Camping in a Back Garden!

Despite local enticement to stay, Moffat could only hold us for so long and the time came to move on again. So much had been said about how wonderful the Dumfries and Galloway area is that we decided to linger a while and explore more of this region. As we had no preconceived plans we decided to head west over towards the Stranraer area and then find somewhere to stay the night. Maybe we took a different route to the guide books but after the gloriously picturesque arrival into Moffat, the exit route was decidedly bland and about as scenic as the M6 through Walsall. Nowhere looked particularly appealing so plans were amended again and the scenic monotony of Dumfries & Galloway was abandoned as once more we headed north, this time towards Ayr.

Both the Camping and Caravan Club (C&CC) and Caravan and Motorhome Club (CMC) have, in addition to their main Club sites, smaller, privately owned sites (Certificated Sites and Certificated Locations respectively) which have only 5 pitches and more limited facilities. These are generally cheaper than the Club sites and range from working farms to vineyards. Or in our case a back garden. We had optimistically booked by phone from an entry in the CMC handbook which offered a hardstanding pitch, electric hook-up, wash block, and chemical disposal. All important considerations. When we arrived and turned in to what felt like someone’s driveway, we were met by a bewildered older gentleman who couldn’t have looked more surprised if we’d descended from the skies in a flaming chariot. Thankfully, the lady to whom I’d spoken on the phone rushed out to set our collective minds at rest and swiftly relieve us of the £15 pitch fee. Cash only thank you. The “hardstanding” was in fact the driveway next to their house which we politely declined in favour of taking our chances by parking down the garden on the lawn. Although I was a bit worried about sinking into the grass I was relieved to see there was another couple in a caravan across the way and since neither the van nor their car had sunk axle-deep into the turf I thought we’d risk it.

The facilities were basic but clean and for £15 a night (with electric) we couldn’t really complain but it was with relief all round next morning that we eased off the pitch leaving nothing behind but four deep ruts ploughed into the couple’s lawn as we departed.

Our pitch for the night – note the tyre tracks already!

Sunshine and Smalls

Today’s been brilliant. We awoke to mist over the mountains but with brighter skies behind. By the time we’d had breakfast, then morning coffee the weather was looking promising. Andy plotted a walking route from the site for a nice steady 3 or 4 mile walk up and around a hill (though it felt more like a mountain to me) We headed off and part way up the hill/mountain we sat for a rest. The sun was out and the skies had cleared to a beautiful blue!  A local gentleman approached and chatted to us a while. The people of Moffat seem lovely and friendly. After letting Jack catch his breath we carried on. The day got hotter and the skies more blue, it was just beautiful.

Day getting hotter and the sky getting bluer!
Day getting hotter and the sky getting bluer!

We decided after the walk to just enjoy sitting outside the van and soak up the sun (as it is a rare sight) and perhaps get some washing done!  After Andy had had his shower I trotted off to the laundry room, bucket of washing and washing powder in hand. As I hand washed our small load I chatted to another woman doing the same. We talked of our journeys, our life at home and our children. You can find out such a lot from a person while washing your smalls in a campsite laundry room! Back to the van I was excited to use, for the first time our little mini clothes peg gadget, (very sad, but it’s the little things that really count when living in van) and it is surprising how resourceful you become. Socks and smalls were beautifully pegged out and Andy’s tripod became the gadget holder.

Enjoying the sunshine at Moffat campsite
Enjoying the sunshine at Moffat campsite

It continued to be a lovely dry evening so Andy cooked salmon on the griddle pan on the little stove outside the van. Another 1st of the trip! However as the evening sun cooled eating indoors was the better option. Retrieving the washing that evening and finding it still quite wet I headed off to the laundry room once again to use the tumble dryer. £1 for a twenty minute drying time, I inserted £2 and left it to do it’s thing. Fifty minutes later I returned to retrieve beautifully warm dry clothes. However folding our underwear while chatting to a man hand washing his smalls was a little disconcerting to say the least. But hey, this is proper camping!!

Unfortunately, the promise of better weather was short-lived as the next morning dawned with heavy cloud and rain confining us to the van for most of the day. By evening though the rain had subsided and we managed to get out for a walk around Moffat town which, to be honest, felt a bit dismal in the miserable weather, but had the potential to be a more appealing place in the sunshine as there were several hotels, restaurants and quite up-market shops.

