Once again I am out enjoying the excitement of the open road with new and unexpected things around every corner. It has been a long time coming. Being out in the fresh air all day and walking with family and friends, sharing jokes and memories. These simple things have been my cure for the lock down blues.
I stood watching a moorhen with five tiny chicks pottering around a small inlet into a pond and wanted to weep with the joy of the moment. Nearby a Canada goose sat still and calm on a nest watched over by their alert mate. These and other experiences have re-wired my brain and woken up my senses, both dulled by lock down repeats.
We didn’t go far for our first few nights away once we were allowed. Burrs Country Park Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Greater Manchester is well placed to allow us to meet up with some people we’ve missed. A 30 minute walk into Bury and we were soon sitting outside Katsouris wonderful cafe eating tasty Greek food and catching up with an old friend from Salford as if the last 12 months hadn’t even happened. Later, our son and daughter-in-law drove up to Burrs Country Park and we walked through the countryside with them and enjoyed coffee and cake from the cafe as if everything was normal. Inside my heart was singing.
With a day to ourselves we cycled along the number six National Cycle Route to Salford and Clifton Country Park. The sun kept on shining and this surprisingly green and rural route turned up a reed warbler nibbling seed heads on the banks of the old canal, roe deer hiding in tall reeds, their erect pointed ears giving them away and a friendly cafe in Radcliffe that served us a delicious white chocolate and cranberry iced bun under a blue sky.
Moving on to Crowden we packed sandwiches and a flask and walked some of the Pennine Way. The weather was perfect and it was this and two other walkers who were the talk of the trail. We had wondered if anyone was walking this Long Distance Footpath at the moment and along came a young couple with a tiny baby who were spending their joint parenting leave backpacking the whole route. We admired their energy and wished them well.
After a week being back in the big wide world we had our first pint of draft beer in a sunny pub garden in Castleton. My drinking partner proclaimed that his pint of Chieftain IPA from Ireland was the best he’d ever had but that might be more to do with the months without a proper beer!
These days of Lock Down Three are passing by in a blur, each one much the same as the last until suddenly it is Friday and bin day! I stumble into wakefulness every morning remembering I am still in the same place and I yearn for the thrill of lying in our campervan thinking about where we are and where we are going next and opening the blinds to check the weather. But even in our Blue Bus we have a routine and my day always begins with a mug of tea. This first cup of tea, a mixture of Assam and Earl Grey, is the best of the day and is usually followed by a second over breakfast.
In non-lockdown times, after those two beverages, my day in drinking could go anywhere, depending on where we are and what we were doing. But after 12 months of mostly being stuck at home I have become someone I never thought I would, I am stuck in a routine [or rut] that, on closer inspection, revolves around drinks.
At home the morning trundles on and we brew coffee at around 10.30 [or, to mix things up, visit Morecambe’s wonderful Stone Jetty Cafe at the weekend], have a glass of water with lunch and sup a post-lunch digestive of peppermint and licorice tea from Teapigs. By about 17.00 we are ready for our day’s last mug of tea and a lockdown routine has become enjoying this with a piece of homemade cake. Later we’ll share a bottle of beer, have a glass of wine, a gin and tonic OR a small glass of Spanish Vermut, unless it is a no-alcohol day [about twice a week] when we have to make do with water. Our last drink of the day is in the evening when I have a soothing Barleycup and my less-susceptible-to-caffeine partner has another coffee. We fit local walks, gardening, reading and TV viewing around all this liquid refreshment.
Will breaking out of this routine when we can travel again be a shock to my hydration system? For a day in the hills or cycling we mostly carry just water, taking plenty of it for regular drinks stops. If it is cold I find it comforting to stick a flask with a hot drink in the rucksack for one of our pauses. If we’re in a town or village, part of the joy of travelling is also discovering something new and different; maybe a decadent hot chocolate in a cafe or a lunchtime local beer sitting outside a bar. Relaxing outside the campervan with a mug of tea or a glass of good red wine can’t be beaten and, more than once, a fellow camper has strolled over and shared a favourite liqueur with us.
I don’t like getting a peek of myself becoming this creature of habit, she isn’t a familiar figure and she doesn’t sit comfortably alongside me. But, it seems, this is what I have become in these Covid-19 times. Niggling in the back of my mind is an anxiety that I might never rediscover my previous spontaneous personality. Will I suffer withdrawal symptoms if I don’t have my morning coffee or afternoon peppermint tea? I don’t think this foreboding about the future is mine alone. I sense that we all feel we have changed in the last 12 months and many of us are not sure how we will occupy the new world. Some of our transformations might be for the good but some of us may emerge more apprehensive and guarded.
