Before coronavirus, even uncertainties seemed more certain: Still trying to co-operate with the inevitable

10.28.2018 Morata and Chinchon (24)

I have a mixed relationship with uncertainty.  While it can be a marvellous travelling companion, bringing us unexpected pleasures such as finding a pretty village on a fantastic walk or stumbling across a fair when we only stopped in the town for coffee.  The uncertainty I experience when there is a problem or after something goes wrong is less enjoyable.  Problems with our campervan, such as our little Greek incident, send my anxiety levels sky high.  These days I am struggling to stop my brain from descending into a worried spiral as our plans to travel in our campervan are regularly disrupted overnight.

I have written before about the travelling plans we had made for the spring BC [before coronavirus] and how these were ditched during lock down.  As restrictions relaxed and then campsites re-opened DC [during coronavirus] I tentatively began to pencil in some trips away in our Blue Bus.  We decided to stay local and we enjoyed some wonderful active and safe holidays in the Lake District through July, knowing we could get home in an hour or so if we needed.

I understand that we are still in DC and that this virus has not gone away.  We continue to socially distance, we wash our hands thoroughly as often as possible and we wear our masks when we need to.  Looking forwards in June, I imagined that life in the UK would have settled into a management stage by now as we learned to live with the virus.  I thought this would lead to a bit more certainty and our future travel plans could be more concrete into the autumn.  Apparently not!  Although I had accepted that we would be unable to visit the wonderful country of Portugal this year, I had started to get hopeful that we would be able to travel around beautiful Spain in September and October, using the ferry booking we had made in those carefree January days.  My cautious optimism was dashed on the 25th July when it was announced that the Foreign Office no longer recommended travel to Spain.

I like to think of myself as adaptable but this skill has been severely tried this year.  I find I dare not even write about what our plans are now, firstly because they change so often and secondly because putting it in black and white might jinx things.  What is certain is that we will not be packing until the day before our next trip [having to unpack without going away is too depressing] and if we do get away we won’t have any activities even pencilled in.  Perhaps I am being too pessimistic and cautious but in these ever uncertain times it is hard to dream that anything will have a positive outcome.

Does it help to keep up-to-date with the news, or is that just another source of anxiety?  Sorting the rumours from the truth is important but takes time and these days my own careful assessment of risk means nothing if the Government decides to show their resolve by stamping down on what I can do.

I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but I do know that even the uncertainties seemed more certain in my BC world!  I could worry about illness or mechanical problems almost carelessly, confident that the risk of those things happening was small.  My over active imagination never conjured up anything like the constantly changing restrictions and rules we have been living with DC in the UK.

Uncertainty and certainty are both part of life and I know I can’t control everything but at the moment all I can really try and control are my thoughts.  I could disappear into a pool of my own despondency.  Instead I make myself sit with my  uncertainties and anxieties and write about them.  This does help.  I feel all the emotions and then send them on their way, leaving me to focus on staying in the present, co-operating with the inevitable and accepting that this new super-charged uncertainty is here to stay.

 

 

 

 

A poor substitute for a Cambodian takeaway with friends

20200801_195606

I was stupid to make plans really in these DC [during coronavirus] months [maybe years] but I did.  We have two old friends who live on the rural edge of Greater Manchester.  We have known one of them since school and met his partner in the mid-1980s; we go back a long way and have few secrets from them.  In those carefree BC [before coronavirus] days we would normally see them every six weeks or so for a wild night out in Manchester city centre and spend at least one holiday a year with them.  These are  not normal times and we have only seen them via a laptop screen since the end of January … it isn’t the same.

As restrictions eased, we arranged to meet up at their house for a takeaway.  We decided on their local Cambodian and had even spent ages going through the menu and ordered our meals.  The it was announced on Twitter that Greater Manchester was off limits!

The disappointment of not having an evening laughing with these friends is hard to put into words, a week later I am still choked up about it.  We had nothing planned for an evening meal at home as we thought we would be enjoying a delicious Cambodian meal, so a quick trip to the supermarket and a Zoom meeting booked with our friends we had a go at making the best of the spoilt evening.  Here’s what we ate:

Substitute Cambodian stir fry – for two

Spicy peanut sauce

  • I onion chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves peeled
  • 1 tablespoon of tomato puree
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 chilli pepper

I blitzed these with a little water in our mini food processor.

In a pan with a little vegetable oil I gently fried:

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon mixed spice

Then added the onion / tomato mixture and two tablespoons of peanut butter.  I added more water to make the sauce consistency I wanted and seasoned to our taste and kept this warm.  You can make this in advance.

Fried tofu

I unwrapped a 225 g pack of smoked tofu [any tofu will be fine] squeezed some of the liquid out of it and cut it into 1 cm cubes.  I coated these in flour mixed with salt and pepper and shallow fried them in vegetable oil until they were crisp on the outside and soft in the middle.

Stir fry vegetables

  • Green beans – we had some cooked ones left over
  • 1 pepper cut into thin strips
  • About 2/3 rds of a bag of beansprouts
  • 1/2 stick of celery cut into thin batons
  • Bag of Singapore style rice noodles [From Sainsburys these are already in a curry paste and red chilli dressing]

In a wok, I stir fried the pepper and celery quickly in a small amount of vegetable oil, adding the green beans, beansprouts and noodles at the end.

