We decided to come to Spain for the winter to get some of this glorious warm weather and sun that everybody talks about. Well, I’m happy to report, after a few false starts, we’ve managed to find it and I’m writing this blog while laying on a beautiful sandy beach just South of Valencia, looking out over crystal clear turquoise sea. While we’re happy that we’ve found the sun at last, we’re full of feeling for family and friends back in the UK who are now wrapping up in winter coats and trudging off to that work thingy every morning in the knowledge that winter’s only just starting. Our thoughts are – briefly – with your suffering every day 😀, then we give each other a little grin, sit back and lap up the sunshine. (Sorry folks back home!)
What a lovely place to sit and write a blog
Pretty orange trees everywhere
The climate here seemed to change as soon as we crossed the border into Spain just South of Perpignan, we could see more sun, and feel the temperature rising with every mile we drove south. Our Spanish adventure didn’t start totally sunny though.
Our first port of call was Begur, home of good friends Roger & Beckie, who’ve lived out here for more than a decade now. On our way into Begur, we were deluged with rain, when the heavens opened; we had floods of water running down the roads, our kayak was better suited for those conditions than the Motorhome. Still, the joys of a Motorhome; it was impossible to drive, so we pulled in to the side of the road, made a cup of tea, and watched the onslaught outside.
We spent a fabulous weekend with Roger & Beckie, and once again enjoyed a gastronomic delight as they cooked for us on Saturday and Sunday nights – with Sunday a super home cooked curry night.
Best curry we’ve had for months, we do miss English food !!!!
The other joy of visiting friends is that we can get our washing done properly. Thanks to everyone who’s helped us out so far. Every Motorhome has a weight limit, which restricts what we can pack, and so we’re limited with the amount of clothes and bedding we carry. This means every couple of weeks we need to find somewhere to get our washing done. This is usually at a launderette on a site, but in between Carol’s often hand washing bits and pieces in a bucket. The washing is the easy bit, the challenge is getting everything dry when the weathers not so good. We do carry a mini rotary drier but that does need some wind at least, and preferably some sun. Hopefully this will get easier now we’re down into the warmth of sunny Spain.
Did I mention wind? Yes we’ve had tons of it, three days worth in fact. Not as a result of Roger’s curry, but a westerly wind, gusting up to 50 mph that felt ready to blow the van off the road. When the winds came, we were fortunate to be parked up on the side of a mountain in the middle of acres and acres of olive groves in one of the most quaint sites we’d ever stayed in. Run by a young Dutch couple, “Finca Poc a Poc” is an eco friendly site that is just so chilled we could’ve stayed for weeks. However after three nights of laying wide-awake in our van being relentlessly pummelled and shaken by the wind, we were desperate for the sanctuary of the beach and the sea, so when the wind stopped, we headed back to the coast.
Lovely piutch in the Olive grove for three days
Hand built eco friendly facilities
Beautiful little Firecrest came visiting
We pulled into a free stopover North of Valencia next to a young English couple, Dom and Shanna, who were on a four month trip around Europe in their VW Campervan. We’ve met so few English travellers on this trip, it was a delight to have some fellow Brits to chat with as we sat out in the sun. We also shared rather too much red wine and RonMiel (honey rum). It was only at the end of a laughter filled evening that we found we all enjoyed playing poker, and in a drunken state we agreed to have a poker night the next night. Sore heads all round the next morning, and we sensibly agreed we’d save our poker night for another time.
As soon as we left France, we’d put away our French language course and made a start on our Spanish. Yes – we know, pretty stupid starting our first Spanish lesson the day we arrived in Spain, but – we’d been trying to improve our French, and the Spanish just got waylaid. When we did start, what a shock it was starting a new language from scratch. The most we knew between us wasn’t much more than “Si”, “Gracias” and “dos biers por favor”. We’re now two weeks into the course and we can probably just about book a room at a hotel – a great start for Motorhomers!!!
With all the visits, and wind delays, and after by-passing Barcelona, we finally made our way down to Valencia. Neither of us have been before and it was high on our list of places to visit. Having parked up 20 km outside of Spain’s third largest City, we hopped on their metro and took the train into town. We loved Valencia, beautiful old buildings and rich in history, but as usual, we gravitated to the green areas, and what an amazing green area Valencia has. 60 years ago, three quarters of the city was flooded when the river Turia burst its banks flooding three quarters of the city. The following year, the city devised a plan to divert the river – think the river Thames and London! They ultimately turned the resultant dry river bed into the “Jardín del Turia” a beautiful green space winding through the centre of Valencia, with all of the original bridges still intact. We spent a few fabulous hours wandering along this amazing space in the middle of their city. It was easy to see the English tourists, there were we in shorts sandals and T-shirts, all the locals were in hats, coats and scarves – lightweights!
The old bridges still standing in the Jardin de Turia
Beautiful Valencia Cathedral
Beautiful Valencia Cathedral
And now, as I said at the start of the blog, we’re South of Valencia gazing out over the sea, enjoying a very peaceful Sunday. Earlier we went for a swim, and to say the sea was bloody cold would be an understatement (it was actually a profanity upwards from bloody but this is a family blog!).
Tomorrow we’re leaving here and heading down to meet up with our real life neighbours and fellow travellers, Brian and Karen, who’ve rented out an apartment in Alicante for a couple of months.
