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…!