We’ve just returned from our first trip in Madge. She performed well through the Lakes and the Peaks and, barring one or two minor niggles, we are impressed. 

Another first for us was the night spent at a Britstops location. Having paid £25 for the book (and automatic membership until March 2013) we were determined to try one of the many free sites listed. Our options ranged from pubs through farm shops and breweries to official UK ‘aires.’ Motor homing members are welcome at every site, entirely free of charge and with no obligation to buy from the hosts. No facilities are provided other than a secure place to overnight, which is what most of us really want.

We chose the Blue Cow Inn at South Witham, Lincolnshire. The car park slopes a little but that never bothers us. We don’t carry levellers; if we are on an incline we simply change our sleeping position to compensate. This pub brews its own beer at 4% ABV, a palatable cask ale from first sip to the downing of the fourth pint (and no doubt beyond if we hadn’t reached our capacity). Food was straight forward and tasty home-cooked pub-grub with no fancy pretensions. The welcome we received from the proprietors was sincere and friendly. The Blue Cow provided an excellent introduction to the ethos of the Britstops scheme and we believe that the cost of the book is money well spent.

From there we went to Keswick and met in quick succession both the most miserable camp site warden in the country and one of the most pleasant. A booking mix-up meant we couldn’t go where we’d originally intended and had to move to the nearby affiliated site in the middle of town – a stroke of luck arising out of misfortune.

We walked on the fells (Catbells) during the one day of shining sun and bought new walking boots in town on the one day of constant rain. Then home via Saddleworth Moor, Snake Pass and Castleton, bringing our brief but interesting first trip to a close.

A small snagging list of minor issues will be attended to soon. In the meantime, we’re about to find out whether paying for a Superguard external protective coating was worthwhile. Madge is filthy, mainly because of sugar beet and potato harvesting around home.






We chose the name Madge as a joke, because we bought the motor home from Simpson. Now a reliable source has advised that Bart’s mother is Marge. It’s only one consonant out, but we’re left with the quandary of keeping an irrelevant name or going through the whole tedious process of fixing a new name in our minds. What to do?

meeting madge

At last we break our silence. Our trusty Hobby 690 GES has left home to take up with new partners and, after we had a brief but unfulfilling flirtation with Triggy, Madge has joined the family. She’s a Swift Mondial GT, a sleek and comely dark-grey-blue panel van conversion.

We made a deliberate decision to downsize. Hobby was great for comfort but she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) reach some of the places we wanted to venture. Now, Madge at 6 metres long is a perfect fit. Anywhere an ordinary van can go, we can go, and we have much more scope for exploration in places where narrow and short is a distinct advantage.

Having said that, we do have a puzzle. All documentation and records show Madge as being 6 metres long. Even the very helpful customer service department at Swift confirmed that the van is a standard Peugeot Boxer as it arrived from the factory and is (if anything) a fraction less than the declared 6 metres. Yet my tape measure definitely measures her to 6.2 metres, suggesting she’s grown in the two years since Swift produced her. She shows no signs of post-factory modifications, so we have a mystery.

Does this mean we’ve bought the first truly organic camper van in the world? Has Madge grown by 0.2 metres since 2010? And what are the implications for the future? Has Madge experienced some terrestrial big bang and is expanding at a universally alarming rate? If such growth rates are sustained, she’ll be as long as our Hobby within 10 years. Will her internal organs such as lockers, seats and storage space also grow commensurate with her length, or will we find gaps developing in her layout? Too many questions again; too few answers.

A new era begins, the start of the Madge Epoch. The trouble is she cost us so much we can’t now afford to go away in her.


If you’ve never been to Brittany, here’s a tiny word of advice. Don’t.

Don’t, because you’ll only help to fill almost empty roads.
Don’t, because you’ll take up emplacements we might want to use shortly.
Don’t, because the dearth of typical English campers is a delight.
Don’t, because we loved the place and fear you could spoil it.
Don’t, because I want to be selfish and keep it to myself.

We journeyed for three weeks, pottering the lanes and roadways of the Atlantic coast. Apart from the initial drive to get there and back, we covered very few miles. Probably, we walked further than we drove. From Brest to Concarneau, we encountered jagged granite cliffs, white sands in remote coves, fishing villages in rocky bays, misty islands ghosting off-shore, enigmatic statues on bluff outcrops, miles of footpaths free from people except us four, rural campsites and aires almost empty – and entrancing towns half asleep until beyond midday.