Just perfect; somewhere else to do our washing, and more friends to share lots of food and wine with. Happy Days
(Click on any pictures to open them in full screen)
Well what a busy couple of weeks it’s been for us.
The highlight of course has been the coming together of family and friends to celebrate Phil’s 60th Birthday.
As a base for the celebrations, our friends and fellow “travellers” Steve and Lizzie had given us the use of their home in the French Alps, while they were off doing their own six week 4,600 mile coastal tour of Spain. We were blown away when we arrived at their beautiful home, high in the mountains, overlooking the stunning Lake Geneva, an amazing setting for a Birthday to remember.
Over the course of the next ten days, we were joined – at various times – by all of Phil’s kids, partners and grandchildren, our best friends, Jan and Colin, and Steve and Lizzie returning from their travels. What’s been months in the planning gave us a fabulous week of celebrations; truly a birthday to remember with a treasure trove of memories to take away.
Travelling is such a fun and life changing thing to do, but the hardest part of spending so much time travelling is being away from all the special people in our lives: mums and dads, brothers, sisters, kids, grand kids, our friends, our neighbours. Of course we miss seeing them all, but technology is so good nowadays that most times it doesn’t feel like we’re far apart at all. With Video calling, Facebook and WhatsApp chat groups, we still know what’s going on in everybody’s lives. While nothing beats a hug, seeing people’s faces as we chat to them, or watching videos of special events means we can still share in, and be a part of everybody’s lives.
So, birthday apart, what else have we been up to recently.
We’d stopped in at Annecy, a beautiful old town sat at the northern end of a turquoise lake in the foothills of the Alps. We couldn’t understand why all of the camp sites and Aires were so full in mid October until we realised we’d arrived the day before the “Retour des Alpages” – Annecy’s annual carnival where all the farmers and artisans come down from the hills and display and parade through the town. Having had to park our van “Elton” 5 miles down the lake, we caught the bus into Annecy on carnival day, and spent the day wandering through the streets viewing the crafts and trying out far too many of the food and drinks on sale. Highlight of the day was the grand parade through the streets, a typical carnival parade which was completed by herds of cows and sheep being shepherded through the massive crowds of people – that was fun to watch! The buses were busy on the way home so we decided to walk along the lake back to Elton – a long walk on tired legs and full bellies!
The beautiful Lake Annecy
The awseome Horn blowers
6 foot loaves of bread!
Now that was a tasty snack
They dressed their cows beautifully
We were too close to Chamonix not to pay a visit. Chamonix is one of France’s most famous ski resorts and sits high in the snow covered mountains with Europe’s largest mountain Mont Blanc towering above them all. We love ski towns, there’s always a sense of excitement about them. They sleep in the summer, with many of the shops and restaurants closed, but they come alive in the winter months as the ski crowds arrive. Our purpose for this visit was to take the cable car up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, a peak close by Mont Blanc. Well we’ve done many ski lifts in our time but these cable cars, which each hold about 100 people were something else entirely. We took the first lift up to the mid-point station, where we transferred to another lift that took us to the top of the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842 metres. This second lift was a very scary beast, as we neared the summit, the car was travelling vertically for the last 100m up the sheer cliff face. We were glad to reach the top, where the views across the snow covered mountains, across the mountain peaks, and across to Mont Blanc were simply sensationally spectacularly stunning. It wasn’t cheap, it cost us €120 to ride the cars to top, but it was worth every scary penny (or cent!)
The huge cable cars
All the way to the top – the cable car is a small pin prick at the bottom of the picture
We had one last fabulous free stopover in France at an Olive Mill that was part of the French Passion network.
The owners seemed delighted to welcome us onto their Olive Farm, where we’d arrived at harvest time. They were really happy to show us round the mill and to show and explain to us the oil being extracted from the olive fruits. We came away once again singing the praises of French Passions, and with some very tasty, and beautifully fresh olive oil!
We’ve travelled down through the Alsace and the whole of the Eastern side of France and enjoyed every minute, but with our mountain visits and birthday celebrations complete, it’s time to get moving down into Spain. The weather’s turned noticeably colder in France in the last couple of weeks, and it’s always been our goal, to get to the warmer weather for the winter.
France, we’ve loved you as always, we’re almost sorry to leave you, but we will be back.
Spain here we come.
(If anyone’s interested, we keep a record of all of our stopovers on a Google Map – see ” Our Stopovers” link at the top of the page, or click HERE)
Three weeks since our last blog, how time flies when we’re having so much fun. In the past three weeks, Phil’s been away with his fishing buddies for a “blokes weeks”, and when we got back together, we’ve travelled through Belgium and are now half way down through France.
We’ve had seriously hot days when we’ve had to hide away from the afternoon sun, and we’ve had to scrape clear frozen windscreens, from nighttime frosts. We’ve stayed on river and canal banks in the Alsace, and watched the water lazily wend it’s way through valleys and vineyards, and we’ve stayed high up on mountains and watched the clouds below us fill those same valleys with their white mist.
The beauty of this travelling life has been so evident to us over the last couple of weeks, as now we’re away on the continent, almost every day now is bringing us something new to experience.
Phil always enjoys his week away with the boys, but it really was a very poor weeks fishing this year. Netherlands used to be a Mecca for Fishing, but with fewer and fewer fish each year, it’s now reached a point where the “Fishymens” annual trip needs to find a new venue.