The town of Stonehaven on the east coast of Scotland is a perfect place for a few days away. It has an open and pleasant Caravan and Motorhome Club site that is just ten minutes walk from the centre of the small town and even nearer to the sea. This great location makes it a popular campsite to stay at and it had been on our wish list for some time. We eventually got to stay here between 2020 lock downs and found some great walks from the site.
The seafront to the harbour
This is a level short walk of around two miles that is perfect for the evening you arrive. Following the promenade around the bay, the path crosses a bridge and continues with the beach and the sea to one side and the houses of Stonehaven to the other. The path becomes a boardwalk as you get nearer to the old town and the harbour. Take your time looking at the different interesting metal sculptures along the boardwalk. These quirky sculptures of a lighthouse, boats and an aeroplane have fish crewing the boats and a seahorse looking out from the parapet of the lighthouse. Finally you will reach the picturesque harbour which is a lovely place to potter around, maybe stopping for a drink in a pub or cafe or just looking at the boats.
Dunnottar Castle & woodland
This is a stunning 5.5 mile [around 9 km] walk with plenty of places where you will want to linger.
From the campsite walk along the seafront to the old harbour [see above] and pick up the signed path behind the houses that climbs steeply above the town. At the top you will want to stop, admire the view and take photographs of the view over the harbour and the town. Continue along the well-used undulating path along the cliffs. The impressive war memorial built in 1923 to remember all those who lost their lives in the First World War is your next point of interest. It is worth leaving the main path and walking up to the memorial for more panoramic views.
The cliffs are stunning along this stretch of coast and you will soon have Dunnottar Castle in sight. This spectacularly-sited ruin has cliffs on three sides and is reached by a series of steps. There is an entrance charge for the castle, should you wish to visit. Alternatively, it is worth making the effort to walk down the steps to the pretty bay below the castle and watch the surf or have a picnic.
From Dunnottar Castle the walk crosses the road and passes a large wooden hut with a number above the door and an old radio station. The hut remains from the Second World War admiralty radio station. After the war the radio station was used to monitor radio calls from ships and in the 1950s the polygonal concrete building, reminiscent of an airport control tower, was built. By the 1970s much of the radio station’s work revolved around the oil drilling platforms, handling radio link calls. On the 6 July 1988 the staff at Stonehaven picked up the distress call from the Piper Alpha oil platform following an explosion. 226 people were on the platform at the time and 165 of these died in the disaster, plus two men from the Sandhaven, a supply vessel involved in the rescue. As satellite and mobile technology improved, the radio station was no longer needed and it was closed in 2000.
Reaching the A957, we turned left to the car park and walked into Dunnottar Woods but you might find a different path into the woodland. However, you get there take your time wandering through the trees and following the stream and you could find some wooden sculptures, a cluster of fairy doors and in the autumn some real mushrooms.
You emerge from the woodland back into Stonehaven. Follow your nose and you will be back at the seafront and a choice of ice-cream shops.
Chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan
If you turn left out of the campsite there is a pleasant walk of not more than 1.5 miles. You soon leave Stonehaven and are beyond the houses. The narrow path quickly climbs from shore level through the bushes and grass to the top of the cliffs. If you follow this narrow and sometimes overgrown path you will eventually cross a bridge and reach the ruined chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan surrounded by an old graveyard.
The chapel has an enviable position overlooking the sea and beyond its walls is the golf course. Cowie Castle once sat on the clifftop nearby but little can be seen of it.
After exploring the chapel and reading some of the fascinating gravestones, you can return back to the campsite the same way or stay high on the path above the cliffs and emerge onto the main road that runs above the campsite. Follow the road downhill until just before the campsite and turn onto the steep path that takes you to Amy Row, a pretty road back to the campsite.
2020 can’t really count as a full year in terms of camping! Thanks to Covid-19 and the various restrictions, we only had 173 nights [24 weeks and five days] when we were able to take our campervan, the Blue Bus, away for the night. Despite the lock downs, quarantine and tiers from March to the end of 2020 we managed to get away for 79 nights during the year in our campervan. Here in Lancashire our year looked like this:
Lock Down One 23/3/20 – 3/7/20 – 103 nights
Quarantine after our trip to France – 14 nights
Lancashire in Tier Three and national Lock Down Two 17/10/20 – 31/12/20 – 76 nights
A total of 193 nights when either campsites were closed or we were not allowed to use them.
