This was certainly not the most direct route to our destination but with most of the day free before we were due to arrive at Chulmleigh, we decided to drive across Dartmoor.
The first challenge was to find our way to bigger roads from the country lane location of the
campsite. The planned route very nearly worked, but not quite – the lanes were narrow and sometimes steep but, within yards of the big road we were aiming for, we were stuck. The road was fine, but were foiled by a parked BMW. Fortunately we had space to turn around and backtrack to find another route, with the bonus of a secluded spot for lunch.
The trip across the moor took us through the different countryside of high and low levels, cows, ponies and sheep.
We had one remaining navigational challenge – a major road closure near Chulmleigh. Very careful planning on the GPS paid dividends, and as if by magic, we arrived at Chulmleigh.
Even on holiday reality catches up eventually – the day started with a visit to Sainsbury’s on the outskirts of Dawlish. It was actually quite a nice Sainsbury’s, with lots of sustainably felled wood in the roof, but walking supermarket aisles feels like a waste of a life. We had already booked our campsite for the night, a Caravan and Motorhome Club 5-van site in northern Dartmoor called Holeacre, so we made our mission for the day a visit to nearby Castle Drogo. The GPS-led journey was a little interesting in a motorhome, since the castle is located on narrow country lanes, but a little judicious over-ruling of GPS-lady’s instructions got us there without too much drama.
I had no idea what to expect – my homework over lunch told me that this was a relatively new castle. Started in 1911 it is in fact the newest castle in the country. It also turns out that right now not much of the castle is visible from the outside.
Due to an enormous restoration project tackling problems in the roof, pointing and windows most of the building is encased in a tent. It sounds as though the restoration is to a large extent correcting faults that have existed since the building was created. While we weren’t rewarded with a sight of a magnificent building from the outside, we had the opportunity for an in-depth view of the restoration with a trip to the top of the scaffolding – an unusual treat. A fair amount of the inside of the Castle was open, so it was another interesting National Trust experience.
This is a beautiful, spacious flat grass site with a wonderful view to the west over the sheep pasture in the next field. It’s the only campsite I’ve ever been to which has hand sanitising fluid at the toilet emptying point – there’s a good thought!
An evening walk down the hill towards the river revealed a signpost named after me, and extensive riverside walks.
Sadly we will only be spending a single night here – definitely one for the future.
Despite having just a hedge between us and the road, our night at Hunter’s Moon had been undisturbed. Unusually for us our final destination for today was already determined – during the previous evening we had booked our next night at Lockwood House Campsite, near Dawlish. But we were just down the road from the Cerne Abbas Giant, so we couldn’t leave the area without taking a look.
Cerne Abbas Giant
We stopped at a well signposted viewing point in Cerne Abbas village – plenty of space to park the motorhome. It provided an excellent view of the lusty giant, along with background information. It looked like a good base for a circular walk, but that will be for another day.
A la Ronde
As we journeyed on in the summer holiday traffic passing close to tempting places like Lyme Regis, we were caught on the horns of a dilemma. Do we simply travel on to our destination site, or find somewhere interesting for lunch en route? A quick Google offered us the National Trust property A la Ronde. This is a quirky 16-sided building – not a huge country estate, but still a surprisingly large building with a great view over the Exe estuary. The geometry is certainly interesting. The outside has sixteen sides, and inside the centre of the building is a full height octagon, with rooms on multiple floors around the sides. Just to add to the challenge, the windows are on the corners. One can only sympathise with the builders who had to execute this unique design.
Lockwood House Campsite
This a small 5-van site just outside Dawlish, right opposite the recently opened Dawlish Countryside Park. The site is small, but well equipped and smart. The adjacent Countryside Park adds to the attraction of the location, providing a walking link to the coast and its associated paths. For some reason bicycles are not allowed to use the Park, and the main road location is unpleasant for bikes so my exploration was on foot, to Dawlish Warren and then along the sea-wall towards Dawlish, looping back on the coast path which at this point is high up, well away from the coast. This area is not really my sort of seaside – family holiday resorts don’t do it for me, but away from the bustle and obesesunburnt bodies, the coast path was very peaceful and pleasant enough.
