Searching for Lancashire Snowdrops

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One of the stunning varieties of snowdrops at Cobble Hey Farm

If, like me, you look forward to the days getting longer and warmer, you will be noticing the brighter morning light and that the sunsets are just that little bit later.  The seasons are beginning to change!  It is the emerging of snowdrops that for me really signals that winter will eventually end.  Every year I anticipate the arrival of these tiny white flowers that are both hardy and delicate and represent the transition from the quiet of winter to the blossoming of spring.

There are some wonderful snowdrop gardens across the country and you will have your own favourites but here are my top picks of places to see snowdrops in Lancashire.

Cobble Hey Farm, Hobbs Ln, Claughton-on-Brock, Garstang, PR3 0QN

Cobble Hey Farm, high on the slopes of the Lancashire Bowland Fells, is the place to lose yourself in snowdrops.  Edwina, the gardener, has created a unique woodland garden over 20 years in this wild spot and among winding paths and a stream there are collections of different varieties of snowdrops.  The common snowdrops have naturalised under the trees and there are plantings of rarer snowdrops interspersed with occasional pink Hellebore and daffodils.  Wrap up as it can be cold on this fellside and explore this cheerful garden.  I found myself looking more closely at snowdrops than I have ever done before as I wandered around the garden, finding ivory-coloured snowdrops, large-flowered snowdrops, tall varieties and others with daffodil yellow-stems.

If you have time you can walk on the farmland and maybe see the lapwings and there might be new lambs in the barn and goats in the field.  When you need to warm up there is a cafe here too.

Lytham Hall, Ballam Road, Lytham, FY8 4JX

We took the bus into Blackpool and another out to Lytham from Beechwood Carvan Site but you can park in Lytham if you prefer to drive.  Like us, you will want to see the windmill on Lytham’s green, look over the sands and maybe browse the shops or visit one of the many cafes but on a February weekend you will eventually want to walk out of the town to Lytham Hall to follow their snowdrop trail

It was a fine day on our last visit and we were greeted by smiling and helpful volunteers and directed into the gardens.  Lots of people were strolling through the extensive woodland gardens around the handsome 18th century brick and stone mansion.  Occasionally someone would stoop to get a close-up view of one flower in the carpets of bright white droplet flowers.

Lytham Hall was a grand family home and then offices until the 1990s when the 78-acre estate came up for sale.  British Aerospace (a local employer) donated the almost £1 million asking price and Lytham Hall is now run by and for the local community and has a range of different events in the house and gardens.  They also run a popular cafe in the house.

Bank Hall, Bretherton, PR26 9AT

South of Preston and surrounded by trees is the hidden gem of Bank Hall.  The gardens here are open for Snowdrop Sundays through February.  Bank Hall has not been lived in since 1971 and deteriorated considerably.  It’s appearance on TVs Restoration programme and the hard work of a local group are turning its fortunes around and now renovation of the hall is ongoing.  The woodland grounds can be visited on regular open days and wander here in February and you will find rafts of perfect white snowdrops naturalised over hundreds of years in a spectacular carpet.

With two bright green leaves and a dropping white bell-shaped flower, snowdrops are European natives that may be a Roman introduction to the UK.  The Galanthus family, from the Greek meaning milk flower, has around 20 different species, varying in height, size and flowering season, some growing to 12 inches high and others flower in autumn.

We stayed at:

Beechwood Caravan Site, New Lane, Thornton-Cleveleys, Lancashire, FY5 5NJ – a small, reasonably priced site that has good bus links with Blackpool and Fleetwood.

If this isn’t enough snowdrops then Hornby Castle in the Lune Valley also has a snowdrop weekend.

Read my full travel article about seeking snowdrops in Lancashire published in MMM in January 2019.

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Hiking, Cycling & History: My Top Tips for Exploring inland Spain in a Campervan

Although I love exploring almost anywhere in Spain, it is inland Spain that draws me and continues to surprise and amaze me.  In inland Spain we have found great walking, fascinating history and spectacular sights.  It isn’t that we haven’t visited the Spanish coast; in 2009/10 we toured along the entire Mediterranean coast of Spain and the Atlantic coast to Portugal.  This was over winter and the coast certainly had the better weather, fantastic amenities and plenty of open campsites.  Now we travel at a warmer time of year we have tended to search out a different Spain away from the sea and have discovered some gems.

Below is a list of some of the wonderful places we have stayed at to help anyone else in their search and planning for a trip to Spain away from the costas.

Aranjuez south of Madrid

The only reason we had pitched up in Aranjuez was its easy connection by train to Madrid, so the lively and interesting town of Aranjuez took us by surprise.  With an ornate palace, large formal gardens modelled on Versailles, an attractive shopping centre and fascinating historical sites nearby there is more to do here than take the train into Madrid [although this is highly recommended].  Aranjuez was somewhere we stayed longer than we expected.

From the campsite, walk towards the town, cross a footbridge over the rio Tajo and you are in the Jardin del Principe.  These shady gardens, where red squirrels play and peacocks preen, are divided into different themed areas.  Another garden, The Jardin del Parterre, by the Palacio Real, an opulent pink and cream building, has fountains that spring to life to a timetable.  If you haven’t seen enough of gardens you can explore the Jardin de la Isla, a wooded garden with paths lined with box hedging, lofty plane trees, more peacocks and some extraordinary fountains.

