We recently left home for a twelve week trip to France and Spain. We had to push the leaving date back a week because of a silly but disastrous error with my electric bike. It went like this. We put our electric bikes in for service ready for the trip. Shirley’s took longer than mine so I was let loose alone and responsible for a bike. I cycled home with great gusto, although most of the gusts came from a stiff wind and I gave thanks for the power of electricity. A bit disheveled, i arrived outside our bike shed without a problem. Pushing the bikes into the shed isn’t easy because they are heavy and the shed is small. Once I’d shoved and grunted it into the space I realised that I should have taken the battery off the bike to store inside the house. And this is where disaster befell my beautiful bike. There is a key that releases the battery and the keyhole was on the other side of the bike, now parked up tight in the shed. I leaned across it and pushed the key into what I thought was the keyhole – it wasn’t. The hole I had chosen was the charging socket for the battery. There was a flash and a spark and a smell of burning and that was the end of the battery. No power, no ability to charge it – one dead battery. And all that is to explain why we have had to wait more than a week for a new battery and why, co-incidentally but not happily, our budget has a sizeable hole in it.
On a more cheerful note, two friends had got in touch to say they were coming to our home town the week we should have been away and we would have missed them. Now we have seen them and we’re very happy about that. Two meals out and a game of golf later and we had to get a wiggle on preparing for our trip. Changing the crossings to one week later from Folkestone on the tunnel and returning Dieppe to Newhaven with DFDS was an easy process and, we realise now, we made a good choice to travel with them as P&O have just done the dirty on thousands of staff and passengers.
Making plans for a trip is now a very different process. Since the UK is no longer part of the EU, the days of staying for as long as we like are over. We have to be back in Blighty within 90 days and, a lot of people don’t know this bit, we’re not allowed to return for another 90 days. Some people have merrily suggested that we pop over the channel for 24 hours and go back. Sadly it doesn’t work that way. Anyhoo – one effect of this is that we can no longer wander mindlessly along without even thinking of when we return. We will have to be more organised and consider carefully where we want to go and how long it will take us to get back from there. There is a real sadness in this as the joy of motorhoming after retirement was the total freedom to travel until we’d had enough and not worry about overstaying our welcome. We found this particularly hard to take because we used to escape the entire winter in the relative comfort of southern Europe. If you’re getting tired of me moaning about this I don’t blame you, I’m getting tired of myself.
Our bikes are on the rack on the towbar and covered with a vast cover. The last one we bought was too small for both bikes so we took the goldilocks approach and bought one that would easily cover a third bike or, it seems, a small car. The danger is that it will become a sail in high winds so we’ve made full use of bungee cords and strap downs at the same time using the cords to put on the red and white striped aluminium sign that is required if you have anything sticking out at the back of your vehicle in Spain. New rules in France mean that we also have to have Angles Morts (tr. Blind spots) stickers on three points on the van. This is a rule for any vehicle that can legally carry more than 3.5 tonnes. France often has changes of rules for motorists and some of them get ditched as quickly as they are started so we’ll see what happens. In previous years you were required to carry your own breathalyser kit with you but that one has fallen by the wayside. One time we were there the speed limits had changed on ordinary two lane roads but they hadn’t changed the signage. We got a fine by post about six months later for being 5 kph over the speed limit. So, we have done all our homework and we think we are fully legal. The only thing that is niggling at the back of our minds is the possibility of fuel rationing in Europe in the near future. If this happens we might have to limit our distance and just park up in the sunshine somewhere. I think we can cope with that.
We have been making careful route plans and deciding on places we especially want to visit. Heidi the motorhome is serviced and MOTd ready for exit and beautifully washed by the amazing Peter of Kool Kampers in Newtown St Boswells. Next we loaded her up with masses of stuff. It was really exciting to get the summer clothes out of their winter storage place under the spare bed. It was very warm in the Scottish Borders and we began to believe that the sun will indeed shine and we’ll soon be wearing t shirts.
