Lakes and the Silver Coast

26/10/17-27/10/17

As we drove south of Archachon the landscape became an unending monotony of pine forests on sandy soil. This huge forest was man made, turning sandy heath into serried ranks of resin producing pine trees, added to this the roads are very straight, almost hypnotic. In search of a little relief from trees we headed towards the three lakes near Biscarrosse, once coastal inlets but now separated from the sea they are now hubs for tourism and we found ourselves on a large and pleasant aire in Gastes, close to the shore of the middle lake with a large number of other motorhomes of various nationalities.

Bertie’s parking spot at Gastes

It was still really rather warm and once we were parked up we felt pretty comfortable doing nothing much, we copied everyone else and wound out the awning, erected the table and settled in our chairs. This camping behaviour might be frowned on in the height of summer, but in the off season when there are wide spaces between motorhomes it seems to be the norm. Lunch was baguette, ham and cheese, eaten outside along with a sneaky lunchtime beer. A couple of hours lounging was enough though and so Paul spent a couple of hours installing the additional locks to Bertie’s garage and habitation doors and adding a blind spot mirror on the passenger side. With nothing much to do I took myself off for a wander, finding the local shops, café, campsite (closed), beach and park and watching a sea plane landing on the water.

I was impressed with this wheelchair accessible fishing spot on the lake

It clouded over that evening as we took another walk before dinner walking around the small harbour eyeing up fishing boats and finding the oil pipeline that takes the oil from the rigs in the middle of the lake and transports it who-knows-where. At some point on this walk I was attached by a vampiric insect that decided to bite me multiple times on the neck, that’s the downside of warm weather and fresh water. 

Nodding Donkey pumping oil – incongruous next to the beach and park

The following morning we needed to do something more energetic so we cycled to Mimizan Plage along one of the many cycle paths that cover the area. The forest smelled of autumn with strong wafts of pine and dying bracken and we crunched fat acorns under our tyres. The view may have been repetitive but it was restful rather than tiresome and we settled into a cycling reverie eating up the miles quickly on the largely flat terrain. The weather was still cloudy and the wind had strengthened by the time we got to the beach so I wasn’t tempted to swim, instead we watched the surfers catching the waves as we ate our lunch. This is the Cote d’Argent and is well known for it’s Atlantic surf. By the time we got back to Bertie the sun was back out again so we put our chairs in Bertie’s wind shadow and soaked up a couple of hours of sun before dinner.    

Finding Summer in Arcachon

24/10/17-25/10/17

We still hadn’t got used to the size of France and this was in evidence when we moved on from Ile d’Oléron; Arcachon was the target for our next stop, but at slightly over 100 miles away it was a lot further than we’d envisaged when we looked at the map. The route included a massive inland detour to navigate past the Gironde estuary – the largest estuary in western Europe – and Bordeaux – a city that’s on our to-do list for another time.

We arrived in Arcachon in mid afternoon and navigated through villa lined roads and over the golf course to find our parking spot on the road between the main town and the suburb of Le Moulleau. Both sides of the road were backed by pine trees and our view from the front of the van included glimpses of sea and sand between their trunks. The sun was shining fiercely in the sky and we were experiencing temperatures we hadn’t felt since we were in Wales in June, it felt as though we had finally found summer.

Bertie’s parking spot in Arcachon

Any major exertion was off the cards due to the long drive and the sunny weather but we got the bikes out for a short cycle into Arcachon resort. There were plenty of people promenading along the long seafront and around the harbour, we relaxed in the holiday atmosphere – slightly less frenetic than at the height of summer – and treated ourselves to an ice-cream before cycling back to Bertie.

Ice creams on the beach in Arcachon

The following morning we cycled south to visit the main tourist attraction in the area. The Dune du Pilat (or Pila, or Pyla) is the tallest sand dune in Europe at over 100 meters (it’s height varies) and nearly 3km long. It’s obviously a major draw with large car and coach parks and an avenue of tat stalls and fast food booths to snare the tourist. There is even a set of steps that can be used to climb to the top of the dune if you find slogging through the sand too much effort. In fact Paul took one look at the dune and decided it was too much effort to even start the walk and sat at the bottom while I made my way up (not using the stairs), feeling like I was on the ski slopes with the sand shifting and sliding underfoot.

Paul waits by the bottom of the steps leading to the crest of the Dune de Pilat

From the top the views were incredible, out to sea was the Banc d’Arguin nature reserve and beyond it the Atlantic surf made bright sliver lines across the horizon, along the ridge of the dune there was a string of tourists, thinning out at the furthest extent of the ridge, to the north you could see the sheltered Bassin d’Arcachon with the peninsular of Cap Ferret protecting the bay. I spent a little time taking in the views and walking across the wind-firmed sand on the crest of the dune before cutting back down the side of the dune where the sand was softer.

Looking along the crest of the Dune de Pilat
Looking out to the Atlantic from the Dune de Pilat

By the time I was back with Paul my trainers were full of sand and I felt a good inch taller. Apparently the sand dune is moving inland and swallowing up trees and infrastructure as it goes – it must be a slow process but it cant be helped by hundreds of people emptying sand from their shoes in the car park.

From the Dune we cycled further south along well marked cycle paths and past closed camp sites until we reached the first spot where it seemed possible to access the beach without climbing over the massive sand dune. At Le Petit Nice there was a large forestry parking area with picnic benches and other closed facilities. Large areas of dune were fenced off to protect the fragile habitat leaving a causeway for access to the beach. Down on the beach the water was calm as were still sheltered by the Banc d’Arguin off-shore but we could see and hear the pounding surf on the other side of the sand bank. I took advantage of the calm waters to have a swim while Paul paddled and we watched large groups of small children being herded by barely older supervisors obviously on a day out with their school holiday club.

Once we’d had enough of lounging on the beach we returned to our bikes and cycled back to Bertie. We’d noticed on our bike ride that we seemed to be bridging a gap between two main types of cyclists in France – we’re not the lycra clad, tour-de-france emulating ‘serious’ cyclists, but neither are we the basket wielding, upright sitting ‘everyday’ cyclists wearing their smart clothes and using their bikes to get from A to B. Compared to the first group we felt heavy and slow, compared the the second we were scruffy and sweaty. Oh well – we had enjoyed a lovely summers day out and were ready for a shower, a couple of drinks and a lazy dinner in Bertie watching the sun go down through the trees.    