A short drive away is Chinchón, a Los Pueblos más bonitos de España  set among acres of olive trees.  The big attraction in Chinchón is the circular Plaza Mayor surrounded by charming three storey wooden buildings with balconies, many of these laid out with tables for romantic dining.  The town is famous for garlic, wine and anise that can be more than 70% ABV and you can buy in one litre bottles.

We stayed at Aranjuez Camping – A large organised site about 1.5 km from the town with clean heated facilities and a supermarket

Alquézar, Aragon

We were in Alquézar at the same time as an Ultra Trail event and sweaty competitors were running challenging routes from 14 to 104 km through the hilly terrain.  On our first morning the runners were racing along the Ruta de las Pasarelas, the footbridges route and so this was temporarily closed.  No matter, as we could have coffee lazily watching the competitors arriving to power rock music at the finish line and look around the stunningly situated town and gaze into the gorge of the Rio Vero.  In a small bakery we found the local delicacy, the dobladillo, a pastry with honey and nuts that is perfect for a picnic.

The popular Ruta de las Pasarelas descends to the gorge where we paddled in the shallow water and ate our dobladillo before continuing on the sections of metal walkways that are bolted onto the cliffs at different heights.  It is slightly eerie walking high above the river on a mesh platform and we stopped often to enjoy the spectacular rocky scenery, spotting a kingfisher darting along the river.  The final viewing platform suspended high above olive and fig trees and agave plants gives you a chance to look back along the canyon.  After climbing back up to the town it is not unreasonable to have a cool beer in a cafe overlooking the gorge before exploring the narrow cobbled streets further.

The walking is stunning in the countryside around Alquézar and only limited by the time you have here.  On our second day we took the advice of the Tourist Office and followed the Ruta Quizans and Chimiachas, a 14 km walk to caves where rock art has been discovered.  On the hillside above the town we passed the Balsas de Basacol, a popular swimming pool in summer.  Walking on sandy paths through fragrant juniper and rosemary bushes, for much of the day we had magnificent views into the rio Vero gorge.  The cave at Quizans was somewhat disappointing but we carried on, descending down a limestone gorge to Chimiachas.   Metal steps helped us reach the exposed shallow cave where we found the painting of a beautiful red deer from between 8,000 – 3,000 BC that made the walking worthwhile.

We stayed at Alquézar Camping, Alquézar – Terraced sandy camping site with narrow access routes & trees for shade, small shop & cafe, some good facilities, near to lovely town & good walking.

Albarracín and Teruel, Aragon

The Mudéjar architecture in the city of Teruel is delightful and well worth exploring for at least a day.  We parked the campervan on one of the streets near the railway station and our first introduction to the city was the neo-Mudéjar staircase, the Escalinata, built in 1920.  This ornate stairway copies the Mudéjar style of red brick and coloured tiles.  After coffee in a smart nearby cafe we found the 14th century Torre de El Salvador.  This and other towers are a fusion of Muslim and Christian styles using red brick and green and white tiles.  Built with an inner and outer wall, the staircase climbs between the two walls with rooms on three floors, finishing in a bell tower that has great views over the city.  We also visited the cathedral with a wood Mudéjar techumbre ceiling from 1300 that depicts Islamic geometric images and gothic human images in brilliant colours.  In the Pasteleria Munoz we bought a delicious selection of cakes and chocolates.

The pleasant road to Albarracín passes through a green and craggy valley where we stopped to see some of the Roman aqueduct that alternates between canal and galleries cut through the cliffs.

The campsite at Albarracín is a short walk from the town but has a stunning view of Albarracín, huddled against the hillside, the castle walls climbing up the slopes.  In the mornings the sun came over the hill behind our ‘van and picked out every details of Albarracin.  The town is quite lovely, narrow pretty streets to get lost in and new interesting viewpoints around every corner.  Many of the houses have decorative bars on the windows, timber framing and interesting door knockers, I spotted one made up of three snakes.  In the main square we had coffee in a small cafe before climbing up to the walls, the south facing hillside a sun trap and busy with butterflies on the remaining autumn flowers.  The walls are dotted with towers and crag martins fly in and out of the cracks between the stones.  The views back over the roofs of Albarracín and to the castle are picture-box beautiful.  We walked by the cathedral and castle and then climbed down to the green and cool path by the river that curves around the rocky outcrop the town sits upon and followed this back to where we had started.  Back at the campsite, we watched the sun go down behind the town.

We took a walk through the maritime pine woodland where the trees have long needles, black bark and large pine cones and through the bouldering areas that many climbers come to the area for.  We found caves with rock art of figures and climbed up to a mirador with views across the red sandstone gorge.  On the way back to Albarracín we walked by abandoned farmhouses and came across a shepherd following his flock over a ridge.

We stayed at Camping Ciudad de Albarracin – A terraced site about 1.5 km from the town, with gravel pitches, some in full sun and clean facilities.

Valderrobres and the Matarraña area and the Parc Natural dels Ports in Aragon

We visited this hilly area for the cycling and had a fantastic time exploring the rural tracks and old railway line that is now a cycle route.  Popular with Spanish visitors, we met few other foreign tourists in this area and felt as if we had come off the beaten track and found a gem of an area.  You are near to Tortosa and not far from the coast and this makes it an excellent excursion from the costas to get a feel for Spain with a different vibe.

The Matarraña is a rural area with fields of olives and almonds and, being well-known for its pork, there are plenty of industrial pig units.  Picturesque hilltop towns dot the landscape, each one dominated by a church.

