My post-campervan holiday list

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Is it just us or does every campervan owner return from a long trip away in their ‘van with a long list of things that need replacing, fixing, taking out of the ‘van or buying.  For me, this to-do list comes into being a few weeks in to the trip.  I will have a bright idea or break something, find a sheet of scrap paper, usually the back of a campsite receipt or map, and a pen [these are on the list too, we always have a stack of them in the ‘van] and scribble down whatever it is I don’t want to forget.  The list will get shoved under my pile of t-shirts and as the weeks go by other things will come up and I will grab a pen and add it to the list.

Some of the things on the list are mundane replacements, things we must remember to buy when we are back in the UK.  Another packet of Kwells seasickness tablets is a good example of this sort of thing; this could easily get forgotten in the excitement of being home and only be noticed when I next start to feel queasy on a pitching and rolling ship.

Others things on the list are expensive purchases that are more challenging for two frugal folk to deal with.  These things will sit on the list for a while [at least one month] for due consideration before the money is spent.  New cycling shorts are this sort of thing.  We tend to do more and longer cycle rides in the warmth of southern Europe and this can highlight the shortcomings of the gear we have.  New cycling shorts clearly seemed important at the time to make it on to the list but at the moment we are minded to think that the old ones will do another year.

Replacement MP3 speakers could be on the ‘due consideration’ list as these also cost money, except that I find dropping off to sleep to a podcast on the MP3 player helps me deal with the constant ringing in my ears that comes with tinnitus.  The speakers that I have found suit me best have done many years regular use but they are no longer reliable and another set is urgently needed.

The reversing sensors on our Blue Bus started mis-firing part way through our holiday.  Annoyingly, they starting beeping as soon as reverse was engaged even if there was nothing behind the ‘van for many metres.  The Renault came with reversing sensors and we thought we would hardly use them, having managed without before.  But there is really no view out of the back window of the Renault and so these have proved to be a useful bit of kit.  At £170 to replace we will take a deep breath before we go ahead.

Some of the things on the list don’t need us to spend any money – hurrah!  We have carried a hairdryer in the campervan since we had it but realised on our last trip that we had never actually used it!  I have no idea why it took three years to realise that we both have short hair that dries quickly, particularly in the sun.  The hairdryer was taking up space we could use more efficiently and has now gone to the charity shop.

It has taken us sometime to get round to this but we have now put our music on a flash drive that plugs in to a USB on the radio of our Renault.  We had expected to be able to use the MP3 player through the van’s radio but this turned out to be impossible, perhaps due to the age of our MP3 player.  Then we had a flash [pun intended] of inspiration and tried a portable drive.  This works well and takes up much less room than the pile of CDs we had before.  Now we can rock to our whole music collection as we drive!

The temporary mirror inserts went on the wish list after the expensive Spanish mirror jousting incident.  We bought one each for the right and left mirrors on Ebay and hope these will be enough to get us home if the same happens again.  If these work, they will enable us to put off buying a replacement wing mirror until we can do this online from home and we can then fit it ourselves much more cheaply.

Living in the north of England with our wonderful soft water we didn’t realise kettle descaler was even a thing until we travelled abroad.  The mineral-rich hard water in most European countries might be good for our bones but certainly clogs up the kettle and the ‘van’s water pump, as we discovered to our cost last year.  In a two month long trip we will descale the kettle one or two times to keep it working efficiently and always keep some in the ‘van.

The list from each holiday is always different and partly tells the story of some of the things that have happened on our trip and the places we have been.  What does your post-holiday to-do list look like?

 

 

 

 

Is owning a campervan as carefree as we all make out? Does life really begin on the edge of your comfort zone?

 

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The spider looms next to the Guggenheim in Bilbao

You don’t speak the language and your much loved campervan is unhappy and slightly broken … a nightmare or just another day in a campervan travellers life?  Putting my trust in people and a system I don’t understand has happened to me so often I am starting to expect it but never find it easy; this is way out of my comfort zone.  People say, ‘Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.’  It seems to me this is where my adventurous spirit could shrivel and die, even when everything turns out fine in the end.

