Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Back in an Alpine

Nearly 20 years ago we started caravanning in an old Sprite Alpine. She was a wonderful little ‘van, she had personality, and we took her all over Europe. The day I left her behind, in a scrap yard behind Birkenhead Docks, I felt I had abandoned her, that I was a wicked and unfeeling person. But she had to go. She was forty years old and her chassis was so tired and bent we had to manipulate the corner steadies to straighten her out enough just to open and close the door.

We bought on old Avondale, and she was okay, but suffered from damp. She did the trick for 10 years but the damp was always going to win. She was a comfortable ‘van but I have to confess I always missed the little Alpine and her quirky eccentricities.

But now she’s back, or at least her daughter is back. We have a new caravan and she’s an Alpine. Swift have been making Sprite Alpines for a few years. We knew we’d have one, one day, as soon as we stepped inside a display model at the Manchester Caravan Show in 2011. So we saved. Then in February we headed back to the Caravan Show and added a Sprite Alpine 2 to our family. And you know what? She’s wonderful. She’s called Sally. Sally Swift.

First outing for Sally was at Lady Margaret’s Park, near Chirk. Just one night, for a try-out, in early March, then a couple of nights at a CS near Winsford. It snowed both times but we were toasty warm. I haven’t blogged about any of the places we visited because we didn’t really visit, we just stayed in the van and made tea and toast (because the grill works) and cooked meals (because the cooker works) and had showers (because the water system works). And mostly we just sat around in our T-shirts looking out at the snow outside and swapping big melon-shaped grins.

This weekend, though, we’ve been out for real. We have been staying at a lovely Camping Club CS called Ty Mawr near Ellesmere. The site is right on the banks of the Shropshire Union canal, and the walking round and about is excellent, although we haven’t done too much walking since Sarah broke her foot doing “keep-fit”. It’s a good spot for crutches, though; not too many hills.

We’re only an hour-and-a-half from home, but we passed through a place called Whittington on the way. Whittington has a castle, and neither of us had ever heard of it before. It’s not a big castle but it is so picturesque. It has a moat and ducks, and so we came back to visit the next day, and they had a medieval re-enactment group doing violent stuff with swords on the lawn. And here’s the thing, it is owned, not by English Heritage or the National Trust, but by the community of Whittington – the only arrangement of its type in the country as far as they know. And the pride they have in their castle really shows. It is beautifully cared for and maintained, and the only charge is £1.00 for the car park. I would have helped out some more by patronising the tea shop and eating cake, but the tea shop was full. Next time, then.

But this leads me on to a growing feeling I have for small shops. The little market towns are being squeezed out by the big chains. It is desperately sad to see. All the character and interest is being lost. So many times I have paid for two hours in the car park only to find that two minutes would suffice, because there’s nothing left to see; all the shops are shuttered up and closed. Those that remain seem to be on borrowed time. So I’ve started a personal campaign of buying from indie shops rather than chains if possible, especially when on holiday. This is particularly so of tea and coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fond of your Costas and your Starbucks et al, but if a little indie shop takes my fancy, (and they have to work hard for it, no plastic table cloths, tomato shaped sauce bottles or commercial radio blasting from a tinny transistor on the counter) if it looks inviting, then I’ll go there in preference. We came upon a little coffee shop in Oswestry, called Wednesdays. It had opened that very day. Nice shop, lots of comfortable seating, very friendly customer-focussed staff, gave us a special opening day half price offer. I hope they do well. Take this as a big plug. Wednesdays, Castle Court, Bailey Street. It’s up a little alley round the back of Wilko’s.

The problem with the chain shops is that when they go bust they all go bust, and they take their neighbours with them. It doesn’t have to be a reflection on the town or village they are in, these shops could be doing well in particular areas, often at the expense of the little indie shops that find it hard to compete. But then when they do crash they leave a big hole that can take the rest of the town with them. Woolworths are a good example. You can spot the smouldering crater in most small-town high streets that used to be filled by Woolworths. They’re quite distinctive, they’re usually re-occupied by thrift shops, and you can see the collateral damage that has been caused by their passing. It’s just my theory, but I don’t think you can blame the internet for everything. Big chains are just as much a cause. When you visit a town these days you are hard pressed to notice any difference between it and your own home town, wherever that may be. All the shops are the same. It is depressing. So go on, next time you’re somewhere new, find a non-chain shop and buy something. Help keep them afloat.

 Eek! I’m moaning a lot, aren’t I? I shouldn’t. I should just look out of Sally’s window at the rolling Shropshire countryside and the canal boats chugging past, and listen to the sound of zero traffic and... there, I’m smiling again.

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