Veronica Ann, Erin Beth, Anya Rose, Kathryn Jane and Angela Vera. Isn’t it strange how Eddie Stobart’s lorries always seem to have such posh names? Not that I’m complaining of course – after all it makes a pleasant change from Scania, Volvo, Bedford (showing my age there I think) and the like. Anyway, we passed these particular beauties en-route from home to Scotland earlier today – perhaps now that we’re north of the border we’ll encounter Morag, Fiona and Janet plying their way around the highways and byways of Scotland? Whilst I’m on the subject of Mr Stobart’s fleet I do think it a bit of a retrograde step for him to allow his drivers to ‘dress down’ by shedding their ties. Not that it makes them any less capable as drivers of course…….. but standards, Eddie, standards!
Our first stop (not counting obligatory pee stops every two hours on the motorway) is at Hoddom Castle a few miles from the wonderfully named Ecclefechan, just north of the border. The castle itself has undoubtedly seen better days but still makes an imposing ruin and a good focus for the campsite – which I’m happy to say is pleasantly empty. For once the English can’t be blamed for knocking the place about from time to time over the past 600 years – the Scots seem to have managed that all on their own. What, Scotsmen looking for a fight? Who’d have thought it! A short walk up a nearby hill to the aptly named Repentance Tower (if it had been any steeper I’m sure I’d have been meeting my maker) was rewarded by great 360 degree views over some wonderful countryside in the evening sunlight.
Knowing how warm and sunny England can be in late March we had absolutely no hesitation in accepting Richard and Collette’s invitation to join them and Gretel for a few days in delightful Devon over the Easter break. No doubt we had visions of sitting out under the van’s awning playing with Gretel whilst enjoying a quiet drink and listening to the gentle sound of the sea lapping against the sun drenched beach. Right! Unfortunately reality set in as we drove across Exmoor on our way to Croyde with snow beating against the windscreen and the temperature hovering around freezing; although things improved a little when we reached the coast and our rather soggy campsite I’m sure it can’t have stopped raining for more than a few hours over the entire long weekend.
Had it not been for having to lend our electric heater to the ‘young ones’ to warm up their ‘glamping pod’, and the van’s central heating system chose that moment to throw a hissy fit, we would probably have been quite smug snug as the wind whistled and the rain beat down on our roof! Fortunately we’re British and won’t be defeated by a little ‘inclement’ weather – and in fact we remained (mostly) dry and thoroughly enjoyed the entire long weekend. Gretel was her usual amenable self and ‘Granny Denise’ revelled in the opportunity to do a little babysitting.
This blogging is all very well, but if you get behind with your scribbling its a devil to catch up! Anyway, having left the Loire Valley we headed south down to Confolens, which sits on the River Vienne to the north west of Limoges. Its an attractive town which our 15 year-old Rough Guide (not nearly as bad as our 10 year-old satnav) described as ‘rather touristy’ – well the tourists must have come and gone as we saw little sign of them. In fact we rather liked the town and especially the campsite which was literally on the banks of the Vienne which flowed sedately past our doorstep. A short (well reasonably short) cycle ride took us up the road to St Germain de Confolens which we particularly enjoyed. The next stop on our own personal ‘tour de France’ was Bugeat to the southeast of Limoges, but on the way we spent a few hours at Oradour sur Glane. It was here in June 1944 that a Division of the German Waffen SS, which included a number of Frenchmen, committed a particularly terrible atrocity, destroying the village and brutally murdering some 650 men, women and children in a so-called reprisal for attacks by the French Resistance. After the war the local population decided not to rebuild the village which has been left as a memorial to those who died here and elsewhere in France. We had a lovely warm day for our visit but one couldn’t help but be affected by the atmosphere of the place and the thought of what took place 73 years ago.
