My journey through travel writing

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One of our campervan mottos

I don’t just write travel articles, I am also an enthusiastic reader of travel books.  As I read I am in awe of travel writers who can string together more than the 2,000 word limit of my articles and still hold my attention, be well-written, informative and entertaining; what stamina and discipline that must take.  I immerse myself in these armchair journeys to the familiar and the exotic through the pages of a good travel book and I have many favourites.  For me, good travel writing is not a guidebook [although I read these too] or a series of facts about a place; good travel writing is about stories and experiences, it is about how a place made someone feel, it is about tales told honestly and it is about personal journeys.  In the hands of a good travel writing I feel I am sitting on the author’s shoulder and I am along for ‘The glory of the ride.’

My reading of travel writing started as a young teenager.  With a passion for reading I soon exhausted the children’s section of the small town library near to my home and so [with some hesitation as I wasn’t sure if it was allowed] I furtively moved across the room to the adult books.  At the end of two tall rows of books by a large warm radiator I found a little-visited corner where I could browse unnoticed and here was the library’s small travel section.  Amazingly there were gems here and in particular I discovered two Ethel Mannin books; An Italian Journey from 1974 about her travels around northern Italy that captivated my imagination and started my love affair with Italy and her 1960s American Journey, telling tales from her travels by Greyhound around an America that was far from the glitzy American dream I saw on the TV.  I am sure I missed much of the subtlety of her writing, I knew nothing of Ethel Mannin and her politics and little of the world beyond Staffordshire and yet the travellers tales and adventures of a lone woman both touched me and inspired me.  It was some years later that I discovered Dervla Murphy and her individual style of travel writing and I have followed her on her numerous and exciting journeys ever since.  Dervla Murphy has an honest style that is never sentimental.  She is such a fantastic listener and gatherer of individual stories and she weaves historical information and personal narratives so well I feel I have been there with her every step of the way.

Some time ago World Hum compiled a list of their top 30 favourite travel books and I took a look to see if any of my own ‘must read’ books were on there and to look for ideas for new travel books to read.  Paul Theroux, Norman Lewis, Bill Bryson, Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor all make the list and are excellent choices that I have loved reading.  Others such as Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck are writers I enjoy reading but think of as novelists rather than travel writers, so I added their books to my list.  There are other titles and authors I’ve not come across and I have been looking at these; up to now I have added Europe, Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger to my wish list.

That young teenager had ambitions to be a writer but, despite my reading, I only thought of novels as the way to earn money as a writer and I lacked the imagination for such an undertaking.  Forty-years later in my 50s I realised that ambition and became a published writer.  My first travel article was published in 2013 and the thrill each time I see my writing and photographs in print has never faded.  That said, there may be travel writers with glamorous lives but for me it is less razzle-dazzle and more about typing.  The time I spend travelling versus the time sat behind a desk researching, writing and editing [words and photographs] is about 1:10.

I will never be as accomplished a writer as my heroes but I try to tell readers a story that every motorhomer can relate to.  This narrative combined with the 2,000 word limit excludes many of my travel experiences and anecdotes and the editing process takes many hours.  In these articles I am balancing practical information with my desire to paint a comprehensive pictures of the places we visit by describing the sights, smells and sounds I have experienced.

These ten tips for writing travel articles are a good and useful start for anyone who is thinking of writing their own travel articles but firstly check out this article 15 signs you are born for travel writing to see if travel writing is for you.  The tips made me aware that I rarely include any direct dialogue in my travel articles.  I can see how this can strengthen the intimacy of my stories and my current resolution is to try and bring this in to as many future articles as I can!

 

 

 

 

Gnome Island, Salford Quays: #surprisingsalford #26

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Gnome Island on the Manchester Ship Canal

I am not sure if technically Gnome Island is in Salford or Trafford.  It sits in the middle of the Ship Canal but it seems to me it is on the Salford side of the canal so I’ve claimed it and included it in my surprising Salford series.  You can see Gnome Island from the canalside but I got a superb view of Gnome Island on one of my birthday treats, a Waxi [Water Taxi] trip from Salford Quays to Spinningfields.  These cute yellow boats trundle the waterways from the city centre to Media City and to the Trafford Centre.  The Christmas Market was in town at the time and Gnome Island had its own festive Santa Claus visiting for a month or so.

Riding by on the water you get an uninterrupted view of the jolly gnomes waving and smiling and these diminutive figurines must brighten up the day of those commuters who use the Waxi on our dark winter mornings to get to work.  The gathering of gnomes appear to be both male and female and there are some child-gnomes on the island too, so who is to say their number won’t increase over time.

