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!
I normally enjoy the moment I am in. If I am reading, engrossed in a project or out walking or cycling in the great outdoors I am completely focused and present. Although I get anxious about the future, I am not someone who generally wishes my time away, I know that every minute is precious and appreciate being alive and well every day … but these days I am experiencing a strong urge to hibernate until this melancholic winter is over.
Lancashire has now been placed in the highest category in the UK for coronavirus restrictions and we’re advised to stay confined to our county; much as I love Lancashire, I once again feel restrained. I am dreading this winter that will be a long calendar of missed get-togethers and celebrations. I am sure my partner will make it special but my forthcoming birthday will most likely be just the two of us. Christmas and New Year are not a big deal in our house but in normal years we do socialise and knowing I might not see my friends and family through December makes me weep. And then the dark days of January and February will roll in. These are difficult months at the best of times but this year I can feel them advancing like a heavy dark cloud. How will those months of long nights feel without occasional warm convivial evenings around a friend’s dining table drinking red wine, eating their fantastic food and laughing? Just wake me up in March when at least spring is springing.
I heard Simon Armitage on the radio for National Poetry Day talk about the ‘coronavirus rollercoaster,’ before he read his poem ‘Something Clicked.’ In the poem he considers some of the benefits of a pandemic such as not having to endure the commute now many people are working from home and having time to just sit and think and appreciate nature. Of course, this is the life I had been living from 2017 and retirement and while it is good to hear that some people are finding positives in this whole muddle my own rollercoaster has rushed mostly downhill with only small optimistic inclines.
I have tried to be realistic about coronavirus, knowing it will be with us for the long haul, the virus won’t be beaten or sent home with its tail between its legs. I hoped that we would find a way to manage and live with covid-19 among us. I thought we could live differently, make social distancing and good hygiene normal and perhaps invite our friends to our home one household at a time. I was optimistic and excited in June when we could drive away from home and walk in the hills again and on 4 July I was on a high at being allowed to go camping again. July was good, we met a few friends outdoors and went camping but by the end of the month it was clear that these less uneasy days weren’t going to last forever.
We grasped our chance and escaped to France in August, just in time to have to return and spend two hard weeks in quarantine. As well as thoroughly enjoying travelling in another country again, by fitting in a trip before the amounts of alcohol we can return with is limited [after Brexit] our cupboards are now full of red wine!
I always experience some dread as the cold dark months approach but I have been working on having a more positive attitude circulating in my head and in September I was learning to appreciate these days of colourful autumn colours, rainbows and stunning morning and evening light. We toured around Northumberland and Yorkshire in our campervan and walked up mountains until our legs ached in Scotland. We have met friends and our son and daughter-in-law for long walks, layering up to keep warm and hunkering down with a flask for a picnic and I was starting to feel happy and more balanced again. Having spent too long with only each other to chunter to about the state of the nation, it felt good to hear other people’s ideas and thoughts and really have a conversation in a way you can’t do as the internet freezes and falters the to-and-fro of real communication.
I am still wary of planning more than a week ahead at any time. So many lovely proposed meet ups and trips have been scuppered by the ever-changing rules and each blow sends me hurtling down that rollercoaster. Always an enthusiastic arranger of holidays, meet-ups and celebrations in the past the next few months look empty and bleak but at least I won’t have the disappointment of cancellation. I am learning to accept the gaps in my life, at least they are certain and when we do get the chance to snatch time away in our campervan or with friends it is a bonus.
We are being nudged back into isolation. I’m sure I am not alone in my feelings of despair and it is going to take a bit of effort to see the positives in this.
Something Clicked – Simon Armitage
Then something clicked
and the day quivered and rang like a question mark!
Why grit your teeth in the gridlock now the commute’s
a superfast hop and a skip from toothbrush to keyboard,
from bed-hair to screen-call?