It would be nice to think that a few days spent in France would be the perfect antidote to all the Brexit crap we’re being fed in UK at the moment. The reality, however, is that if you’re any sort of Europhile all that happens when you spend time in Europe is that you realise just how much our continental cousins have got right and just how dire the UK’s situation is going to be when the umbilical cord is eventually cut. Not that everything in the European garden is completely rosy, and there are undoubtedly many things that the European bureaucrats have got completely wrong, but I have no doubt that five or so years down the line we’re all going to be feeling very sorry for ourselves. Still, that’s what happens when you give peasants and old people the vote. In the meantime I’m sure that I can detect a distinct sense of sympathy in the attitudes of the French people we meet – ah, les pauvre Anglais; ils sont absolutement fou!
For this, our fourth adventure in the ‘van, we decided to go ‘off piste’ and, apart from our first stop at the outset of our journey, we decided not to book campsites in advance. To be fair we’re not taking too much of a risk as we’re right at the end of the holiday season and, apart from the Dutch, who seem to be perpetually on the road, most holidaymakers have returned home and there’s more chance of sites being closed than packed-out.
Our first stop was at Saumur in the Loire Valley, home of the French cavalry school and the country’s biggest producer of mushrooms – there has to be a connection there somewhere. We picked a campsite on the Ille d’Offard , which is both in the centre of the town and on an island in the middle of the Loire. It’s a lovely location and within easy cycling distance of the chateau, which is Saumur’s main tourist attraction, and in reality is more of a fortress than a palace. Constructed initially by ‘Charles the Bald’ (the French certainly know how to call a spade a shovel) around the turn of the first millennium, over the next eight hundred years it had a busy and frequently violent history, ending up as a prison for Napoleon’s political opponents. Bizarrely, in the middle of our guided tour we were greeted by Jeanna Ind, a member of the Glavon chapter of the TR Register and someone we know quite well. What are the chances of bumping into an acquaintance like that completely out of the blue when far from home?
Today we’d planned to take in the Chateau du Rivau, but in the end we instead visited Chinon and enjoyed a walk around its well-preserved medieval streets followed by a visit to the town’s fortress which, like Saumur, has been partially reconstructed and is well worth a couple of hours spent wandering about. After a misty start to the day the skies cleared around midday and the sun shone and I spent some time cogitating about how things would have been very different if some of our medieval Kings of England hadn’t so carelessly lost our possessions in France; and that brought me back to Brexit all over again. Bugger!
It just so happens that Ty Rhos is only about half a mile from the West Wales Coastal Path, so as Thursday dawned bright and dry it would have been weak and unmilitary not to make the best of our lovely location and take a quick stroll along the coastline. I use the word ‘stroll’ advisedly as setting one foot in front of the other is still a bit of a struggle for me, not least when the path involves conquering the odd contour. Nevertheless we/I managed a mile or so of the cliff-top path which afforded some magnificent views and convinced us that we need to return here to walk more of the coastal path once I’m a little bit further along the way to full recovery.
The drive from mid-Wales down to the Black Mountains was enjoyable; the roads were relatively empty, the scenery was attractive and the sun shone. For the past week we’ve been telling ourselves that we’ve been fortunate with the weather during this trip, but perhaps we’ve had it all wrong and this part of the world isn’t quite as monsoon-prone as we’ve always thought? Naw! The forecasts can’t all be wrong and if/when Atlantic weather comes rolling in towards the UK there’s little doubt that it’s going to drop its lot on this part of Wales first. No matter, as I’ve said before timing is everything and if you can time your visits to avoid the equatorial rainstorms then you’ll be rewarded.
Our final stopover on this adventure was at Pencelli Castle which sits in the River Usk Valley just outside Brecon. The castle is long gone but the campsite that sits in its place is very pleasant and we were once again fortunate with the weather. A short walk along the towpath of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal in the company of all manner of wildlife was followed by the inaugural ‘firing’ of the portable barbeque that the kids bought for my birthday. Burgers and kebabs have never tasted so good – but we decided not to eat the wildlife!