I am as guilty as anyone of writing about our campervan trips as carefree and relaxed but, as canny readers will know, this is only part of the truth.  I always say I love the campervan life because we have the freedom to choose where we will be, if we don’t like somewhere we move on and we take our home with you, no strange beds, just a different view every morning.  I am not lying when I tell you this and when things are going well it is truly an idyllic life.

But there are anxieties and I do share them on the blog.  The Greek Tragedy shook my confidence massively and demonstrated so clearly how quickly a relaxed and enjoyable trip can abruptly end.  My obsession with checking we are in gear when we are parked even on the flat has not gone away and can be irritating for Mr BOTRA.  If I don’t check and double-check I am unsettled and return to the ‘van expecting it to have once again rolled in to a wall or worse.

You probably all know those signs of anxiety; I get that sense of dread, the sickness low in the bottom of my stomach, feeling on edge, irritable with the people I love and unable to concentrate.  This is the worried me and no amount of deep breathing will quell the anxiety when I think a crisis is around the corner.  But I do relax while we are away and it is while I am travelling in that carefree manner I enjoy that I am hit the hardest when something goes wrong.  Picture the scene … The sun feels warm on my arms, I am smiling and unaware that a problem is on the horizon, then wham!  From left field something we hadn’t even thought of happens to our campervan and everything changes.

With modern ‘vans it seems there are so many things that can go wrong, more than I could list or dream of.  In September we had only driven 30 km from the port in Bilbao in Spain and our Blue Bus started beeping and flashing red lights in alarm.  The power steering had failed!  Who knew this could happen!  Fortunately we were in a car park, rather than on an autovia and after Mr BOTRA wrestled the 3.5 tonnes of our van into a safe and shady place we rang our breakdown.  Once again we were trying to deal with a complex technical problem on our campervan in a foreign language, with a phrase book that was written before power steering was invented!  We had little idea what was going on and were totally in the hands of the garage.  Déjà vu!  This has happened now in Greece and in Italy as well as Spain, never in France or Germany where our grasp of the language is so much better!

Although we deal with the phone calls, the breakdown lorry driver, the rearranging of our plans, each of these incidents doesn’t make me grow in confidence, each one gradually chips away at my courage and my certainty of the freedom of the road.  I can no longer fool myself that all will be well.  For weeks after an incident the sense of dread about what will happen next invades my brain regularly.  What will be the next problem to come along, slap me across the face and say, ‘You didn’t see that one coming did you?’

Given all this anxiety, the temptation might be to only travel in the UK but I’m not a quitter and certainly not quite ready to give up my passport just yet.  The benefits of continuing on the edge of my comfort zone are visiting exciting and beautiful places.  I work hard at keeping those dark worries in check by planning and preparing for [almost] everything and paying for the best insurance money can buy.  Fingers crossed 2019 will bring some incident free trips!

 

 

 

A Winter ‘s tale from a campervan

2012 Nov Norfolk and Lincs trip Seals Donna Nook (135)

In our first campervan we only had one winter camping trip.  It was a memorable February weekend of below freezing temperatures that found us shivering under the duvet after the leisure battery lost power and our diesel heater no longer worked.  Moving on to our Devon Sundowner [for some reason] we were keen to try winter camping again and I persuaded my hardy partner to go along with a late November trip that would perhaps quieten the ghost of that cold February weekend.

We chose to go to the coast of North Norfolk and Lincolnshire and the Fens, thinking the south-east of Britain might be warmer and drier; we’d never visited that part of the country before, as our natural compass takes us north from Manchester and we were keen to visit some of the many RSPB and Wildlife Trust reserves in that area to see the migrating geese and other wildfowl.

In the Sundowner our on-board facilities were limited to a toilet, a kitchen sink and a kettle.  I found that campsites open during the winter that hinted at the promise of warm showering facilities were few and far between in the area we were exploring; so although we like to be free spirits, we decided to research, plan and book campsites for each night of the trip.

Friends raised eyebrows when we told them we were taking the ‘van camping at the end of November and their incomprehension only increased when the five-day weather forecast was predicting storms and heavy rain for the weekend we were away.  These storms did arrive and hit Cornwall very hard and we were relieved we had chosen the east side of the country for our holiday, where it was breezy, but no one had to leave their homes because of rising flood water.

