We were staying at a large paid aire at Foz do Arelho. This area of parking nestled between the coast and the Óbidos lagoon and was very busy with motorhomes. Because we didn’t want electricity we managed to nab a spot on the front looking out over the lagoon, an unforeseen advantage of solar panels.
After all the rain the previous day the weather had improved and we decided to go on a bike ride. We thought we would try to cycle around the lagoon. We knew we couldn’t make it a circular route as the lagoon is not completely separated from the ocean, but we could do a horseshoe there and back again. There are cycle routes down each side of the lagoon and it didn’t seem like it would be too difficult to join them together.
Joining them together was a bit of an adventure as we tried to head down tracks rather than roads. We didn’t manage it on the way out but on the way back we found it easier to track the edge of the lagoon most of the way, including one narrow path that we followed along the lagoon shore. At one point we encountered a herd of goats and sheep; the herder whistled and they moved aside and let us through – very well trained!
The lagoon was very attractive, we saw loads of wetland birds as we cycled around including pale pink flamingos sitting on a sand bar. Having to join the different cycle routes together meant we cycled through a village, crossed farmlands and navigated through a vineyard giving us a bit of variety of terrain. The previous day’s rain left us mud spattered with the claggy white clay of the tracks.
We liked our outlook enough to cough up for another night at this aire before moving on. We spent the late afternoon watching the goings on on the lagoon. As well as the usual fishermen on the shore or out on boats there were a number of people who were snorkelling. We didn’t know what they were collecting but they towed buckets buoyed up by rubber rings and obviously were collecting something edible. One of them swam up to the shore in front of us with his haul but we couldn’t work out what it was.
We had a moment of deja vu as we approached our next destination of Sao Pedro do Moel. This is Portugal’s Silver Coast and had some striking similarities to France’s Cote d’Argent; long sandy beaches, big waves for surfing and dunes backed by pine forest. We drove to a parking spot on the coast just north of Sao Pedro where we had a view from the cliffs with the lighthouse to the south and a long golden beach to the north.
This area had seen significant forest fires this year and we drove through large swathes of burned forest where the sand and ash and dead trees created a starkly monochrome scene of desolation.
We took a walk along the cliffs and then down onto the beach, watching fishermen casting into the surf and exploring the lagoon created where the river pooled behind a sandbank. The wind was blowing strongly although the skies were blue and people were wrapped up against the chill.
The following morning we got on our bikes and followed the bike track north. The road was long and straight, passing coastal resorts that had shut down for the winter, few people seemed to live in these towns where most of the shops and cafes were boarded up waiting for next years tourist season. We sat on the beach in one location watching the sea and were alerted to a pod of dolphins by large numbers of gannets, cormorants and gulls swirling around and diving for the fish that were being driven to the surface. There was life here, but not much human activity.
The national park of Peneda-Gerês was a place we fell in love with during our short visit. The first place since we crossed the channel that makes it into our ‘visit again’ list (as opposed to our ‘must visit next time’ list for the sights and places we have passed by).
The park is largely forested but above the tree line you’re in a landscape of granite tors and lumpy bumpy ridges. We were lucky with the weather for our visit, at this time of year we should have expected significant rainfall and low cloud, but northern Portugal was getting unusually clear and dry weather for the time of year. Not great for the farmers, especially after the hot summer and awful forest fires, but fantastic for us visitors.
We had chosen to base ourselves in the main village, known as Vila do Geres or Caldas do Geres or just Geres, a spa ‘town’ with a string of small hotels and an outdoor pool complex. While we were there most of the hotels were shut and the pools were empty. A few cafes and shops were open but it was very quiet. Our parking place was also the bus stop and the school bus came through a few times each day dropping off a scant handful of children, this area is not heavily populated anyway and according to the internet the population tends to be female and elderly rather than families. To our surprise we weren’t the only motorhome in the car park, another motorhome was already there when we arrived and one British van turned up while we were on our walk, so obviously a few people were thinking the same way as us and enjoying the good weather while it lasted.
With clear days came cool nights and we were in double duvet territory (we have a 4.5 tog and a 7 tog duvet, plus blankets and brushed cotton (ok, flannelette) bedding for a bit of extra comfort – if it gets really cold we might wear pyjamas but generally we prefer to sleep in the buff) but the heating didn’t need to come on yet.