Having settled the ‘van’ onto the very well-manicured and equally expensive Islawrffordd Campsite for a couple of nights we decided yesterday to ‘let the train take the strain’ and bought a brace of ranger tickets allowing us to explore the coastal railway line that follows the edge of Cardigan Bay, skirting the coastline and stopping at numerous small towns and even smaller villages along the way. The grey landscape and buildings seemed largely to be unaffected by the equally grey weather – perhaps on a bright sunny day it would have been a more uplifting experience, but I doubt it. Not that the place is depressing or dull – just a little bit, well, grey.
We journeyed north past Harlech as far as Pwllheli, did a quick tour of the town, took in a few charity shops, had a coffee and slab of bara brith cake and then hopped back on the train which chugged (I’m old enough to remember the days when trains puffed rather than chugged) its way south, past our starting point of Tal-y-bont, through Barmouth and on to Tywin, which sits on the coast below Cader Idris. There’s not a great deal to do in Tywin, so we took in a couple more charity shops and scoffed a brace of sandwiches from the local Co-op on the promenade whilst looking out for bottle-nosed dolphins – which had obviously decided to stay home for the day. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but we enjoyed our day.
Today was Denise’s birthday, so obviously the wind dropped, the sun shone and the temperature started to rise. Having decided to advance our itinerary by a day we drove south to Aberystwyth which came as a pleasant surprise. Quite why the Victorians decided to establish a place of higher learning in the middle of nowhere I’m not at all sure, but no doubt generations of university students have been extremely grateful for their decision to do so because it’s lovely. Or at least it is when the sun’s shining and there’s ice cream to be eaten.
The surprise of the day was Aberaeron. It seems that at some time in the 1970s one of the residents decided to paint her house a bright shade of something and the idea caught on. Now virtually all the houses in this well-preserved town are painted in bright and contrasting colours and the effect is wonderful. Perhaps because they haven’t allowed the thing to become gaudy or ‘over the top’ the colour scheme just seems to work extremely well and it’s quite uplifting that so many in the community have joined in to make something that obviously gives pleasure to residents and visitors alike.
Tonight we’re staying at Ty Rhos, a small campsite just outside New Quay, which is a pretty and as yet unspoiled harbour village just a little further down the coast. A nice birthday meal in the village followed by a short walk along the harbour breakwater convincing ourselves that we could see bottle-nosed dolphins a good half mile out to sea made for a very pleasant end to a very pleasant day.
There’s no doubt about it, life in the ‘van’ is infinitely more comfortable than camping. No tent to erect, no beds to make, hot and cold running water on demand and, most important of all, a large fridge to keep all that nice wine and beer properly chilled. I’m not at all sure how we’re going to cope if we have to revert to spending nights under canvas with the ‘Tufty Club’. Still, life is full of compromises – so perhaps we’ll just have to get used to occupying our ivory tower and be content to feel superior when necessary.
First stop on our Welsh itinerary was Powis Castle and gardens which proved to be a very worthwhile stopover. In the care of the National Trust since 1957 the castle has been in continuous occupation since the 13th century and was formerly the home of the Herbert family whose alumni, we learned, included Clive of India. The house/castle is fascinating (made even more so through the efforts of the many enthusiastic NT volunteers who were on hand to answer our questions) and certainly worth a visit …… but the gardens are simply sensational!
Timing, of course, is everything and I think that we probably judged our visit to perfection. Just about everything was in bloom and, although we didn’t actually see any gardening staff at work, there must have been dozens of hard working horticulturists running ahead of us just making sure that everything was perfectly prepared for our visit. Highly recommended and perhaps even worth a return visit at some time in the future.
Our second night’s stopover was at Tal-y-bont, just north of Barmouth on Cardigan Bay. With more holiday homes to the acre than it’s possible to calculate without using an abacus this type of location probably wouldn’t be our first choice in high season, but outside the school holidays there’s nothing more raucous about most of these sites than the sound of pensioners gently snoring their way through Coronation Street or Eastenders. It seems that quiet and comfortable has got to be the way forward.
The past nine months have been a tad difficult – not least when it came to sitting down and attempting to write an interesting, entertaining or informative blog. In August of last year I started to feel unwell and by the time I had been diagnosed with kidney disease towards the end of 2016 I was well and truly under the weather and largely ‘confined to barracks’ with little prospect of having anything interesting to write about.
