Archive for September, 2014

19 Sep 2014

Spaceships Campervan Rentals UK

No Comments Blog

I hired the campervan for my recent travels  from the above company. Here is my review.

 

The good: vehicle was clean; bed easy to (dis)assemble; bedding warm and comfortable; fridge efficient; fuel consumption reasonably frugal.

 

The bad: no remote key fob; idiosyncratic central locking (not explained at start or in handbook); could not open nearside sliding door (opened immediately by member of staff at Hayes who admitted it required a ‘knack’); cooker didn’t work, advised by company to purchase another, later in week investigated it further and found jets clogged by grease, so now have camping stove bought unnecessarily; paintwork, bumpers etc in dreadful state (if all existing damage had been logged it would have taken all afternoon).

This was a tired old vehicle, probably in the region of 13 years old. Surely doors should open (un)lock without requiring a combination of brute strength and insider knowledge?

 

The unacceptable: according to a helpful and non-judgemental retired traffic officer I met, the condition of the front nearside tyre

Nearside front tyre, 'Trinity' campervan

Nearside front tyre, ‘Trinity’ campervan

was disgraceful. “Barely legal is totally unacceptable. No reputable company should hire out a vehicle in this state.” (His words.)  My thanks to him for advice on the legal situation if a hire vehicle is defective and I urge all prospective customers to be aware of the legalities and their rights before they drive off.

I await Spaceships’ response with interest.

 

The hilarious: just as I supposed Spaceships sourced their livery from Easyjet, in the interests of equality, I presumed they had adopted Ryanair’s grasp of geography.

Cowdenbeath is not Edinburgh, guys; it is 15 miles across the Firth of Forth in FIFE.  Yes, this is explained in the website, but lumping their town in with Edinburgh doesn’t endear you to the locals; a point to consider in the aftermath of the referendum.

If you’re from the UK you’ll find the webpage on Northern England Travel Info hilarious. If you’re from overseas, please do invest in a map or sat nav. A tour of northern England that heads south to Canterbury is so bizarre, it’s funny.

And, if you head west from Stirling, as advised in the Scotland travel advice page, you might reach Loch Lomond, but you certainly won’t end up on the golf courses of St Andrews: St Andrews is north east of Stirling.

At least these made me laugh.

 

Did you like this? Share it:
18 Sep 2014

Travels in a Campervan

No Comments Blog

Yes, I admit it’s difficult to justify driving hundreds of miles in a rather ancient, high emission vehicle on a site dedicated to walking, cycling and sustainable travel, so I’ll get my apologies (if not justification) in first.

Livery by Easyjet, geography by Ryanair

Livery by Easyjet, geography by Ryanair

Driving, indeed, is something I avoid wherever possible, especially in vehicles where some kind of technical nous is required to work out how to operate the locks, or open the doors.  Nonetheless, after spending a few enjoyable stays in a (static) VW camper, I decided that it might be time to swap the rigours of nights under canvas for the greater comforts of a bed – as well as  cooker/fridge – in a metal box.

 

Given that everyone else I know seems to be back at work, the small vans and people carriers of Spaceship Campervan Rentals  seemed to fit the bill. Painted in what appears to be the same livery as used by Easyjet, they don’t exactly have the charm or appeal of a VW, but their size was ideal for me and, although the top line relocation deal of £1 per day from Edinburgh to London was somewhat disingenuous (considering the scratches, dents and scrapes adorning the paintwork, taking out the excess reduction bond at an additional £15 per day turned out to be an essential option) and fuel economy was not nearly as frugal as claimed, I managed to secure train travel to and from both locations at reasonable cost and the full package still worked out at reasonable cost.

The St George's Cross on one side of the A1

The St George’s Cross on one side of the A1

 

Fortunately, I had read through Spaceship’s website and was aware of its rather bizarre geographical understanding – ‘Edinburgh’ actually turns out to be Cowdenbeath, over the Forth Bridge in the Kingdom of Fife: an aberration dismissed with weary acceptance by my ‘Yes’ supporting taxi driver as all you could expect “fae them in London that doesnae ken or care anything about Scotland.”

 

(For another example from the Spaceships’ school of eccentric geography, take a look at their advice on planning a trip to the north of England, when they begin by suggesting you head to the south coast at Canterbury! History and understanding of the difference between England and Britain are not too hot either: terming the monarchy as English, on the same page, might prove rather incendiary to both sides in the referendum debate.)

The saltire on the other

The saltire on the other

I digress and, as it happens, the staff at Cowdenbeath were friendly and helpful and the view of the iconic railway bridge as I drove over the Firth of Forth, almost worth the 40 minute train ride out of Edinburgh.

 

My original intention had been to theme the journey round the topic of the referendum,travelling between the two ancient capitals, united for 300 years and looking at what links and divides them, by way of some of England’s historic cities including Durham, York, Lincoln and Norwich.  In the event, practicalities like Friday afternoon traffic, an under performing engine and total fatigue from ‘a different day, another location’ rationalised the itinerary somewhat.

