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An informal page to let you all know something about what we're up to at motorcaravanning.co.uk or away in our motorhome. This could be anything from trips away in the UK or Europe or repairing a broken gearbox or introducing new products and offers. Hopefully you'll find it useful, maybe some of it will even inspire you to try new places and to extend your season. We'll try to make it interesting and informative, and maybe even entertaining at times too. It could become quite long over a year or so but newer items will always be at the top. Time permitting we might introduce Find us on Facebooksome older items if we think they'll still be of interest. I may express some personal opinions here too. To comment or ask about anything on this page please do or find us on facebook.


Feb 2014:  Brit Stops - A Great Scheme:  We've always been great fans of 'France Passion' where member 'camping-caristes' become guests of producers in return for taking an interest in their often excellent produce. I'm so much a fan that I looked at launching a similar scheme here even holding discussions with the NFU in London. This not least because I was always convinced that we needed more than just pubs for a successful UK scheme - as in France where it is more than just wine producers. That was all some time ago and didn't get off the ground for various reason but more recently the excellent Brit Stops scheme launched and seems to go from strength to strength each year. The 2014 Handbook and revised details and have just been announced and I'd like to share some with you here ... 

Good news everyone! The brand new fully updated Brit Stops guide to free motorhome stopovers is now at the printers, and we're pleased to say you can now place a pre-order for it on our website at www.britstops.com  The book itself will be published on March 1st, and all pre-ordered books will be sent out to arrive on this date. The price is still £25 - the same as the last three years - and what's more, if you place a pre-order in February, you won't be charged the usual £2.00 p&p!

Alternatively, if you really can't wait, we'll be on stand 3029 at the Caravan and Camping Show at the NEC from 19th - 23rd February, where the very first copies of the 2014 edition will be available - and of course we won't be charging p&p there, either!

The great news about this year's book is that there are a further 150 hosts added to those in last year's book, making a total of 377, or enough for a different free stopover every night of the year!

Featuring even more great places to stopover in your motorhome - picturesque country pubs, farm shops, breweries, vineyards, antiques and craft centres, cafes, visitor centres, fishing lakes and even llama and deer parks!  Look out this year too, for our larger scale, Ordnance Survey maps!

If you have questions, please just email us at britstops@motorcaravanning.com and we'll get back to you.

I do resent campsites charging me £15-£20-£30 just to park overnight but find the BritStops deal very welcome, buying and enjoying some excellent produce in return for our stay. We've tried several Stops ourselves including pubs, farm shops and even an antique centre, all were very good and all had that 'hand picked' feel - really must get to a UK vineyard this year! 


Autogas Filling at a GarageGaslow is Great in Europe!  A customer kindly sent us some detailed info about his Gaslow use touring Europe recently and it seems worth sharing some of his experience and consumption figures with you all. Many thanks to Owen Booker for the information and his kind permission to publish. R67 Cylinder Top with valves etc

"This has been one of the best additional investments we made to our van, it is inexpensive gas about half the cost of Calor, and an essential fitment for extended periods across the channel" - seems a good place to start. This mirrors our own experience over the past ten years but Owen has also used it in Scandinavia where we haven't and he reports that availability there is improving and they were able to refill more-or-less when they wished to. He explains that their 'van is always used by them as a couple and is used mostly for extended EU tours with few camp-site or other stays longer than 4 days. He kept detailed records of their gas consumption and found that they used between ½ and 1 litre per day depending on how far north or south they were and on winter/summer use. Heating is plainly a major consumer in winter but a fridge also consumes a fair bit in high summer, especially in the south.

We'll publish his full report soon - linked from our gaslow refillables page - but some highlights include their Scandinavian trip where they needed heating more than usual, spending a month above the arctic circle where they used ¾ L/day over 98 nights. With 2x11Kg Cylinders holding nearly 44L of gas that's almost two months supply!  Plainly our advice that a single 11Kg offers a perfectly manageable volume is correct - given that you top up whenever convenient. For winter touring they budget for a much higher consumption but even then they often find they have only used about 1L/day. If on hook-up every night their consumption dropped to just ¼ L/day, with this particular lifestyle even a single 6Kg is then perfectly adequate. All this fits fairly well with our own experiences where we reckon on up to 6 weeks supply from our twin 11s when we are largely 'off-grid' - i.e. about 1 L/day, we do of course plan on using more gas in winter, maybe 1½ L/day on one of our Scotland-in-January trips. Both we and the Bookers run German 'vans with good levels of insulation and this must help in these cold weather scenarios.
 


Suffolk April 2013 - a bit 'nerdy birdy'!

With a gap in the bad weather forecast for the east of England we decided to shoot off to Suffolk for a spot of birdwatching and NT visiting.  "Our" barn owl appeared hunting over the field behind our garden shortly before we left, and in broad daylight, so definitely a good omen!

It turned out to be a bit of a barn owl trip – spotted the second one of the day near Milton Keynes followed not long afterwards by a red kite passing overhead. Birding on the move like this is all very well but we stopped at Abberton Reservoir for a break and cup of afternoon tea while watching the big cormorant roost and lots of very handsome spring plumage ducks, all very unlike those dull brown jobs you see during the summer holidays. There were swans and great crested grebes on the water and a family of yellow wagtails flitting about near the camper all of them glowing in the late afternoon sunshine. With our second cup nearly done we were quietly watching the many swallows and house martins hunting over the water when the third barn owl of the day appeared quartering rough grass by the reservoir - amazing!  All this sounds very civilised and relaxed with 'afternoon tea' on the agenda complete with birding backdrop but Neill also uses these moments to check on goings on at motorcaravanning.co.uk and to keep in touch with suppliers so not quite the full 'feet up' experience!