These days the media seldom seems to have much that’s good to say about the NHS, however I have to say that my personal experience has been pretty much wholly positive. No doubt I’ve been fortunate to live in a part of the country where the service doesn’t seem to be permanently overloaded and in crisis, however being able to get to see my GP at virtually no notice and most importantly being able to rely upon the services of the experienced, caring and highly professional staff of Gloucester and Cheltenham hospitals has made the overall experience of being ill vastly more bearable than it might otherwise have been. I am immensely grateful for their help and support but, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, hope to be seeing rather less of them in the year to come.
Anyway, enough of all that! The good news is that as I hopefully near the end of my initial treatment (the wonderfully named Ponticelli Regimen) I seem to be making good progress and have at last been able to get back towards living a more normal existence, enjoying some of those things that I’ve been looking forward to over the past few months.
The first and most important news to report is the arrival of our first granddaughter, Gretel Lilly Ewbank, who came into this world in Nürnberg on 23rd February 2017 courtesy of her parents Richard and Collette. She’s a beauty and a delight and no doubt will one day be a famous scientist, renowned artist or perhaps even a skilled restorer of classic cars. Who cares just so long as she remains healthy and happy?
On the automotive front I have to report that Bertie has moved on to pastures new. Although we thoroughly enjoyed our relatively short period of Austin ownership it became increasingly clear over the past year that he was just one car too many for us and that we would have few opportunities to gain full use or enjoyment from him going forward. The good news is that he’s moved on to enthusiastic new owners and that for the first time in 47 years of automotive ownership I’ve actually managed to make a small profit from buying and selling a car!
Nature abhors a vacuum and the prospect of having a little spare space on the drive was obviously insufficient reason for not going out and buying another vehicle (not sure that sentence makes sense, but you know what I mean) so we immediately went out and bought a motorhome – what else? Our first short expedition to the north Devon coast in early May was an unqualified success so as I sit here tapping away at the keyboard we’re actually parked in a field in Powys at the start of a six day break which, if all goes well and the weather stays reasonable, should see us exploring the Welsh coastline and getting to know our new mode of transport. Today Welshpool, tomorrow the world – we’re on the road again!
Working on that age-old (and probably deeply flawed) principle that lightning seldom strikes in the same place twice, and having replaced the Stag’s steering rack after it let us down at Laon earlier in the year, we decided to chance our luck once again and set off confidently for the Le Mans Classic along with the majority of Gloucester TSSC members.
As it turned out the car behaved impeccably from start to finish and thanks to the perfect weather, great classic racing and some very sociable company we were treated to a memorable and very enjoyable long weekend in La Belle France – just don’t get me started on Brexit again!
I’m not entirely sure why it should have taken me two complete months since returning from our week ‘s skiing in the Dolomites to get around to pulling a blog together. Perhaps now’s the time to come out with that well-worn excuse trotted out by the recently retired …’ I don’t know how I ever found the time to go to work’. All true! Anyway, notwithstanding the blogging delay, I can report that a very good week’s skiing was had by all.
Having thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Val di Fassa last year we decided to repeat the experience – but this time with the added bonus of being accompanied by Peter and Suzie who, throwing caution to the winds, agreed to join us and trust in our choice of resort. Fortunately the ‘skiing gods’ must have been with us because we certainly struck lucky with the hotel and, as it turned out, the weather.
Looking at the rotten snow reports in the days leading up to the holiday I must confess to having panicked a little and at one point actually thought of cancelling our ski passes and packing the walking gear. In the end, however, I needn’t have worried; although the snow was decidedly ‘sparse’ the resorts did an excellent job of making the best of what they had available, and with the help of numerous snow cannon they produced pistes that were well up to our fairly limited standard of skiing.
The end result? No broken bones, a few centimetres extra on our waistlines and, most importantly, a thoroughly enjoyable holiday with good friends.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and a general account of life in the Ewbank household…..