 

Durham, York, as well as Oxford were duly visited and the depressing assessment  is that so much is similar in these ‘heritage’ centres, the difficult task is to find any real difference, certainly in their shops and tourist offerings. Each one of them deserves much more than the single afternoon I was able to spare: allocate at least a day, forget the shops and concentrate on what is actually unique in each city, whether  that be the cathedral, castle, colleges or theatre.

Durham's historic marketplace

Durham’s historic marketplace

 

Instead, I found the real highlight to be the diverse topography of country and coast.  England has some lovely landscapes – routinely ignored by its own nationals in their rush to reach the tourist traps of the Lakes and Cornwall – from the stone-clad cottages dotted across the moors of north Yorkshire – idyllic in the sun, unforgiving in winter – to the water colour beaches of the Norfolk coast. And don’t forget the south east. It’s not all London and commuterville: you might only be 40 minutes from the centre of the capital, but the rolling hills of the Chilterns and Downs and extensive woodlands of Surrey are attractively  bucolic and provide some of the most quintessential English vistas found anywhere in the country.

 

An undoubted plus was the discovery of more excellent and individual campsites. Three in particular stand out:

The iconic Minster looks down on the city's medieval streets

The iconic Minster looks down on the city’s medieval streets

Mortonhall in Edinburgh; not normally my kind of place as it is large and contains caravans, but it is well run, staff are attentive and informative and the site combines easy proximity to the city with a beautiful parkland location.

Highside Farm in Middleton-in-Teesdale; small, immaculate, surrounded by exquisite countryside and situated on a working farm, complete with inquisitive hens and affectionate springer spaniels.

Town Farm near Ivinghoe; only 40 minutes from London, but surrounded by the sumptuous landscape of the Chilterns and the Ridgeway.

 

For someone not generally enamoured with driving, I completed the week with considerably more empathy and understanding for those who have to live their lives up and down Britain’s roads: sure there are plenty of idiots, but there are many more sensible and considerate drivers. I also developed a much greater appreciation of out-of-town supermarkets, park-and-ride facilities and coffee outlets (yes, you read correctly; coffee chains!) After spending hours trundling along boring roads in unending traffic, it really did surprise me how relieved I was to find a reasonably clean toilet, petrol, drinkable coffee, WiFi and unfailingly  pleasant staff, all in one location.

 

Highside Farm in idyllic Upper Teesdale

Highside Farm in idyllic Upper Teesdale

As ever, the positive experiences outweigh any negative ones, so thank you, in no particular order, to the non-judgemental ex-traffic policeman who gave me important advice about my front tyre, the manager and staff at Costa in King’s Lynn for their local advice and rather good coffee, Pedro at Euston for his excellent cortado and Richard and Stephanie at Highside for looking after their visitor so well.

 

Final verdict: interesting, lucky with the weather and glad I finally did it, but in future, I reckon I’ll stick to my boots, bikes and tents.

 

Read my review of Spaceships’ Campervan Rentals UK

The characteristic honey-coloured Cotswold stone of Oxford

The characteristic honey-coloured Cotswold stone of Oxford

Did you like this? Share it:
05 Sep 2014

Out on the Edge

No Comments Booting, Tours
Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Having previously visited the most southerly and south westerly points of three of the four countries that make up the geographical feature that is the British Isles (better make sure I get this correct as there may well be some seismic changes to what is meant by Britain and the UK in constitutional terms over the next few weeks) it seemed sensible to exploit a promised window of fine weather before autumn encroached and venture to the furthest point of my one remaining unvisited peninsular; the Mull of Galloway.

Enticed back by the tranquility, contrasting landscapes and dark skies I discovered earlier in the summer and now bolstered by a bigger tent, more efficient cooking gear and a more ordered storage system, I left the heavy rain and leadens skies of a Midlands’ bank holiday morning to a-getting-better-the-further-north midday.

Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland

Portobello Beach, looking directly over to Ireland

Usually a long, tedious, and sometimes dangerous journey from Dumfries west along the A75, the imminent end of the late summer bank holiday ensured the heavy traffic was in the opposite direction and Stranraer was reached in an unhurried and impressive two and a half hours.

80 miles from Dumfries and a similar distance from Glasgow, Stranraer can seem like a lonely last staging post on the edge of the choppy waters of the North Channel (even the local accents sound more Ulster than Scottish), but  closer study of the buildings back from the harbour and the names of the streets, evince something of how the town grew in importance as a seaport to Ireland from the early years of the 19th century, after the 1801 Act of Union. But, its location in a rich pastoral agricultural area has been equally important and the town’s connections both with the sea and the dairying industry are well illustrated in the interesting local museum: a useful and informative diversion, should the weather turn inclement.

North Rhinns Camping lies around five miles north, in the midst of its eponymous peninsular, surrounded by undulating pastureland and, essentially, it provides everything I look for when I camp. Pitches are secluded, well away from neighbours, contain a picnic bench and campfire standing and are located sensitively around a patch of lovely, native woodland that also acts as a natural windbreak during the frequent squalls that descend on this exposed piece of land. Crucially, facilities are scrupulously clean and very well equipped. The site welcomes tents, with room for a couple of small campervans – as a result, another bonus is that it tends to attract some original and effective conversions of standard small vans.

