The Motoring Ombudsman made our Campervan happy!

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!

Briarfields Touring Park & Cheltenham & Gloucester

Cheltenham 1

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

Gloucester 2

Cheltenham

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

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

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

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

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

Cheltenham 2

Gloucester

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

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

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

The Jet Age Museum

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

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

Gloucester 1

 

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

Nine Campsites for a perfect campervan tour of Brittany

The pretty harbour in Audierne

We spent three weeks touring Brittany in north-west France in August this year.  We wouldn’t normally choose to travel during school holidays and August but, of course, nothing is normal in 2020.  I’m kicking myself that we didn’t travel to France in early July but at that time we thought we could continue with our plan to go in September for the autumn.  As it became increasingly clear that the situation was only going to get worse we bought our ferry date forward and we are so glad we did.

We opted to stay at campsites, rather than aires, on this trip.  All but two of the sites listed below are around the beautiful coast and I think all of them were three star sites.  Including local tourist taxes, the sites cost from €18 [ACSI discount rate as the season ended equivalent to £16.03] to €27.17 [£24.20] a night for high season and compared to the UK campsites these prices seemed reasonable.  We didn’t go swimming but most of the campsites had a swimming pool, the sanitary blocks were open at all of them, hand sanitiser was widely available but not all the sites had soap for good hand washing.

The coast of Brittany is spectacular and we enjoyed walking and cycling along its cliffs and coves.  Inland Brittany is a rural idyll dotted with pretty walled towns that are perfect for exploring.

Here is the list of where we stayed with my comments.  You will notice I appreciate a good hot shower!

Campsite nameCommentsCost per night
Camping de L’Esperance, TrebeurdenLevel grassy site by a road, reasonable pitches but long cable needed.  Facilities kept very clean, showers only warm but roomy and a good flow.  Bread available and there is a lovely 8 km walk around the nearby island.€24.80
Camping Tourony, TregastelLarge pine trees for shade over pitches of various sizes that are not necessarily level and some hedging.  Showers are jets of hot water and a little cramped.  Short walk to lovely beach, pretty bay and harbour and other longer walks.€25.60
Camping du Vougot, Plouguerneau, FinisterePeaceful site with very large pitches marked by trees and hedges.  A friendly and helpful welcome and maps for walks and local cycle routes.  Only 4 showers, so sometimes there was an evening queue but hot water & clean.  Lovely beach nearby and indoor pool on the site. €23.50
Les Bruyeres Camping, CrozonAmong trees and good size pitches, large pool but slightly unkempt air, showers standard and okay.€26.60
Camping LocronanTerraced site with views on the edge of the old beautiful town of Locronan where there are bars, cafes and shops.  Modern facilities block with hot and roomy showers and older block, both kept clean.  A friendly welcome and information on local walks around the town and to the nearby woods.  Indoor pool on the site.€27.17
Camping Kersiny Plage near AudiernTerraced site with some sea views, on a fantastic coastal cycle route in both directions.  The facilities are dated, basic and fairly open to the elements but the showers are hot.  Bread available at the friendly reception.€21.30
Camping Le Kervastard, Beg Meil, FouesnantSmall site with ACSI low season discount. Close to the town, beaches and a nature reserve. Pitches are hedged and large, the clean facilities have hot showers only spoilt by the short burst of water between button presses.  Friendly welcome at reception, bread available and small grocery shop and bars and restaurants nearby. €18.00
Camping Domaine du Roc, Le Roc St Andre near PloermelSmall cramped site by the canal and small village, no bread on site but bakery and shop nearby.  The facilities are scruffy and showers only lukewarm.  The site has a swimming pool and is popular with groups. Great flat cycling along the canal to pretty towns.€19.50
Camping Des Chevrets, St Coulomb near St MaloLarge site with good-sized marked grassy pitches.  Two beaches and headlands a short walk away and some sea views.  The showers were roomy but the temperature of the water varied somewhat and I wouldn’t call them super-clean. Pizzas available from the snack bar and a pleasant beach-side bar and restaurant. Plenty of walks from the site in all directions. This site is expensive in high season but great value with the ACSI card.€18.00

Just zip it: Zip [cable] ties are essential campervan kit

Does everyone carry zip ties in their campervan? Certainly without these handy plastic ties in our campervan spares cupboard we would sometimes struggle to stay on the road. I am old enough to remember the days before zip ties but still find it hard to think how we managed without these small bits of nylon in the past. We have used zip ties to hold lights onto bikes when the mount has broken; they have replaced broken handles on bags, held together rolled up blankets and more recently were essential for a makeshift [but solid] repair on our Renault Master.

