All posts by John Ewbank

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (Coulon)

I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a hot weather person.  In the searing, white-hot incandescence of an English Summer with the thermometer sometimes creeping as high as 24 degrees, I’ve been the one to cry ‘bring it on, I can stand any amount of this!”.  So, when my trusty BBC Weather app told me that the temperature in Coulon was likely to reach 35 degrees I was definitely up for it.  But, as the old saying goes – be careful what you wish for. 

Coulon nestles on the edge of the Marais Poitevin, an area of drained marshland just to the West of Niort.  We’d visited before, probably around 18 years ago, and although I had a vague memory of the place, in reality I couldn’t remember much more than the fact of our visit, that the area is criss-crossed by canals and drainage ditches and that it’s yet another stunning part of France. 

We stayed for four nights on a site that was a bit of mix between a camperstop and a municipal campsite.  For 10 euros a night we got our pitch, electricity and toilets – but no showers.  Now, I don’t know how you’d fare living for four days in a small white box in 34 degree heat and no showers, but let me tell you it isn’t an enticing prospect – even when you’ve lived with the same partner for 44 years.  Fortunately, we suddenly remembered that, although we’d never previously used it, the van has a shower!  No matter that you need the contorting skills of a Japanese origami master to use it – in these conditions we were prepared to try anything.  And it works!  Well, it works after a fashion and that was good enough for us.  Luxury.

The Marais is extremely pretty – and flat – so cycling is an excellent way of getting around and doing a bit of exploring.  Especially if you happen to have an e-bike.  We managed a couple of forays and would probably have done more if the weather had been just a little cooler.  On the 14th, which just happens to be her majesty’s official  (and unofficial) birthday, we were joined for lunch by Jennie and Nathan, which helped to make the day rather special.

Our next stop is Bordeaux where we’re promised highs of 39 degrees.  Oh goody.

Carnac and Auray

Saturday arrived and our week with the family at Saint Cast all too quickly came to an end.  Richard and family high-tailed it home via the Channel Tunnel in order to get Gretel back into school and resume normal life, Jennie and Nathan moved on to the Isle de Re for a few days of chilling, exploring and oyster eating whilst Tom Emily and Rory headed back into Normandy for some quiet family time prior to their return home.

Knowing that we probably wouldn’t get away from the house until around midday we decided that we wouldn’t travel very far on the Saturday and opted to drive the hundred or so miles down to Carnac to take a look at what the French so ambiguously call ‘The Alignments’.  In a way I suppose they’re right, because if you really don’t know what something is its rather difficult to give it a meaningful name.  Quite what the neolithic occupants of the region were thinking when they decided to place some thousands of massive boulders in more or less straight lines for up to 4km is anybody’s guess.  Personally, I rather like the idea of a monumental game of Tetris but other ideas such as ‘landing lights for alien spacecraft’ probably have just as much merit (though it would have made for a bumpy landing).  Whatever the reason, it must have taken ages – though as they hadn’t actually invented clocks or calendars in 5,000 B.C. they presumably didn’t give much thought to the European Working Time Directive.

After a night on a freebee camperstop and another brief morning look at the ‘alignments’ we started our journey down to Coulon, stopping after a very few miles to take in the small and very picturesque riverside port of Auray.  As it happens the day marked the start of some wonderful weather (more of which anon) and if you’re going to do some sightseeing in small, picturesque ports you really couldn’t have chosen a better day.  After running through all the usual superlatives we happily settled for ‘lovely’ – and it was.

St Cast le Guildo

During our two day stay at the nearby Pen-Guen campsite we’d taken the opportunity to recce the house in nearby St Cast, so we had a good idea of what to expect when we were handed the keys on the Saturday morning.  We did a monster ‘Super-U’ shop that morning so all that remained to do was to sit and await the arrival of the family, and by that evening they had all arrived safely and we were firmly ensconced for the week ahead.

La Garde was perfect for a relaxing family holiday and definitely lived up to our expectations: comfortable house with plenty of room, heated pool, large (not particularly well-kept) garden for the children to run around in and a ten-minute walk to the world’s best beach – what more could we have asked for?

Our seven days at La Garde went all too quickly.  Frequent trips to the beach, walks into St Cast to collect the morning croissants, lovely meals, a high-pressure game of golf for Richard, Tom and Jennie (well done Jen) and a lot of general lazing around and relaxing.  It would be nice to think that we might be able to do the same thing again next year – we’ll see.

