Health Warning: Try not to let this blog post put you off buying a motorhome.
Shirley’s birthday is approaching in a few weeks and, as is my habit, I started to question her about how she would like to celebrate it well in advance. We are becoming more and more attached to experiences rather than gifts for special occasions and Shirley was ready with her answer almost before the question was out of my mouth. “I’d like to go to Countryfile Live again”.
We went to the show last year at Blenheim Palace, right in the middle of an intense heatwave and found ourselves struggling to cope with the high temperatures. This year we were excited to find that they were running another show at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. “Perfect” we said, “not too hot and nearer home.” Those words came back to haunt us.
It seemed a waste to travel to Yorkshire for only two nights so we made two other plans to turn it into a proper road trip. On one of my many searches of the web I discovered that Oakleaf Sports Complex at Newton Aycliffe near Durham allows motorhomes to stay overnight for £10.75 a night. On closer inspection I found that this Council owned facility has a golf course, a driving range, badminton courts, a table tennis table and a bar that serves food and has a pool table. These discoveries were enough to bring on a flurry of excitement. Everything we love to do in one place with motorhome parking! Anyone who is reading this in the UK won’t need me to say this but the hot weather of a couple of weeks before left us and it began to rain. It rained, it precipitated and it splashed down so we phoned in advance and were told we would be fine on the camping field. When we got there we had the common sense to walk on the camping field and discovered that on our two feet we were in danger of sinking. Kind lady at reception agreed with us that placing 4 tons of van on it was not a great idea at all and advised us to stay on the hard standing nearby. This was perfect except for the fact that we had to slosh through the field repeatedly to fill up the water tanks with a watering can.
After we had settled in we set off to walk to Newton Aycliffe. Here is a health warning. If you decide to stay here, go to reception and ask for the quickest route. We just set off, saw a blue path sign that said ‘Town Centre 1 mile’ and followed it. About a mile and a half later we came across another blue sign that said exactly the same thing but taking us left. Another mile or so and … you guessed it ‘Town Centre 1 mile’. We had only gone out for a packet of tissues! Staggering into Boots about an hour and a half later the kind assistant, hearing our tale of woe, directed us towards a road that led straight back to the van, adding that there was a nice walk to a country pub in a little village called Heighington. We asked if it was far and she smiled and said “If you can manage that walk right round the town you’ll be fine.”
Returning to the van and feeling rather hungry and tired, we settled the dogs down and headed for the bar where we ate simply and well for not a lot of money.
The next day we decided to take the kind lady from Boots advice and in a break from the rain we set off for the 2 mile walk to Heighington. Here we found that the George and Dragon is indeed a very fine pub. When we return, which we will one day, we’ll go there for a meal. On this trip we made do with a drink and a packet of crisps. The dogs were given a bowl of fresh water and everyone was happy.
We managed one very wet round of golf on our three night stay, a trip to the driving range, a game of table tennis, two visits to the bar and a few games of pool. Pretty good going don’t you think?
We left for our short drive south to Castle Howard, thinking that we would soon be settled in on the Caravan and Motorhome Club temporary campsite and ready to enjoy the show. The satnav was all prepped for the trip and we were bowling down the A1 when I spotted a yellow sign. “Countryfile Live next exit” … so we ignored the satnav and followed the sign. A few miles later we saw another sign telling us to turn off in 2 miles for the show. Straight after that was a sign that said “Countryfile Live. Turn off your satnav and follow the signs” … so we did. Taking the turning as directed we entered a roundabout where there was not one single sign to tell us which exit to take. Confused and bewildered we followed the most likely one and searched aimlessly for another sign as we drove along. About half an hour later I saw a sign that gave me the chills – we were heading north toward the city of Newcastle! Quick as quick things we found a bridge, came off the road and back on heading south. Half an hour later we saw a yellow sign, came off and found ourselves back on that roundabout with no clues which turning to take. The satnav was still off but I swear I heard it laughing. I took the turning towards York, because I knew that Castle Howard was north of York and we were off … satnav back on, looking faintly superior and a lot of time and diesel wasted. Before long the satnav told us to come off the road and head into country lanes to avoid driving up Sutton Bank. If you are from these parts as I am you will know that the thought of driving a big vehicle up Sutton Bank makes big men suck air through their teeth and make threats of impending doom. I’m still not convinced that the route offered to avoid it was a wise one as we found ourselves on narrow country lanes meeting massive farm vehicles coming the other way. Our estimated time of arrival had originally been 11.30 a.m. yet we drove into the temporary campsite at around 1.30 p.m. where we discovered that the wardens on duty had heard the same tale of woe about the signposting over and over again. The lady who greeted us managed to look sympathetic and gave us a goody bag with a number of bizarre items in it, including After Sun (not looking likely) a stretchy bandage and earplugs. My personal favourite was a packet of crisps for children. I shared it rather reluctantly with Shirley in exchange for a cup of tea.
