Thursday night tai chi


The beautiful coast of the Isle of Anglesey

For the past two years the two of us have attended a Thursday evening tai chi class at a local community centre.  We had the good fortune to find an excellent class that was just 10 minutes walk away and cost us an affordable £6 a month each.  Our experienced tutor was motivated by wanting to give something back to the community rather than making a living and so only charged to cover his costs.  However, running the class, as well as continuing a full-time job and balancing the demands of his family eventually became too much and the end of our tai chi class arrived last week.  I was very sad as I thanked our tutor and hugged our class mates.

As well as having an inspiring tutor, the class was made up of a wonderful group of Salfordians.  These were mostly retired individuals and all benefited hugely from attending the class; tai chi is particularly good for mobility and emotional well-being.  A core of the group have been attending for ten-years and know more about tai chi than I will ever learn.  Tai chi doesn’t promote competitiveness and everyone shared what they knew and supported each other and everyone was always encouraging at my poor efforts.

Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that involves some static postures and continuous controlled movements that are designed to improve physical and mental well-being.  For those interested the class we attended was Sun-style tai chi, developed by Sun Lu-tang just over 100-years ago and is the youngest tai chi style.  Sun-style tai chi has less kicking and punching than other tai chi styles and has a strong emphasis on breathing, mental focus and posture.

I have learnt a lot attending the class over the last two years but I am well aware there is plenty more to learn.  Mr BOTRA has made the time to self-study and learn the long form or series of movements and this means we can practice at home or on holiday.  But for me the discipline and support of a class is the best way for me to develop and so we are in search of a new tai chi class.

There is the possibility that a new tai chi instructor may take over the class at the same community centre.  If this happens, the new tutor will be running the class as part of their business and this means the cost will increase to £14 each a month.  I don’t begrudge someone making a living from teaching but this increase will have a not insignificant impact on our budget and Mr BOTRA and I have talked this over.  If this comes about our plan is to attend two or three times a month, as it is so convenient, and then practice at home in between; this will make the class affordable but also ensure we maintain our skills.


The old and the new from our summer campervan trips

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Little Langdale in Cumbria

The summer of 2016 might not be memorable in England for being wall-to-wall sunshine and yet we have managed to be lucky enough to have some excellent weekends away.  Although we have visited our much loved Lake District a couple of times, it has been a memorable summer for exploring some new areas [yes even in our small country we can still find places to discover].  Our trips to the Howgill Fells and Knaresborough were very pleasurable and we explored some beautiful places and enjoyed some good walking.

I was reminded how beautiful Great Langdale is in the Lake District on our August trip.  Time flies so quickly and I am often amazed how many years it is since we have visited favourite places.  As we drove in to the lovely glaciated valley and got our first glimpse of the distinctive hills bathed in the evening sunshine, the steep-sided hills seemed to give me a big comforting hug.  After a pint of Old Peculier in the Old Dungeon Ghyll, listening to the chatter of other walkers talking about routes and studying maps for the next day I was even happier.  The sound of the stream lulled me to sleep that first night.

The Howgills trip was one of discovery and I think it will become a favourite as the walking is good and the area is less popular than its neighbours.  In North Yorkshire, we walked about 20 kilometres in to the lovely town of Knaresborough and back.  This wasn’t mountain walking but it was beautiful through the Nidd Gorge and we enjoyed spotting the blue-green of the kingfishers flying fast over the river.  There is also more to discover on the moors between Knaresborough and Skipton and so I hope we will be back [although as I said above, years might fly before this actually happens].  It hasn’t all been walking and we also spent some time in the fascinating and packed Nidderdale Museum in Pateley Bridge.  Run by volunteers, there is something for everyone in this lovely local collection.


Our campervan helps to make friendships closer and brings new people to our lives

Everyone needs a friend

Meeting up with what we call ‘Our Australian Friends’ earlier this year on one of their trips to the UK set me off reminiscing about all the people we have met thanks to our motorhome and how much having the ‘van enriches our lives.

We met ‘Our Australian Friends’ one cold and wet January day on the campsite in Ronda in southern Spain six-years ago, when they knocked on the steamed up window of our ‘van and in true blunt Aussie style asked, ‘do you want to come over to our ‘van for a drink before we kill each other’.  We agreed with some trepidation; fortunately they turned out not to be serial killers and we have been pals ever since.

Also on our ‘gap year’ we found someone who shared our outlook when we met a lovely Italian woman in El Rocio.  She was camped next door and lubricated by red wine, we sorted out the world in a mixture of English, Italian and Spanish.  A couple of years ago we drove to Italy to see her again and reinforced the feeling we had that here was a kindred spirit.  Since that trip she has moved house and we are sad that for the time being we seem to have lost touch.