In those three weeks, I rediscovered Jacques Prevert, tasted and relished my first ever Breton beers, tapped feet to the stimulus of Breton music, ate crepes in tiny bistros, missed out on moules frites because of a serious case of mistiming (they disappear on 1st May – the very day I tried to order the dish), learnt the difference between the French verbs for ‘to buy’ and ‘to sell’ much to the puzzlement and amusement of a patient shopkeeper at Cleden, drank more cheap French wine than I should have done – and walked about 150 miles of GR34, the coastal footpath around Brittany.

At St Malo, we wandered through the awe inspiring medieval town immured by ancient high stone walls. At Paimpol harbour market we rummaged among stalls laden with marine paraphernalia. At Landrellec we found a strange green frog (that’s not a joke). At Brest we saw penguins. At Pors Peron a swallow-tailed butterfly passed within a few inches of my head. At Pointe du Raz we watched fishing vessels bouncing in the wild tide. From Audierne we walked up the winding river to Pont Croix, where we drank beer, ate our first crepes and saw our first heronry in the trees. In Quimper, we became acquainted with Rodin. At Concarneau, another ancient citadel, we had more crepes while the flags of European nations fluttered above us.

And we brought home a few lasting impressions of Breton life. They like to hang bedding out of windows to air. Trees are pollarded into tight symmetrical balls. LeClerc supermarkets are probably the best in the world. Colourful wooden shutters on windows, often closed against the sun. An absence of ‘no camping’ signs – even small villages provide extraordinary services for motor homes, unlike the anal antediluvian attitude of most British towns. An absence of toilet seats. And a scintillating Atlantic Ocean, blue to green and as clear as vodka. A countryside as rural, green and clean as Kent was in the 19th century.

When I get time, I’ll post a few more thoughts on this fascinating part of France. In the meantime, please keep trying to find a Caravan Club site in England able to accommodate you on a Saturday night. In all we stayed at twelve camp sites in Brittany – and booked at none.

two weeks to go

Two weeks to go. We’re meeting friends and will travel to the Pointe Du Raz area of Brittany. That’s the most westerly point of France. To cross the channel, we’re taking a ferry from Dover to land in the most easterly port of the country, Dunkirk. That gives us several days to wend our way along the coastal route through Normandy.

So I, in my appalling ignorance, asked why we’re going due east to end up more or less south-west at the far end of the spectrum – that’s surely taking extremities to the extreme. The answer is found in ferry tariffs. Norfolk Line will carry us, and our motor home, for little more than the cost of a new hat. Their competitors will charge a full wedding trousseau including silk ribbons and Calvin Klein underwear. The decision was made; we’ll go under-dressed and spend the savings on seafood, red wine and cheese. It’s an old age wedding; who needs frills?

Our intention is to walk around the coastal fringes of the region known as Cornouaille. With our friends’ pronunciation, the area sounds to me suspiciously like Cornwall. It will be a very short joint holiday if they’ve misunderstood our intentions. Around the edge of Cornouaille is a long distance footpath skirting granite cliffs, white-sand inlets and plangent Atlantic waves. Between us, and maybe even together, we’ll tackle as many of these wind-hewn tracks as practicable.

That’s if time and weather permit. We’ll walk as far as you like on a warm sunny day. However, the only lashings we like are of wine, so if rain persists, we’ll fall back on a selection of DVDs, good books and cosy interiors. It’ll be just like our usual holidays on the west coast of Scotland only without midgies.

All we need to do now is buy currency. We’re leaving that as late as possible. Rates of exchange seem to be moving in our favour. No doubt another crisis will hit just before we leave and the pound will drop into the Atlantic again. But the really good news is that with a little luck, we’ll be away while all those ugly and execrable politicians find new ways to throw mud at each other in support of their twisted and corrupted notion of democracy.

Mais c’est la vie.

ici la post premiere sur France

un hoboWe’re preparing for our first ever trip abroad. A few years ago we went to Eire for a few weeks, but that doesn’t really count as abroad because they drive on the left. But in April we’re heading for France where they drive on the right. This will be the first time I’ve driven on the right in other than a left-hand drive vehicle.

Hobby is German, but she’s right-hand drive. I take a little comfort from knowing that the gear stick will be in the same place even if the roundabouts are a challenge to my sense of balance and direction.

Our French is poor. Michel Thomas is trying to rekindle dim memories of schoolboy GCE French (failed) but I can’t move beyond “comfort-A-bler.” Why are educationalists so obsessed with pronunciation and precise grammar? Most who are proficient in English as other than their mother tongues speak English as it is spoken in their home towns. They speak the language but their accents always betray their true origins and we always know what they mean when they say “I be here tomorrow.”