I see Gnome Island as a positive sign of the eccentric and fun side of life in the city.  Long may it continue to be there to delight locals and surprise visitors and let’s hope no official decides it doesn’t have planning permission!

If you want to find Gnome Island yourself, it is now on Google Maps.  It is just before the Trafford Road bridge on the Salford side of the quays.

May 2020 update: Follow Gnome Island on Facebook and you will see posts about the history of this wonderful Salford attraction.  Read the story of Gnorman, the pioneer gnome, his partner Gnorma and their twins Gnoah and Gnatalie!

https://www.facebook.com/gnomeislandsalford/

November 2020 update: On a visit to Salford Quays I noticed that it is much easier to get a good view of Gnome Island now, since they put in the new tram line to the Trafford Centre. What a big improvement on Salford Quays! If you cross the bridge by the Lowry and turn left, you’ll be able to get a great view.

Winter sunshine & walking in the Peak District

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Near Birchen Edge above Baslow in Derbyshire

The forecast was for a cold and sunny few days and so with nothing in the diary we were able to hop in to the ‘van and take a couple of nights in the Peak District to make the most of the fine weather.  We stayed at the Caravan and Motorhome Club Chatsworth campsite which is in a peaceful walled area in Chatsworth Park.  We gave the stately home a miss and walked through the glorious countryside but if you did want to visit it is very near to the site.

On a sunny and frosty morning we walked out of Chatsworth Estate to Baslow, where after a coffee, we climbed through woodland and out on to the open moorland behind the Robin Hood Pub on to Birchen Edge.  These Peak District edges are glorious places to walk, with views over the crags in to the valleys below, I always enjoy the lofty feeling of walking along these distinctive features.  On Birchen Edge we passed Nelson’s monument, a tall thin stone pillar on the rocks.  This was erected by a local business man thirty years before the more famous monument to Nelson in Trafalgar Square.  Our walk took in not one but two of these stunning Derbyshire edges.  After a boggy section of moorland we followed the track towards Baslow Edge, finding the Wellington Monument that celebrates the 1815 Waterloo victory.  We walked along the top of Baslow Edge and as the sun started to set we returned to our pitch via one of the many paths under the crags.

We also took in a lovely walk around Longstone Moor, a beautiful limestone ridge that is criss-crossed by paths.  This area was once a thriving lead mining area but is now a quiet and less visited spot among the bustle of the Peak District.  The area around Baslow is lovely but it does get plenty of visitors and finding space to yourself is near to impossible on a fine day.  On Longstone Moor we met no other walkers and we had a sense that the space and fresh air was just ours to enjoy.  We did find the crowds when we popped in to the Packhorse Inn for a swift half.  This charming pub in Little Longstone had welcoming warm fires and is happy to serve walkers with muddy boots.

 

Top tips for campsites and stop overs when you are abroad

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Idyllic Portuguese campsite

Prompted by a fellow Devon ‘van owner I have given some thought to the baffling array of guides out there for motorhomers to use, buy or download to help you find a campsite in mainland Europe.  Very few motorhomers have unlimited amounts of space to store numerous guides and unlimited amounts of money to purchase them so how do you choose what to spend your hard-earned on?  When travelling we generally plan on a day-by-day basis and out-of-season and in more remote areas you can’t always rely on just coming across somewhere suitable to stay [either a campsite or wild camping pitch] without a bit of planning.  Below is a guide to the resources we have found most useful when we travel abroad.  Each guide or app has its plus points as well as its limitations.

Guides, apps and websites

ACSI card scheme – This is great value for out-of-season touring (from September to June) and this is our first port of call when we are looking for a campsite so that we can get maximum value from it.  You pay for the card and books and campsites in the scheme charge either €11, €13, €15, €17 or €19 per night for two adults with electric.  The card scheme has 1,541 campsites in France in 2018 and just 26 in Portugal, so its usefulness will depend where you are going.  In France municipal sites [see below] can be cheaper than the ACSI sites but in Italy [331 campsites], where campsites are expensive, the ACSI card can contribute a significant saving to your holiday.

Caravan and Motorhome Club Guides – We have these guides for all of Europe and they are sold with a good discount for members.  The entries and campsite reviews are from members and can be quirky and brief.  We like to read between the lines of these reviews and do find these books of assistance, even though the information is not always up-to-date.