We liked Camping El Roble in Valderrobres, although getting onto the cycle path did involve firstly paddling over the river.  There are stepping stones and if you can manage these while carrying a bike then you are a better person than me.  Once on the camino natural or track it is an easy ride into Valderrobres where there are shops and cafes and a castle.  We cycled from Valderrobres steeply uphill to Beceite but found that the track became too rough for our hybrid bikes and so we joined the road.  In the sleepy village of Beceite we took a narrow road to the Embalse de Pena that undulated through olive and almond trees, occasionally we saw someone checking the olive trees that would soon be ready to harvest.  From the reservoir the road became more pot holed as it followed the river through pine woods, passing occasional abandoned buildings until we joined the road back to Valderrobres after 18 km of pleasant cycling.

Our second cycle ride from Camping El Roble was around 28 km.  This time turning left on the camino natural we headed for Torre del Compte following the rio Matarraña through olive trees and by abandoned houses and stone huts.  Reaching a road we cycled steeply up to Torre del Compte where we found a cafe for coffee before checking out this small pretty town.  The road to the Via Verde took us downhill passing an Iberian burial chamber.  We reached the old railway line that is now the Val del Zafán Via Verde [literally green way] and found a picnic spot for lunch before continuing 7 km to Valderrobres old station.  The Via Verde has a good gravel surface and a steady gradient uphill all the way but with a head wind it was a bit of an endurance test.  Valderrobres station is some distance from the town; an undulating minor road took us there.  We stopped at the castle and then walked down through charming narrow streets, many of them stepped and lined with stone houses with small balconies and deep eaves, some painted an attractive powder blue.

We moved a short distance to Arnes for some more cycling in the dels Ports.  It was a bank holiday weekend and on the Friday evening the site filled up with Spanish families and groups of young people here for walking and climbing.  Arnes is a small town of warm stone buildings and a short walk from the campsite.  There is a bakery and grocery store for basics.

Cycling out of the campsite we were soon on the Via Verde and enjoyed 34 km of traffic-free cycling to Bot and back.  The track to the Via Verde goes steeply down to a bathing pool on the rio Algars, where we spotted a cray fish in the shallow water, before ascending to Arnes station.  Here we joined hordes of happy cyclists, all enjoying the sunshine and countryside.  The track is gently downhill and has a lot of tunnels with varying amounts of lighting, so your own lights are a must, although other cyclists will help you out if, like us, you have forgotten to bring yours!  The cafe at Bot was doing a roaring trade.

On another day we drove from Arnes to the village of El Pinell de Brai, home to the ornate Catedral del Vi, built in 1922 and designed by a student of Gaudi [where we parked our campervan].  This wonderful church-like building is decorated with tiles of images of wine drinkers.  We bought a couple of bottles of excellent wine from the shop, then set off on a glorious day of walking on the 12 km long Vall Closa walk which is way-marked from the village.  This takes you through a battle ground from the Spanish Civil War and has information boards in English which I found fascinating.  If the history of the area doesn’t interest you, then you can just enjoy the craggy and wooded scenery, although I challenge anyone not to be moved by the woodland memorial to dead soldiers.

We also drove to Corbera d’Ebre, parking on the main street.  Here is the 115 Dies [days] museum which tells the story of the Battle of the Ebro over 115 days from 25 July to 16 November 1938.  The museum explains the complications of the Spanish Civil War very well with interactive maps of how the front line moved each day and static displays of armaments, uniforms and an abandoned house.  The information was in Castillian and Catalonian but we had a booklet with English translations.  Later we walked up to the old town which was destroyed during the fighting and left as a ruin as a symbol of remembrance.  For a small fee we wandered the ruined streets and into the roofless church, thinking about the people that had called these houses home and how they felt seeing them destroyed in just a few days.  The Alphabet of Freedom are letter sculptures dotted among the ruins.  After this sombre visit we drove the short distance to the charming riverside town of Miravet, picturesquely topped by a castle.

We stayed at Camping El Roble, Valderrobres – A small gravel site by the road with a friendly and helpful owner, modern facilities, good hot showers and marked good-size pitches.

Camping Els Ports, Arnes – Large site with marked pitches and good facilities, 1 km from small town, the site is alongside a main road & there is some noise.

The free aire by the cellar in El Masroig – a small car park.  You can buy wine from local wine producers during shop hours.

Sierra de Gredos, Central Spain

It was September and although the days were warm and sunny, the mornings were chilly in the Sierra de Gredos and this encouraged lazy starts to the day.  We spent a pleasurable day cycling along the old drove road by the campsite, following the rio Tormes.  This old road varied from tarmac to gravel and was mostly fine for cycling for some distance through woods and pasture.  As the track became steeper we resorted to walking, walled fields of long horned cattle either side of us.  At a viewpoint we had lunch watching griffon vultures soaring overhead.  Returning to the valley we cycled up a 15% steep road to the villages of Navarredonda de Gredos and Barajas, where we had a deserved beer in a bar and talked to the local fire fighters.   Returning to the campsite we stopped at Las Chorreras, refreshing waterfalls and shallow pools among a confusion of granite boulders, perfect for paddling or bathing.