Moffat looking dismal
Moffat looking a bit dismal


Movin’ On Up…

Inevitably, the time came to move on from Pickering and continue our journey northwards so a route across the wilds of Northumberland was plotted – not by putting a postcode into the SatNav mind you but by good old-fashioned map reading by Annie, who is an excellent navigator, so off we headed across the moors in the general direction of Moffat – our next destination.

Crossing the border into Scotland we of course had to pull in to take the obligatory photo of the “Scotland” sign, artfully etched into a slab of rock leaving us in no doubt that we were indeed about to head into a different land.

Welcome to Scotland!
Welcome to Scotland!

What became immediately apparent as we continued our journey was that Scottish transport engineers use an entirely different approach to their English and Welsh counterparts when it comes to road building preferring, it seems, to use corrugated tarmac with regular basin-sized potholes thrown in to test your swerving abilities. I have never driven on such appalling road surfaces and by the time we got to Moffat we felt that every nut, bolt and filling had been shaken loose. I fully expected to open the fridge and find the milk turned to butter! Speaking to various natives over the next couple of days always produced nods of agreement with “Aye, the roads are a bit poor around here – but that’s nothing compared with what ye’ll find in Highlands” (note: read with heavy Scottish accent for best effect) The only saving grace was the scenery which was absolutely stunning even when viewed through the blur of vibration.

Stunning scenery just across the border..
Stunning scenery just across the border..

Moffat itself is a regular stop-off for motorists heading through Scotland and the locals, although thankful for regular custom, are always disappointed that most people, like a dodgy curry, are simply passing through and not staying to savour the delights of the area a bit longer. So we decided to stay for 3 nights and see what Moffat was all about.


A Day out in Pickering

Following the previous day’s trek, we decided to have a more sedate day visiting the delightful market town of Pickering which was just a short amble up the road from the site on a proper, level footpath.

Although it was Saturday the town seemed fairly quiet and the few people about were all unfailingly friendly and welcoming, as is the case in so many northern towns. Fewer people around is always an asset when we have Jack with us as there are less legs and feet for him to dodge around and less chance of him being inadvertently trodden on (mainly by me!)

Pickering High Street on a busy Saturday morning
Pickering High Street on a busy Saturday morning

Pickering itself has an eclectic mixture of local independent shops, cafes and bars and is thankfully devoid of the mainstream chain outlets that seem de rigeur in most other places, which just turns them into generic clones of each other. Not so here; butchers, bakers and probably even candlestick makers somewhere down a side street, all trade happily next to one another and the ubiquitous gift shops abound (one has to wonder how on earth they make a living?) together with Pickering’s answer to Bargain Hunt selling an unbelievable amount of tat goods you never knew you needed.

Bargain Hunt - Pickering flea-market
Bargain Hunt

The highlight of Pickering, for me at least, was the station. Not that I’m a trainspotter but this station is one end of the North York Moors Railway which still uses steam engines to run the majority of its scheduled services. Our timing was perfect as the 2pm service from Whitby was due to arrive shortly giving us just enough time to enjoy the ambience of the faithfully preserved station as it would have been when steam trains were the norm many decades ago.

Pickering Station - beautifully preserved
Pickering Station – beautifully preserved

Right on time (are you listening Chiltern Railways?!!) the distant whistle announced the imminent arrival of the puffing, steaming beast and, moments later, the engine chuffed its way into view accompanied by much snapping of cameras (mine included) and a tangible frisson of excitement from young and old alike.

The Arrival of the 14:00 from Whitby
The Arrival of the 14:00 from Whitby

There’s something magnificent and majestic about a steam engine – a living beast; a thing with a heart and soul which needs nurturing and feeding. So much more romantic and awe-inspiring than the 9:15 diesel Sprinter from Birmingham Moor Street.

A living, breathing, huffing, puffing beastie. And a train.
A living, breathing, huffing, puffing beastie. And a train.

Although the ride across the moors up to Whitby must be one of the most picturesque railway journeys in England, the £31 per person ticket price seemed a little too much for a couple of hours of self-indulgent nostalgia so we passed on that one in favour of a pork pie and vegetable pasty for lunch. Not quite as nostalgic but just as tasty.

