There are many places that travel writers refer to as one of Spain’s ‘best kept secrets,’ in truth when you visit pretty much any of these so called hidden corners you realise that they are no secret to the Spanish. The Spanish value and conserve attractive villages and on a weekend you rarely have any of them to yourself.
That isn’t to say these places are not worth visiting! We were in northern Spain in our campervan and had been seeking out some of Spain’s Los Pueblos más bonitos, their most beautiful villages. The walled town of Pedraza in the province of Segovia in the Castile and Leon region is one of these villages and was just off our route one wintery Sunday. We decided it would make a perfect detour for an hour or so.
Not wanting to get the Blue Bus stuck in the narrow streets that led to the large car park by the castle, we opted for the small parking area below the substantial walls. It was already busy as we pulled in but this was before lunch time and there was still manoeuvring room.
Glad to find a space, we tucked in without turning around, an amateur error! Almost immediately a small Spanish car came in behind us, so close its bonnet was under our bike rack! An old VW ‘van then tucked in within centimetres of our bonnet and as the car park filled up around us we slowly realised getting out was going to be challenging. We decided to explore the lovely town and hope that all these people were just here for a half an hour stroll.
The Plaza Mayor is the focus of the town with arcades of shops and restaurants, where people were beginning to gather for a long Spanish Sunday lunch. We admired the San Juan church and its lovely square tower on the side of the square and walked to the imposing 13th century castle that has been restored.
After exploring the streets of Pedraza, admiring the view from near the castle and browsing in some of the shops, we returned to a still crowded car park. Cars had packed themselves on both sides of the narrow parking area and turning a 5.4 metre ‘van was now impossible.
The entrance to the gravelly car park was at the bottom and it then sloped steeply up to a gateway which was blocked with hazard tape. We realised we either had to stay here until the Spanish rolled out of the restaurants or, as this was in the direction we were pointing, we could try and use the higher taped-up exit. While I provided extra eyes and waved my arms around, my partner shunted the ‘van backwards and forwards out of our space. Once free he eased between the cars, skidding on the steep gravelly gradient. I ran ahead and quickly hauled the post out of the ground and moved the tape aside. Our Renault skidded through, trailing rubber and we were out!
As I attempted to replace the tape, excited Spanish drivers, having spotted there was now a 5.4 metre space in the car park and a new entrance, tried to drive past me. I was worried someone in authority would suddenly arrive and tell us this exit shouldn’t be used and had to muster my most assertive Spanish to return the tape across the gateway.
We broke two campervan rules on this day. Driving into a busy and tight car park is best avoided and if you do, always turn the ‘van around while you can!
We stayed at:
Camping Riaza, a level site in the Segovia province north of Madrid. There are mountain views from the site and some road noise. A pleasant small town with shops and bars is a short walk away and there is information about local walks. The facilities are clean and the showers are continuous (no push buttons here) and very hot.
As Thomas Cook disappeared from our high streets I thought about the travel agent’s role and wondered if it will exist for much longer. This got me thinking … is this a job I should have taken up as a teenager? I could see myself sitting behind a desk with a PC and a stack of brochures, getting paid to inspire customers with ideas for their dream holiday. I would explore with each person what makes them tick, what type of holiday they want, what their interests are and try to fit the people to their ideal destination. Instead travel advice has become something I do freely and perhaps too enthusiastically. I am always chipping in to help [or overwhelm] friends, colleagues and strangers in the planning of their trips.
A typical example is a friend who was taking her first trip to the West Coast of Scotland and asked if I had any places I would recommend. Quite sometime later she left with a long list of what I considered were just a start on my top tips of places to visit in this beautiful part of the world, from the grandeur of Glencoe to the stunning Torridon. When it comes to travel I can never be accused of being unenthusiastic!
Another friend was beginning to plan a trip to Slovenia and asked if I had any recommendations. Never short of ideas, I emailed her a list from my own experience in that gorgeous country and last year I was able to help a fellow travel writer with suggestions for places to camp on a a trip across Germany from the Czech Republic.
In this last month I was asked for ideas for campsites in the Lake District. I had to make myself stop after I had listed ten recommendations, each with a link to the website, a review of each site including its pros and cons and what they can do from the site. At our tai chi class recently I was recommending at length some nearby gardens for snowdrops to a fellow class mate. My enthusiasm knows few bounds and I don’t always spot the signs that I am overwhelming people!
I can’t help putting my two penn’orth in on social media too and this is a fantastic place for the frustrated travel agent. I spot a question about somewhere I have visited and I pile in with ideas and tips for campsites and special places to visit. People ask so many questions about places that are new to them on the various motorhome and campervan groups and lots of fellow travellers will willingly and enthusiastically pipe up with their own recommendations. I don’t need to yearn to be employed as a travel agent these days, I can just spend my days [when I am not travelling] cruising social media looking for people that are longing for my input!
