The Cairngorms & Angus Glens revisited in a campervan

In 1985 we were both young, married and still child-free but didn’t own a campervan. We did have a small tent and in that spring we carried it across Scotland from coast to coast on what was then called The Great Outdoors Ultimate Challenge, run by The Great Outdoors magazine and sponsored by Ultimate, who made lightweight tents. Just being able to be a part of this hiking expedition was tough, never mind the days of backpacking across remote Scottish glens and mountains. Our application for the Ultimate Challenge had to demonstrate our ability to backpack day after day, map read and survive in Scotland’s rugged terrain and in those days only 250 lucky participants were chosen. Once through the selection we had to submit a plan [by post] of our self-supported route for comments,. Although everyone finishes their challenge in Montrose, the west coast starting points vary and each route is unique.

The Great Outdoors established a self-supported Scottish coast-to-coast hike in 1980 and it is still going strong, although for obvious reasons 2020 didn’t happen. The walk is non-competitive, there are no prizes for reaching Montrose first and today people write blogs about their trips. The Great Outdoors Challenge writes, ‘Up to 2019, a total of 10013 crossing have been attempted with 8851 being completed – a remarkable achievement for a remarkable event.’ Mine is one of those 8,851 crossings.

An important part of our training and preparation for the challenge was eating Mars bars! In 1985 Mars had a promotion and eating enough gave us a discount on the National Express buses to and from Scotland. We left our Midlands home at 07.00 on a May morning with full rucksacks and full of excited anticipation after six months of planning. We arrived at our starting point of Oban on Scotland’s west coast in evening sunshine after an arduous journey of over twelve hours. On the coaches we were entertained by drivers, new to the route, who didn’t know the location of the bus station in the string of Yorkshire towns they stopped at! Without SatNav or online maps, they would look for road signs and even pull up and ask pedestrians the way.

Over the next memorable twelve days we carried our small Vango Mark Two tent, cooking equipment, food, clothing, camera, books and maps [my reading was Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles] from Oban across the notorious Rannoch Moor and through the Cairngorms to the east coast, sometimes in temperatures over 20C and sometimes in persistent rain. When we reached Montrose we were both grubbier, leaner and fitter.

Our recent trip to Montrose, Glen Clova and Glen Callater bought back heaps of memories of that unforgettable adventure. These memories flooded in as we parked near the Glen Clova Hotel and took the now well-made path up to Loch Brandy, a stunning example of a mountain corrie. Following the footsteps of our younger selves, we climbed up the indistinct path around the crags of the corrie to Green Hill. In 1985 we continued across these heathery bumps to Glen Esk, walking in thick low cloud and following a compass bearing between hummocks and lochans. I remember how ecstatic and relieved we were when we realised our navigation had been spot on and we reached the track at the Shieling of Saughs.

From the mountains we drove the Blue Bus to the wide sweep of Montrose beach to evoke more memories. On this recent trip we were lucky and delighted to see a group of dolphins leaping out of the waves as we walked along the shoreline. Continuing along the beach I wondered what had happened to some of the people we had met on our Ultimate Challenge. The UC was a journey full of camaraderie as well as tough walking and it appears this is still an important aspect of the event. With no mobile phones in 1985 we were encouraged to ring HQ in Montrose from telephone boxes whenever we had the chance so that they knew we and others we had met were alive and well. My journal for the trip is full of the people we spoke to, the joy of sharing an amazing experience and a hint of awe for the experienced participants. On our last night in Montrose we partied in the Park Hotel until the small hours; an evening packed full of laughter and walker’s tales, all the pain of blisters, soggy wet clothing and deep weary agony forgotten.

On this year’s autumn trip, after some splendid coastal walking near Stonehaven, we left the sea for Deeside and had a fantastic day crammed with a medley of weather as we hiked up the popular Morven [871 m] on the eastern edges of the Cairngorms. October hit us with sleet, hail, sunshine and rainbows but we were blessed with a view from the summit to Lochnagar and Mount Keen. An unexpected surprise was a specially designed box in the summit shelter that holds a book and pen for walkers to write in and even postcards of the hill to purchase!