I mixed the tofu with the stir fried vegetables and served with the sauce poured over.  It tasted great but would have been so much better with good friends.

 

 

 

 

 

Campsites: Same pandemic, different ways of keeping campers safe

06.26.2018 Veurne Belgium (6)
These Belgian park benches were installed before social distancing was a thing

We were on the starting blocks on the 4th July, booked into the Caravan and Motorhome Club (CAMC) Site in Borrowdale with an arrival time of 10.00!  Since that heady first night back in our much-loved campervan we have slept happily at seven different campsites.  We made the decision to stay local in the north-west of England for the first month and luckily for us this includes the beautiful Lake District where we could catch up on some much-needed fell walking.

I noticed each campsite has adopted a different way of making their site’s facilities safe for visitors.  Here’s a roundup:

No facilities, no problem!

Our Devon Tempest campervan can be self-sufficient, it has a toilet, sink and shower in its modest bathroom.  This means we can stay on sites with no facilities at all.  Borrowdale and Dockray Meadow in Lamplugh in West Cumbria are two sites in the CAMC stable that never have a facilities block.  Of course, you don’t have to use the facilities when they are there, but if we’ve paid for them it seems a waste not to!  At Borrowdale and Dockray Meadow we did find that with no system to negotiate to get into the toilets and showers, staying on both of these sites was a calm and relaxing experience.  They are both always peaceful sites and the walking options from Borrowdale in particular are hard to beat.  They are ideal places to stay for anyone cautious about being away in their ‘van as social distancing is easy when everyone is staying on their pitch.

We also had a couple of nights at a site that is part of the other club’s network, Ravenglass Camping and Caravanning Club Site.  This site normally has a facilities block but has chosen to keep it closed and only open the washing up sinks this season, however, it is charging it’s usual fees, making it much more expensive than the former two sites.  Nevertheless, this small site among the trees and on the edge of the pretty coastal village of Ravenglass is a lovely place to stay.

Using your common sense

Delamere Camping and Caravanning Club Site did have its facilities block open.  They asked campers to use common sense to ensure it never got too crowded and this informal way of managing people worked really well.  There were never more than three people in the toilets and showers and the wash-up area was always quiet, even though the site was full.  Hand sanitiser was available outside the toilets and showers too.  We like this site as you walk through the perimeter fence straight into the extensive network of walking and cycling paths that Delamere Forest offers.

CAMC Wristbands

The Caravan and Motorhome Club’s wristband system had reached me via Twitter before we got to Troutbeck Head CAMC Site.  Not surprisingly, there were lovers and haters on social media.  Wearing our colourful wristbands we felt like we were at the swimming pool and found it a bit of a nuisance to remember to take a wristband to the sanitary block.  Once there it seemed there were always more wristbands hanging up on the three hooks than there were people in the facilities as people forgot to take their wristband away.   I found the tension of wondering if someone else would pick up my particular wristband while I was showering somewhat incompatible with a relaxing holiday.

A simple approach is often best

Our first independent site was Sykeside at Brother’s Water near Ullswater.  This is a long-standing favourite site, surrounded by high fells.  Not surprising for a great campsite, they had taken a sensible approach to social distancing and had installed a board outside the male and female toilet doors with four occupied / vacant signs and a sliding mechanism.  There was no need to remember to take anything with you, you slid one row to occupied as you went in and slid it back to vacant when you came out.  There was sanitising gel available too and paper towels in the washrooms.  Sykeside got lots of ticks from me.

occupied images

Clocking off

Hillcroft Park near Pooley Bridge is a large campsite with a mixture of tents, motorhomes, caravans and static caravans.  Their sanitary facilities are modern and airy with good roomy hot showers that are kept sparkling clean.  They introduced a sort of clocking in system, giving campers a card with their pitch number on.  You were expected to put this card into one of the ten slots by the door.  As a well-behaved camper, I took my card the first few times I used the facilities and popped it in one of the slots.  It soon became clear that no one else was bothering with this system and so I gradually went native.  It turned out this wasn’t a problem, common sense prevailed and the facilities never felt too crowded.

What works best?

This is no exhaustive research study, although if anyone wants to give me a grant to visit a more comprehensive sample of the UK’s campsites I am your woman.

From the sites we have visited, it seems to me that the systems that worked best don’t involve anyone having to take anything with them to the sanitary blocks as these are generally forgotten or left behind.  The common sense approach at Delamere was the simplest way to manage numbers and it seems that campers have common sense in spades.  The occupied / vacant boards at Sykeside were another good option, giving nervous or cautious campers the information they needed to help them feel confident about entering the facilities.

Has anyone found a different system that works better?

 

 

Distant nightmares, early retirement & coronavirus

van grafitti
Spanish graffiti

My state of retirement [or in truth semi-retirement as certainly BC [before coronavirus] I was writing more than ever] has become pretty normal.  BC I had settled into something that wasn’t a routine but had a pattern that involved regular campervan trips, writing travel articles and editing photographs in between.  It is now over three years since I last had a regular monthly paycheck and I have stopped counting those months and a nine-to-five working life seems a distant nightmare.  Looking back to three and a half years ago I had plenty of dreams and plans for retirement, how are they panning out and has our changing world DC [during coronavirus] altered this?