It isn’t all one-way traffic, I am a taker as well as a giver and I am inspired by other people’s trips. I note down new places to visit, ideas for walks and campsites and countries to explore that I find on social media. I also avidly read other travel writers who generously share their favourite places and secret corners to visit via blogs, MMM and Campervan magazines and books.
It is too late for me to be a real travel agent but I can keep sharing my love for travelling with others so that they can also enjoy amazing trips and on the high street Hays Travel seem to be making a success of taking over Thomas Cook, so the travel agent certainly isn’t gone yet!
I wonder if every campervan or motorhome owner has at least one no-sweat place. These are camping trips to somewhere familiar and where no planning or research is needed. You don’t have to think about what you will do when you get there, you just have a day or two free, you need a break and after a short drive you can park up the campervan, motorhome or caravan and immediately relax. We have a number of these places and Southport is one of them that we often visit in the winter months.
There are a couple of options for parking your campervan when staying in Southport. The Caravan and Motorhome Club Site tends to be our preferred option as we seek peace and quiet. Since it’s refurbishment some years ago this site has plenty of space and two sanitary blocks and is only a few minutes walk from the town. The other option is the car park next to Pleasureland funfair. This level hard-standing area is free or £3 for a hook-up and a good budget option but it can be crowded and noisy.
Southport has a long promenade and walking along here is my top favourite thing to do and we will usually get out to do this as soon as our arrival brew is finished. The sands are vast at Southport and the sea can seem a long way away and looking to the west you get a sense of space that is stunning. We will usually take in the 1,000 metre long pier too if it is open and stand above the sands. In winter we will look out for waders along the shoreline or we might wait for one of Southport’s spectacular sunsets. The end of the Marine Lake is a good place to take an about turn and follow the inland shore of the lake, occasionally stopping to watch the ducks and swans and taking a wander through King’s Gardens.
Our next stop will be the town centre. A stroll under the wrought-iron canopies of Lord Street is a real Southport experience. We are not big on shopping but if you are then there is plenty here to look around. We usually look for a cafe and last time we visited we warmed up in Remedy, an independent cafe. The cafe is situated in a mock-Victorian glass house in the gardens in front of the Town Hall. It is a cosy and relaxing cafe where on a winter’s afternoon you can snuggle up with a hot chocolate spiced up with your choice of alcohol and read a newspaper or choose a board game. We people watched and had a spirited couple of games of dominoes.
On our next walk we will take in Victoria Park, a large green space near to the campsite and follow the Queen’s Jubilee Nature Trail, an interesting area of old sand dunes and bushes.
Trips to Southport are generally on the spur of the moment. Most recently we were so stressed by our house moving we packed and went on a whim. We never plan to be there for a particular event but there is often something going on in Southport. Our visits have coincided with firework displays, the Christmas lights switch on and in the summer months we have visited the popular flower show. Southport also has attractions such as Pleasureland, the British Lawnmower Museum and a Model Railway Village.
When we have taken our bicycles to Southport we have followed the cycle route south down the coast and into the woodland around Formby. The cycle path is noisy along the busy main road but once you are among the trees it is blissful. The sandy paths meander up and down the old dunes, through tall pine trees. When we don’t have the bikes we park the ‘van in one of the spacious National Trust car parks [we are not members and so have to pay the £7.50] and take a walk through this wonderful area.
If you have never been to Formby before I almost envy you that first sight of the long sweep of beach, backed by sand dunes and coastal pinewoods. The scenery and the wildlife here is very special and it is the perfect place for a walk or just to sit. In spring you might spot a great crested newt in one of the ponds among the dunes and in the summer there are plenty of butterflies. Many people come to Formby because this is a stronghold of red squirrels and these are here all year round but recently it has become more difficult to see them. Squirrel pox is a highly infectious disease that has been found among this threatened group of red squirrels and the National Trust are discouraging visitors from feeding the squirrels as this brings them together and helps the infection spread. But stay a while and you might be lucky and spot one of these beautiful animals.
The National Trust provide a map showing different trails of various lengths around Formby and there are toilets and usually a refreshment van near the main car park. The beach is always a magnet for visitors and you rarely have it to yourself but there is enough room for everyone. If you seek solitude then follow one of the less trodden paths and you will soon discover your own Formby.
