New Year – Van Style!

I’m not a fan of New Year – the annual excuse to let off yet more fireworks, make impossible resolutions and top up the food and alcohol levels from Christmas (actually, I don’t mind those bits)

For many years now we have spent new year’s eve just at home, normally watching a film or other televisual spectacle that doesn’t involve Jools Holland or anything that comes from north of the border wearing a kilt and saying “hoots mon” every couple of minutes (too many years as a kid watching Moira Stewart and her fellow Scots dancing around celebrating Hogmanay to the sound of accordions and bagpipes), then tuning in at the last minute to see the increasingly spectacular fireworks lighting up London’s skies and briefly toasting the year that’s gone and the one that’s to come. 

So no wild parties, no vastly overpriced meals out or standing amongst a crowd of thousands for hours on end waiting in a city centre for that last 10 seconds of excitement before spending hours trying to get home before sunrise. No, our New Years tend to be on the quiet side so spending it in the van was little different to normal. 

We were actually on a site just outside York – the Caravan & Motorhome Club’s Beechwood Grange site which, although lovely with easy access into York, is a bit of an oddity – for dog owners anyway. Billed as being “dog friendly” the site information then proceeds to inform us that dogs cannot be walked, or even carried down the approach road to the site because of it being shared with a stud farm churning out prize-winning donkeys (or thoroughbred horses as I believe they call them) The concession to being dog friendly was to have an area, on site, where dogs could be walked off-lead. Short of using a catapult (or dogapult in this case) there was no way we could get Jack off site for a walk without using the van, which rather defeats the object.

However, we were very pleasantly surprised on arrival at the site reception to be invited to a drinks & nibbles “do” on the great Eve itself. By the time we arrived there were already several other people in attendance and despite being warned by Annie beforehand not to go into “buffet mode” (i.e. stand by the refreshments eating and drinking everything in sight) I nonetheless gravitated to the snack table just to give things the once over. Pork pie in hand I was about to head for a handful of my favourite dry roasted peanuts when a young child appeared from nowhere and plunged its grubby hand into the bowl before scooping up a mouthful and heading on to the crisps. Appetite suddenly diminished I headed for more liquid sustenance instead. 

It was a great idea by the Club though and we got to chat to many people that we wouldn’t normally have seen as, it being winter at the moment, everyone tends to stay in their respective vans rather than sit outside and chat to passing campers. 

After clearing up what was left edible on the buffet table (whilst Annie was distracted chatting to the wardens) we headed back to the van to spend the rest of the evening as usual, popping a bottle of champagne at midnight to toast an exceptionally brilliant and eventful 2018 and welcoming what we hope to be an equally exciting 2019. Some plans are already in place for this year and all will be revealed shortly…

However you spent your new year we hope it was enjoyable and wish you a very happy and healthy 2019

Christmas – Van Style!

I’m not a fan of Christmas – the annual Festival of Excess which seems to begin earlier and earlier each year, so it made a refreshing change to experience the festive period in a more unconventional style for a change.

We had arranged to spend Christmas with our fellow motorhoming friends Josie & Dave who were similarly keen to break free from festive conventions and do something different. The chosen venue was Run Cottage Touring Park near Hollesley in Suffolk which was a beautiful (adults only!!) independent campsite only a couple of miles from the sea.

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Sally, on site at Run Cottage

Although the site wasn’t completely full there were a surprising number of people who obviously had similar notions to us as there was quite a mixture of motorhomes, caravans and camper vans, some of which had really gone to town with decorations – both inside and out. There were elaborately festooned Christmas trees, inflatable Santas, enough flashing and pulsating lights to put most mobile discos to shame and one van even had a “Santa Stop Here” sign outside. On an adults only site? Maybe nobody’s told him yet…

Our concession to yuletide decorations was to put a string of LED lights along the top of the cab. Inside of course, wouldn’t want to be too ostentatious now would we?

Our first night together, the eve before Christmas Eve as it were, was spent huddled over a huge baked camembert accompanied by various dippy bits and, of course a couple of drinks or two whilst catching up and planning the next few days.

The next day, Christmas Eve proper, dawned bright and sunny so a walk down to the sea was in order to blow away any lingering cobwebs from the night before and to get some exercise prior to the body-wrecking fare about to come. It was a wonderfully scenic and invigorating 8 mile walk enhanced no end by calling in at the (surprisingly quiet) Swan pub in Alderton on the way back before groping our way in the dark the last one-and-a-half miles back to the site.

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Christmas Eve night was spent in Josie & Dave’s van this time with more food and drinks on hand whilst discussing how we were going to actually tackle cooking the festive feast tomorrow.

As Josie is a vegetarian and neither Annie nor myself are fans of turkey, we’d elected to go for a joint of beef this year and, due to our oven being required for roast potatoes, this was to be cooked on the barbecue.

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The barbie all set up ready…
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Jamie Oliver eat your heart out!
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The joint…

Now, although we have a gas barbecue with the ability to reasonably regulate the temperature, you can’t approach cooking a joint the same way as you would a burger or couple of bangers because otherwise the outside would be charcoal before the inside was even thawed. The secret is to get the barbie up to temperature then put a perforated baking tray over the burners before placing the joint on a wire rack, getting a drink in hand and waiting…

Although I like my beef rare, after the suggested cooking time a good vet could have got the joint back on its feet so another drink and 45 minute wait ensued.

In the meantime, Annie & Josie were busily preparing the veg (and Josie’s nut roast) whilst Dave became master of the obligatory stuffing balls and pigs-in-blankets on his Cadac.

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Sprout-tastic!
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Pigs-in-blankets and stuffing balls

Eventually, it all came together only a few hours later than planned and we could all sit down around the table in our van, crack open another bottle of Champagne and enjoy Christmas dinner – van style. And bloody marvellous it was too! 

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The finished feast!

After finishing the “dinner” bit, we decamped to Josie & Dave’s for puddings, more drinks, silly games and general rib-aching hilarity.

What an absolutely fantastic day it was and I realised that Christmas can actually be enjoyable after all.

Bah humbug!

Season’s Greetings!

Christmas2018As that time of year has inexorably returned again, we find ourselves spending Christmas in an unusual way; not at home spending hours preparing for and eating a gargantuan feast before spending the rest of the day searching in vain for something vaguely enjoyable to watch on the TV that doesn’t involve Munchkins or so-called celebrities that nobody’s actually heard of trying their hapless hands at something that’s way out of their comfort, or indeed, capability zone; no, this year we will be having a simpler Christmas with the only concession to the season being a few mince pies, Baileys cream, a couple of bottles of champagne, maybe a few more bottles of wine than usual, a bottle of Southern Comfort, several dozen pigs in blankets (of course!) a good selection of savoury snacky bits (tv advertising does work, apparently) and a string of fairy lights. Oh, and our new van – our Christmas present to each other. 

However you are spending this festive period we wish you all a very happy Christmas and hope you have a wonderful new year. 

Thank you so much for following our adventures this year and we hope to share many more with you in 2019

Annie & Andy

 

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.