We have also found some new people we really like spending time with from attending the regular Devon Conversions Owners Club rallies and contributing to the group’s online forum.  The happy accident of buying the same make of motorhome doesn’t necessarily lead to a flourishing friendship but it turns out it is a good step on the way.  Once the conversations meanders away from why you picked your particular model and you find other common ground, a friendship can start to unfold.

Two other motorhome acquaintances introduced themselves by getting in touch via my blog.  They were a like-minded couple and motorhomers who took the trouble to make a comment, this developed in to an email conversation, escalated into face-to-face meetings over the last few years which adds joy to our lives.

None of this is to forget our wonderful long-standing and much valued friends, some of whom have their own campervan or tent and are prepared to spend some of their holiday time with us.  These are people we have decades of history with and who suffer our imperfections without judgement [although not necessarily without comment].  We have a bucket full of good memories from these weekends and these shared experiences consolidate and sustain these friendships.

Finally, through writing this blog I have made many online connections with the Financial Independence and Retiring Early (FIRE) community.  I have learnt so much about being frugal and staying optimistic from these positive, knowledgeable and well organised folk.

By happy coincidence, I was editing this blog post when my weekly Brain Pickings email arrived in my inbox.  The wonderful article on reclaiming friendship says much better than I can how I feel about this aspect of my life.  I do hope that, thanks to our campervan and my blogs, Mr BOTRA and I will make new connections with people we like, our friendships will be strengthened and, who knows, maybe news ones will start to develop.

Finding some perfect parking spots

2011 July on Rees Jeffreys Road Fund car park at Rhaedr y cwm above Llan Festiniog
Rees Jeffreys Road Fund car park above Llan Festiniog

My introduction to William Rees Jeffreys was quite by accident one sunny Sunday a few years ago.  Travelling home after a weekend camping in Dolgellau and keen to extend the carefree holiday feeling as long as possible, my partner and I took the B4391 over the hills from Llan Festiniog.  Spotting a car park with extensive views, we couldn’t resist stopping for a brew and a stroll down the lane to pick bilberries and sit by the babbling brook.  The splendidly positioned car park had a plaque and I learnt that it was funded by the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund.

Like many brief encounters, I didn’t give Rees Jeffreys another thought until twelve months later I had another chance meeting with this enigmatic fellow.  Once again on the lookout for a good place to pull in for a drink, we turned off the M6 at Tebay and followed the road towards Kendal.  Spotting a lay-by with a view towards the Howgill Fells we pulled in and realised we were parking next to a familiar plaque.  The kettle went on and I climbed out to read that here was another car park funded by the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund.  Over my cup of tea I starting wondering what the story was behind this man, why he felt the need to pay for car parks as far apart as Wales and Cumbria and why he deserved a plaque.

Back home, an internet search revealed some information about William Rees Jeffreys; born in 1872, before Karl Benz had patented his internal combustion engine for a Motorwagen in 1886, William Rees Jeffreys was a keen cyclist and was initially motivated in his campaigning to improve roads for cyclist.  As cars became more widespread, William Rees Jeffreys held positions with the Road Board (the precursor of the Department of Transport), the RAC, the Roads Improvement Association and the Institute of Automobile Engineers.  From 1919 he was a leading light in the classification and numbering of the roads in Britain to aid the assignment of the money from the Road Fund and to help drivers navigate; the final list was completed in 1926.  Following his death in 1954 his estate provided the endowment for the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund; this gives financial support every year for education and research related to road transport and also for physical road transport projects, hence all the lovely road side parking areas.

As frugal campervan owners we always need car parks and lay-bys and those next to roads often suit our purpose of a rest stop on a long drive.  These halts give us a chance to have a hot drink at little cost and stretch our legs without going out of our way and here was an organisation providing just the facilities the motorhoming community needs; I’ve not found a WRJ funded car park yet that has a height barrier.

Interesting as the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund website  was, it lacked a list of the road side rest areas the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund had supported and I wanted to know more.  An email to the Secretary quickly led to the arrival of a list in the post a few days later which showed 68 funded rest stops; these spread from Wester Ross in Scotland to Cornwall in the south-west.  With the list, I was now able to plan holiday routes to include a Rees Jeffreys Road Fund road side rest areas.