Having time for one thing a day

These days having plenty of time to do things has become so habitual I get irritated when I have to work to a deadline or fit too much in a day.  I see my harried and over-worked friends and don’t envy them at all.  I don’t have any excuse not to do anything well [including edit my blog posts]!  I appreciate having the time to linger and don’t feel guilty when I hang around watching the birds in our garden, chatting to the neighbours or walking to the coast just to see one of Morecambe’s fabulous sunsets.

I have written about wanting to do just one thing a day in retirement, rather than fill my days with multiple tasks.  During lock down, with no travel allowed and therefore no writing, the one thing I would / could do was my daily exercise.  With so many limitations on my life, the one-thing-a-day mantra was something that didn’t really need repeating.

Staying active & having fun

Taking early retirement was a positive move, in particular to allow us to make the most of owning a campervan.  We have done fairly well at this and BC not many months have gone by without us being away at least for a few days in the last three years.  We enjoy being able to go away mid-week and make the most of short spells of good weather now we are no longer tied to weekends.

We continue to practice tai chi and now have more space at home for this, particularly in the garden.  We were always going to miss our friendly and relaxed Salford tai chi class but we did find a welcoming class in Morecambe.  Unfortunately this class imploded BC and then all classes disappeared during lock down and we have been left to practise at home together.  Once you know the basics, it is possible to work on tai chi alone but I miss the enthusiasm and discipline of a class.

The alarm clock remains a distant memory.  I have settled into a routine of waking at around 07.30 and getting up to make my retired partner our first brew of the day.

We had started working our way around Morecambe’s pubs BC.  Getting back into that exploration feels complicated at the moment DC but we have supported some of our local cafes, both old favourites and new enterprises.  The optimism and spirit of these small business owners never fails to cheer me up.

Meeting friends socially was an important part of my BC life.  As lock down has eased we have spent some time with other households but there are good friends I haven’t seen in person for months.  It has been lovely to be able to see couples in a socially distanced way but I ache for one of those jolly evenings with a group of old friends, maybe four or five households, around a table.  On these occasions there is inevitably a moment when the conversation will veer off into an unexpected place and I end up laughing and laughing.  I want to experience that again and worry that it has gone forever.

A better me?

I wanted to spend some of my retirement brushing up on languages for our travels.  While my partner is disciplined and does this all year round, I tend to only start learning when compelled by a forthcoming trip.  Last year we didn’t cross the channel at all and so I had nothing driving me to brush up on any language and Duolingo languished unused on my phone.  BC I got my act together and began spending half-an-hour a day learning German in readiness for a planned trip.  Of course this trip didn’t happen as we were locked down but I have kept the language learning in my day and even added Spanish to the mix.  I’ll try and keep it up, whether or not we are going abroad.

I am finding that moving house has changed my priorities, particularly moving to a house and garden that needs lots of work and it was natural that for the first months this was where my energy went.  My interest in DIY and gardening was never going to last long.  I enjoyed being involved in local good causes in Salford but when we moved to Morecambe I left these volunteering roles.  Like so much, getting involved in anything locally feels like wading through mud at the moment and DC my offers of help to local charities have been rejected, as they were overwhelmed with the numbers of people willing to help [a wonderful thing].

Many people set a target to read more books.  Reading takes little effort for me and isn’t something I ever need an incentive to do.  My favourite relaxation is curling up on a sunny armchair and reading and I easily get through over 50 books a year.

My year of walking 2,019 km in 2019 certainly made sure that I got outside almost everyday.  I did find checking the target a bit of a drag and I haven’t set any for 2020 but the routine of getting out most days remains.

DC and in lock down I resigned myself to a break from travel writing work and so I was surprised when a commission came in from a publisher to contribute to a book featuring cycle routes.  This has been an interesting [and sometimes frustrating] learning process.  Although guide books come within the same travel writing genre, it seems they are a different beast to magazine travel articles and learning to work successfully with new editors has been a challenge.

Trying to stay mentally well & not being irritating

Working life might now be a blur but I still remember how annoying it was when someone who is retired would say, ‘I don’t know how I fitted it all in when I was working!’  Although I know this might often be said in a defensive way by an elderly person who is making the point that they are still a busy and useful person that has a place in the world, they are words that grate on anyone who is trying to fit life in around work!

Although I have experienced lots of anxiety DC, I have worked hard to stay present not least because the future is way too uncertain to even begin to worry about.  I know I continue to fail to be perfect but happily embrace my imperfections as too much self-criticism would take me on a downward spiral.  I can’t say coronavirus has made me stronger but I am pleased it hasn’t crushed me [yet].

I do still acknowledge how privileged I was to be able to retire at 57 and I continue to value that my time is now my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camping & walking in Arnside & Silverdale

Silverdale and Arnside
At Jenny Brown’s Point on a perfect winter day

Many of us want somewhere to take our campervan that is away from the crowds, has plenty of footpaths, lovely views and a few attractions.  If this is what you are looking for then the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the north Lancashire south Cumbria border is a great choice.  This small area bounded by the stunning Morecambe Bay and the River Kent has been a favourite destination of ours for the last 30-plus years.  When we lived in Preston and were enjoying a car-free existence it was a lovely area that was accessible by train for walks.  Once we had a campervan it became a go-to destination for a few days away on our own and with friends.  Although only a small area it is packed with variety.