According to Wikipedia, Cable ties were the invention of Maurus C Logan of the electrical company Thomas & Betts. Appearing in 1958 under the brand name Ty-Rap they were initially designed to organise and keep tidy the multiple lengths of cabling in aeroplanes and Logan spent a few years working out the design. They are, of course, still really useful for that original purpose as we now have multiple lengths of cabling that needs organising in our home.

I like to get our van serviced and checked regularly, so before we set off on our trip to France we took our campervan into the local garage. We needed some new front brake pads and oil changes were due. It seemed worth getting these things sorted before travelling so that we could be sure the Blue Bus would have a trouble-free trip. Unfortunately, this forethought had the opposite result as the garage didn’t quite put our Renault back together in the way they had found it.

Driving down to Portsmouth for the St Malo ferry there was an alarming banging noise from the front wheel at between 65 and 70 mph. We slowed down and pottered into the next services to stop and take a look. It seemed the cover over one of the wheel arches was flapping as the bolts that hold it in place had come loose. In our campervan we have one cupboard devoted to things that are useful for repairs. Here we keep various kinds of tape, spare handles, superglue, waterproof clothing repair kits, needles and thread, tools and of course zip ties. In this instance the reel of strong tape held the flapping plastic still and the rest of our journey to Portsmouth was uneventful apart from the three hour traffic jam that almost made us miss the boat!

We thought that was the end of the matter but should have known better.  A few days later I was doing some stretching exercises on the ground beside the ‘van, glancing underneath I noticed something hanging down that shouldn’t be.  Further investigation revealed that when the garage had carried out the service they hadn’t fixed the plastic cowling under the engine [the under-engine undertray] back in properly and it was now hanging down low just waiting to be caught on an unsuspecting speed bump.

We do have breakdown cover but decided to have a go at fixing it ourselves and so lying on the outdoor mat I had been exercising on, Mr BOTRA lay under the confines of our campervan while I handed the appropriate sized zip tie to him. He fixed three of these in the holes where the missing bolts should be. We checked the repair regular but this temporary fix saw us around the rest of Brittany and back home from Portsmouth. They worked so well I wonder if Renault should consider using cheap zip ties instead of the bolts that the garage had failed to fix properly.

Our quarantine is almost over and after the excitement of the dentist trip on day one of freedom, day two will involve a trip to the garage to give them the chance to put right their mistake.

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

10.28.2018 Morata and Chinchon (24)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Camping & walking in Arnside & Silverdale

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

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

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

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

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

Campsites

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

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

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

You can find a few quiet wild camping spots too.

Walking is the best way to get to know this area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to see and do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Me & my campervan: Back on the Road Again

Camping Indigo Vallouise
Camping in the Ecrins National Park in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinlochewe: Our last camping trip before lock down

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

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

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

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

Walks from Kinlochewe

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

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

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

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

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

We stayed at two campsites

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

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

Grado, northern Italy: A great choice for easy cycling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grado 6
Lago di Cornino is brilliant turquoise

The Culture of Vanlife book review

A book just about campervans!  You can imagine just how much that appealed to me.  I was lucky enough to be chosen as a winner of The Rolling Home book, ‘The Culture of Vanlife’ in a Twitter competition.  If you’re thinking of buying this for yourself or think that it might make a great present for the campervan lover in your life, here’s my review.

Firstly I wanted a bit of background about The Rolling Home.  In 2016 they published a photographic book and today they are producing regular journals which are a platform for campervan owners from around the world to share their passion for living in a van through a collection of stories, illustrations, interviews and technical advice.  The Rolling Home story involves Calum Creasey, Lauren Smith and a 1996 VW Transporter.  They have been travelling on and off since 2010, creating their dream van on a low budget with an eye for style and finding their own community.  You can read more about them on their website.