Poppy wishes to report that the new system of Animal Health Certificates required for a visit to Europe is not to her liking. It involved two visits to the vet and, despite their kindness, she doesn’t like vets one bit. She doesn’t know this but it also involves a much bigger cost than the old Pet Passport and only lasts for one trip.
So – the route. It is our plan this time to head down the west coast of France, stopping at some interesting places and heading in to Spain and the regions of Picos and Galicia. We have never been there but, having spent the winter reading accounts of an interesting couple who moved to Galicia a few years ago, we liked the sound of it very much. The climate in Galicia is more Cornwall than the Costa Brava and more Brittany than Benidorm so we should feel right at home. The Picos mountains are spectacularly beautiful and we have been lured in that direction by some great pictures taken by other motorhomers and shared on Motorhome Fun forum.
The excitement of travelling for us is about exploring new places whilst also popping back to old favourites. Hopefully our route will satisfy both these things. We’re also, as always, keen to travel mindfully. Living each day in the moment rather than thinking ahead all the time. We find this quite a challenge but every time we give it our best shot.
We decided to make our trip south to the tunnel a slow process, partly to travel at 50 mph to save fuel and partly to enjoy the journey on this side of the channel. The opportunity to see new places isn’t confined to Europe after all.
Our first stop was at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire, very close to the A1. Here the district council have provided two motorhome parking spots in the Back Lane car park where motorhomes are welcome to stay for up to two nights. The sign requests a payment of £5 in the honesty box and reminds users that this is an experiment and please behave yourself or permission will be withdrawn. What a great spot it is! We had a flat parking space backing on to grass and a nice walk along the river, we were a few steps away from the high street and, possibly most appreciated of all, we could get good Yorkshire fish and chips for tea. Absolutely delicious.
From here we hopped down through the country, stopping overnight at a campsite right beside the A1 and enjoying the dog walk, the space on the pitch and their great showers. It was wonderfully sunny and warm and we couldn’t quite believe the change in the weather from just a week or so ago when we were wearing hats and gloves in Scotland. I distinctly remember merrily packing them in a drawer just before we left and saying “see you next winter” – more on that later.
This blog wouldn’t be what it is without me admitting the things that go wrong so here is today’s unfortunate confession. When we drove away from the house we exchanged a merry little comment about the possibility that we had left something important behind. We always forget something after all. Then we got worried so we stopped about a hundred yards from home to check we had passports and Poppy’s expensive health certificate and that we had mobiles and money. Just in case. Before we left I had spent an inordinate amount of time working out which mobile provider is the best for using in Europe, choosing Smarty and Giff Gaff for a couple of extra SIM cards to put in our portable Mifi. The purpose of this of course was to make sure that we had enough mobile data to keep blogging right through our trip. Most mobile providers, now that we are no longer in Europe, either charge for European use or put a limit on the amount you can use whilst away so I checked carefully and at length to make sure I had the best in terms of value for money. When the new sims arrived I took the Mifi into the house to make sure that both were working and to get them set up as it’s important to start using them before you cross the channel to be sure that they will continue to operate on arrival. It took me a long time to do both the research and the set up. Imagine my chagrin when I realised at the first stop that I’d left the bxxxxy thing at home! There will be a solution and we have data on our phones so we’re not completely stuck but that hurt! I can’t even remember where I left that damned thing but a careful search has found it missing without trace so it must be sitting smirking in the kitchen somewhere. At the next stop I realised we had forgotten the big casserole pan that we use in our Wonder Bag for slow cooking without electricity and then finally and much less important I’d left the few bits of make up I sometimes slap on when going out for a meal. It’s a hat trick! Hopefully that’s the end of the ‘things we left behind account’ – I should make it clear that I am a chronic list writer and checker so this gap in the marbles department can only be blamed on one thing.