The area’s big draw for wildlife lovers is the RSPB’s reserve at Leighton Moss but there are also historic and heritage attractions and some marvellous and varied walking.  Where else can you be pottering along a craggy coast in the morning and after lunch be sauntering through pretty woodland or following the shores of a small lake to a limestone pavement?  This is truly a diverse landscape, with so much to offer.

I have lost count of the number of holidays we have had in this area, in good and bad weather but I always return home loving it more.  If you’ve never been to Arnside and Silverdale think about planning a few days or even a week or so in this wonderful area.

Here are some ideas to help you make the most of a camping trip to this area:

Campsites

Most recently we stayed at Hawes Villa Camping, a small reasonably priced site with some basic facilities and great walking right from the step of your campervan with Hawes Water just ten minutes away.

If you want a site with full facilities then the more expensive Holgates Silverdale site might suit you.  The large site has a pool, bar/restaurant, shop and play area.  It is also in a beautiful position on the edge of the village.  Holgates Hollins Farm site is nearer to Arnside Crag and is quieter but still has an excellent sanitary block.

We have walked by Gibraltar Farm campsite many times but never camped here.  I do know it has plenty of fans and as it sells its own ice-cream I will get there soon!

You can find a few quiet wild camping spots too.

Walking is the best way to get to know this area

To get the most out of walks an OS map or the Cicerone walking guide are both helpful.

The Fairy Steps – You can walk to this limestone escarpment either from Arnside or from Hawes Villa Camping.  Climbing up the path through the woodland from Hazelslack you will come to a limestone escarpment that at first glance is impregnable.  Look carefully and you will find a narrow gash through the limestone and a series of steps to the top.  Popping out onto a grassy ledge you have a splendid view over to the Kent estuary.  As you squeeze up the gash in the steps you can try and climb without touching the sides so that the fairies will grant you a wish.  Good luck with that!

Arnside Knott – Arnside nestles on the slopes of Arnside Knott, a limestone hill with tree-covered slopes that reveals stunning views over the Kent Estuary and Morecambe Bay.  It is a straightforward but steep walk, either from Arnside or from either of the Holgates campsites.

The coast – There are footpaths around pretty much all of the coast here.  Highlights include the old tall chimney at Jenny Brown’s Point and the lime kiln near to Gibraltar Farm campsite, the pretty and sheltered cove at Silverdale, the stunning mixture of craggy coast, bays and woodland around Arnside Knott and the dyke and salt marshes from Arnside to Storth.

Eaves Wood – Meander through this lovely wood and climb to the viewpoint where you will find the Pepperpot,  a monument built to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  The Silverdale Holgates campsite is on the edge of Eaves Wood and the paths can be easily accessed from the site.

Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve and limestone pavement – From Hawes Villa Camping walk by Hawes Water and you come to Gait Barrow, an expanse of grey limestone pavement cut with grykes and dotted with low-growing trees.  No dogs are allowed on the pavement.

Dallam Tower Deer Park and Beetham – A longer walk from Hawes Villa Camping could take you to the pretty village of Beetham.  The path from Heron Mill at Beetham takes you uphill over pasture.  As you walk look out for the herd of fallow deer that are kept here.  Walking down the hill, with the stately Georgian Dallam Tower on your left, you reach a pretty section of the River Bela before it runs into the Kent.  Cross the river and you will be in Milnthorpe.

Things to see and do

RSPB Leighton Moss – Open all year, the expansive reed bed is home to a wide range of wildlife; as well as fantastic wildfowl and marsh harriers there are otters and red deer.  There are trails to walk, hides and amazing views from the Sky Tower.

Leighton Hall – Open limited days from the beginning of May to the end of September, this historic house has links with the Gillow furniture makers.

Heron Mill, Beetham – This restored and working corn mill in normal times [BC] is open Wednesday to Sunday for most of the year.  There are tours when you can see the waterwheel working.

The train from Arnside or Silverdale to Grange-over-Sands – On the railway line from Arnside you cross the 505 m long viaduct over the River Kent.  Grange-over-Sands has a lovely railway station, a pleasant park and a selection of good cafes and interesting shops.

Carnforth – The black and white film, Brief Encounter was filmed in Carnforth.  Take the train or drive to Carnforth Station Heritage Centre and The Brief Encounter tea room.  Afterwards spend some time browsing the rambling bookshop across the road; I have never walked out of this wonderful shop without at least one great book.

Warton Old Rectory – This ruined 14th century house is in the pleasant village of Warton and is free to explore.  Afterwards visit the church and find out why this small village has links to George Washington, the US President.  From the village you can also walk over Warton Crag.

An Arnside teashop – Everyone has their favourites; the Old Bakehouse is justifiably popular, Posh Sardine is recommended, there is a chip shop and on a sunny day you can enjoy a pint with a view at The Albion.

A cross bay walk – Check out the Guide Over the Sands events page for dates of the planned cross bay walks.  In the summer this is an exceptional way to enjoy the beauty of Morecambe Bay.  Led across the sands and mudflats by the Queen’s Official Guide, the walk is about eight miles, takes three to four hours and will involve wading through water that is at least knee deep.  During the coronavirus pandemic these guided walks have been cancelled but they will hopefully return in the future.