For our first day in the mountains we followed one of the marked paths on the east side of the village, we picked it up by walking up the first switchback on the road above the car park until we found the red and yellow markers which led us steeply up a track through the forest – our legs complained at this unusual activity, we haven’t done any serious mountain walking since Scotland. Eventually the forest started to clear and we found ourselves in a mountain meadow where people had created many stacks of balanced rocks on top of the granite. From here the path followed the contours of the ridge heading south. We looked at the ridges above us and hankered to climb them, but without maps we didn’t want to head off the route.
As we started to descend we found the source of the horse droppings we’d encountered on the trail, a few of the semi-wild Garrano horses in the park were munching on the autumn bracken. They weren’t disposed to pay us any attention or pose for photos. The path headed past an area that was fenced off (we don’t know why) and another mystery area with a cistern of water and large bare patches – we wondered if it was in some way linked to fire fighting.
Further downhill at the Miradouro Pedra Bela we surprised a herd of goats off the viewpoints and sent them leaping with bells clanging further down into the valley. There were roads up to the Miradouro but, just like the rest of the walk, we didn’t see anyone as we followed the path, crisscrossing the road heading downhill.
The path bought us steeply down to the bottom end of the village and then through the cobbled back street past homes and smallholdings and yapping dogs until it dropped us back down to the car park.
On the way we had talked about our plans and decided we should stay another day and make the most of the beautiful scenery and ideal outdoor activity climate – clear and sunny but not too warm – so we had a quick walk down to the bakery to pick up some rolls for the next day’s packed lunch.
The following day we got our bikes out to cycle up the other side of the valley – this was the route that the sat nav had tried to bring us down and we were intrigued to find out whether we had made the right decision to turn around. It was a steady climb up the road past the football pitch, we put our bikes into a low gear and chugged along, sometimes it’s easier to keep climbing steadily than it is to cycle through undulating territory where the uphill stretches take your legs by surprise.
After 500m and 7 km (I am trying to retrain my brain to using the decimal system only) we had reached the highest point of the road, past a couple of picnic spots and viewpoints. We had seen the first evidence of Portugal’s forest fires as well as a herd of attractive cattle with very sharp horns.
The road was actually in good condition and would have been ok to drive in Bertie so long as we hadn’t encountered something coming in the other direction. It wasn’t empty, a dozen or so cars and small vans drove past us as we cycled. Driving in Scotland has spoiled us, we are used to well signposted passing places on single track roads and here the opportunities to avoid oncoming vehicles were few, we were still happy that we’d turned around.
Invigorated by our uphill ride we then decided to go further up and take the off road track to the Miradouro da Boneca. This was a different experience as we slogged – generally uphill but with many ups and downs along the way – over rutted tracks to the viewpoint. At the end we had a spectacular view down into the valley and Bertie’s car park, and had the company of other people! We were a stone’s throw from our starting point and had nearly closed the circle, but I knew there was no way I would cycle the steep path straight down – it would have been suicidal.
We retraced our uphill bike ride, this time downhill and freewheeling most of the way, the switchbacks were particularly thrilling as we cycled downhill towards what looked like a sheer drop off before turning onto the next downhill.
When we got back we were exhausted but the adrenaline was pumping and so we used the energy to set off away from the hills and back down to the coast. I’m still regretting leaving, when will we ever get such a good period of weather for exploring such a wonderful place? We’ll be back one day for at least a couple of weeks to give us plenty of time to explore and enjoy.
Portugal has a number of national bike routes – Ecovias, Ecopistas and Ciclovias. Ponte de Lima was on the route of one of them and we followed it upstream and along it’s south bank to Ponte de Barca where there was another bridge over the river.
We found the route markers by cycling under the bridge, but almost immediately had to deviate from the pedestrian route because it had steps down to the river bank. Our deviation took us along tracks through allotments and small vineyards before we rejoined the river.
Disused mills and empty millstreams dotted the sides of the wide and placid river and at one point the main road bridged the valley high above us.
We enjoyed the blue skies, bird song and clear reflections of autumn colours in the calm waters.
At Ponte de Barca we considered crossing the river and trying to find a route back along the other side, but it seemed to mean a deviation away from the river along roads before it rejoined the river bank, and as the river bank was the main feature of this ride it looked more enjoyable to just retrace our route back to Bertie.