The week before we were due to leave we both developed a cough. Could this have happened at a worse time? We did a covid test every single day in a manic kind of way and every one was negative – and yet we continued to cough. We had no other symptoms other than feeling a bit off colour so eventually, still coughing, we decided it was safe to set off as long as we kept our distance from everyone and wore a mask on any stops at petrol stations and shops. We’re still coughing and it’s unpleasant but, thanks to the Lateral Flow tests we were supplied with, can say with some certainty that we don’t have Covid – clearly other bugs are out on the prowl now that people are mixing. So there is my explanation for the brain fog when packing. A good excuse don’t you think?
Our third stop as we motored south was in Cambridge at the Cherry Hinton Caravan Club site. We chose this because we planned to meet up with our friends Pat and Jann who live near Norwich (see the previous post) and it is also nicely positioned not too far off the M11 motorway south. The site is on an ancient disused quarry that is now full of trees and wildlife and is very pretty. We arrived in good time and then sat in a queue for what seemed like forever waiting to check in. We were unable to imagine why every person checking in seemed to take so long and we were hot and uncomfortable with the sun pouring in through our big windscreen. Eventually it was our turn and Shirley got out and went into the office – no delay this time – she was out in a couple of minutes with her instructions as to where our pitch was to be found. We had booked well in advance and told them the length of our van so we were appalled to discover, after arriving at the pitch, that we didn’t fit. Shirley went back to the office to be told that they would give us another one but we’d have to drive out of the site, turn around in the small car park and go back through the whole rigmarole again. The second pitch was great in a nice grassy cleaning with plenty of room for us, I think if we return I’ll put a note on the online booking form to say “N:B: Very big van!” We had fish and chips for the second time this trip with Jann and Pat but they were not a patch on the Yorkshire ones … just saying. The company was great though and we were very glad they’d made the effort to drive over to see us.
The last night on UK soil was, as is our habit, at the Canterbury Park and Ride that allows motorhomes to stay overnight and is very convenient for Eurotunnel at Folkestone. Over the years it has become more and more automated and this time the signs tell you to approach the barrier where your number plate will be photographed, a ticket for the bus into Canterbury will pop out of the machine and the barrier will open. No need for any human intervention – except there was because in our case the barrier didn’t open and no bus ticket popped out. Shirley got out and went to the office where the park and ride buses stand and explained our plight. The man on duty over rode the system and the barrier went up. There are two parking areas for motorhomes and we chose the second one because it’s bigger and flatter. Very soon we were tucked in and eating our supper of prawn curry with wild rice followed by yogurt. I have to admit that the curry was one we prepared before we left and brought from home frozen and the rice was out of a sachet. Proper cooking is for later in the trip.
The next morning we finally found ourselves at the Eurotunnel terminal being checked in by yet another automated process and, because we had arrived a little early, had been allocated a place on an earlier train than booked. This is a good tip for anyone using the tunnel – they are very flexible so do turn up a bit early if you can and they will fit you on an earlier train if there’s room. Thanks to the new system of pets travelling to Europe their paperwork all has to be checked in at the pet registration office and there is therefore a delay at the automated check in point when , after staring at a blank screen for a couple of minutes you push a help button and a disembodied voice comes over a speaker to tell you to take your ticket and your dog there first. Then a ticket pops out. Apparently if you don’t have a dog the ticket will pop out all on its own. It’s all very simple and convenient and once on the train, sitting in your vehicle, you just sit back for a little over half an hour and then drive off at the other end. If you’re thinking about going on the tunnel and you feel a bit nervous about driving on to the train here’s a little video showing how easy it is.