Arriving on a campsite in the dark left me in a slightly disconcerted state, I like to orientate myself, check where the sun will come up and what the ground is like and after the first night we vowed to try and arrive before dark in future, although in late November this means arriving by 16.00.  However, my perturbed state didn’t stop us making the 10-minute walk through the village to the cosy Burnham Green pub.

The next morning we woke to faultless blue skies and were immediately sold on winter camping for all time, no matter that the shower cubicles were so cold, only the most hardy would consider baring all in there [apparently there have been renovations since our visit].  I reasoned that we were so wrapped up against the chilly air, no one would ever notice we were grubby and we were just keen to get out on to this bright November coastline.

Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve is an excellent spot, providing the opportunity to stretch the legs alongside fresh water and salt marshes to the vast stretch of beach.  I am not a natural bird watcher but I like to know the RSPB and other charities are out there managing habitats for birds and I enjoy what I see.  Oystercatchers are my favourite, as they are easy to spot and always so lively and vigorous and I also enjoyed watching the red shanks feeding in the mud, easily spotted with their red legs and the more ponderous godwits and then spotting the different ducks, including Teal and Widgeon.  If you are lucky and patient here you will see a drift of Snow Buntings on the beach, but it was too wintry to stay still for too long.  The reserve staff also feed the birds in the woodland near the visitors centre and I got just as much pleasure watching the garden birds coming and going at the bird tables while we warmed up with a mug of hot chocolate; this reserve certainly has something for everyone in the winter months.

After lunch we drove the few miles along the North Norfolk coast to Wells-Next-The-Sea to walk along the sands, comparing the size of the beach huts that are lined along the beach to the dimensions of our Blue Bus and wondered why no one was using them on this glorious November afternoon.

We succeeded in reaching the camp site on the edges of Swaffham before dark and were pleased to find much warmer facilities where we were prepared to shower and scrub off the accumulated grime of the last couple of days.

Although this trip was focusing on wild life, the next day we made a short pilgrimage to the Burston Strike School.  Whatever your politics, I dare anyone not to find this small building inspirational.  It is the site of the longest strike in British history, starting on 1 April 1914, when two popular and devoted teachers at the village school, Kitty and Tom Higdon, were dismissed by the school committee for lighting a fire to warm the children and dry their wet clothes.  Of the 72 children, 66 marched around the village to protest about their dismissal and refused to attend the school, instead they continued their education with Kitty and Tom in temporary accommodation, supported by trade unions from across the country.  In 1917 sufficient funds were secured to build a new school building and bricks in the walls are carved with the names of the trade unions that had provided financial support; a small museum is now housed in this building.  The Burston strike school continued to be the place of education for the village children until 1939.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen is the largest river valley fen remaining in England, with pools, reeds, scrub and woodland it will be a buzzing and lively place in summer, with butterflies, insects and flowers.  In winter it is sultry and peaceful; the reserve is well laid out with five different marked trails to follow.  We watched a tree creeper flitting up and down a tree trunk and a flock of gold finches and enjoyed the sense of space and stillness this strange landscape offered.

We chose to stop in Thetford Forest to have our lunch, an impressive area of mixed woodland and heath, criss-crossed by roads.  High Lodge is the main visitor centre for the forest, with a cafe, shop, toilets, access to numerous footpaths and cycle tracks, all with a large car park and even in winter it was lively with cyclists and walkers.

We arrived at the small camp site at Littleport in rain that didn’t stop until the next morning; we were catching the tail end of the storm that had hit the West Country and we hunkered down in the van with a bottle of red and never made it to the nearby pub by the Great Ouse.  The site owners let us pitch on the track, as there was no hard standing available, which saved churning up their grass or worse the embarrassment of needing a tow to get out.  Our neighbours, two stalwart fishermen, slept in a tent and were disturbed all night by the wind and rain, we had sleeping bags and duvets and slept soundly until daylight.

The sunshine returned after the storm, although the strong wind stayed with us a little longer and we were feeling blessed for having such good weather for our winter venture.  We now pointed the Blue Bus north towards Lincolnshire, into a fascinating landscape of vast flat fields of vegetables, driving over drainage ditches and through an environment where the sky dominates, rather than the land.