A Walk on the Moors

After spending much of the previous day driving, the next day’s plan was to leave the van on its pitch and go for a long walk from the site. Although there seemed to be a number of footpaths leading off from the site, as Annie pointed out they would probably all be extremely muddy following the recent weather conditions. Good point. Plan B was to head up the road a bit to Dalby Forest and walk among the pines, so we packed the van up and drove the 8 miles or so up the A169 to the Dalby Forest Visitor Centre carpark where we were literally stopped in our tracks by the parking fees notice: £9 per day. That’s it. No option for a reduced fee for a shorter stay, £9 – take or leave it.

We left it.

Dalby forest is managed by the Forestry Commission, as are most woody places throughout the country, including our favourite location – the New Forest where ALL carparks (and there are many) are completely FREE. So unless the £9 entrance fee at Dalby Forest included complementary tea & biscuits on arrival, a sherpa to carry our bags and a foot massage at the end of the walk I cannot see the value in spending so much simply to park up for a couple of hours or so.

Instead, we drove on up the road a little further to a place called the Hole of Horcum in the North York Moors National Park where a large off-road carpark offered to relieve us of only £2.50 to stay as long as we liked. Still a little irksome but way better than £9!

A hand-carved map(!) on a board by the pay machine displayed the variety of routes which could be undertaken from this point depending on whether you preferred to use two feet, two wheels or four hooves. The walking route followed along a ridge that stretched off into the far distance before looping back round by descending into the valley and returning to the start. The weather was good, spirits were high and Jack was positively quivering with excitement. Or maybe he was just cold. Anyway, off we set.

Annie studying the hand-carved map of the Hole of Horcum
Annie studying the hand-carved map of the Hole of Horcum

As we were following along the top of the ridge and because the soil was sandy I was surprised to find that in places the path was still extremely waterlogged, which was testament to the sheer amount of rain (and snow) this area had seen recently.

Route across the moors
Route across the moors

However, this was nothing compared to what awaited us in the valley: footpaths of boot-sucking mud like molten chocolate, streams now gushing rivers, routes completely crumbled away necessitating clinging onto walls, fences and nearby sheep simply to remain upright. Progress was slow, muddy and painful.

Stream becomes a river
Stream becomes a river
At last - a dry bit!!
At last – a dry bit!!

Eventually though, and after much hilarity doing battle with nature, the end was in sight. The problem with walking a circular route is that, inevitably, you have to end up back where you started and this means that if at some point along the way you have descended a couple of hundred feet, at some other point (i.e. now) you have go back up again. The descent had been fairly gradual but to return to the starting altitude required a rather steep climb to knock any notion of our collective fitness squarely into touch!

Once back on site I plotted the route on the map and was utterly dismayed to find it had only been a mere 5 miles! In our minds though we’d done enough to earn a trip to the local Black Bull pub where it was Fish & Chip night – two large portions for fifteen quid. Bargain, and they were superb!

All in all, a good day if ultimately expensive as we both now need new walking boots!

The Adventure Begins…

Finally, after months of preparation, planning, packing, unpacking and repacking (and our very wet maiden voyage) the time came to head off on the Great Adventure proper.

The plan was to set a course straight up to Scotland and spend a couple of nights in Moffat as a stopover before heading on up to Loch Lomond for a few more days, prior to continuing the journey ever northwards. It was not due to any form of navigational error that we that we actually ended up in Pickering, North Yorkshire instead. Such is the free-form nature of this trip that we are at liberty to follow the weather, which was good in Pickering and not so good at all pretty much anywhere north of the border.

Surprisingly, the target departure time of 12 noon was only missed by half an hour (which must be a record for us!) because the tyre pressure sensor monitor thingy in the cab showed a slight deflation in the left rear tyre. Unfortunately the specially bought, heavy-duty, industrial grade compressor which could inflate a party-size bouncy castle in seconds couldn’t be used as the battery, to which the compressor needed to be clamped, couldn’t be found in the engine bay! (It’s under the passenger seat, apparently)

With the industrial-grade but now potentially useless compressor duly packed away (accompanied by much tutting and eye-rolling from Annie) we finally set off on the Great Adventure and turned our mighty steed in the direction of the local Shell Garage where they have an air pump that actually works.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and very pleasant in the gorgeous sunshine, which definitely lifted the spirits after our last trip!