Our week apart raced by, and when Phil finally joined back up with Carol, we headed straight down into Belgium to meet up with some friends we’ve made through our blog. Chris and Peter live in a beautiful area in the suburbs of Antwerp, and we spent a fabulous day with them walking through local forests as we talked and shared stories of motor-homing and life on the road. We look forward to meeting up again in some distant part of Europe maybe!
France is an amazing country for motor-homing. The infrastructure is way beyond anything we’ve experienced so far. As well as normal camp sites, France has a network of “Aires”, and “France Passions”, all in place to give Motor-homers places to stay. There’s no booking involved, you just turn up.
The Aires are generally simple no-frills areas set aside on the outskirts of villages and towns, with room for parking a few vehicles, and providing water and waste emptying facilities, and sometimes electric and toilets. They vary in quality and facilities but there are so many that we’re never short of a place to stay. At least half of the Aires are free, provided by the villages and the local tourist boards, in the hope of bringing tourists – and money – into their villages. Others make a small charge, anything between 3 and 10 Euros.
France Passions, are a network of winegrowers, farmers and trades people who allow you to stay over for free at their premises. They generally don’t provide any services – motorhomers are expected to be self sufficient. While there’s no charge for allowing you to stay, the Passion owners do hope – without expectation – that you’ll visit their shop or restaurant and purchase some of their goods.
Our first visit to a Passion was a huge disappointment. It was a duck and goose farm that specialised in pâté and fois grois. We were really looking forward to a scrumptious meal at their rustic little restaurant, but when we arrived we found the owners were away on holiday. We spent the night in the company of 300 noisy ducks and geese, with beans on toast for dinner.
Our second night of Passion was altogether more successful, when we stayed with a wine grower, in the most beautiful little village of Eguisheim, in the Alsace wine region of France. He was most certainly there and we enjoyed tasting (and buying) some of his fantastic wines.
Eguisheim village, and nearby Colmar town are two of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited. Close to Strasbourg and the German border, Eguisheim is ranked one of the beautiful villages in France, and was voted the “Village Préféré des Français 2013! It’s clear to see why it won this distinction. The cobbled streets are built in concentric circles around the market square, with half timbered painted houses and the most amazing floral displays. With more than 30 wine tasting houses in this tiny little village, all we can say, is go visit! The pictures below give just a taste of these two beautiful places (click to enlarge)
The last week has given us two new gastronomic experiences that won’t be forgotten.
Phil was fishing in Lac-de-Vesoul-Vaivre just outside Vesoul, when he was lucky to hook into a large fish. After a bit of time playing the fish, and the gathering of an audience on the Bank waiting for the fish to be landed, Phil, eventually landed a 9 pound Zander. (This is a cross between a pike and and a perch, common in Europe but rareish in the UK). From the reaction and feedback from the crowd, it was clear
that this was a fabulous fish, and one that should not be wasted, it had to be eaten! To UK “catch and release” fishermen, the concept of eating a freshwater fish was very alien, but Zander is often seen on the menu of European restaurant’s and we knew they were good eating, so we listened to the voices of the crowd and bagged it for the kitchen.
Trying to fillet a 9lb fish in a small Motorhome with barely sharp knives, without covering the walls with blood and guts was a challenge, but what a fantastic meal we had. Zander is flaky like cod, with a delicate flavour that was absolutely beautiful.
Conversely, two nights before, we were staying at a Passion high in the mountains, at a skiing lodge near the Ballon d’Alsace. On the menu was La-tete-de-veal. “Boiled calves head” said the waiter, “a French delicacy, delicious”. We though it rude not to eat what our hosts call a delicacy so Phil bravely gave it a try. Big Mistake! What turned up was a clear broth, with a few vegetables, a few lumps of meat with a thick gelatinous skin, and a massive lump of what looked like solid white fat.
The meat was just about ok, though the calf obviously needed a better shave as there were lots of black hairs floating in the broth, and the thick lump of fat didn’t even get tasted. Lucky there was a great cheeseboard that night! Sorry French people, but I did try!
Looking forward – In two weeks time it’s Phil’s 60th Birthday. We’re borrowing a friends house on Lake Geneva for a week, and all of Phil’s kids, partners and grandchildren are flying down to celebrate the passing of another decade. We’ve been away almost six weeks on this trip, and we’re so looking forward to seeing some family faces.
When the Birthdays over…..we’re heading down to Spain and hopefully some sun!
Amazingly we’ve now been in the Netherlands almost three weeks, how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. We’re missing the family as always, but it’s lovely to be back to our nomadic lifestyle on the road again.
It’s been a fun-filled two weeks since our last blog, but in those two weeks we’ve had chance to do a little bit of all the things we enjoy. With no particular plan for our Netherlands trip, we decided to travel clockwise around the country, making stops where there were particular things or places of interest, or where there’s been a nice place to stopover.
The weather for our first week here was fantastic, but the last two weeks it’s been woeful. When it’s not been tipping it down with rain we’ve had 70 mph gales. Winds that speed aren’t much fun in a high sided vehicle so we stay put rather than be blown about on the roads.