Next day was cold and blowy (so much for the weather forecast) but we decided to go to Flatford Mill anyway, albeit now walking round in the rain.  Although a National Trust property the RSPB have established an interesting and quite extensive streamside wildlife garden there and we had a nice chat to a young, if rather wet, volunteer who gave us a very useful wildlife garden pack.  The views of Willie Lot’s house are charming as is location of the famous Haywain - and the stroll along the river but would be definitely be improved by a bit of sunshine, still a whitethroat singing with springtime verve made it all worthwhile. 

Moving on via a Waitrose supermarket in Ipswich for some goodies we made for a known car park in Felixstowe fairly close to the port, this one being "free for 18 hours" and what's more "motorised caravans" are specifically allowed - now there's a thing!  The after hours port itself was looking busy and all lit up with big gantry cranes and ships coming and going all the time - all most interesting but far enough away not to intrude.  Friday night is curry night in our household so we had a chicken rogan josh and a bottle of the red stuff while watching Gardeners’ World, HIGNFY and QI on satellite TV.  A pleasantly relaxed evening. 

I woke before the alarm to the sound of a gull walking up and down the roof apparently wearing hob-nailed boots!  But the Sun is shining and the sky is bright blue - much that’s better.  We topped up with water from the outside tap at the loo block and drove to Trimley Marshes Suffolk Wildlife Trust, a well known reserve but new to us.  After parking at the farm as directed we walked off in the direction signposted.  After a mile there was a another sign saying the nature reserve was another 1.25 miles!  Even that turned out to be only the gate to the reserve with the hides at least another half a mile or so further on.  None of this would have mattered too much except I had a painful back that day and would not have set out on a six miler had I known it would be that far.  Two cars passed us going the other way which turned out to be the wardens leaving - so when we reached the visitors’ centre it was locked!  Luckily the sun was shining and although the reservoir hide was also locked there was lots to see from the public hide.  Shelduck, shoveller, mallard, pintail, widgeon, teal, coot, and moorhen plus a lapwing on a nest. Brent and greylag geese flew over and there was a swan on a nest really close to the visitor centre hide.  Lots on the way back too - kestrel, chaffinch and bullfinch, whitethroat, garden warbler, reed warbler and wren, with most singing their socks off.  Neill left me installed at the viewpoint by the gate while he walked back the 2½ miles or so to the camper as there is a perfectly good track to drive down and I couldn’t face the uphill walk.  It was a bonus for me as I still had the ‘scope and had good views of roe deer, egrets, heron and male, female and juvenile marsh harriers while waiting for my 'taxi'.

We returned to Felixstowe for (very) late lunch by the viewpoint at the Port and watched the big container ships and the ferry come and go in the sunshine, it was quite busy with other visitors doing the same.  We later returned to the free car park with a good view of the Port and settled down to watch the Qualifying session of the Bahrain Grand Prix.  I cooked lamb moussaka and we watched a Time Team at New Place Stratford on Avon – right on our doorstep and we had even visited the 'dig' recently with our granddaughter.

The morning dawned bright and warm so we set off for Newbourne Springs, Suffolk Trust Woodland.  It turned out to be a boardwalk most of the way round lots of springs and streams in a wooded area with lots of dead wood. It was absolutely delightful in the Spring sunshine full of small birds in song.  Robins every few feet, wrens, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, tits - all in full song.  We spotted an elusive goldcrest and a pair of treecreepers too.  Green woodpeckers were calling from different parts of the wood and there were woodland flowers everywhere.  Primroses and aconites in the shade and gorse in flower at the open edge.  Marsh marigolds just about to flower in the stream and bluebells coming through already.  A nice easy walk in a really lovely reserve. Plainly lots of volunteer hours have gone into building the boardwalk all round to make it all easily accessible.

We could have lunch with the window wide open in the warm sunshine - what a treat in April!  We then drove through Woodbridge and out to Bordesley Point – the picnic site there is height barriered so not camper friendly but we parked on the road alongside the estuary and walked out to the Point to enjoy the views, stretch our legs and buy an ice cream.  With a good open aspect for our satellite dish we settled down right there for a couple of hours 'chillaxing' with the Grand Prix before heading for our next stopover near Bawdsey.

We spent the next morning working in the 'van as we must on a Monday especially (I spotted 3 linnets through the window though) then went on to Sutton Common for lunch.  Lots of dog walkers about so not too many birds but we did see a smart mistle thrush.  Then moved on to Minsmere/Dunwich Heath to the elevated viewpoint looking over Minsmere RSPB - there are really spectacular views from up here over the reserve down the coast and out to sea.  If we've got to work we might as well have the pick of the views!  It's NT land so free parking for us but expensive for non-member motorcaravanners - £12 I think.  We'll visit the reserve itself in the morning. Warm sunshine greeted us ready for our day at Minsmere RSPB - a change from our last visit.  We took a picnic with us to save coming back to the motorhome for lunch and set off to walk round the reserve.  What a lovely day - bitterns booming - Cetti’s singing - avocets nesting - many waders - and a pair of treecreepers nesting in a box right by the path in the woodland.  We watched them collecting nesting material and courtship feeding. From the "Bittern Hide" we saw first marsh harriers, male and female, then a bittern coming out of the reeds into the sunshine - super view in the ‘scope.  Then a bittern flew past the hide really close in lovely light - a real treat.  More bitterns booming as we walked round, then when we were watching a ferruginous duck(!) from the Lookout Hide, 2 more bitterns flew past together and quite close!  You can wait years to see one and then several turn up at once!  We also saw our first goslings of the year here, greylags with 5 fluffy golden youngsters, while walking back to the car park. Spring has certainly sprung!

Time to catch up on some work again so back up to Dunwich Heath to sit with the window open for the view over afternoon tea & biscuits while Neill got through a a bit more on the laptop and internet.  14 deer came out of the trees below us moving across the open ground grazing on the open grass by the reserve.  We stayed here watching the finches and warblers until quite late then left for our stopover.