 

 

Me & my campervan: Back on the Road Again

Camping Indigo Vallouise
Camping in the Ecrins National Park in France

I thought I was one of those people that plans for the unexpected, always thinking about the worst that could happen but even I never imagined there would be a life I would have to live where we couldn’t take our campervan away on a camping holiday.  I had thought ill health might stop us travelling, or money, or a breakdown or maybe a ferry strike would keep us in the UK but not being able to stay overnight anywhere for over three months!  That scenario was never on my radar until March 2020.

We were at home, where else, when the confirmation that campsites could open on 4 July 2020 was announced.  Like all these political proclamations, everyone had expected it for days but to get the news was a relief … you would think.  After the initial elation, I found that new anxieties floated to the surface.  My head fretted that something would go wrong.  Covid 19 certainly hasn’t gone away and is here for a long time if not forever.  This means that any number of things could happen that could lead to a loss of freedom once again if we aren’t managing it sensibly.  Covid 19 cases could increase again and even if there is no evidence that camping is the culprit, someone could decide it has to stop.  I worried that this could even happen before 4 July arrived.  I wanted to get out camping that night, not have to wait eleven long days!

Many people are still wary about going away from home and I understand this but I almost feel that if we don’t go straight away we may stay at home and never travel again.  Travelling is an important part of me and I dislike being confined to home, but even I have felt my expectations falling and my horizons lowering over the months at home and I am aware that there is a hint of apprehension about getting on the road again.

This week I have been checking the cupboards in the ‘van, filling them with what we need and anticipating being away camping again with a combination of joy and a bit of a tear in my eye.  On the eve of the 4th July, I feel a mixture of trembling excitement and sick anxiety and it feels important to work through this.  I need to crack on and get out into the big world again.

All being well, we will be camping, along with plenty of other people, on July 4th and I expect we will get back into the swing of it and after a week or so feel like we have never been away.  I don’t think I will ever take the freedom to travel for granted again.  We are starting slowly, camping not far from home and mostly on sites with no facilities.

I know we are lucky to have some amazing places nearby, to be alive and healthy, to have each other and to own a campervan.  I will be so happy to be back out in our Blue Bus and once again smiling to myself when I wake up as I remember I am in our campervan.  I can’t wait to have days when I have no idea what will happen and where we will end up.  Tomorrow I will be back on the road again!

Thirlmere, the Lake District: Walking in a quieter side of the National Park

2020 June Thirlmere
Thirlmere

During coronavirus [what I am referring to as DC] and once we were able to travel to places other than the supermarket, we have sought out some of the quieter areas of the Lake District, as these are easily accessible from our home for the day.  Until it was taken away from me I hadn’t realised just how important being able to get away camping and hiking was to my wellbeing.  While working friends still had a pattern to their week that wasn’t dissimilar to that BC [Before coronavirus], without the commute, I lost the month we planned in Scotland and the two months travelling around Hungary and Germany, walking around Morecambe, while enjoyable, couldn’t replace these activities.  When we were allowed out for the day I was out like a wild animal from a cage.

The hills to the west of Thirlmere, a reservoir between Grasmere and Keswick, are notorious for being boggy and are not everyone’s first choice of mountain.  The dry DC spring, open car parks and our search for social distance made these perfect places to walk.  We never had the hills completely to ourselves but it was easy to keep our distance from the one or two people we met.

2020 May Ullscarf Thirlmere (2)
Harrop Tarn is straight out an Alpine postcard

Harrop Tarn, Castle Crag and Ullscarf

The short walk up to Harrop Tarn from the Dob Gill car park on the narrow road along the west side of Thirlmere is worth doing for its own sake.  This picturesque tarn, surrounded by crags and pine trees, has an Alpine feel about it that will make you want to sit and enjoy.  Of course, we were here so that my partner could tick off some Wainwright fells so after a brief stop we carried on uphill.  On the way to Castle Crag we had stunning views along the length of Thirlmere and we then wandered between small lumps of land trying to work out which was the highest and therefore the summit of Castle Crag.  At least the dry spring meant that we could easily cross the ground which is often sodden.  Ullscarf is also only a pimple of a hill but it is a great viewpoint on a clear day; we could see most of the central fells in a panorama before us.  We returned by the lovely Harrop Tarn again and down a steep woodland path to the car park.

2020 May Ullscarf Thirlmere (12)
These are generally boggy hills

Armboth Fell, High Tove and Raven Crag

The road along the west side of Thirlmere is narrow and although quiet you will meet other cars.  We decided not to drive to the Armboth car park in our campervan and instead parked below Raven Crag at the northern end of Thirlmere and walked along the road.  From Armboth car park we took a rough path through the woods and by the stream, picking up a track.  Hidden among the trees near the track is Armboth Hall’s charming summerhouse, now a bothy.  The construction of the dam at Thirlmere to provide water to Manchester meant the flooding of two villages, Wythburn and Armboth and Armboth Hall is now under water.

Once on the open fell it was an easy walk up to the rocky outcrop of Armboth Fell, skirting around the wetter areas that had reappeared after recent rain.  At High Tove we once again had 360 degree views of surrounding fells.  You could decide two are sufficient summits for the day and head back down to the car park but we opted to carry on to Raven Crag and headed for the treeline.  We skirted around the area marked on the OS map as The Pewits, notorious as a boggy section of the Lake District fells and followed the ups and downs of the conifer plantation until we picked up a path into the trees to Raven Crag.  Confusingly there is also another Castle Crag here.  The path up to the viewpoint on Raven Crag is in good condition with steps and work is being carried out on the steep path down to Thirlmere.

