When the forecast says heavy rain and snow then we start looking for electricity. Neither of us are particularly keen on hot hot weather, so we find we cope well enough in cool temperatures (down to about -4 overnight) so long as the days are sunny and we can replenish our electricity with solar power. In those sorts of temperatures we usually just use our gas central heating for a short while before bed and first thing in the morning. The van is insulated well enough that we don’t drop below freezing inside, and most importantly our water pipes are internal to the van and don’t freeze.
But if it’s going to rain or snow all day and the skies are overcast then we find our solar doesn’t replenish our leisure batteries fast enough to allow us to have the heating on (and we cant increase our leisure battery capacity without a bit of an overhaul of our old electrical system). And of course if it’s grim during the day then we’re not out and about raising our body temperatures with exercise, nor is Bertie getting warmed up through the greenhouse effect of the large windows, so we want the heating on for longer.
All in all it adds up to a need for electricity or to escape the drab and dreary weather.
So we ended up doing a bit of both. We were already well progressed towards the eastern end of the French Pyrenees with the coast in sniffing distance, and we knew that down on the coast there would be campsites or aires with electricity.
We settled on Argelès-sur-Mer as our destination. It’s probably the biggest resort on the coast between Perpignan and the border, it’s not that pretty or cultural, but it does have a large municipal campsite with good cheap prices (13 euros a night plus tourist tax of 0.66 cents per person per night – what an odd figure!) and it wouldn’t take us too far out of our way.
So we drove to Camping Les Roussillonaise, checked in with the friendly staff, drove around the HUGE campsite to find a pitch we fancied and settled ourselves in to weather the storm.
Obviously now we were out of the Pyrenees the weather wasn’t as wet or cold as we might have experienced, but it was still a bit dismal and high on the hills we could see the snow starting to settle. We whiled away our time doing the usual stuff, cleaning and tidying, planning the next stages of our travels, cooking, chilling and getting out of the van whenever the weather brightened up.
We decided that actually the town was quite nice out of season. All of the other campsites were closed and many of the tourist attractions were boarded up, but there was still some life about the place, probably helped by it being French school holidays. The seafront had a steady stream of pedestrians, the cafes and shops that were open had enough customers to make them seem friendly and welcoming.
It was late summer when Paul’s friend Mark (aka Ted, aka Welshy) mentioned that the draw for the Rugby Union European Cup had taken place. Chiefs would be facing Castres, a team who had won the French League this year, most importantly Castres is in the south of France, close to Toulouse. ‘Definitely’ we said ‘we’ll be in the area, get us some tickets’.
So now we were on our way to Castres and ready for a rugby and beer filled weekend. When I say ready, we haven’t exactly been hitting the beer (or cider in Paul’s case) in any sort of volume since we’ve been away, so actually we were completely unprepared lightweights. And it showed.
We turned up in Castres hoping to find the local campsite open, but it had closed (as is the case for so many French campsites) at the end of September. Parking was allowed in the adjacent Gourjade park for 24 hours, so we flagged that as a possibility for match day and looked at our options for aires in the surrounding towns and villages.
We ended up in Labruguière, a pleasant town about 10k south of Castres that was on the train and bus routes into the city. The aire here is really quite nice, it’s a paid aire with a barrier on entry, but for your 7 euros you get a nice sized pitch that is big enough to roll out the awning and sit outside, plus electricity and all the normal services.
We popped into town to find the timetables for the buses and trains. Bus travel is free here in the Castres-Mazamet area which was a real bonus. It’s one of those initiatives that seems to have paid dividends in non quantifiable benefits. For example they have seen a reduction in youth crime since the free transport was introduced – why? who knows but there must be a link. Sadly the bus service only runs till 7pm but the trains run later and after the first attempt at buying a ticket from the machine in Castres I downloaded the SNCF app. It was easier to understand, which mean we got cheaper train tickets through the app, and I could buy the tickets in advance while unaffected by alcohol. I would definitely recommend the app if you are going to use French trains at all during a visit.
Despite plans to drive into Castres on match day, we decided we were better off staying put, especially after a particularly beery Friday. The added advantage was that we had to leave at 9:30 to catch our train. Much as I hate missing out on fun and excitement I think that staying any later would have been too much for either of us.
When we arrived in Labruguière the weather was a bit dismal, but it soon brightened up. For some reason this seemed to wake up hordes of shield bugs and we were infested with the blighters. So much so that we are still finding them hibernating in our window seals two weeks later. Luckily they are very dopey and easy to pick up and throw out into the cold (poor things).
We spent the next few days socialising with Mark, Jen and the rest of the Chiefs fans. Predictably this was mostly done in the Irish Bar (there is always one) in Castres who must have doubled their annual profits from this match. This was our first Chiefs away game so it was all quite new to us, we had a great time; mingling with the coaching staff on the evening before the match, following The Tribe to the stadium on match day, eating French match day grub (no pasties here), and generally having a great time.
The less said about the result, the better. Suffice it to say that Ted still hasn’t seen Chiefs win away. But that didn’t dampen our enjoyment of the weekend (much). It wasn’t a cheap weekend, it wasn’t a sober weekend, but it was a great fun and I would definitely do it again!
When we first got Bertie we joined both of the main clubs in the UK – The Caravan and Motorhome Club (CMC) and the Camping and Caravanning Club (CCC). We were working, so the cost of joining was not an issue, and we really believed we would get good use from them. However it just wasn’t the case, we wild camped (i.e. spent the night outside of a designated campsite), and camped in privately owned campsites but only spent about two weeks in club sites, a couple of bigger sites and a couple or three certified sites. Although the clubs do offer discounts on other things useful for travel abroad (insurance, ferry travel etc) we found they couldn’t match what we were already getting, so as soon as we could we cancelled our memberships.
On return to the UK we decided to take a more considered approach to joining a club. Originally we had just thought that we wouldn’t bother, but a recent post on facebook had alerted us to the existence of Temporary Holiday Sites (THS) run by volunteers in the CCC. These sites are usually cheap and don’t always have facilities (other than water and waste disposal), a bit like a temporary aire. With our eyes opened we looked at the various clubs again, paying more attention to information about rallys rather than the main campsites.
