Finding an unexpected gem is one of the lovely things about travelling and it can happen even near to home. The Gladstone Library in Hawarden just over the Welsh border beyond Chester was one of those moments. We were walking through the beautiful Hawarden countryside, watching early butterflies on the verges and stopping to examine the first signs of Spring. In the village we sought out a tea shop for refreshments and found much more. The grand stone 19th century building in the photograph is The Gladstone Library. This building holds over 150,000 items in its library and has a reading room where many writers have toiled. The magnificent building also runs a variety of residential events and courses; you can learn languages or brush up on your local history or theology. Alongside this, anyone can pop in and enjoy the atmosphere and comfort of the building as visitors to the tea room, and sitting in the elegant dining room with excellent afternoon tea and a view over the well-tended gardens is hard to beat.
It became a weekend of memorable cafe stops, as the one we found the next day made a good attempt to rival the Gladstone Library. Having stayed near to Llanrwst we walked in more sunshine to Grey Mares Tale waterfall and through the woodland and old mine workings emerging over the hill to a panoramic view of the Snowdonia hills across the trees. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Llyn Geirionydd, watching red kites soar across the blue sky. At the remote Llyn Grafnant you wouldn’t expect to find any facilities but here we stumbled upon another fantastic Welsh cafe on the banks of the lake. The cafe was being run by two people who sparred in an amiable fashion over the cakes and teapots in the converted Welsh stone barn, entertaining us as we chose which cakes to try. We sat on a bench in the garden with home-made cake on china plates, lazily watching kayaks on the lake and making friends with the ginger tom cat that stopped by, it was blissful.
It seems that even places just an hour or so from home are still waiting to be explored. It is just as well we are retired and have the chance to find more hidden gems.
For as long as I can remember Mr BOTRA and I have generally spent the first half an hour or so after work in what I think of as our evening debrief. Once we are both home from work we will put the kettle on for that essential pot of tea and then sit down and share our news from the day or talk through something we need to sort out. We might chew over a tough problem, making use of the each others insights to find a solution, we might share something we have learnt or blow off steam about something annoying. This dedicated time has always given us chance to catch up with each other, transition from work to home and it allows us to then leave work behind for the evening.
When the weather is warm enough we will take our mugs of tea outside and sit in the garden for this debrief. As our garden is now a shared space this can sometimes mean that we meet neighbours and catch up with them too. Our garden is in a sheltered quadrangle and has benches that catch the evening sun making it a perfect spot to relax at the end of the day.
When it is cooler or wet we will stay in the flat and sit on the sofa, hands hugging our hot tea gratefully after cycling or walking from work. There will be no radio or TV on and we just focus on talking to each other for a short while.
Retirement will mean we will mostly be together during the day and this will change the pattern of our days. The daily debrief will become redundant and I know that I will miss that time. Will we need to build in dedicated time during the day for talking through ideas and issues or, will our relaxed and retired selves find time to chat to each other naturally throughout the day? We shall see.
Very soon we won’t be constrained by the weekend for our camping trips, we will be able to take off as soon as the sun peeps through and come home when it is damp and cold. And yet, we do appreciate the variety of weather and seasons we get in the UK and perhaps we will still purposefully take some rainy trips out in the campervan. We are just back from a few days in Silverdale and Arnside, one of England’s most beautiful areas whatever the weather. The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has everything for a perfect holiday; atmospheric woodland, quiet bays, good tea shops, lots of wildlife and good campsites. We climbed up Arnside Knott, which is criss-crossed with footpaths and looked down on the river Kent and a moody and magnificent Morecambe Bay from the top. After a cafe stop in Arnside we explored the chasm of Middlebarrow Quarry, a huge disused quarry, and walked through the lovely Eaves Wood back to the campsite.
Returning to the ‘van we put our feet up with a brew and read the paper, leaving the big sliding door open as it had stopped raining and the weather was fairly mild. We were joined by this gorgeous ginger tom with kitten soft fur and deep amber eyes. He came in cautiously at first but after exploring all the corners of the’van curled up on my lap and purred loudly. In the ‘van with a brew, the paper and a purring cat – I was in heaven!
In England and Wales we are lucky enough to have around 140,000 miles of footpath or rights of way to explore. This is more than the 111,000 miles [180,000 kms] in France [a bigger country]. These footpath, bridal ways and tracks may have been used by Neolithic ancestors, such as the Ridgeway or might be a medieval corpse route or coffin route, linking outlying villages with the burial ground, like the beautiful route from Grasmere in the Lake District. As well as shorter routes between settlements there are numerous long distance paths; even urban Salford has one.
