Perhaps to make up for the wet weekend in the Lakes just 10-days before, we were lucky enough to be camping in the beautiful Howgills for the ‘hottest day of the year’. With temperatures of 30°C forecast in the valleys we obviously headed for the hills to catch any breeze. The Howgills are to the east of the Lake District fells and are grassy rounded hills of grit stone and slates. We had a splendid day, walking up Cautley Spout, a high tumbling waterfall, to The Calf, the highest point of the fells at 676 metres above sea level.
While, no doubt, parts of the Lake District were busy with visitors on such a lovely day, the Howgills are always quieter and we only met a couple of other groups walking during the day. Once we were off the main route and the gravel path of the Dales High Way we had the place to ourselves and could enjoy the airy views over Cautley Crag without interruption.
Over the few days we were there we explored all corners of this rural area; we ate delicious chocolates from Kennedys in Orton, to the north of the fells, had fun trying our hand at weaving at the historic Fairfield Mill near Sedbergh [Mr BOTRA thought he could definitely enjoy doing more of this] and found orchids and butterflies in the beautiful Smardale Gill nature reserve.
Of course, it was just luck that we were on holiday on such a lovely day; we can’t wait until next year when we’ll be free and easy and able to set off camping as soon as we spot a good weather forecast.
It takes really bad weather to keep us ‘van bound on a camping trip. We have good waterproof gear and our map reading skills can deal with low cloud and showers. But the recent weekend was as bad as it gets in the Lake District. Of course, we did get out for a walk on both days but Saturday was that atrocious combination of high winds and heavy rain that makes walking more of a chore than an enjoyable past time. We walked from the campsite for about an hour and a half and then filled the site drying room with our dripping gear.
Spending time reading and playing cards in the ‘van did give us chance to talk over some things in depth; we talked about work and no longer working and we shared our worst fears for our forthcoming retirement. What was interesting is that for two people who have been planning this retirement for at least the last six years [and actually for the last 30-years] our anxieties are very different.
My worries are all about our health. I fret that one of us will either not even live long enough to enjoy our retirement or only survive for a year or two in to retirement before dying. My alternative nightmare has one of us becoming too ill or infirm to take part in all the walking and cycling we want to spend our long retirement doing. I am optimistic [or naive] about our finances, sure that the sums are robust and that we’ll deal with any problems as they arise.
Mr BOTRA’s worries are mostly related to money; he is the more cautious one of the team. He is concerned that we haven’t budgeted correctly and we will run out of money before all our pensions kick in [not until 2026] and he worries that by finishing work he is closing off options to earn a few thousand extra that could be kept in the bank in case we want to move house, buy a new campervan or have some other emergency [of course we have a small contingency fund]. Having worked full-time for all his working life [apart from our gap year] he also has concerns about how his days will be filled without work, although he has no shortage of interests and ideas for things he wants to do.
While Mr BOTRA assures me that we will probably live a long and healthy retirement, I equally reassure him that he will soon wonder where he fitted in the time to go to work and that the spreadsheet doesn’t lie. These reassurances are important but equally important is to recognise and face the fears of your partner honestly so that you can work as a team to put things in place and [hopefully] stop these fears becoming reality.
With nine Devon Conversions ‘vans grouped together on the campsite near Nottingham it wasn’t unreasonable for a perplexed fellow camper to ask, ‘do you all come from Devon?’
We had gathered for the spring Devon Owner’s Group rally and once again had lots of laughs, met old friends and made some new ones, learnt plenty of useful tips and came away with new ideas for places to visit.
We were camped near the village of Cotgrave near Nottingham and Mr BOTRA and I caught a taxi to the pretty village of Colston Bassett with a plan to buy some delicious and creamy Blue Stilton cheese from the dairy there and then follow the lanes and the old canal back to the campsite (approximately 13 kms).
The taxi driver was a chatty character and told us he had been 20-years a miner at the Cotgrave pit before it closed and came from a family of ten generations of mineworkers. This took me back to the 1980s when we lived in the East Midlands and were surrounded by the hardship of the mineworkers and their families as they endured the long strike.
Colston Bassett, as well as having a dairy that makes fantastic creamy and tangy Stilton, also has an atmospheric ruined church on the edge of the village that was worth exploring. All the villages around here had charming names and we found a second cheese shop in Cropwell Bishop and opted to buy their tasty Beauvale soft blue cheese.
The Grantham Canal is no longer navigable and is now mostly a greenway of shrubs and plants and proved to be a haven for wildlife and we enjoyed watching a Willow Warbler flitting among the long grasses. As the canal reaches Cotgrave we walked through the lovely country park, landscaped on some of the land that was the mine.
The weather forecast had been for showers and so we had packed the waterproofs but we never needed them and we felt lucky as the day stayed warm and pleasant day for walking.