In 1985, after seven days walking we were at Blair Atholl and could stock up in the village shop. Our walk from there up the remote and attractive Glen Tilt is a privilege I will never forget. After the Falls of Tarf we planned to cross a stream but following heavy rain the gushing torrent was too fast to paddle across and too wide to jump. One of the marvelous things about backpacking, as with a campervan, is that you are carrying everything you need with you and can be flexible. After much deliberation we decided to camp overnight where we were on the grassy spot by the burn and the next day detour to Braemar. The morning dawned wild and wet and we struggled through miles of thick damp heather that hid ankle-bashing rocks to reach the six miles of tarmac to Braemar. A welcoming B&B owner whisked away our wet gear to dry it out and fortified us with much needed tea and cake and that evening we ate salad and chips [the only vegetarian option in these unenlightened times] for £1 each in the Fife Arms.

From Braemar we had another memorable day of walking along the historic Jock’s Road through Glen Callater; a route that played an important role in the rights of way walkers in Scotland have. After the good track the path became steeper and boggier at the end of the glen, taking us up to the featureless plateau before the lovely descent to Glen Doll and onto Glen Clova. Jock’s Road funnels many Ultimate Challengers from their varied starting points onto the same path as they get nearer to Montrose. My diary notes how sociable the walking was throughout that day, including meeting Bob Dawes one of five people to complete all of the first ten challenges.

We were once again in a reminiscing mood as we drove from Braemar to the car park at Auchallater. From here we travelled alongside our youthful bootsteps on the track up Glen Callater but this time turning off onto Carn nan Gabhar [834 m], a fairly easy Corbett between Glen Callater and the A93. The weather was kind to us, the autumn colours were stunning and we stayed cloud-free, although the higher mountains all had their tops in the murk. We saw red deer but most thrilling were the couple of mountain hares we spotted near the summit as we descended towards Callater Loch Lodge.

The welcome in Scotland is still a warm one, the scenery is still breathtaking and the weather still unpredictable. But many other things have changed in Scotland since 1985. In 2020 you’ll pay a bit more than the £1.20 [equivalent to about £3.60 today] it cost us to pitch our small tent at Tummel Bridge or even the £2.50 [equivalent to about £7.63] we paid at what is now called Blair Castle Caravan Park [although I notice it is only £12 for two backpackers in low season]. Thankfully, nowadays vegetarian backpackers don’t have to survive on a plateful of vegetables and you can feel fairly confident you will be able to enjoy a good vegetarian meal in most Scottish hotels and restaurants.

All the photographs I have added to this blog post are from our 1985 Ultimate Challenge. You can see we both had more hair in those days, we were still wearing walking breeches and check shirts but my cagoule did contain some Gore-Tex.

During our 2020 campervan trip we stayed at a mixture of remote wild camping spots and Caravan and Motorhome Club sites [Forfar, Stonehaven and Banchory].

Briarfields Touring Park & Cheltenham & Gloucester

Cheltenham 1

An adult-only campsite on a regular bus route to Cheltenham and Gloucester is a great place for a couple wanting an urban break full of historical interest, entertainment and stunning places to eat.  Briarfields is on the edge of Cheltenham and is open all year round so, like us, you can visit out of season.  The site is enclosed by trees and has good-sized pitches and clean facilities.  With buses from the entrance, the background road noise is a small price to pay for the convenience of being able to easily visit the historic town of Cheltenham and the city of Gloucester.

Gloucester 2

Cheltenham

You get off the bus in Cheltenham near to the brilliant white Regency buildings of The Royal Crescent.  I had a copy of David Elder’s Cheltenham Heritage Walks guide book with me and we set off on some of the nine themed walks in this book.