North Rhinns sunset

North Rhinns sunset

While, in theory,  the quiet local lanes should provide perfect cycling routes, few of the locals seem to cycle and neighbourhood drivers tend to hurl their trucks, tractors and 4x4s around with little thought for any other road users. Winds are often fierce and gradients will test the best maintained gears and brakes. That said, local businesses offer a warm welcome to cyclists, with plenty of helpful advice and tourist information offices are awash with leaflets and maps showing a selection of cycling routes.

Breezy, sunny days are, in any case, perfect for coastal walking and here the Rhinns of Galloway comes into its own. Portpatrick lies a few miles south of the campsite and its pretty harbour marks the western end of the Southern Upland Way (SUW). The 200 plus miles of this coast-to-coast trail take in dramatic coastlines, bleak moorland and challenging hills on the route across the southern Scotland and the first three miles or so, up to Portavaddie Lighthouse, is a great introduction, both to coastal walking, as well as the diversity of scenery on this toughest of long-distance walks.

Views take in the Antrim coast and further to the north, the jagged peaks of Arran, as well as the hump-like Ailsa Craig. However, after the SUW leaves the coast to head eastward, and although the route round the the west side of the coast is designated by the council as a core path, the going is often difficult over rocks and bracken, with no clearly defined trail.

Heading north on the first section of the SUW

Heading north on the first section of the SUW

Fortunately, the local rotary club has already taken matters into hand and, on the east side of the Rhinns, marked out a path along the side of Loch Ryan, linking Stranraer with the start of the Ayrshire Coastal Path at Glenapp. This, in turn, now joins up with another marked route, The Mull of Galloway Trail between Stranraer and the southerly tip of the Rhinns (and indeed of Scotland itself) at the Mull of Galloway.

The Mull, lonely and exposed, with its historic lighthouse and foghorn perched bravely above the treacherous rocks, is a fascinating place to take stock, look around and plot location – the outlines of the Isle of Man, Cumbrian and Ulster coasts are visible on clear days. But it is the sensation of being at the tip, surrounded by the dominant elements of sea and wind, that remains uppermost as you imagine the singular lifestyle of lighthouse staff as they performed their vital work before the days of high-tech communications.

Although not yet logged on OS maps, the route is clearly marked and, as it heads northwards, towards Drummore and Sandhead, passes along and above dramatic coves and inlets that are the equal of any found elsewhere along the western coasts of our isles. Along the way you are more likely to meet a few sheep or cattle than a fellow human: but remember, solitude does come with inherent dangers and this coastline can be bleak and exposed, with steep gradients and slippery rocks.

The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway

The foghorn at Carrickcarlin Point, Mull of Galloway

Inland, the shorn fields of pale yellow, with their stacks of harvested hay reflect the last days of August and the ripening hedgerows promise a bumper harvest of brambles and rosehips. Despite the bright sunny days and even at this far western outpost, evenings now darken and cool well before nine pm: another  accurate barometer of the dying embers of summer.

 

So, Galloway 2014, the verdict:

Still characterised by its 1950s-style roads and telegraph poles, luxuriant rhododendrons and unspoilt coves and inlets that could recreate the setting for a Famous Five adventure.
Yes, it is being discovered, but slowly and, so far, in a largely positive way: the lonely moors, expansive forests and often deserted coasts now sit alongside something for the foodies (Castle Douglas), an annual literary extravaganza (Wigtown), as well as the legendary artist communities of Kirkcudbright and surrounding harbour towns.
Galloway has always offered fresh air, breathtaking scenery and dark skies; keep away from the caravan parks of the Southerness tip and you will still scarcely see a crowd, but you can find a good coffee, gourmet food and challenging culture, without too much effort.

The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull

The lighthouse still keeps a look out on the Mull

 

What if?

Call it misplaced nostalgia, or cheesy emotion, but just wish, for a moment, that Beeching hadn’t axed the Dumfries to Stranraer railway  line and the boat train (possibly with a steam special in the holidays) still wound its way westwards, along the coast, through the forests, over the Loch Ken and Stroan Viaducts……..   Just a thought, although a sad one, nevertheless.

 

Recommendations:

Campsites; Ken Bridge Hotel, nr New Galloway, North Rhinns, nr Stranraer
Cafe/Restaurant; the Schoolhouse, Ringland, nr Kirkcudbright ( and D’Nisi’s cafe in Stranraer does a decent flat white)
Interesting shops; Designs Gallery, King Street, Castle Douglas, In House Chocolates also in King Street, Castle Douglas
Museums/galleries; Stranraer Museum,  George Street, Stranraer, art galleries in and around Kirkcudbright 
Information point; Tourist Information, Harbour Street, Stranraer

St Medan's Cave

St Medan’s Cave

East Tarbet Bay

East Tarbet Bay

Did you like this? Share it: