Once again I am out enjoying the excitement of the open road with new and unexpected things around every corner. It has been a long time coming. Being out in the fresh air all day and walking with family and friends, sharing jokes and memories. These simple things have been my cure for the lock down blues.
I stood watching a moorhen with five tiny chicks pottering around a small inlet into a pond and wanted to weep with the joy of the moment. Nearby a Canada goose sat still and calm on a nest watched over by their alert mate. These and other experiences have re-wired my brain and woken up my senses, both dulled by lock down repeats.
We didn’t go far for our first few nights away once we were allowed. Burrs Country Park Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Greater Manchester is well placed to allow us to meet up with some people we’ve missed. A 30 minute walk into Bury and we were soon sitting outside Katsouris wonderful cafe eating tasty Greek food and catching up with an old friend from Salford as if the last 12 months hadn’t even happened. Later, our son and daughter-in-law drove up to Burrs Country Park and we walked through the countryside with them and enjoyed coffee and cake from the cafe as if everything was normal. Inside my heart was singing.
With a day to ourselves we cycled along the number six National Cycle Route to Salford and Clifton Country Park. The sun kept on shining and this surprisingly green and rural route turned up a reed warbler nibbling seed heads on the banks of the old canal, roe deer hiding in tall reeds, their erect pointed ears giving them away and a friendly cafe in Radcliffe that served us a delicious white chocolate and cranberry iced bun under a blue sky.
Moving on to Crowden we packed sandwiches and a flask and walked some of the Pennine Way. The weather was perfect and it was this and two other walkers who were the talk of the trail. We had wondered if anyone was walking this Long Distance Footpath at the moment and along came a young couple with a tiny baby who were spending their joint parenting leave backpacking the whole route. We admired their energy and wished them well.
After a week being back in the big wide world we had our first pint of draft beer in a sunny pub garden in Castleton. My drinking partner proclaimed that his pint of Chieftain IPA from Ireland was the best he’d ever had but that might be more to do with the months without a proper beer!
The town of Stonehaven on the east coast of Scotland is a perfect place for a few days away. It has an open and pleasant Caravan and Motorhome Club site that is just ten minutes walk from the centre of the small town and even nearer to the sea. This great location makes it a popular campsite to stay at and it had been on our wish list for some time. We eventually got to stay here between 2020 lock downs and found some great walks from the site.
The seafront to the harbour
This is a level short walk of around two miles that is perfect for the evening you arrive. Following the promenade around the bay, the path crosses a bridge and continues with the beach and the sea to one side and the houses of Stonehaven to the other. The path becomes a boardwalk as you get nearer to the old town and the harbour. Take your time looking at the different interesting metal sculptures along the boardwalk. These quirky sculptures of a lighthouse, boats and an aeroplane have fish crewing the boats and a seahorse looking out from the parapet of the lighthouse. Finally you will reach the picturesque harbour which is a lovely place to potter around, maybe stopping for a drink in a pub or cafe or just looking at the boats.
Dunnottar Castle & woodland
This is a stunning 5.5 mile [around 9 km] walk with plenty of places where you will want to linger.
From the campsite walk along the seafront to the old harbour [see above] and pick up the signed path behind the houses that climbs steeply above the town. At the top you will want to stop, admire the view and take photographs of the view over the harbour and the town. Continue along the well-used undulating path along the cliffs. The impressive war memorial built in 1923 to remember all those who lost their lives in the First World War is your next point of interest. It is worth leaving the main path and walking up to the memorial for more panoramic views.
The cliffs are stunning along this stretch of coast and you will soon have Dunnottar Castle in sight. This spectacularly-sited ruin has cliffs on three sides and is reached by a series of steps. There is an entrance charge for the castle, should you wish to visit. Alternatively, it is worth making the effort to walk down the steps to the pretty bay below the castle and watch the surf or have a picnic.
From Dunnottar Castle the walk crosses the road and passes a large wooden hut with a number above the door and an old radio station. The hut remains from the Second World War admiralty radio station. After the war the radio station was used to monitor radio calls from ships and in the 1950s the polygonal concrete building, reminiscent of an airport control tower, was built. By the 1970s much of the radio station’s work revolved around the oil drilling platforms, handling radio link calls. On the 6 July 1988 the staff at Stonehaven picked up the distress call from the Piper Alpha oil platform following an explosion. 226 people were on the platform at the time and 165 of these died in the disaster, plus two men from the Sandhaven, a supply vessel involved in the rescue. As satellite and mobile technology improved, the radio station was no longer needed and it was closed in 2000.