If it is a fine day then the perfect thing to do in Cheltenham is to walk to some of its parks and gardens.  A highlight of your tour will be Pittville Park, about 15 minutes walk from the town centre that gives you chance to admire the large Regency houses and green squares you will pass on the way.  With a duck pond, a boating lake, a playground and cafe and on the hill the stately Pump Rooms, Pittville is an lovely park.  The elegant columned Pump Rooms has a domed roof and inside there is a tap where you can still sample Cheltenham’s water.

It isn’t my favourite thing to do, unless I actually need something, but even I can recognise that Cheltenham has a great shopping centre.  Whether you are like me and don’t get beyond window shopping or do the real thing it is worth keeping an eye out for some of the statues among the shops  and follow Cheltenham’s story through its art.  The Minotaur and The Hare [in the photo at the top] is easy to find but look carefully and you might spot some of the small pigeon statues too.  These remember the role of this humble bird in Cheltenham’s history when a local farmer spotted pigeons pecking at salt deposits at the mineral spring on his land.  In the Regent Arcade you will want to check the time and watch The Wishing Fish Clock on the hour or half hour.  This colourful and fun tall clock with a goose, golden eggs and other animals, has a fish hanging below the clock that blows bubbles to the tune, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles.’  The Imperial Gardens near to the centre are where you will find the statue to Gustav Holst and Cheltenham also has a museum to this composer who was born in the town.

Walking further, on the edge of the town we found Sandford Park.  This has none of the grandeur of Pittville Park but offers a respite from the bustle of the town and has a pretty stream running through it and more statues.

We visited The Wilson to find out more about Edward Wilson, the local polar explorer and artist who took part in two Antarctic expeditions with Scott.  Wilson, Scott and Henry Robertson Bowers died in a blizzard around 29 March 1912 still 148 miles from their base camp and just eleven miles from a food stash.  As well as the room to Edward Wilson the gallery has paintings, and some stunning and elegant arts and crafts furniture that I would certainly buy if I had lots of money.

Cheltenham 2

Gloucester

Taking the bus in the opposite direction our first stop in Gloucester was the Cathedral and this is surely a must-do for anyone in the city.  We took one of the tours the cathedral offers and found it was a great way to get much more out of our visit and understand the layers of history in this beautiful building.  As well as Edward II’s tomb, you will gaze in awe at the medieval east window that is the size of a tennis court and enjoy the elegant cloisters that are popular film and TV locations.  If these tours are running when you are there I would recommend you join in.  Afterwards we climbed the steps to the Tribune Gallery to get a whole new perspective on the building.

Walking to Gloucester Docks we had coffee and croissants in an Italian cafe where the chocolate croissant came not just with a chocolate filling but also a chocolate topping.  Outside a group of Vespa owners were congregating by the water and comparing their scooters.  With the sun shining we could have been in Italy!

The Victorian warehouses at Gloucester Docks have been restored and this is a watery area of cafes and restaurants that is so pleasant to walk around.  The National Waterways Museum is inside one of the huge warehouses on the Docks.  Each floor has low ceilings and small windows and was designed to store cargoes that arrived here along the canal from Avonmouth and the River Severn.  The oral history exhibits bring to life the hard work in all weathers of the workers on the barges.

The Jet Age Museum

Also accessible by bus from Briarfields, the Jet Age Museum has a mostly indoor collection of Gloster Aviation Company (GAC) planes, apparently the company changed its name from Gloucester as anyone outside England struggled to pronounce it!  GAC built the Meteor, the RAFs first jet that saw service in the Second World War.  GAC started life in Cheltenham and worked with Frank Whittle to build The Meteor, testing it in 1941 and flying with the RAF by 1943.

The museum is run by enthusiastic volunteers and is packed with information.  You can concentrate on the planes or dig deeper into a particular aspect of aviation.  Visitors can have a bit of a hands-on adventure climbing two ladders in and out of the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber, a cramped and stuffy place that isn’t for the claustrophobic.  The five of us each had a crew member’s seat and our guide described what each of us would have been responsible for on a flight.  Easier to get into and more comfortable was the BAE Trident, the first passenger aircraft with an automatic landing system, built by a local firm.  There are smaller simulators for children too.