My next opportunity to use the list was on a Spring trip to Pembrokeshire.  The delight of a following a quest is that you never know exactly where it will take you and we found ourselves in some idyllic spots just because they were Rees Jeffreys Road Fund rest stops.  Our first find was a small parking area on the B4582 near Cardigan, alongside the Crugiau Cemmaes bronze age barrow, which has stunning views over the Welsh countryside.  At Wood near Newgale we enjoyed further views over Newgale Sands and St Brides Bay from the dramatically situated sloping car park.

Our final stop on this trip showed up the limitations of the list; with no grid references or even road numbers, even with the help of online maps and street view, there were some rest stops that were very difficult, if not impossible, to locate [you will notice my list is annotated with notes].  I think we found the road side rest stop at Pont Marteg on the A470 north of Rhayader in the stunning river Wye or Afon Gwy valley.  The red kites circling above I stretched my legs, searching for the now familiar Rees Jeffreys Road Fund plaque; I never found it and so wasn’t completely sure we were in the right place.

The Rees Jeffreys Road Fund uses the interest earned on their investments each year to fund research projects and educational bursaries as well as road side rests and are happy to consider applications from any source, so if you think your local beauty spot needs a small car park let your council know about this opportunity.

Having visited Rees Jeffrey Road Fund rest stops in England and Wales, I got the opportunity to seek one out in Scotland.  Just north of Glasgow, the car park at Queen’s View between Mingavie and Drymen was funded by my old friend WRJ.  This car park enables the locals and visitors to park up and enjoy some fresh air and exercise; a quick five minute pounding of the legs will take you to the view point where it is said Queen Victoria stopped to take in the view of Loch Lomond, the more energetic can spend two or three hours walking up to the crags of the strangely named hill, the Whangie.  The car park was busy on a bank holiday weekend and needed a good litter pick to make it a really pleasant place to rest.


Most recently we visited the rest stop at Iron Gate car park, perfect for the wonderful walk up Moel Famau in Flintshire.  Mr BOTRA and I have ticked off only a few of the WRJ road side rests but the list travels with us in the glove compartment of the van and I have no doubt that my acquaintance with William Rees Jeffreys will be maintained and I will continue to be grateful for his generosity to motorhomers and other road users.

Books: portable and joyful

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According to Neil Gaiman, ‘Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.’  And I think he is right.

It feels that ink and paper is being replaced by e-Books, potentially saving thousands of trees, although sales have been falling.  This got me thinking, will this mean the end of the campsite book swap, a feature of most good sites?  These range from a dusty shelf in a corner of a room with half a dozen novels from the last century to a tidy book case bulging with a range of current novels.  How much longer will I be able to browse the rows of dog-eared paperbacks on the off-chance that something will take my eye?

To say I like reading is an understatement, I always have a novel on the go; with a book I am never bored, trains can be delayed, dentists can make me wait and I am entertained.  On trips away in our campervan I always have a few books tucked away in case I get through my current book; we might have a wet day and be van-bound or I might want to soak up some sunshine, either way I will want to also spend the time travelling in my head through the pages of a novel.

In 2009 my partner and I took a late gap year and travelled around southern Europe in our camper van.  One of my concerns was how to ensure I had enough reading material as I knew it was not possible to carry the 75 books I needed during the twelve months on the road in our small VW.  Think back to those days; e-Books had started to appear on the scene but were not so ubiquitous and paperbacks seemed the only way to go.  Using every space I could in the van, I found room for about 20 books of various sizes and genres, left parcels of others for our lovely son to mail out or bring in his suitcase when feasible and hoped to buy, borrow or swap the rest along the way.  With this simple plan I unwittingly opened myself up to interesting and fun experiences that I will always treasure.

Memorable swaps during our time away include the Fay Weldon I was persuaded to try by a Dutch gentleman who, in to his tidy ‘van, describing himself as a story teller with regular ‘gigs’ in different countries.  A motorcyclist gave me the fantastic Robert Harris’ Pompeii on an Austrian site not long after we had visited that beautiful area.  Another campsite swap re-kindled my interest in Graham Greene’s novels with a well thumbed copy of The Human Factor and an exciting Val McDermid crime novel set in Manchester and found on a well-stocked and English-owned camp site in southern France bought back memories of home.

My modus operandi was to wander over to an unsuspecting UK motorhome on a campsite with the handful of books I had to offer.  When the book swapping went well we would chat about books we had enjoyed for a while and I would leave with a couple of interesting novels to read.  However, these productive encounters were rare and I was astonished to find there is a non-reading community out there.  I remember one lovely couple we met in France who ransacked their caravan to find me a book to read and eventually unearthed an exceptionally tatty copy of Denis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out that had not seen the light of day since around 1966; I didn’t want to offend such helpful people and so took the novel off their hands.

