Thursday, 22 December 2016

Hoovering the Garden

The world is insane. I am insane. If anyone had told me, a few years back, that I would spend a day driving around garden centres looking for a spare part so I could hoover my garden, then I’d have suggested locking them away in a room with all the sharp edges removed.

But yes, I am sad and shallow and I want to hoover my garden. There are leaves. Many leaves. And because I am idle I have a Flymo GardenVac, and the shredder thingy has snapped, (see photo) so I need to buy a new one. It is a standard consumable, just a bit of plastic wire, and they tend to snap and need to be replaced from time to time. I could buy one from Amazon but I could really do with it now and the mini-helicopter delivery system isn’t quite ready yet.

“We’ll have to go to a garden centre,” I said.

A reasonable thing to say. Garden centres have garden stuff, don’t they? Well, apparently not. Garden centres have nothing for gardens. They have Santa’s grottos and they have overpriced clothing and ornaments and wicker furniture and wooden plaques with motivational slogans. They have bad joke books and books with photos of the British coast from the air. They have kitchen equipment in jaunty bright colours that cost three times the price of the old kitchen equipment that used to come in perfectly acceptable stainless steel. They have bird boxes, and sacks of bird food that costs more than supermarket muesli (but probably tastes the same). Or I could buy a little basket with two jars of jam nestling in a bed of paper straw. Why? Why the hell do I need jam in a basket? What do I do with the basket afterwards? And what about the little red and white paper covers held over the vacuum-sealed lids with rubber bands: why do I need paper lids on the jam? Why? Do they make the jam taste better?

And before I’m done with my garden centre visit, as I’m striding with a purpose towards the exit, I could pause by the DVD rack and pick up a black and white WWII DVD or one about steam trains or Fred Dibnah, each carefully cropped to fit a square TV screen, to remind me about how good things used to be in the old days.

You remember the old days?

The days when you went to a garden centre to buy garden stuff!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A Trip Around Cardiff Bay

As a diversion from my usual caravan posts I'm admitting here and now that sometimes I go to the dark side and stay in hotels. I had the chance of free rail travel down to Cardiff and it is very hard to take a caravan on the train. So yes, I'm a traitor to the cause. But Cardiff is such a lovely city to visit that I'm sure we'll do it again, and maybe next time we will take the 'van. Mind you, in December it was very nice to have a warm room and someone to make the bed and bring clean towels each day.
I love the way the low sun hits this water feature in Roald Dahl Plans.
It has been a few years since we last visited Cardiff, and I hardly recognised the area around the station. New buildings have gone up all over the place. There are two huge indoor shopping centres, but the character hasn't changed at all. Linking the main streets there are still plenty of the narrow covered arcades full of fascinating and different shops.
Looking across to Mermaid Quay and all the eateries.
The highlight of our visit, though, was Cardiff Bay. It's about a mile to walk, but the train from Queen Street Station takes you there in under ten minutes. Head for the copper clad Millennium Theatre and the fabulous water feature in Roald Dahl Plass. Then there's a path to the left that goes right out to the barrage and over to Penarth. The sun was shining on the day we visited and it really is a fabulous walk, even in December.
Home of the Welsh Assembly, The Senedd.
The walk goes past the front of the Welsh Assembly building, The Senedd. We didn't go inside on this occasion, but we did on our last visit, and it's worth doing just that, if only to admire the fabulous ceiling of red cedar that mushrooms up from above the debating chamber and ripples in waves across the ceiling and outside to form the huge porch. There's a viewing gallery above the chamber, and the whole interior is a wide, light and airy space, where you can just sit and admire the whole thing. 

This is how to do public seating. A tribute to Roald Dahl.

Back on the walk there are plenty of reminders that Cardiff is proud of its association with Roald Dahl. Not only is the square in front of the theatre named after him, but the Norwegian Church where he was christened still stands (and is a good place for a coffee) and now and again you might come across other memorials, such as the crocodile and bench, part way around the bay walk. 
We are also reminded that Captain Robert Falcon Scott set sail on his ill fated exhibition to the South Pole from Cardiff - another link with the Norwegian Church - and there is a memorial to Captain Scott and his Terra Nova crew, part way around the bay.

And of course there's Doctor Who. All I will say here is that the Doctor Who Experience is fabulous. If you want to know more you should take a look at my scifi blog, here.
Yes, okay. Daleks. (I'm a SciFi writer, so of course I'm going to mention Doctor Who) Terry Nation, who created the Daleks, came from Cardiff, and the Doctor Who Experience, right on the Cardiff Bay walk, is a must see exhibit.

 A brilliant visit, but the caravan is calling once more. Let's get Christmas out of the way so we can get back on the road.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Two in a Box

Moreton-in-Marsh: Full of autumn colour
I sometimes think the caravan can be more fun in the winter than in summer. Back in the days of failed heating, zero insulation and ice cold, hand numbing tap water I might have argued the other way, but winter caravanning, now, is good. It is warmer and more cosy in the caravan that at home.

We headed for the Cotswolds. I had a sci-fi convention to attend in Bristol and I need no further excuse.

But that was the end of October, early November. Today is 29th November, so why only talk about it now? Well, I’ve had a project. I’ve been preoccupied with NaNoWriMo.

What is NaNoWriMo?
It’s short for National Novel Writing Month and it comes around every November, and it is a kind of challenge, to write a fifty thousand word novel in the thirty days of November. It’s supported by websites and a buddy network and graphs. (I can't resist graphs. Graphs plus writing: sign me up.)
Well, I’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before. It’s been on the to-do list for years. Maybe this is the year to start. 

“I’m going to try NaNoWriMo,” I said. 
We were in the caravan at Moreton-in-Marsh. Outside was dark, nearly freezing and only five o’clock.
“What’s NaNoWriMo?” said Sarah.
I explained.
“You’re going to write a full novel in November? The whole thing?”
“No. Not a novel. Something else.”
“I can’t write the third Sphere of Influence novel because I need to edit the second book first. The story might change.”
“What are you going to write then?”
Two in a Box.”
And that’s how it started. I’d never intended Travelling in a Box to be a series, but then the book did come to an end in 2001, and I suppose a lot of stuff has happened since then: problems with the old caravan after it started to bend, arrested in Chamonix, losing part of the car in Belgium… and the whole family growing up and moving out thing. Yes, there’s at least one other book there.
So I pulled out the laptop and started, on that dark cold night in Moreton-in-Marsh, two thousand words a day, my target.

And here I am, at the end of November, the proud owner of a NaNoWriMo badge and fifty-thousand words of Two in a Box in the can. I’m not finished yet. I’m guessing another thirty thousand should nail it. But I imagine Two in a Box will be hitting Amazon early in the year. You heard about it here first. More news to follow in the blog.

Okay, so what of Bristol and the Cotswolds?

Loved it! Bristolcon was fabulous, as always. Nothing went wrong with our travel plans. Nothing fell off the car. Nothing broke in the caravan. Didn't need to hunt down any hospital A&Es... Lovely caravan sites, autumn colours were fabulous. Makes a rotten story when that happens, doesn't it? 

So I’ll just tell it in pictures:    
The village of Broadway
Broadway Tower

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Driving Lesson

I'm having to go around in my wife's car at the moment, for reasons I won't go into here.
Last night I came away from our Writers' meeting and found myself nose in to a parking space, in total darkness. It took me a couple of minutes to find the headlamps, but then came problem no. 2. Where is reverse? I know there's a little diagram on the gear stick, but it was dark, and of all the times I've driven my wife's car I've never had to do it in the dark, and I've never had to go backwards. I stirred away with the gearstick, grinding and mashing the gears, trying all the usual places, but I swear, reverse was just not on there. I'm not a mechanical simpleton. I've removed gearboxes and changed clutches in the front street. But this... Well I hope nobody was looking. They'd have seen the door open a crack. They'd have seen a leg sticking out and the car creeping backwards. I reversed out like driving a kid's pedal car. Oh the humiliation!
Yeah, I found where reverse was, this morning. It wasn't there last night, though. I swear.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Feast of Lanterns

Back home from the National Feast of Lanterns, the Camping and Caravanning Club's annual bash to celebrate the end of the camping season.
Had a brilliant weekend that finished with a rousing Last Night of the Proms Concert, delivered by the club band and the Malvern Male Voice Choir. A brilliant party atmosphere that was a fitting closer to to the weekend.

Before that, though, we had trade stands and live music and the part that is my own favourite, the Saturday night torchlight procession and the street scenes. This is were caravan form up in 'streets' and light up their units according to the theme of the weekend. This year the theme was The Movies, and as always there were some fantastic illuminated displays. Forget Blackpool lights, this is where the real action is. Remember this is all done with cardboard and fairy lights and loads of ingenuity. I've taken pictures of a couple of my favourites, but so many displays deserve mentions that it hardly seems fair to show just two.

This is the King Kong scene. It's hard to see it here but the best bit is the expression of surprise on the monkey's face.

I had to include this. First Encounters of the Third Kind. Atmospheric music, chasing lights, and the way the light cast a shadow of the aliens was just brilliant.

So next year the NFOL is off to Sussex and we plan to be there again. Can't wait.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The R(h)oss-on-Something Collection

We seem to have been doing a spot of Rhos bagging. Four in four months in fact. In May we visited Rhos-on-Sea, one of our favourite weekend getaways, with South Lancs DA. Then in June we spent a week at Rhosson Ganol, near St Davids for seaside holiday no.1.
Peace and quiet beside the River Wye.
In July we took seaside holiday No.2 in Weymouth, but broke the journey home with a stay at Ross-on-Wye, in the company of the friendly folk of East Worcestershire DA.

This was an insanely quiet spot. At night we lay in bed and listened to the sound of the fish jumping in the river.

Then, this last weekend we returned to Rhos-on-Sea, to Dinarth Hall Farm. This time our hosts were the East and West Yorkshire British Caravanners' Club.

So there we have it: Four Rhos-on-somethings in four months. Weird huh?

Rhos-on-Sea is just over an hour from home and we've taken to visiting the site every time a DA is on hand to run a holiday meet. It has become almost a second home these days.
Dinarth Hall Farm, Rhos-on-Sea. Lovely!
We have a favourite walk from the site into Llandudno, right along the seafront and over the Little Orme. This time, though, we broke with tradition and tried something new. We headed inland and found a route over the hills between Rhos and Llandudno. It started poorly, with Sarah lacerating her leg on a sentient and evil bramble, and we then followed a path that led us through a cowpat-infested quagmire, hemmed in between an impassable wall and an electric fence. Later we found that the fence wasn't plugged in, and we could have easily taken a dry line up the field. We'll know next time.
But then we came out onto the hillside, called Nant-y-gamar and it was all worthwhile for the views across Llandudno over to the Great Orme.
The route up to Nant-y-gamar

It was another lovely spot for a picnic and we didn't even have to share our sandwiches with the seagulls, who were all busily patrolling the beach.

While we were in Ross without an 'h' (on Wye) I saw that the DA were selling second-hand books to raise money for the air ambulance. I thought it would be nice to donate one of my own copies of Travelling in a Box. It seemed a good way to get the book out to caravanners and help a good cause at the same. The books seemed to go down well with the stewards; they were most enthusiastic.
So then, here in Rhos with an 'h' I noticed the BCC were also selling books, and also for the air ambulance (this time the Yorkshire version) and so again I gave them a couple of signed TIAB books. Again, the stewards were delighted, and said they would like to auction the books at their fund raiser in Ripon. Sounds brilliant. EWYBCC don't have a website so here's a plug for their five-day meet from 13th October at Ripon Racecourse (I hope I've remembered the date correctly). Lots of events. Lots of fun. Lots of money for a worthwhile charity. 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

A Real Summer in Weymouth

This week we’re staying on a holiday site at the rugby club in Weymouth, stewarded by Mike and Sue of Dorset DA. We’ve been here before and it is a terrific location within easy walking distance of the beach, the park and nature reserve, and a good supermarket that has a cafe with WiFi and very welcome air conditioning. Because it is hot! It is the sort of hot you’d pay lots of money for, and travel a thousand miles to find, and we have it all here in lovely Dorset. To think, a couple of days before we left home I was moaning about the British summer and debating switching on the central heating. A few hours and a couple of hundred miles and like caravanning on the Med. How jammy is that?

I mentioned “easy walk”. Well, I have a thing about about easy walks. On our first day we set off into Weymouth, paddled along the coast, through Weymouth town and beyond, because I wanted to see Sandsfoot Castle. I hadn’t seen Sandsfoot Castle before. We walked on and on, ignoring the most excellent live band that were playing on the harbour front. Ignoring the 80F sun that hammered down onto our heads.
“It’s just a bit further,” I said, again and again.
Weymouth Harbour. Could just as easily be the Med.
We found Sandsfoot Castle. We staggered into the nearest shade and slugged down drinks from the cafe. Did we go and look at the castle? Or the beautiful gardens? Not a chance. We’d staggered over six miles and we faced another six miles to get back. Too knackered to even photograph the castle, we set off on the return trek under the relentless sun. I think the castle looked good. It’s hard to tell when you’re delirious with heat stroke.
Hours later, back at the caravan, we made a pact. We decided it might be a good idea if we tried something new and unprecidented this week – if we tried doing what people usually do on holiday. Relaxing.

Bennett's Water Gardens. Just like Giverny but without the crowds.

So we’ve been to Bennett’s Water Gardens (in the car) and strolled around the cool, shady pools, rested on benches, watched the dragonflies and admired the water lilies. We had another day in Swanage, where we strolled along the prom, walked on the pier and had tea in tea shops. There, you see, we can be sensible. We’ve never been to Swanage before. It’s lovely. Sandy beach, warm sea. Interesting seaside shops.
We even managed to resist stopping off at Corfe Castle on the way through. Last time we clambered up to Corfe Castle the temperature was, like this day, up in the mid 80’s, so we thought, yeah, been there, done that. Don’t get me wrong, we loved Corfe Castle, but we’ll wait for cooler weather, I think. I don’t want to spend the rest of our week in A&E.
A Leopard 1 tank in action at the Tank Museum, Bovington

If you are visiting this part of the world a must-see attraction is the tank museum at Bovington. Check the web site first to make sure there are live action displays on the day you visit, because they are brilliant - lots of smoke and explosions and engine noises you can feel right inside your chest. But even away from the action, there is a huge amount to see, and we both found the Trench Experience exhibit to be eye opening, informative and very moving.
Only a few days left and lots more to see. This is our third visit to Weymouth and it won’t be our last.

This holiday is going well. They don’t always. Travelling in a Box is now available not only as a paperback and on Kindle, but also on iBooks and Kobo.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

A Postcard from Wales

Rhosson Ganol. Wish you were here?
Does it mark me out as being a bit old fashioned, that I send postcards when I’m on holiday? I could email or Instagram or put pictures on Facebook. Hell, I could just ring people. It’s not hard in this day and age.
It isn’t the same though. A postcard carries history. It feels travelled. A postcard will often bear the scars of a journey and adventure: the words might be smeared by rain; the corners are often tatty and dog-eared; the postman might have left some of his breakfast on the picture on the front. Often times the stamp will be postmarked with a blurry ink-pad logo that has missed the stamp and obliterates half the words. If you’re lucky it will have been lost and found and postmarked twice. All of this is evidence that you are far far away. Somewhere remote… On Holiday!

Postcards are hard to write. You sit in the coffee shop, pen in hand, and decide who will write to whom. “I’ll do the kids, you do the parents, yeah?”
“What are you going to write?”
I wonder how many cards I’ve written over the years that start ‘Having a great time’ while the rain softens and delaminates the card and the ink blooms and spreads.
But we always write them. It wouldn’t be a holiday otherwise.

We’re in St Davids, in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales. (Actually I’m back home, reminiscing. No internet in St Davids! But hey, I’ll stay in the present just to maintain the illusion).

I’m leery about divulging the name of the site, because this is probably the best campsite in the world. It certainly has the best view. But here goes, at the risk of scuppering things for years to come when we can’t get on because it’s fully booked, our site is called Rhosson Ganol, and it is just west of St Davids overlooking the St Justinians lifeboat station. It is a small piece of heaven. There are no electrics, there is no mobile signal, it isn’t flat, but it is lovely.

There is a postbox. (See picture) It’s a good thing. St Davids is about four miles away, and to use the car feels like cheating. But it’s good. This is all the civilisation we need on holiday: a tap, an Elsan point and a postbox.

We finished our cards and strolled down the lane so they’d catch the morning collection. Sarah climbed through the nettles beside the wall and tried to post the cards. They wouldn’t go in. She tried again. Some kind of obstruction.

Then the air went black.

It seems our postbox has become a bees nest. Or it might have been wasps, some evil, buzzy, stingy thing for sure - we didn’t hang around for entomology or apiology or whatever.

We walked to St Davids.

More camping and caravanning tales can be found in  the Travelling in a Box paperback/ebook.  To buy a copy, take a look at the web site, 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Insurance in the Age of Steam

I was reminded by someone at work, today, just how easy life has become with the internet.
“Oh, my car insurance just ran out,” she said. “I’d better renew it.”
She went online and five minutes later she was done. Easy.
I recalled the time, a few years back, in the eighties. Eek, that was thirty-odd years ago! Hard to believe.

We were camping. We had chosen a site miles from anywhere, up in the mountains behind Harlech, in North Wales. It was raining. Some things don’t change.

“The car tax runs out at the end of the week,” I said, looking at the disc on car windscreen. There was little else to look at. Beyond the windscreen there was mist. We were sitting in the car because we needed a change from lying in the tent; letting the oxygen run down to our feet for a change.
“Is it a problem?” said Sarah.
“Nah, we’ll be home in a few days. There’s no need to—”
And I stopped. We always renewed our MOT and car insurance a couple of weeks ahead of the car tax to be on the safe side. You can’t get a tax disc unless you have MOT and insurance, and in those days we didn’t have anywhere to park off-street. I’d been caught out once before, incurring fines and points and humiliation even though I’d been honest and never driven the car.
I rummaged through the glove box and, sure enough, our insurance expired a few days before we’d come away.
We had to renew it.

These were the days before mobile phones, never mind internet. We set out on foot to the nearest phone box, about four miles away. At least we knew where it was; we’d used it on one of the many occasions that we’d broken down in this valley.
Did I mention, it was raining?
I suppose we could have waited until it stopped, but we’d been there, soaking up rain, for the best part of a week and it had shown no inclination to stop up to now. Also, it was Friday afternoon. Insurance companies closed for the weekend in the good old days.
So yes, we walked, in our not-very-waterproof waterproofs, and we got wet.

You can fit two people in a phone box. It’s cosy, but on a wet Welsh afternoon, cosy is good.
This was a phone box with two buttons, A and B, marked in big white letters. I didn’t understand the principle then. I’m glad I don’t have to understand it now. Whichever order you chose to press the buttons the general idea was that you pumped prodigious quantities of silver into the heavy black box and you got to talk for about thirty seconds before the phone started beeping at you with insatiable hunger for more.
“Hello, XYZ Insurance here.”
“Oh, hi. My name’s—”
Beep beep beep.
Insert cash. Press button A. (or B?)
“Yeah, my name's Mike Wood and I need to—”
Beep beep beep.
It is a painful process. We fed the beast and watched our supply of change dwindle. We were put on hold. We were cut off. We dialled again and had to wade through the formalities of name, reason for calling, redirect, beep beep beep, several more times. The inside of the box got hot and the glass steamed up. Hearing was difficult with the rain hammering on the glass. The wind somehow managed to rock the whole structure, even though it was built from glass and girders and buried in concrete.
“Insurance? Would that be household insurance? Life insurance? Buildings ins—”
“Car insurance! I need to renew! I need to pay you money!”
We were down to our last ten pence. I was on the edge. My sanity was about to burst out of the phone box and make a break for it.
But I’d reached a sensible person.
“What’s the number of your call box?”
I read it out. Not easy because some of it was hidden under the graffiti. Who walks a gazillion miles with a can of spray paint to vandalise a phone box in the middle of nowhere?
“Okay, I’ll—”
Beep beep beep.
But yes, she rang us back. Ten minutes later and we were insured. Broke, but insured.
It would have been nice to drive back, but the car was with the tent, so we walked. In the rain. And the wind.
We live in an age of miracles and wonders. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

More camping and caravanning tales can be found in Travelling in a Box. And for a limited time only (until 14th June) you can get the e-book for just 99p (or 99cents in the US). To buy a copy, take a look at the new web site, 

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Art and Kites in the Chilterns

Not much of a slope but with special, super-lube mud
it was too much of a challenge for our 4x4 Kuga.
Each year we help with the set-up for Sarah's SBA Botanical Art exhibition, and we’re always on the hunt for a new base away from the noise and rush of London, somewhere to relax and wind-down after all the noise and rush of the capital. This time we stayed in the Chilterns, at the lovely Cholsey Grange CL site.

The drive down was easy. Glorious sunshine all the way. As we neared the Chilterns the clouds began to gather.

We arrived in the rain.

Ted, the site owner, warned us the field might be muddy, and he was waiting to help us onto the pitch. A good thing, too. My attempts at using the motor mover for the last bit of fine tuning to our position, failed when all it achieved was to drive the jockey wheel deep into the mud and to scoop out two neat holes for the ‘van's wheels, all ready for more fun when the time came to pack away a few days later.
Red Kite. Small image to conceal
fuzzy focussing
An exciting start to our visit.

The views from the site are lovely. There are Red Kites flying overhead. The only time they disappeared was when I took my camera out. I’ve included one fuzzy picture just to prove that I at least tried. The site offers free WiFi, which was much appreciated and something I've never come across on a CL before.

Lovely sunrise on Monday

There were plenty of walks around the site, and we did have some time to explore on the first day, but not enough, because we were here on a mission. Our trips into London involved early starts on both days, but at least we were able to enjoy some impressive dawn colours while munching our breakfasts.
A misty start to Tuesday morning

We’re still trying to figure out a way of getting into London itself without having to sell the house and indenture the children into the chimney sweep profession to afford it. (The kids are in their thirties, now, so they'd probably put up an argument, anyway.) This year we elected to drive to Amersham, park at the station then use the Oysters to travel in. Here’s what I learned: Peak hour ends at 9.30 am, and then runs 4.30 until 7.00 pm. Outside these times the costs are manageable. Travel during these hours, as we did in error, and yes, you do need to sell the house and if you have young children they need to adopt a fake, Dick van Dyke cockney accent and learn the words to a few songs, like Chim-chiminee, chim-chiminee, Chim-chim-cheree.

Another thing I learned this week: I found out how much work is involved behind the scenes of a big art exhibition. I always thought it was just hanging pictures on a wall, but no, they have to be numbered to match the catalogue. They have to be arranged so they look good on a wall. They have to be carried.
This is how the exhibition room looked before we started.
By the time we left the walls were full of exquisite
paintings and soon the room will be packed with visitors.
There are stickers with bits of information, and these have to be stuck on the wall next to the correct painting, and they have to be straight. The glass on the paintings has to be polished to get rid of all our finger prints. Polishing 600 plus paintings is no picnic, believe me.  There’s also a shop to be created from nothing, and the extra heap of work involved in doing that job is another thing I'd never appreciated before. I’m only mentioning the things I know about. While we were working a whole army of helpers were doing other things to make it all come together. Next time you visit an art exhibition take a look at the number stickers and ask yourself who stuck them all on, and don’t be too harsh if some of them are a bit wonky.
Even better, visit this one. The SBA exhibition,  Shape Pattern, Structure.  It's on now until 23rd April at Central Hall, Westminster. If you spot any misaligned info stickers next to any of the paintings they're not mine.

As hinted. The pack away was not good. It has been a long wet winter. Lots of rain equals lots of mud. Our trusty 4x4 Kuga didn't have the grip to reverse up to the towing hitch. It is hard to line up the approach when you're car is skating around like Torvill and Dean having an off day. We did Ted a favour, though. We took some of his mud home with us - on my jeans, on my wellies, in my wellies, all over the car, all over the front of the caravan...  that we'd polished and cleaned just five days earlier!

A good few days away but right now I need another caravan holiday for some rest and recovery. But I have to get the hose pipe out first.

Travelling in a Box, the book, available on Kindle and paperback.