Sunshine yet again in the morning so we stretched our legs by walking to the viewpoint at a Suffolk Trust reserve at Hen Reedbeds where we saw more marsh harriers before walking into the wider reserve through a large reed bed and across the road out towards the coastal marsh.  Lots of warblers about and a skylark singing way up high.  Pools with teal, greylags, oystercatchers, lapwings and avocets and a smart male reed bunting too.  Loads of shelduck roosting on the marshes in the distance with good views from the bund.  We could even hear a bittern booming from the car park!  It's no wonder we midlanders like East Anglia so much.

Drove into Southwold for lunch at the Harbour where we bought fresh crayfish tails from a fisherman’s hut on the harbour side and made up a delicious salad.  After lunch we walked down the harbour and out onto the marshes – marsh harrier out there of course and warblers in the bushes - then back to the harbour and along past the boats and fishermen’s huts.  Some are used for storage and some fishermen obviously use them to run small businesses, one or two were up for sale as well as one of the landing stages, sign of the times I guess.

We left late but set off to make some ground inland to make the journey home easier tomorrow.  We stopped at Head Fen (one of our favourites) a CCC certified location at some fishing ponds in the Fens.  Scruffy, cheap and cheerful, but with semi-hardstanding and fresh water and cassette dump - all we need really, and a quiet stopover with birds attracted by the pools, many singing and calling around us.

Anglesea Abbey NT was a good place to visit on the way home the next day.  We have been before in Winter as it has a really stunning Winter Garden but the beautiful silver-white birches now stood above a spring carpet of miniature tulips!  The formal gardens were planted with hyacinth 'bedding' - what a sight and scent - while the daffodils were nearly over but some were still in flower.  Forget-me-nots all over the place in a sea of blue!  Some lovely birches or maybe cherry family too with exceptional copper coloured trunks.  We had a yummy ice cream from a stall there before going in to look at the house, something we haven’t done before.  Quite interesting with Royal connections and visits, mostly left to the NT by Lord Fairhaven a very rich bachelor who died in 1966.

All in all a great trip in pretty decent weather so just a cup of tea now prior to heading home picking up some fish and chips on the way - our final holiday treat!

PS: We're members of several organisations including NT, Art Pass, RSPB, WWT, Wildlife Trusts, etc. The membership costs all add up but are exceptional value for money as long as you make good use of them - as we have this trip. Most offer discount rates and/or life memberships for 'old codgers' too.
 


Birds & Art - Somerset Levels Trip March 2012

In great need of some light and air after what seems to have been a long winter we planned a short spring trip taking in some art and some birdwatching to give a focus to our 'outdoors'. Inspired by a wonderful Christmas gift of 'Art Passes' a browse through their guidebook suggested Nature in Art in Gloucestershire and - perhaps rather surprisingly - Swindon Museum. www.artfund.org

Nature in Art is at Wallsworth Hall, Twigworth, about half way between Slimbridge and and Gloucester on the A38  www.nature-in-art.org.uk.  We've passed the sign several times and said 'must go there' but had never got round to it. It's really not too far from us and seemed a good spot to stop for lunch on our first day as indeed it was even having a grassy area at one end of their car park.

We used our Art Passes to get in free to see the exhibits - both permanent and visiting.  The contemporary wildlife sculptures in the garden outside the hall are really interesting, amazing even.  Birds, dragonflies and preying mantis made out of assorted junk welded together almost Picasso style!  A fantastic stainless steel heron on a tree and a hint of an enormous whale diving were more literal but equally impressive.  Alongside in the garden studio the current "artist in residence" was Stephen Walton who draws incredibly detailed pictures of animals in charcoal.  It was fascinating to watch him work, see his less than obvious techniques, and to be able to talk to him and while admiring his masterpieces as they were coming to life. Another outbuilding houses temporary exhibitions and the current one was “Drawn to the Levels” – the Wallsworth Art Group - 5 very different artists who had painted and drawn a variety of wildlife in the Somerset Levels together.  Very relevant to our current trip!  We particularly liked the work of Bryn Edwards who paints vibrant, graphic images capturing the light and landscape and its wildlife.

In the hall proper we enjoyed the permanent paintings on the walls including a truly enormous spirally arranged flower painting up the stairs and headed for the visiting Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.  Some super images here.  Having been keen wildlife photographers ourselves in times past we found the pictures stimulating and inspiring.  We particularly enjoyed scenes we have seen ourselves like thousands of Knot taking off with blurred wings at Snettisham and a cheetah with cubs climbing a tree.  The junior section was impressive too with a Great Tit in action (not easy to capture) and a merlin with prey (a snipe!). 

The cafe was pretty much on the point of closing so we went back to the camper for a cuppa and after rescuing a lady in distress in the carpark - we blew up her flat tyre with our gadget that works from the lighter socket - we set off towards Slimbridge in preparation for a visit in the morning.

We love Slimbridge and have been members of the WWT for over 30 years!  Slimbridge is our granddaughter’s day out of choice, whatever the season and whatever the weather!  www.wwt.org.uk/visit-us/slimbridge We took advantage of this rare visit on our own to walk out to the far hides over the saltings to birdwatch 'properly'!  Masses of godwit, widgeon, dunlin and teal and a little egret from the Zeiss hide. More dunlin from the Kingfisher hide (no kingfisher again!) and about 20 ruff plus lots of small birds nearby on the feeders.  We walked back and out to the Holden Tower to see big flocks of white fronted geese and a flock of barnacle geese.  Still some whooper swans feeding and shoveller, teal, oystercatcher and corvids everywhere.  We got caught in a squall on the way back to the centre but the Barbours coped!  A good cold, wet, winter, but refreshing birdwatching day!! 

So Swindon??  Well yes ... "remarkable art collection now has a reputation as one of the best of British 20th Century Art outside London". OK we'll give it a go but where on earth will we park?  I asked around but the answers were not encouraging ... weight limit on all council car parks ... fines for not parking wholly within bays ... hanging over borders not allowed ... park & ride closed on Sundays ... something about parking by the Steam museum but 'car park ticket available at reception' ... nothing sounded too promising really!