Books were also often a good starting point for wider conversations; we met a cyclist from the Netherlands who came over to chat because I was reading Geert Mak’s In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century.  Apparently this marvellous collection of travel and history writing is a best seller in the Netherlands and the evening ended up with us sharing a bottle of homemade schnapps (from another friendly camper) and putting the world to rights.  In Slovenia, I noticed the young receptionist at a camp site was reading an English novel; I was so impressed with his command of a second language and talked to him about English novels, giving him a couple of books I had finished with when we left.  Another lively conversation with a lovely couple in southern Spain who were living permanently in their RV, started when they put a pile of books out on their pitch with a sign saying help yourself.

When we reached Spain on our 12-month trip, the book swapping became much easier, as campsites which had plenty of ‘winter migrants’ from the UK would often have a shelf of books available to swap and I would be able to leave the novels I had read and take away something new to read.  These book swap shelves are generally a relaxed places on a camp site; I could spend as long as I wanted browsing the choices to find something to my taste.

Not so on one camp site in southern Spain that will remain nameless, as we may still be on their wanted list.  This site had taken the provision of reading material to another level.  They had a library room, full of books in English and many other European languages that was strictly run by a retired librarian from Scandinavia, who spent her winters on the site.  She used a computer to monitor the borrowing and returning of the extensive selection of books and relaxed swapping of books was forbidden.  This worked fine for those who were spending months on the site but didn’t work well for me as we didn’t intend to stay long enough to finish a novel.  I gave a false name and vehicle registration and we left the camp site with one stolen novel, although in my defence I did donate two books in exchange to their library.

Choosing to take an e-Book on our long-term trip might have meant I read the books I wanted to read but I would have missed the opportunity to interact with new people, try some authors I would never have considered and experience the unexpected.  Not to mention what would have happened when I spilt my coffee over my e-Book!


How we stay within budget while on holiday in our campervan

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Cups of tea in the ‘van are cheaper than a cafe

How we all spend our money is a personal thing and holidays is no different; we all have our different priorities.  It is hard to argue that a campervan or motorhome that cost just over £40,000 is a budget option and I know that we only have our newish ‘van thanks to an inheritance that meant our savings for retirement could stay on track while we also funded a new ‘van which we expect to last us at least ten-years and many miles.

All that said, we do try and make the trips in our ‘van as frugal as possible by following these tips.

Campsites – the cost of an overnight on a campsite can be very high and, if you use campsits, is a major cost for ‘van owners.  We reduce our costs by wild camping and using Britstops when this makes sense and seeking out cheaper sites with fewer facilities at other times.  We also make use of the Caravan Club and Camping and Caravanning Club small farm sites, although we do think these can sometimes be over-priced.  Most of our camping is out of season when sites are cheaper and we can make good use of the ACSI card scheme in Europe, paying between €11 and €19 for a site.

Liquid Petroleum Gas – Our ‘van has a LPG refillable bottle that makes using gas for cooking and heating very cheap.  At around 50p / litre LPG is much better value than using replaceable gas bottles.

Cooking in the ‘van – this is where a campervan really comes in to its own and makes our trips affordable.  Eating out is expensive and we only do this as a treat.  The ‘van has a two burner hob and an oven that run on LPG and we have an electric hotplate to use when we are paying for a hook-up so cooking in the ‘van is both enjoyable and easy.

Planning meals – when we are travelling we plan meals for three or four days in advance and shop in supermarkets.  Our fridge will hold enough food for this long and we always have some tins in the cupboard if we don’t get to a supermarket when the fresh food has run out.  This way we are not tempted to eat out, we’re not tied to shopping everyday and we make sure we don’t waste and throw away food.

Onboard brews – unless we are in Italy, when having coffee in a cafe is part of the holiday experience, we will often make our morning coffee in the ‘van and always make cups of tea.  We carry good quality ground coffee and have a double-walled insulated cafetiere and a beautiful enamel milk-warmer so that we can make good coffee anywhere and we use a teapot to make a decent cuppa.

Cheap or free activities – Fortunately we are still two reasonably fit individuals who enjoy walking and cycling; both free activities (although the gear can be expensive).  We do visit attractions occasionally but this is often because I am writing a travel article.  I’ve just looked to see how this looks in practice and on our year travelling we spent just 5% of our expenditure on entrance fees and cable cars (just over £1,000).

Diesel – we own a 5.6 metre long campervan, rather than a large motorhome and we bought the most economical model of the Renault Master available so that our diesel bill isn’t too high.