After a free night at the Caravan and Motorhome Club New Forest site we set off with waste tanks empty and fresh water tank full. It was time for a National Trust visit – Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne Minster was beckoning.
Home to the Bankes family until they ran out of heirs, this house was bequeathed to the National Trust upon the death in 1982 of Henry John Ralph Bankes, along with Corfe Castle. It was the biggest bequest ever received by the Trust.
We were a little worried that it would be overcrowded on a lovely summer Saturday, but were able to park the motorhome very easily, and bag an instant house entry timeslot. Eating our lunch early in the car park and turning up when everyone else was heading for the cafe worked well.
The house was a strange mixture of grand and homely – Ralph Bankes had lived as a recluse in a small number of rooms. The remainder of the house had required a lot of work before it could open to the public. The house is full of paintings, far too many to take in at a single visit. Rooms ranged from the library in many shades of brown to the White Bedroom. As is so often the case, one is left thinking that no-one should be that rich, but at the same time marvelling that such houses have been created and survived. I guess there’s an element of karma, since, as one of the NT guides said, it seemed that there was a streak of madness in the family.
The grounds are extensive – the kitchen garden is an awful long way from the house, which doesn’t seem to be the best bit of design, but for the visitor today it provides an enticing goal for a walk, with an ice-cream at a shady table as a reward.
No Piddle tonight – but there is a Hunter’s Moon
I had decided that the Piddle Inn looked a good target for an evening meal and overnight stay – it would have been worth it just for the name, and it also promised a river-side setting (the River Piddle of course). It wasn’t to be – on a Saturday evening there was too much going on in the car park for us to make an attempt to get the motorhome in there. Not far away was the Hunter’s Moon, an excellent and welcoming pub, albeit that our parking place was rather close to the road.
At the time when I lived in the area in the late 1960s Lord Montagu’s collection was just achieving some prominence. Since then the collection has grown, and a new generation has taken over, but the museum still feels similar to what I remember from 50 years ago. The little land-train has been replaced by a monorail, and there’s a pretty awful Top-Gear display outside the main museum, but otherwise it’s a fantastically broad-ranging collection of cars and motorbikes.
The New Forest Caravan and Motorhome Club Site
The Caravan Club sent us a voucher for a free night at one of their sites, so this seemed a good opportunity to make sure we didn’t forget to use it. Just 17 miles from Beaulieu, we parked up in the sunshine to have a cup of tea and a cake, and do absolutely nothing. Good value as a free night, and it’s a well equipped site but the normal price of £33.70 for two of us for a single night seems a little steep.
Getting your bits in order
Both the main clubs still haven’t got their heads around proper WiFi provision. They charge quite a lot (I’ve forgotten exactly how much) and the connection speed is pretty useless as you can see from this test. Web browsing worked fine, but it proved pretty useless trying to do anything else. I guess I’m probably not typical, but for me a decent internet connection at a camp site is more interesting than a mains power connection.
This is the first leg on our trip to Devon. We’re again cultivating the art of slow travel. We could get to our destination in a day, but why rush? We used to live in Winchester, so we decided to head that way for our first night stop. Town or country? That hadn’t been decided.
By the time we’d done all the last-minute stuff it was late morning before we left home, so lunch was calling as we rounded Royston. In decades of making that journey, we’d often noticed a big area of heath to the south of the A505, but we’d never stopped there. Turns out it’s called Therfield Heath, and we stopped in the slightly scruffy car-park near the sports centre. It would be a great place to go if you happen to be travelling with a dog, or even a horse – the heath is spacious, and for us it was a pleasant enough lunch spot. We took the opportunity to decide on a destination for our night stop, and chose the Bush Inn at Ovington, near Winchester.
The Bush Inn
Situated on the River Itchen at the end of a quiet road in the village of Ovington, the Bush was an idyllic place for a walk along the river followed by a meal on a gloriously warm evening at an outside table in the garden, right by the river. The food was good, and the welcome welcoming. The clientele seemed pretty well-off, and the prices reflected that.
Our overnight stay in a corner of the car-park was as peaceful as anyone could wish.