We drove to the end of the road and the large car park at La Plataforma in the Sierra de Gredos.  We were here to walk the 13 km return trail to the stunningly situated Laguna Grande, the most popular hike in this area.  The well-graded ascending path through the desolate high pasture is mostly made of stone sets and passes two fresh water springs.  The Gredos is home to 5,000-8,000 ibex and these are easy to spot and we saw a short-toed eagle that circled and landed on a crag.

We stayed at Camping Gredos, Hoyos del Espino – A sloping peaceful site where you are surrounded by the smell of pine trees.  Excellent hot showers.

Segovia, Central Spain

If Segovia only had the aqueduct it would still be worth visiting.  This impressive monument is Segovia’s must-see sight but wandering through this mostly traffic-free city we found much more.  We explored the Jewish quarter and visited a former synagogue and cemetery.  We followed the old walls and climbed to El Pinarillo, a delightful green space with unrivalled views back to Segovia and the Alcazar.  The cafeteria in the Alcazar has panoramic views over the countryside and we treated ourselves to tapas and beers there, watching birds of prey soaring over our heads.  At the Cathedral we paid for the tour of the Torre which was in Spanish so we missed the detail but it gave us access to the tower and there was a film with English sub-titles.

We stayed at Camping El Acuedecto, Segovia – On the edge of the city, marked pitches, buses to city, clean facilities & roomy showers.

Salamanca, north-west Spain

You need to know that I fell in love with Salamanca!  The day we arrived, our campsite reception told us there were fireworks in the city that evening, so we were soon cycling along the river into the city.  It was the annual fair and in the city there was music, processions and at 22.00 we stood in the crowds watching fireworks over the river.  Salamanca had welcomed us so warmly, I was smitten.

Over the next few days we explored again and again, seeing the Roman Bridge, the Cathedral and the elegant Plaza Mayor in daylight and relaxing and soaking in the buzz of this wonderful city that was busy with tourists, locals and students.  Salamanca is a delightful mix of narrow winding streets and bright plazas.  Around every corner are classical sandstone buildings that glowed pink in the bright sunshine and we sought out shady colonnades in the mid-day heat.  The university buildings are monumental in scale with intricate carvings and reliefs, some of them fun to find.  Under the colonnade of the Plaza Mayor we found Cafe Novelty, with more than 100 years of history this cafe has a statue of a former customer inside.

Away from the bustle, we rested in a cool green garden among the old walls and visited the calm of Convento de las Dueñas which has an unusual two-tiered five-sided cloister.  We came out with a box of delicious almond cakes made by the nuns which we shared with our neighbours on the campsite.

We stayed at Camping Don Quijte, Salamanca – A popular site with large level sandy pitches and a good cycle route to the city

Parque Natural del Canon del Rio Lobos, northern Spain

This stunning canyon offers different opportunities for walking.  We began by following Las Gullurias trail, a 9 km walk through fragrant woodland of juniper, lavender and thyme and over limestone.  The vegetation changed to thick pine trees as we approached the view point or mirador.  With a precipitous drop we had a spectacular view over the canyon, our eyes dazzled by the caves, pinnacles and limestone in different colours.  The calls of griffon vultures echoed around the canyon as they swept onto ledges to feed young.  After lunch we walked down to the floor of the canyon and the Ermita San Bartolome, scrambling up to peer through a rocky ‘window’ in the limestone that gave a view further up the canyon.

From the campsite we walked to Ucero Castle, crossing the river and taking a narrow stony path that broadened out to a soft grassy route.  Looking back we had expansive views of the limestone pinnacles and the canyon.  The castle sits above Ucero and has multiple walls and a tower that is fairly intact.

On another day we walked beyond the Ermita towards Hontaria del Pinar.  This part of the canyon is more lush, the crags are less dramatic but the canyon here is quieter and it has a beauty of its own.  The narrow rocky path follows the river, sometimes over stepping stones and occasionally there were pool covered in water lilies.    We watched large flocks of crag martins, with some house martins, high on the cliffs and as the air warmed griffon vultures appeared.

We stayed at Camping Carion del Rio Lobos, Ucero – Lots of shade under the trees, clean facilities

Monfrague National Park, Extremadura, western Spain

Monfrague National Park is rightly celebrated for bird watching and we certainly saw plenty of birds during our trips to this park.  We also enjoyed a number of walks in the national park.  The information centre and parking is in Vilareal de San Carlos and you can pick up a map in English here.  We drove to the viewpoint at Salto del Gitano to see the vultures circling around the impressive limestone crag and walked up to the Ermita and Castillo de Monfrague, an excellent viewpoint over the river and the national park.

We enjoyed two hikes, the 7.5 km green route and the 9 km yellow route.  Both started at Villarreal de San Carlos.  The circular green route took us to the top of Cerro Gimio and was a lovely way-marked trail.  The narrow path contoured the rounded hills and traversed the hillside, winding up and down through trees.  The craggy top of Cerro Gimio was a great viewpoint over the rio Tajo and we perched on the serrated ridge enjoying an airy lunch stop.  On the return section the trail took us along wooden walkways hanging over a gorge and through a shady canyon where we paddled to cool our hot feet.

The yellow [amarillo in Spanish] route was a contrasting walk.  We saw lots of deer on this route that had less shade as we hiked mostly through low-growing shrubs.  The path traverses the hillside above the river Tietar.  At Fuente Los Tres Caños, a shady picnic spot, there was a welcome cool spring.  Around La Tajadilla there are plenty of opportunities to see griffon vultures and black vultures.