Last weekend we had the heating on, fleeces and hats during the daytime and were wrapped up at night in pyjamas, silk sleeping bag liners, duvets and blankets. One week later, here we are at last in shorts and able to sit outside the ‘van. We have moved from Please make it warmer! to putting the thermals and thick socks to the back of the drawer in just a few days.
As we set off walking in the rolling Shropshire countryside Mr BOTRA and I both felt lighter and we were. We were carrying just the camera and binoculars, no need for waterproofs and those extra layers. In the ‘van making the beds was easier and now we could eat outdoors, there were no crumbs in the van after eating.
We had a glorious weekend near Shrewsbury; walking up and around Lyth Hill, where we were congratulating ourselves for our excellent navigation skills and Shropshire Council for their excellent signage and then [you guessed it] we got lost. We found our way back to our route and then got lost again due to poor signage through a farmyard [we suspect the farmer was trying to deter walkers and had removed the helpful yellow arrows].
On the Sunday we visited the beautiful ruin of Haughmond Abbey, a tranquil and scenic spot and then moved on to Hawkstone Park Follies. If you have never been to this fantastical wonderland of grottos, narrow bridges, tall monuments and stunning woodland, all set on a sandstone ridge, then you should try and get here soon. I last visited in the late 1970s, when it was neglected and over-grown and not operated as a visitor attraction at all. Then we felt like we were the first people to discover it as we fought our way through rhododendron bushes and along narrow paths. Today, the paths are well marked and with your entrance fee to see the 200-year old park you get a map. Despite this taming of the landscape, the walks are both fun and demanding and there are still uneven paths, steep steps and dark caves and gullies to explore. We particularly liked ‘The Cleft’, a rocky gash in the hillside that is dark, damp and mossy and the rain water has eroded circular patterns in the sandstone.
It was cheering to see so many people having so much fun in the outdoors. What a difference the sun makes!
Well … now we are wondering why did we wait so long to get to Devon?
Despite its name, Devon Conversions are based in County Durham in the north of England, a long way from the south-west. We often meet people in other countries who smile and tell us how much they have enjoyed holidays in the beautiful county of Devon in South West England and we have to apologise for never having been there, until now.
We spent a few days exploring Somerset and North Devon and found some stunning coastlines and picturesque villages. We particularly enjoyed the Hartland Peninsular which was perfect for us. The spectacular rocky coastal scenery provided great walking country, Clovelly took us back in time and the clotted cream ice-cream was excellent. The sunshine in the photograph hides the stiff breeze that kept the temperatures down but in the sheltered corners it was warm enough to walk without a fleece jacket.
Devon is well known for its narrow lanes with tall hedges and I certainly held my breath plenty of times as we met oncoming traffic as we toured around what count for main roads in this part of the country. We are very familiar with single track roads in Scotland but this was different; in Scotland you generally have an open view over the moorland and the passing places are always regular and marked. Breathing in on the narrow sections didn’t help one bit for the ‘van to squeeze through the narrow gaps but it was something I just couldn’t help doing.
Since we have been home I’ve been telling everyone how stunningly beautiful north Devon is but then lots of people already know this, it is just the two of us that have taken so long to discover one of the delights of our little country.
I am not complaining, last weekend was text book spring and April weather; one minute it was sunny, the next a shower flew across, obliterating the view and bringing the temperature down.
We were in north Staffordshire, near the Derbyshire / Cheshire border and walking in some of the loveliest countryside in England, over The Roaches. if you’ve not been to this lovely area, then I highly recommend it.
In the sunshine, the climbers were out on the gritstone crags, those who prefer bouldering were spotted with their colourful crash-mats strapped to their backs, the dog walkers, young families and photographers were all enjoying this beautiful natural playground.
On our first day we visited Ramshaw Rocks, on the quieter side of The Roaches, where you can find the Winking Man, an interesting face-shaped rock that protrudes from the crags and entertains children on the drive past on the A53, as if you watch carefully the eye appears to wink. We parked in the lay-by and had a brew in the ‘van and set off in the fine weather without waterproofs (clearly a mistake in April). As we reached the top the wind whipped up and a hail shower turned the ground white and my hands blue, the hills around us disappeared and I was back in winter.
The next day we walked along The Roaches ridge to Roach End and back behind the rocks. This time we packed the waterproofs (having learnt our lesson the day before) and the sky was blue and the sun shone all day; this was definitely spring. What I hadn’t taken with me on this walk was any money and so we had to walk past the ice cream van at Roach End without treating ourselves, so a frugal walk.
While storms blew in the south we travelled around Scotland in the sunshine, feeling blessed and happy with the world.
We travelled first to St Andrews, a charming stone built town with plenty to see and do, including a ruined castle and cathedral and two bays. Our campsite overlooked East Sands, the smaller beach. West Sands is near the famous golf course and is a wide stretch of sand where motorhome parking is possible overnight.