Thank you to all the family for helping to celebrate the advent of my eighth decade on planet Earth.  I love you all very much.

En Vacances

Starting our holiday in France, and with a couple of days to kill before the arrival of the family to spend a week with us in the villa we’ve booked at Saint-Cast le Guildo, we thought that we’d begin our trip on familiar territory by revisiting the Normandy town of Mortain that happens to be twinned with Blandford Forum and to which we paid a flying visit back in 2004 when I was Regimental Colonel.  To be honest I think that the only reason we were invited back then was because of my association with the Corps Band who’d been invited to perform at the town’s annual twinning celebrations.  Whatever the reason for the invitation, one of the few things I remember about that trip was that we were very well looked after by our hosts – even to the extent of being accommodated at the home of Monsieur le Maire.   Why is it that our memories of some of these trips are so patchy?  Is it amnesia, dementia, or simply that we didn’t pay much attention at the time?

Anyway, for this visit I think that we expected to find the same lively and well-kept little French town- albeit without the bunting and jolly music.  Oh dear! How things can change in just a few years.  Sadly, the Mortain of 2022 is just like so many of the small, provincial French towns we’ve seen in recent years – dead, or well on the way towards an early death.  Empty shop fronts, ‘A Vendre’ signs on far too many residential properties and every indication of an imminent demise short of tumbleweed rolling down the main street.  The curse of the ‘out of town’ shopping centre has done for Mortain what the Romans did for Carthage. Tant Pis!

On a rather more positive note, one thing that Mortain does have going for it is an excellent ‘camperstop’ site  that allows visiting ‘vans’ to park overnight on the Place de la Chateau for free with the added amenity of a fully-automated, stainless steel public convenience which does just about everything for its clientele short of wiping their bottoms.  All very French.

After a leisurely start to Day Two, and having purchased and then consumed our first croissants of this trip, we drove the 30 or so miles to the pretty, bustling, and almost unspoilt town of Dinan which can boast some of the most original medieval streets and buildings to be found in this part of France.  Although the two towns are very different both in size and nature the contrast with Mortain couldn’t be more stark.
A further hour’s drive brought us to Saint Cast le Guildo, or at least as far as the rather dog-eared Pen Guin campsite on the edge of the town where we’re spending a couple of nights before occupying the villa.  In my official role as ‘campsite connoisseur’ I had little hesitation in awarding this one ‘null points’, partly because there isn’t a level pitch to be found anywhere on the site, but mainly because I was in a grump when we arrived!

Holidays – the stuff that memories are made of (hopefully)

Arriving in Mull we suddenly realised that we had a problem.  Not a physical problem you understand, more of a memory thing.  We know that we holidayed on the island with the children back in 1993, but neither of us could remember how we got here, most of what we did when we were here, or more that a few isolated fragments of what should have been a memorable holiday.  We remembered a bit about our accommodation, we remembered that Jennifer spent much of her time trying to befriend a family of feral cats under the building and we remembered that Richard was less than well when we went out fishing for mackerel – but the rest of the trip remains a mystery.  Hopefully our memories of this this trip will last a little longer.

Scallastle Farm, Diane and Nigel’s lovely new home which they share with a herd of Luing cattle (the farm, not the house), is just a few minutes drive from the ferry terminal at Craignure.  They (Di and Nigel that is, not the cattle) were perfect and generous hosts for our short stay, driving us hither and thither around the island and sharing their love and enthusiasm for their wonderful  island home. 

When you visit this part of the world at this time of year you have to cross your fingers and hope for decent weather – and for the first four days of our stay we had it.  Clear blue skies and bright Spring sunshine more than compensated for a slightly chill breeze and did justice to the stunning Mull scenery – and not a midge in sight.  Perfect! 

As I’m writing this we’re sitting in the van on Day Five with the rain hammering down, doing its best to compensate for the unseasonable sunshine that we’ve enjoyed since our arrival.  No matter, it gives me a chance to reflect on some of the highlights of our stay.

Speed Bonnie Boat ………

With only about sixty miles to drive from Luss to catch our early evening ferry from Oban to Mull we were able to make a relaxed start to the day and enjoy the scenic drive.  Once again the weather behaved itself and the glens and mountains looked magnificent with just a few traces of snow lingering on some of the peaks.

Along the way we paid a fleeting visit to the ruins of Kilchurn Castle on the banks of Loch Awe, which according to Wikipedia has the distinction of being the oldest surviving military barracks in mainland Britain – notwithstanding the current state of the Defence Budget I’m not sure that many units would fancy being quartered here. 