This time in the UK we weren’t going to be touring extensively, we wanted to spend most of our time in three places; home in Taunton, visiting our old haunts in Exmouth and visiting our son in Northumberland. Our experience is that it is quite easy to ‘wild camp’ in the UK if you want to spend one or possibly two nights in a parking spot and aren’t heading for an exact destination, but because we wanted to spend long periods in specific places we were intending to use campsites for the majority of the time.
We had a look at the places we wanted to be and the overnight options in those places and decided that the Camping and Caravanning Club would be our best bet. It offers a very nice certified site in Exmouth and we were able to find out (through their Out and About section) that there were two THS in Northumberland in the summer. In Taunton we’ll have Bertie in storage some of the time, but when we need a campsite we’ll use Tanpit’s Farm which is a great value private site.
As we were being scientific about the process we looked at the numbers – last year it cost us an average of £18.36 per night to stay on campsites in the UK. We expected to stay at least 10 nights on THS at £8 a night and 13 nights in the Exmouth CS at £13 a night, plus the £39 membership fee. That works out as an average of £12.52 per night, definitely worth it. The additional benefits of easy search engines and apps for THS and sites, plus facebook communities are the icing on the cake.
Today was spent nursing Bertie back to health. A few days previously we had noticed Bertie’s brake warning light flickering intermittently on the dashboard. Today, as we drove back into the mountains, the light came on fully and not only that but we heard that nasty crunching noise from the brakes when we had to stop at a steep downhill junction.
Coincidentally we happened to be near to a motorhome sosta in Castelangelo sul Nera so we parked up for a cuppa, a quick consultation with one of Paul’s friends and an internet trawl for a nearby fiat garage. The sosta looked pretty nice; flat, free and with electricity points that were being serviced while we were there. It was tempting to stay but we decided we should crack on and get Bertie’s brakes looked at. So we set course for Foligno which had a suitable looking garage.
Before we reached Foligno, as we approached the main road out of the mountains, we drove along a strip of villages and I saw a Fiat sign outside a large workshop in Varano. A quick turn around and we drove into the forecourt where a mechanic was tinkering with a tractor. With limited Italian and English between us we still managed to explain the problem, provide the vin number and confirm that he could get the parts by 2:30 that afternoon. When I asked how much it would cost he just shrugged – a mechanic’s universal gesture – so I asked if we could pay by card. Of course not! Although cards are accepted in many places in Italy – supermarkets, fuel stations and larger campsites – Italy still has a very cash based economy. Smaller businesses only accept cash and many people carry wads of cash. It still shocks me when you see people open their wallets and display thick sheaves of notes.
Anyway we had some time to kill, so we could find a cashpoint somewhere. The nearest bancomat was in a town called Muccia, just up the road. Can we walk? I asked, and when we were told it was just straight along the road we decided to leave Bertie and proceed on foot.
Maybe I should have asked for better directions as we ended up walking along the hard shoulder for a couple of kilometres, an uncomfortable experience even in a relatively quiet area. As we got closer to Muccia we passed a supermarket so I popped in to see if they had a bancomat, but we were just directed on to Muccia. They did make a point of saying that the bank would be on the left side of the road. When we got to Muccia it was obvious why, the old town was on the right and was off limits. The population and all local businesses were now housed on the left hand side of the road where rows of pre-fab bungalows and wooden sheds had been erected.
There was no obvious sign of a bank though, so time to ask for more directions. In the tobacconist they directed us up through the bungalows – still no sign of the bank. Eventually we stopped and asked for directions again (I was getting good at this). The young man shrugged, he didn’t know where it was, but as we thanked him and went to walk off he gestured us to stop and called over someone who had just walked out of a house. This man was able to direct us to the bank, and in English too. We weren’t far away, but I don’t think I would have recognised the white and blue containers as the post office and bank respectively.
At last we were able to get our money, and we took a few minutes to look for a better route back to the garage along back roads. When we got back the parts had been delivered and although it was smack in the middle of the sacred Italian lunch break our mechanic was keen to get on with the work. He directed us to the local café for lunch while he sorted out the brake pads, half an hour later and all was complete. We were able to move on with strict instructions to keep use of the brakes ‘piano’ for the next couple of days, luckily my years of music lessons meant I could translate this instruction with little difficulty. I knew it would come in useful one day.
There is always a great sense of relief when getting problems like this sorted. As well as the fear that there might be a major problem that cannot be solved that day, the language barrier creates an additional layer of uncertainty. I can honestly say that everyone we met today did their best to help us. We left the Sibillini mountains with a lighter wallet but lighter hearts and vowed to come back again one day to spend more time appreciating the beautiful green hills.
I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned the blood sucking monsters yet, but that’s all going to change in this blog post. With rising heat and falling wind speeds it was only a matter of time before they reared their ugly heads. We’re talking mosquitos of course and they had begun appear a few days ago, just one or two to start with, and then suddenly there were hundreds of them.
On the night of Liberation Day the evil little blighters had been having a party of their own, using my body as their restaurant. All through the night I could hear the whining as they flew around and I took refuge by hiding completely under the cover (which by this time was a duvet cover with any duvet). The following morning it was evident that I hadn’t managed to escape, there were browny red splodges on the bed sheets where I had rolled and crushed them in my sleep….but only after they had feasted.
Our problem was a lack of preparation, we had been taken by surprise and foolishly had all the windows open without any fly screens up. It was time to take action.
Step one was to find a campsite so that we could give the bedding a wash and air. Then we made a concerted effort to hunt down every mossie that was hiding in the nooks and crannies of the van, waiting to come out at night. This involved a lot of opening of cupboards and shaking stuff out, followed by an after dark torch-lit hunt. The fly screens were put into operation (including clearing all the sand and crud from the channel of the door flyscreen so that it would actually close). It made a huge difference. But sadly the fly screens stop a lot of the cooling breezes that make us comfortable at night. The solution? We remembered that in the ceiling of our bedroom we have a 12v fan that will either suck or blow. Running this while the sun was shining kept the internal temperature of the van down and any electricity used was replaced by our solar panels. This was the first time we have used the fan since checking that it worked when we bought Bertie. Finally we see why it might be useful.