Not everyone uses their campervan as much as we normally do. Of course, there are some owners who full-time or are hardly at home but for us 79 nights away is considerably less than we expected to be sleeping in our campervan in 2020 [we haven’t even used up the teabag stash we bought in February when we were getting ready for being away for over three months]. Our 2020 nights in the campervan is almost half the number of nights we were away in 2017 and in 2018. A ‘van is an expensive piece of kit and we don’t like to waste it. Since retirement we have used our Blue Bus over 100 nights in each year, including the year we moved house. When we were restricted by work we would usually be away for around 70+ nights, so 2020 felt a bit like being taken back in time.
Those 79 nights away were spent in 41 different campsites and overnight stops. We still don’t stay anywhere long! We have now spent 608 nights in our current Blue Bus and 1,325 nights in total in a campervan over the 15 years we have owned a ‘van.
With restrictions and constraints on our travel, the trips we did manage to make were all the more memorable and valued. I don’t think I will ever take the freedom to travel in our campervan for granted again. Out of those 79 nights, 16 were made in those carefree days BC days [Before Coronavirus]. In that time we had some short local holidays and got away to Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and Scotland. Of course, if I had known what was coming we would have been away more but, like many, I thought I had the year planned out. We were the last people to leave a Scottish campsite when Lock Down One began and that long drive through a shocked and anxious UK was a strange day.
After campsites re-opened on the 4th July [hurrah!] and then the VAT reduction was bought in, we took a number of fantastic trips. Staying local, camping in the Lake District was pure pleasure, Cheshire’s Delamere Forest delightful and the Yorkshire Dales always a favourite. We are lucky in the north-west of England to have so many beautiful places nearby.
More than usual in 2020, we spent our time walking and cycling, rarely visiting attractions. On a few occasions we met up with friends for socially distanced camping and hiking. This was the year when these social [and socially distanced] occasions with friends were rare and particularly precious times.
Mistakenly we thought things might be settling down and we headed further afield. We spent a fabulous few weeks on a circuit of Brittany through August [not a time of year we would normally have chosen but needs must] and found that France is even wonderful in the school holidays and that Brittany has some amazing and attractive corners on the coast and inland.
After France and staying home for quarantine we fitted in a trip to Scotland, discovering new places and re-discovering old haunts as we toured around the east coast and more Lake District and Yorkshire Dales trips. We knew that our days of being able to travel were numbered and that we would soon be confined to home again.
There were times within those restricted weeks when we could travel but not stay overnight. We took every opportunity to drive for up to an hour from home for a day trip and stretch our legs on some hills, rather than Morecambe’s Promenade. The Blue Bus came into its own on those trips too as we are self-sufficient and don’t need to use any other facilities..
At the moment none of us can go anywhere and planning feels too risky so I have no idea what 2021 has in store for us. I hope we will get to use our Blue Bus soon to create some more special memories.
There are essentials food [?] items we always carry in our campervan; some bottles of red wine, Scottish oatcakes, Bahlsen Pick Ups, a jar of good pesto and pasta and in the fridge there is always a green square bottle of Jägermeister. This tradition began many years ago after a tour of Eastern Europe. As we travelled through different countries we bought and tasted local herbal liqueurs. The first was a homemade firewater a campsite owner generously shared while we watched the Champions League final in southern Germany. From there we moved through mysterious explosive Hungarian beverages and onto the medicinal yet ambrosial Becherovka from Karlovy Vary.
With practice, we acquired a taste for these liqueurs that remind me of having a spoonful of Venos cough medicine in childhood but with an added kick. As Jägermeister is the most easily available liqueur in the UK, it has become a permanent part of our campervan kit. Today we have even added two dark green Jägermeister shot glasses to our ritual.
Jägermeister have been producing their herbal liqueur since 1878. The result of a family vinegar business branching out, this unique drink made from 56 botanicals and with an ABV of 35% is created in Wolfenbüttel in Germany and in the UK is now widely available thanks to Jägerbombs where Jägermeister is added to an energy drink.
It was seven years ago that I discovered that Melchior produced Jägermeister chocolates while browsing the internet for gifts. They were expensive but we were lucky to receive a box as a Christmas present. They were so rich and scrumptious we have included them on our present list to our son ever since but never had them again.
A strange choice for two vegetarians?
Jägermeister comes in a distinctive dark green bottle that is designed to be sturdy enough to survive being dropped and can fit in a large pocket of a hunting jacket. Jägermeister means master of the hunt, so the drink is an interesting choice for two vegetarians who are anti-hunting. The story goes that the logo comes from the legend of Saint Hubertus. Hubertus was a hunter but one night had a vision of a stag with a glowing cross between its antlers. This vision had a big effect on Hubertus and he became an advocate for a greater respect for nature and the story was chosen as the Jägermeister logo. I like to hang onto the respect for nature aspect of the legend and the almost unbreakable bottle is also perfect for a bumpy ride in a Blue Bus.