Undaunted we headed across country to be near Swindon for tomorrows foray into town to the Swindon Museum & Art Gallery with its reputed quality collection. www.swindon.gov.uk/museumandartgallery  Some web research revealed opening 6 days a week including Sunday.  It all turned out to be a bit of a nightmare.  The next morning it was raining heavily, the rain turned to sleet - then snow!  Not to worry, plainly just the day to be inside a gallery.  Neill had sussed out the nearest car park which isn’t height barriered (good old Google Earth and street view) and so we duly parked up not far away.  No sign of the dreaded weight limit but there were damaged areas on the tariff board, being Sunday we decided to risk it and paid our £2.80 for 4 hours.  We walked to the museum in the snow and wind only to find it closed!   A typed note in a plastic cover pinned to the door informed us "due to the cuts ... now only open Wednesday to Saturday".  Just to add insult to injury the colour posters outside still said open on Sundays!  We were not amused!  

Swallowing our disappointment we decided to head straight for the Somerset Levels and were really pleased we did as the sun came out as we travelled south west and we arrived at Ham Wall RSPB Reserve just before dusk - just in time to see the starling roost in fact.  We parked up by the side of the road as usual (the English Nature shared car park is height barriered of course!  So, anyone with a higher vehicle including minibuses full of children or disabled people and camper vans are forced to park on a verge right by the roadside before walking down a track towards the Ham Wall reserve following the RSPB sign.  We were too late for the big flocks of starlings but it was nice to see smaller flocks arriving and going to roost and of course finding out where they were - they do move around a fair bit.  www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/h/hamwall

We left in the dark to try out a pub on the Britstop scheme for motorhomes.  The Royal Oak, within reasonable distance, is in both the Britstop (www.britstops.com) and the Motorhomer Stopover Schemes (www.motorhomestopover.co.uk).  It has a big car park and we were immediately welcomed by a nice young lady who came out to greet us.  They have water and a dump point at the back of the building and hook ups if required (payment).  We did not need electricity, parked where indicated and went into the bar for a drink and look at the menu.  There was no sign of anyone eating, they are a big Sunday lunch pub and this was a Sunday Evening, but the menu looked good.  We had a couple of drinks, a good chat to the barmaid and some of the regulars and then retired to the camper for a pre-prepared curry. 

A quiet night but woken by the bin men in the morning!  Nice blue sky today but very windy.  Neill worked on today's orders while Dilys had a more relaxed shower.  We topped up the water before leaving and headed for Catcott Reserve, Somerset Wildlife Trust.  That beautiful late winter, early spring light, is a delight and all the more so once we spotted 6 spoonbills feeding actively!  Apparently they are "always here" but we've been before and they weren't there then!  Lots of spring plumage duck, pintail, shoveller, widgeon and teal and a small group of black tailed godwit.  Two little egrets arrived and a great white egret too all great stuff.  Then some excitement as a harrier swooped down and caught a duck and was immediately buzzed by a juvenile peregrine falcon!  We all watched fascinated as a buzzard appeared from nowhere and stole the prey from under the noses of both of them!  The peregrine 'buzzed' the buzzard but to no avail while the the harrier simply left - apparently in disgust!  We stayed for about an hour or so then went for a welcome cup of tea in the camper.  We had another super view of the peregrine spooking the duck flock from the camper window.

About 4pm we left for Ham Wall in lovely late sunshine.  We had time this evening to walk out beyond the viewing point and out on the boardwalk over the marsh and were rewarded by a bittern booming really close.  Some little grebes were diving nearby too.  Along the path, high in the trees, we watched some tits through the binoculars and realised that some of the small birds were warblers - back from Africa already!  A smart treecreeper flew in and then a reed warbler sang from the marsh, so spring really is here!  No starlings had arrived yet despite it being later than yesterday when it was nearly all over, must be the sunshine, maybe or have they moved again?  As we started to walk back starlings began to arrive in small flocks from all directions, mostly low over the marsh and reedbeds.  We climbed down to the side of the stream under the trees out of the wind and several flocks flew over us really low and completely silent except for the fabulous whirring of hundreds of wings - is that a murmuration or do they have to be chattering (murmuring) too? But how about a chatter or chattering, a cloud or clutter, concentration or congregation or constellation, a filth or a flight, a gathering, a hosting, a murmuracyon or a murmuration, a roost, a scourge, or a vulgarity? All are group names for starlings! We climbed back up the bank to see the last of the starlings against the sunset before walking back. It was almost dark by the time we got back to the camper.

We drove back to the Royal Oak and found it all in darkness, it's closed on Mondays but the Britstop book says it is ok to stop anyway.  In compensation the bell ringers entertained us from the stunning belltower nearby and we got an early night. 

The next morning was the turn of the bottle bank emptiers to wake us!  We got up and made a hearty breakfast of porridge and eggs and beans.  We seemed to be short of electricity despite the solar panels doing their stuff all day which made us wonder about the health of our leisure batteries?  Must check.

We visited the NNR at Shapwick Heath www.naturalengland.org.uk in glorious sunshine and walked out to the hide where we saw otters a few years ago.  Cetti’s warbler singing half heartedly, many cormorant moving around and a bittern booming on the way, an amazing sound and quite un-bird like.  We watched a pair of great crested grebes do part of their mating display on the pool before wandering back past the camper and over to Hall Wall.  More warblers and some redpoll feeding in tree tops over the edge of the reeds - so summer visitors from Africa and winter visitors from Scandinavia feeding in the same trees!  We gathered with a small crowd to listen to an enthusiastic young man from the RSPB giving us the background to the starling roost as they began to arrive and I spotted a bittern cruise past just above the reeds.  He explained that they only do the swirling round in amazing patterns when spooked by a predator, and sure enough and on cue a sparrowhawk plunged into the flock forcing them to perform their aerial display beautifully - just like on the telly!  He said that the winter roost numbers had fallen considerably in the last few days due to the mild weather and they were probably all now heading north to breed.  All in all a great few days in the fresh air.