Travelling full-time or for around 12 months in a campervan is becoming increasingly popular, for people of all ages, including among those of us who are too old to have had a gap year. If you are yearning to make that long trip, you might be wondering how you can make this adventure happen, and does reality match up to the dream. In 2009 we were two people in our late 40s early 50s, with jobs that paid the average wage for the UK and yet after a few years of planning and saving we were able to set off and do just that. Here are my tips to help you plan your own dream trip:
First Buy Your Campervan
Saving Money so you can Afford the Trip
What to do About Working When you Come Back
Living for 12 Months
What Clothes do you Need?
Dream vs Reality
1. First Buy Your Campervan
We bought our first campervan in 2005 but felt that this traditional VW was too small for full-time travel. By the time we set off on our adventure we owned a Devon Conversions VW Sundowner; this is a long wheelbase VW and has an on-board toilet but no bathroom. For many people this ‘van would still be much too small for two adults to live in for 12 months but for us it worked perfectly, small and discrete it never felt too big but it had everything we needed. That said, we pretty much stayed on campsites all the time and we were in the warmer parts of mainland Europe. Whether you have a huge RV or a micro-camper, my top tip is try out your ‘van for long holidays before you commit to 12 months in it, think about whether you want to wild camp all or most of the time and see how your outfit works for you.
We had owned the Sundowner for two years before we set off travelling, we had been away twice for over three weeks at a time and we were familiar with the ‘van and knew we could live in its confined space. Also after two years the van and the conversion had bedded in and any niggles had been sorted and problems ironed out.
Of course, some people travel full-time in a caravan and you might want to consider that option too. If your dream trip is to southern Europe for three or four months during the summer then you could save loads of money and just take a tent.
2. Money, Money, Money
Unless you can work on the road – and then that makes it a whole different trip – or have won the lottery, you will need to save some money before you travel. Before we went travelling we put away what we hoped was enough to live on for twelve months. In addition to this travelling fund we chose to save enough for a further six months to cover the period when we got back home and were looking for work. Tracking your spending for a year or so before you travel helps you know what these amounts will be for your own lifestyle and will vary depending on what you eat, how often you visit restaurants, how many attractions you take in and whether you use campsites or free camping. On our year away we spent £19,900, you can do it cheaper or you can spend a lot more.
We saved this money by down-sizing our home, doing without stuff and treats, selling everything we didn’t need through Ebay and working hard. For a few months, during the year before we set off I was juggling three jobs to contribute towards the savings. This was hard going but I had the motivation to get through a short period of stress to meet a clear aim.
Fluctuations with the Euro and Sterling made our planning more tricky and this will still be an issue. At the last minute in 2008 it became clear that thanks to the collapse of the banks and recession we had to save a few more thousand to cover our living costs as we were getting considerably less for our hard-earned pounds. We were lucky that a chunk of well-paid contract work turned up at just the right time.
We didn’t rent our property while we were away as we wanted to have it there should we need to return home in an emergency but this could be a good option for some people. The downside of our approach was that we also needed the money to keep the flat ticking over. We stopped any unnecessary bills such as broadband and telephone but continued insurance and minimum payments for utilities; at the time this was an additional £4,300.
A problem we found was that no one was able to offer affordable contents insurance for our empty flat, even though the site we live on is secure. Instead our son came to stay every couple of months to check the flat, clear the mail and ensure we were complying with the insurance. We were lucky that he was available to do this.
3. Giving up the Nine to Five?
Unless you are made redundant and have a large redundancy pot to spend on your trip you will need to decide what to do about work. We both resigned, leaving our jobs before we set off travelling. Another friend managed to secure a sabbatical and his job was kept open and this is a fantastic option if you can get it and it is worth asking but it will depend on your employer.
We believed [rightly it turned out] that we were both highly-skilled individuals and that at least one of us would find work that paid enough and was within commuting distance of our home in Salford in six months or less. The risk that we were wrong about this did increase thanks to that recession. You will know your local job market and how easy or difficult this will be but I would guess if you are based in a smaller town this could be hard, unless you have much needed skills or are willing to commute further.
What made a big difference to our circumstances was that having down-sized we were mortgage-free. This meant that we did not need to earn as much as we had in the past and jobs at even minimum wage would have been sufficient for us to keep the wolf from the door. As it turned out we both secured reasonable jobs within three months of getting home.
4. Living for 12 Months
Just to be clear – being away for 12 months is nothing like a holiday. For me it was much better that a holiday. Unlike a break from work, you don’t go through one week of unwinding and another of gearing up to go back to work. Full-time travel gives you an opportunity to be unshackled from being a wage slave, wake up without an alarm and plan your own day and we found this completely relaxing. All we really had to worry about was where we were going to go next and what we would eat that day. Life becomes fairly stripped down and simple and this is a liberating and exciting experience.
