Thursday, 3 September 2015

King of the Mountains

From Penrith there is an ‘A’ road that connects the Lake District with the North East. The A686 twists and turns and loops up to Hartside Top, a dizzy 1,915 feet then descends to the town of Alston. Next week it will be the scene of fierce cycling activity as the Tour of Britain passes through. There is much local anticipation, with flags and yellow-painted cycles decorating the route. It is not a good place to take a caravan!
I’ve told myself this before: Plan your route. In advance. Do not rely on satnav to do this for you. And I did. Honest. I had the whole thing figured out, but then I became seduced by the dulcet tones of the girl in the box. She seemed to have a better idea than me, with a plan that shaved off a whole six minutes from the five-and-a-half hour journey to Northumberland.
As if towing over Hartside Top isn’t bad enough on a quiet day, the upcoming Tour of Britain had brought out cyclists in their hundreds, keen to try it for themselves. So now there were dozens of pelotons to overtake along the way. Passing bikes is hard in a caravan. You have to make plenty of allowance for getting clear without swiping any of them into a ditch. On a twisty gradient, and with 50 mph lycra bullets coming at you the other way, downhill, it is the stuff of nightmares. People watched our progress, pointing and gasping in wonder. Who is that nutter, dragging a caravan up here? What is he trying to prove? The back of my neck still glows from the embarrassment.

The tale ends well, though. We didn’t kill any cyclists. We didn’t plunge down any ravines on the descent. We reached Beadnell Bay, in Northumberland, without incident, where we stayed for a few days with the CCC’s Motor Caravan Section at their Temporary Holiday site.

I adore Northumberland. It is a beautiful part of the country. The untamed coast alternates between long, golden sandy beaches and rocky coves, all interspersed with castles straight out of fantasy fiction. We last stayed here seven or eight years ago and we vowed to return, and not just for the fish and chips, although fish and chips was high on our to-do list.
On our first full day we walked and paddled along the beach, then over the headland into Seahouses, where the best fish and chips in the world are served. They do say one should eat local, so we did. Twice.

Now, a bit of advertising (sorry), or at least some sharing of good news. I’m chuffed to see that Travelling in a Box has been picking up some four and five star reviews of late, on both Amazon and Goodreads. Woohoo! Available on Kindle and in paperback.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Grand Book Tour

From England to the Alps in a thirty-year-old caravan. What could possibly go wrong? Well now you can find out, because Travelling in a Box, the book that gave its name to the blog, is available on Amazon, in paperback, and for Kindle.

And in the true spirit of Indy publishing I have embarked on a grand book tour. I have a copy of my book and I’m in a field in Ruthin, then I’ll be in a field near Rhos-on-Sea. Actually, thinking about it, I forgot to bring the book, so I guess I’m just on a grand tour. Maybe not so grand, either; in a field? Let’s just call it an ordinary tour, though technically speaking, a tour should probably visit more than two places. Okay, so I’m just away, in the caravan. How cool is that, though? Could you get more Indy?

So, I’ll set out my virtual sales counter, I’ll put on my big, floppy author’s hat, and I’ll give you a link to Amazon. Two links, in fact, because Travelling in a Box is available in the USA as well as the UK. Also Europe, Japan, Brazil... but come on, I can't link to everywhere; I'm sitting in a field.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Suds in Skegness

It was all going so well until the soap bubbles started coming out of the wardrobe.
"There are bubbles coming out of the wardrobe!"
"No way."
"Yes way."
But more on that later.