Fixing things – when things break in the ‘van we don’t immediately buy new, we see if we can fix it.  We always carry some basic tools and equipment for fixing things on the ‘van and it is amazing what you can fix with a zip tie and a roll of duct tape.

Mr BOTRA the bicycle mechanic – self-taught, Mr BOTRA can fix most things on the bikes and this has saved us hundreds of pounds over the years.  From experience, we now always travel with the tools to fix the bikes and some basic spares after needing to replace my pedals on a trip to Germany; we hadn’t packed the pedal spanner and had to pay a local bike shop to do the job.

Buying second-hand – whenever we can we like to buy the gear we need second-hand.  Not only is this cheaper but we feel we have given something a new lease of life and we have helped the environment by recycling.  Outdoor gear is well-made and lots of people buy walking clothes that they either grow out of or hardly use and there are lots of bargains out there on Ebay.




Working at home reviewed


I have now been working at home for over a month, so I thought it was a good time to review and look at the things I was worried about and the questions I was mulling over when I was still based in the office.

Do I miss other people and have I lost all my social skills?  What I have learnt is just how comfortable I am with my own company.  I do miss my previous co-workers and wonder how they are doing but I find it is quite enough to communicate with colleagues by email and phone and occasionally attend meetings.

Do I miss the office banter?  It is quite hard to laugh on your own [unless it is to cat antics on FB] .  I have the radio for company and occasionally this makes me laugh, although just at the moment the news is mostly distressing or annoying.  Perhaps I am losing those social skills.

Do I sit in a local cafe using their WiFi?  I thought I would do this but up to now I haven’t felt the need to get out and be with people.  Maybe the winter will encourage me out of the flat.

Do I enjoy the freedom?  Absolutely!  I was used to structuring my own day but working at home is so much more relaxed.   I do try and give my day some sort of structure, with brews at particular times and a regular lunch break, otherwise I get to the late afternoon and realise I haven’t eaten or even got up from my desk.  I use my breaks to do some quick household chores or exercises while the kettle boils; I am here when parcels arrive and I can wear what ever I like.  In the office we didn’t have space to have a room for eating lunch and we all ate at our desks; now I can sit with a view of the gardens and my book (and I never have to worry about forgetting to bring my packed lunch to work).  And shoes … now I spend my days padding around in bare feet I wonder when I will wear so many of those work shoes, it might be time to have a clear out.

Am I more productive?  Most definitely! I am getting so much more done without those interruptions.

Do I enjoy the view?  Yes!  Every day.

I am truly grateful to have been allowed to work from home and even after this short time, I am not sure I could go back to the constraints of working in an office, as is often the case, it was only when I was out of a situation that I realised how oppressive it was.  I even find that having to attend meetings (something I thought I would enjoy to maintain contact with co-workers) is feeling a bit of a hassle.

The only thing I miss is my brisk walk to and from the office and I do find I often need to get out of the flat to stretch my legs as soon as I have packed away the work laptop at the end of my working day.


Walking through local history in Salford

The river Irwell in Salford

We had a weekend at home and this gave me the chance to do some local walking.  I can’t pretend we live in the most beautiful part of the UK, Salford is as urban as it gets and developed as an industrial city in the 19th century.  The cotton and brewing industry that lead to the growth of Salford came because of the rivers and it is the river Irwell that winds its way in to Salford and along the Salford-Manchester border.  Nearby we also have two canals, the massive Manchester Ship Canal and the Bridgewater Canal.

Walking along rivers and canals is always interesting and enjoyable.  In Greater Manchester this is where you find plenty of industrial heritage and history but it is also where you can find wildlife.  On my walk along the Irwell, the Bridgewater Canal and the Ship Canal this weekend I saw groups of squabbling black-headed gulls, flocks of Canada geese, a diving cormorant, a languidly flapping heron and a few elegant swans.  Of course, there is no shortage of litter along the river and canal paths but on my walk I chose to seek out the beautiful, rather than the squalid.

To get to the river Irwell from our flat I walk through Peel Park.  This is one of the oldest parks in England and is currently undergoing renovation thanks to Heritage Lottery money and is slowly becoming the splendid place for a Sunday stroll and a green space for city wildlife it was designed to be.  More work is planned over the next twelve months and I look forward to seeing the park become beautiful once again.

Exploring our local area is on my list of things to do when I am no longer tied to paid work.  Of course, we will travel further afield too but we are both looking forward to finding more of the many gems across Greater Manchester, maybe buying a day ticket on the bus or the tram to a country park, spending a day in one of our many museums or following a route on foot or by bicycle to just see what we find.