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unexpected dovedale

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polly's cottage, milldale

Much of the mystery of travel in the UK has gone these days. Everything worth seeing is assiduously recorded and publicised on the internet, in guide books, magazines, leaflets or travelogues. When we journey to a new area, we’re not exactly emulating Marco Polo or even H. V. Morton. Most things have been discovered and we journey to view them so they can be ticked off against our list of 1001 places to see before we die.

Perhaps for that reason, we take most pleasure in unexpected delights. They are usually fairly minor events, but all the more intensely exciting because they surprise us. We didn’t know they were there.

For example, earlier in the year we paid a visit to Derbyshire. On a day of snow flurries and heavy hail, we walked through Dovedale. We mentally ticked off anticipated sights – Lion Rock, the caves, Tissington Spires, Lovers’ Leap and the famous stepping stones to name a few – and agreed that the three miles of river gorge, deep craggy valley and meandered water meadows deserved every published eulogy.

Yet for us, our greatest joys were when we came across three unheralded sights, one at each end of the short walk, and one on the approaches. The first was Polly’s. Her little shop is tucked away on the corner of a tiny lane in Milldale. From over the stable door, open only at the top, she serves mouth watering sandwiches for the hungry. Queues form outside; we’re not allowed into the cottage no matter the weather – I doubt she has room anyway. Her fare is probably unsuitable for the pretensions of the likes of Giles Coren, but after a five mile walk with another nine ahead, what she fashions out of bread and sundry fillings seems like a snack fit for a wilting emperor. Never walk Dovedale without taking refreshment at Polly’s.

Where Dovedale ends is the village of Thorpe. Here we climbed a steep hill heading for the Tissington Trail to lead us north. As we topped the brow of the hill, music was flowing down the slope towards us. And here we found our second unannounced delight. Dovedale Garage forecourt is home to the Mighty Compton Organ, and two vast mechanical organs mounted on the backs of lorries were pumping out their deep breathy and brassy melodies. We could almost taste the candyfloss and sniff the nostalgic aroma of fried onions mingling with old mown grass, redolent of the fairgrounds of our day. The Galloping Major cantered through and reluctantly we wrested ourselves away to follow. Time was now pressing.

Rain spattered us; at times we had to lean into the wind. Then, half-way home, the sun burned a small gap in the clouds and bathed nearby hills in golden evening light, finding the tower of a distant hilltop church, I think at Ballidon. We sat on an opportune bench and looked across the shallow valley as for about 120 seconds the landscape was afire with gleaming greens and golden russets framed by darkling clouds. Behind us, a solitary farmer worked late repairing a dry-stone wall while his old wiry dog twitched sleepily in the field, no doubt dreaming of bowls of rabbit stew and maybe Polly’s off-cuts of beef and ham. No guide book could prepare us for this vignette of crepuscular pastoral tranquillity.

These little encounters are not something to include in a travel book or a Sunday supplement’s guide to country walking. But for us they give more pleasure than all the seven wonders of Derbyshire combined, simply because they were totally unexpected.

We stayed at Rivendale caravan park. The entire round walk was 14 miles, most of it off-road thanks to the Tissington Trail, the track bed of an abandoned railway line. If you’re interested, the camp site is listed under Ashbourne on the “good camp sites” page.

something’s lost in the translation

water tower blog_1We haven’t been away lately, mainly because we’ve now moved house and discovered why certain cabinets were placed in strange places against walls. Apparently surveyors no longer move furniture to see what’s going on behind and caveat emptor still applies. The outcome is we have a lot more work than anticipated. So, this is an update to the blog despite Hobby sitting disconsolately alone in the storage compound back home. It’s drier there. That word ‘home’ says it all really.

Two years ago we bought our Hobby motor home. It was two years old at the time and we paid what we considered to be a lot of money. The attractions were the two fixed single beds at the rear, putative quality of German design and low-profile curvaceous bodywork.

During handover, a demonstrator talked us through the various features. He was obviously bluffing and learning about the ‘van as he worked his way round. Eventually I reached data overload and asked simply “Do we get an owner’s manual?” He nodded reassuringly and my mind promptly shut down, figuring all I needed to do was spend a few moments one sunny evening browsing with the book in one hand and a glass of Montana Reserve in the other.