Conversation at a recent meetup with motorhoming friends turned to continental travel. We’ve been taking various campervans to the continent for around 30 years, so I thought it might be good to jot down some of the things we’ve learnt in that time.
Where to go
There’s no right answer. We’ve most often gone to France, but have also visited Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Andorra. For us the default destination is the west coast of France. We particularly like to travel down until it gets warm, maybe in the Vendée (around Saint-Jean-de-Monts) or the Gironde (Lac Hourtin). The Camargue is pretty exotic (Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer) and the Pyrenees are impressive both on the French and Spanish sides – we’ve been to Camping Rio Ara in Torla Ordesa a couple of times.
France is campervan heaven, and that’s what I will mostly talk about here.
We try to avoid toll roads (set your GPS to “no tolls”, but only after you’ve used the Dartford Tunnel to get to the Channel Ports). In France we take free autoroutes to miss big cities – the network of decent free roads has been increasing over the years. Otherwise we mostly travel N roads (similar to our A roads) which are usually uncrowded, and often interesting, or D roads (a bit like our B roads). In France toll roads are generally clearly marked as “Péage”.
We try to apply similar rules in other countries. We once came unstuck in Switzerland, where you have to buy a vignette to use the motorways. I was therefore being very careful to follow the green signposts to avoid the motorways. It was only as I went up the slip road that I realised the green signs led to the motorway! I exited at the first opportunity and got away with it.
Where to stay
We have done an entire holiday (late season) without staying at a single formal campsite. Options are:
Aires – be careful, because motorway services are called aires, and they are a very bad place to stay. What you are looking for are Aires de Camping Car, or Aires de Service de Camping Car. Some aires de service are simply service points for filling and dumping, but many also include overnight parking. There are many guides available listing aires, but we mostly find them by chance. They might be located at historic sites (Carcassone springs to mind) or in towns or villages. They are usually clearly signposted off N roads. Some aires are like car-parks, others more like a proper campsite. They are sometimes free, but increasingly charge a few Euros. Germany’s equivalent is the Stellplatz, and Italy’s is the sosta
France Passion – the French version of Britstops, mostly featuring vineyards, but also other farms and restaurants. Subscribe for the year and park overnight for free – you might of course be tempted by the produce
Wild camping – the French motorhome (camping car) community is very keen on enforcing the right to park pretty well anywhere. We have parked on grass verges, lay-bys and car-parks both out of town and in the centre of small towns, and never had any problems. Obviously attractive stopping places like promenades might have prohibitions (saying something like interdit aux camping-cars), which we always respect. The important thing is that you are parking, not camping, and nothing other than the tyres of your vehicle touches the ground – no table, chairs, awning or windbreak. Some people use supermarket car-parks, but we’ve always found something nicer, like a cemetery. Be sensible and respectful and all will be well
Campings municipals – well signposted small campsites in towns, usually with decent facilities at a modest price. These are very often unstaffed during the day (especially off-season). You pitch up somewhere sensible and someone comes along in the evening for your money
Commercial campsites – as in the UK, these vary from the modest and reasonably priced, to holiday-camp type establishments. People talk about the ACSI card as a way of getting off-season discount but we’ve never bothered, because we mostly go for France Passion or aires
I’ve found driving in France mostly very pleasant. People can be aggressive in big cities, but I have received sympathetic treatment when I’ve had to make unusual manoeuvres. By default the name boards of towns and villages signify the start of the 50kph limit, and a crossed out version of the same thing signifies the end of the limit. Increasingly the centres of towns and villages have 30kph limits and traffic calming. I try to respect all speed limits at all times, which can irritate the natives (less in France than Italy or Portugal, where all drivers are crazy). Speed limits in France are lower when it’s raining. In most of Europe do not expect drivers in the nearside lane of a dual carriageway to get out of your way if you’re coming out of a slip road – quite correctly it’s your job to find a space and match your speed.
When we first went to France the priorité à droite rule was still pretty common – if you were travelling along a road, someone emerging from a side road on your right had right of way. This has become less common now, but still often applies in the centre of towns and on very minor roads – or supermarket car-parks. In general French drivers are not suicidal in their application of this rule, but use their horn for instructional purposes if you neglect their priority.