We have another connection with Jägermeister. My father-in-law was in the British Army and was stationed in Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony in Germany for some years and my partner lived there. We have visited the lovely town since and retain an emotional connection with Wolfenbüttel and its famous distillery.
The Christmas Spirit
Unbeknown to us, Melchior stopped making the boxes of Jägermeister chocolates some years ago. In ignorance, we continued to put it on our wish list. This year our son and daughter-in-law generously rose to the challenge of our Christmas gift list and decided to make their own. The internet is full of Jägermeister truffle recipes and so, with no experience of chocolate making, they piled in with the optimism of youth and created some simply gorgeous chocolates that were all the more mouthwatering because they were made with love for two demanding parents!
However much longer I live on this planet, I don’t think I will be able to say thank you enough times to them for indulging my taste buds and making my heart sing and my waistline bulge with this very special gift.
I am barely conscious before my first cup of tea at the best of times but on a recent camping trip to the Lake District I had to wake up pretty fast. Anthony was still slumbering while I brewed our cuppa. Deciding to warm up some breakfast rolls I pulled out the pots and pans that live inside our campervan’s oven and lit the gas to warm it up. I’m sure we’re not alone with this dual use of our campervan oven, it is both storage space and cooking apparatus.
Sitting enjoying my brew a few minutes later my comatose brain registered a burning smell. Getting up and opening the oven I was horrified to see actual flames! As I turned off the oven and the gas, I realised I must have left the cloth we use to silence appliance-related rattles inside the oven when I had lit it. With flames still curling around the cloth I had to take action and fortunately adrenalin kicked in, over-riding the need for caffeine.
We have a fire extinguisher in our ‘van, but I realised that squirting this into the oven, although effective, would also be messy. We also carry an old but serviceable fire blanket that was discarded by a previous employer as being out of date. Guessing this would be more effective for the small fire I had before me I tried to grab the fire blanket from its hook between the kitchen unit and the van’s back door. Annoyingly it was stuck and I had to grab the ‘van keys and open the back door to free it, a commotion that abruptly woke my sleeping partner [interestingly the burning smell hadn’t woken him]. Trying to stay calm, I pulled the blanket out of its packing, not something I had ever done before, and stuffed it inside the oven, smothering the flames.
After waiting a minute or two and with no sign of further flames, I used the fire blanket to carefully remove the still smouldering cloth and I rolled it up into the fire blanket. We put the bundle outside on our gravel pitch, well enough away from ours or anyone else’s ‘van. Recovering from the shock with another mug of tea, we discussed where else we could store the fire blanket so that it is more easily accessible should there ever be a next time.
The simple fire blanket stopped a stupid mistake becoming a disaster, although our Blue Bus reeked of the burning fires of hell for a few days.
If you are wondering, you may have read a shorter version of this escapade in a recent MMM.
Lock Down Two gave me a bit of time to look back on our happy campervan years. I would describe myself as a campervan enthusiast rather than expert, so I was surprised when we realised that we had now owned a campervan for 15 years. We still have plenty to learn about the art of owning a house on wheels but, after so long, we must know more than we did back in 2005 when we were campervan virgins. In that 15 years three different campervans have captured my heart and joined us on our holidays. Each one has been blue and each one slightly longer in length than the last. In those 15 years we have put 1,319 camping nights under our belts, staying on over 700 different campsites and other overnight spots.
Owning a campervan was a dream for me from being a young teenager. It remained on my wish list for many years, as even second-hand they are an expensive purchase. I was in my 40s before we were in a secure enough financial position to buy our first campervan and even then we had to re-mortgage the house to buy a second-hand six year old ‘van! This first campervan was blue and somehow that felt right and set the trend for the following two.
We were nervous choosing that first ‘van, not really having a clue what we were doing. We spent many fun-filled hours looking around motorhome sales areas in the north-west before eventually buying from Todds, near our home in Preston. The discreet expertise of the Todd’s staff reassured us as we took a deep breath and parted with our cash. After viewing campervans with a variety of layouts and lengths, some with bathrooms, some without, we decided to keep it simple and chose a reliable Volkswagen with a straightforward layout. It was a short-wheel base VW T4 with a high top and a traditional rock ‘n’ roll bed and side kitchen. We knew this first ‘van was a testing-the-water sort of purchase, rather than a forever campervan and it gave us the chance to see if vanlife would live up to our expectations.
We took this first ‘van to Scotland, of course, around England and to Germany. Quite quickly we bought a driveaway awning to give us a bit more space and the ‘van transformed our festival experience when we spent the weekend at the Hurricane Festival in northern Germany. Having our very own home on wheels to escape to and relax in, away from the bustle of the festival, was heavenly.