It had only been a relatively easy 20 mile ride, leaving us plenty of time to move on to our next destination, which was lucky for us as we had a trip into the mountains of the Parque Nacional Peneda-Geres, Portugal’s only National Park.
We followed roads up into the hills, winding higher and higher up switchback roads as we approached the village of Vila do Geres. The roads were in good condition with no single track lanes so everyone was happy until we realised that the sat nav was not taking us the direct route that we’d looked at on the map. For some reason it wanted to take us to Campo do Geres and then across the hills on a windy single track road, I think because the sat nav was set to fastest route and this was the way with least speed restrictions. We started gamely up the single track road until we got an odd look from a shepherd, at that point Paul decided that we should stop and check out our alternatives. In the end we turned round and went back down to the large lake created by the hydro dam on the Cavado river where we could take the direct route to the village, although the sat nav insisted all the way that we should turn around. Turning around on the single track mountain road was interesting, especially as Bertie doesn’t have a big nose – the view from the cab at the edge of the road was buttock clenching.
Finally we made it to the village where we parked up in a good sized parking area and were able to indulge in a stiff drink. The sun was just starting to set and we were glad we hadn’t been forced to make any of our navigation decisions in the dark, although it may have made turning round less nerve-wracking.
After a cool night the morning was foggy and we took a little while to warm up. While waiting for a little motivation we took a look on Wikiloc – a useful resource for sharing walks, bike rides and routes for other activities – to see whether anyone had recorded this walk and how long it had taken. We saw that someone had followed the route by mountain bike and decided that it would be preferable to walking as we would easily be able to do the whole 14 miles by bike but probably wouldn’t manage to walk it, especially as we weren’t starting very early.
To try and get us in the mood we wandered back into the village to pick up some bread and biscuits for our packed lunch, by the time we got back the sun was showing signs that it might burn off the fog but we were still feeling a bit sluggish and it was with reluctance that we donned our cycling gear and set off following the yellow and white trail markers.
The trail followed the river out of the village, through woodland and past allotments on fairly wide tracks taking us over roots and stones. Most of it was relatively flat and easy enough if a little bumpy on the saddle but the timber bridges over streams were very slick with the moisture of the morning’s fog and caused us to skid a couple of times. We only lost the trail markers once where we followed a wide and obvious track where we should have shifted onto a narrower path that was closer to the river, but generally it was an easy path to follow. We feel the lack of ordnance survey maps keenly, an ordnance survey map provides so much more confidence of the route and terrain than any maps we have found on the continent.
After the town of Parga the nature of the river bank started to change from earthy paths and tracks and we began to encounter large rocky outcrops of granite and a few more gradients which made the riding a bit trickier. A couple of times we had to get off and push/carry the bikes up over rocky obstacles. At some point while we’d been in the woods the sun had finally broken through the clouds, we didn’t feel it much until Parga when the woods started to thin out.
Finally we reached a point where we felt that it was going to be too much hard work to continue, we were only a few hundred yards from the end of the route but decided we should turn around and retrace our steps back to Bertie. It had been a pleasant, if short, ride.
That afternoon we moved on towards the coast. We picked a parking spot near Boiro it had a long narrow beach and attractive outlook but not much opportunity for walking or cycling. The local dog barked pretty much all night, which was a source of amusement and frustration. We have no idea what triggered the barking as it was quite placid the following morning – maybe it had worn itself out!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fort William is a fairly unprepossessing town, more utilitarian than picturesque, particularly in poor weather when the views of Ben Nevis cannot be seen. However it is a central hub for tourism so has plenty of facilities.
On our drive east we stopped here overnight as I wanted to take a look in some outdoor shops for a new waterproof – mine is fifteen years old now and with my birthday coming up I thought it might be an idea to treat myself to a more modern jacket – technology has changed with waterproof zips and more flexible fabrics giving a more streamlined fit. Actually the shops were not that inspiring and so I didn’t buy anything, after all my current jacket is still working I can afford to wait till I see something I really like.
We stayed in the car park at Banavie right by Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight locks that carry vessels up the 20 meters from sea level at Fort William to the level of the Great Glen and it’s lochs (including Loch Ness) that make up the central portion of the Caledonian Canal (another Thomas Telford project). There were no boats traversing the locks while we were there but previously we’ve sat enthralled by the progress of boats descending the staircase.