Highlight of the last fortnight was our trip to the village of Giethorn which is almost bang in the middle of the country. Giethoorn was originally a community of peat diggers. Now it’s a picturesque little village, where all of the houses are built on islands which were left when the peat diggers dug out trenches to remove the peat. There’s over 170 bridges over the canals, with most of the houses having their own bridge to get to their property. It’s simply beautiful with stunning views and the prettiest houses everywhere you look. You can hire little self drive electric boats to travel around the village, but the winds were so bad when we were there the only boats available were the bigger tour boats. Not as much fun as the self drive, but a lovely hour spent touring the village
Some of the beautiful houses in Giethoorn
By an amazing coincidence, we met up with some fellow British Carado Motor home owners, Tony and Sharon, for our visit to Giethoorn. Chatting in our Carado owners group that morning, we realised we were all heading to the same camp site that day! (Seeing as
there’s only 40 members of the group that’s quite a coincidence!). That made for a fun-filled couple of days as we made new friends, shared rather a lot of beer and wine, and a wonderful evening in the ‘Fanfare’, one of the Netherlands most famous ‘pubs’. We were fortunate to be there on a Tuesday night, when ‘The Flagellanten’, (yes, look that up!!) the village’s male singers, were providing live music for the night. What a fun night that was and what great ‘oom pa pa folk’ type musical entertainment they gave us.
Having had a lively couple of days, we headed for a camp site deep in the heart of the Veluwe National Park. We parked up in a forest, surrounded by trees, a landscape far removed from the rest of this country which is generally flat, and criss-crossed by ditches, dykes and canals. This gave us the opportunity for some long walks and bike rides through the trees for some bird and wildlife spotting. We also went out one evening in an attempt to see some of the 8,000 wild boars roaming the Veluwe. We failed on that trip, but typically with things always turning up when you least expect, we saw one in a field the very next day, as we were parking up the van to do some shopping.
We did get to see some beautiful red squirrels playing in the trees above our van, but when they dropped acorns on our roof at dawn the next morning it felt like we were being bombed it was so loud!
Being so close, we also took the opportunity to call in on our old friend Wouter, who lives in a small village in the middle of the Veluwe. Wouter is a ski instructor in the winter, and taught us both to Ski in Austria in 2006. We’ve since met up with him pretty much every year in Austria to ski and renew our friendship. It was nice to catch up with him in his own home town.
We were fortunate with our timing to be near to Arnhem, on the 73nd anniversary of the allied Airborne Landings of 1944 – which later became the subject of the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. As part of the commemoration four troop planes dropped a few hundred paratroopers, recreating in a small way what 2,000 British and Polish paratroopers did 73 years ago. We went primarily to see the paratroopers, but found the commemoration service to be a very moving and touching occasion, especially watching the veterans lay wreaths in honour of their fallen colleagues. It was also touching to see the honour and reverence the Dutch people still feel to this day, towards the British and Polish troops that came to aid their liberation.
The purpose of the HappiHalls starting this European trip in the Netherlands was for Phil to meet up with his fishing buddies in the last week in September for a ‘boys fishing week’. With that in mind, Phil’s been taking the opportunity to get in a bit of practice whenever he can over the past couple of weeks. The Netherlands has to be one of the most perfect places for a motorhoming fisherman to visit. There are lakes, canals and rivers everywhere and many of the camp sites, and aires are by the sides of the water. Finding places to fish has never been easier, and there’s been some success with the fishing so far. While plenty of bream have been caught, top catch has been a two-pound roach – which fishermen will recognise as a very special fish.
What has been disconcerting has been the shipping. Phil’s used to small barges and sailing boats going past as he fishes. Out here today he’s been fishing at Willemstad, in a “river” over one kilometre wide, in a major shipping lane with 100m ocean-going container ships cruising past – they certainly create some wash and were the cause of more than one set of wet feet!
So that’s our update for the past couple of weeks, there’s lots more we could have included – check out HappiHalls Facebook post on the Windmills of Kinderdidjk – but this blog’s probably long enough already.
We’re now parked up on a site in Hellevoetsluis waiting for Phil’s buddies to arrive, then he’s heading off for a week, while Carol has a peaceful week doing just whatever she wants.
When we get back together in a week, we start the long drive down towards Lake Geneva, hopefully calling in to some friends in Belgium on the way through.
We’ve loved the Netherlands and will certainly be back to spend more time here. It’s not the most beautiful place we’ve ever visited, being flat there’s no amazing views, no breathtaking scenery, but it does have its own style, character and culture which we’ve loved. We’ve loved the freedom to cycle in safety on cycle paths and routes that are built into the country’s infrastructure. And we’ve really enjoyed the people here who are so friendly. And as a boon to most language challenged Brits, pretty much everyone here speaks English.
Well, we’re a week into our next trip and it’s like we’ve never been home.
It was so exciting when we drove off the ferry at the Hook of Holland last week; we’d finally made it to Europe. We loved every minute of our Scotland trip, but it was always a warm-up to learn how to live in our Motorhome “Elton”, before we set off to the continent for some “real” travelling.
After a dreadful night’s sleep on the ferry, we headed off to the first camp site we could find just outside The Hague for the first couple of nights to catch-up on our sleep, and acclimatise ourselves to van living again.
