the islands campsites [see below] and did a few nights wild camping too.  Wild camping is popular on Arran and some places can get busy at weekends as Arran is a perfect place to visit in a campervan.

We didn’t visit any tea shops, although I am told they are excellent, but we did support the Arran economy and bought excellent local cheese in the cheese shop, local beer at the brewery, good local oatcakes and delicious local bread in the Blackwaterfoot Bakery.  These all went very well together and didn’t last long.

Arran was a great start to my plan to visit more of the islands around Great Britain.  The big question is where to go to next?

Campsites we used on Arran

Lochranza Campsite – a beautifully situated site that is well kept.  The site is grassy with some hard-standing pitches if it is wet and there are open views.

Seal Shore Camping  – this site at Kildonan has lovely views out to sea and clean facilities.  The site is sloping but while we were there they were building some more level pitches.  The site is next door to a bar.

Middleton’s Caravan and Camping Park – This level grassy site at Lamlash is handy for the shops, places to eat and shoreline in Lamlash.  The facilities are clean and it has good hot showers.




Go the extra mile it is never crowded

A quiet corner of the Lake District

You might laugh [please do] but when I came across this saying recently my literal mind skipped it’s metaphorical intention and took its meaning to the letter [I often do this].  My thoughts wandered to when we have walked an extra mile or so on a beach or in the hills or cycled just that bit further and felt smug as we left the crowds behind.  The saying is spot on; going that extra mile often takes us to a quiet corner and to somewhere special that we can embrace as our own for a short time.  By just taking a bit more effort I can enjoy an undisturbed experience of a location with the space and tranquillity to really see, smell and feel the place.

The quote attributed to Wayne Dyer, author and self-development guru, is, ‘It’s never crowded along the extra mile.’  After thinking about all those idyllic places we have found it eventually dawned on me that this quote isn’t to be read literally and instead encourages everyone to believe that by putting in the extra effort you can reach the top.  My mind turned to those times when I have gone the extra mile on a task.  Doing just the minimum required can be an easy option and I have times when I need to cruise through jobs because my mind is preoccupied with other stuff.  But I feel much better about myself when I put the extra effort in and give my absolute best.  And yet, the number of people who will reach the heights of the elite in any field is limited [or never crowded] and unfortunately not everyone can be outstanding otherwise outstanding becomes the average.  For myself, I don’t expect to be award winning, I go the extra mile to compete against myself, stretching my performance and improving my skills.

I consider myself a slow writer; certainly each time I write a travel article or blog post I spend hours rigorously writing, editing and re-editing.  I do this for two reasons; I am certainly terrified of the shame of making a mistake that makes it in to print [although they do and I have to deal with it] but I also want to produce work I can feel proud of.  I constantly review, learn new techniques and apply these and I feel that my writing has improved over the years.  I don’t go the extra mile for promotion or a higher salary, my editor is not pushing me to write differently, I am self-motivated to do better and throwing together a piece of writing with the minimum effort has never been an option.  By going the extra mile I might not reach the top but I do maintain my self-respect.






Helly Hansen Watersport Centre: #surprisingsalford #33

Ordsall and water sports centre July 2017 (9)
Water-based fun in Salford

We like to get out and stretch our legs and get the heart pumping after writing at the laptop for much of the day.  Salford Quays is the place we take one of our favourite regular walks and we often swing by the Watersports Centre as there is usually something going on there which gives us an excuse to linger and lean on the railings and watch.  Sometimes there are groups of young people learning how to manage a kayak, on other occasions there are acrobatic wakeboarding sessions.  Those of us not taking part in these water-focused activities [and we are never alone here] can idly enjoy the spectacle.

I am always pleased to see the Manchester Ship Canal at Salford Quays being used.  When I used to cycle to work over the canal I would often see groups rowing along the canal in the early morning.  In winter it would be barely dawn and the sun would be coming up over Manchester, the rowers were out on the water and wrapped up against the cold.  On other trips around Salford Quays we have stumbled upon open water swimming events when the noise from splashing arms and legs echoes around the blocks of flats.

My first experience of the Watersport Centre was when our son took part in the Salford Dragon Boat Festival.  His workplace had a team in the race and we came along to watch the fun.  The dragon boats themselves are stunning, each decorated boat is 40-foot long and holds 18 people.  One of these is a qualified helm, 16 people row and one person is the drummer beating time.  We cheered our son’s team on and for novices they did pretty well, getting through a number of the heats but the main thing was that they enjoyed taking part.  This event is a great spectacle if you can get to Salford Quays next time it is on.




Trekmate Poncho: A review

Modelling the Trekmate poncho

Okay, so this won’t be the most trendsetting and smart bit of gear you will ever see me wearing but it is certainly proving to be practical.  We both own cagoules, waterproof jackets that are perfect for when the heaven’s open.  We live in the north-west of England and have been bought up to carry these cagoules on every walk, even if there isn’t a cloud in the sky, as in our unpredictable climate you just never know.

Cagoules are fantastic in winter but even when made of Gore-tex they can get hot and sticky in a summer shower.  Last year at the Upton Blues Festival I noticed lots of people were wearing ponchos in the rain and these looked both practical and comfortable.  We don’t buy anything on the spur of the moment but started the process of thinking and researching ponchos.

It seemed the poncho market is broad and we could buy expensive or cheap.  Generally with hiking gear I will opt for quality over budget options but as this was a new bit of kit that we were not completely sure would ever be useful we decided to be cautious and frugal.  Dipping our toes in to the waterproof poncho market we bought these Trekmate ponchos for £20 each.

After even a short time these ponchos are proving to be perfect for those short sharp summer shower that we often get in the Alps and in UK.  In this sort of weather the temperature doesn’t plummet too much and putting on a cagoule, even a breathable one, can be a sweaty experience.  We prefer to stay dry and walking in the countryside there isn’t always a bus stop or hut nearby to shelter in.  As well as being perfect at a festival these ponchos are now our go-to option on those hiking days when there isn’t a cloud in the sky and but we want to pack a just-in-case waterproof.  As the ponchos are lighter and less bulky than our cagoules I am sure we will use them often in our trips to southern Europe.  This will mean that our expensive Gore-tex cagoules will last that bit longer.

The Trekmate poncho has a number of other plus points over a cagoule:

  • They come in one size so if you are as short as me [162 cms] the poncho is long enough to cover your shorts and keep them dry.  Mr BOTRA is a bit taller but the poncho would still cover his short shorts!
  • The poncho’s are big enough to go over your rucksack as well as you and keep that dry
  • The poncho’s come with a stuff bag so they pack away neatly
  • This is a light piece of kit that doesn’t take up much room in your pack

These ponchos only come in black and the design is very simple.  At the front there is a large pocket that might be useful to keep any map dry during the shower.  There is a zip at the neck and a flap and the hood is a generous size.  In the body of the poncho there are two holes with Velcro to stick your hands and arms out of if you need to.

The only downside we have found is that if it gets windy the ponchos can billow.  I think if it is that windy it will most probably also be cold and we would be carrying cagoules and waterproof trousers anyway.

We decided to buy at the cheaper end of the poncho market for our first purchase in case these proved to be something that we never actually used.  We have only had the ponchos a few months but already I am a convert to a different way of keeping dry on the hills, even if I don’t look like the most stylish walker.  If you see me please don’t laugh too much!