What Happened to My Christmas Spirit?

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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. 

Dashing Across Ardnamurchan

20/09/17

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.

Glenfinnian viaduct on a misty morning

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 

Being Certified

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! 

Pitched up on the campsite

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.

Church Bay – the sea was invitingly clear

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.  

Working windmill at Llynnon

 

Cooking on Gas

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. 

When it rains…

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.

Rain on the windscreen

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.

Gardens and Greenhouses

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.

Inside the single span greenhouse designed by Norman Foster
The Great Glasshouse from the outside
Butterfly in the tropical glasshouse

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.       

 

Enjoying some peace and quiet?

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.

Paul fitting an extra 12volt socket

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.

View over Llyn Brianne

Laundry Day

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.    

Parked up at Cornish Farm, Taunton

 

 

Pets – No longer at Home

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.

Perfectly Pink Pickles

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!

Bea and Bob ready for their move

Wild? They were Livid

Our last night in Exmouth was spent ‘Wilding’ – that is, if your definition of Wilding is being without ‘facilities’ usually offered by a campsite.

We parked up on Exmouth seafront with a row of motorhomes and campervans. This is not a cheap option – we paid the princely sum of £11 for twenty four hours, not bad but not much less than a campsite in the local area.

The row of motorhomes on Exmouth seafront.

The view from Bertie’s window was lovely – Exmouth has a long stretch of sandy beach and beautiful views across to Torbay.

However, as a local, I know that there is a lot of bad feeling about motorhomes parking on the seafront. Exmouth facebook communities are full of diatribe against motorhomers, and this made me a tad nervous about our overnight stay.

The main complaints seem to be about motorhomes taking up too much parking space. Exmouth seafront is divided into a number of areas for parking – the furthest from town is diagonal to the seafront and has limited length and width, further back (where we chose to stop) the parking is parallel to the seafront and only the width is marked. It would be fair to say that with the exception of a sunny day in high season – the parking is generally not full – but people have their favourite spots for accessing the beach and feel aggrieved if they are obstructed.

The other complaint is people overstaying their welcome – the max stay is 24 hours and then no return for another 24 hours. This is designed to stop people from spending weeks in the same spot.

There are some who say that the motorhomes spoil the view – although I think that if people are looking at the motorhomes then they probably need to turn around by at least 90 degrees to see

But most frustrating are the general complainants who don’t have any rationale for their dislike – they just don’t like it – and others who actively encourage the boy (and girl) racers to be as anti-social as possible.

It is true that there are people who take advantage, both taking up multiple parking spaces (or backing their overhang onto the pavement), or outstaying their welcome. And that’s where we motorhomers need to be careful – because it wont be long before these spots are restricted due the actions of a very few. 

The view from Exmouth seafront

After all of that though, we had a pleasant night. We had a final catch up with friends, the rain kept the traffic down to a minimum and the following morning was bright and sunny, a good omen for moving on.