In the end we managed to get the number of the blood sucking creatures down to nearly zero – small enough numbers that we could swat them before going to sleep. Gradually our blotches and bumps subsided, we stopped scratching (and then telling each other off for scratching) and managed to get a decent night’s sleep. Garlic may have been used, but the holy water and wooden stakes stayed in the kit bag for next time.
It’s was a first for us. We had completely forgotten what we did on this day.
Normally we keep a diary of the events of each day. Nothing over the top, just a few notes to help jog my memory when I write up the blog – usually a couple of weeks later. On top of this we have our photo record, any leaflets or tickets we have picked up and a record of our ‘serious’ walks/cycles which we record on runkeeper.com. Between these things we can usually remember a day from a couple of weeks ago pretty well.
But the only note I have of Wednesday the 28th March is the location of our overnight stop. Catanzaro. No photos and no records on runkeeper. Even a look on google maps didn’t help us remember parking either in the inland town or the coastal resort of Catanzaro Lido.
It took us a couple of hours to work out what we had done. Eventually we realised that, unusually, Paul had taken the photos and from there our memories were triggered.
We didn’t recognise the car park at Catanzaro because we hadn’t stayed there. We had stayed at Soverato Marina instead, a touristy seaside town with a pleasant and well manicured seafront esplanade backed by a grassy park with skateboard ramps and a children’s play area. After a lazy start in Gerace, taking in the views for the last time, we had driven down here and decided it was nice enough to stop. The sun was shining, although the breeze was cool, and we walked in both directions along the seafront eventually leaving the modern paved area to walk in front of hotels and apartments and along the back of the beach. Every so often we just stopped to sit and bask, absorbing some vitamin D and the positivity that seems to come with it.
It had been some time since we last did any washing. Our washing bag was filled to bursting and we hadn’t come across any convenient self service launderettes since Sondrio (I have an aversion to serviced washes as I don’t like the thought of handing our sweaty smelly clothes to someone else to launder). With no other options available we decided to check into a campsite.
Camping Mimosa is an ACSI campsite near Nicotera, one of few campsites that are open all year round. The fact that it was open, and the friendly owner, are the main things going for it. It’s pitches are small and awkward to get into with narrow avenues between trees making it difficult to manoeuvre. We nabbed a pitch that was on the end of a row so that we could get in and out easily, other arrivals were less lucky, and one large French van had a particularly difficult time getting out. Unusually the campsite offers private bathrooms, we got a key to a cubicle with shower, basin and toilet. Sadly the showers weren’t great, a bit tepid and weak. The cubicles were dated, but at least they had toilet seats – yay!
We did our washing, managing to get it hung out to dry in between rain showers. I dyed my hair, we did a few chores and finalised the booking of hire car and secure parking for Bertie when my sister visits in April.
One of our chores was the fixing of the toilet cassette. We had been putting this off for a while as it involved sticking a hand inside the cassette. But it had to be done as it was getting awkward to empty the cassette without any leakage. Our issue was the seal around the ‘Blade Opener’, a switching mechanism that you use to open up the toilet when you go to the loo. The seal was not working effectively and so a dribble of the toilet contents would escape unless you held the cassette horizontal. This included leakage while in transit – ugh! Armed with some disposable gloves I stuck my hand into the cassette and followed Paul’s instructions to remove the blade opener. Then we cleaned it and, with some difficulty, replaced it. We also cleaned the seal around the blade. Fortunately it has done the trick so we wont have to repeat that experience for a while.
We ended up staying here for three nights as the rain, thunder and lightening were just so bad on the Thursday that we didn’t see the point in moving. We were a bit stir crazy by this point and crossed our fingers for some better weather so we could get outdoors.
We enjoyed our time in Livigno skiing, it’s a resort that is mostly wide red runs which suits us down to the ground as we don’t like anything too challenging, age has instilled caution where previously I would have aimed to descend the steepest bumpiest slopes. The resort has had some money pumped into it and the lifts, facilities and ski-bus service are all excellent. I wont give you a blow by blow account of each day as each day was very similar. Get up, have a leisurely breakfast in Bertie, head off to the slopes (either on foot, or using the very efficient bus service), ski, lunch at a restaurant on the slopes, ski some more, aperitivo, dinner in Bertie, sleep, start again. It was odd but comforting to be in a routine.
We stayed at Camping Pemont, probably the closest campsite to the slopes. It was good value if, like us, you went for the pitches with 3amp electricity (you could pay more for 10 amps but we don’t have enough electric gadgets to need it), €21 a night, plus €1 for 4 minutes of warm shower. The bathroom was underground and well heated although it did sometimes have that musty smell that happens when a moist environment is not aired enough.
It was no surprise that the bathrooms weren’t well aired though, because for three nights on the trot we had temperatures down below minus 20 centigrade. We barely opened Bertie’s windows in this time and I don’t blame the campsite owners for letting as little cold air into the bathroom as possible.
Being in such cold temperatures was an experience. The first night was quite mild so we stuck to our usual cold weather routine of turning the van heating on in the evening and then leaving our little electric oil filled radiator on overnight. Whoever gets up first in the morning is tasked with switching the heating on again and then jumping back into bed until Bertie is up to a reasonable temperature (about 10 degrees is enough to venture out and get dressed).
The second night we could feel the warmth being leeched out of the air as the temperature plummeted. So we had to leave the heating on all night. Now our heating is powered by gas (some people are lucky enough to have heating that can be switched between electricity and gas) and the warm air is distributed by a fan. When the thermostat detects that the temperature has dropped the fan will kick in to push warm air around the van, when it’s hit the desired temperature the fan speed will drop. The following morning Paul had bags under the bags under his eyes. He described a night of heating paranoia where he had initially listened to ensure that the fan turned off, then had laid awake waiting to ensure that the fan turned back on again, then worried in case the fan didn’t turn off, and so on. The positive was that the van was toasty, the negative was that Paul was as likely to become a nervous wreck if we had another night like it. On top of that the van was too warm overnight for both of us – it’s about 16 degrees at it’s minimum setting – and we got through half a bottle of gas in one night.