We deliberately kept our trip flexible. This meant that we could spend as long as we wanted in different places. Slovenia hadn’t really been on our list but we were so bowled over with the country we spent a month there and we were delightfully surprised to find that Austria was a great place to spend August.
Being away for 12 months does throw you together as a couple (unless you are travelling alone). We had been married for over 20 years and were confident that we could deal with this but it certainly isn’t something to do with a shaky relationship. I found that spending every day with my partner meant I got to know him even better and love him even more. We did talk about this and there were times when we did our own thing. If you need your own space then I would suggest that you discuss this, think through how often you need to get away on your own and how to make it happen. Sometimes just a half-hour morning walk on your own to get the milk is all you need.
5. What Will You Wear?
Our VW didn’t have unlimited amounts of storage space and we travelled light. The numbers of items of clothing we took are below to get you started in thinking about this practical issue [where there are two numbers the lower one is my super-lightweight travelling partner]. You will notice there is no posh frock in the list and almost all of these items are technical, quick to dry and robust kit from specialist clothing manufacturers.
Shorts – 2 pairs each
3/4 length trousers -2 or 3 pairs each
Trousers – 3 pairs each
Skirt – 1 [just me]
T-shirts or shirts – 8 each
Jumpers – 2 or 3 each
Long-sleeved tops – 1 or 4 (one of us does not feel the cold!)
Nightwear – 2 sets
Underwear – 6 pairs of Lowe Alpine / Helly Hansen / Rohan pants each
Footwear – 2 pairs of sandals, 1 pair walking shoes, 1 pair of outdoor shoes and 1 pair of Crocs each
We also packed cycling shorts, swimming costumes and each had a fleece jacket and cagoule / waterproof jacket.
6. Dream vs Reality
How did our 12 months travelling around Europe match up to the dream? Well I certainly wouldn’t have missed it for the world and here are some things I learnt:
Distance didn’t matter – some days we would only travel a few kilometres to a different campsite with a new view.
We did lots of things and saw so many new places but not every day was fun-packed – there were days when we just chilled and those were good days too.
We stopped worrying if we didn’t get to see every ‘must-see’ sight, it was our trip not a bucket list. We missed out all sorts of things we might have crammed in if we hadn’t been so relaxed, including Rome and Florence.
There are still chores – we still had laundry and van cleaning to do but they always happened somewhere different and were always much more fun than at home.
Despite being married for over 20 years, the trip gave us space to get to know each other even better and after living in a small space for 12 months our partnership was stronger.
Books – we book swapped rather than take e-books. These book swaps were from other campers or from campsite libraries and often resulted in interesting finds and amiable conversations.
Mainland Europe is not an homogeneous place, every European country is different with varied ways of doing things, different cultures and new products available in the shops. We loved this difference then and still do.
Be open to meeting new people and new experiences – within your own safety boundaries!
We walked and cycled almost every day, keeping fit was easy with so much time.
The weather isn’t always sunny. We travelled through France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Italy again, France some more, Spain and Portugal. It is surprisingly cold throughout inland Spain and Portugal from December to March and we mostly hugged the coastline for the milder weather. Even so for the three months from January to March in Spain and Portugal we had 38 days with some rain, more details here.
We didn’t book any campsites and only had a problem in Austria during August in one area because a large campsite was closed for refurbishment and that had a knock-on elsewhere. Some sites in Spain during the winter were busy but we always got a pitch. This may be more difficult these days as there are more people travelling.
What we missed most was our son and daughter-in-law and paying for them to fly out twice during our year was a great investment. They met us in self-catering cottages we had booked and this made a real difference to our enjoyment of the year away.
Other things I missed were Radio 4, crumpets and good tea bags!
The time goes very fast!
When I returned I didn’t really want to go back to work and our gap year gave me the motivation to start saving for early retirement.
I am generally happy to follow rules and regulations but just occasionally I find a latent streak that has a tendency to kick against authority and doesn’t really like being told what to do. Is this recalcitrance why I love the freedom of owning a campervan? I certainly grasp the sense of the freedom of the open road with both hands when we are on holiday; I like to think I can go where I want and do what I please, so long as it doesn’t annoy anyone else of course. I am also one of those people who gets fidgety after more than a couple of hours being told where to go on a guided tour.
One of my regular bugbears is when I am told what to do by, what I consider to be, an unnecessary sign. It is those signs that state the obvious, such as danger deep water, keep away from the cliff edge or fire is hot that irritate me and make me want to dive in and try the forbidden activity.