You might have been avoiding these hills to the west of Thirlmere as they certainly don’t look exciting on the map but these central hills have panoramic views and give the few walkers who head there a special sense of isolation.

If I have learnt anything in DC it is that just being out hiking in the fells can never be taken for granted in the future and that every hill has something to offer and appreciate.

Kinlochewe: Our last camping trip before lock down

20.03.2020 Kinlochewe and Lochs Clair and Coulin (23)
Beautiful Loch Clair

Will life become divided into BC [Before coronavirus} and AC [After coronavirus]?  And I think I need a category DC (During coronavirus] as this pandemic is likely to be with us for a year or two.  Looking back on camping trips we made before lock down they have a happy-go-lucky almost dreamlike quality that I don’t see returning for some time.  We took stopping at a cafe, visiting a museum and, of course, camping, not exactly for granted but certainly something we had the freedom to do when we wanted.  All this changed in the UK on 23 March 2020 and although things have begun to re-open, as I spend DC standing on a 2 metre line to queue and video calling friends I can’t say the experience is like it was in BC.

Our last BC camping trip was to Torridon in Scotland.  We set off in March expecting to be touring this wonderful country for a month and hiking through some of its glorious countryside.  Even though our trip was cut short by the virus, we had a wonderful few days before we had to return all the way home.

We have stayed in Torridon, on the west coast of Scotland, before but the last time we were there together on a walking holiday the UK was at war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands.  We were looking forward to a much delayed revisit.

Walks from Kinlochewe

You couldn’t ask for better weather the day we followed the tracks and paths around Loch Clair and Loch Coulin.  With blue sky and snow still lying on the mountains, the views over the lochs to the distinctive peaks of Liathach and Beinn Eighe took my breath away.  The walk is mostly flat and easy to follow for 9 km / 5.5 miles.  More details on the Walk Highlands website.

From the Kinlochewe campsite we walked to Loch Maree and along Gleann Bianasdail.  This is the approach to Slioch, the craggy high mountain by the loch, but on a cloudy day we stayed low, walking about 16 km / 10 miles.  The walk along the river to the loch is a pleasant and easy 10 km return and takes you by the old cemetery and through beautiful gnarled trees covered in lichen.  The footbridge over the roaring waterfall might be where some would turn back but we continued up Gleann Bianasdail.  Keep a look out for the wild goats that scamper up the steep hillsides here and are delightful to see, we also spotted some red deer.  The views back to Loch Maree as you climb higher are worth the longer walk and the river gorge has some vibrant green Scots pine trees huddled along its banks.

Walking there and back the same way when the views are so varied and awe-inspiring is no hardship and I have no hesitation in recommending the 13 km / 8 mile return trip to Loch Grobaig, a tiny loch in the trough between the mountains of Liathach and Beinn Eighe.  Starting at the small car park above Torridon House, the path follows the river, through woodland that soon opens out to moorland and a stony and occasionally boggy path.  Beinn Alligin looms to your left, the snowy slopes of Beinn Eighe pop up ahead and to your right are the steep slopes and crenellated ridge of Liathach.  Following the river, a dipper bobbed along the rushing water between the rocks.  As we gained height we looked back for the views of Upper Loch Torridon.  We had Loch Grobaig to ourselves and as we ate our lunch I felt embraced by isolation and magnificence.

In the evening sunshine we stopped to recreate photographs we had taken all those years ago at the viewpoint above Upper Loch Torridon.  Our trip was cut short but the memories remain.  As I type we can’t return to Scotland yet but we hope it will be sooner than 30+ years [maybe even DC] when we are back there again.

22.03.2020 Over Loch Torridon and campsite (2)
The view across Upper Loch Torridon

We stayed at two campsites

Ardtower Caravan Park is a top-notch independent campsite with views over the Moray Firth from the higher hard-standing pitches.  We have stayed a couple of times and the owners are always friendly and welcoming.

Kinlochewe Caravan and Motorhome Club Site is a beautifully positioned site at the foot of Beinn Eighe and in the small village.  At night the skies are dark and during the daytime the views and local walking are amazing.

The ups and downs of inheriting a garden

17.06.2016 Hotton (5)

When we moved to Morecambe last November we inherited a garden, having been without one for many years.  Although it is lovely to have some outdoor space, unfortunately, the garden that came with our house isn’t a perfect mature garden that requires little input from us.  In November, the garden was mostly sleeping and what we seemed to have was lots of empty beds waiting to be filled, a rough selection of uneven paving slabs and pitted and cracked concrete paths and a few over-grown shrubs fighting each other for space alongside self-seeded buddleia bushes and brambles.  We tried to remember what it was like in the summer when we had viewed the house but the detail escaped us, we would have to wait and see.

The garden had missed the tender loving care of an owner.  Before our occupation our bungalow has been tenanted for eight years by different families.  Tenants often know their time in a property might be short and don’t always invest in the garden and in the case of our bungalow neither they nor the landlords were gardeners and they both neglected the outdoor space.