We're staying (in our caravan) with the East Midlands Motor Caravan Section of the Camping and Caravanning Club, at their Temporary Holiday Site in Skegness. We fancied something new and realised we had never been to Lincolnshire before. Draw a line exactly east from our home on the Wirral, and you reach Skegness. It's strange that we've never done this before. I had my doubts, though. Skeggy does not sound like the most classy of places to visit. And maybe not, but the countryside round and about is full of interest. Driving over the rolling Lincolnshire Wolds I could feel rest and relaxation seeping into every muscle.
The site itself is excellent. There is even an electric hookup - very rare on a THS - so my fears of having to ration the battery life on my laptop are unfounded.
Linda and Bill, our friendly stewards, hosted a coffee morning on the first day, and this gave us the chance to meet all our fellow campers, most of whom hail from the Leicester area. As this is a Motor Caravan rally, we are one of only two towed 'vans, the rest are motor homes, so we had a chance to quizz the owners of the big units and see just what makes them tick. I've always had my doubts about the motor home option, but I soon discovered where the passion comes from, with tales of perpetual touring, fast set-ups and wild camping across Spain. I almost fancy giving it a go myself. Almost, but not quite. I love my caravan. I love having a fixed base that we can use to explore a region, and Lincolnshire appears to have a lot to offer. Places like Gunby Hall and Gardens, only five miles up the road.
A new National Trust visit is always high on our list, partly because we don't have to pay to get in, but also because they are invariably a delight to visit. This one is no exception. There's an artistic and musical heritage in Gunby Hall, and we had a special treat in the music room, where a pianist was adding layers of atmosphere by playing Mozart sonatas. She was very good, and it was hard to drag ourselves away to see the rest of the house.
The gardens at Gunby are lovely and Sarah was off with her camera. I was abandoned on a bench amongst the roses, to mind the bags. I could have explored, I suppose, but no way was I walking around on my own clutching a pink handbag! Anyway, she soon had her paint box out, so I got my chance to have a look around, then.

So, when we returned to the caravan we were suitably mellow. The holiday was working its magic. Sarah lost the toss and made our tea. I did the dishes, and soon after this, those words were first used: bubbles.
Yes, suds were coming out from under the wardrobe door. I looked inside and realised these bubbles were only the upper ten percent of the iceberg. There were bubbles appearing behind the toilet pipes, too. A knock at the caravan door. "Do you know you've got bubbles coming out from under your caravan?"
"Yeah, okay, thanks. I'm onto it. Cheers."
My search pattern narrowed down to the cupboard under the kitchen sink. We stash a lot of stuff under there. I started pulling it all out. All of it was wet, and soapy. Sarah got the torch.
"There you go," she said. She aimed the beam on the waste pipe, that was no longer attached to the bottom of the sink. yeah, maybe we'd stashed too much stuff under there. It answered another question, too. The sink, normally a slow emptier, leaving a residue of seetcorn kernals and bits of pasta behind to be mopped up with kitchen roll, had been emptying efficiently and fast ever since we arrived, sucking everything down, leaving the sink clean and sweetcorn free. Yeah, it had been emptying straight and unimpeded onto the caravan floor. We'd have noticed sooner but for all the stored items, items that soaked up water, or at least up until that super-saturated moment when it would soak no more.
So we started mopping out. We filled the bin with damp things. We carried out the suds in gentle handfulls. Remember that peace and tranquility that I talked about? Yeah, gone.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Taking a break from Sci-Fi

This month’s Camping and Caravanning Magazine has an interview with me on its Club People page. I’m really pleased with it. I met Sheila Kiggins at the CCC offices, in Coventry, a couple of months ago. We chatted about caravanning and science fiction and just about everything else in between (there’s quite a lot in between) and she has written a really nice article. I’m so pleased about it. I’m not much of a talker, but as I mentioned in a earlier post, get me onto one of my passions, caravanning or science fiction, and I open up a bit. Talk to me about both at the same time, and well, be prepared to tie me up and gag me.

So, in the interview, the cat is out of the bag. I talk about something I’m about to do that would give any traditional publisher a hissy fit. I’m a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer; I have stories published in some pretty cool magazines, and I have awards and stuff. Now I’m about to release my first book. But here’s the thing: It’s a Travel Book. It’s memoir. I don’t even get to travel anywhere all that exotic, at least not in the eyes of your modern, jet-setting, bucket-listing, far-flung travel guru of the twenty-first century. It certainly isn't Science Fiction. 