Our temporary home was a steeply sloped uncut field with temporary facilities for clean water and toilet waste drop placed a considerable distance away from us. There was no electricity. For this we paid £35 a night. Just saying …
Margaret manages to briefly shed her Catholic guilt
Our tickets for the show were for the following day but having made a brave attempt to use the levelling blocks so that we wouldn’t fall out of bed and walking the dogs around the grounds we hit on the idea of heading towards the show ground to see if there were any ice cream vans parked outside the entrance. The sun was shining and we strolled along imagining that lovely cool creamy treat just waiting for us. When we arrived at the gates a lot of people were leaving, even though it was only 4.00 p.m. and the gates were busy. There was no ice cream van outside but we could see one tantalising us just inside. I decided to ask one of the staff on the gate if we could just slip in and buy an ice cream and slip out again but found, much to our amazement, that no-one was paying any attention to people going in, being fully occupied bidding the leavers a good journey home. So we just walked in. Shirley told me, after we had bought our ice creams and decided to take a turn around the show ground in order to make plans for our visit the next day, that she fully expected me to grab her arm and refuse to go in without getting permission first. It has taken me more than five decades since leaving that convent school to be brave enough to do it but I did! It only took half an hour for me to relax and accept that no-one was going to stop us, put us in handcuffs and take us into custody.
The next morning was cloudy and dismal and the forecast promised rain so we set off towards the show all happed up in our raincoats. We’d noticed on our illegal tour the afternoon before, that one of the food sellers was from Whitby and was selling fish and chips with fresh off the sea cod. We decided not to eat breakfast in order to take full advantage of this treat at lunch time. I think we made it to 11.30 a.m. before succumbing but by then it was raining heavily and we found nowhere to eat undercover, except for the canopy at the fish and chip van. From this dryish position we enjoyed our early lunch and entertained ourselves people watching. Given that I am a Yorkshire lass I can be forgiven for telling this story. Famed for being careful with money, it has been said that a Yorkshire person is like a Scot with all the generosity sucked out. I’ve always denied any truth in this comparison as all the Yorkshire people and indeed the Scots that I know and love are not at all mean … careful perhaps but not mean. Standing under that dripping canopy I was soon to be proved wrong. A granny, a mother and her two children went up to the counter and Gran asked for one portion of sausage and chips divided into two containers for the four of them to share. The mother, standing closer to us sighed and said to no-one in particular, “I’ve ‘ad enough of this lark. After the sausages I’m off ‘ome.”
As the afternoon wore on we succumbed to outrageously priced strawberries in hot Belgian chocolate sauce, free chocolate mousses from a Bonne Maman stall and two large coffees. These all helped prevent us giving in to despair as the rain fell more and more heavily and all undercover places filled with hundreds of wet people and the unmistakeable aroma of wet dog. Finally we found seats on hay bales inside a big top where we listened to a fascinating talk on archeology … I’m not being sarcastic, it was really good … and finally, having bagged our seats for that talk and stubbornly refusing to move for half an hour there came a popular event. Matt Baker hopped on stage and interviewed a Ciderologist before chatting about his work on Countryfile. When it came to time for questions someone in the audience said “Can you still do a handstand Matt?” and he said, “Yes!” “Go on then” said the man in the audience and he did! Out of his pockets came mobile phone, wallet, money a pen and off came his flat cap then he was upside down, legs straight and true and he stayed there for several minutes. It was almost worth a soaking to witness it. Almost …
Back at the van we looked out at the torrential rain and wondered how on earth we would get out in the morning. We were right to wonder.
Keep Going! Not a chance!
Despite the promise of a warm sunny day, we awoke the next morning to more torrential rain. Shirley took the dogs for their morning walk, trudging through the rough, uncut and soaking grass while I took the toilet cassette to the top of the site to empty it. These things are pretty heavy when full but ours has wheels on it. Sadly the condition of the grass and a growing sea of mud made ours almost impossible to pull along. Picking it up and carrying it for a few yards then stopping to chat to other drookit campers about the best way to drive out of the quagmire, I came upon a man with a cockapoo puppy. More to rest my ever lengthening arms than out of any desire to be greeted by a wet puppy, I stopped to talk to him. Unfortunately the owner obviously had no idea about dog owner’s manners and he allowed it to jump all over my hastily pulled on pale grey jogging bottoms, leaving them wet and covered in mud. Undaunted I struggled on through the down pour, alternately dragging and carrying our cassette full of unmentionables and got it empty and clean ready for the next time. If you are a person longing to own a motorhome this is as bad as it gets. If you can cope with this, you can manage anything.
By the time I was back in the van Shirley had returned and the wet and filthy dogs were rubbed down and ready to be put in their harnesses. I didn’t get a rub down but I did change almost everything I was wearing. Peering into the wardrobe I realised that the three pairs of cropped trousers were probably a silly idea and I could have done with more jogging bottoms. Too late now.
Shirley braved the deluge again to put the levelling blocks away and, after checking with the man next door, we set off down the hill and turned into the ocean of mud that had once been the exit. Just in front of us there were metal raised platforms and we only needed to slide onto those to be safe. The van had other ideas and came to a shuddering halt, despite my best efforts to keep going, just at the lip of the platform. The wardens were shouting “Keep Going!” but Holly just spun her wheels and sprayed them all liberally with mud. After a brief struggle with the pack containing the jack, where the towing eye was apparently to be found (who knew?) we were soon pulled out of the mud by those long suffering wardens. I am not an enormous fan of the Caravan and Motorhome Club but these guys were pure gold. Wet, cold and mud spattered they were still cheery and endlessly patient with the queue of slipping, sliding, sticking motorhomes coming down the hill.
More on the third part of the tour the next time … stop press, the sun came out.
P.S. If you are still thinking of buying a motorhome you could read this.