We learnt a lot owning that first ‘van and never regretted starting with a simple conversion. We didn’t have to get into the intricacies of water heaters, refillable gas cylinders and complex bed making. All these things would have obscured the pure excitement of being campervan owners. The VW allowed us to make mistakes, read more about owning a ‘van and talk to other campers, learning at our own pace.
We returned from a trip to Salisbury in Blue Bus One with a more practical understanding of campervan electrics. It was February and we didn’t have a hook-up. With temperatures below zero the blown air heating was keeping us warm and toasty as we played cards into the evening. Everything was fine until the leisure battery ran out of juice! Even wearing layers and cuddling under the duvet we had a cold night. This particular mistake taught us that for winter camping we needed a diesel or gas heater, we also learnt that the hassle of putting an awning up and down wasn’t for us and that the freedom to travel where we wanted suited us very well.
Despite the lessons learnt, we were still really campervan rookies when just 18 months later we were buying a brand new Sundowner direct from Devon Conversion. Our knowledge had moved on, we were clearer about what we wanted and had a spreadsheet of essentials and nice-to-have features. We stayed with the reliable VW but this time picked a long-wheel base, needing a bigger loan on our mortgage! By now our plan for travelling for 12 months around Europe had begun to hatch and this ‘van was purchased with that trip in mind.
Our first trip in Blue Bus Two was a tour around Poland and the following year a campsite owner in France said, ‘You are the people in the Blue Bus,’ and the name stuck. We travelled 80,000 in our second campervan, from Poland to Portugal and Slovenia to Spain and we spent 678 nights sleeping in its comfy beds and living under its roof. So many memories are tied up with that ‘van, it is no surprise I wept the day we said goodbye to it! I hope whoever owns it now showers it with even half as much affection.
The Sundowner was only 5.3m long but its clever layout made great use of the small space, with no bathroom but a toilet. At the time having four travel seats was essential as our son and daughter-in-law often needed a lift and this limited our choice of layout. By the time we bought our third ‘van they were more independent meaning this wasn’t an issue and we could upgrade to a ‘proper’ ‘van with a bathroom.
We had taken the VW T5 as large as we could, so we had to look for a different base van for Blue Bus Three. Both of our VW campervans are still on the road somewhere, a testament to the reliability of the T4 and T5 and we always look out for them when we are on the road in the hope that we will have a reunion one day. The elegant shape of the VW limits what can be fitted inside, although there are conversions with bathrooms. After plenty of consideration and more lists we decided to move onto a French classic, the Renault Master.
By now, with ten years of living the campervanning dream under our belt we thought we knew what we were doing. We have nothing but praise for the conversions Devon produce at a reasonable price and we like dealing with a small converter that is willing to offer some flexibility on their standard layouts. Other converters were considered and we spent an exhausting day at one of the motorhome shows, climbing in and out of different ‘vans, sitting in them and talking to the sales people. We spent evenings pouring over a spreadsheet, considering the pros and cons of different options before deciding on a Devon Tempest. We were certain we didn’t want to go large and the Devon Tempest gave us a 5.4 m long ‘van with a layout we were confident we could live in.
Our Renault Master seems enormous to us. We have now owned it for five years and have been regularly grateful for the bathroom, but in 2020 it really came into its own. The Tempest was also our first experience of a side sofa with a view out of the sliding door, a feature that we really love. The big Renault sliding door lets the sun in and even on cooler days we can sit in the shelter of the ‘van and be cosy on the sofa.
A big part of the joy of owning a campervan is the people you meet on the road. During our year travelling around Europe we met many fantastic people, some of which have remained friends. Having owned two Devon Conversions campervans we have been a part of the Devon Motorhomes Owners Group on Facebook [and initially on Yahoo Groups] from the beginning. If you have a negative opinion of Facebook I don’t blame you, even the most harmless posts can unexpectedly veer off into a negative direction very quickly, but the Devon Owners group is a refreshing exception. Everyone is friendly, polite, helpful and the group makes having a Facebook account worthwhile. As well as virtual conversations, the Devon Owners generally have two or three meet ups a year, always sociable and fun occasions and thanks to our campervan we have made some good friends.
We have now spent over 600 nights in Blue Bus Three. It has had its problems but has taken us to Greece and Germany, Croatia and Shetland and we have no plans to change it. With the proposals to phase out diesel and petrol engines I wonder if Blue Bus Four will be all electric.