We stayed at Camping Parque National Monfrague Malpartida de Plasencia – A large site a short drive from the national park.  The pitches have some shade and the facilities are good.

Caceres and Los Barruecos Monumento Natural, Extremadura, western Spain

Caceres is a popular city packed with sights and we enjoyed exploring it for a day.  Starting with coffee in one of the many cafes in either the sunny Plaza de San Juan or the elegant Plaza Mayor is a great way to begin your day and people watch for a while.  The Ciudad Monumental, the old walled city, is a traffic-free maze of narrow streets that are a pleasure to walk through.  Entered through impressive sandstone gates, inside are ornate buildings and winding lanes that offer new vistas at every corner.

About 20 km west of our campsite in Caceres is Los Barruecos Monumento Natural, a spectacular landscape of granite boulders that have eroded into weird shapes.  We parked our campervan and before exploring the granite boulders we visited the old wool washing station that is now a museum displaying the works of Wolf Vostell, a Spanish-German post-war artist who had strong connections with the area.  Here the installations ranged from a ‘class room’ of old TVs and other pieces that use cars, motorbikes, TVs and concrete to make a statement about the 1980s and 1990, all housed in beautiful old barns built for the 18th and 19th century wool washing complex.  Outside there is an extraordinary sculpture of cars in a totem pole arrangement with bits of aeroplane and adorned with a storks nest.

We followed the 7 km long green route around the two reservoirs, a walk that offers little shade on a hot day.  A kingfisher flew over the reservoir, we saw lapwings, little egrets and a heron, we were followed around by crested larks and spotted one hoopoe.  Near the cafe we watched azure winged magpies.  Many of the granite boulders have been given names and we searched out interesting shapes in the rocks.  Under a blue sky, the reflections in the still water of the reservoirs were stunning and we felt like we had been transported to a Pink Floyd album cover.

We stayed at Camping Cuidad de Caceres – Terraced site that is popular & large, each pitch with bathroom, some road noise.

Hecho, Aragon, Spanish Pyrenees

The Ordesa Valley is spectacular and justly popular and is a favourite place to visit for us but the nearby Hecho valley is a quieter and also worth a visit for some hiking.

Hecho is a pretty stone-built village with a maze of narrow streets, tightly packed houses with geraniums on the balconies and lots of cats to stop and fuss.  There is no sense of a main street and cafes, shops and a small supermarket are dotted randomly around the village.  From the village we walked on the GR15 to Collada Fuen d’a Cruz along a stony ravine busy with butterflies and crickets.  Views to the rocky crags opened out and we could see the village of Siresa and its abbey below.  We climbed steeply to the coll through pine trees on a well marked path with signs for distances and times.

On another day we cycled to Siresa, the next village, and onto Plan de Santana, where we left the bikes and took the old Roman road on the GR11 above Boca del Infierno.  This was a surprisingly lovely wide path with open views, edged with colourful flowers and butterflies.  It is a path to linger on and soak in the beauty of the landscape, the flowers and the wildlife.  In the woodland we came to a ruined castle before descending to the river.  Returning on the lane we had great views into the rocky chasm created by the river, the more adventurous can walk through the canyon.  Back in Hecho we had a glass of local beer at a sunny cafe.

We stayed at Camping Valle de Hecho, Hecho – a terraced and slightly neglected site in trees, close to the village and good walking from the site.

Aínsa, Aragon, south of the Pyrennes

Aínsa is an exquisitely preserved small town with narrow cobbled streets, views to distant mountains and an interesting line in door furniture including knockers shaped like a penis and testicles.

The campsite gave us a booklet with numerous local walks and we followed one to San Vicente de la Labuerda.  The booklet led us to expect an easy two-hour stroll but as the day wore on we realised the time was for one way only.  The undulating tracks were mostly through fragrant pine trees, often alongside steep sided gorges and we spotted red squirrels in the trees.  We were almost giving up when we had a distant view of a chapel and the views opened out on the final section to San Vicente de la Labuerda, a 12th century abbey.  As we sat in the shade of the abbey’s gate having our lunch we watched a lammergeier flying low over a deep gorge, soaring and casually twitching wing feathers to change direction.  We decided to return via Labuerda, picking up the path along the wide and beautiful river Cinca.

We drove a short distance for the short but dramatic trail along the Entremon Gorge, another walk in the campsite booklet.  The narrow and in places airy path has a precipitous drop in to the flooded gorge below.  In most cases there was a wire hand rail to help but not always.

We stayed at Camping Pena Montanesa, Ainsa – Large site with open views to mountains, information about walks, 2 km from Aínsa.

The Ojos Negros Cycle Route, Valencia

We enjoyed a mixture of cycling and walking around Navajas.  Anyone visiting here will want to walk to the steep-sided gorge for the waterfalls and fountains at the Salto de la Novia near the town.  We visited after a heavy rain storm and the river was muddy brown and the waterfalls spectacular.  We followed the goats, clambering over the opposite hillside to the falls for the view.  We also explored the wooded hill on the edge of the town around the Ermita de la Esperanza and found the 11th century Torre Arabe.

The Ojos Negros is 67 km of cycle route inland from Valencia and could be accessed directly from our campsite.  The cycle route climbs steadily uphill and has a good surface of either tarmac or gravel.  We cycled to Jerica and to Caudiel, a total of 15 km one-way.  In Jerica we walked through pretty narrow streets to the Torre Mudejar, an unusual tower with Islamic origins; crag martins flew around the curious walled tower.  Caudiel is a hilltop town and climbing up to the church and square we were delighted to find a brass band playing and dancing to celebrate a saints day.  After watching the spectacle we set off back, resting to enjoy the view over the Pantano del Regaja reservoir on the way.