Everything is more or less gathered together now. The ferries are booked; insurance has been arranged. Spare light bulbs have been acquired. We have a pair of day-glow yellow waistcoats and our health cards and Camping Card International are fully valid. An emergency triangle is in the post from that nice company on E-bay, together with a set of headlamp adaptors. The ‘van has had a full service and I can feel her straining at the leash to enter the breach once more.

The satnav has French roads pre-loaded and we’ve bought an atlas so we know what we’re missing when we follow instructions slavishly. The dust has been brushed off the passports and I’ve checked my stock of khaki shorts, white socks, rainbow braces and knotted handkerchiefs. The first-aid box is loaded with Factor 800 and we can’t decide whether or not to take the mosquito repellent so useful in Scotland. Being “comfort-A-bler” is very important to us. The English abroad, eh?

I’m assured it never rains in Brittany during April and May. The man who told me is normally very reliable. His brother knows a man who read it somewhere on Wikipedia I think. Should we take waterproofs?

Oh dear. Only three weeks to go.

first trip of the year

After a long winter’s lay-up, during which this elderly couple applied chapped hands and aching backs to an even more elderly and gnarled house, we finally put our Hobby back onto the road where she belongs. Grandson was celebrating the first major 0 of his birthday catalogue and we headed to Devon to help pass round the sticky rice-crispy cakes.

En route, we stopped at Bristol for a couple of nights. We took a pitch at the Caravan Club’s Baltic Wharf. If you’ve never been there, be warned that to step for the first time through the wicket gate at the back of site is to experience the Narnia effect. Push open the rear of the wardrobe and you’ll pass from the mundane to the sublime in a sudden roman candle of revelation. On a June evening a few years ago, we did just that.

As the name of the place suggests, the site is on the actual quay wall of the main wet dock. We sat on steps at the water’s edge outside the adjacent Cottage pub, a pint of beer in hand, and watched, in no particular order, a squadron of hot-air balloons ghosting over head, a fleet of sailing boats tacking through the dark waters, teams of scullers straining against oars, a group of sea cadets practising life saving techniques, a couple of lads fishing patiently from the dock’s edge, narrow boats wending towards the Cumberland locks and flights of geese ticking their approval of the scene below. On the opposite bank, al fresco on a small floating pontoon, a choir practised selections from show tunes. Their mellow songs wafted to us over the water. All around, the normal bustle and clamour of city life was somehow softened and slowed as if the clear blue skies above had ordained a moment of sequestered peace.

Even in winter, this is a place to cycle or walk. In fact, one of Britain’s great town-walks starts at Baltic Wharf and covers a couple of miles or so along the quays to the city proper. Here will be found evidence for why I believe Bristol planners know what they’re doing: the old sits comfortably and amicably with the new; overalls share cafés with pin-stripe suits; your Ferrari parks next to my battle-weary people carrier.

On the walk, we pass new housing built in a style congruous to the maritime character of the area. The Yacht club and a large marina are not mere showrooms for exorbitant wealth; they are crammed with personality, some craft obviously being used as house boats, some for fishing, others of more dubious provenance or purpose. A few yards along is an industrial area with an active chandlery, ship repair yards and a dry dock still busy with welders and marine engineers. Through a dank alleyway and we find Wallace & Grommit’s crucible opposite a derelict warehouse patiently awaiting the sprucing hand of a developer. Right next door is the SS Great Britain, proudly dry docked in her original native home and awaiting completion of her new visitors’ centre. Then the quays open out again. Modern apartments mingle with warehousing, rail lines are still set into the dockside, ships and boats of all types moor alongside, the best open-air café in town is always packed and ancient cranes are preserved as part of the developing Industrial Museum, due to re-open in 2011 after a major refit of the warehouses used to house Bristol’s heritage collection.

On both sides of the dock, new marries old. Ancient port buildings and factories are preserved even as pristine riverside complexes are being built around them. So many cities have bowed to the avarice of land owners and swept away all vestiges of their industrial legacies to be replaced by the brash. Bristol is somehow different, and not just because of the occasional glimpse of Clifton Suspension Bridge and Cabot’s Tower. Very few cities are visually improved by developers, planners and architects; Bristol is in a palpable state of becoming better without sweeping a sometimes grimy past under the carpet.

We love the place. Pity we have to book about a year in advance to get a pitch at Baltic Wharf.

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