Frampton Marsh is accessible down narrow lanes that take you to the RSPB coastal wetland reserve on the edge of The Wash; once at the modern visitors centre there is a good size car park.  Frampton Marsh has enough brent geese to satisfy anyone and I also saw plenty of acrobatic lapwings, always a cheery sight.  I easily spotted little egrets in the shallow pools, their white plumage bright in the sunshine and watched curlews feeding on the wet grassland areas.  Despite the strong winds, we walked down the lane to the dyke, where we had a clear view across the salt marshes to the North Norfolk coast.

Slightly further north, Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve is a popular and well known reserve near to Skegness; this area of dunes, salt marsh and beaches is a beautiful wild spot with many walks and managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.  As the sun dipped towards the horizon, we had a windswept walk through the dunes to the beach here, before tearing ourselves away and driving through the bright lights of Skegness to our refuge for the night, The Nurseries at Mumby, before dark.  Karl and Dianne have been enthusiastically developing the camp site since they moved to the old nurseries house in 2010 and have created a lovely site.  They are both very welcoming and we were thrilled when Dianne appeared with two chunks of homemade cake to go with our brew.

Karl and Dianne are both also full of information about things to do in the area and while chatting to Karl, he mentioned the nearby seals and pups and we soon had the map out planning a trip to Donna Nook on our way home.  Donna Nook is a long sandy bay which during November and December each year is the place of choice for over 1,000 grey seals to give birth to their pups and mate, ready for next year.  There are two  car parks and they get busy, particularly at weekends but we were surprised how popular it was even on a wet Monday morning.  The beach is managed by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and they ensure visitors get excellent views of the seals while staying safe and avoiding the danger of getting bitten by an angry grey seal.  Photographers will love the opportunity to get so close to adult grey seals and their pups.  The white fluffy pups lie in the sand and cannot help but look cute with their big eyes and whiskers, the male grey seals are large and cumbersome and manage to both flop and be aggressive at the same time.  You can see pups being born, suckled and having their first taste of swimming in the shallow pools; it really is a special wildlife experience that concluded our holiday on an unexpected high.

As we drove back to Salford we reflected on our few nights winter camping; the van had been cosy and warm, the wildlife had been spectacular, the weather had been kind and we had coped with some chilly sanitary facilities with the hardiness of northerners.  This trip was a few years ago and gave us confidence so that today we don’t think twice about getting away whatever the weather.

Hebden Bridge Caravan & Motorhome Club site

The canal between Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge
The Rochdale Canal

Sitting drinking good coffee by the Rochdale Canal in Hebden Bridge, lazily watching the barges chug by is an experience I can recommend.  The Calder valley through West Yorkshire is one of my favourite parts of England and it is a frequent weekend haunt for those of us in Greater Manchester.

We were staying at the Hebden Bridge Caravan & Motorhome Club site; a simple site that is pleasantly surrounded by trees.  The site has electric hook-ups and hard-standing but no sanitary block so will only suit motorhome owners with their own facilities.

The steep-sided Calder valley was transformed by the industrial revolution as home-based weaving developed into water-powered mass production in textile mills.  The distinctive stone terraces of houses were built on the hillside in the 19th century and the canal and railway line crammed in to the narrow valley floor.

The weavers left a legacy of a criss-cross of footpaths around the valley and from the camp site you can walk in almost any direction.  Turn right and you eventually reach the moors and Blackstone Edge, a gritstone escarpment on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border.  To the west a steep path takes you to the top of Stoodley Pike adorned with its Victorian monument.  On this trip we had chosen to turn left out of the site and spend the sunny morning walking the easy six-miles along the canal to Hebden Bridge and back.  Hebden Bridge is a creative and lively town full of independent shops from where you could continue your walk to the wooded valley of Hardcastle Crags or take the steep path up the hill to the atmospheric gritstone village of Heptonstall.

Mytholmroyd station on the Leeds to Manchester Calder Valley Line is just one mile from the camp site and with stations at Hebden Bridge and Sowerby Bridge the line opens up opportunities for linear walks.  This line will also take you further afield to Halifax to see the stunning Piece Hall, built as a sales centre for the woollen weavers in the 18th century and recently renovated.  The National Children’s Museum, Eureka, that is fun for children and the young at heart.