A hill walker’s paradise, the Écrins Mountains has an abundance of wildflowers, charming mountain villages and traditional houses, beautiful wall-painted sundials and so much more. It is fair to say it is one of my favourite parts of France. The mountains of the Écrins National Park top 4,000 m and, with no roads crossing the central peaks, accessing the unsurpassed mountain walking, the prettiest villages and flower-rich Alpine meadows often involves driving on minor roads that wind steeply up deep-cut valleys.
Below are some of my favourite walks in the Écrins, although I hope to return and discover more soon. The walks follow an anti-clockwise route around the central mountains, starting with the western valleys. The campsites we stayed at are listed at the end of the post.
La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar is a small attractive village that nestles among the mountains and is reached from the N85 north of Gap. We stayed overnight at the campsite and woke to low cloud shrouding the mountains but it was dry as we set off walking from the village up the hillside to Les Portes.
The steep narrow path isn’t long [we were walking for about 45 minutes] but it crams in everything you would expect from a mountain walk into that short space. You will walk through green Alpine meadows, lush woodland and areas of rocky scree, see plenty of colourful wild flowers and have views across the valley and to higher mountains. It was early June when we visited and we identified many varieties of orchids as well as cranesbill, cowslips, globe flowers, tiny pansies and tall erect white asphodels.
At Portes des Oules we stood on the bridge looking down on the gushing waterfall as it rushed down a narrow gorge. The pretty hamlet at Portes des Oules has some houses with thatched roofs, their tall chimneys jutting into the sky, apparently to help prevent fires.
Embrun and The Foret Domaniale de Mont Guillaume
Turning left in Gap we took the road towards Embrun and found a pitch at Camping la Vieille Ferme which is conveniently located for the impressive rock-perched town. As dark descended, scops owls flew through the warm air, the quiet broken by their haunting calls.
We enjoyed a wonderful 14 km walk from here. After walking into the town and enjoying the views, admiring the old town and having coffee in one of the many cafes, we climbed the hillside along a narrow road and track towards Calayère. As we walked swallowtail butterflies followed us from flower to flower and a cuckoo called from the woodland. We climbed higher on the minor road to Le Chateau de Calayère where we rested and watched a couple of donkeys in a field and drank in the mountain panorama.
A delightful green lane surrounded by flower meadows took us into the La forêt domaniale de Mont-Guillaume where we picked up a steep narrow path back down the hill. In the afternoon heat the shady woodland was welcome as we followed the stream back to Embrun.
Mont Dauphin and the Marmots
Between Embrun and Briançon and below Mont Dauphin there is a marmot community and whenever we pass this way we stop to see these charming animals. Although being so accessible they are willing to tolerate humans to some extent, we try and treat them with respect and not cause alarm.
After dawdling along the short trail around the marmot area we drove up to the fortified town of Mont Dauphin which sits above the gorge with craggy escarpments on three sides. We crossed two moats and walked through the immense and complex defensive walls into the walled village. Built by Vauban at the end of the 17th century this is a remarkably well preserved group of buildings. The grid of streets are lined with pretty houses and from the walls the views along the valley are spectacular.
On a previous visit to Mont Dauphin we were camping near Guillestre and enjoyed a memorable walk from there that followed a stunning and airy path below the fortified village but high above the river.
Turn off the main road between Embrun and Briançon at L’Argentière-la-Bessée and follow the valley road for about 10 km to Vallouise. We have fond memories of the campsite at Vallouise when it was a municipal site. Now part of a chain it has lost some of the rustic charm it had but the village of Vallouise, with gorgeous houses, many decorated with ornate sundials and a central square, is still delightful. The village is named in homage to Louis XI, remembering that in the 15th century he briefly stopped the persecution of local people. There are lovely walks from the village but you might want to drive further up the valley for some spectacular mountain walking.
Pre de Madame Carle and the Glacier Noir path
It is a further 22 km or so from Vallouise to the end of the road and the large car park at Pre de Madame Carle but well worth the drive. From here there are a number of fantastic walks including the Glacier Noir. If you are looking for isolation, a bit of excitement and stunning scenery then this is your path.
At first the path zig-zags uphill but eventually you reach the narrow lateral moraine ridge that climbs steadily upwards on the north side of the glacier. We felt privileged to have this fantastic and airy route to ourselves. The path varies in width but is never more than a metre wide and sometimes narrower and the rock and gravel moraine slopes steeply down to the glacier on one side, while the other slope is grassier and less steep; this latter direction is the way to fall!