France is well equipped with out of town supermarkets. Always buy fuel at these – it’s much cheaper than service stations. Beware the French lunchtime. Even quite large stores shut for a couple of hours. Nowadays fuel can often be obtained by card at these times – but don’t rely on it. Similar considerations apply to Sundays and public holidays – we’ve been surprised a few times.
Camping Gaz is universally available in France from supermarkets and a host of other outlets. It’s also available in other parts of Europe. The downside is that even the big Gaz container is pretty small, and it’s butane, which doesn’t work in the winter. If you have a fixed or refillable gas tank I believe that Autogas availability is pretty good, but you might need a different adaptor – it’s not something I’ve done, so I don’t know any more. We tend to start with a full container of Calor propane and a couple of Camping Gaz containers so we go a long way before we run out and can easily buy replacements. If you’re staying a long time in any country you might want to go native and buy a container from a local supplier, bearing in mind that you’ll need the appropriate pigtail or regulator to make the connection.
Known in campsite reception as branchement, and then when you look uncomprehending as électricité, hook-ups often have proper international blue connectors just like at home and all is OK. Sometimes they will have a standard domestic socket, so if you worry about having power (and it’s a good way of saving gas) then make sure you can cobble together an adaptor with a French domestic plug on one end and a hook-up socket on the other to receive your normal hook-up cable. The power output of hook-ups is often modest, so while fridges and battery charging won’t be a problem, hair-driers and electric kettles might be.
Some people (especially on internet forums) worry deeply about something (incorrectly) called “reverse polarity”. I’m not going to offer advice here, but simply tell you what I, as an engineering graduate, do about reverse polarity. The answer is very simple – I do nothing. I don’t worry or even think about it. I don’t check for it, or try to correct it. I just plug in and use the power. In all the years and all the places I have been, I simply exercise sensible caution with electrical connections and have never had any problems.
Don’t over-plan, and don’t tie yourself down to a tight schedule. As you travel you will see interesting sights, find fascinating towns you’ve never heard of and stop at wonderful places. Take the opportunity to relax, be spontaneous and explore. Very often our plan is simply “go South at Calais” – the detail will emerge as we go, depending on what we see, how we feel, and what the weather brings.
Years ago, travelling with the three children, we saw a signpost and made a spontaneous decision whilst we were driving to return from Hungary via Slovakia rather than Austria as initially intended. We had no currency, map or camping guide for that country. It was before the days of GPS and the Internet. We bought a map at a garage, and headed for what looked like an attractive part of the country where people might camp, in the hope that we would stumble across a camp site. We didn’t find one, but spent a peaceful night in a lay-by, separated from the road by apple trees, with the pup tent pitched outside the VW camper. We continued with our educational trip through the makeshift border with the Czech Republic and then through what had been East Germany, throwing in a trip round the VW factory at Wolfsburg. None of this was planned, but we all enjoyed a great practical learning experience about European geography, history and politics, as well as the vagaries of CV joints on VW campers when subjected to rough concrete roads.
Another time we headed into the centre of Paris in the Friday night rush hour, parked right at the base of the Eiffel Tower, spent a couple of hours looking at the view as the sun went down, and when we’d finished wondered what to do for the night. We just headed out of town, past the airport, and as the roads became smaller, we had an opportunity to park in a lay-by. It looked a little different and more inhabited in the daylight, but no problems.
Try to stay legal. In Hungary we were stopped by a policeman who pointed out a random 30kph limit sign at some abandoned roadworks. He indicated that he thought we were speeding. If I gave him the equivalent of around £5 he would be happy. We each spoke around 6 words of German, but not the same ones, so having seen how low the stakes were, I just played dumb and showed him all our documents. In the end he ran out of ideas, and wished us a good holiday.
Take opportunities to keep water tanks full and waste tanks (black and grey) empty, and make sure you have a belt-and-braces solution for gas. Be sensible and considerate, and take reasonable but not obsessive security precautions.