Later, when about 450 miles away from the dealer and the Irish rain was thrashing wildly against the roof, I opened the manual to discover it was written in German with no English translation. Now – I can buy a £16.99 electronic gismo from China and it will arrive complete with instructions in English. Admittedly the language is pidgin but I always know what they mean when they instruct things like “project the flange across the blue terminus and clamp the nodule with the fritillary clip provided.”

And yet I buy a German motor home for £36,000 pre-owned, presumably costing the previous owner at least £54,000 when brand new, and the manufacturers can’t even be bothered to provide a few welcome lines in English. The vehicle is right-hand drive, by the way, so was obviously intended for the British market. Failure to provide an English language manual is to my mind cheapskate in the extreme.

We still don’t know what’s going on with the control panel fascia light when we first hook-up. It flashes red, becomes static red, then turns amber for a very long time and finally goes green. Take if off hook-up for just a moment, and it reverts to amber again and stays there for hours. What’s that all about? We tried running the German text through Google but the result was too hilarious to take seriously.

But I don’t complain. And that’s probably the trouble; we don’t complain enough. Attitudes from suppliers and manufacturers would be different if we repeatedly took issue with them over these little irritations and short-comings. Eventually they would start to learn. But instead we’re afraid of being dismissed as grumpy old people and instead we ‘get by’ with what we have.

I could write a very long letter, but it’s easier to open another bottle of wine and seek solace on the shoulder of Bacchus. Instead, I now refuse to buy German wines. That’ll show them. And I can vent some of my spleen here. This isn’t a moan by the way. If it was I’d post it under the moans page. I’m merely making observations in a moaning sort of way

pingoes, pubs & pines

dogpartridgecropped_edited-1_1On our first day at Thetford, we met a small group of fund-raising women walking Peddars Way, the long-distance foot path through Norfolk. The gang’s leader, an ebullient lady wearing a huge sunflower-head pinned to her bodice, demanded to know where we’d walked from that morning. Rather shame-facedly, we had to admit that we’d started about 15 minutes earlier on the nearby camp site and intended to finish the outward bound at the pub about a mile down the path. “It’s not open,” said her companion. “But it will be by time YOU get there.” I’m not quite sure what she intended with the remark, but she was right. The landlady was putting out the A-board as we arrived.

This was the Dog and Partridge. It had the ambience of a true Old English wayside tavern, and is among the best two pubs I’ve been into during many miles of motorhoming throughout Britain. The landlady was delightful, albeit a northerner, and knows how to welcome strangers to her tiffinal metaphorical bosom. In her spotless beer garden, we quaffed cheerfully of Bombardier and Adnam’s bitter (the only negative being she doesn’t have Abbot on tap) and dined well on generous portions of cannelloni and battered cod. Lunch was a prolonged affair. Our good intentions of a steady and healthy ramble evaporated with the sun. Instead we returned through forest tracks for cups of tea on the camp site. I’m afraid life is like that when you’re older. The round walk was no more than 3 miles, if that.

By amazing co-incidence, we found the second best pub (that’s second best, not second-best, a pertinent distinction – the grammar is dubious but everyone reading this will know what I mean, not least because the author is also the sole follower) the next day, when we opted for a longer walk. Turning off the lane northward, we followed a disused and unkempt railway line skirting the forest and eventually trailing past a collection of pingoes. Pingoes are difficult to spot, although they don’t move; they don’t look as the name suggests. Rather, they are natural declivities in the land formed by melting glacial ice and subsequent climatic erosion. We think we saw them, but one declivity looks much like another and nobody has thought of erecting a prominent sign saying “This is a pingo” so we’ll be generous and award a tentative tick to the pingo entry in our list of 1001 things to see before global warming toasts us. Stonehenge was much easier to identify.

We lunched at the Chequers, a pretty and restful pub in Thompson, a pretty and restful village not far off the pathway. Here a charming young lady served us with welcoming smiles and plates of spectacular steak & kidney pudding and butternut squash lasagne eaten to the accompaniment of copious Adnam’s Regatta and Greene King IPA. We’d found another fine staging post for thirsty ramblers. This again is a highly recommended pub with a bonus that the car park is big enough for motor homes, but I suggest leaving your vehicles on the pitch and going on foot.

To reach home we joined the Peddars Way about a mile or so from the Chequers. This is very easy walking even after a few pints. The footpath here is an ancient green lane, lined with hedgerows and majestic old trees such as hawthorn, oak, sycamore and beech. Feet tread on firm, level and sandy ground. Few hills challenged creaky knees. At times we could walk four abreast – val-de-ri; val-de-ra – my knapsack on my back. On the way, we debated the issue of the missing apostrophe in the word “Peddars.” Opinion is divided, but then after a few pints everything is debateable. The round walk was about 10 ½ miles.

Closer to the camp site, we encountered plantations of pine trees, the most ubiquitous and detestable of mankind’s inflictions on the British landscape. Wildlife flees the stuff except for the occasional motley grey squirrel; tall spindly trunks are naked and look dead from the waist down; carpets of needles stifle almost everything on the forest floor; close planting produces dank groves stretching into tenebrous tunnels. This is Forestry Commission territory and it shows. The agency shares the land with the military. We find many MOD signs warning us not to stray beyond flimsy gateways, and much of what we see discourages us anyway.

But, the previous paragraph aside, this is wonderful walking and cycling country, especially in those numerous stretches of natural deciduous heath lands. And, while we were there, a telephone call advised us we’d exchanged contracts on the house sale AND the purchase. We move at the end of the month and we won’t be spending winter in the motor home after all.

home from home

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Mrs Subbuteo is a keen fan of Sarah Beeney, presenter of the TV programme “Property Snakes and Ladders.” She watches avidly, I think in the hope that some of the property developers will eventually land flat on their faces in the mud. Of course they never do, even on today’s slack and dwindling market.

A recent edition brought a surprising turn of events. To rescue a family of four from conversional squalor, Ms Beeney produced out of thin air a Rapido A-Class with fixed rear bed and end bathroom. It was plastered prominently with “Brownhills Leisure” so at first we thought “how generous.” Later, she skimmed quickly over the true hire cost of £750 a week as if such an expense could easily be met out of the children’s surplus pocket money.

The impression was given that here’s the answer to the family’s living problems while the roof is replaced on their property development.

This was a very expensive “solution” to the problem. For £3000 they could have bought a static caravan and sold it on again later for £3500. Or at least a properly equipped touring caravan would have given the family much more space and comfort at a significantly lower price. Most motor homers will know that up-sizing to a large and bulky A-Class motor home doesn’t necessarily increase available living space. You’ll just get a bigger bed or a massive shower cubicle or huge wardrobes. Space to move around or lounge never seems to become more commodious unless choosing the gargantuan American RV option with hydro-elastic rooms.

So I was left slightly bemused, even as Sarah sat in the driving seat pretending to have driven it herself. We could be living in our motor home for a few weeks if we can’t co-ordinate the sale of our house with the purchase of a replacement. We’ll be perfectly comfortable, as will the many couples for whom full-timing in relatively small ‘van is a delight. But add just one body over the two and living becomes a little snug. Introduce one flatulent dog as well and living will inevitably be cramped and decidedly unpleasant. We know from experience.

I can only imagine the state of the motor home when it was eventually redelivered after a few weeks (or was it months?) on a damp and messy building site with two adults, two youngsters and a dog. Still, the property developers seemed happy enough. And although the conversion has not yet produced the bounty they’d hoped for, they didn’t actually get muddy faces. The wife is disappointed. She wants to hear of suicides and bankruptcies; repossessions and mental breakdowns. The trouble with reality TV is that it’s just not real.

the digital age

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Many will groan at this, but like it or not, mobile phones and the internet are here to stay and will become increasingly more important to us as time goes by.

I don’t care what others think; I like to be able to keep in touch while I’m away. I see no point in having access to such modern wonders as wi-fi, mobile broadband and good phone signals if we’re not prepared to use them. Not everyone agrees, of course, and that’s fine; each to his or her own. But I refuse to feel guilty because I want to send a few e-mails when I’m away.