The other thing about heating in winter is that we need to ensure that the water, which is held in a fresh water tank, a boiler and a waste water tank, plus all the pipes in between, doesn’t freeze. Freezing would be bad news with the possibility of pipework and boiler being buggered (technical term) by the expansion of freezing water. Keeping the water liquid is accomplished through a combination of having the boiler on at all times, plus using the blown air heating in the underfloor area where the pipes run and the water tanks live.
So we had a problem, which would take precedence? Paul’s mental health (and my ensuing happiness) or Bertie’s pipes? The answer was obvious, we had to have a solution that resolved both. One option was to leave, but we weren’t keen to schlep all the way back over the mountain with so little skiing done.
In the end we decided to drain down Bertie so that we didn’t need to keep the heating on all night. We were nearly empty anyway, so draining down the fresh water, grey water and boiler didn’t produce too much liquid (each bucketfull needed to be walked to the service area to be disposed of). That night we followed our ‘normal’ routine. Gas heating on all evening until bed time, oil fired radiator on overnight. We got into bed and waited to see whether we would freeze overnight.
As we are still here with no blackened extremities the frostbite can’t have been serious. As we lay in bed the first night we could hear Bertie creaking and groaning as the cold took hold, shrinking some materials faster than others and creating ghostly noises in the process. We had started the evening at 16 degrees and were interested to see how cold we got overnight.
In our bedroom we were toasty, once we drew the curtain our little space acted like a four-poster or box-bed. We were warm in the fug of our own body heat, under two duvets and wearing pyjamas. In fact we needed to crack open the roof vent to let the moisture laden air escape and avoid condensation. The rest of Bertie was not so warm; the water in our kettle was frozen in the morning and we had an iceberg floating in our water carrier. The toilet took some coaxing to open. We couldn’t tell what the temperature was because the cold killed the LCD display on our thermometer, but we must have been a long way below zero.
Somehow it was my job to jump out of bed in the morning to put the heating on. This warmed Bertie up and after a couple of hours we were able to venture out to don some clothing which had been warming above the oil filled radiator (this seemed to have a sphere of influence roughly a meter in diameter, enough to warm clothes but not enough to warm the van). The first night was deemed a success, we had both slept reasonably well and Bertie hadn’t fallen apart with the cold. During the sunny day Bertie warmed up sufficiently to make it pleasantly warm on our return from skiing and we jealously conserved this heat by closing the blinds before it could escape.
We continued this approach for the rest of the holiday. It may seem like hardship, but the worst part was having to get up to turn the heating on in the morning. The rest of the time we were perfectly comfortable – honestly – but in future we’ll be trying to avoid temperatures quite that low.
We were looking forward to visiting the Natural Park of Cabo de Gata, somewhere that we had seen on blogs and forums and imagined we would enjoy.
We started at the western end of the park, driving (via supermarkets) to the town of San Miguel de Cabo de Gata where there is a large area of hard standing behind the beach. Motorhomes were parked in neat rows looking out to sea and we started a third row, peering through the ranks in front of us to see a sea that was still wild and foamy from the winds of the days before.
There was a tap here, which was lucky as the water we had taken on board at the campsite in Balerma had a very strong chemical taste that was really unpleasant. A lot of people prefer to drink bottled water and use their water tank for cleaning and washing, but because we’re in the motorhome full time we are flushing water through the tank quickly so feel quite happy using it for drinking too, usually, but with the horrid taste of the water from the campsite we decided to fill our emergency water containers up here for drinking until the water in the tank had been flushed out.
On the way to the parking spot we had passed the end of the salt pans that run behind the coast here. We had spotted a hide for viewing the birds and wildlife of the area so took a short walk alongside the road back to the hide so that we could do a bit of flamingo watching. This is the third place we have seen flamingos and they have not lost their appeal, with their bizarrely rubbery necks, great scooping beaks and the intense flash of dark pink as they raise their wings.
The following day we got the bikes out and cycled along the road eastwards in front of the salt flats. Here we got the answer to one of our questions from the previous day – what were all the lorries doing going past the carpark? At the eastern end of the salt flats was a salt production operation with great mounds of salt and lorries going to and fro all day.
Soon after this the road started to go uphill and we huffed and puffed from the shock of steep roads after our days of lethargy at Christmas. Luckily the uphill was rewarded with a downhill section towards the lighthouse, where we were able to take a few offroad paths. Then more uphill, steeper and higher this time as we went past a barrier (the coast road is not a through road, unless you are the type of person who will drive their family hatchback anywhere – and there are a few of them round here!), we climbed up this road, up and up the tarmac to the Torre de la Vela Blanca.
Then down the other side, this time the tarmac had disappeared and we were on rough dirt track. Paul whizzed down over rocks as I picked my way more carefully, using my brakes nearly the whole way.
Down on this side we went past several possible motorhome parking spots and beaches until we got to the beautiful Playa de los Genoveses where we stopped for some lunch. This looked ideal for overnighting in Bertie and we agreed we would head here for the night.
On the way back we pretty much retraced our steps until we got to the salt flats where we went a bit further inland to follow a sandy track which ran closer to the lakes, there were three further hides along here which we visited in succession, watching yet more flamingos and other wading birds.
As an introduction to Gabo de Gata it rated pretty well and the rollercoaster ride had been a good re-introduction to exercise after our Christmas relaxation. With the beautiful surroundings of the coast and volcanic hills, and with improving weather, we looked set for a good few days.
So 2017 is now over and we are in the south of Spain basking in the sunshine on the first day of the new year. Last night we drank the remainder of our drinks cabinet from home – an inch or so of gin and vodka, a smidge of white port and a couple of beers and ciders. Not enough to give us a hangover but enough to generate an impressive looking recycling collection.
We’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions so I’m afraid they are rather thin on the ground, but we have spent a bit of time looking back over 2017 and forward to 2018. How different life is from the beginning of the year when we were both in full time jobs, jobs with stresses and frustrations but also with certainty, accomplishments and purpose.
Of course at the start of the year we did already know that our lives were due to change, my redundancy was a long a drawn out affair giving plenty of time for planning and preparation. So it was that in April we’d had all the leaving parties and finally shucked off the bonds of employment and by early May we had packed up our belongings, let our house and embarked on our travelling life.