The Culture of Vanlife is a delightful book to flick through.  It is packed with beautiful drawings and photographs that make you want to start travelling.  With an eye for an evocative image, you could just gaze at the photographs and cartoons in this hefty book and be happy.

But how do the words stack up?  Once you start reading you find a collection of essays and chapters by different writers that aim to explore the culture of vanlife through the ideas and people that make it.  On the first page they sum up their way of thinking about living in a campervan, seeing them as, ‘Catalysts for happiness.’

There is plenty of variety here.  The first chapter discusses the perils of social media against the urge to be nomadic and appreciate the present.  I was interested in Mattias Wieles’ chapter about vanlife and minimalism.  Mattias and his girlfriend travelled for a year in a yellow van packed with everything they owned.

‘We sold everything, threw out all financial burdens, cut all redundancies out of our lives.  All our possessions fitted in our little van now; ties had been cut, jobs left behind, subscriptions to magazines and the gym cancelled.  We said goodbye and felt free as never before.’

Mattias writes that a shift in how they viewed their trip happened when they left Europe and adapted to having limited opportunities to buy food and fill up with water and they found a simpler life.  He sums up perfectly how living in a campervan eliminates anything unnecessary from your life until there is no hiding from who you really are.  With no fancy job, the latest smart phone or new clothes to shield you, vulnerability can materialise.  Mattias writes honestly about how the road changes you and that in this simpler world there is just the earth and the people you love.

There is, of course, a chapter on the vans, although no mention of the vehicles I have owned, a VW T4 and T5 or a Renault Master … enough said!  Let’s move onto interior design, where readers can see there is no right way to do it and everyone has a different idea of a perfect campervan.  If you are a self-builder you will enjoy the case studies.  There is something for everyone here, a 4×4 Merc, a VW T25, a small Japanese van, some technical info, a van with a wood burning stove and one with a roof-top bed.

Chapter Three is about vanlife people and readers are invited to meet the ‘van dwellers.’  ‘The Adrenaline Junky’ fills her camper with kit for activities.  ‘The Digital Nomad’ is a working recluse who is always online.  ‘The Hipsters’ live in a Mercedes Sprinter and have a herb garden on the dash.  ‘The Eco Warrior’ has a recycled Transit van and ‘The New-Age Hippies’ have a converted horsebox which they share with their rescue dogs.  ‘The Golden Oldies’ have a coach built ‘van and travel around Europe spending the children’s inheritance.  These are just for fun; I don’t recognise myself in any of these vanlife profiles and there is still no mention of a Renault Master!

The real strength of The Culture of Vanlife is in the personal stories it tells.  Matt and Steph talk honestly about full-time vanlife as a young couple who spend six months a year on the road

‘For us, van living created a very intimate and close relationship.  Disagreements are dealt with immediately and we usually end up laughing about it an hour later!  As a result we have become excellent at communicating and knowing how the other feels, sometimes even without speaking.’

The thoughts on solo van travel might touch you; the van owners who make music and busk on their travels might inspire you; or reading about the family in a converted bus might encourage you to reconsider your life’s trajectory.

‘In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the great hall that warriors go to after falling in battle … there is a lesser-known land, Vanhalla.  Some say it is a fictional place, where camper vans and their inhabitants go to when they no longer travel.’

I hope I won’t be ending up in Vanhalla soon but this fantastic idea introduces a list of favourite places to travel, from Europe to South America, India and Canada.  There are stories from New Zealand and rugged British Columbia.  You will find plenty here to inspire your own trip.

This is a book that asks questions and tries to get beyond the hashtag campervan lifestyle on social media.  The book reflects on the tension between the simplicity of vanlife that so many people seek and digital connections that allow remote campervan fans to reach out to others.  The authors find both real communities and those in cyberspace and consider their value.

Yes, this is a book that will look beautiful on your coffee table and any campervan owner could buy it to browse and learn from.  If you are looking for a gift, I would suggest you buy it for that reflective and discerning friend who is yearning for a campervan.  If they sit down and read some of these stories they will either buy a ‘van and set off on their own journey the next day or realise the lifestyle isn’t for them.  Either way they will thank you for the present.

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