Time to drift back northwards again so next day we headed for Swindon again determined to visit the museum, fearless suckers for punishment maybe?!  We parked in the Park and Ride Wroughton.  Bizarrely this car park has clear signage saying it is restricted to 1.5 tonnes with a picture of a van as a banned vehicle.  This plainly seems ridiculous to the 'man in the street' and was being ignored by the other motorhomes, vans, pickups, 4x4s and minibuses already parked there.  We caught the bus, as usual you "need exact change" - the notice outside says £1.20 but you discover when you get on that it has gone up to £1.40!  It dropped us off close to the museum which is free of charge.  The art exhibition is very good but unfortunately half of it was not on display due to a temporary exhibition of children’s photography!  Much as we like and encourage childrens' photography it hardly added to the "best of British 20th Century Art" moniker!  Some excellent modern art though, Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, Nicholson, Lowry, Monteiro and Bomberg all well worth seeing if that's your thing.  The rest of the museum was moderately interesting too for its small size especially for children.  Saxon finds, Roman coins, Egyptian mummy, dinosaur bones and a complete fish eating crocodile, apparently a local.

On returning to the park and ride we decided to leave for home stopping at the more convivial Stanton Country Park, Swindon Borough Council, for a cup of tea in the sunshine with nice views before driving home through the Cotswolds in the wonderful early spring sunshine. Many thanks to Swindon for taking the trouble to open the height barrier during the day, much appreciated.   Must get out more!
 


February Half Term 2012 - Heading North!

Our grand-daughter was away with her mum for the first of the half term weekends at friends in Manchester so collecting her from those friends and making the most of Lancashire & Yorkshire hotspots seemed a good choice for the break despite the recent cold weather and snow.  As usual a little research added to existing knowledge and we soon had a set of indoor and outdoor activities to go for.

Saturday 11th February. Left late morning in beautiful bright winter sunshine adding extra atmosphere to the remaining snow and headed off to stop for lunch at Sudbury Hall and Museum of Childhood NT - taking advantage of our National Trust membership www.nationaltrust.org.uk. The car park offered a nice rural outlook over lunch in the motorhome plus the added interest of some birds feeding nearby. Sudbury Hall offers has a very interesting museum attached with an extensive exhibition of old toys, games and books of our childhood days - some going way back but also some yielding a more recent 'blast from the past' for 'oldies' like us. Paper cut-out dolls to 'dress', real metal train sets, Muffin the Mule, Ludo games, traditional Jacks, balsa wood planes, a delightful but very non-pc golliwog and a tricycle just like the one I had as a child!  Add to that some informative exhibits about Victorian children working in factories, down mines and up chimneys, and plainly this brief research visit suggested that we know someone who will really like all this. We will definitely return with our granddaughter at some point, maybe even on our way back home.

Back to the camper with compacted snow still on parts of the car park and fieldfares and redwings in the trees and feeding in the grass. A skein of geese flew over – lovely against the wintry late afternoon sky.  With temperatures still very low and snow causing a fair bit of disruption it seemed a good moment to see how campsites were coping so we set off for the CCC Blackshaw Moor site at Leek and booked in as an 'off roader'.  www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk  We received that grumpily friendly welcome that seems to characterise parts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire - could also be something to do with the unbooked arrival though, campsites are increasingly intolerant of this, even our favourite 'friendly club' . All the water taps were frozen except the slightly inaccessible one at the toilet block so we decided to leave that until morning, we had plenty of water on board for an overnight in any case.  A neighbour who had checked in just before us had come empty and was carrying water back over frozen ground in plastic, not my idea of fun by any means.  We tend to travel with all resources fully topped up at most times and I certainly wouldn't travel empty in mid winter!  We were soon sited on a cleared patch of hard-standing, plugged into the electricity and making a welcome cuppa.  No satellite tv but most probably the nearby trees blocking the line of sight. Dilys cooked mushroom, courgette & pepper a la Greque which went down well with a nice bottle of Gran Tierra Reserva from Chile - all very nice indeed.  Opted for an early night.

Sunday 12th February - no more snow but none melted either!  With the help of the site manager I managed to defrost the water tap at the motorhome point so we managed to fill up without having to run miles of hose to the toilet block.  Dumping the warm grey wasn't a problem - it defrosted its own hole into the dump point.  The warden told me they were hoping to receive further supplies of rock salt the very next day to help get the wider site access into full working order.

We're heading for Altrincham today to meet up with our daughter and granddaughter at their friends house. Stopped at Styl Mill NT to stretch our legs and have lunch in the camper in pleasant surroundings.  We do like NT car parks as impromptu lunch stops if we don't have a favourite country spot nearby.  We'd already asked if we could overnight on our friend's drive, more paved garden really, and just managed to squeeze and turn our Hymer through their entrance onto the drive in front of the house for our 'overnight'.  It's often the same problem in tight spaces, there's room but the swing-out of that big overhang at the back means you can't make full use of the good steering lock.  Once in though we had a great evening with friends and were able to become the 'responsible adults'(?!) to release our daughter to go off south back to work while we headed off 'half-terming'.

Monday 13th February - set off after lunch with grand-daughter for a few days starting close by at Dunham Massey NT where we could all get some fresh air after a mainly indoor weekend.  Famed for its winter garden much of it was looking really beautiful in the bright sunshine - white barked silver birches surrounded by snowdrops by the thousand, cyclamen and dwarf irises, subtle hellebores under luminous red dogwood, hamamelis covered in flowers giving off that heady witch hazel scent.  It was a bit early for the camellias but the buds were all ready to burst and the tete à tete daffodils were just starting to open, all plus the promise of loads of bluebells quite soon - what a place!  Grand-daughter was understandably delighted and took loads of photos!