Since then we have spent time touring the UK, mostly in Wales and Scotland before moving onto mainland Europe in October. Bertie has taken us over 10,000km though Britain, France, Portugal and Spain. We have walked 661 km and cycled 1218 km (and that’s just the tracked walks/bike rides), we have used the kayak a paltry 4 times (we may have to revisit whether it’s worth lugging it around with us) and Paul has caught very few fish. We have explored places familiar and those we’ve never even heard of before; from mountains to coast and everything in between.
We watched with pride as our son graduated at RAF Cranwell, we passed our 10th wedding anniversary unremarked (we’re not very good at remembering things like that and thought it was next year – doh!), we have learned what it’s like to rent out our ‘home’ and the frustration of dealing with issues from a distance (why the issues with drains now?), we have seen the lives or our friends and family change and evolve, even if only from a distance. Social media may have it’s downside, eating data and time, but for us it’s a communications lifeline, the ability to share snippets of life on a constant basis rather than as bundled downloads makes us feel more connected.
Gradually we have settled into this travelling life. It has been an odd transition that I have compared to the point when Aaron stopped needing us to ferry him around to his various activities. Suddenly our weekends had no purpose and we drifted for a while before we established a new rhythm, what would we do with all our free time? In a similar way we are only just finding a new structure to our lives, we are starting to understand the right balance between activities, sight seeing and ‘rest’ days where we don’t really rest but spend time doing more domestic things like baking cakes, cleaning and maintenance – we’re having one of those days right now. We have got used to spending hours in each other’s company in a box that’s less than 7 meters long and 2.2 wide but conversely we know we have to work harder at ‘bursting the bubble’ of the two of us in Bertie and push ourselves into interacting with people however transitory the relationships. We’re also putting some effort into acquiring languages, although I think there needs to be some sort of ‘foreign languages for the socially awkward’ guide to help not just with the learning part, but with the confidence to use it and not just end up falling back on English.
What will 2018 bring? We hope to do some skiing and test how well Bertie is winterised, and we’ve got tickets to watch a six nations match in Italy. After that we’re not sure whether we’ll head down to see the south of Italy, or go north to Norway. There are some important birthdays in summer which will take us back to the UK and we are considering whether we get some temporary employment while we’re back for a couple of months, we’re also looking at volunteering opportunities in other countries. We’ll carry on trying to improve our language skills and interact more with people as we travel.
Every time we talk about what we’re doing we think about how lucky we were to have this opportunity and how fortunate it is that we decided to take it. It has bought us many amazing experiences and opportunities.
For everyone out there we hope for a positive and rewarding 2018.
We didn’t intend to spend much time in the Algarve, but we wanted to see the rock formations of the Algarve cliffs somewhere and Lagos seemed as good a place as anywhere.
We stopped off at the Intermarche supermarket on the approach to Lagos and here we got an indication that there may be a few British people around. As well as hearing a lot of English spoken we were also able to get our hands on some British produce. Blackcurrant squash was number one on the list for us.
We parked up at Praia de Porto de Mos on the western side of Lagos where there is a large dirt car park behind the beach and from here we walked along the coast towards the Faro. Or at least we tried to. There is a lot of development right up to the coast and it was difficult to find a coastal path on the way out. We ended up walking up residential streets trying to find a way through to the coast with no luck, and eventually walked through a hotel complex, climbing through a hole in the fence around their golf course before we were able to get onto the headland. On the way back it was much easier to find the coast path, we had just picked the wrong street, and we only had to leave the coast for the last part of the descent back to Bertie.
The cliffs around the headland of Ponta de Piedade were spectacular, worth exploring with lots of paths and stairs winding around cliffs, arches and grottoes. There were plenty of people there, including a rapper (grime artist?) making a video to the backdrop of the golden arches.
From Lagos we moved onto a campsite at Armarcao de Pera for a couple of days of rest. We had arranged to meet our son and his girlfriend for a couple of days near Malaga just before Christmas so we wanted to do some planning to see how quickly we needed to move.
The campsite we arrived on gave us a taste of the life of the people who stay on campsites long term. We were amazed by the shanty style dwellings that had been erected by some of the residents. In some cases you couldn’t see the caravan or motorhome, they were covered with shelters and surrounded by windbreaks and awnings. Even fences and gates had been erected. The social life of the campsite took place at lunch time – making the most of the daylight hours – we saw people joining each other for lunch, going out for a walk or just stopping to exchange greetings. By evening it was a different matter, the campsite was deathly quiet. We went into Armarcao de Pera to have dinner one evening, when we got back we thought we’d crossed into a parallel world inhabited by shuffling, dressing-gown-wearing, zombies.
Sitting here in Bertie, waiting for my curry to finish cooking I’m wondering what happened to my Christmas Spirit.
Christmas is an odd time of year, but I love it. I don’t have a particular affinity for the day itself, it’s too soon over and done, but the whole season is magical.
I love the build up, the way that nights draw in and the lights slowly go up in homes and across towns. I relish the cold weather, forcing us to bundle up and wear chunky knitwear, thick socks and boots. I love the generally positive vibe, making people more optimistic, giving and thoughtful about others. I enjoy the entry to the party season, knowing that everyone is looking for an opportunity to turn their everyday into an event with sparkles and glitter.
Then there is time. Time off work and time to do things. It’s an easy time (in my line of work anyway) to have a long break, with so many bank holidays one week’s allowance turns into two weeks of holiday. And it’s not a holiday where I go away to forget about it all, but a holiday where I focus on home and hearth. This is when my oven gets cleaned (an annual event – sorry Nan). This is when I have time to entertain friends and family. This is when I cook dishes that take hours to prepare. This is when I get to see the people I have not managed to cross paths with for the rest of the year.
So what’s happened this year? We’re sitting here and thinking about our friends in Exmouth who are enjoying the annual Christmas meal and Secret Santa; we’re not there and can only vicariously enjoy the photos and comments. I’m trying to motivate myself to purchase presents online for niece and nephews that I wont see opened. I want to buy decorations for Bertie but cant bring myself to do it. I’m just not feeling Christmassy
I put it down it the following things:
People. We’re too far away from the people that matter to us, the people we’re used to spending Christmas with. It doesn’t feel the same without friends and family.