It was impossible to be close to such a famous city without spending a bit of time sightseeing, so we caught the bus into town, and walked the major tourist spots. Our first lesson was soon learnt, summer is almost finished and we’re just starting into autumn. We were sightseeing in shorts and T-shirts, and pretty much everybody else was in hats and coats – maybe they checked the weather forecast better than us; it poured all day, and we got a bit wet! The Hague was ok, although we were both a bit disappointed with most of the major sights.
The highlight of our day was definitely the Peace Palace, which houses (among other things) the International Court of Justice. Maybe because of its incredible purpose and history, this made it an awe-inspiring place to even see; for us it was the best looking building we’d seen on our visit.
On leaving the Hague, we thought it prudent to check the weather forecast, and found sun was on the way. Since virtually the whole of the West Coast of the Netherlands is one massive long beach, and being probably the last chance to catch some sun, we had two fantastic beach days. It was interesting how the Dutch almost intermingle their normal beaches with naturist beaches, they virtually sit side by side. Quite a shock for some if you’re not expecting it I imagine!
We purposely missed out Amsterdam, we’ve been there before and we were keen to head out into more rural districts to see the real non-commercial areas of this country – our preference is always to be out in the fields, forests and villages rather than the big cities. Some Brits we met on out first night, recommended a visit to the town of Volendam, which is an old Dutch fishing village, paradoxically now sitting on a freshwater lake, What a lovely touristy “seaside” place this was to visit, and so glad we make the effort to go there the day.
To get to the northern parts of the Netherlands from the west coast, you need to go across the “Afsluitdijk”. This is a 20 mile dam, that joins the west and north of the country, holding back the North Sea, and making a colossal freshwater 1100 square kilometre freshwater lake on the landward side. It was an amazing drive across this dead straight 20-mile dam, which is a major part of the Netherlands flood defences.
The Netherlands relies on its flood defences, dams and dikes to exist. Two thirds of the country would be underwater without them. Everywhere we drive there’s ditches and dams, canals and locks, and of course the windmills which were the original mechanism the Dutch used to pump water away from the reclaimed land. Pretty much all the windmills have been replaced by electric pumping stations nowadays, but many of the old beautiful windmills are still standing.
Because most of the Netherlands is built on flood plain, it does mean it’s a virtually a dead flat country, and the perfect place to ride our bikes. We’ve been out on our bikes pretty much every day so far, and what’s amazed us is the way the road infrastructure has been built to support bike traffic. Adjacent to almost every road, there’s an independent bike lane, purely for the two wheeled riders, that keep the cars and bikes totally separated. Where their paths do cross at road junctions, bikes often have priority over other road users. It’s very hard to get your head round that one, but the Dutch just ride knowing (expecting?) that the cars are going to stop. As a biker and a driver from the UK, that change of priority takes some getting used to. Bikes are a way of life over here, there can’t be anywhere better in the world to explore by bike.
Our first major challenge for the trip was the Thetford fridge/freezer packing up !We woke up on Friday morning to a totally defrosted freezer, with all of our food thawed out. Fortunately, we didn’t lose too much food as it’s only a small freezer, but we do rely on it for looking after the next few days meals. Motorhome fridges are a bit more complicated than domestic fridges, they work on mains electric, gas and 12v automatically switching to the best source available at the time. After seeking some advice on the Facebook Motorhome forums, we headed across to a local caravan centre who were also a Thetford Service centre. What great service they gave us, and within a couple of hours we were driving away with a new thermostat fitted, and no charge! The fridge has a three-year manufacturer’s warranty, and allows us to visit any service centre anywhere across Europe. What a great service. Hopefully the problem’s fixed, but we are watching the temperatures carefully.
As well as being a great place for biking,Netherlands is a great place to fish. There’s water everywhere, and we’ve managed to park up next to a lake or canal virtually every night. Fair to say that the fishing over here has been way better than the Scottish trip, with Phil catching some decent sized bream already.
The weather’s been abysmal the last two days, it’s hardly stopped raining. We’ve hunkered down in a free parking place next to a lake, with Phil popping out to fish between breaks in the rain. We’ve gone from pouring rain to gales, but Carol’s happy with the wind, she’s getting all her washing dry today!
Seems like we’ve only just arrived in Netherlands, but it’s now only ten days until Phil heads off to meet up with his fishing friends for a boys fishing week.
Overall, we’re loving the Netherlands so far. For people who love the outdoors, and being near water as much as we do, it’s the perfect place to visit. It’s a nice easy trip from the UK; anybody wanting a couple of weeks away to somewhere you’ve never been before, where almost everybody speaks English, it’s well worth a visit.
“E” Day for the HappiHalls is finally here. Here we are at Harwich Docks waiting for this evening’s ferry to take us across to the continent for the start of our European travels, and our first attempt at finding some winter sun. We’ll be back in March or April.
How excited are we!!! It’s only been seven months since we rented out our house, moved into our Motorhome, and set off on our Scottish tour but it feels so much longer.
When we wake up on the ferry tomorrow morning we’ll be in the Netherlands, where we have three weeks on our own to explore, before Phil heads off for a week with his fishy mates – and Carol gets to relax on her own for the first time since February. (I think she’s looking forward to that as much as Phil’s looking forward to a week with his mates!)
When we leave the Netherlands at the end of September, we’re heading down to Geneva for the end of October, when all of Phil’s kids, and our best friends are flying down to celebrate his 60th Birthday with him, and then Southern Spain here we come.