After a pause for a refreshing cup of tea and a biscuit we then headed off for the motorway to take us around and away from the big conurbations across country to a CCC CS at Newsholme Manor Restaurant, overlooking a distant Keighley.  Sounds very posh but was friendly and looked to have decent reasonably priced menu though we didn't try it this time.  This CS is good value by today's standards at £6 without electricity. A longish hose is needed to fill up with water though - the resources being arranged more with caravans in mind.  We didn’t need electricity as the solar panels had done their stuff in the bright sunshine aided by the journey too of course. Dilys cooked beef and aubergine moussaka with mashed potatoes followed by hot prunes and custard - very suitable and very welcome winter fare!  Not quite sure how she manages these wonderful meals on just two rings in a tiny space but no complaints from me!  A windy night and a bit exposed on the hillside but took the opportunity to introduce grand-daughter to the delights of vintage film on DVD - Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther!

Tuesday 14th February – Valentine’s Day!  Although planning a bit of an educational visit today we were up fairly late and as a special treat the 'ladies' had tea in bed. We all exchanged Valentine’s cards and someone who shall be nameless here got heart shaped chocolates in pink wrappers!  After sorting out some outstanding emails we drove into Skipton and parked up in the centre to visit Skipton Castle, no height barrier and £4.50 for 4 hours.  An outstanding medieval castle should prove a suitable antidote to Pink Panther movies we thought and so it turned out it is in stunning condition for its incredible age with a Tudor extension still lived in to this day. It cost £6.10 for seniors and £4.10 for a child including a badge. Both castle and history are outstanding, lots of different rooms to see and explore plus turrets, kitchen and garderobe to wonder at - even including a 'long drop' to the moat!  Banqueting hall and dungeon complete the self-guided tour. It was built of wood originally in 1090 and rebuilt in stone in the 1200s. A fascinating history and one you can feel too - standing on the floor where Norman soldiers stood and down in the dungeon with graffiti scratched into the walls by long past prisoners and of course the story of its famous involvement in the civil war when feisty Lady Anne Clifford fought tenaciously for her rights and for the King's cause when Skipton Castle withstood a three years siege.  Quite tiring though all this battling with culture so we three indulged in tea and toasted teacakes in the Castle café and even succumbed to a souvenir chart of Kings and Queens of England in the Castle shop.

Back to the motorhome and a quick bowl of soup before heading off towards Shipley tonight for an early-ish start tomorrow for our 'raid' on Salts Mill. Found a good quiet stopover up on the moors and Dilys cooked pork fillets in brandy and crème fraiche (grand-daughter's special request, fancy tastes for an 11 year old or what?), new potatoes and corn on the cob accompaniment, followed by crème caramel and bananas. Bottle of white Grenache was just perfect with this - Vimto for some of course!  Finally a DVD of 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' - most amusing - followed by early night as all now fairly tired. Blowy again up on the moors.

Wednesday 15th February - 2 cups of tea in bed while yours truly dealt with emails, it's alright for some!  Bright sunny day again with a bright blue sky and less wind at last.  Treated ourselves to porridge for breakfast followed by toast and coffee.  Drove down to park at Salts Mill, Saltaire, no height barriers and free, to visit the David Hockney gallery www.saltsmill.org.uk. We've both been before and wanted to take junior to see the mill and the permanent Hockney exhibition, especially as there was also a special exhibition of his latest iPad pictures and there's his current moniker of "Britain's greatest living artist" of course.  It was a great pleasure to see grand-daughter's real interest in Hockney's iconic contemporary works in the main exhibition hall and in the new "25 Trees and other Pictures" special exhibition and also in the projection room where recent works on iPhone and iPad were shown on triple projectors.  Dilys just loved the iPad pictures - "so spontaneous and vibrant" - but fortunately maybe, Hockney is way out of our price bracket!  Might now have to save up for an iPad though!

Despite our engagement with all there was to see, it was inevitable that bodies would rumble eventually so we stopped for a late lunch in the restaurant as the camper was a good walk away and it was a bit of a treat too, it was reasonably good I suppose but unexciting and maybe expensive for what it was.  We spent a bit of time after lunch sitting watching a fascinating documentary running on a large TV screen about "Hockney - A Bigger Picture" the title of his exhibit/exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The biggest picture in the world allegedly, 3 massive wall sized canvases of Yorkshire Wold trees in 3 seasons. Great footage of him painting giant sections outside and then putting it all together in a warehouse and finally all being hung at the exhibition.

Back to camper pretty exhausted in all senses for that essential refreshing late afternoon cuppa.  Decided that we couldn't really top the Salt's Mill experience so opted to head for home stopping on the way for a meal in the motorhome and then falling into bed late back at base.  Grand-daughter's verdict?  Awesome!


August 11:  France again followed by Dusseldorf Motorhome Show.  Really looking forward to it ...



A few past highlights ...

July Snowdonia.  Away in a motorcaravan with two eight year olds, we must be mad!  Snowdonia is a great place to try out our new solar panel under low light conditions - and rain of course!  Joking aside the trip centres around a trip up the mountain on the mountain railway at great expense and we're hoping that the good long range forecast for our pre-booked day will turn out to be correct. This is Wales of course so it wasn't, we spent the day in rain, mist, and eventually cloud, but the trip scored another "awesome" from both children - so a success anyway. Just as feedback for others I think the Snowdon Mountain Railway Company have got it wrong, you can't book separate times up and down and the return trip gives only half an hour at the summit, that wasn't even time enough to get drinks and a bite and get it down the children. Given that we'd paid over £80 for this little venture I reckon that's very poor value indeed. Although more difficult to administer the way forward must be for visitors to use alternate trains to give that extra time at the top, sure it means a couple of empty trains going up at the end of the day but this cost is spread over the rest of the fares for the whole day so they would increase only slightly while the time at the top could be much longer. (A later trip up the even higher Puy de Dome in France offered a completely free choice of up/down times, they just send up 'empties' at the end of the day and were confident that they'd get you down OK). The other venues were great and much more customer focussed, the Sea Zoo Centre on Anglesey, Benllech Bay, PenRhyn Castle, even the waterside parking just below Carnarvon Castle (Caernarfon), all excellent. Anyway back to motorhomes - the new panel did its stuff charging well in any available sunlight and was still ticking over even under quite overcast skies so all seems to bode well for our trip to la belle France in a few weeks time. 