Before we joined the free-living motorhoming movement we stayed in plenty of self-catering cottages. One particular Scottish house, while lovely, did come with a profusion of notices pinned to the walls telling us to do this and not do that; I could have wasted most of my precious holiday just reading them, never mind carrying them out. There were notices telling me not to clean the stainless steel with scourers; to leave muddy boots in the utility room; and to stack the plates neatly in the cupboards. Surely all of these things really go without saying! Is anyone that thoughtless? But the notice that really tipped me over the edge was the one in the bathroom stating that visitors should clean the bathroom daily! Every day! Really! On holiday! This notice was in my eye-line every time I had a wash or cleaned my teeth and every day I felt criticised for disobeying it but I was also determined not to carry it out. At the end of the holiday, feeling as if I had got away with something, I left the bathroom as clean as I would like to find it. Fortunately, there was no sign forbidding playing indoor golf and we were able to indulge in this sport up and down the large staircase and hall on a wet evening.
Camping is not without rules and while I might think that most of these rules could be taken for granted there are clearly campers who need to be reminded how to co-habit a green space considerately. And yet some campsites have gone overboard with the laminator and drawing pins. In the sanitary facilities I have seen notices about what the toilet brush should be used for; notices telling campers what to put [and not put] in the toilet are prevalent; reminders about leaving the shower clean for the next person crop up pretty often too; and most frustrating of all are those signs that tell me that the water from the hot tap will be hot, well I sincerely hope so!
We have stayed on campsites in France and Spain that have complex written rules regarding the use of washing lines. From these precise instructions I can only assume that some inconsiderate previous campers have happily hung their washing to dry from a young sapling that splintered under the weight of laundry and others have left their smalls flapping on a line they have strung across a dozen pitches. Perhaps it only takes one thoughtless camper for these notices to become inevitable.
I do understand that not everyone is the upstanding and trustworthy motorhome owner that I obviously am. But I ask readers, do all these signs really make any difference to the ill-mannered behaviour of the small minority? If you were going to leave your litter on your pitch, rather than in a bin, would you also be the sort of person to pay attention to a sign telling you to be tidy?
There are useful signs that tell me when reception is open or when not to use the sanitary block due to cleaning. Even a free spirit like me is keen to distinguish the ladies and gents facilities so that I don’t get embarrassed in the wrong room … but don’t get me started on those trendy places that use ambiguous images on their sanitary facilities; these have me dithering and uncertain, waiting in a corridor for someone else to exit so that I can work out where I am supposed to go.
My favourite and most useful notice is the one seen on Italian campsites that tells everyone which sink is exclusively for cleaning fish; invaluable if you don’t want fish-smelling laundry!
The Hexham Racecourse campsite is on the top of a hill and has wide open views over the racecourse to green hills and woodland. This lofty position does mean it catches even the merest hint of a breeze. The walk into Hexham is an easy 1.5 km but the return is back up the hill and a trifle more demanding. The peace and openness of this relaxed campsite suited us very well and the facilities are modern and clean.
Hexham is a quiet little town but certainly worth a walk around to see the abbey and the old gaol and there are plenty of cafes to sit in and watch the world go by. We walked down to the town in the early evening and pottered through the streets and the park.
On a wet day we took a longer walk from the campsite through luxuriant woodland where raindrops dripped long after a downpour had stopped. The long ribbon of West Dipton Wood follows the brook along a narrow valley to the charming Dipton Mill Inn. We followed tracks and lanes to the hamlet of Juniper where we picked up a path over the dramatically named Devil’s Water into Dipton Wood, a large area of woodland and heather that is varied and delightful. We didn’t meet another walker until we were on the paths and lanes that took us into the Tyne Valley and Corbridge where the sun started to peep out. We treated ourselves to pancakes with ice-cream in the Emporium Ice-cream Parlour before catching a train back to Hexham and tackling the hill up to the campsite.
Our next stop was the Caravan and Motorhome Club site by Whitley Bay. On the way we returned to Corbridge to visit the fascinating site of the Roman town that has been excavated. The Whitley Bay campsite is arranged so that pretty much everyone has some sort of sea view, looking across to the picturesque St Mary’s Lighthouse that can be reached by a short causeway between high tides. We walked along the coast to the centre of Whitley Bay and joined the queue for a Di Meo’s Ice Cream, spoilt for choice by their range of delicious flavours. There were plenty of people enjoying being on the beach and I decided it was warm enough to have a paddle in the sea as we walked back.
We ended our trip near to Durham. We walked to Causey Arch, the world’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge and along the old railway line into the village of Lanchester. The Lanchester Valley railway was built to carry iron ore and coal to the Consett steelworks and was opened in 1862. Trains ran here for just over one hundred years and today it is a level and popular walking and cycle path. In Lanchester we found the charming Kaffeehaus Amadeus, a small and delicious slice of Austria in County Durham.