Reaching the A957, we turned left to the car park and walked into Dunnottar Woods but you might find a different path into the woodland. However, you get there take your time wandering through the trees and following the stream and you could find some wooden sculptures, a cluster of fairy doors and in the autumn some real mushrooms.
You emerge from the woodland back into Stonehaven. Follow your nose and you will be back at the seafront and a choice of ice-cream shops.
Chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan
If you turn left out of the campsite there is a pleasant walk of not more than 1.5 miles. You soon leave Stonehaven and are beyond the houses. The narrow path quickly climbs from shore level through the bushes and grass to the top of the cliffs. If you follow this narrow and sometimes overgrown path you will eventually cross a bridge and reach the ruined chapel of St Mary and St Nathalan surrounded by an old graveyard.
The chapel has an enviable position overlooking the sea and beyond its walls is the golf course. Cowie Castle once sat on the clifftop nearby but little can be seen of it.
After exploring the chapel and reading some of the fascinating gravestones, you can return back to the campsite the same way or stay high on the path above the cliffs and emerge onto the main road that runs above the campsite. Follow the road downhill until just before the campsite and turn onto the steep path that takes you to Amy Row, a pretty road back to the campsite.
2020 can’t really count as a full year in terms of camping! Thanks to Covid-19 and the various restrictions, we only had 173 nights [24 weeks and five days] when we were able to take our campervan, the Blue Bus, away for the night. Despite the lock downs, quarantine and tiers from March to the end of 2020 we managed to get away for 79 nights during the year in our campervan. Here in Lancashire our year looked like this:
Lock Down One 23/3/20 – 3/7/20 – 103 nights
Quarantine after our trip to France – 14 nights
Lancashire in Tier Three and national Lock Down Two 17/10/20 – 31/12/20 – 76 nights
A total of 193 nights when either campsites were closed or we were not allowed to use them.
Not everyone uses their campervan as much as we normally do. Of course, there are some owners who full-time or are hardly at home but for us 79 nights away is considerably less than we expected to be sleeping in our campervan in 2020 [we haven’t even used up the teabag stash we bought in February when we were getting ready for being away for over three months]. Our 2020 nights in the campervan is almost half the number of nights we were away in 2017 and in 2018. A ‘van is an expensive piece of kit and we don’t like to waste it. Since retirement we have used our Blue Bus over 100 nights in each year, including the year we moved house. When we were restricted by work we would usually be away for around 70+ nights, so 2020 felt a bit like being taken back in time.
Those 79 nights away were spent in 41 different campsites and overnight stops. We still don’t stay anywhere long! We have now spent 608 nights in our current Blue Bus and 1,325 nights in total in a campervan over the 15 years we have owned a ‘van.
With restrictions and constraints on our travel, the trips we did manage to make were all the more memorable and valued. I don’t think I will ever take the freedom to travel in our campervan for granted again. Out of those 79 nights, 16 were made in those carefree days BC days [Before Coronavirus]. In that time we had some short local holidays and got away to Wiltshire and Gloucestershire and Scotland. Of course, if I had known what was coming we would have been away more but, like many, I thought I had the year planned out. We were the last people to leave a Scottish campsite when Lock Down One began and that long drive through a shocked and anxious UK was a strange day.
After campsites re-opened on the 4th July [hurrah!] and then the VAT reduction was bought in, we took a number of fantastic trips. Staying local, camping in the Lake District was pure pleasure, Cheshire’s Delamere Forest delightful and the Yorkshire Dales always a favourite. We are lucky in the north-west of England to have so many beautiful places nearby.
More than usual in 2020, we spent our time walking and cycling, rarely visiting attractions. On a few occasions we met up with friends for socially distanced camping and hiking. This was the year when these social [and socially distanced] occasions with friends were rare and particularly precious times.
Mistakenly we thought things might be settling down and we headed further afield. We spent a fabulous few weeks on a circuit of Brittany through August [not a time of year we would normally have chosen but needs must] and found that France is even wonderful in the school holidays and that Brittany has some amazing and attractive corners on the coast and inland.