We stayed at Camping Altomira, Navajas near Segorbe – A terraced campsite by a small village with views from higher levels and an excellent restaurant.

 

Southport: A no-sweat campervan trip

Southport and Formby (Nov 2019)
The woods at Formby

I wonder if every campervan or motorhome owner has at least one no-sweat place.  These are camping trips to somewhere familiar and where no planning or research is needed.  You don’t have to think about what you will do when you get there, you just have a day or two free, you need a break and after a short drive you can park up the campervan, motorhome or caravan and immediately relax.  We have a number of these places and Southport is one of them that we often visit in the winter months.

There are a couple of options for parking your campervan when staying in Southport.  The Caravan and Motorhome Club Site tends to be our preferred option as we seek peace and quiet.  Since it’s refurbishment some years ago this site has plenty of space and two sanitary blocks and is only a few minutes walk from the town.  The other option is the car park next to Pleasureland funfair.  This level hard-standing area is free or £3 for a hook-up and a good budget option but it can be crowded and noisy.

Southport has a long promenade and walking along here is my top favourite thing to do and we will usually get out to do this as soon as our arrival brew is finished.  The sands are vast at Southport and the sea can seem a long way away and looking to the west you get a sense of space that is stunning.  We will usually take in the 1,000 metre long pier too if it is open and stand above the sands.  In winter we will look out for waders along the shoreline or we might wait for one of Southport’s spectacular sunsets.  The end of the Marine Lake is a good place to take an about turn and follow the inland shore of the lake, occasionally stopping to watch the ducks and swans and taking a wander through King’s Gardens.

Our next stop will be the town centre.  A stroll under the wrought-iron canopies of Lord Street is a real Southport experience.  We are not big on shopping but if you are then there is plenty here to look around.  We usually look for a cafe and last time we visited we warmed up in Remedy, an independent cafe.  The cafe is situated in a mock-Victorian glass house in the gardens in front of the Town Hall.  It is a cosy and relaxing cafe where on a winter’s afternoon you can snuggle up with a hot chocolate spiced up with your choice of alcohol and read a newspaper or choose a board game.  We people watched and had a spirited couple of games of dominoes.

On our next walk we will take in Victoria Park, a large green space near to the campsite and follow the Queen’s Jubilee Nature Trail, an interesting area of old sand dunes and bushes.

Trips to Southport are generally on the spur of the moment.  Most recently we were so stressed by our house moving we packed and went on a whim.  We never plan to be there for a particular event but there is often something going on in Southport.  Our visits have coincided with firework displays, the Christmas lights switch on and in the summer months we have visited the popular flower show.  Southport also has attractions such as Pleasureland, the British Lawnmower Museum and a Model Railway Village.

When we have taken our bicycles to Southport we have followed the cycle route south down the coast and into the woodland around Formby.  The cycle path is noisy along the busy main road but once you are among the trees it is blissful.  The sandy paths meander up and down the old dunes, through tall pine trees.  When we don’t have the bikes we park the ‘van in one of the spacious National Trust car parks [we are not members and so have to pay the £7.50] and take a walk through this wonderful area.

If you have never been to Formby before I almost envy you that first sight of the long sweep of beach, backed by sand dunes and coastal pinewoods.  The scenery and the wildlife here is very special and it is the perfect place for a walk or just to sit.  In spring you might spot a great crested newt in one of the ponds among the dunes and in the summer there are plenty of butterflies.  Many people come to Formby because this is a stronghold of red squirrels and these are here all year round but recently it has become more difficult to see them.  Squirrel pox is a highly infectious disease that has been found among this threatened group of red squirrels and the National Trust are discouraging visitors from feeding the squirrels as this brings them together and helps the infection spread.  But stay a while and you might be lucky and spot one of these beautiful animals.

The National Trust provide a map showing different trails of various lengths around Formby and there are toilets and usually a refreshment van near the main car park.  The beach is always a magnet for visitors and you rarely have it to yourself but there is enough room for everyone.  If you seek solitude then follow one of the less trodden paths and you will soon discover your own Formby.

Tell me your own no-sweat campervan trips.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last glorious day of summer in Langdale, the Lake District

It was early October in the north-west of England and our weather expectations were low … but the isobars were working in our favour and there was one day in a blustery and showery week when the sun shone, the sunglasses were dusted off and the short trousers had one last airing … and on this splendid day we were lucky enough to be in the Lake District!

We were staying at the National Trust Great Langdale campsite.  This campsite has some shortcomings; it isn’t the place for you if you are looking for somewhere with luxurious heated facilities [despite the sunshine it was chilly in the evenings and mornings]; or a site with spacious campervan pitches [the pitches work best for smaller campervans] or even if you want somewhere cheap and cheerful [it costs £25/night in September/October but varies between £21 and £30 for two adults with EHU].  What this campsite does offer is stunning views of the wonderful Langdale Valley, peace and quiet, the Old Dungeon Ghyll just five minutes away [where you can get a pint of Old Peculier, my favourite beer] and access to superb walking.