This network of paths is something we easily take for granted. We accept that from anywhere in England and Wales you can walk out of your front door and very soon be on a footpath, devoid of cars. We can browse the relevant excellent Ordnance Survey map and put together a walk of the length and difficulty that suits us that particular day. We moan when a landowner tries to block a path with some barbed wire or does not maintain the gate but these things can usually be overcome. It seems in other countries this network of rights of way does not exist. In the USA there are many excellent trails and paths but these are in specific areas such as national parks that often have to be driven to. Here in the UK land ownership may come with the obligation to maintain a right of way, a wonderful example of the privilege being required to work for the public good. Since the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act we also now have open access land, this is uncultivated land where everyone has the right to roam at will, that is away from footpaths. This land is generally mountains or moorland and may also be privately owned.
Of course, while not all landowners and farmers take care of their footpaths to ensure good access, not all walkers are well behaved either and both sides clash in conflicts from time to time. Through spring, as lambs begin to appear in our fields I am always horrified to read the usual batch of stories of dog owners who do not maintain control of their dogs within a flock of sheep appear. The National Sheep Association gives clear advice for dog owners that should be common sense. The incident last year when 116 sheep died due to being chased by dogs was unusual for the scale but losing even one sheep can be devastating for a farmer.
Walking is great exercise, affordable and good for our mental health. Taking a walk gives me a chance to think and it is when my brain is most creative. There are plenty of websites and blogs giving details of the benefits of walking and ideas for routes. We are lucky to have this network of footpaths to be able to get out and enjoy traffic-free routes and we should fight to keep them when they are under threat.
I not only write travel articles for MMM I also read it from cover-to-cover. Consequently, when I read the advice from Terry Acreman regarding fitting high-pressure tyre valves to your motorhome (August 2016), I marked the page and promised to do something about it when we had time. The weeks passed by and the valves remained on the list, until we eventually had time to tackle this. I contacted Tyresave, as recommended, and purchase five high-pressure tyre valves [one for the spare] and then booked our Renault Master in to National Tyres in Manchester for the fitting. The appointed day was sunny and as Manchester city centre is just a 15 minute stroll along the canal from National Tyres we thought we would combine the valve-fitting with a leisurely coffee and a visit to a photography exhibition we wanted to see.
We hadn’t even licked the cappuccino froth from our lips when the phone rang; it was National Tyres to say they couldn’t find the wheel brace. This wasn’t surprising as it is under the bed; feeling it was too complicated to explain, Mr BOTRA volunteered to walk back while I made a start on the exhibition. About 20 minutes later, while I was unhurriedly admiring the photographs, my phone rang again. Having arrived and retrieved the wheel brace, Mr BOTRA was on his way back to the exhibition and the tyre fitter was now ringing to say that the first tyre was off and he could see our ‘van was already fitted with good quality high-pressure tyre valves!
Re-united we both returned along the [now very familiar] canal to pick up the ‘van feeling somewhat shame-faced that we hadn’t realised what sort of valves Renault fit on their ‘vans. The National Tyre’s fitter was very cheery about the whole thing and, to make us feel better, explained that they had only recently started seeing vans fitted with these valves. National Tyres didn’t charge us anything and Tyresave took the valves back with a generous refund so only our self-respect was lost.
Walking along the wide expanse of Fraisthorpe Sands was easy as we headed north towards Bridlington. I meandered along the beach doing a spot of beach combing, finding beautiful stones and shells, watching the oyster catchers feeding on the shoreline and a flock of sanderlings flying in formation. A group of three horses were ridden through the waves and wind surfers were enjoying the surf. We explored the old look-outs that had slipped on to the beach as the soft clay erodes. A beach is never dull. After hot chocolate in Bridlington we returned, now walking in to the wind and I was bent over to avoid the wind in my eyes. I found a discarded plastic bag in the surf and filled it with plastic bottles and other litter as we got closer to the ‘van.
Earlier in the day we had stopped at the village of Rudston to see the stunning tall Neolithic monolith in the churchyard and the graves to Winifred Holtby and the MacDonalds of Sleat. We had camped in an idyllic small site south east of York, no facilities or electric but a view of a small lake. We had watched a group of tufted ducks diving and moving purposefully as we had breakfast.
From Bridlington we walked to Flamborough Head, the path hugging the line of the cliffs. Showers rushed in as we reached the lighthouse and we sheltered in the cafe before going down to the sea. The white cliffs were shining and stunning after the rain and we watched two seals bobbing n the bay. Following the cliff path to North Landing we spotted elegant gannets flying in formation over the surf and guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes lined up on the cliffs. Another shower came in and we were lucky to just catch the hourly bus back to our campsite.