The weather wasn’t good enough to enjoy a mountain walk, but had dried up enough to induce us to cycle along the Caledonian Way. We’ve always fancied doing the whole thing but this outing was just to the end of Loch Lochy and back. It was a pleasant bike ride with a nice easy section on the canal tow path, a section of road past some very palatial houses and then a lung-testing off road track above the shores of Loch Lochy. We stopped at Laggan Locks to eat our sandwiches and got talking to a couple who had rented a canal boat as one of their ‘bucket list’ activities.
As we cycled back to Banavie the skies started to clear and we soaked up some late afternoon sunshine which put us in the mood for a couple of drinks at the local pub before our tea. That evening Ben Nevis was finally visible over the pebble dashed estate houses of Banavie.
After a cold night the following morning dawned damp and drizzly, we pushed further east to end up in the northern Cairngorm mountains on the road through Glenmore to the Cairngorm ski area. The forestry commission parking alongside the banks of Loch Morlich all had No Overnight Parking signs, but motorhomes and campervans were directed to a parking area slightly higher up the valley at Allt Mor. The mountain forecast was giving us a high probability of cloud free summits over these mountains on the following day so we wanted to make the most of it. The parking was actually very convenient for our planned walk, although not as picturesque as a lakeside spot.
On Mull the roads are in the highland style i.e. single track with passing places. The classification of the road does not tell you how wide it is, but it does give some indication of the size of the passing places, presumably to cope with the larger vehicles that will use them. The main A road that runs all the way from Fionnport on the south west corner of Mull up to Tobermory in the north east has a few short sections with two lanes, but is mostly single track. Paul has plenty of experience driving on highland roads, but mostly as a car driver where his driving behaviour involves hunting down the car in front so they have to pull over and let him pass. In Bertie he has to be the one to pull over. I wondered if his masculine pride would be dented with this role reversal, but he seems to have taken it in his stride. The reversing camera came into it’s own as we left it on all the time so we could see what was coming behind us and choose our spots for pulling over, rather a nice wide tarmac passing place than a rutted earth and grass one.
As well as being the first place with a significant proportion of single track roads, this is also the first place I have ever seen Otter Crossing signs, including one sign with the ‘Number of Otter Fatalities’. We didn’t get a picture of these but you can see plenty of examples on the Mull Otter Group website.
We drove from Craignure up to Tobermory, we will then make our way back down south before going back up to Tobermory to get the ferry off of Mull. The key reason for this is that there are a couple of walks in the south that rely on a low tide, and it would be a few days before low tides were at a reasonable time of day to make it practical.
Our first spot for overnight parking was the Forestry Commission parking at the north end of Loch Frisa.
We cycled from here down to the other end of the Loch and then took a short circuit through Glen Aros before retracing our steps up to the north. On the way we were keeping our eye out for eagles. Mull is well know for the white tailed sea eagle which was reintroduced in Western Scotland in 1975, golden eagles can also be seen, so we were hopeful for a sighting at some point while we were on Mull. We saw a number of large birds from a distance, which could have been eagles, and one up close which was probably a buzzard but could have been a juvenile sea eagle (it didn’t have the distinctive white tail). Buzzards and sea eagles have very similar silhouettes, golden eagles are quite different, but it’s difficult for amateurs like us to tell the difference unless they fly very close or all conveniently fly past at the same time so that we can tell the difference. So nothing conclusive on this bike ride, but looking very hopeful.
We settled down for the night in the forestry commission car park with a couple of other campervans joining us. We were really starting to notice the shorter days now; it’s pretty dark by the time we’re eating dinner, a sure sign that we’re getting into Autumn and no signs of an Indian Summer in this part of the country.
Barnluasgan is near to the Crinan Canal which was built to allow boats to pass across the Kintyre peninsular without having to take the significantly longer journey around it’s perimeter. These days the boats that use it are mainly pleasure craft; yachts and motor cruisers make their way through it’s locks to access the islands of the Hebrides. I’d last been here nearly 30 years ago when we came on a family holiday to the area. It’s remembered well by the whole family because we had our first seafood platter – one between the 5 of us, we didn’t have a lot of money but plenty of pretension – from the Seafood Bar at the Crinan Hotel. It would be no effort for Paul and I to cycle down to the Canal and have a little jaunt up and down it’s length and then maybe a seafood platter at the hotel, just for old time’s sake. The weather was a definite improvement, a bit blustery and showery but with the occasional sunny spell. We cycled to Ardrishaig at one end where we stopped by the memorial to John Smith – leader of the Labour Party for a short while until his untimely death, and born in this town – for a cuppa.