Oysters on the Ile d’Oléron?

23/10/17

I am going to apologise now for my lackadaisical approach to accents, acute, grave or circumflex. I will try to remember them, but I couldn’t honestly say that I will try my best.

Our next stop on our route south was a short drive away on the Ile d’Oléron, a large island well known for it’s oysters and other seafood. We drove across the long bridge that connects the island to the mainland and turned right, heading for the aire at Le Chateau d’Oléron. This isn’t really an aire, it was once a campsite and really still is a campsite, just one that is limited to motorhomes. It costs €11 for 24 hours including all services, toilets, showers and electricity. It was very busy, we estimated over 100 motorhomes scattered over the large site.

Busy site at Château d’Oleron

There were no sat nav issues this time, we found the site easily enough and got settled in, waiting our turn to fill up with water and having the usual struggle to decide on a parking spot when there is too much choice.

Once settled in we pootled off on our bikes to see what the area had to offer. Whether we just started from the wrong location or chose the wrong way to go I don’t know but we were feeling uninspired. Despite the busy campsite everything felt closed down and the landscape was devoted to oyster farming, which was interesting to a certain degree but not captivating. The rectangular lagoons for seed oysters covered the flat landscape creating mazes of pathways and roads to navigate. Small huts for artisans and cafes lined the streets but were empty and lifeless.  

The following morning we decided against staying and exploring other parts of the island in favour of moving elsewhere. We haven’t done justice to the area but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to stay. I didn’t even get any oysters!  

Making Tracks through France

20/10/17-22/10/17

We had discussed our plans for the next few days, feeling torn; should we pootle down through France or should we get to Spain as quickly as possible? We didn’t want to do really long driving days but we did want to get some good weather. We  couldn’t really decide and so we ended up doing an odd zig zag down the north west side of France initially before we settled on an aim. The weather forecast indicated a short heat wave mid-week and so we would continue travelling longer distances until the weather improved and then slow down and enjoy our normal style of travelling as the weather improved. We opted to avoid toll roads completely, which the Sat Nav managed for us despite it’s other shortcomings.

We drove along roads through extensive fields and farm lands, round many roundabouts as we navigated Normandy villages with their timber framed buildings and up and down long hills, taking in three overnight stops as we made our way south; a large parking spot in the village of Bosc-Geffroy, also the bus stop and an obvious meeting place for lift sharing in the morning, a motorhome aire at the Jardin de Broceliande and a supermarket aire at the Super U in Marans, not our planned stop but the best we could do following some road closures and remarkably peaceful considering. On the way we refuelled, stocked up with fresh groceries and re-filled the gas canisters.

The weather, pretty good anyway, was improving as we headed for Angoulins so time to slow down and start enjoying ourselves. We had picked this spot by the sea to allow us to stretch our legs and get back into the swing of things. The sat nav really didn’t want to play ball though. The first indication that something was wrong was when we hit a sign saying nothing over 3.5T, the sat nav wanted us to carry on and we followed it blindly into a one way system. We saw the size of the roads and hastily escaped back towards the main road. Again we tried, picking a slightly different way in, but again we were directed down tiny roads, leading us to one very small gap between a scaffolded building and parked cars. It took all of Paul’s driving skills to navigate through with a couple of inches to spare as I walked in front, tucking car wing mirrors out of the way and providing direction as we squeezed through. Finally out of this predicament we were still no closer to getting through the one way system and I was all for giving up and going somewhere else, anywhere else! But Paul wouldn’t be thwarted now he’d started – we’d seen pictures of large motorhomes parked near the beach so there must be a way! On the last attempt we had seem some signs diverting vehicles that were over 3.5t, so on the final attempt we followed these. Like many road signs they were elusive, but with the help of the signs, bus stops (if a bus can get through so can we) and google maps we made our way to the parking spot, outwitting the sat nav and the one way system.

Our parking spot are Angoulins

We parked in one of the remaining spaces and had a quick cuppa before heading out to walk towards the headland. The tide was a long way out and we could see people gathering shellfish on the tidal flats, the rocks of the fore-shore were covered with small oysters and we imagined they were probably bigger further out to sea, but we couldn’t get very far due to sticky mud – definitely a need for wellies or waders.

Rocks covered with seed oysters at Angoulins beach

As we walked to the far end of the beach we came to fishing huts on stilts above the water, these carrelets looked high and dry at low tide as we walked around their feet to inspect the mechanism used to lower and raise the large square nets.

Carralets at low tide

We didn’t get much further before the heavens opened, this part of France was picking up the edge of storm Brian and between brief sunny spells dark rain clouds were dropping heavy rain. We went back to the van for some lunch while the rain showers continued and didn’t head back out again until later that afternoon when we managed a circular walk around the headland and back through the village, seeing the beach a high tide this time with some of the carrelets now in operation and wind and kite surfers enjoying the strong winds. It was amazing how even a couple of short walks left us feeling refreshed after our three days of driving.      

Carralets in operation at high tide

 

Travelling in the UK – A Financial Summary

As we are now on the continent, we though it might be useful to summarise how we got on with travelling around the UK in our motorhome.

You can read our Scotland Summary and Wales Summary, but around our visits to these two countries we spent time in England, and our time in England was mostly of a different type than our travelling time with much more emphasis on friends and family.

Generally though we found travelling around the UK a lot easier than we had expected. We spent plenty of time in England on campsites because it made sense for the things we were doing, but when we wanted to travel and ‘wild-camp’ we didn’t find it particularly difficult. We also noticed that many communities are starting to get to grips with motorhoming as a leisure activity, and although there are plenty of moaning minnies out there we are sure that we will start to see a lot more motorhome friendly parking options with services like the one we found in Canterbury and the one being proposed in our home town of Exmouth.

We have spent 162 days motorhoming in the UK, around 44% of the year, so we thought it would be a good time to take stock financially. So how have we got on? I’m sure it will come as no surprise to the people that know me to find out that I have a spreadsheet where I record all of our spending and track it against our budget. 

Our budget for the year was a pretty generous £25,000, in total we have spent £11,484, which is 46% of our budget…BUT…we have had our major expenses (touch wood) of MOT, repairs and servicing, insurance etc during these months.

