Travels in a Campervan

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
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In Praise of March

March doesn’t usually enjoy much of a good press: noted for its winds, frequently cold and unpredictable temperatures and apart from its daffodils, not traditionally celebrated for its foliage. We normally have to wait until the end of the month to savour the blossom and, even then, blustery, sleety conditions more often than not reduce its delicate, transient buds to shreds within hours.

The delicate, but transient, beauty of magnolia blossom

But this year, as we approach the close of the third month donning sunglasses and shorts, rather than scarves and sweaters, perhaps the time has come to re-consider March and award it some overdue recognition as a better month that it’s usually given credit for.

OK, I know the present premature heatwave is not normal, even by our recent climate change-crazed weather patterns, but the sun is higher in the sky at the end of March than it is in September, so when sunny and in shelter, it can become quite warm.

The Merchant City in the sun

Once the clocks change, of course, we can fit in some walking, cycling, gardening in the evenings, but throughout the month there is an average of 12 hours daylight: more than enough for a day walk or cycle. So March is the ideal month to get out and about and into training for longer, higher days as the spring progresses.

So, with this in mind, a recent week based in Glasgow was planned around a weekend visit to a stunning, but overlooked, area of Mid Argyll  followed by a weekday morning walk up to Loch Humphrey and Duncolm in the Kilpatricks (both easily accessible by public transport) and a day out, museum-browsing, in the capital.

March can be an ideal time to travel. Unless Easter is early, it benefits from being a school holiday-free month and this year ScotRail recognised this by offering their Mad March half price fare promotion on most off-peak journeys. Hence the return journey to Kilpatrick cost whole £1.90  and the museum jaunt to Edinburgh amounted to £6.05.

Calton Hill dominates the Edinburgh skyline

And talking of museums and the capital, March can be perfect month to sample both. With the holiday season not yet in full swing, Edinburgh, if not exactly empty, was at least quiet enough to look round the Scottish Parliament, the new National Museum of Scotland  and have lunch  – can thoroughly recommend the soup and coffee at Peter’s Yard  -without having to queue.

The new National Museum is certainly worth a visit, particularly from now till June for the See Scotland by Train exhibition. With a background montage of 39 Steps, Railway Children, Brief Encounter, Night Mail and more, this well-staged presentation of fabulous railway posters takes us back to the heyday of overnight sleepers, art deco carriages and the seductive power of the Flying Scotsman and Coronation Scot.

A perfect way, then, to spend a cold, but bright, Edinburgh day and avoid running the gauntlet of tourists and cashmere outlets in the Old Town. If you time manage effectively, you can just about fit in a visit to the refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery   as well. It too is impressive and provides a good vantage point to explore the more sophisticated New Town.

March is also, of course, traditionally the month of high activity in the garden and, although our poor seedlings have been well confused by this year’s bizarre range of temperatures, it has been a pleasant change to plant in the warm, as opposed to the normal cold and wet.

So as March 2012 cruises to a balmy, sunny close, let’s hear it for the third month of the year; the true harbinger of spring.

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Autumn in the Country and in the City

Autumn, in particular October, is  ideal  for a short break. But perhaps time and money are a bit short and you can’t spare more than a few days away; not enough to enjoy some sunnier climes?

Last Rays of Afternoon Sun

No problem, stay in Britain, make the most of the daylight before the clocks change, enjoy the changing autumn colours and, if the weather turns inclement, you can easily spend a day in a nearby city, or local attraction.  Britain in autumn is perfect for a few days away where you can combine some cycling, walking, climbing, photography in the countryside, with a cultural, foodie, or chilled-out few days in the city.

One great advantage of our crowded island is that many of our major urban areas are cheek by jowl with national parks and areas of national beauty: think Sheffield/Manchester and the Peak District; Bristol and Exmoor; Glasgow and the Trossachs;  Edinburgh and the Pentlands. 

Autumn Colours

Even the sprawling West Midlands conurbation has the Malverns and the Cotswolds on its doorstep and woodland Surrey, the Chilterns and the south coast can be easily reached from Greater London.

But what to pack; particularly for us eco-conscious, self-sufficient travellers, who have to carry our needs for all eventualities on our backs, or bikes and on public transport? You need the footwear and outwear for protection in the great outdoors, but you don’t want to look like an outdoor gear geek as you sip your flat white in Convent Garden.

It’s a hard call,  but essentially the same rules apply as outlined in KIT,
http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/sample-kit-lists/   http://www.bootandbike.co.uk/kit/what-to-take/
but, on a smaller scale.

Sunset through the Trees

The key is, like with all packing, to try to take multi-purpose garments and, to be fair, the look, quality and weight of outdoor gear has improved immeasurably over the last few years. Merino wool tops, such as Icebreaker, look good enough to wear out or indoors, and merino also has the priceless asset of lasting several days without offensive odours.  Similarly, ultra-lightweight down (and some man-made alternatives), like those by Rab, now are stylish enough, and in sufficiently pleasing shades, not to look out of place in city streets.  And if it’s wet, wear your wet gear: if it throws it down, nobody cares much what you look like; hillside or city street.

Jurassic Coast in Autumn

This first “rule’ is generally to wear your “active” gear and footwear  (usually because it’s the bulkiest) when you travel to your destination.  This can result in some amusing scenarios: once, having secured a reasonably-priced first class ticket and resplendent in lycra and cycling helmet, I was initially blocked from entering the posh end of the train by an attendant who told me: “This is a first class coach madam.” When I replied that I had a first class reservation and offered to show him my ticket, he apologised and said: “I thought you were off on your bike, not travelling first class!”