Then we cycled back towards Crinan, the wind was blowing in our faces in this direction making it much heavier going and we felt that we would definitely deserve a treat when we got to the other end of the Canal. We had a look at the Seafood bar which was serving a lot of seafood dishes but no platters, and anyway our tastes were veering more towards sugary carbohydrates by this point so we went into the café for tea and cake instead.
The Crinan end of the canal is definitely the more picturesque as the canal cuts through cliffs on one side and sits above the wide sandy bay of Loch Crinan and the tidal reaches of the River Add on the other side. Crinan itself is a pretty village with a very yachty feel. The café served excellent cake and proper pots of tea – you know, enough for three of four cups and with extra hot water. After refreshments we cycled back to Bertie, stopping at the bird hide for a quick look, not much of any interest today just a few geese and oyster catchers, a family of swans and probably a number of small brown birds that I’m hopeless at distinguishing.
Because we were enjoying the day we went a bit further through the Knapdale forest roads before making it back to Bertie.
It was still fairly early and we debated what to do next. Ideally we wanted to research our trip to Mull, but we couldn’t get online where we were so we thought we would move on. We stopped first at the parking area for Carnasserie Castle, but still no internet access here so we popped up to the castle for a look around before moving on further.
In the end we moved on a lot further than we had expected, ending up parked alongside the A816 just south of Oban in a layby where we were able to get some signal.
We booked ourselves on the ferry to Mull for the following day and did some research into possible places to stay and things to do. We had quite a long list and crossed our fingers for fine weather. We also booked into a campsite for a couple of nights when we got there as we had a lot of dirty laundry and wanted to do some washing. Once we were sorted we felt more relaxed and sat watching the waters of Loch Feochan for the remainder of the evening.
It was still raining when we left Machrihanish Campsite, but we knew that the following day would be good so we made our way up the west coast of the Kintyre peninsular stopping a few times to take in what view there was and finally coming to rest for the evening at the ferry terminal for Gigha island. Ferry terminals are good for motorhomers, they often have toilets, water and free CalMac wifi as well as other services.
Gigha is a small island on the west coast of the Kintyre peninsular, there is not much on the island but it was meant to be pretty and sounded like a good place to while away a few hours in good weather.
The following morning dawned as sunny as promised and we left Bertie in the car park happily charging his batteries while we took our bikes across as foot passengers on the small CalMac ferry.
We cycled up to the North end of the island where we scouted out the possible motorhome parking spots (you never know – we may be back) and sat and watched the sea for a while until a fishing boat disturbed the peace with some very loud rock music; you know, the type that they heavily advertise around Father’s day. Fair play, it’s probably quite difficult to listen to music over the sound of the sea and the noisy diesel engine of a fishing boat.
Next we tried to reach the twin beaches which link Gigha to a small tidal islet. We could see them from a distance, the shining white sand looking inviting, but as we set off down the track it got muddier and muddier until we could cycle no more. Undeterred at that point we continued on foot, but eventually we had to give up as the track became a muddy lake and our attempts to force a new path through brambles and bracken came to nothing. Finally, after cycling the full length of Gigha we took a track down to a beach signposted for the beach at Port a’ Chinn Mhoir only to find a sturdy cream bull walking down the path ahead of us, swinging his testicles in a way that said ‘I own this path’. As the path was narrow there was no going past the bull, but we slowly urged it forwards until the path became wider and it headed off in a different direction to us. We finally had a beach we could relax on, the weather was nice enough for me to go for a paddle in the shallow sands of the bay, which was also what the Bull was doing – heading for a group of cows that I’m sure had been on his mind all along.
That evening we felt sun tired and couldn’t be bothered to cook, so we went to Big Jessie’s café for a fish and chip supper. To help the (perfectly cooked) greasy stodge down we walked along the beach north of Tayinloan bay before spending a second night at the ferry terminal.