The ACSI App – In addition to the ACSI card book we have this app on our phones.  This has a wider selection of campsites than those in the discount card scheme as it contains all campsites inspected by ACSI and is regularly updated.  If you have WiFi or data the ACSI website is also a great resource particularly for the camper’s reviews as well as the information about sites.

All the Aires – We carry this if we are travelling in a country it is available for; the books are fairly comprehensive and kept as up-to-date as a book can be and give an honest review of each aire, its facilities, its outlook and how comfortable it is.

Camperstop App – It is worth paying the €5.49 / year for this app which is invaluable for both campsites and aires / stop overs.  The app has photographs and reviews of sites which can really help in deciding where to go. The app knows your location and this is handy when we arrive at a campsite or stop over that we don’t like the look of as it can tell us where our nearest options are.

In France we will look for municipal campsites in small towns as these are generally good value and near to the town centre for [the essential] bakeries and bars.

Others have recommended Search for Sites and I’ve tried it out and it looks helpful but this isn’t something we have used much.

Home-based research & recommendations

In addition to the above we will research areas we are fairly certain we will be going to, particularly national parks and mountain areas where there are often few campsites and we are looking for the best situation for walking.  This might be Google searches, Rough Guide / Lonely Planet information, some Cicerone Guides include campsites and we sometimes ask a question about an area on a motorhome forum or Facebook page where there are generous well-travelled people with a wide range of knowledge.

You also can’t beat personal recommendations from other campers you meet on the way and these have sometimes taken us to interesting places that we never expected to visit when we set off.

To book or not & the one house rule

We generally travel with only a rough plan and are not interested in tying ourselves down by booking campsites when we are abroad.  We have never found this necessary, even when we have been away in July and August so long as we are flexible enough to move on if a site is full [see the house rule below].

Our house rule is to start looking for somewhere for the night by around 17.00.  This is just because we did get caught out in Mecklenburg in northern Germany on one trip.  There were plenty of campsites around the Mecklenburg lakes and none of them were full as it was only June.  The mistake we made was to be too busy enjoying a lovely sunny evening and leaving looking for a campsite until after 18.00 and German campsites don’t keep the evening hours that are common in southern Europe [and even Poland where we had just come from].  At each campsite we arrived at reception was closed and the barriers were down.  We eventually got a pitch on a site that we could drive in to but we didn’t have the key for the toilets and had to hang around for another camper to show up to use them, which was somewhat disconcerting for other campers!

 

Sculptures at Salford University: #surprisingsalford #25

 


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The three totem sculptures by William Mitchell

If you have time to wander around the Frederick Road Campus of Salford University or as you drive along the A6 you might come across these sculptures.  The three unusual sculptures are Grade II listed by Historic England.   Totem-like, these sculptures were built in 1966 by William Mitchell and stand in a courtyard in front of Allerton Building at what was then Salford Technical College and is now University of Salford.

These are bold concrete public art pieces, typical of the 1960s that make reference to engineering and to Central American art.  I dare anyone not to want to touch these tactile pieces as you walk around the three giant figures.  The sculptures change with the light and every time I visit I see new details I had missed before.  Almost six metres high these are imposing works, each made from four concrete blocks.

English Heritage note:

‘William Mitchell was a leading public artist in the post-war period who designed many pieces of art in the public realm, working to a high artistic quality in various materials but most notably concrete, a material in which he was highly skilled, using innovative and unusual casting techniques, as seen in this sculptural group. He has a number of listed pieces to his name, both individual designs and components of larger architectural commissions by leading architects of the day.’

Salford University has other public art, including ‘Engels’ Beard’ [below] positioned by the Adelphi Building.  This five metre high fibreglass sculpture doubles as a climbing wall.  Greater Manchester now has two statues to Engels who spent more than twenty years here.  The poverty he observed influenced his writing of The Condition of the Working Class in England.

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Engels’ Beard sculpture at Salford University

My first year of retirement in numbers

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Above Castleton in the Peak District

Twelve months retired – so how has that gone?  We’ve certainly packed a lot in to the last year and at home we have settled in to a pattern for a shared retirement that is comfortable and relaxed.  At home we both have our own projects and interests and often beaver quietly away at these before taking an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood or cycle to the supermarket.  But we were only home for eight months of the year and those holiday days have a different pattern of walking and cycling and discovering new places.  In some ways this year has been unusual as after the incident in Greece we were without a campervan for two months while it was off the road.