And so we landed in France and turned right, heading for our habitual first stop, Neufchatel en Bray. There is a nice paid Aire and also, just up the road in Mesnieres-en-Bray a free one. We like this stop because it’s a comfortable driving distance from the tunnel, it has everything you could possibly need in terms of shops and diesel and we like the feeling of familiarity we get there. Familiarity went haywire on our arrival as we drove into town smiling at the fact that we were finally in France, the adventure was just beginning and we knew exactly where we were going – except it turned out we didn’t because we must have taken a wrong turn and ended up not beside LeClerc’s petrol station but instead right in the middle of the High Street. We seemed to be going the wrong way down a one way street but, being big and not to be messed with, oncoming cars waited until we had got through and out the other side. We still have no explanation for this turn of events but we somehow managed to find LeClerc and get some essentials before filling up with horrifically expensive diesel and heading to the Aire. As soon as we pulled up alongside we realised we were far too big for the nifty little pitches provided. We’ve been here lots of times but not in this big beast so we did a 37 point turn and set off to Mesnieres en Bray and got the last space which was on a slope. Here we spent the evening reliving the horror of causing confusion on the High Street and trying to stop our glasses sliding off the table. That night the weather turned very very cold and we woke up in the morning to find rain lashing on the roof and the parking full of puddles. Shirley put on a brave face and her rain coat and went out into the deluge while I got the place into some kind of order. This was a pointless exercise as I knew a small wet dog and a small drenched wife were coming through the door any minute but I did my best.
We used our external screens on the front for the first time that night. They are designed to insulate the van against extremes of temperature and, in theory, to stop the large windscreen fogging up with condensation. Very clever bits of kit they are but on an A class like ours they are huge. We went outside into the dark to try to get them into place and managed quite well, considering that we’re neither of us tall enough to reach the top of the windscreen and you have to hook one corner over the passenger door and shut it without it falling off and then pull it tight right across the front of the van. The next morning we had, of course, to do the exercise in reverse but this time with a very wet and huge length of padded silver screen cover. We gave up all hope of getting it back into its bag and stood it up in the shower. By the time we had done that the beautifully clear windscreen was already starting to fog up because the van was warm and the temperature outside was close to Baltic. Checking the weather forecast we discovered that the next few days were going to be grim. Snow was forecast and overnight temperatures of minus 2 degrees. You know that thing you do before a trip when you imagine what fun you will have? The sunshine, the t shirts that haven’t been worn since last year, the cropped trousers, the sandals, have we packed the sunscreen? All that stuff. At no time did either of us think of snow and certainly not this kind of freezing weather. I remembered with fondness and not a little regret the hats and gloves I had said farewell to less than a week ago.
Off we went again, this time we imagined to a nice little Aire we had chosen just north of Lisieux. It took about an hour for the windscreen to clear and then the sun came out briefly. Just to be clear, we are both still coughing and although we’re feeling generally well, we felt exhausted because of the broken nights when a paroxysm of coughing brings on two distinct feelings of alarm. First is the feeling that you are severely short of breath and then there’s the fear that the muscular effort involved in coughing so violently might cause you to wet the bed, so along with the coughing there are frequent and hurried trips to the loo. This meant that we were tired and didn’t want to drive very far each day, choosing instead to take the journey gently and wait for the end of this bug, whatever it is. The last five miles of the route to the Aire was truly awful. Narrow pitted roads and oncoming traffic approaching at speed and occasionally blowing their horns at us as though we were the ones driving dangerously. We arrived at the Aire and said straight away “No. We can’t stay here” The one other occupant, who appeared to have been there for a long time, had two small children and three dogs, all five of which were wandering freely about and, in the case of the dogs, crapping liberally on the shared grass area. We saw immediately that having Poppy with us would cause untold problems when taking her out for her necessary walks, it’s never a good idea to bring a strange dog into the territory of a pack and we knew she would bark or even try to run away. So we ran away instead. Back onto the tiny road and away in search of somewhere else. In the end we returned to another of our old favourites, Broglie where there is a good aire and also a Lidl. Two of our favourite things in one package. And that’s when it started to snow.
New time we fall out with the sat nav again and give in to the lure of a place with electricity and we hide from the storm and wait for the sunshine to come back.