Here’s a breakdown of our overall spending.

Communication – getting online and phone bills

Gifts – presents for birthdays and special occasions

Motorhome – insurance, service and repairs and accessories

Travel Expenses – Fuel, tolls and ferries. Daytime parking.

Leisure – Eating out, drinking in bars, tourist attractions and activities

Other Bills – Travel Insurance, Storage costs and other bits that don’t fit anywhere else

Living Costs – Groceries, Gas, Campsites, motorhome services (ie waste disposal and water) and other general living costs. Here’s how the Living costs broke down in more detail

We have massively overspent on Bertie. not just the costs of MOT failure, but also a complete set of new tyres and fixes for various habitation faults i.e. the water pump and the gear mechanism for the roof. We have also been guilty – no, strike that, we don’t feel guilty at all – of picking up lots of bits and pieces to make our lives more safe and comfortable; additional locks, a new mattress etc.

We have also overspent on groceries – as we wander round the supermarkets we really believe that we are being frugal, but the reality is that we shop for what we want to eat, rather than shopping for what’s cheap and we don’t want to change.

And we have been very poor at controlling our internet usage. We found that many of our devices – particularly the apple ones – treat our MiFi device as if it’s a bottomless well of data. It looks to them just like any other WiFi that you have at home and so assumes that there are no limits. We had to do quite a lot of tweaking to change the settings to reduce data use and even then we are still finding our home habits of surfing whenever we feel like it difficult to break. As a result we have overspent on data top-ups. This will be even more important to control when we get into Europe where our data limits will be further restricted by providers; despite the removal of roaming charges many providers still have limits and restrictions when data is used in Europe.

Otherwise all of our other costs are slightly lower than expected, so we’re pretty happy. Many people say that motorhoming in the UK is far more expensive than in the rest of Europe, but with the current exchange rate I think that costs will be pretty similar across the southern European countries. We will be able to compare and contrast once we’ve done a bit more travelling.

On a final note, with our initial income from selling our car and various refunds on bills, plus our income from renting out our house and the general rise in investment value of our savings, our net worth in in purely numeric terms is slightly higher than when we left. I suspect we’re not quite beating inflation though and of course investment values can go down so we’ll have to see what the future brings.

Bertie’s on a Train

19/10/17

I’m sure that, to some people, the journey through the Channel Tunnel is a boring everyday activity, but for us there was some excitement as we prepared to do something we’ve never done before.

Bertie’s trip on the tunnel was free courtesy of the Tesco Clubcard vouchers we had exchanged. It would have been £118 otherwise, which would make it more expensive than the Dover-Calais ferry.

Because this was a new experience for us we arrived a couple of hours before departure, although now we’ve done it once it would be easy enough to leave it till the last minute if we chose to do it again. The directions from the M20 were easy to follow, and we drove down the designated passenger lanes to the automated entry booths which recognise your number plate and spit out a windscreen hanger which also acts as your ticket. Passing through British and French passport control we were then ‘inspected’ to ensure our gas canisters were closed off. This consisted of being asked whether we’d turned them off – no inspection necessary as we obviously look honest and trustworthy (and of course we were). Finally we could park by the terminal building which offered the usual airport style facilities.

The windscreen hanger gives you a letter for your ‘crossing’ and we sat in the car park watching the large screens which told us when to make our way to the trains. We couldn’t miss the large arrows saying France which directed us to the departure area where we were directed into the lanes for large vehicles (the train has some carriages which are single storey and some that are double decker). At the top of the gangway the train entrance looked pretty small – how were we going to drive Bertie in there? – but as we got closer the scale became clearer and it was easy to get on board.

Looking down the ramp to the train

Driving down the inside of the train was quite bizarre, but very easy and staff directed us where to stop so that they could ensure they could lower the barriers between carriages.

Driving down the inside of the train

As we set off we got that slightly unsettling feeling of moving, yet not moving, that sometimes happens on trains. Through the small window we could see a limited view of the outside world, and then darkness as we went underground. A short 30 minutes later we could see daylight again. As we were being unloaded from the train we set the sat nav for our destination – Bosc Geffroy – a scant 300 km away and started driving.  

Final Days in the UK

17/10/17 – 18/10/17

The next couple of days were spent preparing for our journey under the sea. Under the eerie light of a sallow sky and umber sun, a product of dust carried in by Hurricane Ophelia, Paul replaced the gears in the REMIstar sunroof and tinkered with the aerial for Bertie’s radio while I made lists of things we needed.

First on the list was two more new tyres, so we used blackcircles again and booked up a morning visit to Autokwik near Maidstone.

Bertie gets new shoes

 Also on the list we wanted some additional locks for our garage which seems the weak point on the van, a key cut for the habitation door, and the makings of a headboard for our bed so that we stop head-butting the window blind. Plus of course shopping for anything we think might be difficult/expensive to purchase in Europe. For me that’s tea, although I like my tea black and relatively weak I’m not keen on Lipton’s yellow label and wanted to take some of Tesco’s everyday tea away with me. I’ve bought enough for three tea bags a day – which is never going to be enough for my tea habit!

We had a couple of overnight stops in Kent; one free parking spot near Maidstone at Barming church – I was uncomfortable about parking outside a church to start with but actually the area was so large I think there would only be problems if there was a service scheduled – and one night at the Aire in Canterbury’s park and ride carpark – a good example of what local authorities can do to welcome motorhomes if they put their minds to it.

With motorhomes of all nationalities at Canterbury P&R

We spent a couple of hours in Canterbury doing a spot of shopping, but were a bit put out when we realised we couldn’t get more than a glimpse of the cathedral without paying £12.50 each as there was a single charge to enter the grounds and the cathedral. As we didn’t have time to do the interior justice we decided not to go in, a shame that they don’t have a lower fee for just taking a walk around the outside. We made do with a quick amble around the streets of the old city where there are plenty of timber framed buildings and narrow streets to provide interest.

Final Farewells

13/10/17 – 16/10/17

On the way south we took a small detour around the bottom of the M25 to allow us to visit friends and family who live in South London. We booked into a campsite in Surrey for the duration but didn’t end up spending much time there, Bertie must have felt abandoned, the Low Emissions Zone is not very inviting to motorhomes of a certain age.