'Travelling in a Box' will not make me a millionaire. I'll be lucky to even earn back some of the editing and cover-design costs. And you know what? I really don’t care. I just wanted to write it. I loved writing it. This is the joy of indie publishing. I can do this mad thing. There’s nobody to go all red-faced and finger-pointy and say, ‘you can’t do that!

Don’t get me wrong, a traditional publishing deal would be nice. You get money and stuff. You get to sit on panels at conventions without feeling like some kind of gatecrasher. To be an indie, though, is kind of freeing. I am the one who calls the shots. I shortlisted and picked the cover design (and it's gorgeous). I got to pick my own editor (who has been brilliant). Later, when I’m ready, I get to switch genres back to Science Fiction, or Fantasy, or horror, or even Urban Bakelite Punk with pink unicorns if I want to. I’ve always written because I enjoy doing it, and if someone else gets to enjoy reading my stuff then that is a big plus. It’s good, now, to be able to bring that same sense of freedom to the publishing process, and so far I’m enjoying the ride.
Travelling in a Box will be launched in mid July as an e-book and a paperback. There will be a book launch party, and staying true to the indie spirit I will do the catering myself. Most of it. Well, some of it. Maybe I’ll get my wife (aka sounding board, beta-reader and co-protagonist) to make the cheese sandwiches. I’ll buy the bottle of pop.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Darley Dale

This weekend we are kicking off our Camping and Caravanning Club DA season with the BCC (British Caravan Club) at their meet in Darley Dale, in Derbyshire.

We’ve stayed with other DA’s here before and it is a good base for the southern end of the Peak District. The field is big and flat and the Peak Rail steam railway chugs right across the end of it, and this is a fine thing to watch from the caravan window.

The only iffy thing here, perhaps, is the water pressure. The Aquaroll fill is very slow. You need the patience of a trappist monk not to flip out while waiting, but at least it gives everyone a chance to meet up and linger at the tap. Whenever I’ve found myself alone at the tap I’ve taken to packing my Kindle, for the chance to catch up on a novel or two. It makes a person very aware of the amount of water we use, though. As one person said to me while we were waiting: we take fresh water for granted. Imagine living somewhere where this is as good as it gets. Where mostly the water is muddy and diseased, dragged up from a well, and you have to make a ten-mile round trip with an urn balanced on your head to get it. Puts my moaning into perspective.

It started raining when we arrived. What else would you expect? Bank Holiday weekend. We splashed around in Bakewell for a while, then bought Bakewell pudding and brought it back to the van. Still raining. I can live with the rain. Plenty time for writing.

On Sunday, Matlock Bath seemed a good destination, but it was all Fish and Chips and amusements. A bit like Blackpool without the pier. I didn’t expect this. Matlock Bath is a Victorian Spa town. It should be sedate and elegant. Who decided it would look better with sad, half-blown strings of lights and binging whooping sirens from the one-arm bandits. Everywhere there is the smell of stale beer and salt-and-vinegar. Maybe it’s just me, though, because it was packed. But then we wandered into the park, which tracks along beside the river. The fish-and-chip smells faded, the arcade sounds receded and the short riverside walk was lovely. 
We crossed a bridge and came upon the Derwent Gardens, and they are a delight. There are flowers and moss-covered fountains and grottos and we spent a happy hour or so enjoying it. Only the time expiry of our car park ticket lured us away.

Looking for somewhere to eat on Monday took us to the Forest Garden Centre, also in Darley Dale. Garden Centres are often a good bet for food, these days. This one looked small from the road and we didn't expect much. The Tree Tops Restaurant was tucked away in a corner of the Garden Centre, a conservatory with good cushioned seating and excellent service. The clues were there - more than half the tables were reserved. The Tree Tops turned out to be one of the best eateries we've tried in a long time. I had Bree and Onion quiche, very tasty, but we finished with the home made scones. There is a notice in the cafe that warns about the scones. You can only have them in the restaurant, not take away, because of high demand. I had a cherry and almond scone, Sarah had lemon and ginger. We had half each and could not decide which was the nicer. Wonderful. This is a place we will come to again, and we will divert off our route to get here. It will certainly bring us back to Darley Dale, with the caravan, for another DA meet.