Talk to others you meet on your travels – they’ll give you ideas on places to go and sights to see. Nowadays Google is invaluable. I often browse at lunch time and in the evening to learn about our location, and what is of interest in the area. A couple of years ago that led us to a fascinating tour of Canadian WW1 trenches. Lunch and tea time stops are good for selecting the destination for the night, once you have some idea of how travel for the day will go. Google, paper maps and perhaps the France Passion Guide will provide the coordinates for the GPS, but if something interesting comes up before your destination, be flexible.
The low level of productivity in the UK has become a hot topic in recent years. Simplistically it sounds as though workers are not working hard enough – all we need to do is crack the whip a little, people will knuckle down and work harder and the problem will go away.
However a slightly more sophisticated analysis than that normally offered by politicians or the tabloids suggests that one element in this failure to improve productivity is actually a side-effect of the country’s success in achieving high levels of employment – a lot of the new employment is in the low-skilled service sector and “gig economy”, where individuals typically don’t generate much revenue per hour, for themselves or anyone else.
And therein lies the dilemma. Which do we want – full employment (even where many of those jobs leave people still on benefits) or high value-add for those employed, but higher unemployment?
I’m not normally short of opinion, but I really don’t know the answer on this one. Is having a job such a noble aspiration when that job is exploitative?
On the other side of the argument, I know at first hand that a lot of revenue is being lost at the moment while people like me with high levels of skill and potential revenue generation are left outside the world of employment, partly by choice and partly as a result of various forms of discrimination.
We were meeting a group of friends for a long weekend in Hereford, but had a few extra days to explore. A month or so earlier we’d travelled to South Wales on the A40, so we decided to travel to North Wales and then head back South to Hereford. It turned out that a theme of our trip was rivers, canals and lakes and we found ourselves alongside the Wye a number of times. And why not?
Bury to Trevor (near Llangollen)
Forget about getting your kicks on Route 66.
I like to drive b-dum b-dum The A5 b-dum b-dum
OK, it doesn’t scan well, and doesn’t quite have the same romantic appeal. Having recently travelled to South Wales mostly on the A40, when I noticed that the A5 stretched all the way to North Wales I couldn’t resist the challenge of following that route rather than whatever Garmin thought was sensible. The fact that much of the A5 was built by the Romans as Watling Street made it all the more appealing. Considering it’s been around for couple of thousand years, the road surface is pretty good.
So was the plan a good one? In truth probably not – we normally avoid the endless dreary and decaying Midlands suburbia on the motorway. I had hoped that we might discover hidden charms in the area but they were few and far between. We finally found a pleasant canal-side lunch spot at Sutton Wharf near Bosworth, but it was a late lunch.
Once we cleared the Midlands the A5 became less crowded and more scenic, and our overnight location at Trevor, beside a canal and looking across the Dee valley, was delightful. The Sun pub was very hospitable, the natives were friendly and the food and drink were good.
A creation of Thomas Telford, this is the longest and oldest in the country and highest in the world. It’s certainly one of the classic constructions and as it was only a couple of miles from our overnight stop it had to be done – we enjoyed a peaceful walk along the canal and eventually found ourselves at Trevor Basin, to one side of which the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct takes the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee. It’s a magnificent piece of engineering, but even as an engineer the most pressing feeling I had as we walked across was how narrow was the path alongside the cast iron trough that carries the waterway.
Having walked the walk along the canal we decided to move on to Betws-y-Coed – more specifically the Swallow Falls Hotel, which is hotel, pub, campsite and Youth Hostel. As a motorhome, we could park overnight and took advantage of the location to visit the Swallow Falls, just over the road from the hotel. They’re pretty, and there’s something compelling about the sheer energy of a waterfall – I guess it’s a lot more energetic when the weather’s not as good.
We had dinner and a couple of pints at the hotel – slightly caught out by the fact that they stopped taking food orders at 8pm, so we missed out on dessert. I now understand the significance of the barman coming round and collecting the menus – he could have said!