There is so much to do from this site I am already planning our next visit; maybe we will take the train to Todmorden walking back over the moors or we might explore more of the wool industry history by visiting the timber-framed medieval manor house, Shibden Hall in Halifax, or maybe I will end up back in Hebden Bridge lazily drinking coffee.

Hebden Bridge CC site
The campsite

What did we spend during our 7 week campervan trip to Spain?

09.23.2018 Sierra de Urbassa walk (2)
A shepherd in the lovely Sierra d’Urbasa

You might recall we’re trying to keep within a budget and that this year achieving this has proved to be tough going with our spending feeling somewhat out of control.  I was therefore keen to keep costs low on our fantastic autumn trip to Spain from September to November.  So how did this plan go and what did we spend?

Diesel – £390 (we avoided the temptation to visit all of Spain and travelled 2,430 miles)

Supermarket / food shopping – £536 (around £100 less than we would have spent at home and we returned with dozens of bottles of wine for the cellar!)

Cafes & meals out – £326 (Coffee in a cafe is inexpensive in Spain and we do this much more on holiday than at home but we ate out in the evening less and so spent almost £100 less than we would have spent at home so a small gold star to us)

Campsites – £708 (we had a few nights wild camping to keep costs down but could have done more)

Public transport – £51 (we stayed off the motorways with tolls in Spain and managed to spend a little less than we would if we’d stayed home)

Entrance fees – £98 (similar to when we are at home)

Miscellaneous – £80 (new sunglasses, maps, washing machines, occasional wi-fi)

Ferry Portsmouth to Bilbao – £895 (ouch!  A lot of money to suffer the high seas of the Bay of Biscay)

Fixing the power steering & a new wing mirror for our van – £377 [power steering electrical fault]

Total spent £3,461

I’m feeling reasonably pleased with this total.  It really is not that much more than we would have spent if we’d stayed at home so hasn’t had a massive impact on our budget.  The lesson is that there are really no excuses not to go away again!

 

 

 

23 Spanish campsites and aires

09.30.2018 Ordesa walk (19)
The stunning Ordesa Valley

We spent over two months in Spain this autumn and stayed mostly on campsites where we could use our ACSI discount card.  We had an occasional night staying on an aire.  These were all good and as we are trying to save money we could have done more.  Most campsites were a reasonable price but the one in Toledo was exceptionally expensive.  The list is below with my notes on how we found each spot.