The route we were following into Pickering took us up the A170 and eventually to the notorious Sutton Bank; a 1-in-4 (or 25% if you prefer) gradient with a very tight hairpin bend halfway up. For several miles prior to this epic, alpine-esque feat of civil engineering there had been a number of very stern road signs warning that “absolutely no caravans, heavy goods vehicles or pensioners with questionable driving skills” should attempt this route under any circumstances! As we were none of the above we pressed on undaunted.

This thing was S-T-E-E-P with a capital S (and T,E,E and P come to that!) On the day prior to departure we had visited the local weighbridge just to make sure that Wilma was actually within the legal weight limits, in our case under 3,500Kg. In fact, with full fuel and gas tanks, 50 litres of fresh water and us two, Jack (the dog) and all the various essential bits and pieces for life on the road, she weighed in at a svelte 3,380Kg. All well and good chugging along normal roads but trying to haul that weight up Sutton Bank proved a savage wake-up call to the, still new, engine but in the end, although we struggled to get above 30mph with a following wind, we made it to the summit with sighs of relief all round. Or maybe that was the engine blowing a gasket. Thankfully, at the top there was a carpark for a quick stop to get our collective breaths back and for Jack to relieve himself after the rectum-clenching ascent. It occurred to me that, hairy though coming UP the bank was, going DOWN it in winter months would be strictly a brown-trouser affair.

Wilma at the top of Sutton Bank
Wilma at the top of Sutton Bank

Thirty minutes later Pickering arrived and shortly afterwards we found our home for the next three days: namely the Black Bull Caravan Park neatly nestled behind the pub of the same name (more of that later..) And what a lovely and friendly site it was.

The great thing about being in a motorhome is that once you arrive on site there’s no great amount of setting anything up to do, unlike with a caravan or tent. Thus, we simply pulled onto our pitch, plugged in the electric and put the kettle on before getting the chairs out and enjoying the last of the evening sunshine. Yes, sunshine!

Camped up and enjoying the evening sunshine
Camped up and enjoying the evening sunshine

The Maiden Voyage!

Our first trip in Wilma

We have just returned from our first trip away in Wilma and have come back wondering if we should, in fact, have bought a boat instead.

It was wet. Very wet.

In fact problems with water seemed to dominate the trip even before we left home. Due to the sub-zero temperatures we’ve had recently courtesy of the so-called “Beast from the East” we have had to winterise the van whilst she was just sitting on the drive which involved draining the onboard tanks and systems to stop the water freezing up and causing expensive damage to the pipes, taps and heater. However, before leaving, the tank needed filling with at least 20 litres of water so the heater reservoir could be filled and the water system primed.

The ideal way to do this is to run a hose (food grade of course, not garden hose grade) from a tap in the house to the water filler point on the side of the van but, at only 5 metres long, our hose didn’t reach. No problem – we have a 10 litre water container which could be filled up and then simply poured into the neck of the filler point. In theory. However, water has a natural tendency to flow downwards rather than sideways with the result that the only thing that filled with water was my shoe.

Plan B saw Annie hanging out the front bedroom window attempting to pour from the water container into the hose with a similar amount of success. At this point, filling up at home was abandoned and left until we arrived on site, which in retrospect would probably have been more sensible from the start.

With the rest of the packing complete (or so we thought) the maiden voyage began. The day had dawned bright and sunny, although the temperatures were still a little low for the time year but with sunglasses donned we drove off and headed south.

The destination for our first trip was to be one of our long time favourites – the New Forest, and this time we had booked in to one of the Camping and Caravan Club’s listed sites at Gorse Farm Caravan Park near Fordingbridge.

The trip down was uneventful apart from the regular realisations of things that we’d forgotten to pack – my camera gear being the most unforgivable!! I’d carefully packed everything the night before and then left the camera bag in the bedroom. Thankfully, I’d got my iPhone with me so the trip didn’t go entirely undocumented pictorially.