We enjoyed one of those days when the hills are so magnificent you don’t want to stop hiking and we were having so much fun we ended up following a route somewhat longer than we originally planned.  It was so glorious on the hills we just kept adding another hill and the sun had left the valley by the time we descended back to our cosy Blue Bus.

We climbed upwards from the valley and emerged from the crags above Langdale onto Loft Crag, a superb viewpoint.  The panorama down the steep hillside into the valley and across to the summit of Bow Fell were magnificent and further away we spotted Great Gable among the multitude of fells.  We moved on to Pike of Stickle, skipping Harrison Stickle that we have climbed before and took in Thunacar Knott before deliberating over our lunch about where to head for next.  High Raise was beckoning and we set off across the slightly boggy land dotted with small tarns to this hill with views into Borrowdale and across Derwent Water to Skiddaw.  Sergeant Man is easily recognisable from almost any direction except from High Raise it seems but we hiked on and navigated to this little peak.

Our final objective became Blea Rigg, a Wainwright neither of us had knowingly climbed before and the top of which isn’t really clear on the map or the ground.  We had searched for Blea Rigg on an earlier occasion this year during a walk from Grasmere to Silver How and failed to find it.  This time, in the continuing sunshine, we climbed up every pimple and nobble between Sergeant Man and Silver How, examining Wainwright’s drawings on each one, determined to be sure we had stood on top of Blea Rigg.  Comparing my photographs with those of others on the internet later we are confident we did get there!

We descended on sheep tracks below the crags, eventually joining Stickle Ghyll and the well-made path into Langdale.  We had walked about 15 km but most importantly had experienced a truly memorable Lake District day.

 

 

 

Camping Le Fonti & Climbing Monte Ventasso in Reggio nell’Emilia, Italy

The SS63 across the Appenines from Tuscany in to Emilia Romagna is a fantastic drive.  The road winds around the mountains with different and more amazing views at every corner.  We were heading towards Modena but were enjoying the area enormously and in the mild spring weather we opted to stay at Camping Le Fonti near Cervarezza Terme (Busana) for a few days and enjoy some mountain serenity and walking.

Camping Le Fonti is open all year round and has plenty of shade under chestnut and beech trees for the heat of summer.  In spring it is quieter and the site offers an ACSI discount and pitches on the higher parts of the site out of the trees and with panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.  From our lofty pitch we could see the distinctive crags of the flat-topped Pietra di Bismantova a few kilometres away, dramatic in the evening sunset.

This is a large and rambling hillside site at 1,000 metres above sea level and in season it has everything for family camping with a restaurant, shop, organised activities and indoor pool.  We don’t really need these things and were grateful to get fresh bread every morning, heated facilities in the chilly evenings and good hot showers.

The campsite is family-run and when we arrived mama was on reception.  Although she spoke limited English we received a friendly welcome and managed to order bread [that her husband delivered in the morning] and get hold of a sketch map for the walk up Monte Ventasso, a steep-sided 1,727 metre high mountain that is clearly a popular walk from the campsite.

Monte Ventasso proved to be a fantastic full-day outing.  The way-marked path initially climbs steadily through beautiful sun-dappled beech woods dotted with wood anemone, primroses and wild crocuses.  If you don’t want to walk to the summit you could just go as far as the chapel and refuge at St Maria Maddalena and picnic here enjoying the marvellous views over the Secchia valley.  Alternatively, in hot weather you could take the woodland paths to Lago Calamone, a pretty glacial lake below the mountain that is perfect for summer bathing.

We had lunch at the refuge below the rocky crags of the east flanks of Monti Ventasso before carrying on.  The steep, narrow and rocky path up the east ridge was exposed in places but brings you to the wide and grassy ridge to the summit.  We passed a curious wooden hinged figure on the way and met our first other walkers of the day, a German couple who were also on the campsite.

The summit is marked by a cross and we had views of the distinctive Pietra di Bismantova and a wide flat valley.  Lago Calamone was immediately below us and in the further distance were higher snowy mountains.  We took the direct route down that was steep and difficult.  We reached the picturesque Lago Calamone and sat watching a group of young men enthusiastically playing football on the shore.  We climbed upwards  across scree slopes of large boulders and below the craggy face of Monti Ventasso to join our previous path, returning the same way, stopping for a rest and chocolate bars at the view point.  We returned to our campervan tired but happy after walking about ten miles and climbing about 742 m of ascent.

Directions: From the A1 take the exit for Reggio Nell ‘Emilia and follow the SS63 to Cervarezza Terme. The campsite is signposted beyond Castelnovo ne Monfi.

 

 

Campervan Owners & Rules: Do you do as you are Told?

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Really!

I am generally happy to follow rules and regulations but just occasionally I find a latent streak that has a tendency to kick against authority and doesn’t really like being told what to do. Is this recalcitrance why I love the freedom of owning a campervan? I certainly grasp the sense of the freedom of the open road with both hands when we are on holiday; I like to think I can go where I want and do what I please, so long as it doesn’t annoy anyone else of course. I am also one of those people who gets fidgety after more than a couple of hours being told where to go on a guided tour.

One of my regular bugbears is when I am told what to do by, what I consider to be, an unnecessary sign. It is those signs that state the obvious, such as danger deep water, keep away from the cliff edge or fire is hot that irritate me and make me want to dive in and try the forbidden activity.