Interesting though the castle was, I was rather more taken with the old iron railway bridge that crosses the nearby head of the loch.
Arriving in Oban with time to spare we took a walk up to the impressive McCaig’s Tower which gives commanding views of the town and harbour and over towards Mull.  It’s a fascinating structure which was built around the turn of the nineteenth century, but for the life of us we couldn’t come up with a convincing reason for why it should have been built in the first place.

By the Bonnie, Bonnie Banks …………….

Leaving the lovely Peak District we wound our way through Macclesfield (site of one of the Ewbank ancestral homes) back towards the motorway and started the long flog north.  Despite a headwind of about 300mph we had good weather and relatively light traffic – both of which helped to make it a pleasant journey. 

As we were now a couple of days ahead of our original timetable we needed to find a stopover without straying too far off the motorway – after a bit of head scratching we remembered that about four years ago we’d overnighted at Hoddom Castle Campsite which is just over the border near Lockerbie and, despite the site being rather busier than we’d expected, they managed to squeeze us in for the night.  It’s a nice site, but we wondered quite what visitors from overseas would make of their spelling!
A short morning walk from the campsite up to the nearby Repentance Tower provided a more than adequate supply of fresh air and good views of the Solway Firth, both of which set us up for the next leg of the journey up to Luss on the western shore of Loch Lomond.  As we were still a day ahead of our schedule we were again fortunate that the campsite managed to fit us in for the extra day.

Repentance Tower
Repentance Tower – by the time you take up residence here its a little late to repent!

Luss is a pretty’model’ village, built early in the nineteenth century by the local Colquhoun family (who apparently own some 75,000 acres on the western side of the loch) for their workers in the local slate quaries; nice at this quiet time of year but I imagine it must get absolutely rammed during the tourist season.  The following day we cycled the 8 miles along the loch-side up to Tarbert – which I’m afraid to say had absolutely nothing to recommend it!

Biddulph Grange and a Night in the Peaks

It’s good to get out and about again.  Although this last winter hasn’t been especially hard, it does seem to have been a bit of a long slog.  So, this first trip of the year in the ‘van’ has been eagerly anticipated and we’re hoping that we’ll get some decent weather in which to enjoy our Great British scenery. 

We’re never stuck for interesting places to visit but I’m not sure that we’d have considered the Isle of Mull as a destination if Denise hadn’t received an invitation from her friend Diane who’s recently taken up residence there.  But I’m getting ahead of myself – we’ll get to that part of the trip later and no doubt have some tales to tell and pictures to show. 

Anyway, knowing that we’d be travelling pretty much past his front door I arranged some time ago that on the way north I’d drop the Stag off with Cliff Griffiths in Wolverhampton for it to be fitted with a new hood.  The old one was getting pretty tatty and the folding mechanism had become a nightmare, so I’m hopeful that by the time we call in to collect the car on our way back home it will be resplendent with a new roof and it will no longer be a three round wrestling match to put the thing up and down.

We’d originally planned to spend a couple of days on the way up with the family in Bramhall, but unfortunately the girls went down with bad colds and chest infections, so we decided to defer our visit and call in to see them on our way home.  So, with a couple of days to spare we opted to fit in a few visits, the first of which was to Biddulph Grange near Congleton.  The National Trust gardens have fairly recently been returned to something like their Victorian splendour and are themselves worth a visit, but I was also keen to see the house where my mother spent the first part of her nursing career in the early forties.  Sadly the house isn’t open to visitors and anyway much has undoubtedly changed in the eighty intervening years, but it was nice to establish a link with her past and to see something of what she experienced as a sixteen or seventeen year-old living away from home and family for the first time.

Leaving Biddulph we Googled a few local campsites and eventually ended-up at Berry Bank Farm at Wildboarclough just south of Macclesfield on the edge of the Peak District National Park.  A little bit on the basic side but perfect for our needs: cheap, scenic and not exactly crowded – in fact when we arrived we were the only guests (perhaps that had something to do with the fact that we were at 1,250 feet and it was blowing a hooley).  By the time evening came there was just us, 250 sheep and their lambs, three ponies and a young Polish couple who spent the first part of their stay trying to pitch their tent in a Force 8 gale – so we weren’t short of entertainment.