What an amazing year we’ve had so far. After our incredible spring touring Scotland and its beautiful islands, we’ve had a fantastic summer back with family and friends.
We had a week’s holiday with all of Phil’s family in Devon, staying in a manor house once owned by Sir Frances Drake; we’ve had Birthday and Naming Day celebrations with the newest Grandchildren in the family, we had a week in the Shropshire Hills sharing beer, camp fires and music with the craziest bunch of friends we’ve ever had, and we capped it all off with a family “Bon Voyage BBQ” this week to say goodbye to everybody before we set sail for the winter.
How lucky we are to have such an amazing set of family and friends who’ve shared their summer with us, who’ve shared their drives with us, and shared Game of Thrones with us (note that leaving the UK the day after the GoT season finale is purely coincidental). We’ll miss you all. If any of our friends or family want to fly out and meet up with us at any time on our travels, we’d love to see you.
Next stop the Netherlands tomorrow morning – off the boat and turn left to head up the coastline; that’s as much as we’ve got planned.
We’re sorry we’ve been having so much fun we haven’t updated you for ages. Were sorry we’ve put more effort into living our dream, than we have into writing up the stories of our adventures. We’re sorry we’ve been so lazy and hedonistic!
It’s actually been about eight weeks since we posted our last blog post, when we were on the Orkney Isles. Since then we’ve travelled right across the North Coast of Scotland, down the West Coast, and across to the beautiful Outer Hebrides – “The Western Isles”. From there we headed down and then across to the Isle of Skye, and then what’s easily become our favourite part of Scotland, The Isle of Mull. We’ve had a flying dash across to Edinburgh on the train for the weekend to meet up with some friends and watch our Rugby team “Saracens” win the European Championship. And we’ve just spent a week in the Cairngorms as the final part of our Scottish adventure. Over the past few days we’ve been doing a slow journey South towards home, calling into Northumberland to explore Hadrian’s Wall, and see the sea birds at on the Farne Islands.
On this three month trip in our van “Elton” we’ve had a fantastic time. While we both wanted to get out on the road and travel in our motorhome, there was always a niggling doubt once we started, whether living the life would actually live up to the anticipated dream – for one or both of us. We’re now on day 87 of this trip, and we’re both still enjoying every day of our adventure as much as we did the first. We still look at each other on a daily basis and give a “can’t believe this is real” grin to each other.
We’ve had some amazing weather while we’ve been away, but while in Scotland the wind was the one constant that was with us pretty much all the time we were there. It was only in the last couple of weeks that’s it dropped down to a gentle breeze. While in Durness in North West Scotland, we were battered with 60mph winds which made the van feel like ready for lift off! On Skye, just a few weeks ago, while most of middle England basked in sunshine, we had to hunker down for a couple of days while snow storms and blizzards came through. And in the Cairngorms just a week ago, we sat beside Loch Morlich, near Aviemore, in 26 degree glorious sunshine.
Our van “Elton” has been fabulous. We’ve heard horror stories of people who set off in new vans and have so many things go wrong in the first few months. From our experience, the Corado T449 has been a great buy. I think everybody expects a few niggly problems on on something as big and as complicated as a Motorhome, but we’ve had just two problems while we’ve been away; a leaky tap, which we temporarily fixed with some sticky tape, and our electric step packed up just two weeks into our trip. The step was an annoying problem as the cab’s a long way up from the ground, but we eventually managed to rig up a manual system to get the step back in use. We’re calling in at Lincoln on our way back South to get these couple of little issues fixed.
We’ve wild-camped for 68 of the 83 days we’ve been away. With camp site fees generally above £20 a night, wild-camping has saved us a fortune. It’s been amazingly easy to wild camp our way around Scotland where there’s so much open space and generally people are much more accepting to people parking up. The “Right to Roam” principles in Scotland, while not appropriate to vehicles, appear to give the Scots a mindset that people should always be given access when they can, rather than barring them just because they can. Back into England and it’s a very different picture, every bit of spare space has somebody looking to make money from it or has barriers across the entrance to stop anybody gaining access.
We’ve been to some amazing places, and seen some fantastic things in Scotland, but without doubt the highlights for us has been the wildlife. We’ve spent hours and hours just sitting in our van watching out over mountains, cliff tops, lochs, forests and moorland for anything that moves. We’ve seen majestic White Tailed and Golden Eagles, soaring through the air. We’ve seen red squirrels scampering through the trees and over the forest floors. We’ve seen otters with their cubs playing in the water in the evening sun, and we’ve seen the fabulous comical, puffins strutting around their nests or arriving from a fishing trip with their bills stuffed full of sand eels. It feels like every day has brought us something new. How lucky we’ve are.
It’s fair to say we’ve struggled with what to do with the blog. We were full of great intentions to do regular write-ups when we set off, but we ended up not really sure who we were writing it for. Blog posts take a fair bit of time putting together, and we gradually started putting more of our posts onto Facebook. Facebook ended up being our preferred way of sharing the highlights of our journey, and most people, other than other bloggers, are more used to looking at and giving feedback on Facebook than they are a blog post. We’ll carry on with the blog for our future travels, but we’ll mix it up with Facebook as well.