Before we joined the free-living motorhoming movement we stayed in plenty of self-catering cottages. One particular Scottish house, while lovely, did come with a profusion of notices pinned to the walls telling us to do this and not do that; I could have wasted most of my precious holiday just reading them, never mind carrying them out. There were notices telling me not to clean the stainless steel with scourers; to leave muddy boots in the utility room; and to stack the plates neatly in the cupboards. Surely all of these things really go without saying! Is anyone that thoughtless? But the notice that really tipped me over the edge was the one in the bathroom stating that visitors should clean the bathroom daily! Every day! Really! On holiday! This notice was in my eye-line every time I had a wash or cleaned my teeth and every day I felt criticised for disobeying it but I was also determined not to carry it out. At the end of the holiday, feeling as if I had got away with something, I left the bathroom as clean as I would like to find it. Fortunately, there was no sign forbidding playing indoor golf and we were able to indulge in this sport up and down the large staircase and hall on a wet evening.

Camping is not without rules and while I might think that most of these rules could be taken for granted there are clearly campers who need to be reminded how to co-habit a green space considerately. And yet some campsites have gone overboard with the laminator and drawing pins. In the sanitary facilities I have seen notices about what the toilet brush should be used for; notices telling campers what to put [and not put] in the toilet are prevalent; reminders about leaving the shower clean for the next person crop up pretty often too; and most frustrating of all are those signs that tell me that the water from the hot tap will be hot, well I sincerely hope so!

We have stayed on campsites in France and Spain that have complex written rules regarding the use of washing lines. From these precise instructions I can only assume that some inconsiderate previous campers have happily hung their washing to dry from a young sapling that splintered under the weight of laundry and others have left their smalls flapping on a line they have strung across a dozen pitches.  Perhaps it only takes one thoughtless camper for these notices to become inevitable.

I do understand that not everyone is the upstanding and trustworthy motorhome owner that I obviously am. But I ask readers, do all these signs really make any difference to the ill-mannered behaviour of the small minority?  If you were going to leave your litter on your pitch, rather than in a bin, would you also be the sort of person to pay attention to a sign telling you to be tidy?

There are useful signs that tell me when reception is open or when not to use the sanitary block due to cleaning. Even a free spirit like me is keen to distinguish the ladies and gents facilities so that I don’t get embarrassed in the wrong room … but don’t get me started on those trendy places that use ambiguous images on their sanitary facilities; these have me dithering and uncertain, waiting in a corridor for someone else to exit so that I can work out where I am supposed to go.

My favourite and most useful notice is the one seen on Italian campsites that tells everyone which sink is exclusively for cleaning fish; invaluable if you don’t want fish-smelling laundry!

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Amusing sign outside a Spanish bar – ‘We don’t have wifi but there is beer that makes communication easier.’

A Campervan Trip to the North-East: Hexham, Whitley Bay & County Durham

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St Mary’s lighthouse at Whitley Bay

The Hexham Racecourse campsite is on the top of a hill and has wide open views over the racecourse to green hills and woodland.  This lofty position does mean it catches even the merest hint of a breeze.  The walk into Hexham is an easy 1.5 km but the return is back up the hill and a trifle more demanding.  The peace and openness of this relaxed campsite suited us very well and the facilities are modern and clean.

Hexham is a quiet little town but certainly worth a walk around to see the abbey and the old gaol and there are plenty of cafes to sit in and watch the world go by.  We walked down to the town in the early evening and pottered through the streets and the park.

On a wet day we took a longer walk from the campsite through luxuriant woodland where raindrops dripped long after a downpour had stopped.  The long ribbon of West Dipton Wood follows the brook along a narrow valley to the charming Dipton Mill Inn.  We followed tracks and lanes to the hamlet of Juniper where we picked up a path over the dramatically named Devil’s Water into Dipton Wood, a large area of woodland and heather that is varied and delightful.  We didn’t meet another walker until we were on the paths and lanes that took us into the Tyne Valley and Corbridge where the sun started to peep out.  We treated ourselves to pancakes with ice-cream in the Emporium Ice-cream Parlour before catching a train back to Hexham and tackling the hill up to the campsite.

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The view from Hexham Racecourse campsite

Our next stop was the Caravan and Motorhome Club site by Whitley Bay.  On the way we returned to Corbridge to visit the fascinating site of the Roman town that has been excavated.  The Whitley Bay campsite is arranged so that pretty much everyone has some sort of sea view, looking across to the picturesque St Mary’s Lighthouse that can be reached by a short causeway between high tides.  We walked along the coast to the centre of Whitley Bay and joined the queue for a Di Meo’s Ice Cream, spoilt for choice by their range of delicious flavours.  There were plenty of people enjoying being on the beach and I decided it was warm enough to have a paddle in the sea as we walked back.

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Brancepeth Church modern stained glass window

We ended our trip near to Durham.  We walked to Causey Arch, the world’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge and along the old railway line into the village of Lanchester.  The Lanchester Valley railway was built to carry iron ore and coal to the Consett steelworks and was opened in 1862.  Trains ran here for just over one hundred years and today it is a level and popular walking and cycle path.  In Lanchester we found the charming Kaffeehaus Amadeus, a small and delicious slice of Austria in County Durham.

Before we headed home a friend took us on a short walk to see Brancepeth, an unexpected picture-postcard village with a castle and St Brandon’s Church, which had exceptional 17th-century features but was destroyed by fire in 1998.  The church was restored and is now a light and airy space with a stunning modern stained glass window depicting colourful flowers.