Before we headed home a friend took us on a short walk to see Brancepeth, an unexpected picture-postcard village with a castle and St Brandon’s Church, which had exceptional 17th-century features but was destroyed by fire in 1998. The church was restored and is now a light and airy space with a stunning modern stained glass window depicting colourful flowers.
The Shetland Isles some miles off the north coast of Scotland are fascinating and beautiful islands, packed with wildlife and a different view around every headland. Shetland will take your traveller’s mind and blow it over a sea cliff with its stunning scenery, friendly people and tranquillity. Getting to Shetland is quite a journey for anyone but it is perfect for the pace of a campervan or motorhome holiday. Read on and get the bug …
If you are taking your campervan, rather than hiring one there, you will be on the ferry from Aberdeen. Even if you are hiring, consider taking the ferry, rather than flying for a gentler way of getting north. We got on the NorthLink ferry in Kirkwall, Orkney, as we spent a few days on these islands first. As we were only on the ferry from about midnight until early morning we decided that the sleeping pods would be an acceptable and cheaper option, rather than paying for a cabin. This turned out to be a frugal choice too far! The sleeping pods area is full of people shuffling, snoring and generally being quietly noisy and if you value your sleep get a cabin. If you must save money, take your own blanket and find a corner of the boat to sleep in. On our return to Aberdeen we had a cabin which felt luxurious.
Where to start exploring
Before you go make use of the Shetland Tourist Information site as it is incredibly useful. I spent hours checking out the walking pages for ideas for long and short walks on the islands. We followed a number of these including Hillswick Ness, North Roe, Culswick, St Ninian’s Isle, Eshaness and Hams of Muckle Roe. They were all good paths and excellent hiking with cliffs, sea stacks and arches around every headland.
Getting off what Shetlanders call The Mainland [the main island] is easy. There are daily inter-island ferries to the northern islands, Yell, Unst and Fetlar and to Whalsay and Bressay on the east. There are also regular sailings to Skerries, Papa Stour, Foula and Fair Isle.
Reading some of Ann Cleve’s Shetland series or watching the TV series before you visit could be a fun part of your planning. It will in no way prepare you for the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the community but they are great stories.
There are wild camping spots on Shetland but do support the community campsites as these are a great chance to meet local people and support rural areas. Information about the nine campsites is on the website including the facilities they provide and cost. Some of these campsites have honesty boxes, at others a volunteer will come round for payment. We stayed at almost all the campsites and they were all good although my favourite was the Burravoe Pier site on Yell. We spent a few days in this picturesque spot, walked and cycled from here and just watched the sea. I also loved camping at the village hall at North Roe where there are no facilities except for water and electric. We had it to ourselves and sat in the evening sunshine listening to snipe drumming overhead. My post about Scottish campsites is here.
A slow pace
My top tip is don’t dash around Shetland, even if you are only there for a few days. We explored the islands for three weeks and this felt good but we could easily have stayed for longer and even after so long there were still things we didn’t get round to seeing.
Taking it slowly will give you chance to find your own special corners. There is a main road along the length of Shetland’s Mainland but you will want to turn off this road to explore the single-track roads that often end at the sea, which is never far away. Stopping and watching the sea was one of our favourite activities, the views change with the weather and tides. If you are lucky and patient you might spot seals, otters or orcas.
Experience the slower pace of life in Shetland and give yourself time to talk to people. We found that Shetlanders still practice the art of conversation and many of them willingly and generously shared fascinating stories with us.
Find at least one of the cake cupboards. These are roadside places to buy yummy fresh cakes with an honesty box. We visited the Cake Fridge at East Burrafirth and the Emma’s Cake Corner in Hoswick many times. For a full list.
Buy the Shetland Times on a Friday and check out which village halls are offering Sunday Tea or Sunday Lunch and get along. In the winter, the lunch is soup and sandwiches and cake for a fixed price. In summer there is an offering of homemade cakes, quiche, sandwiches and more, each item a small amount of money. All this is washed down by constant refills of tea or coffee. Sitting at communal tables you will get a chance to chat to some more Shetlanders. The money raised generally goes to a good cause or to support the village hall.
You can also buy Shetland milk and excellent Shetland butter in the village shops and supermarkets.
Things to see
You will probably spend lots of time beach combing and sitting on cliffs but eventually you might want to see some sights.
Take a boat trip with Shetland Seabird Tours. They take weather-dependent daily trips to see the birds around Noss and have early bird dawn trips too. We never got to see the birds on Noss as on the day we were booked the orcas were around and we had an amazing hour watching them hunting the bays. Whatever you see, you will enjoy a great trip with a knowledgeable crew.