Why wrestle with glitches and gremlins
or tussle with gubbins and gismos, or idle and churn
in the swirling pit of the buffering wheel
now you’re fine-tuning the senses, enrolling for real life,
getting to grips with arts and crafts
that were only a keystroke away all along –
you’re a rhythm guitar, a poem, a garden, a song.
You’ve learned to cook –
you’re a Sunday roast, a multigrain loaf, a recipe book!
Why be garbled and scrambled again
now you’re mindful, resourceful, neighbourly, human?
Now you’re curious. Fruitful. Meaningful. Tuneful.
And why twiddle your thumbs, though sometimes it’s good
to kick back, to noodle and doodle
letting dreams swim into pin-sharp-focus,
meander through luminous moments. Why stall,
why settle for knowledge arriving granule by granule?
No more fishing for news with a butterfly net,
doing the human aerial. You’re bright of late, ideas hitching
and switching from one domain to the next,
thoughts swiping from subject to subject, planet to planet,
globetrotting the universe. And you’re riding a bike –
you’re a walk, a hike, a mountain, a lake.
It’s a new world – you’re at school in the kitchen,
at work in the attic, in Ancient Rome in the lounge,
on Mars in the basement. Why tear out your hair
while the present dithers and loads, you deserve
to lean on the airwaves and not fall over,
to feel the hub of your heart’s heart
pulsating and purring with life’s signal.
So you’re right here this minute being your best being.
And now you’ve hooked up
with the all-thinking all-feeling all-doing version of you
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].
An adult-only campsite on a regular bus route to Cheltenham and Gloucester is a great place for a couple wanting an urban break full of historical interest, entertainment and stunning places to eat. Briarfields is on the edge of Cheltenham and is open all year round so, like us, you can visit out of season. The site is enclosed by trees and has good-sized pitches and clean facilities. With buses from the entrance, the background road noise is a small price to pay for the convenience of being able to easily visit the historic town of Cheltenham and the city of Gloucester.
You get off the bus in Cheltenham near to the brilliant white Regency buildings of The Royal Crescent. I had a copy of David Elder’s Cheltenham Heritage Walks guide book with me and we set off on some of the nine themed walks in this book.
If it is a fine day then the perfect thing to do in Cheltenham is to walk to some of its parks and gardens. A highlight of your tour will be Pittville Park, about 15 minutes walk from the town centre that gives you chance to admire the large Regency houses and green squares you will pass on the way. With a duck pond, a boating lake, a playground and cafe and on the hill the stately Pump Rooms, Pittville is an lovely park. The elegant columned Pump Rooms has a domed roof and inside there is a tap where you can still sample Cheltenham’s water.
It isn’t my favourite thing to do, unless I actually need something, but even I can recognise that Cheltenham has a great shopping centre. Whether you are like me and don’t get beyond window shopping or do the real thing it is worth keeping an eye out for some of the statues among the shops and follow Cheltenham’s story through its art. The Minotaur and The Hare [in the photo at the top] is easy to find but look carefully and you might spot some of the small pigeon statues too. These remember the role of this humble bird in Cheltenham’s history when a local farmer spotted pigeons pecking at salt deposits at the mineral spring on his land. In the Regent Arcade you will want to check the time and watch The Wishing Fish Clock on the hour or half hour. This colourful and fun tall clock with a goose, golden eggs and other animals, has a fish hanging below the clock that blows bubbles to the tune, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles.’ The Imperial Gardens near to the centre are where you will find the statue to Gustav Holst and Cheltenham also has a museum to this composer who was born in the town.
Walking further, on the edge of the town we found Sandford Park. This has none of the grandeur of Pittville Park but offers a respite from the bustle of the town and has a pretty stream running through it and more statues.
We visited The Wilson to find out more about Edward Wilson, the local polar explorer and artist who took part in two Antarctic expeditions with Scott. Wilson, Scott and Henry Robertson Bowers died in a blizzard around 29 March 1912 still 148 miles from their base camp and just eleven miles from a food stash. As well as the room to Edward Wilson the gallery has paintings, and some stunning and elegant arts and crafts furniture that I would certainly buy if I had lots of money.