We played a waiting game over the winter, just getting out on fine days and keeping the garden tidy but avoiding disturbing anything that might be interesting as every plant is precious.  Some of the over-grown bushes benefited from being pruned in those dormant months.  As we worked in the garden we began to spot signs that this was once a loved garden; someone had carefully chosen these shrubs and designed the flower beds and digging we would sometimes find an old label for plants that had once been purchased and planted here.

As spring began to appear we started gently dividing some of the tangled shrubs and we noticed green shoots appearing.  Working in the front garden, neighbours would stop and introduce themselves and many of them would tell us stories about the garden.  ‘I helped the couple who lived here until eight years ago, we planted over a thousand bulbs in this garden,’ the chap who lives a couple of door away told us one sunny afternoon as we tidied up the beds.  That explained the profusion of spring flowering bulbs that had begun to emerge as the days lengthened, we enjoyed bluebells and tulips for months.  I like the earthy link with a couple we will never know and it is fantastic that their love of gardening still peeps through.  As the year progressed we looked forward to seeing what else would pop up [the middle picture shows some of the plants we have inherited].

Working in the garden reminded me that every house I have ever lived in has had a garden that needed considerable amounts of work and care.  Is the country full of neglected gardens or have I been unlucky?

Over the last three months the garden hasn’t just revealed spring and summer bulbs.  We have a honeysuckle that has climbed over the roof of the garage, apparently the only gardening the previous tenants did was to try and keep this honeysuckle in check.  In the front garden a rose bush I pruned in the winter has been producing glorious yellow sweet-smelling blooms since April, working down-wind of this rose bush is pure joy.  Those previous gardeners clearly loved roses and we have three or four bushes in the front garden.  I imagine the elderly couple planning the garden and picking their favourites for scent and colour.

Along with the valued plants, a healthy crop of horsetails have pushed their soft feathery fir-tree like shoots up in every inch of the back garden.  We knew we were buying a horsetail-crowded garden, this was the one thing we could remember from our viewings!  We thought we had the energy to tackle them but they are robust and vigorous plants and as I pull them out and dig them up I both admire their strength and hate them.  Getting them under control may take the rest of our lives!

We are following a long line of retirees to Morecambe and there is plenty of evidence that the previous owners had some mobility problems, with handrails and additional steps.  As we were moving the additional flagstone that someone had added to the steps into our sunken back garden, to give our feet more room, our next-door neighbour leaned over the fence and reminisced about helping the guy put that in place.  Apparently, he was already very elderly when he decided that he needed some extra help on these steps and he was spotted struggling from his car with this long flagstone.

On the garage wall are two colourful metal butterflies which our neighbour said once decorated the front of the house.  Someone adorned the back wall with three squirrel figures that are forever climbing upwards.  Clearing some of the brambles I found a stone tortoise and a stone hedgehog, remnants of when the garden was a different place.  Garden ornaments are not generally our thing but these fragments feel part of the space and they have stayed.

We have a rear wall that has clearly grown almost organically, the brickwork a mixture of styles and brick-laying competence.  In front of this are a couple of sprawling privet bushes.  ‘Ray would trim that privet to symmetrical perfection,’ we were told.  I don’t go in for much symmetry in the garden and after years of neglect the privet bushes needed more hacking then trimming.  I would emerge from among them, twigs and spiders stuck in my hair!

‘This garden has had more attention during this lock down than it has over the last eight years,’ our immediate neighbour remarked the other day.  My laugh is despondency-tinged when he says this.  He knows that we didn’t plan to spend this spring working on the garden and that we had months of campervan trips planned.  But there is no doubt I have been glad to have something physical and tiring to do when we couldn’t go far and I haven’t had the mind-set to write or edit photographs.  I don’t turn to gardening willingly but having our own outdoors has helped me get through lock down.

The most useful thing the previous gardeners left us was a system of water butts.  This survived the tenants and landlord and were just ignored behind the garage.  With such a dry spring we have been so glad to be able to capture what water there is.

We have planted a tree, a couple of bushes of our own, some herbs and patched up the paths but we are trying to avoid letting the garden suck up all our money and disrupt the finances.  I have a forlorn dream that all the work we have done this spring will mean we can just potter doing a bit of light pruning in future years.  We’ll see!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grado, northern Italy: A great choice for easy cycling

Grado (1)
Wildlife-rich wetlands of Friuli-Venezia Giulia near Grado

At the moment, with coronavirus restrictions, I can only dream about campervan trips.  When we are able to travel again, Italy will be on my list of places to revisit as I always enjoy finding some of that stunning country’s lesser known sights.  Tucked away in the north-east of Italy, near the Slovenian border, is the Friuli-Venezia Giulia area, a lovely part of Italy that we only found thanks to our lack of planning.

Our campervan trips to mainland Europe are only ever sketched in, with little detailed planning.  We were therefore excited to have the opportunity to explore somewhere new as we drove over the Slovenian border into Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  Invaluable in this exploration was a guidebook we had picked up in Slovenia by chance that showed the wealth of natural protected areas in this corner of Italy; it seemed like our sort of place and we decided to stay for a while.  From the guide I learnt that Friuli-Venezia Giulia has it’s own Fruilian language and is packed with landscape variety, from wildlife-rich flat coastal wetlands on the Adriatic to the splendour of the foothills of the mountainous Dolomites and also has plenty of history.