I'm writing this before venturing out into the Bank Holiday traffic. The sun is shining. We're weighing up all the options for avoiding traffic. There are few. It could be a long journey home but whatever, it will have been worth it.

Sunday, 19 April 2015


With Sheila Kiggins outside Camping and Caravan Club Offices
Back from an exciting week in London. If there is a down side to any caravan holiday it is most often the journey home. This time was different, though. We called into Camping and Caravanning Club HQ in Coventry for a chat with the lovely Sheila Kiggins. Now, if there are two things I can talk about forever it’s Caravanning and Science Fiction, and you can read all about our talk on Sheila's Club People page of Camping and Caravanning Magazine, scheduled for the July edition.

Before the journey home, though we had a wonderful five-day stay at the CCC site in Chertsey, which we used as a base for coordinating two key things: For Sarah it was the set-up for this year’s SBA exhibition in Central Hall Westminster. (I helped. I carried stuff, and I suggested things like, put the big painting here and the little one there, and the artists smiled and patted me on the back and then did it the other way, the right way, without hurting my feelings.) Then, a couple of days later we were back for the exhibition opening, where the excellent Matthew Biggs of Gardener’s Question time was the celebrity guest.  For me, the big event was my first visit to the London Book Fair at Olympia. I hadn’t appreciated just how big this event was. I had my smart phone step counter switched on and realized later that I’d done nearly seven miles walking around the exhibition space. Seven miles! I kid you not, I got blisters. I went to some of the free seminars and also had a long and fruitful talk with the KDP people, amongst others, and have something interesting simmering away for release in the not too distant future.

The site at Chertsey is lovely. We've stayed there several times in the past, and this time we had a pitch that was only two or three feet from the banks of the Thames. Very restful. Getting into London, though. Sheesh! I hope nobody read my last Travelling in a Box post, because if you did, then I apologize. I led you astray. I claimed the train from Walton-on-Thames to Waterloo was cheap, using an Oyster card. It appears that the train from Walton-on-Thames is neither cheap nor within the Oyster zone. On weekdays there are staff on hand to do the wrist slapping. I won’t go into transport-geek details, but we think the best way to keep the price down is to buy return tickets to Surbiton, online in advance, and use a rail card to get some discount. If anyone has a cheaper plan that doesn't involve a day of cycling, walking or canoeing down the Thames, I'd love to hear from you.

A stay in Chertsey is not complete for us without a meal in the Kingfisher, just over Chertsey Bridge. We went there on our final evening. We love the place. Good food, rustic charm and not too expensive. A successful week, and one that had us on the go, every day. Now we just need to book a site where we can go for a rest.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Season Opener - Oxford

We collected our caravan from her pre-season service, in Derby, then took her on a short tour of all the more interesting roadworks. We were heading for Oxford, and what we imagined would be a short hop turned out to be a bit of an epic. A50/M1. M1/M6/A14. Two lots on the A443. Then the show-stopper, an almost two-hour delay on the M1 waiting to join the A34/M1 junction. Lovely.

A so-so photo of Radcliffe Square enhanced beyond all recognition and without prompting by Google. Thanks guys.
So we arrived at the Camping and Caravanning Club site, in Oxford, a little later than expected and a little more irritable than expected, but after a rushed pitch we headed out for the city. The walk from the site along the banks of the Thames, right into the middle of Oxford, is lovely. Didn't want to have to wait a whole day for it, so we set off in gathering twilight and walked back in the dark. Long enough in the city for a coffee and to get our bearings.