We travelled further north to the area around Nairn. Here you can either explore the charming fishing villages along the coast or travel inland for the hills and we did both, although the weather was always better on the coast and we craved the blue sky and sunshine. We were so taken with some of these small coastal villages we started to plan moving to this part of Scotland when we retire … we shall see.
We spent a night on the coast between Aberdeenshire and Peterhead at the Port Erroll Nightstop near Cruden Bay. This harbour has space for five ‘vans, no hook up but there are toilets and asks for a donation of £10 a night. The harbour is slightly removed from the village of Cruden Bay and the harbour is a peaceful and beautiful spot. We were the only ‘van there on a sunny evening and we parked with the huge ‘van door facing the sea and watched oyster catchers and herring gulls as we sat with a brew. Later there was a deep red sunset to watch while we ate.
From Port Erroll we walked along the coast to see the striking ruins of Slains Castle high on the cliffs and the dramatic collapsed cave and sea arch at the Bullers of Buchan. Here the cliffs were alive with hundreds of pairs of kittiwakes, as well as fulmars, guillemotts and razorbills. Both these sights have car parks that are suitable for motorhomes.
Wherever we park our campervan is our home, it is self-contained and we carry everything we need to be comfortable. At present, with work restrictions, we generally spend about 70 nights a year in our motorhome. To do this while continuing to save for our retirement we are always looking at ways to save so when the new Brit Stops guide arrived recently we started planning free nights away in the ‘van.
The Brit Stops scheme is a simple system [always the best ones]. Farm shops, pubs and food producers agree to host one or more motorhomes to park at their venue for a night for no charge. For the cost of £30 for the guide, a motorhomer has a list of 640 places where they can park up for free. This is modelled on the French Passion scheme that is popular across France.
Using Brit Stops we get to stay in some beautiful places and sometimes discover a new local food or drink. We might stay at a farm shops and buy some cheese, or a café and relax over their breakfast the next morning or we might enjoy a pint of local beer in a country pub. Brit Stops also allow us to be spontaneous as we don’t have to book a pitch many months before. No sooner have we spotted a forecast for a spell of fine weather for the weekend and we can be on our way (although some Brit Stops do like motorhomers to ring ahead).
The beauty of Brit Stops for us is that we get the opportunity to buy good quality local food created with care by a small business which beats the mass-produced offerings in the supermarket any day. Camp sites can be quite expensive in the UK and the Brit Stop guide can help us save money on our holidays (meaning we can take more]. In any year, once we have stayed two nights on a Brit Stops the guide has paid for itself, so we feel good, and we can support local businesses with some of the money we have saved, so we feel even better.
The number of places to stay has grown dramatically since Brit Stop started in 2011. It took us a few years [and the ownership of a slightly bigger van] until we got the Brit Stop bug in 2015. This happened when we were staying on a Caravan Club Certified Location that charged £15 for just a hook up on an uneven field where they hadn’t even bothered to cut the grass. Down the road was a Brit Stop where ‘vans could park for free with views overlooking the canal; no competition, as they say.
We opted to see the year out in County Durham and Cleveland in the north-east of England. We followed the river Tees from the wild open country of the Pennines to its estuary into the North Sea. Thanks to the heavy rain we had experienced in the north of England over Christmas, High Force and Low Force were stunning and on a sunny afternoon there were plenty of people around to marvel at the spectacle. After admiring the falls, we found a quieter spot for contemplation at Summerhill Force and Gibson’s Cave, just a few minutes’ walk from the Bowlees car park.
At this time of year we like to tour around in the ‘van and stretch our legs, making the most of the seven hours or so of daylight. We followed the river through the historic town of Barnard Castle, exploring the impressive castle, admiring the view over the river and searching out some of the many blue plaques here before moving onto Darlington. This once thriving engineering town still had a lively buzz about it in the winter drizzle. We visited the Head of Steam Railway Museum and looked in wonder at the amazing Locomotion No. 1, the first passenger steam train.
From Darlington the Tees flows through industrial and urban areas but we still found plenty that is beautiful and certainly interesting.
The Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough is a stunning piece of engineering from 100 years ago. The ‘bridge’ carries cars and pedestrians over the Tees in a cradle that is wound on cables across the river. Nearby, ducks, geese and hordes of lapwings entertained us while we explored the National Nature Reserve on the north side of the river and at the excellent Saltholme RSPB reserve.
We finished our trip on the fantastic stretch of sand at Saltburn-by-the-Sea. From the attractive and recently restored pier we watched the hardy surfers and wandered around the pretty streets of the town window shopping.
We stayed at:
The Crown at Mickleton in Teesdale – this is a small Caravan Club CL with a bathroom and all hard-standing. It was £20/night.
White Water Park Caravan Club Site in Stockton-On-Tees is about 20 minutes walk from Stockton town centre and 30 minutes walk to Thornaby railway station for trains to Darlington, Bishop Aukland and Saltburn and Redcar. We paid just short of £25/night.