We chose Belvedere Pineta Camping Village as it gave us good access to the excellent network of dedicated bicycle paths around Grado.  This is a large and rambling site that was quiet in late May.  Set among the trees, insects can be a problem but this does mean that there is plenty of bird life.  We would eat breakfast entertained by jays, a nuthatch, magpies and blackbirds and in the evenings scops owls made their sonar-like calls overhead and fire flies lit up the bushes.  One morning we watched a hare lolloping around the empty pitches at the furthest edges of the site.

Before reaching the campsite we used the guide to find the Doberdo Lakes Nature Reserve where lakes have formed in depressions [poljes] of the limestone / karst.  We had some trouble reaching the lake as the road was closed due to road works; however the diversion took us to a parking spot on the northern edge from where we walked through the woodland to the jungle-like reedy edges of the lake.  The best views over the pretty lakes were from a high crag that we hiked up to and where there is climbing and a climbers hut at Castelliere Gradina.  We also stumbled upon World War One defensive tunnels cut into the rocks.

Cycling north from the campsite there is an excellent traffic-free cycle lane alongside the main road for the 6.5 km to Aquileia.  We returned this way but got to the ancient Roman city of Aquileia on a longer route following quiet winding lanes [11.5 km] after turning left from the campsite entrance.  This took us through large flat fields of crops and vines and alongside drainage ditches and canals.  We stopped often to take in the agricultural scenery and see the ducks and geese on the water.  Aquileia is popular with visitors and has information boards to describe the sights.  We walked along the Roman harbour remains where the now silted-up river made it difficult to make much sense of what you could see.  For a small fee you can visit Aquileia Cathedral which has some stunning early mosaics.

Grado (4)
Boats in the harbour of the smart resort of Grado

Cycling to Grado through this low-lying landscape is an easy 7.5 km from our campsite on dedicated paths and it is popular with all abilities and ages.  The short distance look us a while only because we stopped so often to admire the views across the lagoon and see the wildlife; we were particularly excited to spot a pair of African sacred ibis.  The town of Grado is on an island in the Adriatic and we were cycling over a five-kilometre long bridge that crosses the dramatic and panoramic waterscape of the lagoon.  Grado is a classy resort with a harbour full of boats and a well-kept promenade dotted with sculptures.  We wandered through the town’s attractive historical centre and found its cluster of ancient churches that use re-cycled Roman columns and have sixth century mosaics.  The Basilica di Santa Eufemia has a pulpit resting on old Roman columns and is covered by a brightly coloured Venetian canopy.  The octagonal baptistery is 5th century, as is the Santa Marie delle Grazie that again has re-used Roman columns and capitals in its interior.

You could cycle to the Valle Cavanata Regional Nature Reserve from Belevedere Pineta Camping Village [it is just over 30 km round trip] as there are dedicated cycle routes all the way.  Alternatively you could stay at one of the many campsites to the east of Grado and be nearer.  We opted to drive to the Valle Cavanata visitor centre on the Grado lagoon so that we could cycle around the nature reserve.  At the visitor centre we were given a free map showing cycle routes that allowed us to explore the area at our own pace.  This reserve is a paradise for casual bird watching and near to the centre we stopped to watch the flamingos and egrets.  Cycling out towards the Adriatic coast on sandy tracks we met flocks of bee eaters.  At the coast we cycled along the top of the dyke with views across the sea until we reached Caneo.  Here small fishing boats were moored in tree-lined creeks and we watched two coypu swimming along the Isonzo / Soča river at the estuary.  We returned a different way along the minor roads by canals and drainage ditches and by fields of cereals and fruit trees.  The area is well organised for cycling and popular with German and Dutch visitors.  On the way back to the campsite we stopped at one of the many roadside stalls to buy fresh strawberries, asparagus and red onions that are grown here.

It was only from a recommendation by a couple we got chatting to on the campsite that we heard of the small town of Palmanova, about 25 km north of our campsite.  We drove to the town that sits inside a 16th century Venetian nine-point star-shaped fort and was only completed in the Napoleonic era.  We found parking for the Blue Bus outside the walls and entered the town through the Udine Gate, one of three gateways, after taking a look at the aqueduct system.  A short walk along the main street and we were soon in the huge central square, the Piazza Grande, the scale of which feels out of proportion for the town.  Reconstructions of military and water management equipment from the past sit in the square and six roads radiate from this large piazza, each grandly flanked by two statues.  Palmanova was built as an experimental utopian community as well as a defensive fortress city against the Ottomans; however, for some reason this charming town had little appeal and in the 17th century people were paid to encourage them to live there.

We moved on to Riserva Naturale Regionale Del Lago di Cornino.  This small lago provided a perfect short halt, with parking above the lake that is an almost unbelievable vivid clear turquoise and sits prettily among trees and high crags.  After lunch looking over the view we sauntered around the circular lake footpath.  Peering through the trees over the water, we fortunately spotted an adder hanging ominously from a branch over the water before we alarmed it.  Overhead numerous griffon vultures, reintroduced to the area, circled slowly.  No doubt if we’d been a victim of the adder they would have made a tasty meal of us!

Grado 6
Lago di Cornino is brilliant turquoise