On arrival, the water tank was filled successfully and without leakage, spillage or unwanted filling of clothing and we settled in for the evening.

Friday morning was my birthday and we celebrated this by opening cards and looking at the rain on the windows and the newborn lambs trying to shelter under their mothers. The tone of the day was set.

Friday morning. Wet.

Whilst filling the water tank on the previous night we’d noticed a sign on the notice board saying that payment could be made in cash or by cheque (yes, cheque!?!) and since we had little of the former and definitely none of the latter a trip to a cashpoint beckoned. The nearest of these was in the village of Fordingbridge which was about a mile and a half away so we togged up in wet weather gear, put Jack on his lead and set off.

Fordingbridge itself is a reasonably quaint, if slightly dated village hosting the usual mix of local and national shops interspersed with the obligatory touristy tat outlets but everything looked especially drab under the leaden skies and steadily increasing drizzle. After a quick trudge up and down the high street to ensure we’d experienced the full drabness on offer that day, we found the cashpoint. As we were outside the local NatWest branch Annie thought this would be the ideal place to convert a £5 note into some change, as the showers at the campsite were 50p a splash.

Given that we were at a bank you would think, as we did, that this would be a simple procedure – a £5 note in, a handful of change out – but that wasn’t the case at all. Apparently, because we didn’t have an account with NatWest they “were unable to comply with our request” Despite assuring them that they weren’t going to be short-changed in the deal and the balance of monies would be exactly the same when the transaction was complete, seemingly this simple request was beyond their abilities. Unbelievable! And then high-street banks wonder why people don’t use them anymore. I said we should have gone through the whole process of opening an account, getting the change and then closing it again, just to make the point but Annie, ever the voice of reason, ushered me quickly away and distracted me with thoughts of coffee and birthday cake.

On the way back to the campsite we noticed a park and thought it would be good to let Jack have a runaround to burn off some energy. The first entrance, which was to a kiddies play area, predictably had a “No Dogs” sign prominently blocking the entrance and another informing us that anyone with a such a foul beast must walk a further 100 miles down the road and find the hidden entrance more inaccessible than Narnia. Ok, I exaggerate, 100 metres to another, clearly marked entrance. But when we arrived there was another large sign at the entrance to the sports field proclaiming there was to be “No dogs off the lead, no unaccompanied children, no drone flying, no model aircraft flying, no kite flying and no fires” and then, a bit further on – and bearing in mind this was a sports field – another sign saying “No ball games”! I fully expected walking a little further to see an illuminated billboard banning all people from doing absolutely anything altogether!

So Fordingbridge was a memorable experience but not necessarily for the right reasons.

By now the rain was getting heavier as we headed back to the site and in fact once we were back it just poured down for the rest of the day and night leaving us to enjoy the confines of the van to the full. Not exactly the first trip we’d hoped for and we decided that on this occasion it would make more sense to cut the trip short and leave a day early because, as lovely as Wilma is, another day sat looking through rain-soaked windows at deepening puddles all around would not be ideal.

Wilma with blinkers on to avoid seeing the rain

By Saturday morning however the rain had eased and, although there was evidence of heavy flooding everywhere, we decided to head off into the forest for a walk. The original plan was to walk from the site but since we’d decided to move on we paid our dues and drove off towards Brockenhurst for a 6 mile stroll in a favourite part of the forest before heading home.

Annie dodging the puddles

As the day progressed, the weather improved substantially so we decided to book in to Black Knowl campsite which is right in the heart of the forest and has just reopened after a major refurbishment of the wash block – which we took full advantage of and had a lovely, long, hot and, more importantly, free shower!

Water everywhere

By Sunday morning the rain had stopped, the wind had dropped and Jack had flopped – on the ground outside the van to indulge in his favourite activity of people-watching. We actually managed to have breakfast in the van with the side door open and finally got to experience what life will be like camping in warmer weather.

Sunday morning – sunshine at last!

Despite the appalling and unseasonable weather, the trip was an enjoyable success. Wilma performed brilliantly (apart from blowing a fuse for the 12 volt sockets which I still can’t explain) and we performed brilliantly too (apart from forgetting so much important stuff) so now we’re on the countdown to the next, big adventure.

Can’t wait…