Saturday was a full day in Oxford. This was, for me, a day of academic study and learning. By study and learning I mean sitting in coffee shops amongst students and acquiring intelligence by osmosis. It was very much a mooching-around day with no agenda, but for February the weather was kind and Oxford is a fabulous city, and boasts some of the country's last remaining real bookshops. What more can you ask? Well, you could ask for an old ham, and even here Oxford delivers. The world's oldest ham, in fact, hanging in a butcher's in the market, with a certificate to prove it.

On Sunday London was top on the itinerary. We were unsure whether we should use the excellent Oxford Tube bus service or just drive to an outlying station. Our decision was made for us by our cargo, namely five framed paintings and twenty prints, to be delivered to Central Hall Westminster for one of @Flowagirl's  upcoming exhibitions. Not so easy on the bus, so we drove, instead, to Walton-on-Thames station where parking is free on a Sunday (and the trains cost buttons on Sundays with Oyster cards, too). We weren't in a rush. Couldn't drop the pictures off until four-thirty and didn't want to be hanging around London in the rain with half-a-ton of art, so I promised @Flowagirl a relaxing lunch in a posh eatery in this very posh part of Surrey, and took her to the cafe in Morrison's supermarket for two chicken Tikka's for not much more than a tenner. But come on, it was a posh Morrison's.

We came home on Monday, but only after a little reminder that February is still winter, when all the taps froze up on the site, and guess who forgot to fill the aquaroll between coming back from London and going to bed? There was enough water for Sarah to have a shower, but I had to pong until we got home. I could have used the site showers, but why waste the chance to feel just like a kid on holiday again?

So, a successful start to the year. I would highly recommend Oxford as an off-season site, and it's open all year round.

Where next? I love this. A whole year beckons.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

2015 Caravan Season – The Prologue

So this doesn’t really count. The caravan season hasn’t started, not properly. Then again, we did hitch up the ‘van and tow her for nearly a hundred miles today, but we’re not staying with her. No, it’s that time of the year when she has to go in for her annual service. It’s hard doing all the packing and hitching and towing, and then not getting that first cup of tea in a grassy field by way of a reward.

To ease the blow, we decided to make a day of it, so after leaving our Sally Swift with the gentle folk of Derby Caravans, we did a spot of early season National Trust bagging with a visit to Kedleston Hall. This was a new NT for us, and we had to ask ourselves, why haven’t we been before. Because it's wonderful, and it’s not that far, really.

At this time of the year they are doing the conservation stuff, a little like the thing we are doing with Sally Swift, waking the hall up from a long winter slumber, rubbing her aching joints, prepping her in readiness for the 100k visitors who will trample across her 250 year old carpets for the next nine months or so. In many ways it is more interesting to see the nature and scale of this task than it is to see these old homes fully open and performing.

I have to admit, I struggle with the history. This might seem to be a bit of an odd admission from someone who’s been a member of the National Trust for fifteen plus years, but I will be honest, I find it hard to be moved by time and history and stuff, and I think it is because I just can’t get the time scales into my head. It’s too much. Too many years.

Then I start to wonder about how the hall might have looked back in 1765 when it was new. The marble floors were perfect and unmarked. There would have been a smell of paint and fresh plaster everywhere, a little like going into a Wimpy show-home but factored up a bit. The park would be, I don’t know, bare? Grassy with a few sapling oak trees scattered around, maybe with little cages around them to stop the wildlife nibbling. There are probably piles of building materials scattered around the yard, wooden scaffolding waiting to be collected by the local builders merchant. Everything is clean and new. This kind of imagining helps me some. I usually look at a National Trust home as being an old house where rich people once lived. But today I tried to see it differently, because for some of those rich people, Kedleston was once a modern home; empty bright rooms waiting for the first items of furniture, the first curtains to be hung, and the first ever logs to burn in the grate. Wow.
The domed ceiling above the saloon with its glass oculus 
Had to include this, because if ever I need to describe a very scary alien...