A trip to Mousa to see the best preserved broch in Scotland [and anywhere] is another must-do. This is a short boat trip and walk to the broch. You can also visit at night, leaving around 22.30, to see the storm petrels returning to their nests in the broch. This is a unique Shetland wildlife experience.
Visit Jarlshof, the site of human settlement for around 4,000 years near Sumburgh Airport. With examples of buildings from Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Norse and medieval eras this is a complicated and fascinating site.
If you have a wet day spend it in Lerwick. After browsing the shops and cafes, visit the bright and modern museum on the quayside where you will learn so much about Shetland and its history. A trip to the Town Hall to see the colourful stained glass windows that tell stories from Shetland’s history is also worthwhile.
The Tangwick Haa Museum at Eshaness will give you a useful overview of Shetland’s fishing industry and Querndale Mill surprised us with its varied exhibits, in particular the photographs of local wildlife and their Shetland names. The beautiful Burravoe Haa Museum on Yell tells more stories about fishing and local history and has an archive of wildlife photographs taken by Bobby Tulloch, a local man. The Old Haa also serves excellent tea and homemade cake.
If it is the seabird nesting season you will want to go to either Sumburgh Head or Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Unst. You might see puffins, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots or razorbills and other birds.
Some people might tell you that trees can’t grow on Shetland. Although it can be windy, this isn’t true and we visited some superb woodlands. Da Gairdins at Sand, Garderhouse is a woodland garden on three crofts that is lovingly tended by Ruby. Michaelswood near Aith is a magical community woodland to remember a young man who died. Both of these are perfect to visit on a breezy day when you want some shelter.
Find your Shetland
Everyone finds their own way to enjoy Shetland. I hope these give you some ideas to start planning your own trip. If you’ve visited Shetland and I’ve forgotten your favourite thing to do then drop a comment below.
From April to June we were touring around Scotland, from Loch Lomond to Shetland, we spent two months pottering around this beautiful country. In previous years we have visited mainland Europe in the spring … it was orcas that drew me to Shetland. I thought it would be interesting to compare what it cost on our campervan trip in Scotland with our previous holidays around mainland Europe. Of course, every trip is different but I’ve had a go at looking at the costs across different spending lines, comparing it with our trip to Croatia, Italy and France for the same length of time last spring and a slightly shorter trip to Spain last autumn. How did Scotland stack up?
Diesel – UK higher
We travelled 2,520 miles and spent £460. [Diesel is cheaper in Europe so although our Scottish mileage is similar to our mileage in Spain last year that trip cost £389 for diesel. If we take the Blue Bus to the southern areas of Europe the mileage is higher and the cost more].
Food for two hungry vegetarians – UK lower
In Scotland we spent £719.15 in supermarkets. [In Croatia, Italy and France last spring we spent £958 in supermarkets, despite the wine being cheaper!]
Cafes and restaurants – UK higher
It is hard to compare like-for-like for this spending. Sometimes in Scotland there is no tea shop for miles and when you are out walking for the day on a mountain there is no chance for a coffee, whereas in Spain and Italy we would often stop for coffee as it is good and cheap. In Scotland we spent £527.56 during the trip. [Eating out is often cheaper in Europe. In Croatia, Italy and France last spring we spent £467 in cafes and restaurants]
Campsites – UK lower
We stayed on campsites for 47 of the 67 nights of our Scotland trip, the cost per night ranged from £5 to £28 – we spent £778.40 . On Shetland we didn’t wild camp as much as we expected because a) it was cold and we wanted EHU for the heating as there is no LPG available on the island b) we like to support the community and all but one campsite we used was community run and reasonably priced, it would have been rude not to stay on these sites. [We tend to think UK campsites are expensive but we spent £983 on campsites for the same number of nights away last year, staying mostly in Croatia, Italy and France and using our ACSI card. Camping in Spain and Portugal is much cheaper.]
Ferries and parking – UK lower
We spent a total of £644.13 on ferries and parking – £525 of this is the return ferry to Shetland, most of the rest is Shetland inter-island ferries and ferries to Bute and Kintyre. [The Hull to Zeebrugge ferry was £489 last year plus we spent £218 on tolls and parking]
Entrance charges and attractions – UK somewhat lower
In Scotland we spent £234.50, this included two boat trips on Shetland and a pine marten watching trip. [Last spring we spent £279 on the same budget line]
Other spending £173.57 [includes £25 for a deep tissue massage after Ben Nevis, washing machines, maps, gifts for friends and a pair of warm trousers].
The bottom line – £3,012.10 spent in Scotland [We spent the equivalent of £4,240 [£1,228 more!] on a holiday of the same length last spring that took us to Croatia, Italy and France with a higher mileage and consequently £610 spent on diesel]
For 67 days away our average spending was £44.96 a day in Scotland.