We walked among a dramatic landscape with dark crags around us and plenty of snow. The tranquility was only broken by the sound of occasional falling rocks. As we climbed higher we could hear the waterfalls at the head of the glacier. These thundered loudly periodically as if a sluice gate was being opened and closed. At first glance this appears to be a bleak and desolate landscape, but look closely and you will see tiny flowers surviving in the rocky moraine. I found a cluster of tiny forget-me-nots, bright pink primula and azaleas bushes which were not yet in flower. Marmots pottered confidently on the path in front of us, flicking their tails and moving quickly and easily on the steep terrain. Chamois crossed our paths and sat watching us from the banks of snow. This was heavenly.
Col du Lauteret
We have driven over the Col du Lauteret [2,057 m] on the splendid road among snow-capped mountains a number of times but only once stopped for a walk. From the col, the well-marked Sentier des Crevasses takes walkers straight into the high mountains as it traverses the valley side. This path is abundant with wild flowers, alpine choughs circle overhead and vultures soar. On the hillsides we heard the piercing alarm call of marmots and stopping to look we eventually spotted them on the hillside. The views from the narrow but easy to follow path across to the immense La Meije are spectacular.
Walking as far as the Belvedere viewpoint is easy. Beyond here the hillside becomes steeper and the rock more unstable.
Les Terraces, Chazelet, the Combe de Martignare and Notre Dame de la Roche chapel
Some of my favourite walks in the Écrins were completed from La Grave. This attractive village, beyond the Col du Lauteret, huddles along the steep-sided valley below La Meije. Its stone buildings and steep narrow streets ooze character. The Romanche river runs along the valley below the village and it is surrounded by stunning Alpine scenery. In the winter this is a popular skiing area.
A 12 km walk took us from La Grave to Les Terraces on a steep uphill path. Les Terraces is a quiet village perched high on the mountainside, where stone houses with balconies have an enviable view. Continuing on towards another sleepy village, Chazelet, we stopped to take in the views at the Oratoire de Chazelet, a stone shrine. The summit of La Meije was peeking out of the cloud, below us was to La Grave and I looked up at the circling griffon vultures knowing I wasn’t brave enough to walk far along the ‘walk of faith’ or Le Perchoir that has been built like a gang-plank from the sheer rock face. Chazelet is another picturesque village whose busiest season is winter. From the village we carried on to Les Plagnes and the Combe de Martignare that was a stunning sea of white with narcissi. Picking up a path back to Chazelet we descended the mountainside to the valley on a steep zig-zag path via the precariously sited Notre Dame de la Roche chapel.
Through mountain villages to L’Aiguillon at 2095m
The mountain villages of the Écrins are beautiful places to explore. Once again from La Grave we set off for Ventelon and on to Les Hieres. Beyond these villages the road became a track and we had excellent views looking up the valley. We reached the stone houses of Hameau de Valfoide where nothing disturbed the tranquility except a hare that lolloped across the lane in front of us.
After passing the Torrent le Maurian we were on a path that was initially steep until it reached grassland full of pheasant’s eyes daffodils and butterflies. It wasn’t far from here to the bench at L’Aiguillon at 2,095 m. We sat enjoying the views to La Meije, high enough to still be in the clouds, and below us in the valley was La Grave. We descended through more flower-rich meadows full of bird song, giving a wide berth to the large dog guarding the sheep [there are lots of signs about how to deal with these dogs]. Joining a road we walked back up hill to Lac du Pontet, a small mountain lake and followed a stream down to Villar d’Arene that is just off the main road. Here we found a cafe and enjoyed beers and ice-cream in a sunny square before crossing the Romanche and walking through lovely fragrant larch forest where the ground was soft underfoot with a carpet of pine needles. The path took us over a shoulder and then onto a track back to the campsite.
Le Bourg d’Arud, Venosc and Lac Lauvitel
Below the skiing resort of Les Deux Alpes and in the north of the Écrins is the village of Venosc. From the nearby campsite we spent a lovely day on another perfect Alpine walk.
It is worth taking time to explore Venosc, a delightful village that has a cable car up to Les Deux Alpes and is packed with shops selling crafts and bijou cafes.
From Venosc, we took a path that followed a clear river through woodland to the hamlet of La Danchère. Here we took the right-hand path up to Lac Lauvitel and into a floral paradise; there were so many wild flowers it was impossible to stop at them all. The stony path was relentlessly steep and at one cascade we had to scramble over a plug of snow. In the hot weather this was tiring work but worth it for the reward when we emerged at the blue lake surrounded by craggy mountains. Around us was an amazing natural rock garden that we wandered through to a meadow and the lakeside.
We descended on what would have been the left-hand path from La Danchère. This was equally steep!
Well done if you have kept reading this far, as I have saved my favourite walk to the last!