Business on the website is still relatively buoyant so we must be doing something right!  Margins are very tight but the volume is holding up well - so very many thanks to all of you for your continued support. Supplies are still difficult with yet more companies failing to cope with the difficult conditions and making unreliable delivery promises as a result. Cool boxes originally promised for April are now due into the UK sometime in August and even the mighty Dometic seem unable to give accurate estimates - they are now talking about October delivery of products we wanted and needed to sell in mid season. Ho hum!


June & July Mend & Improve.  ... Other bits of maintenance were more interesting. Adding the DRLs (Daylight Running Lamps) was more fun and dead easy too. I'd chosen the ones that were both chunky enough to look the part and came with an easy fitting kit complete with all the electronic controllers that seem to be needed with these ever more sophisticated high power LEDs. It's quite a clever arrangement really with a simple fused power supply from the battery and a 'trigger' wire that 'scotchloks' into a wire going to the side lights. Once in place along with an earth return the 'black box' detects when the engine is running by sensing the charging voltage and turns on the DRLs automatically, then when the vehicle's side lights come on it turns the DRLs off again even though the engine is still running - an important feature since they would really dazzle at night. All very clever and now attracting a bit of attention too. Most people are interested and curious too but just a few are telling me I've got my lights on - I guess they'll get used to them as more an more vehicles fit DRLs/DSLs in the run up to 'obligatory' in 2011.  To add some technology at the rear I've changed the brake lamps for 'tower red leds' and can see a real improvement there too.  I'm still talking to suppliers but expect these to be on site this winter.

G4 Replacement LED 'bulb' & 20pInside I've been replacing the G4 Halogen bulbs with LED replacements - similar light for about 1/10th the electricity! Like the low energy bulbs at home they're not quite as bright visually as the technical measurements seem to show but work just fine and we found we adapted readily to the slight differences. The picture shows how small they are, the sideways only fitting, and also the yellow filter to give the warmer light that many prefer. Hopefully this will make a big difference to battery consumption during the darker months yet to come. Already available on site and quite popular too.

The major addition of the month though has to be the first of two solar panels fitted onto the overcab roof. Given that we sell the VeeTech units it seemed only sensible to install a complete VeeTech system to check out the product personally. It was all a bit of a fiddle to get the mounts and cabling correctly in place and sealed to the roof but with the help of some Sikaflex and a decent cable entry box it is now bonded on with a good watertight cable entry concealed under the panel. I guess they're all a bit fiddly at this stage. A short run of white trunking inside carries the cabling to where it can run down the wall behind the curtains and sofa with a suitable breakout for the remote panel on the way down. The remote panel isn't strictly necessary but I like the information about charging rate and battery voltage and especially about the Amp-hours gained during the current session. I was planning to put in some extra heavy 8mm2 cable to minimise any loss but in the end and with the advice of some experts I went for 6mm2 on the basis that is heavier than actually needed and also the maximum size easily connected with standard terminals. It was a bright day when I finally got it into place and it was very gratifying to see a 4.3A charge the minute I connected it all up. Summer charging is obviously going to be good and we've already seen over 6 amps in British sunshine but we'll definitely need that second unit for the Autumn and Spring. Wish I'd done it long ago!


Feb Half Term:  We had a delightful time taking our grand-daughter to Norfolk to see Degas' Little Dancer statue and some other favourites at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and to do some half-term activities including a bit of walking and bird-watching along the North Norfolk Coast.

We often wild camp in Norfolk where open spaces and a more relaxed attitude are quite commonplace. This makes departure and arrival times very flexible so in the event we arrived on the coast just in time to watch the sun go down over the marshes. Next day our first real stop was at RSPB Titchwell Marsh which is one of my grand-daughter's favourite reserves because it offers easy but interesting bird-watching along a simple walk with a shop at one end and a sandy beach at the other!  Special birds this time round were a red kite on the way and a marsh harrier at Titchwell but there were lots more too - most of the coastal birds are special when you live in the Midlands.

The SCVA as it is known, is on the University of East Anglia Campus on the outskirts of Norwich and housed in a vast modern Norman Foster building. Admission to most of the gallery is free with a modest charge made for special exhibitions (and reductions for over 60s). Parking is possible on campus for motorhomes and there is both a cafe and restaurant. Grand-daughter was very taken by the Henry Moore statues plus many far eastern and Native American 'objets', the well known 'bucket man', and a wonderful Egyptian miniature walking hippo - which is getting on for 4000 years old. Add to that a sprinkling of very famous but slightly odd stuff like a Picasso and a Giacometti and it becomes easy to understand why she told her mum she was "speechless" when asked about it all!  We'd also timed our visit to coincide with some Wednesday evening activities so added a little live sculpture and some live music to round off the day - I think we made quite an impression on a young mind.

On the way home we just managed to find time to detour to call in at Anglesey Abbey NT for a hours walk in the grounds to see the wonderful winter garden and especially the masses of emerging snowdrops - a sure sign winter will soon be behind us. It's good for us all to break the four hour journey with a walk and a brief lunch stop too. All in all a great short break, thank heavens for motorhomes - and offspring of course! 