I have managed to keep my resolution to not say ‘I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work’ which I guess must annoy all those people who are squeezing work and life into their seven days.  We have also made a conscious effort to do just / at least one thing each day.

Holidays and trips – 16 different holidays from one-night to two months.  We had planned two longish trips to mainland Europe in the spring and the autumn and we had a wonderful trip to Spain and Portugal in September and October but our trip to Greece in the spring didn’t go quite according to plan.  Now this is all over we can look back on the whole Greek tragedy as a learning experience [although one we would have preferred to do without] and we haven’t let the trip knock our confidence; we might even head off to Greece again in the future.  In the UK we spent a few weeks in Scotland, went to the wonderful Upton Blues Festival and various other short breaks.  We have been away in the campervan for about 120 nights during the year.  This is less than we would have expected as the ‘van was off the road for a couple of months.  We tried other types of holidays and these just confirmed that the campervan life is the one for us.

Number of accidents in the campervan  – 1 (see above)

Number of times we have set the alarm clock – NONE!

Writing travel articles – 8- this is a similar number of travel articles for MMM as last year.  This doesn’t sound many and it truly isn’t and is in no way a full-time job.  But I work slowly and each 2,000 words represents about a months work – research, travelling, taking photographs, further research, editing photographs, writing and editing.  In addition I write some campsite reviews and short articles.  This makes my retirement a working one, although if it felt like work I would stop tomorrow.

Number of matinees we have been to – Three – hurrah!

Number of times I have wanted to go back to nine-to-five work – NONE!

Foreign languages learnt – 3 [although I am not fluent in any] – before our spring trip we both worked hard at learning some Greek with flash cards and 1970s TV programmes and our efforts were generally appreciated.  I also used Duolingo to brush up my Italian.  In the summer I learnt Spanish on Duolingo and TV learning and Mr BOTRA picked up some Portuguese.  This learning meant that we could confidently book in to campsites and order in cafes.  Mr BOTRA also keeps his German up to scratch.  Next year we will want to learn some Croatian and Slovenian phrases as well as brushing up other European languages.

Good deeds done – Never enough!  I wanted to do some good in retirement and continue to do the things I listed in this previous post.  My elderly neighbours situation has recently worsened and I feel guilty for not helping her more.

Tai chi – Between once a week and daily!  While we were away in September and October we practiced tai chi every day, a combination of fine weather and peaceful campsites made this easy and fun to do.  At home we just about have enough space for tai chi without bumping in to each other and so manage to do occasional practice, as well as get to our weekly class.

Number of books read  – 64 – this year I have made a conscious effort to read more travel books and fiction as well as novels.

Number of blog posts in 2017 – 101 – I managed 78 posts on Back On The Road Again and just 23 posts on my Memorial Bench Stories blog [I must try harder].

Number of days we haven’t been outdoors for at least half-an-hour – 4 [this is a guess] – mostly we like to get out and enjoy some fresh air even if it is raining and we get out for just half-an-hour.

It has mostly added up to a good year and bring on year two of retirement, I’m loving it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

£24,000/year budget for two people who are on holiday for 1/3rd of the year: 2017 finances reviewed

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Another thrifty year

This is our first year of retirement so we are interested to see how the spending has panned out for us with no income compared to our budget when we were both working.  I did consider not sharing our review of our 2017 finances as I am not sure how interesting or useful this information is to others.  Everyone’s situation is so different, people have different priorities, hobbies and needs.  So is it really helpful to know that two people with a campervan-habit living in a small flat in Salford need around £24,000 a year to have a good quality of life?

We are really head-over-heels to have come well within our budget of £27,000 a year.  We always knew this was a generous amount but it is good to have it confirmed in hard figures.  I don’t think we will slack off the budgeting in 2018 as we like the idea of having a good financial cushion for any future problems.

All that said, here are the numbers:

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £5,285 – for this we have been away for over a third of the year [118 nights in the campervan, plus a couple of other holidays in self-catering cottages] [this amount includes £1,000 for two 2018 holidays] – a bargain!

Food – £3,612 

Restaurants & cafes – £2,864 – [this spending increased in 2017 in part due to better tracking of where the money has gone]

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £1,636

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,641

Gifts & donations – £1,173

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £633

Other household spending [including parts for the bikes] public transport & miscellaneous – £2,271

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £376

Clothes & accessories – £525

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 58 sq mtrs [624 sq feet] flat – £4,166

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2017 – £24,196 – comfortably within our £27,000 budget.