After France and staying home for quarantine we fitted in a trip to Scotland, discovering new places and re-discovering old haunts as we toured around the east coast and more Lake District and Yorkshire Dales trips. We knew that our days of being able to travel were numbered and that we would soon be confined to home again.
There were times within those restricted weeks when we could travel but not stay overnight. We took every opportunity to drive for up to an hour from home for a day trip and stretch our legs on some hills, rather than Morecambe’s Promenade. The Blue Bus came into its own on those trips too as we are self-sufficient and don’t need to use any other facilities..
At the moment none of us can go anywhere and planning feels too risky so I have no idea what 2021 has in store for us. I hope we will get to use our Blue Bus soon to create some more special memories.
Until fairly recently I hadn’t heard of The Motor Ombudsman (TMO), an organisation that is there to sort out disputes between customers and the automotive sector. In the past I have expressed a bit of scepticism about how effective these service ombudsmen are, but I have to hold my hand up and say they did [eventually] come up with the goods when we had an issue with Renault.
Our campervan conversion is on a Renault Master, a reliable work-horse sort of van that it would be reasonable to expect would keep chugging on for many miles. And yet, on our last trip to Spain ours let us down dramatically when the power steering suddenly failed in a Lidl car park in Guernica, having driven only 30 km from the ferry at Bilbao. It turns out that without power steering it is a herculean effort to wrestle a Renault Master into a parking space! One telephone call and our breakdown kicked in and after a wait of a few hours in the mid-day sunshine we were taken on the back of a large lorry to a friendly garage [in the photograph] in a town near Bilbao. None of the mechanics spoke English, we hadn’t even got into the swing of Spanish after being in the country a few hours, but everyone smiled a lot.
At the time our van was only four years old and power steering was still covered under the warranty. We informed our breakdown about this but they weren’t keen to move us onto a Renault garage as they thought this could prolong the repair and our need for alternative accommodation. This was possibly true and we were eager to be back on the road.
After a nail-biting day and night, when we didn’t know if it was a big or a small issue, the problem with the power steering turned out to be a relatively simple electrical fault and the local garage had our campervan up and running by the afternoon of the next day. We were relieved to only have to stay one night in a hotel and there was a lot more smiling all round.
In the meantime we had spoken to our Manchester Renault garage who suggested that Renault UK might just reimburse the £130 the repair cost us as it was covered by the warranty in the UK. When we returned home we contacted Renault, pointing out what good customers we had been at Renault Manchester, that the power steering should never have failed and how inconvenient this was on holiday. We hoped for an apology for the disruption and, knowing they had no obligation to pay us anything, a contribution to the cost we had incurred as a gesture of good will. Instead Renault responded very curtly, stating that they were not required to pay for a repair carried out by a non-Renault garage.
We would have been happy with just a few quid to shut us up but Renault’s response was so dismissive and thoughtless we were pushed into standing up to the might of an international corporation, a bit like David fighting Goliath, and call in The Motoring Ombudsman. The TMO took up our case and at first got the same uppity response from Renault. The TMO came back to us shrugging their shoulders in a Gallic way, saying there was no more they could do.
We were a trifle despondent to be beaten but didn’t think we had anywhere else to go. Then a few months later, quite mysteriously, TMO emailed us again to say they had reviewed our case [?] and were contacting Renault once more. We didn’t hold our breath but this time, again mysteriously, they either caught Renault on a good day or maybe gave the case to someone more experienced. On this occasion Renault reacted in a more customer-focused manner and offered to fully meet the cost of the repair and added a little something for our inconvenience. Of course, we accepted!
It isn’t quite the victory of David over Goliath but we were grateful to be listened to and did say a big thank you to The Motor Ombudsman and to Renault!
In 1985 we were both young, married and still child-free but didn’t own a campervan. We did have a small tent and in that spring we carried it across Scotland from coast to coast on what was then called The Great Outdoors Ultimate Challenge, run by The Great Outdoors magazine and sponsored by Ultimate, who made lightweight tents. Just being able to be a part of this hiking expedition was tough, never mind the days of backpacking across remote Scottish glens and mountains. Our application for the Ultimate Challenge had to demonstrate our ability to backpack day after day, map read and survive in Scotland’s rugged terrain and in those days only 250 lucky participants were chosen. Once through the selection we had to submit a plan [by post] of our self-supported route for comments,. Although everyone finishes their challenge in Montrose, the west coast starting points vary and each route is unique.