After an evening of rain, clear skies came and we woke to sunshine. We drove to Pickering and Cawthorne Roman Camp. The ditches and banks of this vast site on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors are impressive. From here we followed paths through woodland, fields and moors on a nine mile walk, much of our route on the Tabular Hills Walk, an intriguing name that comes from their distinctive table-top shape.
Our trip had taken us through swathes of snowdrops and bright daffodils just starting to flower but it was a mammal that made me really feel like it was spring. It was the first day of March while we were away and that morning we spotted our first brown hare of the year gracefully lolloping around the field we were camped in. These fast-moving and beautiful animals came to the UK with the Romans and are always joyful to watch. For me the March hare always feels like a real herald of springtime.
I am now ten weeks in to retirement [and still smiling] and very soon my retirement will be our retirement when Mr BOTRA joins me. I am looking forward to a shared retirement and with warmer weather and opportunities to get out and about much more I have been thinking hard about my writing life and in particular how often I post on my Back On The Road Again blog. Last year I set myself the goal of publishing posts twice a week as I built up the blog. I have mostly achieved this with occasional failures [for which I beat myself up about of course]. In addition, over the last year I have written a travel article at least once a month and submitted shorter articles and campsite reviews and I have tried to keep on top of my Memorial Bench Stories blog. In the last twelve months I have worked at practicing my writing at least five days a week in an effort to improve my writing and create some discipline and structure to what I do.
Despite all this practicing I have never really managed to become a fast producer of words and my craft is slow. I spend hours editing even a short 400 word article, reading and re-reading to find just the right words and put them in what I think is the best order. In addition, for every piece of writing you see there are hours of background research. I really enjoy this aspect of writing as it feels like studying and learning and reminds me of those happy days as a student. It doesn’t matter that much of what I learn never makes it on to the page.
During the last year my Back On The Road Again blog has taken up lots of my energy at the expense of my Memorial Bench Stories blog, never mind other new ideas I have in my head. Although I feel proud to tell people I am a travel writer, I have other aims and plans for retirement and I want to leave time for study and reflection. And so I feel it is now the moment for blogging to take up a little less of my time. Although I intend to continue to make time to write almost every day during the next year, some of this writing may be just for me and may even involve pen and paper rather than a keyboard. The retirement of Mr BOTRA represents real retirement and I feel ready to now really shift gear as I move in to my new retired life.
My revised goal is to publish a blog post here at least once a week. This new ‘regime’ [I am in no way pretending this is a tough target] might give me time to write other blogs, space to complete around six travel articles a year and continue writing a few short articles. This will also give me time to travel, to exercise, to find out new and interesting facts and just be. It should also give me space for new and exciting projects [some of which I haven’t even had time to dream up yet]. So here we go!
There are not many things we will miss about work and there are certainly not many perks to working in the public sector that we will no longer benefit from. But there are a group of guys Mr BOTRA works with who we will miss enormously. His workplace workshop engineers have always been willing to use their technical and engineering skills to help us out with our latest DIY project [no matter how batty] involving the campervan or the bikes. When we needed a metal plate to protect the worktop from [further] damage in our old Blue Bus they found a suitable piece of scrap they had discarded in a corner, cut the metal to the size we needed and gave advice on how to fix it. In our new ‘van we couldn’t find anywhere to put the hanging knife rack we had used in the Blue Bus. It was this team who came up with the a foam knife rack design that fits neatly in to our cutlery drawer; again constructed from a small off-cut, this not only keeps our sharp vegetable and bread knives safe it is also lightweight. On another occasion we decided what we really needed was a small container that just fitted in to the narrow space between the end of the worktop and the back doors to use as a waste bin. Who did we call? Yes, you guessed it, a visit to the workshop with a rough sketch was all it took and a few days later a beautifully constructed box of precise interlocking pieces was created from some small and spare bits of perspex that would have just found their way to landfill.
There have been other examples over the years when these guys have helped us out and there are many things we couldn’t have done or we would have had to pay dearly for without them. As well as practical help they are also willing to give sound advice based on their workshop experience that is better than any You Tube video. When we were unsure how to deal with a mis-behaving screw in the ‘van they had a great solution and a seized up bicycle part is just a challenge to these colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other as to the best way to free the parts.
This team of engineers have the skills to come up with these ideas and access to materials and tools we don’t have. We are very grateful for their help and like to show this in some small way. We could spend money on chocolates or tins of biscuits for these saviours but as frugalistas we say thank you by doing something we do have the skills to do; to show our appreciation for their help we bake them biscuits and cakes. Every now and then Mr BOTRA will pop some homemade treats in to a tin and take them in to work for their tea break.
We will certainly miss their expertise and willingness to give any of our projects their consideration. In just a few weeks time we will be on our own [with just You Tube to help] with our DIY projects.