Camp sites seem to be very reluctant to keep pace with what’s happening around them. A few have installed wi-fi networks and allow free access to the web. Most of them charge for it and some are downright exorbitant, such as the Caravan Club. A lot of campsites still look askance if I ask them whether they can offer wi-fi connection from the pitch. They give me one of those old-fashioned looks as if to say “You’re on holiday!” Yes – but the fact that I’m holiday doesn’t mean I want to revert to the 19th century.

Of those sites which have installed wi-fi, some haven’t bothered to ensure the range covers all pitches. One warden even sold me a voucher and then admitted that it probably wouldn’t work where I was camping. I changed my pitch to get within range.

We all know that quality of mobile phone signals can be patchy at best. In this day and age, an effective service should cover the whole of Europe, if not beyond. If you look at published coverage maps, you’ll be led to believe that the whole of Britain can readily receive a digital phone signal. Inevitably, however, service providers omit the thousands of dead spots dotted all over the land, most of which are on camp sites we want to visit. Why? Transmitter masts are relatively inexpensive to erect these days. By now, dead spots should have been vanquished once and for all.

Recently I stayed on a camp site with no mobile signal at all. It was in middle-England, a couple of miles from a large town. Even wandering along the lane, climbing a tree and hanging over a precipice wouldn’t allow me to make contact. Yet in the Highlands of Scotland I obtained a signal at every single camp site and in nearly all remote places we visited (and some were well off the beaten track). The same in southern Eire a couple of years ago – nowhere did I fail to get on line or make a mobile call. Is there something about radio waves that make them disintegrate and falter in England – or are we the poor relations of Europe as far as the large providers are concerned?

I don’t expect a camp site to advertise “no phone signals.” But it would be useful if those with good signals on certain services could start to include the fact in their information, so we know in advance. Then we can avoid the ones without a signal, or at least make other arrangements beforehand.

The next issue will be digital TV. Parts of England have already switched on digital. Analogue signals are being closed down. Soon we will all be solely digital. Yet so many areas are unable to deliver suitable signals. And when the rains come, the image pixelates and starts to freeze.

If we all moaned more, something would be done. We’re all too tolerant of whatever these organisations want to dish out to us. Instead of shrugging and being mildly amused or charmed by the poor service we receive, we could be complaining and maybe things would start to improve. Grumpy old people could be the saviours of our nation.

our diy awning

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Last year we treated ourselves to a drive-away awning. It was on special offer at a Somerset dealer’s warehouse. We took it to Bristol and erected it as a trial run. The poles were bent; the fabric ripped; springs had sprung. The dealer changed it without a murmur, however, and we eventually set off for Scotland to enjoy the fine weather with our new awning.

On the Mull of Kintyre we assembled the various parts. Then, before I’d had a chance to hammer in a few pegs, a gust of scurrying wind sent the entire flimsy structure hurtling into the side of our Hobby. A clip on the Fiamma roll-out awning snapped and one of the supporting poles was severely bent. This special deal was beginning to prove expensive, what with extra diesel to make exchanges and repair costs.

Dispirited, we stopped using the thing. A drive-away awning seemed like a good idea once, but the extra weight, the time taken to put up, the costs of making good and the sheer effort involved somehow seemed a waste of energy, especially as we move around a lot. So we abandoned the thing. It was wrapped securely in rolls of polythene sheeting and stowed away in our home garage.

Then we had an idea. During a recent trip we actually had a couple of days of sun. Our Fiamma awning was supposed to provide shade but somehow direct rays slipped beneath the canopy and we slowly baked to a crisp shocking pink. What we need, we decided, is a light and quick-to-erect sun blocker to spread across the front of the roll-out canopy. And we could make one cheaply out of the redundant drive-away awning languishing morosely in the garage. Good idea?

To do the job, Mrs Subbuteo needed to buy a sewing machine – £189. The front panel of the awning was cut away and the sides discarded. She stitched a band of slotted webbing to the top of the retained panel – the Fiamma has a groove into which the webbing will slide. Edges were cut to size, shaped, hemmed and stitched. Thus, we have a bespoke front-panel sun blocker, albeit one which looks a little odd and will raise a few eyebrows on camp sites. It seems to work, although we need a little more sun to test it thoroughly.

When I totted up the overall cost of the improvisation, we received a shock. Including ‘van repairs, the purchase of a sewing machine and the price of the original awning, our unique sun-blocker cost about £620. One is for sale on E-bay at £24.99. Economics were never my strong point.

Still – sun here we come. As I type, the rain is lashing down at the windows. Didn’t the Met Office forecast a ‘barbecue sizzling summer”? These so-called experts are not contrite and embarrassed enough for me. It was their prediction that led us to believe we needed one of the most expensive sun shades in the western hemisphere. According to a spokesman, I misheard what he said back in April. What he intended me to understand was that there would be a 35% chance of heavy rain. I’m in touch with my solicitor now they’re forecasting persistent rain during August.

We’re trying to work out what to do with a spare set of awning poles. Mrs Subbuteo had a good idea, but I think it’s illegal and probably anatomically impossible.

washing down

jackdaws_1I should really be quite tall, but something went wrong with genetic transfer at the time of conception and in due time I emerged with short legs. Thus my feet believe they’re supporting a frame of over 6’ tall while my head tries to tell me I’m just 5’ 6”. That six inches disparity has defined my entire life.

This is never more obvious than when I need to do something with motor homes. Everything is always just out of reach. I bought a pair of aluminium step ladders but although they give me extra height, I can never seem to position them close enough to access the places I want to be. Unfortunately, my arms mimic my legs and are too short as well. They constantly remind me of the importance of those missing 6 inches. If my legs were the correct length, and my arms matched, I’d effectively gain an extra foot’s reach. “Think how clumsy you’d be with an extra foot to cope with” said Mrs Subbuteo. I think she was employing a play on words with reference to my dancing skills, but I can never be sure with her.

The main problem is the profiling above the cab, my van’s forehead so to speak. During the summer, it acts like sticky flypaper. Bugs and flies can avoid a rolled copy of the Times with astounding agility but the motor home’s forehead defeats millions of them. They slap against the fibreglass, adhering resolutely like sequins on a dancer’s bolero. Get to them quickly and a sluice of water will easily remove the mess. But allow blood to dry in the sun, and the splattered bodies to bake like currents in a bun, and you’ll have the devil’s own job to return a grimy forehead to a pristine bug-free gleam again.

My van has a roof ladder attached at the back but I suffer from vertigo. I can summon the courage to clamber onto the roof, but become defeated by the perils of negotiating a path through an obstacle course of vents, aerials, solar panels and little pokey-up bits of uncertain function. And my head starts to go giddy at just the thought of leaning forward over the precipice to reach down towards the windscreen.

So I have three mops on sticks. One is for applying detergent; the second for rinsing with fresh water; the third for rubbing a little harder and perhaps polishing. But long poles are never a good substitute for a damned good scrub. I’ll spend an hour on the forehead alone and still the blood is glued messily to the van’s skin. So the poor old girl never gets the full rehabilitation she deserves, especially as I have a bad back.

Now I’ve discovered the East Europeans. They have a car wash site a few miles south of Fakenham on the main King’s Lynn road. The first time I drove in they all grinned sheepishly at each other, but quoted me £15 for the job. And they set to with such energy I couldn’t help be impressed. Happiness is a flame-haired feminine beauty spread-eagled over the bonnet while she washes the windscreen on a sultry day. After about 15 minutes we drove away shining like a brass button, ‘van forehead completely fly-free and Mrs Subbuteo grinning the words “You wish!” I like to visit them whenever we are passing. I always pay with a £20 note, and if the young man reaches into his pocket for change, I’ll leave him a £5 tip. If he doesn’t, I’ll pay only the quoted £15. I don’t like being taken for granted.

What annoys me is that before we’ve reached the Hardwick roundabout, the bugs are back. I’m now working on some form of streamlining for the cab bonnet which will divert airflows and automatically waft to one side any bugs coming within my ballistic range. I’m not sure how to fit it, though. I can’t reach.


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