From the Isle of Whithorn we were heading to the Rhinns of Galloway, the word Rhinns (or Rhins) is derived from the Gaelic for point or headland, and the Rhinns of Galloway is a hammerhead shaped peninsular on the far west of the mainland. We drove along deserted roads, following the coast for a while. Under the grey sky, the grey sea and grey beaches looked bleak and lonely. We stopped off in Stranraer for a bit of grocery shopping and to refuel. Then we made our way south to take a look at a few possible parking spots, we wanted somewhere with a sea view and there were lots of possibilities around the peninsular. In the end we decided on Port Logan, there was a car park at the north end of the beach close to the Port Logan fishpond; an intriguing little tourist attraction, the fishpond was created from an existing geographic feature in 1788 as a larder for live fish. Now it’s used as an aquarium and holds lots of native species of fish.
A Thomas Telford designed quay and bell tower protect the southern end of the beach. It strikes me that most of the impressive engineering projects we have seen in Wales and Scotland have had something to do with Thomas Telford, I don’t know if he is the most prolific British engineer but it certainly feels like it.
We took a walk down the beach to check out the village, tempted by the mug of ale symbol on the ordnance survey map, but unfortunately the hotel/pub was shut and looked like it was undergoing renovation or conversion. That night we had a lovely quiet night’s sleep, one other campervan joined us in the car park, they were off to catch the ferry to Ireland the next morning. We decided to go on a bike ride the next day, so we headed out to the Mull of Galloway, the most southerly point in Scotland (Mull is derived from a Gaelic work for bare or barren and is often applied to headlands i.e. Mull of Kintyre) home to a lighthouse and an RSPB reserve. As we approached the Mull the cloud got lower and lower so that we were cycling through fog and all we could see was the road seemingly endlessly uphill in front of us. The fog lifted slightly as we got to the lighthouse so we saw the building being unveiled before our eyes.
From here we took a short walk around the headland and stopped for a spot of lunch. We didn’t spot much of interest, nesting season is over and although we could see flocks of sea birds out to sea it was mostly pigeons on the rocks. We cycled back along the east coast of the Rhinns before we cut back across to Port Logan, this gave us the opportunity to look at a few possible parking spots for the next day. The forecast was for sun so we were planning to take the Kayak out.
The next day we moved on. It seemed that most people at Glencaple were breaking their journey to go further north, but we were heading west deeper into Dumfries and Galloway. It was a day of sunshine and showers, the type of day where everything is sparkling and jewel like, the sun tempts you out but the heavens could open any minute and drench you.
We stopped off at one of the 7 Stanes mountain biking centres for a little bit of a bike ride. There are (no surprise) 7 of these centres in the Southern Uplands, each managed by the forestry commission and each of them home to mountain bike trails. This time we did a short 9 mile blue circuit which had a few bits of fun single track but was mostly on the forestry commission trails. I’m in a position where I find the blue trails too easy and sometimes a bit boring, but parts of the red trails scare the bejesus out of me. So my choice of trail depends on how I feel, this time I felt a bit chicken so blue it was. Still, Paul managed to fall off his bike and sustain a knee injury as he raced around the trails. Paul tends to fall off quite often which is probably because he commits (i.e. goes too fast) more than I do. I don’t fall off, but I do end up in embarrassing situations where I’m astride my bike with both feet on the floor attempting to waddle down steep bits of track.
We were going to stay overnight here but they were preparing for an event the next day and it could have got a bit busy early in the morning, so after dinner we moved up the road to the Dalbeattie Town Wood parking area where we spent a quiet night.
We did take advantage of the facilities at the 7 Stanes car park before we moved though. We emptied our toilet cassette in the public toilets and used the tap to top up with some water.
Emptying the toilet cassette into a public toilet is usually frowned upon, not so much because it creates a mess (it’s quite easy to dispose of it without any trace if you have a steady hand), but because of the chemicals that are used by (probably) the majority of people to keep the smells at bay. These chemicals can cause issues by killing the necessary bacteria in septic tanks and sewage treatment works and so should only be disposed of at specific chemical waste disposal points. To avoid this restriction we don’t use any chemicals in the toilet. The down side of this is that we need to ensure we empty it frequently to avoid nasty niffs. And we also feel that we need to be surreptitious when disposing of our waste in case anyone does think we’re chucking any of those chemicals away. So our toilet disposal is often a bit of a clandestine operation, this time I made a furtive dash for the loos while Paul kept a look out for anyone arriving. Of course we always make sure the toilets are as clean after we leave as they were when we went in – sometimes cleaner!
