Tuesday, 22 July 2014

What makes for a good caravan site location?

So what makes for a good caravan site location? A fine view? Level pitch? Shelter from sun and wind?

Right now I'm in Weymouth, at a Dorset DA temp site. The big thrill for us was finding that it's only an eight minute walk to a big, bright, air-conditioned Sainsbury's.

So, yeah, I'm coming over a bit shallow here, I know, but really, the site itself has the other stuff, too: It's on a Rugby pitch, so it's level. It has an okay view - we can see the rolling hills in the distance. Protection from the elements? Well, not so much, but this week the main element is the unrelenting sun and I am not going to complain too much about that. We can also walk into the centre of Weymouth in about half an hour, so another big plus.

The site feels remote. It is quiet at night. There is no road noise. The birds from the nature reserve, next door, make themselves heard. Yet despite all this we have no need to use the car, and this is a plus for me, because I use the car way to much getting to and from the day job in the week. You need the car for shopping though, right? Not here, and this is one of the reasons we were so happy to find a place so close to a supermarket. We can shop on a meal-by-meal basis, and if we don't want to cook, the cafe in the supermarket do breakfasts and lunches for not much more than a fiver, and from the wide picture window in the cafe we can see Portland Bill and the coast. Wonderful.

Oh, and the other thing: we love Weymouth. The old harbour, the eateries, the network of antique shops that have sprung up out of the old dock buildings just below the Nothe Fort.

  Having a lovely week. 

        Wish you were here.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Easter in Delft

We're trying something new this year. We have come to Holland, staying with one of the Camping and Caravanning Club's International Rallies. Our camp site is on the outskirts of Delft, at Deftse Hout.
We're less than twenty miles from the ferry port at Hook of Holland, and given some of our recent European antics, with defective auto electrics and dropped exhaust pipes, this holds a certain attraction for me. Call me a coward, but once on site, corner steadies down, I have no wish to temp fate on the roads again until it's time to go home.
Here's the thing with Holland, though: cars are irrelvant. The Dutch know how to do public transport, and they know how to do cycle routes. Oh my goodness, do they know how to do cycle routes - this is bike heaven.

Anyway, first thing was to get here. We stayed one night on a CS near Clacton-on-sea so as to be on pole position for a nine AM sailing. We even rehearsed the twenty-minute run to Harwich the night before, which was just as well, because the road junctions round there have this funny thing where you can only join in one direction, the wrong direction, so we ended up clocking an extra forty miles getting lost in Colchester and then Ipswich. Even the sat nav seemed to make a Horlicks of it. Her normally calm and patient voice, I swear, became all strident and panicked and confrontational.

We got our ferry without incident the next morning, though, and settled back for a restful seven-hour cruise. Except it's not so restful, really, because once we'd had breakfast, before even leaving Harwich, I was casting about for something to do to relieve the boredom. The Stena Britannica is a big ship. Seriously big. But there's only the one deck available for wandering about. I didn't fancy seeing a film in the cinema (because despite the mill-pond crossing my innards were demanding I kept an attentive eye on the horizon) and at 10 AM it seemed a bit early to be thinking of lunch. I visited the shop and bought some beam deflectors, because I'd forgotten about them, even though I had no intention of ever driving at night. So then I got out my ipad, but found the queezy rumblings returned as soon as I took my eyes away from the sea. And on and on.

Lunch was excellent. I have to say the ship was spotless and the service was very good. We fancied a veggie dish and although it was on the menu it hadn't been pre-prepared, but the chef said it wasn't a problem, he'd knock something out and bring it over to us, which he did, and it was more than just knocking out a quck lunch, it was delicious.

We arrived at Hook of Holland late afternoon. Always a bit scary venturing out from a new port and getting to grips with wrong-side-of-the-road, exotic road signs, anti-clockwise roundabouts and everything else, all while towing. White knuckles should never be a part of the holiday experience. Strange how often they are, for me. We had our route plan, and we had our girl in the sat-nav box, who I have to say, was quite useless and quickly showed the stroppy side of her character. All the way along she insisted we "exit right", even though this instruction seemed to involve toboganning down the grassy embankment of a steep-sided dyke, because despite what she said, there were no exit roads. As each kilometre went by she became ever more snotty about our ignoring her advice. Well I'm sorry, girl, I don't want to drive down into a water-filled ditch. We had our map and we were sticking to it. We followed the official site directions, and eventually our girl-in-the-box went into a sulk, decided to stop belly-aching, and went along with our choice of route.

We found the site without incident, and a lovely site it is, too. English spoken on reception, in fact better English than my English. Then on to our pitch and a chat with the helpful folk who are the stewards for this rally. To cap it all, the sun was out and it was hot. It's Easter. We've brought all our jumpers and woolly hats and summer has gone and sneaked up on us out of the blue.

Saturday, 1 March 2014


This weekend we are the guests of Lady Margaret's Park. Sounds posh, doesn't it. We stayed here, a Caravan Club site, almost exactly a year ago for just one night, as a shake-down for our new 'van. On that occasion we were torn between staying with, and finding our way around, our new toy, as against the usual urge to get out and explore a new place. The former won out. There's only so much you can do in a one-night stay, but from the bit we saw we've been wanting to come back and do it properly ever since.
So this morning we did the canal walk as far as the Moreton Park garden centre for a spot of lunch.

It turned out to be an excellent walk, taking us across the Chirk Aquaduct, which we haven't done before. We've done the Pontcysyllte aquaduct, the other Thomas Telford wonder, in the next valley. Chirk aquaduct is different, though. Not so scary, but, with the rail viaduct right next to it, I would say it might be the more attractive of the two.