Aaron and Kate also made their way down to London to see us before we left the UK, hopefully they will be able to use some of their leave to come and visit us while we’re away. 

We had a great day with Mark and Carrie, visiting them on their home turf for the first time (they usually come to Devon) and spent the Sunday with my sister’s family enjoying a roast dinner – masterminded by Aaron – and plenty of time with our niece and nephew.  

It feels very strange when we tell people we will now be away from the UK for eight or nine months, although we’ve been on the road for five months so far it has included time spent back in Devon and visiting people around the country. Once we’re on the continent that will not be possible and although we’ll be in touch regularly I know we’ll miss friends and family.

Suffolk Coast

11/10/17-12/10/17

We moved from our overnight parking spot to the National Trust parking at Dunwich Heath ready for a stroll around the heath. The heath to the north and inland was a little uninspiring in the subdued autumnal light so we extended our walk alongside Docwra’s Ditch and then across to RSPB Minsmere before heading back along the coast to the car park.

Autumn colours on Dunwich Heath

The landscape on the latter half of the walk was more interesting, we joked that Docwra had made a better attempt on his ditch than Offa – subsequent research seems to indicate that it’s a recent feature built as a firebreak, I have no idea why it specifically named after Docwra though. We stopped in a couple of the enormous and well appointed hides at Minsmere hoping for a sight of something interesting but the wind was keeping the birds away. We did see a hobby though as we walked through the wetlands.

Sea views from RSPB Minsmere

That afternoon we moved onto Sutton Hoo, the site where an Anglo-Saxon burial mound was excavated in the 1930s to reveal an amazing ship burial with it’s treasure intact, including the now iconic Sutton Hoo helmet. The exhibition contained a number of artefacts from various of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo and replicas of the more substantial treasures which are now in the British Museum. I find this period of British history fascinating, probably because so little is known about it so it crosses the boundaries between history and myth.

The Sutton Hoo helmet – large scale replica above the exhibition centre

Also on the site is the house of Edith Pretty, the landowner who requested the excavation of the mound in the 1930s. It contains the story of the excavation and in particular the race to complete the work once war was declared, much more interesting than I was expecting, and we took a short stroll around the mounds. It always makes me wonder now many treasures have not only been plundered by grave robbers but also just ploughed under by farmers or builders.

The Sutton Hoo mounds – the largest has been reconstructed to give a sense of the scale of the burial mounds

 Our overnight spot was at some quiet parking on the coast at East Lane near Bawdsey. Sadly the radar station museum was still undergoing refurbishment – all part of the 100th anniversary work according to Aaron – but there was still an opportunity for a morning walk along the coast, so we set off past Shingle Street and along to the mouth of the Ore and it’s shingle spit before heading back. Along the way we saw remains of pillboxes, some falling into the sea, and four impressive Martello Towers – cylindrical forts built to help defend us from Napoleon’s forces. Some of these had been converted to private houses with additional glass roofed structures to provide views out to sea. 

Martello towers along the Suffolk coast

That evening we moved on to parking at Felixstowe where we watched with awe as the massive container ships were loaded up with their containers using equally massive cranes. The industrial sound of the loading, with the distant thunder ‘boom’ of each container being settled onto the ship soothed us to sleep, with only the sound of the ship’s horn waking us up as finally it was loaded and could set off to sea.

Felixstowe harbour

More Celebrations

7/10/17 – 10/10/17

Aaron’s Graduation was a punctuation mark in our journey, the event that would free us up to travel overseas. But it wasn’t really a full stop, more of a semi colon as we had a few more people to see before we left.

Given we were in Lincolnshire for Aaron, it made sense to continue our journey down the eastern side of the UK and see the members of my family who were in the general direction of the Channel Tunnel – our chosen crossing to France mostly due to the fact that Tesco Clubcard vouchers could be used to pay for the crossing.

My Godmother, Auntie Margaret, lives in Norfolk, which was certainly on the way for us. She is Mum’s best friend from their school days and timing had worked out perfectly, it was my Birthday and Mum and Dad just happened to be visiting. Divine providence or Mum’s planning (the two are pretty much the same thing)?

We made our way down to Thetford forest, with a very frustrating stop off in Ely that came to nothing as parking seems was at a premium on a Saturday, and spent a night in the car park at Two Mile Bottom. Who knows what was going on that night, we closed our blinds and speculated, we have no idea whether our imaginations dreamt up anything close to reality. 

Memorial to the Desert Rats who spent their onl time in the UK training in Thetford Forest

We spent the next two nights at the Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Thetford Forest, a very reasonably priced club site as it doesn’t have any toilets, showers etc, just water and waste disposal and the facilities in one’s motorhome or caravan. It gave us a base to meet up with Mum, Dad and Auntie Margaret for a walk, a hefty birthday lunch at the Elveden Inn and then a birthday cream tea provided by Auntie Margaret. I was too stuffed to drink my birthday prosecco which has been saved for another day.

Birthday Haul, some of my favourite sweets, a home made Dundee cake from mum and wads of cash to spend on a new waterproof jacket. Thanks everyone x

Around all of this we gave Bertie a wash, inside and out, which left Paul aching from the continual stretch and squat of washing Bertie’s outsides. I was less achy, so when we went for a mountain biking session on the morning after my birthday Paul only managed the blue circuit but I felt the need to do the red circuit as well. Luckily there is not a mountain in sight in Thetford Forest so the red mountain biking route didn’t involve staring down an endless set of steep slopes which took away a lot of the fear factor for me. Paul’s achy legs also meant we stumped up for the parking at High Lodge in Thetford Forest – at £8 for a few hours parking it’s certainly the most expensive we’ve paid, but we have taken advantage of the Forestry Commission free car parks often enough that we didn’t feel too upset at the cost. 

We had toyed with lots of different options for the next couple of days but decided to stick to Suffolk, so our overnight stop after mountain biking was at Westleton Heath near the Suffolk coast.

 

 

A RAF Graduation

 

03/10/17-06/10/17

Our son Aaron was due to graduate as an RAF officer on 5th October so we had booked a campsite for a few days to use as a base. Wagtail Country Park is just outside Grantham in Lincolnshire, it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere but in reality is scant minutes from the A1. Paul’s parents and Aaron’s Mum’s family were staying at a hotel in Grantham so we were all within a short distance of each other.