The Great Outdoors established a self-supported Scottish coast-to-coast hike in 1980 and it is still going strong, although for obvious reasons 2020 didn’t happen. The walk is non-competitive, there are no prizes for reaching Montrose first and today people write blogs about their trips. The Great Outdoors Challenge writes, ‘Up to 2019, a total of 10013 crossing have been attempted with 8851 being completed – a remarkable achievement for a remarkable event.’ Mine is one of those 8,851 crossings.
An important part of our training and preparation for the challenge was eating Mars bars! In 1985 Mars had a promotion and eating enough gave us a discount on the National Express buses to and from Scotland. We left our Midlands home at 07.00 on a May morning with full rucksacks and full of excited anticipation after six months of planning. We arrived at our starting point of Oban on Scotland’s west coast in evening sunshine after an arduous journey of over twelve hours. On the coaches we were entertained by drivers, new to the route, who didn’t know the location of the bus station in the string of Yorkshire towns they stopped at! Without SatNav or online maps, they would look for road signs and even pull up and ask pedestrians the way.
Over the next memorable twelve days we carried our small Vango Mark Two tent, cooking equipment, food, clothing, camera, books and maps [my reading was Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles] from Oban across the notorious Rannoch Moor and through the Cairngorms to the east coast, sometimes in temperatures over 20C and sometimes in persistent rain. When we reached Montrose we were both grubbier, leaner and fitter.
Our recent trip to Montrose, Glen Clova and Glen Callater bought back heaps of memories of that unforgettable adventure. These memories flooded in as we parked near the Glen Clova Hotel and took the now well-made path up to Loch Brandy, a stunning example of a mountain corrie. Following the footsteps of our younger selves, we climbed up the indistinct path around the crags of the corrie to Green Hill. In 1985 we continued across these heathery bumps to Glen Esk, walking in thick low cloud and following a compass bearing between hummocks and lochans. I remember how ecstatic and relieved we were when we realised our navigation had been spot on and we reached the track at the Shieling of Saughs.
From the mountains we drove the Blue Bus to the wide sweep of Montrose beach to evoke more memories. On this recent trip we were lucky and delighted to see a group of dolphins leaping out of the waves as we walked along the shoreline. Continuing along the beach I wondered what had happened to some of the people we had met on our Ultimate Challenge. The UC was a journey full of camaraderie as well as tough walking and it appears this is still an important aspect of the event. With no mobile phones in 1985 we were encouraged to ring HQ in Montrose from telephone boxes whenever we had the chance so that they knew we and others we had met were alive and well. My journal for the trip is full of the people we spoke to, the joy of sharing an amazing experience and a hint of awe for the experienced participants. On our last night in Montrose we partied in the Park Hotel until the small hours; an evening packed full of laughter and walker’s tales, all the pain of blisters, soggy wet clothing and deep weary agony forgotten.
On this year’s autumn trip, after some splendid coastal walking near Stonehaven, we left the sea for Deeside and had a fantastic day crammed with a medley of weather as we hiked up the popular Morven [871 m] on the eastern edges of the Cairngorms. October hit us with sleet, hail, sunshine and rainbows but we were blessed with a view from the summit to Lochnagar and Mount Keen. An unexpected surprise was a specially designed box in the summit shelter that holds a book and pen for walkers to write in and even postcards of the hill to purchase!
In 1985, after seven days walking we were at Blair Atholl and could stock up in the village shop. Our walk from there up the remote and attractive Glen Tilt is a privilege I will never forget. After the Falls of Tarf we planned to cross a stream but following heavy rain the gushing torrent was too fast to paddle across and too wide to jump. One of the marvelous things about backpacking, as with a campervan, is that you are carrying everything you need with you and can be flexible. After much deliberation we decided to camp overnight where we were on the grassy spot by the burn and the next day detour to Braemar. The morning dawned wild and wet and we struggled through miles of thick damp heather that hid ankle-bashing rocks to reach the six miles of tarmac to Braemar. A welcoming B&B owner whisked away our wet gear to dry it out and fortified us with much needed tea and cake and that evening we ate salad and chips [the only vegetarian option in these unenlightened times] for £1 each in the Fife Arms.