After lunch we retraced our steps and continued past the site up to Chirk Castle. This is a much better way to approach the castle than the usual way, by car. The walk through the woodland is gorgeous, and then you find yourself beneath a high wall, with no clue as to what's on the other side (unless you already know). Then suddenly the high wall is a castle. A real castle. It is mighty impressive. We arrived at a good time, late in the day, when the gardens were quiet. We had them almost to ourselves. From the end of the garden there is the most wonderful view out over the ha ha, and today was very clear. To the north we could see Fiddlers Ferry and Runcorn, then sweeping south was Helsby Hill, Beeston Castle and the Peckforton Hills, The Wrekin near Telford and even Wenlock Edge and the Long Mynd in the distance. It is a view that you can sit and admire for ages.

It is only just March though, and soon we were noticing the cold, and there is only so long you can sit around on a bench at this time of year. So we headed back.

Before we came away, Sarah told me she didn't want to walk too far because she is full of a cold, and I agreed we should take it easy. In the end we stomped over nine miles. It's that kind of place. Can't help it. There's always something else to see just around the corner. I reckon a weekend isn't long enough. This is a site we'll return to again and again. And it's only 45 minutes from home.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The National Forest

For our season opener in 2014 we have come to The National Forest in the East Midlands. There were no trees here a few years ago. Now they have planted over eight million of them, and it seems to be a fantastic idea. Could there be any better way of revitalising a blighted, industrially scarred area? I can't think of one.
There’s a visitor centre a short walk from the site where we're staying, called Conkers. Costs about eight quid each to get in, thirty quid if you are a family of four. This gives you access to the trees, the coffee shop and to an indoor virtual forest walk. They have to make money somehow, but, wow, eight quid a head seems a bit heavy. I didn't realise I'd have to pay to see the trees. Some niggling worm is beginning to call attention to the potential for a gap between grand vision and reality. But okay, deep breaths. The short walk through the young forest to the visitor centre was pleasant enough and we don't have to do the commercial stuff, do we? The visitor centre itself is magnificent from the outside. I'm wondering how much they had to pay the architect. How many more trees they could have bought. But this isn't meant to be a moan. I am applauding vision, 
But we chose to stay outside and do the three-and-a-half-mile way-marked Conkers Circuit. This takes you along the car park access road, down a trail beside the main road, then up the main road itself to a view-point overlooking the busy landfill site on the right and a pond on the left, that used to be a gravel pit. I’m being unfair. It is February. Maybe in the summer...
The pond is okay, really. It is a good effort at turning something ugly into a recreational amenity. The path goes around the pond and when the trees grow and mature it could be quite pleasant. But half way round we’d seen enough so we took a lesser way-marked path to avoid the full pond circuit, and ended up in the access road between the landfill site and a quarry. There are signs all over warning of the need to wear work boots, hard hats and high-viz jackets; and telling walkers that they must stay off the road and use the path, which was a mud-slimed channel with a wire fence segregating it from the gravel trucks.
The warnings about the work boots were not made in jest. This is serious industrial terrain, and I'm wondering if the visionaries in DEFRA haven't quite covered all the bases yet.
We escaped with our lives, despite our lack of foresight in the high-viz department, then rejoined the main path alongside the goods railway back to the Conkers Visitor centre. A cup of tea would have been nice right then, but there’s still this thing about having to stump up over sixteen quid for both of us to get inside before gaining access to the cafe.So we made a cuppa in the caravan and saved a few bob.

Next day was better. Much better. We walked along the Ashby canal to see the Moira Furnace. They have done wonders with the canal, it's interesting and picturesque, and although I am not a fan of canal walks because they tend to be a bit straight, this walk was lovely. The furnace is impressive but the museum was closed (I would have been happy enough to pay the £2 to go in) But hey ho, there was plenty to see outside.
The furnace hearth is cast in pig iron and you can still see the hand prints of the workers who did the original casting a-hundred-and-fifty years ago, kind of like industrial fossils. A bit spooky, really. Also The Hub cafe was open, no entrance fee, and they did a nice tea and toast.
Sudbury Hall, is one of several National Trust properties around here. It is about half an hour away with a lovely tea room, beautiful grounds, a fascinating Museum of Childhood (with stuff from my own childhood, which is always a bit chilling to find in a museum), and a hall interior that was chock full of delights. And, as National Trust members, it was free. Wonderful. Here's the main staircase. The detail in the stone carving is breathtaking. 
We did Sudbury on Friday afternoon. Then next day we went to Calke Abbey, and this is a strange and enticing place. The National Trust has decided to keep it in the decayed and crumbling state in which they found it, to show how some of the old stately homes went down the nick fast. There are rooms full of stuff. Collectable stuff. Hoarded stuff. Downright strange stuff. There's a room full of lamps, another with an alligator skull, and rooms crammed with stuffed birds and animals in no particular order. I loved some of the dark and moulding corridors with peeling paintwork. There's bags of atmosphere at Calke, and potential for stories. A creepy and wonderful place, worth visiting again and again, I think. Nice scones in the cafe, too.
Calke Abbey, looks normal from the outside.
But inside... Imagine finding this in your bed.

A room full of old lamps

Underground passages leading to the brew house

...and a head in a box

So yeah, Calke Abbey. A winner. Must go back sometime.

I’m going to wind back, now, and mention our journey here. I know, I'm all out of sequence, but, just outside Nantwich there’s a giant straw Dalek in a field. I nearly ran the car off the road when I saw it. I had to do a U-turn and go back just to make sure I’d seen what I thought I’d seen. It’s a thing they do at Snugbury’s Ice Cream farm. Each year they build something big and amazing out of straw. They’ve had a straw Angel of the North, a straw Big Ben, a straw Meercat... It is inspired. The car park is free. Access to the Dalek is free. And it’s nice ice cream, too.