Taking the bus in the opposite direction our first stop in Gloucester was the Cathedral and this is surely a must-do for anyone in the city. We took one of the tours the cathedral offers and found it was a great way to get much more out of our visit and understand the layers of history in this beautiful building. As well as Edward II’s tomb, you will gaze in awe at the medieval east window that is the size of a tennis court and enjoy the elegant cloisters that are popular film and TV locations. If these tours are running when you are there I would recommend you join in. Afterwards we climbed the steps to the Tribune Gallery to get a whole new perspective on the building.
Walking to Gloucester Docks we had coffee and croissants in an Italian cafe where the chocolate croissant came not just with a chocolate filling but also a chocolate topping. Outside a group of Vespa owners were congregating by the water and comparing their scooters. With the sun shining we could have been in Italy!
The Victorian warehouses at Gloucester Docks have been restored and this is a watery area of cafes and restaurants that is so pleasant to walk around. The National Waterways Museum is inside one of the huge warehouses on the Docks. Each floor has low ceilings and small windows and was designed to store cargoes that arrived here along the canal from Avonmouth and the River Severn. The oral history exhibits bring to life the hard work in all weathers of the workers on the barges.
The Jet Age Museum
Also accessible by bus from Briarfields, the Jet Age Museum has a mostly indoor collection of Gloster Aviation Company (GAC) planes, apparently the company changed its name from Gloucester as anyone outside England struggled to pronounce it! GAC built the Meteor, the RAFs first jet that saw service in the Second World War. GAC started life in Cheltenham and worked with Frank Whittle to build The Meteor, testing it in 1941 and flying with the RAF by 1943.
The museum is run by enthusiastic volunteers and is packed with information. You can concentrate on the planes or dig deeper into a particular aspect of aviation. Visitors can have a bit of a hands-on adventure climbing two ladders in and out of the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber, a cramped and stuffy place that isn’t for the claustrophobic. The five of us each had a crew member’s seat and our guide described what each of us would have been responsible for on a flight. Easier to get into and more comfortable was the BAE Trident, the first passenger aircraft with an automatic landing system, built by a local firm. There are smaller simulators for children too.
If you want to read more my travel article about this area that was published in MMM in November 2020 can be found in the list of MMM published articles.
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.
We spent three weeks touring Brittany in north-west France in August this year. We wouldn’t normally choose to travel during school holidays and August but, of course, nothing is normal in 2020. I’m kicking myself that we didn’t travel to France in early July but at that time we thought we could continue with our plan to go in September for the autumn. As it became increasingly clear that the situation was only going to get worse we bought our ferry date forward and we are so glad we did.
We opted to stay at campsites, rather than aires, on this trip. All but two of the sites listed below are around the beautiful coast and I think all of them were three star sites. Including local tourist taxes, the sites cost from €18 [ACSI discount rate as the season ended equivalent to £16.03] to €27.17 [£24.20] a night for high season and compared to the UK campsites these prices seemed reasonable. We didn’t go swimming but most of the campsites had a swimming pool, the sanitary blocks were open at all of them, hand sanitiser was widely available but not all the sites had soap for good hand washing.
The coast of Brittany is spectacular and we enjoyed walking and cycling along its cliffs and coves. Inland Brittany is a rural idyll dotted with pretty walled towns that are perfect for exploring.
Here is the list of where we stayed with my comments. You will notice I appreciate a good hot shower!
Level grassy site by a road, reasonable pitches but long cable needed. Facilities kept very clean, showers only warm but roomy and a good flow. Bread available and there is a lovely 8 km walk around the nearby island.
Large pine trees for shade over pitches of various sizes that are not necessarily level and some hedging. Showers are jets of hot water and a little cramped. Short walk to lovely beach, pretty bay and harbour and other longer walks.