Dec Lincoln Christmas Market:  I've been floating the idea of going to one of the great European Christmas markets for some time but we never seemed to get it together - always too much else going on about then. This year with the credit crunch upon us it seemed more sensible to be looking at short UK trips and a little research soon revealed that we have some really good Christmas markets here in Britain too. I'd thought they were only in big cities like Birmingham and Manchester and big cities are not really our thing but it seems they're in Bath, York, Winchester, and Lincoln too. Now there's a thought, Lincoln, could be combined with a little jaunt out into Norfolk where I want to go to a rather special art gallery. Back to Google then to discover "One of Britain's oldest ... more than 350 stall holders ... It can get very crowded but the crowds are in such good spirits that nobody minds ... German flavour ... a fairy tale quality ...  ... Not Just About Shopping ... The whole festive atmosphere is what makes this market so special. ... Victorian costumes ... roasted chestnuts, hot mulled wine and mince pies ... Hand bell ringers and local choirs perform by candlelight. ... street theatre and you can take a time out at services in Lincoln's spectacular Cathedral". Sounds good to me!

I won't bore you with extensive detail but I can say it was a most enjoyable afternoon and early evening with the roasted chestnuts and gluwein becoming particular favourites!  I wasn't much into the shopping but if you are looking for Christmas presents that are a bit out of the ordinary - do bring plenty of dosh (and so avoid the long cashpoint queues)!  It's a fair old haul to get round everything and there are one-way zones in places to make sure everyone can keep moving so do come in good walking shoes, well wrapped up and ready to join in. Some street entertainment and the stage in particular offer opportunities to enjoy the festivities and to take a well earned break. One thing is for sure wherever you pause you won't starve!  The Lincoln official city website gives Christmas market info but googling will find dozens of sites with information about the previous and next market click for Lincoln.gov website - market link. You can't really park in the city while the event is on but there is a huge temporary park and ride out at the showground on the A15 north of the city, they allocated a special high ground area for motorhomes when we were there. The ride bit was interesting, it was the first time I've been on a double decker for years especially out of town and the experience reminded me why I don't go on buses by choice!!  Places to stay get booked up well in advance so we stayed well outside the city on a CC CL and were charged £9 against an advertised £7, as ever with the CC we felt we'd been overcharged for what we needed, that's a lot of money just to park in a corner. 

After our market visit we made off into Norfolk to revisit some favourite haunts and wild camping spots but also to visit the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, this is an amazing collection of art and artefacts from around the world all housed in an amazing Norman Foster building on the University campus in Norwich. The special reason to visit was the see a very famous sculpture by Degas, 'The Little Dancer aged fourteen'. Apart from being a great work of art, it is also the subject of a lovely bedtime story I've read repeatedly to my grand-daughter so once I discovered that it was (amazingly) here in Britain we really wanted to see it. We weren't disappointed by the sculpture or indeed by the gallery as a whole - and what's more as old fogeys were were admitted to the special exhibition at the time for just £1 each. If you're into eclectic 'objets d'art' this is definitely one to put on your list. www.scva.org.uk  Naturally enough a return visit with grand-daughter is now high on the agenda!


Gearbox Saga:  Left Shapwick Heath mid afternoon and headed off through the levels to take a drive up through Cheddar Gorge on the way home. Camper jumped out of fifth gear for the first time ever - I thought I was now so laid back that I'd got very lazy changing gear - but no I checked my next change very carefully and it jumped out again!  Decided to give it one more go at a slightly higher speed and to push & hold the stick in place just to have a decent diagnosis - but all I got was a bag of nails and a gear stick very rapidly and forcibly thrown back out again ... at this moment I'm sure I said something like "oh dear that's a bother!" and then drove home, rather gently at first, in 4th gear!

Despite fearing the worst this would seem to be a good time to ask around for others' experiences before jumping in at the deep end. In our relatively small motorcaravanning community the best place to do that is going to be on the internet, so I posted some questions on the relevant forums and groups to see what I could find out. At the same time I asked some trusted garages for their assessment. I need to cut a long story short here but the outcome was that this fifth gear failure is 'not unknown' in the Ducato-Boxer family and seems more prevalent on pre-2003 vehicles with larger engines and failures are often at the 50-60,000 mile mark. Yep that figures, ours is a 2.8L 2001 Ducato with over 60K on the clock. All that established it then seems there are two choices. First, I could replace the gearbox with a new or rebuilt-reconditioned one, this is the garage choice and is likely to result in a bill running into thousands of pounds ... another "oh dear" moment!  The second choice is definitely cheaper and involves removing a gearbox cover accessed from the nearside wheel arch, removing the fifth gear cog assembly and any debris that is accessible and then re-assembling with a new cog. I'm told its DIY-able but I'm doubtful, I'm also given some smaller-garage / gearbox-shop contacts based on others' experiences and a £400-ish bill seems likely if going down this route. There is a risk of course that remaining debris could do more damage - but it hasn't so far, other people seem to have got away with it, and the potential saving of upwards of £2,000 seems a pretty good incentive! 

The nearest gearbox place that came highly recommended and easily accessible for me was Geartech in Hartlebury, 01299 251261, so I gave them a call and talked to the boss, Tony Perkin. He plainly knows gearboxes and has done many of these in-situ repairs so I booked in. Geartech is a bit of an old fashioned 'engineering workshop' full of oily bits being tended by oily people but that also goes with some old fashioned values about doing a good job at a fair rate! Tony is a hands-on man himself with a passion for vintage motorbikes. If you want he'll make you a coffee, tell you tales of motorbikes, and of the many modern gearboxes apparently not up to modern engine power, but don't expect a fancy reception or waiting room, there isn't one. I got to watch the work and was shocked to see the damage when my man exclaimed "so, no drive at all then!". Have a look at the picture to see the old and new units side by side, it is the small side teeth that drive your 3½t camper along at 70mph, at least they do when there are any!  Considerable care was taken over the whole process and in particular over retrieving the missing gear teeth from the trap in the cover. Several oily hours later I'm the proud owner of a reborn 5-speed Ducato but £372.48 poorer. Recommended nevertheless! 

   

 
 
 
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