We remained parked up in Glencaple for the next day and night. The next day was bright and sunny to start with, and although it clouded over later and there were some spots of rain it was mostly a pleasant day. To make the most of it we took a bike ride south along part of Sustrans route 7 which roughly follows the coast of the Solway Firth.
The coast here is low lying and extremely tidal, there are expanses of rushes and lots of the distinctive Reedmace with it’s fat sausage-like flower spike. Between the taller plants and the sandy tidal flats is low lying salt marsh. So the road is quite a way back from the water.
This type of land is a haven for birds and wildlife and the majority of the area is owned and managed by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. We stopped off to walk through some of the paths of the Caerlaverock Wetland Centre, but the only thing of any significance that we saw on our short ramble was a tiny Natterjack Toad that Paul escorted off the middle of the path.
When we got back to the parking spot there was a minor drama, a couple of police cars and a someone wearing a hi-vis vest marked ‘Rescue’ turned up and focused binoculars upstream. Eventually a police helicopter made a circuit overhead – we were on tenterhooks – was something drifting downstream towards us? What would it be?. We could hear some of the radio conversations but were still none the wiser when they all eventually departed without anything of interest happening.
While we were here we had a chat with a Estonian lady who was asking where she could get rid of her toilet and grey waste. We commiserated over the lack of French style facilities as I explained that designated disposal areas are few and far between and she would probably need to go to a campsite every few days. There are a few places that provide facilities – some of the Scottish Islands for example – and it does appear that the increasing popularity of Motorhomes is starting to make an impression on local councils. For example our home town of Exmouth looks to be planning to provide motorhome facilities in town as well as designated parking spaces. If this comes to fruition I think it would be great for the town. Fingers crossed!
By this time we knew we would have to be heading back to the south west as we had a music festival to attend in just over a week’s time. We decided to head inland and then south through the borders to complete a circuit albeit a bit faster on the return leg.
Our next stop was Carrog Station campsite, yet another campsite next to a steam railway, where we shared the field with a 2CV club rally and a number of other families. The campsite was busy with people starting their summer holidays and a large group of children were playing football using jumpers for goalposts, until one group turned up with actual goalposts. They moved onto rugby later that evening and were still playing when the campsite was dark.
The next morning we moved on to Chirk Castle as early as possible. Here we parked the motorhome and got our bikes out for a ride along the Llangollen canal cycle route.
We followed a pleasantly green and shady canal tow path to Thomas Telford’s impressive Pontcysyllte Aqueduct where canal boats can cross the Dee valley and feel on one side as if they are suspended in mid air.
Then we carried on through Llangollen to the Llantysilio falls, a spot we often see from the A5 in passing but have never visited.
When we got back to Chirk Castle we spent the afternoon wandering around the National Trust property and gardens, enjoying the mixture of periods covered from medieval (and later attempts to create a medieval atmosphere) through to 20th century history.
We moved further south after Chirk to stay near Presteigne; we initially attempted to find a spot in the town’s car park which allows overnight parking, but it was a small car park and we were too big to fit into a space and allow other vehicles to get around us so we headed back to the edge of the town where a small picnic spot provided our overnight location plus the company of another couple in their Burstner who regaled us with stories and pictures of their travels across Europe.
In Presteigne it was the day of the summer fete which provided our evening’s entertainment, including some late night revellers waiting for their taxi. Their conversation was loud but amusing.
From Presteigne we did a circular walk to take a couple of sections of Offa’s Dyke. I know that the Dyke is just an earthwork, but we were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t more impressive. The hot and humid weather didn’t help and we returned to Bertie sweaty and grumpy (I’ll let you guess who was which).
Our final stop in Wales was in the Wye valley again near the village of Brockhampton, in fact it wasn’t really in Wales, as the drive down south meandered between Wales and England several times. But we counted it as Wales as we hadn’t yet crossed the Severn Bridge, which was really the mark that we had left the country.
We also had good news this week that we had received a full refund for Paul’s walking boots (see earlier post). Hats off to Millet Sports who were the retailer and dealt with our return very graciously and to Salomon who have a two year no quibble guarantee on their footwear, fingers crossed the current pair of boots will not have the same issues though.