Weather. I’m swimming in the sea and walking and cycling and enjoying sunshine and finding it all very surreal. Where is the icy cold, the rain, wind and (ok it rarely happens, but there’s always the possibility) snow?
Lack of preparation. I don’t know why, but I didn’t pack any Christmas decorations for Bertie. Christmas seemed so far away when we left and I think I might have been in denial.
So, I cannot sit here and complain about it (after this post anyway), I have decided that I will have to do something to invoke my Christmas spirit, I will conjure it up with the singing of carols and Christmas tunes. I will festoon Bertie with decorations. I will make plans for a Christmas dinner. I might even clean Bertie’s oven, just to get in the mood.
Hopefully in a few days you will see some evidence that the Christmas spirit has finally be summoned to Bertie.
We were sorry to be leaving Mull, but with several days of poor weather forecast and a looming deadline to get to Aaron’s graduation we just couldn’t hang around and wait for things to improve.
Our plans to spend a few days on the Ardnamurchan peninsular were also in jeopardy. We still took the ferry over to Kilchoan but now we were just going to drive through rather than stopping over. Even though our plans are not set in stone there is a feeling of disappointment when we can’t do something that we had talked about and looked forward to. We know we need to let go and make the most of what we can do rather than dwelling on missed opportunities, Paul’s much better at taking it in his stride than I am.
We got on the ferry around midday after a quick grocery shop, the tide was pretty low so we needed to get some help to avoid grounding at both ends of the journey. Luckily the staff at Calmac are used to helping motorhomes on and off their services. Maybe too used to it – there are some people who think that there are too many motorhomes travelling on Scotland’s ferries and putting pressure on Scotland’s roads. The press have reported that the number of motorhomes using some services in 2016 is more than ten times the numbers recorded in 2008. It’s difficult to tell whether this is significantly higher increase than other vehicles without seeing the full statistics, but anecdotally there has been a significant increase in motorhome ownership and hire. It’s even been debated in the Scottish Parliament; should an additional tax be levied on motorhomes to help support the infrastructure required? It will be interesting to see the outcome.
Once safely off the ferry we were driving through the Ardnamurchan peninsular, this area feels more remote than that islands we have visited and we are looking forward to tackling it on a future visit. As we drove through we marvelled at the vibrant colours that framed the roads, autumn was really starting to show with the russets and golds of the trees, the dull blonde of the autumnal grasses and even the seaweed on the rocky shore contributing to the auburn hues.
We ended up driving as far as Glenfinnian that evening, this is the location of the viaduct that carries the West Highland Railway and has featured on TV and film. Most recently (as far as I know) it was used in the Harry Potter film when they depict the train on it’s way to Hogwarts. We parked near the viaduct but didn’t go to see it that evening as it was too wet. Instead I popped up the following morning to take a look. Sadly there were no trains running at the time, but even so it’s an impressive structure.
Surprisingly, considering how often his name turns up related to engineering projects, it had nothing to do with Thomas Telford (he was long dead before it was constructed); this was a MacAlpine project, which reminds me of a Dubliner’s song:
As down the glen came McAlpines men with their shovels slung behind them
‘Twas in the pub that they drank the sup and up in the spike you’ll find them
They sweated blood and they washed down mud with pints and quarts of beer
And now we’re on the road again with McAlpine’s Fusiliers
Yet again we needed water and so we looked around for a campsite to fulfil our needs. It just happened to be the weekend, and the weather was predicted to be good, so all of the coastal campsites we tried were booked. I expect we’ll find this more as we head into July and August.
In the end we found a CL site inland which had availability and so we plumped for that one – we could always get on our bikes and go to the coast, it’s not like Anglesey is that big an island.
CL stands for Certified Location, and indicates a small campsite that is certified for a maximum of 5 pitches by the Caravan and Motorhome club, the landowner doesn’t require planning permission as they can be ‘Certified’ by the club. They are typically on farms or other private businesses that have a bit of spare land, and sometimes have grown to have more pitches that are not associated with the club. The idea of these sites is that you use the facilities in your van and so the cost of running the site is lower for the owner who doesn’t have to provide toilets, showers etc, so they usually offer little in the way of services apart from the basics; water, effluent disposal and sometimes electricity. The Caravanning and Camping club also have a similar scheme of Certified Sites (CS), as do some other clubs.
The site we found was Bodnolwyn Wen, a pretty little field at the back of the owners house with pitches for 5 units and also three cute wooden self catering units. Because this was a cheaper site at £12 we decided to stay for a couple of nights to give ourselves the opportunity to enjoy the good weather. The problem with wild camping is that you don’t tend to indulge in ‘camping behaviour’ ie winding out the awning, getting the chairs and table out, and having a BBQ. And when the sun is shining it’s nice to do all of those things. So the awning was deployed and we indulged ourselves with a BBQ for tea. The owners dogs even helped with the washing up, the BBQ grill has never been so clean!
While there, in between mooching around enjoying the sunshine, we cycled out to Church Bay on the west coast of Anglesey. This was a lovely little cove where I paddled, but sadly I hadn’t taken my swimming costume for a dip.
On the way there we visited Melin Llynnon, Anglesey’s last working windmill. Anglesey is a fairly flat island, exposed to strong coastal winds, so it’s no surprise that there were windmills here – you can see the buildings in various states of repair across the island. This one has been restored and also has a nice little cafe. Sadly there was no wind that weekend so the sails weren’t turning Then we followed the coast southwards past more small coves before turning inland again back to the campsite.
We left the Pembrokeshire coast looking for something a bit different to do while the rain continued to fall on us.
We drove to our next wild camping spot a bit further inland, using winding roads that followed the course of the Teifi river. The river was running high, brown and churning from all of the recent wet weather. Near to Cenarth we found a forestry commission spot up a steep track in the woods and made ourselves as level as possible so that we could get set up and then pop out for a bike ride.
But our plans had to change when we found our gas supplies were running low. Possibly this was a blessing as the afternoon showers ended up merging into each other and it would have been a bit damp.