Wagtail Country Park – A great place to relax between events

As well as the graduation day itself, full of pomp and ceremony, our time was spent catching up with Paul’s parents and spending time with Aaron and his fiancé Kate who is also in the RAF.

A selection of graduation photographs; proud grandparents, parents and the parade

Aaron and Kate before the graduation parade

 

We were incredibly proud of Aaron for making it through his training, showing great determination and perseverance to get to this stage. His training doesn’t end here, he now moves onto RAF Boulmer where he starts his job specific training as an Aerospace Battle Manager. 

 

Studley Royal And Fountains Abbey

02/10/17

The cockerel that had been strutting around the previous evening decided to give full voice at sunrise so we were up bright and early. With the dawning of the new day all was well and the tribulations of the previous day’s shopping were behind us. Even Paul’s sore neck had improved. We made our way to Fountains Abbey in a good mood.

Somehow we had missed visiting any of the Scottish border abbeys, so this visit was to make up for that omission. What I hadn’t realised, until picking up the leaflet at the entrance, was that it’s UNESCO World Heritage status is not solely due to the abbey remains, which are lovely in their own right but not exceptionally different to other ruined abbeys. It is a World Heritage site due mostly to the way in which the ruins of the abbey were incorporated into the 18th century landscaping of Studley Royal Park. Initially the landscaping was created by John Aislabie to draw the eye to Fountains Abbey, but he didn’t own the land the abbey was on. Later he managed to buy the land and so it could be incorporated more fully. The river has been tamed and controlled to create a series of canals and lakes through the park with many features and follies dotted around to offer interesting viewpoints, with the abbey being the ultimate dramatic and romantic view.

Approaching Fountains Abbey from Studley Royal water park

The abbey buildings are very impressive in their scale, especially considering it was established by monks who wanted to live a simple life of poverty and abstinence! Although there are buildings of similar age that are wholly intact, somehow the fact that it is a ruin makes it seem even more impressive. I think that it’s because of the amount of the structure that remains despite it being ruined and raided for stone to be used in other buildings. 

Fountains Abbey church and Huby’s tower
View of Fountains Abbey from the brewhouse

 

 

 

Fountains Abbey cellarium

We had a good day wandering around the abbey and the park. The sun was shining but it was very windy which meant that some of the wooded walks were closed and we missed out on seeing some of the follies and viewpoints, but even so there was plenty to interest us, including the obligatory tea and cake.

Studley Royal water park – not a death slide or lazy river in sight

 

 

Shopping – Ugh!

01/10/17

As you are probably aware, we were heading south at this point in order to attend Aaron’s passing out/graduation day at RAF Cranwell. As well as a parade and other day time activities, Aaron was very keen for us to attend the graduation ball and I just didn’t have anything to wear.

The only dress I had that was suitable for an even do oft his nature was 15 years old – the dress I had worn to my sister’s wedding. Not only was it old, but it also had a stain on it that even the dry cleaner couldn’t get out – time for a new dress. Paul was ok, he had his dinner jacket and the only item we hadn’t been able to find was his bow tie – an easy purchase to make.

You might think that the opportunity for a bit of shopping would be a delight, the problem is that shopping is one of our least favourite activities. When I do enjoy shopping, it’s rarely in Paul’s company and involves a relaxing day of window shopping without the pressure of a compulsory purchase, maybe with lunch and a glass of wine thrown in. But here we were, heading for Gateshead shopping centre without a shopping friend in sight. Plus Paul had a bad neck and back and was in one of the grumpiest moods I have seen for a long time.

As a result we shopped in record time (do I hear cynical comments about Paul’s supposed sore neck?), we had some things we needed, some things we didn’t need and some things hadn’t been found, but with no desire to prolong the activity we decided to make do. I did at least have a dress that wouldn’t embarrass me. 

Once we escaped from Gateshead we made tracks for Gouthwaite Reservoir, a stop over that would allow us to visit Fountains Abbey the next day. We looked forward to going to bed, putting the day behind us and enjoying a peaceful day at Fountains Abbey.  

Border Lines

30/09/17

Having crossed the border back into England we thought it was only fitting that we visit Hadrian’s wall to see how the Roman empire managed the border with the wild lands outside it’s control.

We drove into Northumberland National Park past signs for the Golf Masters tournament which was on that weekend. Luckily for us we were too late for any traffic issues and sailed through on nice quiet roads.

Our destination was Housesteads Roman Fort. We had originally wanted to walk a few miles along the wall but Paul had woken up with a stiff neck and by the time he had driven this far he wasn’t feeling very mobile, so instead we satisfied ourselves with a simple visit to the fort complex and associated exhibition. I wasn’t very impressed by the exhibition which seemed quite simplistic. I’m sure that the one at Vindolanda was a lot better, although I went there about 17 years ago so my memory may not be entirely accurate.  The fort complex was interesting though, you could see how the standardised layout had been overlaid onto the hilly site with very little regard for appropriateness to the landscape. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the Roman soldiers who were posted here, especially while the fort was still being built.

View across the fort

 

Communal latrine – given Paul’s predilection for leaving the bathroom door open I suggested this might be up his street
The granary with it’s raised floor to keep out rats and mice

We had decided on a campsite that evening so we made our way back towards Hexham and Wellhouse Farm campsite. We arrived but couldn’t find anyone to tell us where to pitch up, we had a quick chat to another motorhome owner who said he hadn’t been able to find anyone either and had just parked up. He also warned us that the showers weren’t working which was a shame for Paul as he was hoping for a long hot shower to relax his neck muscles. We parked up on the grass while I went for a bit of a further explore and found that the lady’s showers did work but were a pathetic trickle of luke warm water so we would probably be best off filling up with water and showering in the van. Except we couldn’t, because we were stuck.

I managed to ring the farmer and he agreed to come and tow us out the following morning, so Paul had a shower in the van with our remaining water while I went back to the shower block and tried to make the most of the dreadful shower.

We talked about why this campsite felt so poor and decided that it was pure disappointment. After all it was only £12 a night, and we’ve paid as much to stay on campsites with no shower block at all and felt like we got reasonable value. But the fact that modern, hot, showers are advertised and not delivered turned us off completely. Isn’t it funny how our minds work.

Bertie being towed off site

 

Country Summary – Scotland, the most beautiful place in the world?