Peaceful site with very large pitches marked by trees and hedges. A friendly and helpful welcome and maps for walks and local cycle routes. Only 4 showers, so sometimes there was an evening queue but hot water & clean. Lovely beach nearby and indoor pool on the site.
Terraced site with views on the edge of the old beautiful town of Locronan where there are bars, cafes and shops. Modern facilities block with hot and roomy showers and older block, both kept clean. A friendly welcome and information on local walks around the town and to the nearby woods. Indoor pool on the site.
Terraced site with some sea views, on a fantastic coastal cycle route in both directions. The facilities are dated, basic and fairly open to the elements but the showers are hot. Bread available at the friendly reception.
Small site with ACSI low season discount. Close to the town, beaches and a nature reserve. Pitches are hedged and large, the clean facilities have hot showers only spoilt by the short burst of water between button presses. Friendly welcome at reception, bread available and small grocery shop and bars and restaurants nearby.
Small cramped site by the canal and small village, no bread on site but bakery and shop nearby. The facilities are scruffy and showers only lukewarm. The site has a swimming pool and is popular with groups. Great flat cycling along the canal to pretty towns.
Large site with good-sized marked grassy pitches. Two beaches and headlands a short walk away and some sea views. The showers were roomy but the temperature of the water varied somewhat and I wouldn’t call them super-clean. Pizzas available from the snack bar and a pleasant beach-side bar and restaurant. Plenty of walks from the site in all directions. This site is expensive in high season but great value with the ACSI card.
Does everyone carry zip ties in their campervan? Certainly without these handy plastic ties in our campervan spares cupboard we would sometimes struggle to stay on the road. I am old enough to remember the days before zip ties but still find it hard to think how we managed without these small bits of nylon in the past. We have used zip ties to hold lights onto bikes when the mount has broken; they have replaced broken handles on bags, held together rolled up blankets and more recently were essential for a makeshift [but solid] repair on our Renault Master.
According to Wikipedia, Cable ties were the invention of Maurus C Logan of the electrical company Thomas & Betts. Appearing in 1958 under the brand name Ty-Rap they were initially designed to organise and keep tidy the multiple lengths of cabling in aeroplanes and Logan spent a few years working out the design. They are, of course, still really useful for that original purpose as we now have multiple lengths of cabling that needs organising in our home.
I like to get our van serviced and checked regularly, so before we set off on our trip to France we took our campervan into the local garage. We needed some new front brake pads and oil changes were due. It seemed worth getting these things sorted before travelling so that we could be sure the Blue Bus would have a trouble-free trip. Unfortunately, this forethought had the opposite result as the garage didn’t quite put our Renault back together in the way they had found it.
Driving down to Portsmouth for the St Malo ferry there was an alarming banging noise from the front wheel at between 65 and 70 mph. We slowed down and pottered into the next services to stop and take a look. It seemed the cover over one of the wheel arches was flapping as the bolts that hold it in place had come loose. In our campervan we have one cupboard devoted to things that are useful for repairs. Here we keep various kinds of tape, spare handles, superglue, waterproof clothing repair kits, needles and thread, tools and of course zip ties. In this instance the reel of strong tape held the flapping plastic still and the rest of our journey to Portsmouth was uneventful apart from the three hour traffic jam that almost made us miss the boat!
We thought that was the end of the matter but should have known better. A few days later I was doing some stretching exercises on the ground beside the ‘van, glancing underneath I noticed something hanging down that shouldn’t be. Further investigation revealed that when the garage had carried out the service they hadn’t fixed the plastic cowling under the engine [the under-engine undertray] back in properly and it was now hanging down low just waiting to be caught on an unsuspecting speed bump.
We do have breakdown cover but decided to have a go at fixing it ourselves and so lying on the outdoor mat I had been exercising on, Mr BOTRA lay under the confines of our campervan while I handed the appropriate sized zip tie to him. He fixed three of these in the holes where the missing bolts should be. We checked the repair regular but this temporary fix saw us around the rest of Brittany and back home from Portsmouth. They worked so well I wonder if Renault should consider using cheap zip ties instead of the bolts that the garage had failed to fix properly.