Gloucester 1

 

If you want to read more my travel article about this area that was published in MMM in November 2020 can be found in the list of MMM published articles.

The P&O Hull to Zeebrugge ferry: A tribute

Coronavirus has so many things to answer for. In the melee of real tragedies, one small thing popped up on the news this week that chipped another piece out of my heart. As if life isn’t bad enough for the north of England, locked down in a confusing array of different regulations that mean that many of us can’t even entertain a couple of friends two metres away in a garden, P&O Ferries announce they are ending the Hull to Zeebrugge route.

This news bought back so many memories of holidays that always began the moment we opened the bottle of red wine and proposed a toast to happy holidays in the P&O Four Seasons Buffet. Catching the ferry from Hull was such a leisurely affair. We would leave home after lunch and usually stop for a brew in our campervan overlooking the Humber before checking in. After finding our cabin in the maze of corridors [always with a window], we would climb on deck and watch the large ship making its sedate way through the lock at the port of Hull, eventually reaching the river Humber. In the Four Seasons restaurant we would hope to get a window seat so that we could watch the magnificent Spurn Point go by as we had our relaxing meal. The buffet might sound tacky but we were like children every time, enjoying the chance to try new and interesting combinations of food. While I would have numerous platefuls of different salads and cheeses, Anthony would add extra vegetables to his plateful of vegetable curry and then indulge in more than one pudding! As the restaurant cleared, we would chat to the waiting staff who always had interesting sailor’s stories Meanwhile, from Spurn Point the ship would leave the shelter of the Humber and we navigated into the will of the North Sea weather. By then we would be safely tucked up in our beds dreaming of the continent.

Waking up there was only time for a quick breakfast and before we knew it we were driving through the small port town of Zeebrugge and across Belgium via its motorway network. The Brussels ring road was always busy with traffic and sometimes we got lost but we were soon beyond its confusing junctions and on our way to France or Germany and further afield.

Occasionally we wouldn’t just race through the small country of Belgium, we would linger and explore some of its pretty corners, something we would never have done if we weren’t travelling to and from Zeebrugge. I have plenty of happy memories of fun and lovely places we have visited thanks to this ferry and have scattered some photographs in this post and many are in my travel article about Belgium [June 2017].

Sometimes we would have spare time on our last day and stop at a small Belgium town to explore before checking in at Zeebrugge. We have walked along the prom at Blankenberge, wandered around Zeebrugge itself and discovered gems like Veurne in rural Flanders. We picked Veurne randomly and found a small town with a beautifully preserved Grote Markt that was just right for some leg stretching before catching the ferry.

We have also stopped in the charming chic town of Spa and feasted on frites. The frites stall offered a bewildering row of different sauces to accompany their frites but traditional mayonnaise is always my preferred combination.  Sitting in the park eating frites and watching the intricacies of a pétanque tournament was an unforgettable Belgian moment.

Belgian food is outstanding and on another occasion we discovered delicious ice-cream in Sint-Truiden.  This wealthy and dapper town with high-class shops and tubs of colourful flowers has a splendid market place, dominated by the town hall.  Ijssalon Venise is a smart and popular cafe in the square and it served up an excellent banana split with rich warm chocolate sauce. And all within striking distance of our ferry home.

I can’t really believe we won’t make this journey again and feel stupidly sad. Surely another ferry company will take the route on. The ferry always seemed busy, there were generally school groups, weekenders visiting Bruges, freight and other holidaymakers from the north of England and Scotland that can’t face tackling the long drive around the M25 to Dover. Crossing the Pennines to Hull and waking up in mainland Europe was such a relaxing start to our adventures.

This virus has taken away so much away it is hard to mourn everything but I find I am cursing coronavirus once again.