We have managed 6 weeks and 2 days in Scotland on this trip, covering only a small part of the country and even then managing only a small sample of what is available in each area we have visited.

While we were here Scotland was proclaimed the most beautiful country in the world. Is this correct? Well we haven’t been everywhere, but Scotland is the place we keep coming back to again and again; without ever getting bored and despite the sometimes awful weather. In fact the occasional prolonged period of rain just makes any respite feel full of possibilities.

With the sequence of low pressure systems working their way over the UK we certainly had our fair share of bad weather on this trip and that modified our plans with less kayaking, fishing and mountain walking and more cycling, coastal walks and tourist attractions. Sadly we didn’t see the Northern Lights, despite two solar activity spikes while we were there; the weather was too cloudy where we were.

A few stats

Number of nights spent in Scotland: 44

Number of different overnight locations: 32 (of which 5 were campsites and the rest were parking spots, most of which were free but 4 were paid)

Average ‘camping’ cost per night: £3.22

Average total spend per day: £20.48. This seems very little compared to our costs while in Wales, but just happens to reflect that we did not have to buy any Motorhome stuff while we were in Scotland.

Number of miles driven: 1450 miles in Scotland. Our average fuel (in)efficiency was 23.01 MPG which we were pretty happy with given the roads we were driving on. Our cost per mile was 23.4 pence, which reflects the high cost of fuel in the highlands as well as our fuel efficiency.

Finding overnight locations in Scotland

For overnight locations we mostly used the information available through the fantastic Scottish Motorhome Wildcampers facebook forum, we also used http://searchforsites.co.uk, and our OS maps to identify possible locations. For campsites we used UKCampsite.

You should not get confused between motorhome parking and the right to ‘wild camp’ via the Land Reform Act. Access to land in motorised transport is not covered by this legislation and so you are subject to parking byelaws or landowner’s demands. Having said that, there are a multitude of publicly accessible parking spots as well as parking locations on private land (National Trust for Scotland, RSPB, Forestry Commission and Scottish Heritage are a few of the bigger landowners who have been known to tolerate motorhome parking – often on an informal basis and not consistently at all locations). 

You can find the map of the parking locations we have used here.

While in Scotland we became increasingly aware of the pressure that some believe is being exerted by the volume of motorhomes on the road using (or abusing) facilities. There was a fair amount of content in the Scottish press on the subject, it will be interesting to see how this pans out.

Driving in Scotland

Scottish highland roads may be single track but they are also blessed with a multitude of passing places that are well signposted, usually with white squares or diamonds on top of posts. The majority of road users know how to use passing places not just for passing people coming in the opposite direction but also to allow overtaking. We found our reversing camera invaluable for keeping an eye on vehicles approaching from behind (as well as helping us reverse into the passing places) and our only caution was to avoid being forced into passing places that were too soft to take Bertie.

We had half a dozen ferry crossings on the CalMac ferries, all of which were very easy and there are always plenty of helpful staff around if you have any questions. Different ferries have different rules, some ask you to pay on board and some ask you to pay in advance at the ticket office, some accept bookings for specific crossings and some operate on a first come first served basis. All the relevant information can be found on their website where you can also buy tickets and book crossings (where it’s possible for that particular service). The CalMac ferries operate a Road Equivalent Tarrif (RET) which is meant to make the fares equivalent to driving the same distance, it means the crossings are very reasonably priced. Motorhome prices vary according to motorhome length – under 6 meters, between 6 and 8 meters and over 8 meters (including bike racks/boxes etc) – height does not make any difference. We did need help to avoid grounding on one ferry crossing (Tobermory to Kilchoan), but the staff are very practised at placing boards under wheels. If you want to avoid grounding then choose a crossing as close to high tide as possible, but if you cant then don’t worry, you’ll get help.  

Best Bits

It’s always difficult to pick the best bits of any trip to Scotland, any visit is made up of every experience not just a hand picked selection. But if forced to pick out some of the best moments.

Dumfries and Galloway: One of our unwritten rules for our adventure is that we should go to places we’ve never been before. Dumfries and Galloway was a revelation, only just north of the Lake District but so much quieter with beautiful coastline, high rounded hills, mossy forests, castles and abbeys (oh and a lot of bogs, don’t forget the bogs).    

Seafood: No trip to the west coast would be the same without a good sample of seafood; fish and shellfish are plentiful and scrumptious whether as part of a fish supper eaten with your fingers or a more upmarket seafood platter.

Falkirk: Falkirk gets the prize for the best all round day out with the Kelpies, Falkirk Wheel and mountain biking, all in an industrial town.

Otters and Sea Eagles: We saw numerous otters in Scotland, probably the best day was when we saw both an otter and a sea eagle in close proximity on the isle of Mull.

Torrisdale Bay: In a country full of scenic places this was one of our favourite spots to sit in the van and watch the sea.  

The standing stones on Arran: In a dramatic setting of moorland backed by jagged mountains this collection of standing stones just kept going (and we could have walked further and found more).

Other stuff

We visited a fair few castles and other historical locations. Historic Scotland has plenty of free attractions but if you want to see the bigger places then it is worth buying a membership or a tourist pass. An annual membership is £47.25 and depending on where you go could pay you back in half a dozen visits.

Although Ordnance Survey maps cover Scotland, because of the difference between Scottish and English land access rights the approach to marking paths is different. This means that there are a lot of paths which just aren’t shown on the map. There is an amazing resource online at walkhighlands.co.uk, which has many walks of all different grades across the whole of Scotland (not just the highlands).

 

Final Days in Scotland

28/09/17-28/09/17

Over the last week we have started to feel a little unsettled as we realised our time in Scotland was coming to a close – what should we do for our last few days to make the most of our remaining time? How would we feel to leave the land of square sausage and well fired breakfast rolls?

We toyed with a trip into Edinburgh but I wasn’t too keen, much as I love the city I also spent plenty of time there with work and couldn’t quite separate the city from the memories of clip clopping up and down the hilly streets in my work clobber dragging my little wheely suitcase with me. 

So the answer was that we would spend a couple of days on the ‘golf coast’ seeing a very small selection of what this south eastern stretch of Scotland had to offer.