Above Dunoon, Cowal Peninsular

So, other than specialised activity kit, what else to take?
Essentials: sleepwear, something to lounge about in, underwear and toiletries – if you’re staying in a hotel, b&b etc, it’s a good idea to check in advance what toiletries they provide as it can save considerable weight and bulk.

For trips of up to a week, I now organise my gear into: jeans/leggings, couple of tee shirts, tunic, sweater, comfortable lightweight shoes – obviously amend as appropriate.

Up to the Long Mynd

These I can pack into a small, lightweight wheeled bag, with waterproofs, hat, gloves, water bottles and the like in a 20 litre backpack. Thus, I can carry my luggage easily and have enough adaptable gear to keep me dry and warm on the hills, but stylish enough to look reasonably cool in a cafe, or shop, museum or cinema.

Go ahead, take advantage of the autumn kaleidoscope in the woodlands, enjoy the hills and mountains before winter sets in.

Autumn Sunset

But check out the exhibitions, movies and best eats in nearby cities as well to ensure you  make the best of Britain this autumn.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/interactive/2011/jan/07/britain-best-budget-eats-restaurants-cafes has a really useful list of budget eats in towns and cities across the country: I haven’t tried them all, but those I have in Glasgow, Birmingham and Central London haven’t disappointed.

 

Some Boot and Bike recommendations for this autumn:

Edinburgh and the Fife coast:  check out some of the classic books set in Auld Reekie 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/oct/12/top-10-books-literary-edinburgh?INTCMP=SRCH  and the Guardian’s interactive guide to the city
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/series/edinburgh-city-guide

Head out by train over the Forth Bridge (or cycle out over path beside the road bridge)
http://www.sustrans.org.uk/sustrans-near-you/scotland/easy-rides-in-scotland/edinburgh-to-the-forth-road-bridge
towards Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy. Cycle, walk along the coastal path   http://www.fifecoastalpath.co.uk/
to  Anstruther – visit the award-winning fish restaurant 
http://anstrutherfishbar.co.uk/index.html  –  then on to St Andrews and its university and world-famous golf course   
http://www.saint-andrews.co.uk/staindex.html

Birmingham and Shropshire: you’ve still got time to sample some food and drink at the city’s 10 day Food Fest  http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/food-fest-137426262
From the end of the month, try to catch the Lost in Lace exhibition 
http://whatson.visitbirmingham.com/lost-in-lace-588181948
Trains from the city’s New Street station take about an hour to Shrewsbury
http://tickets.londonmidland.com/lm/en/JourneyPlanning/MixingDeck  Arriva Trains Wales  http://www.buytickets.arrivatrainswales.co.uk/advancedsearch.aspx also travel to Shrewsbury and thence Church Stretton, Craven Arms and Ludlow. Marvel at the expansive views from the top of the Long Mynd, then restore your calories with a trip to the foodie heaven of Ludlow   
http://www.ludlow.org.uk/fooddrink.html

Glasgow and the Cowal Peninsular: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is currently rocking to the AC/DC exhibition.http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/our-museums/kelvingrove/whats-on/exhibitions/AC-DC-exhibition/Pages/default.aspx
Or check out how eminent writer/artist  Alasdair Gray, depicted life in the city in the 1970s in a major exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art http://whatson.seeglasgow.com/Event41951
From the city take the train to Gourock, then ferry to Dunoon 
http://www.western-ferries.co.uk/  Bike  through the beguiling Benmore Botanic Gardens   http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/benmore   and on to enjoy the autumn colours in Glenbranter Forest, where there is also the opportunity for some off-road biking http://www.forestry.gov.uk/website/recreation.nsf/LUWebDocsByKey/ScotlandArgyllandButeArgyllForestParkGlenbranterForest

Newcastle and the Northumberland coast: you’ll never short of somewhere to go, or see, in Newcastle.  This autumn, the city hosts an international print making exhibition, before the Baltic hosts the 2011 Turner Prize  http://www.newcastlegateshead.com/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731#productlist=/whats-on/baltic-presents-turner-prize-2011-p520731&proxprodtype=
The 100mile Northumberland Coast is a designated Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)  http://www.northumberland-coast.co.uk/ with award-winning beaches, castles and wildlife. Walk the 64 mile coastal path and use     http://www.northumberland.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=6898 to help you get about without using a car.

Exeter and the Jurassic coast: the city’s beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral is well worth a visit http://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/ and the Bike Shed Theatre    http://www.exeterviews.co.uk/whats-on/event/74/henry-v.html   presents a critically-acclaimed production of Henry V on October 21st-22nd.
The city sits at the west end of the Jurassic coast: the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site is England’s first natural World Heritage Site – it covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from East Devon to Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the Earth’s history  http://www.jurassiccoastline.com/
Walk sections of the coastal path, visit the Swannery at Abbotsbury, marvel at Durdle Door rock arch, hunt for fossils on Charmouth beach, or take short detours to Bridport and Thomas Hardy’s Dorchester.   And, you don’t need a car; instead use the excellent X53 bus that links Exeter with Poole at the easterly end of the coast   
http://lulworthcovebedandbreakfast.com/lulworth-cove/buses-jurassic-coast.htm

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