La Berarde and Refuge du Chatelleret at 2,232 m
The mountain village of La Berarde is about 20 km further along the narrow road from Venosc and is the end of the road. La Berarde is a small village with a couple of cafes and shops. We parked the Blue Bus here and under a cloudless sky walked 11 km to the Refuge du Chatelleret at 2,232 m and back.
The route starts steeply with zig-zags rising gently up the valley on a sandy path through low shrubs. As we climbed higher the path became stonier and there was less vegetation. We encountered lots of marmots, a few groups of chamois and so many butterflies.
Climbing steadily it took some time to reach the refuge, high in the valley and huddled underneath the massive of La Meije. In early June the refuge wasn’t open but the guardian was busy getting it ready for the summer season. The beauty of this valley is breathtaking. We sat in solitude, surrounded by craggy mountains and with magnificent views down the u-shaped valley to the twin peaks above La Berarde. Sitting in the sunshine we noticed a strange rainbow streak in the sky above one of these peaks. This was a cloud iridescence that lasted for about 30 minutes, moving and changing shape and fragmenting. An amazing phenomena I have never seen before. The descent was the same way and just as lovely the other way round. We stopped to refresh our feet in the cold water of the river on the way. What a fantastic hike and a great end to our time in the Écrins.
Although many walks are well-marked, we took walking maps and the Cicerone guide to Écrins National Park to help with planning and completing our walks.
A steep walk from the beautiful village & by the river, this is a grassy site with trees, clean facilities and flowers. The site is well maintained & has good views. The showers are roomy with very hot water, the wash up undercover. An all round excellent site.
The site has marked pitches, good views, a friendly welcome and a small shop where they sell morning bread. Facilities are in the basement & are clean and warm & the showers are hot & roomy. There is also a drying room.
Until fairly recently I hadn’t heard of The Motor Ombudsman (TMO), an organisation that is there to sort out disputes between customers and the automotive sector. In the past I have expressed a bit of scepticism about how effective these service ombudsmen are, but I have to hold my hand up and say they did [eventually] come up with the goods when we had an issue with Renault.
Our campervan conversion is on a Renault Master, a reliable work-horse sort of van that it would be reasonable to expect would keep chugging on for many miles. And yet, on our last trip to Spain ours let us down dramatically when the power steering suddenly failed in a Lidl car park in Guernica, having driven only 30 km from the ferry at Bilbao. It turns out that without power steering it is a herculean effort to wrestle a Renault Master into a parking space! One telephone call and our breakdown kicked in and after a wait of a few hours in the mid-day sunshine we were taken on the back of a large lorry to a friendly garage [in the photograph] in a town near Bilbao. None of the mechanics spoke English, we hadn’t even got into the swing of Spanish after being in the country a few hours, but everyone smiled a lot.
At the time our van was only four years old and power steering was still covered under the warranty. We informed our breakdown about this but they weren’t keen to move us onto a Renault garage as they thought this could prolong the repair and our need for alternative accommodation. This was possibly true and we were eager to be back on the road.
After a nail-biting day and night, when we didn’t know if it was a big or a small issue, the problem with the power steering turned out to be a relatively simple electrical fault and the local garage had our campervan up and running by the afternoon of the next day. We were relieved to only have to stay one night in a hotel and there was a lot more smiling all round.
In the meantime we had spoken to our Manchester Renault garage who suggested that Renault UK might just reimburse the £130 the repair cost us as it was covered by the warranty in the UK. When we returned home we contacted Renault, pointing out what good customers we had been at Renault Manchester, that the power steering should never have failed and how inconvenient this was on holiday. We hoped for an apology for the disruption and, knowing they had no obligation to pay us anything, a contribution to the cost we had incurred as a gesture of good will. Instead Renault responded very curtly, stating that they were not required to pay for a repair carried out by a non-Renault garage.
We would have been happy with just a few quid to shut us up but Renault’s response was so dismissive and thoughtless we were pushed into standing up to the might of an international corporation, a bit like David fighting Goliath, and call in The Motoring Ombudsman. The TMO took up our case and at first got the same uppity response from Renault. The TMO came back to us shrugging their shoulders in a Gallic way, saying there was no more they could do.
We were a trifle despondent to be beaten but didn’t think we had anywhere else to go. Then a few months later, quite mysteriously, TMO emailed us again to say they had reviewed our case [?] and were contacting Renault once more. We didn’t hold our breath but this time, again mysteriously, they either caught Renault on a good day or maybe gave the case to someone more experienced. On this occasion Renault reacted in a more customer-focused manner and offered to fully meet the cost of the repair and added a little something for our inconvenience. Of course, we accepted!
It isn’t quite the victory of David over Goliath but we were grateful to be listened to and did say a big thank you to The Motor Ombudsman and to Renault!
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.
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.
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.
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.