From Braemar we had another memorable day of walking along the historic Jock’s Road through Glen Callater; a route that played an important role in the rights of way walkers in Scotland have. After the good track the path became steeper and boggier at the end of the glen, taking us up to the featureless plateau before the lovely descent to Glen Doll and onto Glen Clova. Jock’s Road funnels many Ultimate Challengers from their varied starting points onto the same path as they get nearer to Montrose. My diary notes how sociable the walking was throughout that day, including meeting Bob Dawes one of five people to complete all of the first ten challenges.
We were once again in a reminiscing mood as we drove from Braemar to the car park at Auchallater. From here we travelled alongside our youthful bootsteps on the track up Glen Callater but this time turning off onto Carn nan Gabhar [834 m], a fairly easy Corbett between Glen Callater and the A93. The weather was kind to us, the autumn colours were stunning and we stayed cloud-free, although the higher mountains all had their tops in the murk. We saw red deer but most thrilling were the couple of mountain hares we spotted near the summit as we descended towards Callater Loch Lodge.
The welcome in Scotland is still a warm one, the scenery is still breathtaking and the weather still unpredictable. But many other things have changed in Scotland since 1985. In 2020 you’ll pay a bit more than the £1.20 [equivalent to about £3.60 today] it cost us to pitch our small tent at Tummel Bridge or even the £2.50 [equivalent to about £7.63] we paid at what is now called Blair Castle Caravan Park [although I notice it is only £12 for two backpackers in low season]. Thankfully, nowadays vegetarian backpackers don’t have to survive on a plateful of vegetables and you can feel fairly confident you will be able to enjoy a good vegetarian meal in most Scottish hotels and restaurants.
All the photographs I have added to this blog post are from our 1985 Ultimate Challenge. You can see we both had more hair in those days, we were still wearing walking breeches and check shirts but my cagoule did contain some Gore-Tex.
During our 2020 campervan trip we stayed at a mixture of remote wild camping spots and Caravan and Motorhome Club sites [Forfar, Stonehaven and Banchory].
Coronavirus has so many things to answer for. In the melee of real tragedies, one small thing popped up on the news this week that chipped another piece out of my heart. As if life isn’t bad enough for the north of England, locked down in a confusing array of different regulations that mean that many of us can’t even entertain a couple of friends two metres away in a garden, P&O Ferries announce they are ending the Hull to Zeebrugge route.
This news bought back so many memories of holidays that always began the moment we opened the bottle of red wine and proposed a toast to happy holidays in the P&O Four Seasons Buffet. Catching the ferry from Hull was such a leisurely affair. We would leave home after lunch and usually stop for a brew in our campervan overlooking the Humber before checking in. After finding our cabin in the maze of corridors [always with a window], we would climb on deck and watch the large ship making its sedate way through the lock at the port of Hull, eventually reaching the river Humber. In the Four Seasons restaurant we would hope to get a window seat so that we could watch the magnificent Spurn Point go by as we had our relaxing meal. The buffet might sound tacky but we were like children every time, enjoying the chance to try new and interesting combinations of food. While I would have numerous platefuls of different salads and cheeses, Anthony would add extra vegetables to his plateful of vegetable curry and then indulge in more than one pudding! As the restaurant cleared, we would chat to the waiting staff who always had interesting sailor’s stories Meanwhile, from Spurn Point the ship would leave the shelter of the Humber and we navigated into the will of the North Sea weather. By then we would be safely tucked up in our beds dreaming of the continent.
Waking up there was only time for a quick breakfast and before we knew it we were driving through the small port town of Zeebrugge and across Belgium via its motorway network. The Brussels ring road was always busy with traffic and sometimes we got lost but we were soon beyond its confusing junctions and on our way to France or Germany and further afield.
Occasionally we wouldn’t just race through the small country of Belgium, we would linger and explore some of its pretty corners, something we would never have done if we weren’t travelling to and from Zeebrugge. I have plenty of happy memories of fun and lovely places we have visited thanks to this ferry and have scattered some photographs in this post and many are in my travel article about Belgium [June 2017].