Our quarantine is almost over and after the excitement of the dentist trip on day one of freedom, day two will involve a trip to the garage to give them the chance to put right their mistake.
We knew quarantine was a possibility when we set off for France but is the enforced 14-day self-isolation we now have to endure a price worth paying for a trip abroad? Certainly, I felt refreshed from travelling in France in our campervan again, I enjoyed being back in mainland Europe, following an unplanned path, hearing different languages and discovering new places. Not everyone will think we should have travelled but we tried to be sensible and chose France because the Covid-19 cases were low when we left and we were cautious during our stay. We are able to quarantine, there is nowhere we have to be, so yes, it is worth it but I wouldn’t want to do it again and quarantine is tough. My first thought as I wake every morning is how many days we have completed and how many are left and I am only grateful that this self-isolation has an end date.
I understand how much worse this could be and there are many who have to be in quarantine for longer and for reasons other than a selfish need for a holiday abroad. I am humbled, remembering my house-bound neighbour in Salford. She remained mostly cheerful but rarely went anywhere, had a paid carer who called in once a week for some cleaning and basic shopping and I would visit and complete an internet shopping delivery for her regularly. For two weeks I am experiencing her dependency and I am not enjoying it. I am frustrated that I can’t even nip the short distance to the paper shop for our weekend newspaper while grateful to our kind neighbour who willingly does this. I texted him on Saturday morning and minutes later saw him heading off. He delivered our papers through the letterbox, ‘Should I leave the money in a bowl of vinegar?’ I asked.
At least, unlike my ex-neighbour, we have the IT skills to do our own internet shopping. We don’t usually have supermarket deliveries as our local Lidl is so handy but I signed up and got our first delivery the day after we arrived home. A second delivery should see us through the 14 days and will break up another day but I can’t really get used to not being able to bob out for something forgotten or just desired. This feels more like house arrest than quarantine.
Every day feels the same seen from the same place and I am grateful that the Tour de France had to move to September, as watching the cycling and the wonderful French scenery gives some structure and variety to our day. Our Renault needs a new van battery as it is now coming up for six years old. After an internet search I was excessively excited to find out that they could come to us and fit a new battery on our drive. Hurrah to a day that isn’t another Groundhog Day.
I am happy carrying out a spot of light pruning with the warm sun on my back but generally find gardening more of a responsibility and duty than relaxation. Gardening does get me outside, provide some exercise and pass the time. In these strange times, working in the front garden has become most interesting as I can linger and watch the rest of the world going about its business. I was lurking in the front garden pretending to be gardening when I heard the familiar clink of an empty aluminium can rolling down the street. On automatic I ran out to the road to pick the litter up and put it in our recycling bin. Walking back the 50 metres with the can I realised that could have cost me a £1,000 fine for leaving our home and garden!
We practice tai chi every day for balance and strength but it is the rhythm of walking that I miss the most. Even during lock down we could walk and we covered many miles. Through this quarantine I am like a caged animal pacing around our tiny garden and bungalow. In hindsight we should have booked a holiday cottage in large grounds for at least some of this self-isolation. I appreciate our quarantine is for the good of the wider public health but it isn’t doing much for my own mental and physical health.
In Iceland returning holidaymakers are not treated like lepers. Icelanders are given two coronavirus tests seven days apart, if both tests are negative they only need to quarantine for seven days. On the Isle of Man residents can pay for a test and only need to self-isolate for seven days if it is negative [a risky option as maybe 20-30% of negative results are false]. Unfortunately, England can’t be bothered to come up with anything more humane than 14 days of self-isolation.