Swallow Falls to Rhayader
When you’re driving a motorhome in Wales (or Scotland or Cornwall) and the GPS tells you to take a B-road you think twice. When the start of that road advises that it’s not suitable for HGVs or coaches, your feeling of insecurity just grows. However, in the case of the B4518 we hit lucky. Not only was it reasonably wide and well maintained – it was also a glorious road taking us o’er hill and dale through verdant pastureland, with the highlight lunch stop at a viewpoint over Llyn Clywedog, an artificial lake used to control the River Severn. The wet weather meant that we had decided to travel rather than explore locally, so we had plenty of time to stop off for a walk at the nearby Caban Coch reservoir in the Elan Valley before heading to our camp site. The Elan Valley holds memories for us of a holiday we took before we were married – except today the weather was decidedly autumnal. Nice that the Elan Valley is still not over developed – just walks and bike trails from car-parks that are still free.
Just a few minutes walk from the centre of Rhayader this is a new acquisition by the CCC. It used to be council run, and has seen little development or investment. The upside of this is simple quiet camping on grass right beside the River Wye, within cycle or energetic walking distance of the Elan Valley. Sadly we’re only here for one night. Definitely worth another visit in the future.
Rhayader to Hereford
Just a short 47 mile drive through green and rolling countryside to our rendezvous with friends in Hereford. The destination was the Hereford Rowing Club, which runs a substantial campsite, open to the public, on the bank of the Wye.
Hereford Rowing Club
Their main business might be rowing, but the campsite at the Hereford Rowing Club is bigger than some dedicated campsites. Pitching is on grass, and it has all the facilities you might expect. The location is a few minutes from the town centre, but also provides quick access to a peaceful riverside walk and extensive parks, paths and cycleways.
A Walk around Hereford
Our group had arranged a guided tour around the city. Whilst there is some ugly modern development, the historic areas offer lots of history, secret delights and charm. A lovely place.
Waterworks Museum and Hereford Society of Model Engineers
At Broomy Hill, just a gentle and green walk along the river from the city centre, there’s a veritable playground for those who love engineering (I worked hard to find another way of describing boy’s toys). We were fortunate that the weekend of our stay coincided with a steam day at The Waterworks Museum and a public running day at the Hereford Society of Model Engineers, and absolutely beautiful weather.
The Waterworks Museum (http://www.waterworksmuseum.org.uk) was running an incredible number of working engines, variously powered by steam, gas and oil, including the oldest triple expansion steam engine working in Britain which is enormous, and for a Meccano kid like me, simply gorgeous. The lucky guys tending these engines were very happy to talk about them – a great visit.
And then, right next door at the Hereford Society of Model Engineers (https://hsme.co.uk/) there is nearly a mile of track and a great range of engines (steam, petrol and electric), offering rides, sounds and smells. The site also features a pond for model boats – boy’s toys indeed.
Hereford to Coleford
We had two days remaining, and decided to try the Camping in the Forest Bracelands campsite at Christchurch, near Coleford in the Forest of Dean. Years ago (long before the days of GPS) I was careless in route planning and found myself towing a caravan through Symonds Yat – I got away with it, but it’s the sort of mistake you should only make once in your life, so I took great care to ensure that I forced the GPS to avoid such folly. A waypoint at Monmouth did the trick.
I had initially booked just a single night in case we didn’t like the campsite. We needn’t have worried. It was very spacious and we picked a pleasant horizontal spot on the grass (with no defined pitches). The facilities were fine, and there was a proper motorhome service point, all for a surprisingly low fee. Very civilised.
One reason for visiting the Forest of Dean was to fit in some off-road cycling, and the area delivered. My initial exploration soon found a short trail to Symonds Yat Rock – mostly forest track, and a nice enough ride to an impressive viewpoint. As I set off on the return journey I had a chat with an activity leader to find the best way to get to the Cannop Cycle Centre. It turns out that connecting the trails with an off-road route is not easy, and I settled for getting there by road, with a bit of help from Google Maps and some hassle from uncouth car drivers.
Having established the route to the trails, on the next day I once again set off to the Cycle centre to ride the Verderer’s Trail, 7 miles of fun off-road riding, cunningly finishing with an exhilarating decent.
Time to go home
After a week and a half of enjoyable travelling in glorious weather, it was time to go home. This was a simple direct journey with the familiar problem of UK motorhome travel – decent places for a picnic lunch, without a height barrier.
To see many more pictures (good, bad and indifferent) from this trip visit my Flickr album at: