Spot the Difference

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Can you tell what it is yet?

The observant ones amongst you may have noticed that Wilma has had a bit of a facelift, grown a little and even changed colour. So what happened? Well, Wilma is no more… welcome to our new addition, Sally!

Why the change? Well, having actually lived in Wilma – through sun, rain and wind – for the last 10 months, we found that there just wasn’t enough space for us, Jack and all of our respective kit (Jack packed so much!) It wasn’t too bad during the summer months when we predominantly lived outside the van but on rainy days, or during these long autumn and winter nights, poor Wilma just didn’t offer enough room to live in any degree of comfort.

We started to come to this conclusion a while ago and in fact back in October, when we were in the New Forest enjoying the glorious autumn, we thought that we’d “nip up” to the NEC to the Motorhome & Caravan Show just to get an idea of what sort of van layout would suit. A bonus for attending the show was to buy some new awning pegs as our existing ones were either missing or bent.

Living in a space for some time – any space, whether on wheels or static – gives you a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, so we had a good list of “must-haves” for a new van, the main one being space – both to move around and to store everything away in cupboards, drawers etc. rather than just dumping stuff in the footwells or on the bed which of course necessitated moving said items when we needed to drive anywhere or go to bed!

Wilma was 6 metres long and just over 2 metres wide and there’s only so much you can pack into such a relatively small space. When we ordered her the biggest consideration of all was that she had to fit on the drive (by the way vans, like boats, are generally regarded as being female, hence the “she” and “her” references) and therefore 6 metres was absolutely as big as we could go. Now though, without having to worry about fitting on a drive, size wasn’t so much of an issue, within reason of course.

It was a busy and exhausting day at the NEC but, having looked at several models (we’d already made a shortlist) the one that stood out, hands down, above all others was the Adria Coral Plus 670 SL – a “proper” motorhome (rather than a van conversion) whose dimensions of 7.5 metres long and 2.3 metres wide gave a vast amount of additional internal space.

A great place to buy a motorhome is from a show because there are some great deals to be had and before we knew it we were in discussions over tea and battenburg cake about part-exchanging Wilma and buying the Coral! 

Hours of discussions and a fairly sleepless night later we decided the following morning to accept the deal and go ahead with changing vans. At the time, we were told that the delivery time would be 2-3 weeks, which would be ideal as we still had some things to do “down south.” In the event it turned out to be nearly 8 weeks which was a bit frustrating but finally we were able to collect our new home-on-wheels from The Motorhome Depot in Redditch and start the amazingly arduous task of finding where to put everything!

Over the last few days we’ve gradually grown into her and got used (nearly) to where everything is. Staggeringly, we’ve got the same amount of stuff that we had in Wilma and now can’t believe how we managed to fit so much into such a small space! The key difference is that we can now get at everything very easily whereas before, things were packed in boxes on top of other boxes behind bags… with the result that most of the time we just didn’t bother going there. In fact, when we were moving out of Wilma I found clothes I didn’t even remember packing!

Our memories of Wilma will always be incredibly fond. We’ve had some amazing adventures with her and been to some wonderful places. She was a brilliant van and still remains a top choice for short to medium term touring but to live in for an extended period she was just too cramped, for us at least (I know of one couple who long-termed in a VW campervan – now that is brave beyond belief!)

So why name our new van Sally? In the past we’ve always used names that were acronyms: “TILLY” (Two Idiots Living Life Youthfully); “WILMA” (Wandering Idiots Living Many Adventures) but “SALLY” is actually just a name – inspired by Wilson Pickett’s song Mustang Sally (or as Annie says “Must ‘ave Sally” incorporating the lyric “Ride around Sally…” which is what we certainly intend to do!

And we never did get the new awning pegs when we went to the NEC!

(For more details on Sally click here)

The Sites We Have Seen…

One of the things about full-timing in a van (we prefer that phrase to “living in a van” with all the connotations that phrase brings) is that we get to see an awful lot of campsites. Thankfully, that’s “an awful lot of campsites” rather than “a lot of awful campsites.” 

Unlike the more enlightened Scotland, it is illegal to wild camp in England and Wales. Wild camping is the ability to pitch up anywhere – generally in a scenic location – and be completely off-grid. The added benefit of this of course is that it’s completely free and you are able to stay exactly where you want rather than on a site maybe a lot further away. We enjoyed the freedom of wild camping on a few occasions earlier in the year when we were up in Scotland. 

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Wild camping loch-side in Scotland

So whilst we’re ambling about anywhere outside of good old Scotters we have to find, and pay for a pitch on a “proper” campsite every night – which can soon start to eat into our funds!

We are members of both the Camping & Caravan Club (CCC) and the Caravan & Motorhome Club (CAMC) both of whom have a comprehensive network of sites across the country. Of the two, the CAMC have a greater number of sites (almost twice as many) in more diverse locations than the CCC, so we tend to prefer using CAMC sites wherever possible, particularly as their booking system is so much more straightforward!

The main benefit of using one of the Club sites is consistency – you pretty much know what you’re going to get on any site – although for some people this takes away the feeling of “real” camping and feels too regimented. I tend to think that the minute you move away from a tent you’ve already given up the idea of “real camping” anyway.

Both Clubs have a number of sites with no facilities i.e. no washblock with toilets, showers, laundry and even dish-washing available, so you have no alternative but to use your own in the van. We’ve stayed on a few of these no facility sites now and must say that they’ve been some of the most memorable and enjoyable. Having said that, after a few days of trying to wash under the dribble that passes for a shower in the van, where you have to be mindful of how much water you’re using (turn shower on, get wet, shower off, soap up, shower on, rinse, give up and grab towel) it’s wonderful to stay on a site with a washblock and luxuriate in a long, hot, powerful shower!

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Ebury Hill campsite near Shrewsbury – no facilities but what a lovely site

But sites with facilities cost money: typically anything from £19 per night in low season to £28-£30+ in high season. Now, compared to a hotel or even B&B this may seem ludicrously cheap but bear in mind we have to pay this every night so, taking an average cost of £22 per night x 30 nights = £660 per month, plus food, fuel, and of course, wine. 

Both Clubs, in addition to their main sites, have a network of smaller, privately run sites and this is where it gets interesting. There are vastly more of these small sites than the main Club sites, thereby covering an even greater variety of locations, and can be on farms, vineyards, marinas or simply in someone’s back garden! They only take a maximum of 5 vans and are much cheaper than the main Club sites – anything from £5 to about £16 per night. Quite a difference. 

As with the main Club sites, we tend to use the Caravan & Motorhome Club’s CLs (Certificated Locations) and the price difference comes from the facilities on offer. As an absolute minimum the site has to offer a fresh (drinking) water tap, and a chemical disposal point for emptying the toilet cassette, with its own tap for rinsing it out afterwards (the fresh water tap should NEVER be used for rinsing the toilet cassette for obvious reasons!) Pitches on these basic sites are generally just grass (although some may offer a form of hardstanding) and that’s all you get for your money. Moving up the CL cost scale, some offer mains hookup which allows us to use electric heating and appliances rather than gas, and at the top of the charts some CLs even have a dedicated fresh water supply to each pitch and possibly an on-site shower and toilet (although the quality of these varies wildly!)

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View from the door on a frosty morning whilst staying on a CL site in an orchard

In complete contrast to the consistency of the main Club sites, these smaller 5-van CLs are completely unpredictable in terms of what we’re going to get until we actually arrive, despite the descriptions given on the website or in the Club’s handbook which makes us wonder whether the glowing, 5-star reviews have actually been written by the owners, such is the difference in reality. 

Recently, we booked a four night stay on a CL situated “on a working farm …with magnificent views across the valley” according to the description on the website. When we arrived we were slightly dismayed to find that the site looked like it was once part of an old airfield and that our hardstanding pitch was the end of the old runway now mostly overgrown with weeds. I think the last time the Farm saw any agricultural action was the turn of the century (and I don’t mean the last one either) Occasionally, through the low-lying rainclouds you could just about make out the view down the valley – which probably was indeed magnificent if it could actually be seen. As if things couldn’t get any worse we awoke next morning to lashing rain which lasted all day. And it was our 12th wedding anniversary that day too which we had to spend sitting in the van just looking at each other (adoringly, of course)

At least the following morning broke fine and sunny although a severe frost had dusted the ground like icing sugar. The elusive “magnificent view” was obscured this time by a huge stallion just outside the window (though thankfully behind an electric fence) who was strutting around proudly displaying his manhood (or should that be horsehood?) anyway it was rather large and very off-putting! That was enough. With feelings of inadequacy I suggested we move on, which we did after eventually finding the site’s owner and paying our dues. 

In contrast, the next couple of sites – CLs again – were wonderful. One was in an orchard which was beautifully picturesque and had a great pub just down the road, but the next site was the best ever CL we’ve stayed on being part of a marina on the banks of the River Avon where we spent a very tranquil 6 nights (at only £14 per night, with hookup – brilliant)

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A beautiful CL on the banks of the River Avon

Although the smaller CLs can be eclectically brilliant there have been a couple of occasions we’ve arrived, looked at the site and simply turned around and left because it just didn’t look or “feel” right. 

Such is the fascinating unpredictability of living -er- full-timing in a van. 

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A fantastic sunset viewed from just in front of our pitch!

Cambridge

Whilst waiting for our new bank cards to arrive with Hannah, and her being around for us to actually collect them (see previous post), we decided to head to Cambridge – a city that neither of us had visited previously. 

This fulfilled two purposes; firstly, we’d get to explore this great city with its renowned academic heritage and secondly, Cambridge is on a direct line to Kings Cross station where Annie could meet up with Hannah, collect the bank cards and thus return us to solvency!

We stayed on the Camping & Caravan Club site situated just to the South West of Cambridge and within walking distance of the Park & Ride – our new found salvation for visiting cities after the parking hassles of Winchester. 

Cambridge is a relatively compact city which makes getting around and orientating oneself pretty easy. Its academic roots are everywhere; the numerous old college buildings juxtaposed with more modern structures and students, seemingly the majority of the population, screaming between lectures on various makes, models and vintages of bicycle with scant regard for any other vehicle, pedestrian or animal! Once at their destination the riders simply abandoned their steed, sometimes three or four deep, against the nearest fence as they scurried in to another lecture. The effect of this was that in the foreground of every magnificent building was this pile of multicoloured, rusting, metalwork which rather spoiled the overall visual effect. 

 

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Trinity College with piles of bikes rather spoiling the view

We were fortunate to visit on yet another gloriously sunny day which gave the honey-coloured buildings an almost luminescent quality and certainly showed the city at its best. It was interesting to think how many famous faces had trodden these streets and entered these buildings before us; Isaac Newton, Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig, Hugh Laurie, David Mitchell and of course Mel & Sue to name but a few. 

 

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Honey-coloured stonework shining in the sunshine. And look at that sky!!

Passing over the River Cam we stopped to watch some expert punting in action, although some of the punters (or is it “puntees” in this case) anyway, the people reclined in the boat had acutely embarrassed expressions on their faces as us paparazzi on the bridge seized the photographic opportunity afforded by the ongoing unseasonal sunshine to snap, video and selfie away at them as they floated about on the river whilst the “punter” (bloke on the back with the pole) tried to engage them in conversation. Sadly, none of the punters offered us a “You’ve Been Framed” moment by falling, hilariously, into the water so, disappointed, we moved on. 

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Embarrassed puntees being entertained by the Punter (Bloke on the Back With The Pole)

Certainly, Cambridge has something to offer everyone whether it be culture, shopping, entertainment or education and I’m sure we’ll return again. Although probably not for the education bit. 

After the wonderful excursion to Cambridge the previous day, a change of pace was required so a bike ride to Grantchester was in order. Another wonderful feature of the area was the multitude of cycle paths – we could have easily cycled into the city centre again but instead chose the more rural route out to this nearby village which, apart from sharing the name with the ITV series starring Robson Green, was otherwise unremarkable.

The following day was the main reason for hanging around the area – the excursion to London to meet up with Hannah and regain our financial freedom! Once again, due to having Jack, Annie made a solo trip but was there and back within three hours, such is the proximity to the capital.

The Cambridge trip was rounded off on our final day with a trip by train – all of us, including Jack (terrified) – on Hannah’s recommendation to visit the nearby town of Baldock (or Baldrick as we insisted on calling it) where we stayed for nearly 20 minutes before heading back. Sorry Baldock but you didn’t have much to offer!

So, mission accomplished: bank changed (VERY impressed with Nationwide so far) cards received and money all accounted for and accessible again. So, what happens next?

Well, watch this space for some exciting new developments…!

Going Nationwide

One of the downsides of living in the van is not being able to collect post easily. Before we embarked on this epic trip we set up a mail redirection with Royal Mail from our old home address to Hannah’s flat in London to mop up anything that may still be physically posted to us. Naturally we’ve gone paperless as much as possible and cancelled as much other stuff as we could to avoid mountains of post accumulating in her postbox, but nevertheless some things still need to be actually, physically sent by good old-fashioned mail. 

Like bank cards. 

We’ve been considering a change of bank for a while now and, whilst the sensible approach would have been to do it when we had a house, because we spent so much time preparing the house for rent (and we’re not sensible) we just never got round to it. Until now. 

Several friends and family members have recommended the Nationwide Building Society to us so after extensive online research to confirm their suitability we finally booked an appointment with a young lady called Jasmin at the “local” Winchester branch. 

Winchester is a lovely historic city with plenty of fine old buildings including a not too shabby cathedral but the driving and parking facilities are more suited to horse and cart rather than motorhomes. Parking was a nightmare and resulted in us being late for the appointment – annoying when we actually got up early (8am!!) to get there in plenty of time. 

Anyway, the appointment went very well – Jasmin was fantastically efficient and went through the various stages of initiating the switch of all our accounts over from Lloyd’s. All was looking good until we realised that the new bank cards would have to be posted to us – and subsequently redirected to Hannah. To make matters worse, we could only realistically collect the cards at a weekend and for the next two weekends after the transfer completes Hannah won’t be there!

So we’re currently in the slightly worrying position of seeing several thousand pounds of our money disappear from our Lloyd’s accounts without actually being able to see it in our new Nationwide accounts! 

We sincerely hope that once we collect the cards and can actually access the new accounts the money’s all sitting there waiting and we’re not ringing up Nationwide to have them say “Jasmin? Jasmin who? Sorry, we’ve nobody working here called Jasmin…”!

So in the meantime what else could we do, given that it’s autumn and the weather’s still glorious, but head to one of our favourite places – namely the New Forest where we spent several days enjoying walking and cycling from our pitch among the trees at the Setthorns campsite in the heart of the forest. 

Who needs money when you’ve got times like these?!

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Campsite in the trees
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The view from the door. Bit of a wild back garden!
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The bracken was looking splendidly autumnal…
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…and covered large areas of the forest…
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…but the trees still had a way to go
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On the way to Sway…
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Us, on our bikes, with Jack.

 

 

And so to Kent…

From London, in pouring rain and under filthy skies, we left Abbey Wood and headed to Kent – the so-called “Garden of England” – which was to be our next destination for the following three days.

The campsite we’d booked was the Caravan & Motorhome Club’s Broomfield Farm which, although being a main Club site, had no facilities i.e. no toilets or showers. Not a problem as we have both in the van and the benefit is cheaper prices: £14 per night rather than the usual £22-28 for a normal, full-facility site. When we have to pay for every night these fees really add up, so keeping the cost down helps us to save money to spend on other, more fun things. Like food. And, of course, wine!

In the end we actually stayed for ten nights as there was so much to see and do around the area. First up was meeting Annie’s sister and brother in law for lunch on Monday at the excellent local King’s Head pub in East Hoathly – just a short bike ride away. 

(As a complete aside – pub names always amuse me. It’s always things like “the King’s Head” or “The Forester’s Arms” etc. Why not other body parts? How about “the Queen’s Elbow” or “the Cricketer’s Kneecap” or maybe even “the Dustman’s Scrotum”?)

Anyway… other activities included several walks and bike rides around the area using the various footpaths, bridleways and quiet lanes surrounding the site. Jack has quite got the hang of trotting alongside the bikes as we ride along, albeit at his pace (slow!) rather than at a normal cycle speed, but at least we get to use the bikes.

No trip to this part of the county would be complete without a visit to the home of the Daily Mail’s Mr Angry: Royal Tunbridge Wells, and of course the octogenarian paradise of Eastbourne – both of which we spent a very happy few hours mooching around on a couple of gloriously sunny days. 

Here’s a few pictures to tell the rest of the story – first up, Tunbridge Wells:

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Some flowers on a building
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The Pantiles – a famous and exclusive area of RTW
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A sunny day in the park

And now.. Eastbourne:

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Beach huts. On the beach.
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Apparently, the windows are bi-focal
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Eastbourne still boasts a lovely pier
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The Promenade along the seafront
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The art-deco style Eastbourne Bandstand – the busiest bandstand in the UK apparently!

Special mention must go the fabulous Eastbourne Bandstand which proclaims to be the UK’s busiest, and looking at the calendar of events I’d have to agree. The stunning outdoor venue hosts an eclectic array of performances – including Queen, Abba and Bon Jovi tribute acts, firework concerts throughout the summer months as well as traditional afternoon concerts most summer Sundays. Great, so long as it doesn’t rain…

Finally, back to the site:

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A traditional Kent oast house – now converted into part of a home

And finally, on our last night at Broomfield Farm, a stunning sunset:

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End of another gorgeous day
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The sky was on fire!

