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.
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.