We’re now just north of Lincoln, ready to have a sleepless night tonight watching the election results, before the van goes in to get fixed tomorrow. Glad we got our proxy votes sorted out, looks like every vote might count! We’ve got a couple of weeks around Peterborough while we visit family and friends, and then we head back to Watford arriving at mum and dad’s on Father’s Day.
Summer time is basically family time, and then 31st August we’re heading off to Europe for the winter – first stop Holland.
(Click on any of the pictures to see a full sized view)
When we arrived at John o’Groats, it was about 2.30 in the afternoon. We aren’t too interested in the general tourist stuff, so other than an opportunity for a great selfie, there wasn’t a lot to hold us there. We hadn’t planned much past John o’Groats, so back in Elton the van we set about planning the next part of our journey.
We were actually a bit surprised to realise there was a ferry terminal in Gills Bay just a few miles down the road, that could take us across to Orkney.
Orkney was definitely on our itinerary, and quite unexpectedly it became our next destination. A quick check on the weather revealed the winds would be going up to thirty or forty mph the next day – we didn’t fancy a fifty minute sea crossing in those winds so we made the snap decision to get across to Orkney that afternoon. Luckily being a quiet time of year they had space on the 6.30 pm ferry, so we turned up, paid our £107 (one way) and sat in the queue waiting to board. Scarily they made us reverse our 7.5m van down the narrow 30 metre ferry “on-ramp”, and then they threw a couple of planks under the rear wheels at the last minute to stop the van bottoming out as we actually rolled onto the ferry. Made me feel a bit of a wuss as I watched them reversing 50 foot artics down the same ramp.
We thought travelling across the water in the dark would be disappointing, but it was a lovely journey seeing the lights of all the coastal villages, and then as we arrived into Scapa Flow, the main piece of water through the middle of the Orkney Islands, there were three oil rigs brightly lit up making an amazing spectacle in the water.
Leaving the ferry at St Margaret’s Hope, we drove to our proposed wild camping spot in the dark, knowing we were parking close to the beach and waters edge but having no clue on what we would be seeing in the morning.
Our first daylight view of Orkney was when we awoke to a beautiful view across golden sands and lovely bay.
We spent four nights in Orkney travelling around “Mainland” – the main Orkney Island. Each of our stops was overlooking the water and beautiful beaches; in fact pretty much everywhere we went across the island we had stunning views of sparkling seas and amazing beaches.
What sets Orkney apart however is its amazing history. Most views are dominated by Scapa Flow, the piece of water in the centre of the Orkney Islands. Most people will have heard of Scapa Flow, this famous – or infamous? – piece of water that saw so much activity in both the first and second World Wars.
In both wars, being such a perfect natural harbour, it became home to the British Navy. And in both wars, to protect the navy from marauding enemy submarines entering into Scapa Flow, ships were intentionally sunk to block the smaller entrances into Scapa Flow. Many of the rusty hulls of these “block ships” can still be seen today.
A couple of events dominate the history of Scapa Flow:
With the surrender of Germany in the First World War, 74 ships of the German navy were interred in Scapa Flow pending decisions on their future. Seven months into the internment the German Commander made the decision to scuttle the entire fleet. 52 of the German ships actually sank in Scapa Flow. Most were later salvaged for scrap.
In October 1939, during World War 2 a German submarine did manage to find its way into Scapa Flow and managed to hit the British Destroyer “The Royal Oak” with two torpedos. The ship sank with the loss of 833 lives.
These are just two such examples of dozens, but with such a history, it was impossible to look out over Scapa Flow without being in awe of the history this single piece of water has seen over the last century.
We took a foot ferry across to the island of Hoy to visit the Scapa Flow naval museum and old naval base, a trip well worth the effort to see and feel the history of this amazing place.
Today the Navy’s abandoned Scapa Flow, and the view across the water view is dominated by three giant oil rigs.
Our other main activity during our trip to Orkney was our visit to Skara Brae,
a 4,000 year old Neolithic village which was uncovered from sand dunes during a wild storm in 1850.
This was an incredible place to visit, the walls of the houses are still standing, and alleyways are still rooved with their original stone slabs. The internal interior fittings of each house are still there – after 4,000 years! Gob smacking!
And having complained on previous blogs about the availability of decent beer in Scotland, a trip to the Orkney brewery set everything straight again! Decent draft beer at last, and while I decided against the 10% Dark Island Reserve, I did bring away a bottle of 8.5% Skull Splitter – which I’ll be saving for a special occasion when I’m not driving!
We just touched on what this place had to offer, but if you ever get the chance – visit Orkney!
There were a few other highlights and lowlights of our visit to Orkney – the biggest highlight was seeing Otters, our first of this trip. Two lowlights – a little bump in the van as we were reversing over some grass, broke a few bits of the plastic valance at the back of Elton the van. A quick fix with duct tape made it look ok, but it will need fixing when we get back down South. And our electric step’s broken on the van, suspect the gears are broken, it’s a pain having to get in and out without the step but we’re managing ok, I guess a trip back to CamperUK to get this fixed under warranty- there’s nobody in remote Scotland that can fix this!
Despite these couple of setbacks, we’re still absolutely loving being on the road. We still look at each other and grin as we talk about what we’re doing. It still feels like we’re on holiday. I guess this feeling may change eventually but there’s no sign of it right now! The phrase “Life’s one long holiday” is very apt for us.