 

 

 

On the road again…

So… we left you having just completed Scotland’s epic North Coast 500 route and, contrary to popular opinion, haven’t fallen off the edge of the world, got lost in the mountains or been eaten alive by midges. 

In fact it’s much more boring than any of those. 

One of the purposes of the Scottish trip was a test to see if we could live for extended periods in the close confines of the van before commencing our actual plan of living, full time, in the van for a year (at least) by spending the winter abroad and then coming back in the spring to find some seasonal work to tide us over the summer months (Europe, we feel, would be too hot in summer – especially for Jack)

So the boring bit entailed returning home to prepare the house for renting out to give us some income to fund, partially at least, our trip. 

Well, we’ve heard many people say “…so we rented the house out and went (wherever)” and it all sounded so simple. 

It’s not.

It took us the best part of three months, admittedly not working all day, every day, to empty the house of all the things we just didn’t need any more. We’ve never considered ourselves to be hoarders but the amount of stuff that came out of the loft, cupboards, boxes, the shed… In the end we were on first name terms with the guys at the local tip and most of the charity shops in the area!

Coincidentally Hannah (daughter), having finished uni and with miraculous timing secured herself both a job and a flat – ooh, sorry “apartment” – in London was the lucky recipient of as much stuff as we could dump on her give her, albeit taking 3 trips to London in a very full car!

Finally, having cleared the house, cleaned the house and secured some tenants we moved out on September 1st to begin our self-imposed exile. 

Thankfully, we have no fixed agenda or timescale to work to as, with everything that’d been going on with the house we’d completely forgotten about getting jack furnished with his Pet Passport so for 3 weeks we still had to be around home waiting for the various jabs to be administered. 

At last though, we bade a final farewell (for now) to the Midlands and headed down to London. London??! Yes, unbelievably there’s an amazing campsite right near the centre called Abbey Woods and it is indeed a little oasis of greenery right in the middle of the urban sprawl of south east London. The reason we were here was for Annie to catch up with Hannah for a birthday meal and with the train station only 5 minutes from the site getting into the heart of the metropolis couldn’t have been easier. 

 

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The lusciously green Abbey Wood campsite – in the heart of London!!

Unfortunately, as dogs aren’t allowed on the Underground and generally aren’t welcome in restaurants (unless they’re on the menu) I had a lad’s night in with Jack whilst Annie and the girls had a great night out at the Flat Iron restaurant in Covent Garden.

From London it’s onwards to explore Kent for a while before tunnelling over to France for the real adventure to begin…

Back to the Beginning…

After our buttocks had returned to their normal, relaxed state and the roads had returned to a state of general flatness, it was time to start looking for a place to spend the night. Seemingly, quite a few others had the same idea as many of the ideal wild-camping spots were already occupied, or had signs prominently displayed forbidding any overnight camping. So onwards we pressed discounting one option after another as being either already occupied, too close to the road, too sloping or otherwise unsuitable for spending the night.

Just as we’d decided to give up and head to the nearest campsite- which was still a way off – and try to blag a last-minute pitch we turned a corner to find a short track leading down to the side of a loch. What a find! This is what wild-camping is all about: a beautiful view on a beautiful evening with nothing but the sounds of local wildlife and the occasional passing juggernaut to while away the evening. Truly unforgettable. I was expecting at any moment someone to come and move us along because it was just too perfect and we shouldn’t be enjoying ourselves that much. But nobody came and it was perfect and we did enjoy ourselves too much.

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Loch-side wild camp
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What a view!

Next morning we awoke to start our final day of the trip. It was with mixed feelings that we left our Loch-side pitch and headed for Inverness, thus completing the loop we began nearly two weeks previously. On one hand we felt sad to have completed what we’d, primarily, come to do but on the other we felt strangely liberated – free from a fixed agenda and route and able, now, to go anywhere at our own pace, wherever that may be.

Shortly afterwards we rolled into Inverness and decided that a fitting end to the trip would be a photo of us and Wilma in front of the castle. Unfortunately, access to the castle grounds required a special pass which we didn’t have. It dawned on me that this was one of the special perks you’d get if you’d signed up to become a member of the NC500 club. We hadn’t and such a pass was not, understandably, included with our free map picked up from the local tourist office.

So that was it. Eleven days and five hundred and sixteen miles after setting off (looks more impressive written out that way) we had completed the famous North Coast 500 and it had certainly lived up to expectations.

If you like stunning scenery, fabulous beaches, warm-hearted people and of course, pies driving, I would urge you to go and experience it for yourself – it is something you will never forget.

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Map of the route (highlighted in yellow)

For further information, please click here