We started in North Berwick, a gentrified town on the coast within commuting distance of Edinburgh with a long seafront beach and a skyline dominated by two ancient steep sided volcanic plugs; out to sea is Bass rock, home to the largest gannet colony in the world, inland is Berwick Law, topped with a (now replica) whale’s jaw bone.

Bertie’s parking spot in North Berwick

In North Berwick we spent the night in a popular spot on the eastern end of the seafront, with several other motorhomes and campervans. The following morning we walked along the coast to Tantallon castle, an interesting ruined castle with a large curtain wall protecting it’s inland side and sea cliffs forming the main defence around it’s other three sides. The coastal walk was tough going as the paths slowly petered out and we had to fight our way through scrub to finish the walk. On the way back we mainly walked along the road!

Tantallon Castle curtain wall

 

During our walk we watched the many seabirds, mostly gulls and gannets, that were flying backwards and forwards along the coast and out to sea. Through our binoculars we could see the castle and lighthouse on Bass Rock clinging to the sides of the guano draped island. It was difficult to imagine anyone being able to land on the island with it’s steep sides, let alone making their way up the cliffs to the buildings. The island sports no greenery and very few flat surfaces so anyone in those buildings would have been trapped until a boat could come out to collect them, a grim place to get stuck!

After North Berwick we moved onto Eyemouth, a contrast to North Berwick, Eyemouth is a working fishing town with ship building, fisheries and a fish market. We took a walk round the harbour and watched as boats left on the rising tide and then stopped at The Contented Sole for a couple of drinks. Near our parking spot was a memorial to the Eyemouth Fishing Disaster of 1881, where 189 fishermen lost their lives, including 129 from the town itself, an event that must have overshadowed the town for many years after it happened with so many wives and children left to grieve.

We’d had a couple of pleasant days, but the following morning dawned grey and gloomy and our moods were the same as we realised we would be leaving Scotland.

 

Fabulous Falkirk

27/09/17-28/09/17

I would never have thought about visiting Falkirk if it wasn’t for Facebook.

I will admit I have a bit of a Facebook addiction, accessing it far more than is healthy and habitually swiping and refreshing every time I pick up my phone. In an attempt to channel that addiction in a useful direction I have joined a number of forums, including several devoted to motorhoming. The Scottish Motorhome Wildcampers forum has been a great help on our travels round Scotland and I kept seeing pictures of the Kelpies coming up on the feed. As I’m a sucker for anything that is illuminated I immediately wanted to go and visit them, and as luck would have it that fitted in nicely with our plans to finish our tour of Scotland down it’s south eastern side. Also in it’s favour, there are two car parks and both will allow motorhomes to stay overnight.

During the day you can see the huge steel plates that make up the Kelpies

The Kelpies are two huge steel sculptures of horses heads which were installed as part of the Helix project, a regeneration project based around the Forth and Clyde canal. We turned up in the afternoon and popped down to visit them which it was still daylight, and then we went down after sunset to view them in all of their illuminated glory. Through their Wikipedia entry I found an article from the Guardian’s art critic that scathingly referred to the Kelpie’s as misbegotten, bland and stale; obviously not a fan of popular municipal art then! I thought they were fantastic, maybe not thought provoking or ground breaking but definitely awe inspiring and such a great success story for the local tourism economy.

 

The Kelpies slowly change colour during the evening

And Falkirk is about more than just the Kelpies. The following day we took a bike ride along the canal to the Falkirk Wheel, this was built as part of the millemium project to re-connect the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. Back in the days when the canals were being used in anger the 35 meter height difference was managed through a series of locks that took the best part of a day to navigate. These locks were dismantled and the two canals have been separate since the 1930s. The project to re-link the canals was looking for an imaginative way to allow traffic to pass through and so the Falkirk Wheel was born – a huge rotating lift that will transport boats up or down between the canals. We sat and watched in fascination as the tourist boat and some other canal boats used the lift.

Watching two canal boats slowly being lowered from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal

 

The Union Canal hovers over the Forth and Clyde canal basin
Looking through the eye of the needle – the Union Canal disappears into infinity

When we could finally tear ourselves away from the wheel we moved on into Callendar Park and the mountain biking centre at Craigburn Woods. This is one of three mountain biking areas in the park and had a short blue trail and a slightly longer red trail. Both were very easy for their grades, but highly enjoyable and we whizzed round them a couple of times getting muddy in the process.

Finally we made our way back along to the Union Canal and across town back to the carpark at the Kelpies. We were asked for directions to the Falkirk Wheel by a Canadian who was cycling in the opposite direction and was a bit concerned after seeing us that it might be muddy en-route. 

It had been a fantastic day and we felt there was plenty more to keep us occupied if we had the time to stay for longer. But we couldn’t stay, so off we went to our next stop, by-passing Edinburgh on our way to North Berwick where we parked up at the end of the beach alongside a few other motorhomes and campervans.

 

 

A Tale of Two Bike Rides

26/09/17-27/09/17

We left Kilvrecht to head east along the string of lochs, all with hydro schemes for electricity generation, until we hit the A9 where we were able to start heading south again.

We didn’t go far though as we were tempted by the Ordnance Survey map’s promise of bike rides just outside Dunkeld. Disappointingly there weren’t any waymarked routes, but we did manage a very strenuous couple of hours on tracks in Craigvinean Forest. It was still cloudy and we only got occasional hazy views of the Tay river valley. The forest tracks were steep in places and there was a lot of claggy clay which made them hard going. We found markers for the McRae memorial rally as we were going through the forest, as well of evidence of the substantial track maintenance that they must have undertaken to allow the rally to take place, we’d only missed it by a few days. When we got back to Bertie we were exhausted despite only covering 12 miles and didn’t have the energy for sightseeing in Dunkeld. We considered remaining parked up where we were, but it was gloomy and oppressive under the closely packed trees so we decided to move on.

Driving further south we reached motorway! This must have been our first motorway since we arrived in Scotland back in mid August. Bertie trundled along happily in the wake of a lorry until we reached Kinross where we decided to stop for the night. There were a number of car parks around Loch Leven and we opted to park in the most northerly one. When we got out for a little wander that evening we found information boards indicating that there was a bike ride around the loch. A lovely, flat, nicely surfaced bike ride. Just the antidote to our forest ride. It sounded ideal for the following morning.