Campsite name Comments Cost
Bakio Motorhome Parking near Bilbao Sloping parking area near the beach popular with surfers and peaceful enough, public toilets nearby £0.00
Camping Etxarri, Etxarri Aranatz, Navarra Hedged camping pitches & lots of bungalows & permanent caravans, some pitches very shaded, facilities reasonably clean, showers cramped & push button were only warm.  ACSI €19.00
Camping El Molino, Mendigorria Large organised site with some shade & some grass, clean facilities & powerful showers with adjustable temperature & hot, nice walk by river, ACSI €19.00
Camping Valle de Hecho, Hecho Terraced site with trees, near to village, scruffy year-round caravans, facilities clean, showers cramped but mostly hot, wash-up out of doors, no bread out of season €21.27
Aire, Jaca Tarmac car park with reasonable size bays near to the town, very popular, quiet by 23.00, bells & neighbouring buses noisy in the morning €0.00
Camping Ordesa, Torla Terraced site with fantastic views of mountains, facilities dated but roomy and good hot showers €21.20
Camping Rio Ara, Torla Terraced site, grassy with trees and tidy, steep access road, lovely modern facilities and good hot showers, adjustable & free flowing, supermarket & bar, good size pitches €22.60
Camping Pena Montanesa, Ainsa Large site with open views to mountains, information about walks, 2 kms from Ainsa, a lovely old town, facilities a bit scruffy but good hot showers & bread, ACSI & bottle of wine on leaving! (Ainsa has an excellent aire too) €19.00
Alquezar Camping, Alquezar Terraced sandy camping site with narrow access routes & trees for shade, small shop & cafe, some good facilities, near to lovely town & good walking, ACSI €17.00
Camping El Roble, Valderrobres Small gravel site by the road, pleasant & helpful owner, modern facilities, good hot showers, marked good-size pitches, cycle routes from site, ACSI €15.00
Camping Els Ports, Arnes Large site with marked pitches, 1 km from town on main road & some noise, facilities clean & okay ACSI €19.00
Celler El Masroig Flat parking by the wine producer with emptying point, quiet village, car park used by staff from around 07.30 €0.00
L’Orangeraie, Calig Nicely laid out small site with marked pitches, facilities clean & showers okay, friendly welcome & peaceful, ACSI €17.00
Los Pinos, Peñíscola Gravel marked sunny pitches with narrow access roads, 1.5 kms from the town, clean facilities, good hot showers & good value €12.00
Aire at Morella Pleasant gravel aire by picnic site with views to hilltop castle and town, popular €0.00
Camping Altomira, Navajas near Segorbe A terraced campsite by a small village, views from higher levels, English at reception, underfloor heating in toilets but facilities a bit dated & showers only warm, cycling nearby, ACSI €17.00
Camping Ciudad de Albarracin Terraced ACSI site with gravel pitches about 1.5 kms from old town, some in full sun, clean facilities & excellent hot continuous showers, great views & walking €17.00
Aranjuez Camping Large organised site about 1.5 kms from lovely town, English at reception, facilities dated but clean & good hot continuous showers & heated, supermarket, trains to Madrid, ACSI €19.00
Camping El Greco, Toledo Level site with marked pitches 3 km from the city, hourly bus service, 30 mins walk from town, clean facilities & good hot adjustable & continuous showers €27.90
Camping El Escorial, El Escorial Level ACSI site with lots of tree cover & some frames to give shade, scruffy, busy reception, no heating in toilets, showers hot, disco can be noisy €19.00
Camping Riaza, Riaza Level site with grassy & sunny pitches, some road noise but mountain views, near to pleasant town, facilities clean, showers continuous & very hot ACSI €19.00
Camping Fuentes Blancas, Burgos Level grassy site, some trees, 4 buses a day to Burgos, some road noise, shower block 3 is heated with good continuous hot shower, block 4 is unheated, wash-up is outdoor, ACSI €19.00
Port at Bilbao Flat tarmac area with toilets, cafe only open in the morning this time €0.00

Arran: My first encounter with this lovely island

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The dramatic landscape of Goat Fell on Arran

The internet suggests there are up to 5,000 islands around Great Britain, although the exact number seems to be hard to be sure of and there are certainly plenty of these I have never heard of, let alone visited.  Another source gave a figure of 82 islands that measure more than 5 sq km.  This is still a higher number than I might have guessed at and one that made me ashamed of how few of our islands I have taken the trouble to get to.  It was time to visit an island and an autumn trip to Arran, off the south-west coast of Scotland was planned.

Goodness knows why I have never been before as we found so much that delighted us on Arran.  The craggy mountains around Goat Fell are perfect walking country; Glen Sannox is simply stunning; the stone circles at Machrie Moor are impressive and fascinating; the coastline near Blackwaterfoot  and the walk through boulders to the basalt cliffs of The Doon is stunning and the sheltered bay at Lochranza is picture perfect.  I loved pretty much everything about the island.

Thanks to the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on Scottish ferries, getting to Arran is now more affordable and it was just over £45 return for our 5.4 metre long campervan.  We needed to have a frugal holiday due to our expensive year but also like to support campsites and so we stayed on three of the islands campsites [see below] and did a few nights wild camping too.  Wild camping is popular on Arran and some places can get busy at weekends as Arran is a perfect place to visit in a campervan.

We didn’t visit any tea shops, although I am told they are excellent, but we did support the Arran economy and bought excellent local cheese in the cheese shop, local beer at the brewery, good local oatcakes and delicious local bread in the Blackwaterfoot Bakery.  These all went very well together and didn’t last long.

Arran was a great start to my plan to visit more of the islands around Great Britain.  The big question is where to go to next?

Campsites we used on Arran

Lochranza Campsite – a beautifully situated site that is well kept.  The site is grassy with some hard-standing pitches if it is wet and there are open views.

Seal Shore Camping  – this site at Kildonan has lovely views out to sea and clean facilities.  The site is sloping but while we were there they were building some more level pitches.  The site is next door to a bar.

Middleton’s Caravan and Camping Park – This level grassy site at Lamlash is handy for the shops, places to eat and shoreline in Lamlash.  The facilities are clean and it has good hot showers.