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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Don’t Forget: Cycling Isn’t Just Confined to the Capital

First the deaths and casualties, then the recriminations, followed equally swiftly by the counter accusations and then the die-in at TFL HQ.  No one can now dispute that cycling in London has become a high-profile issue dominating the front pages as well as the specialist publications and bike blogs.

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As a cyclist, although no longer pedalling the streets of the capital, I’m grateful to London’s cyclists for keeping the issues of safety and lack of infrastructure in the public eye, but often frustrated that the experiences of cyclists around the country are routinely overlooked.

It is difficult, and essentially pointless, to try to prove that it is any more or less dangerous to cycle in London, compared to everywhere else: although according to national cycling charity CTC, it is twenty times more dangerous to cycle along rural A roads than it is on suburban and urban streets. Statistics show the greater the density of population, the higher the level of casualties, but it is difficult to relate this to the number of people cycling in  particular areas as there is no consistent monitoring of   numbers of cyclists on the roads and trends in cycling uptake tend to be based on estimates.

What cannot be contested is that cyclists across the country experience widely differing conditions, depending on the type of roads they use, terrain and exposure to weather conditions. And the exhilaration of commuting along a coast road or a quiet country byway has to be set aside the difficulties of maintaining road position on narrow lanes, the threat of speeding cars on backroads with little surveillance, or the greater danger of isolation in the event of breakdown, injury or illness.

Some dangers – lack of road space, the chaos of the school run, absence of any cycling infrastructure and failure to enforce regulations where bike lanes do exist, threats from large vehicles (add to buses and lorries a variety of large, unstable and frightening agricultural vehicles)  – are depressingly similar.  And we also have our fair share of SMIDSY, as well as plenty of representatives from the ‘I pay road tax’ tribe.

I miss my old routes from Euston down to Waterloo and from Fulham along the Embankment to the Strand and think of them fondly as I struggle the seven miles along unlit, pot-holed country lanes to and from my local station.  But above all, I miss being part of a growing, diverse, but inclusive and supportive community of cyclists.

Around here in the lanes of Middle England, those of us who cycle as our primary method of transport are commonly regarded as odd (particularly if female), pitied as too poor to own a car and  cursed as irritants who threaten the entitlement of drivers to ‘their’ roads – the peletons of lycra-clad roadies who race through at the weekend are, if anything, more intensely disliked, but are generally not subjected to direct abuse as they tend to hunt in (largely male) packs.

If there are to be any positive outcomes from the recent tragic events in London, then they must lie in the introduction of HGV safety measures and establishment of better cycling infrastructure: initiatives that will also benefit all road users across the country and lead to the establishment of a genuine bicycle culture in the UK. London’s cycling lobby is sufficiently powerful, organised and high profile to successfully campaign for this, with the support of fellow cyclists around the country.

But please don’t forget, cycling is not confined to the capital and each day millions of cyclists throughout the country enjoy the pleasures of their chosen form of transport and the benefits derived from it, which continue to far outweigh, but not eliminate, the dangers. Some conditions we face are specific to our locality, but we all have to contend with unacceptable risks, more prevalent in the UK than elsewhere in western Europe, that can only be solved by a more holistic and inclusive approach to road use.

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