The motorhome has two main sources of power, the 12volt electrical supply and propane/butane gas. The gas supply provides us with hot water, heating, hob and oven and (possibly surprisingly) it also powers the fridge freezer – the 12volt electrical supply just isn’t powerful enough unless the engine is running.
We obviously want the fridge freezer to run all of the time, otherwise we could be in a food poisoning inducing situation with our food freezing and then defrosting; the fridge freezer in the motorhome is designed to ensure that this doesn’t happen and will (with occasional encouragement) switch between power sources. When we are travelling our fridge is powered via the starter battery, when we stop the engine it should automatically switch over to gas and if we are on electric hook up it should use the 230volt electricity supply as a priority. This means that we have power to the fridge all of the time – until we run out of gas.
We had noticed that the fridge’s automatic switch between power supplies was being a bit temperamental. It would sometimes need a bit of help (turning off and on again – the standard IT practice for any equipment that doesn’t work) to switch to gas after the engine had been running. Also it had not been switching onto the 230volt supply when we were on hookup and again needed some encouragement – this time by turning off the gas supply to force it to consider other options.
Because of the latter we had used more gas than expected. And because the gauges that come as standard on gas bottles are notoriously unreliable we weren’t really sure how much gas we had used. When we reached our parking spot the fridge was refusing to work on gas, we could hear the constant ticking of the ignition, but the little red LED kept flashing. So that was it, we decided to go and top up the gas.
We have opted for a refillable gas system in our van, which Paul has installed, with two 11kg bottles that should hold about 40 litres of LPG. We went for GAS IT, one of a few popular providers of cylinders, tanks and other fittings. This replaced the standard set up of CALOR gas bottles which have to be exchanged at a supplier. Installation was relatively straightforward with the main issue being working out how to fit the bottles and connecting pipes into the small space without any kinks. We now have an external fill point (much easier than opening the hatch each time) from which we can fill both bottles.
The idea of a refillable system is to save money, allow us to carry more gas, and (when abroad) to more conveniently top up as CALOR is not often found overseas and foreign exchangeable gas bottles need different fittings.
Financially this option works for our long term touring situation where we are often wild camping and so using gas rather than electric. We should be able to go to any Autogas pump and fill up at about 57p a litre (current UK prices). A normal 6kg CALOR bottle should hold about 11.5 litres of gas which would cost £6.56 at the pump, yet 6kg CALOR bottles are about £23 to exchange. With our initial outlay of £320, we should see payback after about 200 litres of gas, or 300 litres assuming we switched to the more economic 13kg CALOR bottles. If we carry on using gas the rate we have been then we’ll be breaking even before a year is up – we’re keeping track and will let you know.
So off we went to find a filling station with LPG, but of course it’s not found everywhere. After a failed attempt at a Texaco garage we were directed to the town of Llandysul where we found a gas supplier hidden behind a fruit and veg warehouse. The myLPG.eu app comes in useful, but seemingly isn’t always up to date.
When we’d finally managed to fill up (including a lesson on resetting the pump from a very helpful chap at West Wales Gas) we returned to our parking spot. This wasn’t the best place we have stayed. There was a couple who went for a walk and then got up to something very steam inducing in their car, and a lad who obviously felt we had taken up his donut-ing arena and was reduced to a few handbrake turns and some very loud revving before he got bored and left us to a bit of peace and quiet for the rest of the evening.
Since our last post we’ve now had a whole week staying in coastal locations. Not time travel, but up till now I have been running a little behind the current date.
During this time we have seen some lovely sunshine, but also had a deep low pressure system deliver 24 hours of strong winds and constant rain. And as I write, the next low pressure system is overhead, promising another 24 hours of rain but thankfully not the gale force winds that we had a few days ago.
Passing time in the rain is quite difficult when you’re trapped in a small space. We both have jobs to do, but when it’s really torrential and we cant leave the van there isn’t the space for both of us to get on with those jobs. And we’re trapped in our seats – we don’t have much room to get up and move around. It would be fair to say that we get a little stir crazy. On top of that the noise of the rain and wind can be quite loud. So neither of us get a good night’s sleep and we end up a bit fractious.
So what have we done while it’s been raining?
Paul has been out and cleaned Bertie. Bertie had managed to get covered in vegetation and seeds when we drove down some narrow country lanes, so we (Paul) took advantage of the rain to give Bertie a brush and remove all the bits.
I have done some sewing – finishing off the pockets I’ve been making to hang in the bedroom – I’ll now have somewhere in easy reach to keep my kindle, glasses and other bits and bobs overnight.
We have finished off watching the TV programmes we downloaded before we set off.
I made scones and we had a cream tea to cheer ourselves up.
We have played a lot of cards, Yahtzee and scrabble. We really need to learn some more two player card games as Crib is starting to get a bit stale.
We have finished off watching the TV programmes we downloaded before we set off.
One downside of the rain is finding out that Bertie has a leaky rooflight. The leak seems to be dependent on the direction of the wind, so we don’t get drips all of the time, but it’s a definite problem that we’ll have to resolve when we get some dry weather. Quite probably this is our fault, we’ve done quite a lot of walking around on the roof, installing the solar panels and working out how we’re going to transport, raise and lower the kayak. All that weight on the roof can cause it to flex which can make the sealant let go and leave gaps for the water to get in.
We now know that we’re going to have to get ourselves a bit better prepared for the rainy days. We’ll be sorting out some films and TV to keep us entertained and using things like our National Trust membership for some indoors days out.
We moved on from Rhandirmwyn on a grey and miserable morning, not sure what we would do to fill our day. We had thought about going to the Welsh National Botanic Gardens, but didn’t really want to trudge round gardens in the rain and indoor entertainment opportunities were limited.
While we made up our mind we headed west and popped into an Aldi to pick up some more shopping. We seem to be stopping for food far more often that we would normally shop at home – I think it’s because we haven’t got used to the food storage in the van. At home we had two freezers, a large fridge and more cupboards than anyone rightly needed, this meant that we could stockpile the basic essentials like bread and milk as well as the not so basic (did I really need 50 different spices? some of them were well past their sell by date), and needed less trips to the shops. In the van we have a very small freezer, reasonable fridge and a cupboard that does hold a lot, but is a right pain to find anything in. Anyway, this means that we cant put a loaf of bread or a couple of pints of milk in the freezer for emergencies and whenever we pop to the shops to buy a loaf of bread a few other things find their way into the basket.