Sometimes we would have spare time on our last day and stop at a small Belgium town to explore before checking in at Zeebrugge. We have walked along the prom at Blankenberge, wandered around Zeebrugge itself and discovered gems like Veurne in rural Flanders. We picked Veurne randomly and found a small town with a beautifully preserved Grote Markt that was just right for some leg stretching before catching the ferry.
We have also stopped in the charming chic town of Spa and feasted on frites. The frites stall offered a bewildering row of different sauces to accompany their frites but traditional mayonnaise is always my preferred combination. Sitting in the park eating frites and watching the intricacies of a pétanque tournament was an unforgettable Belgian moment.
Belgian food is outstanding and on another occasion we discovered delicious ice-cream in Sint-Truiden. This wealthy and dapper town with high-class shops and tubs of colourful flowers has a splendid market place, dominated by the town hall. Ijssalon Venise is a smart and popular cafe in the square and it served up an excellent banana split with rich warm chocolate sauce. And all within striking distance of our ferry home.
I can’t really believe we won’t make this journey again and feel stupidly sad. Surely another ferry company will take the route on. The ferry always seemed busy, there were generally school groups, weekenders visiting Bruges, freight and other holidaymakers from the north of England and Scotland that can’t face tackling the long drive around the M25 to Dover. Crossing the Pennines to Hull and waking up in mainland Europe was such a relaxing start to our adventures.
This virus has taken away so much away it is hard to mourn everything but I find I am cursing coronavirus once again.
I have a mixed relationship with uncertainty. While it can be a marvellous travelling companion, bringing us unexpected pleasures such as finding a pretty village on a fantastic walk or stumbling across a fair when we only stopped in the town for coffee. The uncertainty I experience when there is a problem or after something goes wrong is less enjoyable. Problems with our campervan, such as our little Greek incident, send my anxiety levels sky high. These days I am struggling to stop my brain from descending into a worried spiral as our plans to travel in our campervan are regularly disrupted overnight.
I have written before about the travelling plans we had made for the spring BC [before coronavirus] and how these were ditched during lock down. As restrictions relaxed and then campsites re-opened DC [during coronavirus] I tentatively began to pencil in some trips away in our Blue Bus. We decided to stay local and we enjoyed some wonderful active and safe holidays in the Lake District through July, knowing we could get home in an hour or so if we needed.
I understand that we are still in DC and that this virus has not gone away. We continue to socially distance, we wash our hands thoroughly as often as possible and we wear our masks when we need to. Looking forwards in June, I imagined that life in the UK would have settled into a management stage by now as we learned to live with the virus. I thought this would lead to a bit more certainty and our future travel plans could be more concrete into the autumn. Apparently not! Although I had accepted that we would be unable to visit the wonderful country of Portugal this year, I had started to get hopeful that we would be able to travel around beautiful Spain in September and October, using the ferry booking we had made in those carefree January days. My cautious optimism was dashed on the 25th July when it was announced that the Foreign Office no longer recommended travel to Spain.
I like to think of myself as adaptable but this skill has been severely tried this year. I find I dare not even write about what our plans are now, firstly because they change so often and secondly because putting it in black and white might jinx things. What is certain is that we will not be packing until the day before our next trip [having to unpack without going away is too depressing] and if we do get away we won’t have any activities even pencilled in. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic and cautious but in these ever uncertain times it is hard to dream that anything will have a positive outcome.
Does it help to keep up-to-date with the news, or is that just another source of anxiety? Sorting the rumours from the truth is important but takes time and these days my own careful assessment of risk means nothing if the Government decides to show their resolve by stamping down on what I can do.
I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but I do know that even the uncertainties seemed more certain in my BC world! I could worry about illness or mechanical problems almost carelessly, confident that the risk of those things happening was small. My over active imagination never conjured up anything like the constantly changing restrictions and rules we have been living with DC in the UK.
Uncertainty and certainty are both part of life and I know I can’t control everything but at the moment all I can really try and control are my thoughts. I could disappear into a pool of my own despondency. Instead I make myself sit with my uncertainties and anxieties and write about them. This does help. I feel all the emotions and then send them on their way, leaving me to focus on staying in the present, co-operating with the inevitable and accepting that this new super-charged uncertainty is here to stay.
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.