This total isn’t much more than our average in Spain last year of £42.93 / day and the ferry to Shetland was much cheaper than Portsmouth to Bilbao. Of course, the weather is warmer in Spain!
Our trip to Croatia, Italy and France last spring was considerably more expensive and averaged £61/day due to the longer distances, high prices of Italian campsites and supermarket shopping costing more.
If we hadn’t taken the ferry to Shetland [and missed all the wonderful sights in these photographs – I don’t think so] we would have been quids in … but Shetland’s wonderful campsites were certainly the cheapest.
I dislike feeling at home when I’m abroad, George Bernard Shaw
These words of George Bernard Shaw are in the opening scene of Widowers’ Houses, his first play to be staged in 1892. This opening scene is set in Remagen on the Rhine in Germany where Harry Trench and his friend William Cokane are travelling. William Cokane meets a Gentleman who does not share Cokane’s excitement at hearing English spoken while in Germany.
THE GENTLEMAN [to Cokane] We are fellow travellers, I believe, sir.
COKANE. Fellow travellers and fellow countrymen. Ah, we rarely feel the charm of our own tongue until it reaches our ears under a foreign sky. You have no doubt noticed that?
THE GENTLEMAN [a little puzzled] Hm ! From a romantic point of view, possibly, very possibly. As a matter of fact, the sound of English makes me feel at home; and I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad. It is not precisely what one goes to the expense for.
Many travellers will relate to this, none of us want to waste the expense of going abroad and then feel like we are in the UK. I do want places to feel different to home and in some way foreign; either the food, the language, the culture or the architecture should be shouting out to tell me I am somewhere other than home.
That said, on a campsite in another country hearing English spoken can be lovely. Much as I love talking to my partner, after a few weeks away it can be exciting to talk to someone else in ‘our own tongue’ rather than struggling in the local language where I have only limited small talk and mostly rely on gestures and a handful of words. Other travellers are a mine of information; they often give recommendations for good campsites or places to visit and they might have a top camping tip or know about roads to avoid or have entertaining travellers tales.
When we travelled around southern Europe for a year in our former campervan in 2009 / 2010 I was certainly very pleased to meet fellow English travellers as this sometimes meant I would find books to swap. We had nowhere near enough room in our VW to carry all the books I could read in 12 months and I relied on campsite book swaps and other campers to get new reading material. If there was someone from the UK around I would take the pile of books I had read round to them and ask nicely if they had anything to swap. This approach revealed some gems and was a great opener for making new friends.
Does everyone keep a journal in their campervan? We started doing this early on in our campervan career and I am often glad we have a simple record of our camping life. We didn’t keep a journal for our first ‘van; we were newbies and it didn’t cross our mind … but once we got in the swing of being campervan owners we wanted a record of where we had stayed. I grabbed a spare exercise book [no expensive notebooks for two frugal travellers] drew in some columns and started our first journal.
In each journal I write the date, the name of the campsite and place, the overnight cost, the number of nights we are staying and a brief description and review of the site. I also use the journal to note things that we often forget such as when we last emptied the loo! These journals started when we bought our Devon Sundowner in 2007 and have continued ever since.
We are now on our third campervan journal. The notebooks all live in the ‘van and we refer to them regularly. We often arrive on a site we have been on before and wonder how long ago it was since we were last there [it is usually longer than we think]. At other times we might want to remind ourselves what we thought of a particular site while planning a trip to help us consider if it is worth returning to. Sometimes we just browse the journals for some misty-eyed reminiscing.
Although there is no journal from our holidays in our T4 we do know how many nights we spent in it thanks to photographs and diary jottings. On the front of the journals I keep a tally of the number of nights we have been away during the year and in a particular campervan as well as a total of our nights under a tin roof. Last summer we passed the milestone of 1,000 nights sleeping in a campervan in the eleven years we have been practising this van life.
We passed this 1,000 night’s milestone while we were camping in northern Italy. We were staying near Arsiè and although neither of us were getting flashes of déjà-vu I was looking through the journals because we were both pretty sure we had stayed nearby back in 2009. Flicking through the book to check where we had stayed we found we had been on the same site! We were flabbergasted! Where had the large sweet-smelling walnut tree we are sure we camped under gone? Where was the green gently-sloping field down to the lake? Either our combined memories were seriously faulty or they had re-developed the site beyond all recognition. We would certainly never have known we had been there before without the journals.
These notebooks are packed with happy and vivid memories that I don’t want to let go of. If you don’t keep a campervan journal then I suggest you start now.