We were so careful in France the chances of either of us being infectious with coronavirus is small but if we do have the virus is 14 days long enough to self-isolate? One study suggested that 97% of people will display symptoms within 12 days of transmission [99% will display symptoms after 14 days]. Let’s hope neither of us develops any symptoms as that will make our quarantine even longer. With too much time on my hands, I worry that we might be one of the around 80% who are asymptomatic and wonder why, if travelling to France is so dangerous, no one in authority thinks we should have a coronavirus test.
Reading novels is getting me through these hours and days. They take me to different places and [most importantly] to a world that hasn’t got a clue what coronavirus is. I can curl up in an armchair and lose an hour or more reading, my mind in another place. Without books I would be truly lost.
Am I looking forward to completing the 14 days and being free once again? Of course. And what wonderful thing do we have planned for our first day of freedom I hear you ask. I had thought a walk on the beach to see the view across Morecambe Bay, veggie fry-up at Rita’s Cafe, a browse in the Old Pier Bookshop and coffee at the Beach Bird would be the perfect introduction back into the world but it turns out we have something more mundane to do. My partner needs a dentist appointment and the only date available was first thing on the morning of our release, so our first post-quarantine trip will be travelling back to Salford [no NHS dentist has space on their list within many miles of Lancashire] for a dental appointment. Life has become so topsy-turvy since March 2020 that after 14 days of staying in, even the dentist will be an exciting escape.
We weren’t sure whether we would make it to France and, if we did, what we would find here. It turns out it is both normal and abnormal.
After landing in St Malo, we spent the first few days on the Côte de Granite Rose on Brittany’s north coast. Camping Tourony came highly recommended and was a great site to relax on. Good bread was available every morning and we could walk to a lovely beach in the evenings and practice tai chi among the large boulders. So far, so normal.
The area was busy with visitors and masks were required on le sentier des douaniers that follows the beautiful coast among the boulders and trees. This seemed reasonable given the number of people but wearing a mask while outside is a strange experience that takes something away from the joy of being in the great outdoors; no smelling the surf on the breeze or the scent of pine trees when you are behind a mask. Elsewhere walking and hiking have felt pretty much normal and provided relief from coronavirus. On this walk you couldn’t forget this was DC (during coronavirus).
Mask wearing in fashionable France is interesting to observe. On le sentier des douaniers about 80% of walkers complied. The masks varied from the colourful homemade to disposable, but plain re-usable masks were most common. We walked back through the streets as these were quieter and masks were not compulsory here and around the shops.
The French have different ways of carrying their mask when they are not wearing it. Some tuck it below their mouth so that it covers their chin, like a sort of beard mask. Some go lower and put the mask around their necks. Quite common is leaving the mask dangling off one ear when not required, this is a relaxed and jolly fashion statement. Others attach their mask to the straps on their bag or camera or wear it around their wrist. Losing my mask has become a new anxiety for me. I keep mine in my pocket and am constantly checking it is still there.
Île-Grande, further west, was quieter and consequently more relaxed for a day out walking. The island’s circuit is easy and there is plenty that is interesting along the way. We walked around pretty bays, to craggy points and by marinas packed with boats. We climbed to the centre of the island for the view from the rocky outcrop and found the burial cairn, covered in two huge slabs of rock. My favourite time was walking through the warm and shallow blue water along the edge of the beach back to the mainland, splashing gently and not a thought for a virus.
Of course, much is still normal. The wine is good and cheap and you’ll be pleased to hear that France is as welcoming as ever to motorhomers. There are plenty of vans and their owners on holiday in Brittany and they are making full use of the campsites and aires and enjoying this beautiful country. There are campers from Germany, the Netherlands and Italy but the vast majority we have seen are French. Of course in these DC days everything is seen differently and French supermarkets that used to be such fun to explore now feel crowded. Numbers are not restricted and social distancing seems to mean nothing in the rush to shop. We’re doing as big a shop as we can fit in or small van in one go!
We’re being cautious while enjoying France and not dwelling on our quarantine time when we return too much.
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.