Posts Tagged 'hobby'


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.

unexpected dovedale

pollys cottage_1

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.

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.

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