It would be easy to sum up our experience of the Scottish weather on this trip in one word – Windy!
It’s been an incessant wind since we arrived on the East coast, and the further North we’ve come it’s blown harder and colder. As we sit writing this blog, we’ve had to move the van away from the cliff-top; the 50+ mph winds are certainly giving our van a good shaking about and the cliff top doesn’t feel like a safe place to be. We’ve watched with envy the soaring temperatures back home and we are a tad jealous of that!
One other thing that has been a bit of a disappointment has been the Aurora – northern lights. We haven’t seen them yet. It’s very high on our list of things to see while we’re here but we’ve suffered with almost constant night-time cloud on our journey so far. We’re banking on that changing sometime soon and we do hope to be able to post aurora pics some time – seeing the Aurora is a bucket list item for us.
Finally – we managed to get our journey route published onto google maps. Anybody who’s interested in the route we’ve travelled and the places we’ve stayed can see the details on our blog site here.
Sorry for the history lesson in this blog, we’ll try not to do it too often!
(click on any picture to see the full size version)
We first holidayed in Scotland a couple of years ago, when we spent a couple of weeks travelling on the West Coast of Scotland, primarily on the isles of Sky and Mull. We fell in love with the country during those two weeks and vowed that we’d come back and spend more time here. That’s the reason the first few months of our big adventure is being spent up here.
Since we started our big adventure, we’ve now been back in Scotland for two weeks, and already our love affair has been rekindled. This is such a beautiful country, it seems around every corner there’s something new and awe inspiring to
see. If you’re a lover of the outdoors, I don’t think it would ever be possible to get bored with this place.
We first hit the east coast of Scotland just above Dundee after a couple of long days driving up through England and by passing the urban areas around Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Our first stopover – and one of our favourite stopovers of the journey so far – was in St Cyrus, a small village perched in the hills overlooking the North Sea. Our stop was a tiny little parking space big enough for two vehicles, about 200 feet up, with views over the sand dunes, the golden beach and the crystal blue sea that was almost as smooth as a lake that night. We had footpaths that took us down a steep track down onto the gorse filled dunes where there was so much birdlife we didn’t know where to look next. When we weren’t watching the birds, we were on “dolphin watch”, our eyes glued to the water looking for the signs of the dolphin that inhabit these waters. We didn’t see any that day, and two weeks into our trip we’re disappointed still not to have seen any.
Moving North, we headed up to Port Errol in Crudon Bay, where we parked on the harbour side with the sea immediately below us. We hadn’t anticipated being able to stay on the quay sides quite like this, but most of the harbours seem to allow you to park on the harbour walls which means we always get good views of the sea. The other advantage of parking up in theharbour is that there’s generally a pub very close by. It was nice to go for a beer, however the selection of beers was pretty disappointing, just draft rubbish like (IMHO) McCewans and Tenannts – no real ale in sight! It’s been a struggle to find any decent beer since. Phil also took the opportunity to have a fish from the harbour wall but he drew a blankthat night, and every other time he’s fished so far!
Aberdour Bay was our next stop, a beach car park in the middle of nowhere, it was lovely having the place to ourselves. We didn’t see another soul other than a couple of cars driving into the car park in the evening, seeing us and driving away again – think we may have spoilt their fun ! There’s a big campaign that Sky TV are running right now about plastics in the sea. Walking along the beachside it was easy to see the problem, the high tide line was strewn with plastic bottles and debris. We made a decision that night that whenever we stopped at a beach location we’d take a sack with us and do our bit to remove the shoreline of plastic rubbish.
We pulled into Portsay Harbour mid-day on Saturday 18th March; the local skiff racing team were giving tryouts to potential new members….yep, they have an over 50’s team! Phil was easily persuaded to get into the skiff and have a little row around the harbour with a bunch other beginners – a few crabs were caught on the way round. This energetic activity deserved a beer, and we spent the rest of the evening in the quayside pub watching the England Ireland rugby international. Never realised there were so many Irish people in Scotland – every person in the pub other than us we’re supporting the green shirts.
We moved northwards via Lossiemouth, a quaint little town where Carol sampled her first Ice Cream of the trip, there’s lots more to come! With 40mph winds forecast we gave up our coastal view and parked up nearer the town centre where we had more shelter. We should have learned the sense in this move – four days later on Orkney we parked on an exposedheadland, the Burgh of Birsay, where highish winds were also forecast. We woke at 3 in the morning feeling like the van was going to be blown into the sea…we had a dash in the dark to find shelter from the howling gale. There were some student campers also on the headland, they must have spent the night hanging onto their tents for dear life.
Our travels up the last part the very North East Scottish coastline was fairly uneventful, more of the same beautiful towns, coastline and awesome stopovers, and more of the same dodgy beer.The only thing of note was waking up on Tuesday morning to a white world – it had snowed overnight and the woods we were staying in looked pretty amazing with its white overcoat.
John o’Groats was high on our list of places to visit on our travels, “Lands End” equivalent of the North, and all in all we were pretty disappointed.Not really sure what we expecting, there’s obviously the hype of it being the northerly end of the longest distance between two points in the UK, but other than having a great signpost for taking a selfie, we were a bit underwhelmed.We didn’t stay long.
So that’s taken us up to the top North East corner of Scotland….next stop, the ferry and across to Orkney!