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

The Buttock-Clenching Bit…

After a very welcome rest day at Gairloch, arguably the most impressive part of the trip lay ahead – namely Applecross and the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle)

Up to this point, many of the roads had been single-track with passing places but still functioned as main roads with all manner of traffic passing along them. In places, the road widened to two whole widths (not a dual carriageway, just a “normal” road!) Such was the case leaving Gairloch where the road meandered alongside Loch Maree to Kinlochewe before shrinking back once again to minimalist proportions.

Typical single-track road with passing place
Typical single-track road with passing place

It was at Shieldaig where things became interesting. From here you could choose to uphold the status quo and follow the road along to Lochcarron or take your life (and the lives of whichever passengers you’d locked in the vehicle) in your hands and head to Applecross.

A large sign suggesting that caravans, learner-drivers and HGV’s should opt for the former route was prominently displayed at the turn and it wasn’t long before we could see why.

Initially, despite being a bit narrower and slightly more twisty-turny, the going wasn’t too bad, but things got really interesting at Applecross. Just in case a caravan/learner-driver/HGV had miraculously survived up to this point, another sign at the start of the climb out of the village warned them that impending doom would be imminent if they set tyre over this point.

Built in 1822 as a cattle drovers’ pass through the mountains, the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle in Gaelic) starts at Applecross, which is at sea-level, then rises – very steeply – to 2054ft at the summit before plunging, even more steeply down again towards Tornapress and Lochcarron, both of which are back at sea level. All this in about 7 miles!

Near the summit of Bealach na Ba (note the pockets of snow!)
Near the summit of Bealach na Ba (note the pockets of snow!)

We were promised spectacular views and buttock-clenching moments and wow, here they were! This was, without doubt THE MOST SPECTACULAR ROAD WHICH I HAVE EVER DRIVEN! Superlatives abounded at every turn although I think poor Annie held her breath for the entire duration!

Looking towards Tornapress from about halfway down Bealach na Ba
Looking towards Tornapress from about halfway down Bealach na Ba

Wilma is 6m (20ft) long and weighs 3.5 tonnes and although she performed superbly both climbing and descending the 1-in-5 gradients (20% in new money) I certainly wouldn’t have relished driving anything bigger over that pass!

I also have a new-found respect for cattle.

The Hills Have Pies

As our previous night’s camp was just up the road from Lochinver, the first stop of the day was to visit the Lochinver Larder – a legendary pie shop which has been featured in various BBC radio and TV programmes as well as in numerous magazines. In fact the place is much more than just “a pie shop” being also a restaurant, riverside bistro and coffee shop. The crowning glory of the place however is that you don’t actually have to travel hundreds of miles to sample their wares as you can actually order them by post! Having sampled their lamb and apple pies (two separate ones) we can certainly vouch for the fact that they live up to the hype: absolutely, hands down, without doubt, the best pies we have ever eaten.

Lochinver Larder - the best pie shop in the world. Ever.
Lochinver Larder – the best pie shop in the world. Ever.

From here the journey continued onwards towards Ullapool stopping briefly to admire, well, look at, Ardvreck Castle. As castles go, Ardvreck is a bit of an oddity. Normally, a castle is built either as a fortification to defend the surrounding territory or as a dwelling; a symbol of wealth and power. In both respects poor old Ardvreck falls a bit short. As a fortification it could probably only hold a garrison large enough to defend something the size of a football pitch and in terms of stately piles it’s about as impressive as a garden shed.

Ardvreck Castle ruin
Ardvreck Castle ruin

On the opposite side of the road however was a slightly more impressive waterfall which made up for Ardvreck’s shortcomings.

The slightly more impressive waterfall opposite Ardvreck Castle
The slightly more impressive waterfall opposite Ardvreck Castle

As ever, the scenery along the way lived up to – in fact, exceeded – expectations and we could see why people travel hundreds of miles (us included) just to experience driving on such a picturesque route.

The charming seaside town of Ullapool was up next where we lunched on some amazing mackerel pâté from the Seafood Shack, another well-documented foodie haven, before continuing on to our final destination for the day, and campsite for the night at Gairloch.

 

The Seafood Shack at Ullapool
The Seafood Shack at Ullapool

The route from Ullapool to Gairloch passes alongside the eastern shores of Loch Ewe – famous for the Arctic Convoys of World War 2 and still housing a military presence today with a large warship in dock and two more out on manoeuvres in the loch. An impressive sight, even at a distance. To avoid being inadvertently shot we decided not to hang around and continued onwards to the campsite.

The site we’d chosen was a couple of miles outside of Gairloch near a place called, appropriately, Big Sands. The site itself was simply called “Sands” (well, Sands Caravan & Camping Park actually) and it too lived up to its name sporting a fantastic beach and a mixture of pitches set amongst the dunes. We chose a slightly elevated pitch giving a wonderful view down Loch Gairloch and across The Minch to Skye in the distance. The weather had also picked up tremendously so it was not only sunny but actually WARM for the first time on the trip and necessitated the shorts being woken from hibernation and given the first airing of the season.

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Our pitch at Sands campsite, Gairloch

Later that evening we took a stroll along the beach and were treated to a most magnificent sunset. Happiness prevailed and we decided the next morning to take a break from driving and stay on at the site for another day which allowed us to just sit back and enjoy the place. One of the unexpected highlights of the site, for Annie at least, was the fantastic laundry, which we utilised to the full! Unfortunately, everyday chores such as washing are still prevalent when touring, so finding such a well equipped laundry, at a very reasonable cost, was a delight. Who says life on the road can become boring? We had industrial tumble-dryers to play with!

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Sunset over the beach at Sands campsite