You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged for a week, this has caused me a little anxiety, but not quite enough to motivate me to blog. The reason for a lack of blog activity is that I am now back in Devon and enjoying time with family and friends and it’s left little room for sitting at a laptop tapping away about stuff that happened to me a couple of weeks ago.
But I know that if I don’t get on with it I will have a month’s worth of blogging to catch up on and that sounds like hard work. So I’ve finally forced myself to hole up in the motorhome and get on with it.
It has been more than two weeks since we left Anglesey. Our final few days were spent in coastal locations to the North and South of the Island.
We stopped in Amlwch at a car park near the harbour, where there is easy access to the coastpath leading eastwards. It was here that we had our first real NIMBY experience. I’ve always known that there would be people who don’t like motorhomes parking up, you only have to read the views of my home town Exmouth’s community facebook forum to know how vitriolic people get about ‘freeloaders’. And in Amlwch there are ‘No Overnight Camping’ signs on the carpark which did indicate that there may be a few disapproving people about. So it wasn’t a great surprise to be met with an individual who took exception to us having been there overnight. We had an interesting debate about the difference between overnight parking and overnight camping before he threatened us with a very personalised fine ‘because I’m on the council’.
Anyway that was after we’d spent a very pleasant day and quiet evening (we were the only vehicle in the carpark until the dog walkers showed up in the morning) in the local area. So we were able to get in the motorhome and chug off to our next destination.
The coastline to the east of Amlwch is invitingly rocky – if you are a fisherman – the rocks step down to the sea, and the water is relatively deep directly off shore. So we had a walk along the coastpath and stopped a couple of times for Paul to do a spot of fishing. Along the way we watched some local gig racing between Porth Eilian and Amlwch. Not knowing who we were supporting we gave them all some encouragement. It looked like hard work.
We walked out to the lighthouse on the headland just beyond Port Eilian where we spent an hour in the sun watching the dolphins (or possibly porpoises) frolicking in the sea, some of them came pretty close to shore and then seemed to follow us as we retraced our steps back to the motorhome. They were probably the reason that Paul had little luck fishing that afternoon, but later that evening we went back out for a spot of fishing on the high tide which was more successful.
After Amlwch we popped to the National Trust ‘stately home’ at Plas Newydd. The house and estates had some interesting features. Particularly Rex Whistlers trompe-l’oeil mural in the dining room which was fascinating, with it’s clever use of perspective to make the scene change according to the viewers position, and the collection of military memorabilia, including the wooden leg of the first Marquess of Anglesey who lost his leg at the battle of Waterloo. Paul also provided some entertainment doing a bee’s ‘Waggle Dance’; we had stopped to listen to a talk about bees which was probably more aimed at children, but with only two teenagers available and a lot of interaction to get through the bee lady decided that Paul would take least persuading to wiggle his bottom in public. I laughed so hard I forgot to video it.
Following this we had a quick overnight stopover on the south coast at a small parking space next to the Sea Zoo. Really it was too small for us but we were tired and not inclined to move again, so wedged ourselves in as tightly as possible and hoped that no one else wanted to join us. Another motorhome did turn up but they opted for a spot a couple of hundred yards up the road. Phew.
Beaumaris was our final stop on Anglesey. Here there is a large car park on the sea front which tolerates overnight parking (although yet again there are ‘no motorhomes, caravans etc’ signs at the entrance of the car park.
Beaumaris was busy – a sign of the impending school holidays. There were coach parties galore visiting this pretty and tourist friendly village with it’s impressive castle (we only saw it from the outside) and narrow streets. The seafront itself is long but not a beach for sitting and sunning yourself on.
From Beaumaris we cycled to Penmon point. The land here is privately owned and cars or motorhomes pay a toll to drive to the car park. Motorhomes are allowed to stay overnight but we decided to cycle here instead. On the way we took in a small ruined castle – Castell Aberlleiniog, he ruined priory at Penmon point; the immense dovecote near the priory and the lighthouse with it’s fog bell marking the channel between the point and Puffin Island.
That evening we saw the most amazing cherry red sunset as the sun dropped behind the castle – hopefully the shepherds delight of fine weather the next day.
That was it for Anglesey – the following morning we drove through the – just wide enough – arches of Thomas Telford’s Menai bridge and headed back across to the mainland.