Views across Loch Leven to the Lomond Hills (not to be confused with Loch Lomond or Ben Lomond further west)

The bike ride was everything we had hoped for, a chance to un-knot muscles and enjoy lakeside views and level forest paths. We stopped at a couple of bird hides on the way around, less for bird watching and more to allow us to relax, and we took a detour to Burleigh Castle on the way around. At about the same length as the previous day’s ride it took less than half the time which meant we were done before lunch and were able to move on to our next destination.

Burleigh Castle

 

More Drizzly Days

24/09/17-25/09/17

As mentioned in the previous post, we had run out of water. We’d staved off the inevitable by one day, using the showers at the mountain biking area, but we really needed to get some water on board and dispose of our waste. We also needed to head south. We had a look to see whether we could avail ourselves of any free or cheap services, but couldn’t find anything so opted for a campsite instead.

The campsite we decided on was Kilvrecht, a forestry commission campsite with limited facilities near the shore of Loch Rannoch. We’d gained some inspiration for the area by watching Paul Murton’s Scottish Loch’s programme, although we didn’t think we’d emulate his wild swim in Loch Ba.

The campsite covers a large area of grass, as well as water and chemical waste disposal there is a toilet block, but no showers and no hot water. They do have cubicles you can use for a stand-up wash, rather cleverly designed so that you can stand in a shower tray and avoid getting water everywhere, you just have to take a kettle of hot water in with you – unless you are a masochist who likes to wash in freezing water. Of course we didn’t need this as we have heating and hot water in Bertie, the luxury of motorhome living compared with a tent.

On site they also had Midgeeaters, these machines attract midges and then trap them, by all accounts the midges here are particularly bad but they weren’t too bad while we were there.

The Midgeeater

We chose where to park with care – we could see how boggy it was and there were deep tyre tracks where cars and motorhomes had obviously had difficulty getting off the grass. We parked just off the track facing slightly downhill so that we could roll forward back onto the track when we left. We were ok although another motorhome that arrived just after us needed to be towed off the grass.

Covered bridge at Kilvrecht and starting point for our walk

While here we ventured out in the miserable weather for a walk through the forest following the gorge of the Allt na Bogair and then descending through ancient woodlands back down to Loch Rannoch. This took us through the Dall estate, once a boarding school this is now on the market as the owner couldn’t get planning permission to convert it to a luxury hotel complex – at £6 million we didn’t think we could afford it.

We opted to stay for two nights here. We felt it was really good value and it’s a shame there aren’t more of these basic campsites around for us cheapskates

The Shepherd’s Hill

23/09/17

The move eastwards to the Cairngorms gifted us with a day of sunshine, but it wasn’t going to last. We toyed with a long strenuous walk up Cairngorm and Ben Macdui but cloud was still lingering on the summits and it was pretty windy, so in the end opted for something a little less difficult with more chance of sun.

Meall a’Bhuachaille means ‘Hill of the Shepherd’ in Gaelic and is a popular walk in the Glenmore area. As it was a Saturday and good weather we thought we had better start early. We set off from our parking area walking along pleasant level paths through the Glenmore forest for the first couple of miles until we reached An Lochan Uaine (The Green Lake) which, true to it’s name, had a verdigris tint. Until this point we had been alone, but as we sat here for a short break we were caught up by a group of mountain bikers and a couple of walkers.

The Green Lake

Shortly after the loch we reached the bothy at Ryvoan, by now we were out of the forest and we could see the path zigzagging up the slopes of the mountain. Rather incredulously we realised that the mountain bikers were planning to take this path; we watched as they set off, some riding and some pushing up the steep uphill path. We followed them up and then overtook them as the hard work of pushing the extra weight up a mountain started to take it’s toll.

The path was unrelentingly uphill, but only just over a mile to the summit. We had no incentive to stop on the way as the wind was ferocious, but at the summit there was a large cairn/shelter that we could use to prtect us from the wind. We quickly nabbed the most sheltered spot before other walkers and the mountain bikers arrived and settled down for some lunch and our hot drinks from our flasks. We were in sunshine but there was still cloud across the tops of the higher mountains so we were glad we’d chosen this route. 

Views from the top of Meall a’Bhuachaille

When the mountain bikers reached the top we got chatting to one of them, they were a club who were on a guided mountain biking weekend. Their guides had taken them to Ben Macdui the previous day which had been hard work and this ride was the ‘easy’ day. Apart from the guides it really didn’t look like anyone was finding it easy. They had had two people drop out already. Despite being a fan of outdoor activities I had no desire to emulate their adventures.

We set off down the western slopes of the mountain into the bealach (the name for a low point between two hills) from where we were going to descend back to the forest. As we walked down we heard the sound of bikes coming down the hill and stepped aside to let them past. The path was well constructed for walkers, which mean it comprised of large stone cobbles, not quite steps. The thought of cycling down these paths gave me butterflies in my stomach and it was evidently doing the same for those on mountain bikes as they cautiously descended with their brakes on (or just dismounted and walked their bikes downhill). Obviously the guides whizzed down making it look easy. They stopped at the bottom of the section of path for a breather (and to get their nerve up I expect) where we overtook them and we played leapfrog down the hill for about a mile until two of them got punctures and they were left behind us.

Mountain bikers on the downhill slopes

We descended back through forest and across the road to Loch Morlich where we sat on a sandy beach and watched the many day-trippers enjoying a day out.

The beach at the eastern end of Loch Morlich

Finally we followed the path alongside the river before we crossed the road again and made our way back to our parking spot. It had been a really nice walk with varying scenery and although the mountains of the Cairngorms don’t inspire me in the same way as those of the west coast I could see why they were popular.

Riverside walk

We thought we would pop up to the Cairngorm Mountain Railway carpark, a recommended overnight parking spot. We knew it would probably be too windy for us to stay there but wanted to check out the views. It was pretty spectacular, although the mountain tops were still under a localised blanket of cloud, but it was also spectacularly windy and there was no way we would be able to sleep there.

Bertie at 600 meters – his highest point so far at the Cairngorm Mountain Railway car park

We had already decided that we would probably head back to a mountain biking area at Laggan, so off we toddled. The advantage of this spot was that the mountain biking centre had showers. For £1 we could get a decent hot shower, and as we had nearly run out of water this was ideal. It also had free wifi which we used that evening by driving as close as we could get to the centre in order to pick up it’s weak signal.