Outside Aldi we bumped into another motor-homer and mentioned our predicament (where to go for the day – not our shopping habits). Don’t worry, he said about the gardens, it’s mostly inside anyway. And although he was wrong (the greenhouse is the main event, but there are a number of outside garden areas) we’re glad that he encouraged us to go.
If the weather had been better we would have parked up and cycled into the gardens to take advantage of the half price entry for cyclists. But to be honest it was just too miserable, so we parked up in the coach car park and went into the ticket office. When I explained that we had a motorhome and were parked in the coach car park, the chap who served us asked if we wanted to stay overnight. Sounds like a plan we thought, nice and easy, but sadly it was a Britstops location and as we’re not members the manager wouldn’t let us stay – boo.
The day started to get brighter as we walked around the gardens, the enjoyment a little muted as we don’t have a garden of our own anymore so any thoughts about plants that we would like are going to have to be filed away for the future.
The single span greenhouse (the largest in the world) was impressively inset into the hill and had a meandering path around two levels of plants that thrive in Mediterranean climates from Australia to California. There was a tropical glasshouse with butterflies which I could have stayed in for ages (mostly to warm me up). Outside there was a bird of prey demonstration with a Golden Eagle, Sea Eagle and several smaller birds, where we found out that the British Birds of Prey centre is going to be sited in the gardens and should be open next year. When the rain seemed to have died away we walked around the walled gardens and the lakes, where Paul spotted an otter – I didn’t, all I got was the swish of the vegetation and the ‘plop’ as it disappeared.
My favourite part though, and only a small thing, was the stream that runs down the main path through the gardens, it snakes through various features and geological exhibits and at one point disappears down a hole and bubbles back up again a few meters later, I want one!
After a few hours the sun was threatening to actually make an appearance and we headed off to find somewhere to sleep for the night.
We made our way down from the Brecons to spend a couple of nights in a campsite, we had a few sweaty garments to wash and a few tweaks to make to Bertie so access to a washing machine and mains electricity were going to be useful.
The north side of the Beacons is definitely more bucolic than the south, with whitewashed houses, farms and winding lanes – amazing how the landscape can change.
We stayed in a camping and caravanning club site – expensive and I’m not convinced that membership has been worth it. But hey ho, we’ve been members since summer last year and every now and again we get a discount on something.
Paul fitted some additional 12volt sockets in Bertie. We have a few 12v sockets already, but they are European style sockets and we only have USB adaptors for them. Some of the appliances we’re running on 12volts (ie the laptop) have chargers that need a British (cigarette lighter) style socket. So Paul picked up a couple from Halfords, cut a few holes in Bertie and set it all up. I’m glad he feels confident doing this type of thing as the thought of operating on Bertie makes me quite nervous. The addition of these sockets will allow us to be more independent and require a hook up less often, which will be good for the budget.
We had been warned that the campsite was very ‘away from it all’ so we knew there wasn’t going to be any phone reception or 3G/4G signal. We didn’t think it would be a big deal. However we realised that we do like a bit of background music, and there was no radio reception. Never mind, we thought we had some tunes on our phones – but actually we didn’t. Owing to previously having a phone with very little memory I’d tidied up my music, this meant I had a very small and odd selection of music available to me – none of which were appealing to Paul apart from David Bowie’s greatest hits, which we became very well acquainted with. We’ll be better prepared next time!.
We did manage one good long bike ride from the campsite up (and up, and up, and down a bit, and then up again…you get the picture) to Llyn Brianne, a large reservoir spreading across a number of flooded valleys. The long slog was worth it though when we spotted Red Kites flying over the lake and forest. We also found one spot where we could get some signal and stood by the side of the road doing a spot of admin – may have looked a bit odd to passing traffic, if there was any.
After leaving Exmouth we spent the next couple of nights in Taunton. Ostensibly this was about visiting the various members of my family who live there, Mum and Dan, Nan, sister Vicki, her husband Paul and two of my nephews, WIlliam and James.
But we did have an ulterior motive. We had built up quite a pile of laundry, and an opportunity to get it done for free was not to be missed. I’d had quite a shock when I went to the launderette in Exmouth and realised how much it cost. In fact campsite launderettes seem to be much better value that town launderettes.
At the time I had vowed that I would do all the laundry by hand, but this is all very well for smaller items that dry easily, but towels and bed linen are too cumbersome and difficult to wring out.
We stayed at Cornish Farm, a small campsite where you can also find the much lauded Vanbitz team who are experts in Motorhome security systems as well as fitting other electrical accessories to Motorhomes. We haven’t made up our minds whether and how we intend to improve our security so weren’t using their services this time.
From Cornish Farm there is a cycle path into Taunton and we whiled away an afternoon cycling round my old teenage haunts and doing a bit of shopping. Later that evening the laundry staff (ie Mum and Dad) came to pick up our dirty laundry. We spent the next day at theirs visiting Nan and finishing off the laundry before being treated to a family dinner.
One of the difficult parts of moving out of our house has been saying goodbye to our pets.
Ok – we have the type of pets that don’t really demand much emotional investment – Chickens and Tortoises. But they are still a living part of our life, and not the easiest pets to travel with, so we had to find them new homes.
The Chickens have gone to Paul’s dad, who has a number of Chickens himself (but only one that is laying). So you might think that three extra Chickens who are all in lay would be a welcome addition, but now there are complaints of too many eggs – not something that’s ever bothered us. I just find new ways of cooking them – including Diana Henry’s Pink Pickled Eggs. They weren’t to my taste, but we have a friend who will demolish a few.
In addition we have heard that our Chickens have established a new pecking order with them firmly at the top – now it’s no longer the two on one that used to happen at ours, but three against the world!
The tortoises have found a foster home with Ang, Tony and their children. I think that Frankie and Jason will do a great job of looking after them alongside all of their other pets. We’ll probably find it difficult to take them back!