What The Romans Did For Us – A Walk to Spoonley Wood Roman Villa

One of the many things that the Romans did for us was to leave us with a great many souvenirs of their 400 year occupation of Britain.  Some have been discovered and made accessible for visits by those of us who take an interest in such things, others lie beneath the earth awaiting discovery in years to come, and a very few have been discovered and, well ……….. just left!

One such site is Spoonley Wood Roman Villa which sits in the grounds of Sudeley Castle near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire – about 15 miles from home.  Discovered and partially unearthed in the 1870s it’s largely been left for nature to once more reclaim and is sufficiently remote and inaccessible that it now receives very few visitors.  In fact you could quite easily walk within yards of the site and never know it was there.  Having been alerted to its existance by a mention by Bill Bryson’ book ‘Notes from a Small Island’ we decided to take a look.

The walk from Winchcombe is just over a couple of miles and on a fine day you could probably do the return trip in not much more than two hours – unfortunately, whilst the day we chose was bright and sunny, the ground underfoot was extremely wet and in many places the path (such as it was) was a quagmire.  When the mud starts to go over the top of your walking boots you know its wet!

When you eventually get there the site itself is at first a little underwhelming.  You can more or less make out the outlines of some of the buidings (partialy reconstructed by enthusiastic Victorians) but the woodland has largely overwhelmed their efforts at conservation and the structures that they erected to protect some of the finds have, in the main part, long since disintegrated.  There is, however, one small ‘lean-to’ structure doing its best to protect a small patch of floor and beneath a piece of rather grotty plastic sheeting is ……………….. a wonderful roman mosaic!  Lift the sheet and there, covered with mud and definately not looking its best , is a floor that was apparently laid by a Roman workman some 16 or 17 centuries ago.   Who said the Romans never did anything for us?

The Robin seemed to be just as interested in the mosaic as we were!

Whitby, Flamborough and Hull (Again)

As it happens Pickering is the start point (or end point, depending upon whether you’re coming or going) of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, so it would have been downright rude to have visited this wonderful part of the country without taking a trip to Whitby (and back) on a steam train.  One of the (few) good things about the pandemic has been that certain attractions that would normally be crammed with fellow holidaymakers have actually been fairly quiet – so we were able to enjoy our trip down memory lane in relative space and comfort. 
Unfortunately we weren’t able to say the same about Whitby which was heaving with crowds of visitors, not one of whom seemed to have heard about social distancing or mask wearing.  No wonder we’re in the realms of a third (or is it fourth) wave of infections.  Still, mustn’t grumble….. that’s the spirit.  A quick trip around the abbey (not a vampire to be seen) followed by fish and chips sat on the quayside rounded off the visit before we slowly chugged our way back to Pickering and our little ‘home from home on wheels’.
Next stop on our blitzkrieg tour of Yorkshire was Flamborough Head – scene of Thomas Robinson Ewbank’s (my 4 x Gt Grandfather) minor maritime triumph when, in 1805, as skipper of the Sarah and Elizabeth (a Hull based whaler), he saw off a dastardly attack on local shipping by a French privateer.  Of course I was surprised and disappointed that there was no plaque to commemorate the event, but this was slightly mollified by being able to watch the resident puffins, gannets and razorbills that inhabit the impressive cliffs in large numbers.

Extract from ‘The Hull Packet’ of 29th July 1805

Whilst in the neighbourhood we took the opportunity to visit the lovely house and gardens at Burton Agnes.  The walled garden was spectacular, combining fabulous planting with a huge range of fruits and vegetables – and once again the absence of crowds made the visit a real pleasure.

As someone who has a long term interest in his family history, it would have been unthinkable to visit the East Riding without making just a fleeting visit to Hull to dig up (metaphorically, of course) the relatives.  I already knew that Spring Bank Cemetery, where a number of my forebears are allegedly resting, was reputed to be in a bit of a state, but the reality still came as a bit of a shock.  It’s a massive space in the centre of the city but sadly it clearly hasn’t been maintained at all since it was last used in the early seventies.  With trees and bushes covering pretty much the entire area virtually all of the grave stones are broken or have fallen over – in fact this would have been a much better place than Whitby for Bram Stoker to have made Dracula’s home.  By some miracle we stumbled over the last resting place of Thomas Steel and Harriet Ewbank but I don’t doubt that in a year or two’s time that too will have been lost to nature.  Shame on Hull City Council (or whoever’s responsible) for allowing a graveyard to fall into such a state.  Rant over.