A Forest Stay

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Last week we took our camper van only a few miles away to spend a couple of nights locally at a New Forest site at Ashurst. The New Forest is well-known as a tourist destination for visitors worldwide [ about  ]and we consider ourselves fortunate to live within cycling distance of this historic National Park. The camp site lies between picturesque, touristy Lyndhurst, with its bustling shopping street full of gift emporia, coffee shops and restaurants and sprawling Southampton with its cruise terminal, IKEA, shopping malls and docks.

Here there are the usual useful services: showers, washing up, laundry, water and emptying, although no electric hook-up; neither is there a play park [there is, however an excellent one at the adjacent pub] a swimming pool, organised ‘entertainment’ a bar or a restaurant.

What there is, though is a wealth of natural play options-from riding a bike around the site tracks to building dens; from ‘hide-and-seek’ to ‘cops-and-robbers’. And there is no shortage of happy children to demonstrate that pools, play parks and organised entertainment, despite having their place are not essential components of children’s happiness. Here at Ashurst they make their own entertainment, gathering together to create games, chasing, cycling, discussing, learning to organise and be part of a team.

Then there are added distractions. Here in The New Forest, gangs of cows or ponies roam wild and free, the camp site being part of their territory. They are expert opportunists, taking every opportunity of campers’ absences to forage inside the accommodation, strewing the contents of bags and bins over the grass in careless abandon to the amusement of onlookers.

For this short break close to home we’ve brought a small guest with us, a grand-offspring, coming along for a first taste of camping life. From the moment she arrives she takes to it all, loving the camp site, loving the safe freedom she can have. She cycles, apprehensive at first and then growing in confidence. She rides a circuit again and again, singing at the top of her voice. She wants to ride everywhere-to the showers [which she loves], to reception [from which we obtain a nature trail sheet], to the convenient pub [which serves perfectly acceptable food].

Next morning she is up and out straight away, cycling. If she were to become bored we could walk or cycle up the road to the New Forest Wildlife Park to see otters, owls, dormice, badgers, deer, wild boar and many more creatures in their natural habitat; or we could visit the adjoining Longdown Activity Farm, get a tractor and trailer ride or pony ride, feed the goats, scratch the pigs’ ears, stroke the donkeys, feed the calves and cradle tiny, fluffy chicks or baby rabbits in our hands. But none of this is necessary because the van guest is perfectly, ludicrously happy to ride around and around until she goes to sleep.

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Towpath Tales [part 3]

We were down to our last two days of cycling before we’d need to trek back up to Caen for the ferry.

There was a convenient parking spot at Pont d’Oust, where a bend in the canal is host to a few houseboats, a picnic place and a mooring for leisure boats or smaller craft.

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We lunched, squeezed into paddy-pants [essential cycling gear], applied sun block, applied insect repellent and set off towards Redon. It was a busier day on the cycle path, being a Sunday, especially in an area where the canal and river merge and there is a gorge with steep cliffs, popular with climbers, leisure boats, picnickers and the rest.

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On our arrival to Redon we were treated to the surreal sight of a parade of amphibious vehicles around the town, followed by their launch [as we set off back] into the canal. We’ve seen collections of Citroen 2CVs and various other vehicles in France before but never a sight such as this.

The municipal site at Saint Martin d’Oust is immaculate, with sparkling new showers and a quiet, canal-side location. Better still, a busy, picturesque bar-restaurant by the flower adorned bridge serves delicious Breton cider. As often the case, reception was closed when we arrived but we followed the instructions to choose a pitch and pay later. We parked, made a meal and went for pre-dinner drinks.

Next morning, having visited the boulangerie, we left the site and breakfasted at the canal-side.

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Then it was off back to Le Roc St Andre for our very last cycle of the trip, short, breezy and not too difficult.

We’d come to the end of our trip. When I reflected on it I realised that one of the aspects I’d enjoyed was seeing the numbers of entire families out on their bikes, carrying or pulling all their camping gear and cycling together; trailers with small children or a dog, paniers loaded, heaped up cycle carriers. Sometimes there were young children riding bikes piled high with sleeping bags and mats. They would arrive at a site, the parents unloading and putting up dinky tents and their children still with energy to burn, cartwheeling over the grass, racing to the play park or cycling round and round as if they’d only just risen from bed. The parents made meals using rudimentary cooking equipment, sitting at a site picnic table or setting up lightweight, fold-up chairs-or simply sitting on a blanket.

I was in awe of these parents, who were confident and competent to undertake travel this way with their kids.Those children made no complaints. They played, ate and slept. Next morning they were up, packing, ready for the new day. When they return to school they will have towpath tales of their own to tell-and memories to last them into adulthood.

Tales from the Towpath [Part 2]-The Re-appearance…

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Last week’s episode described how, like an old Brian Rix farce, Husband beetled over the canal bridge and I, in my ever-present need to take the easier option, scooted around a narrow, lumpy path that wound underneath, resulting in each of us losing sight of the other.
I ploughed on towards Josselin, searching the verges and benches for Husband, or at least his bike. When the turrets of the chateau appeared above the trees I felt sure he’d have stopped at the fence where we’d locked the bikes on our previous visit [from the opposite direction, you understand]. But no-neither Husband nor the bike was there, neither was he installed in the nearby bar, cold beer in hand [an obvious place to look for him].
I gulped some more water-the temperature was continuing to climb at 8.00pm-and turned back. I stopped a few people and asked if they’d seen ‘un homme avec un T-shirt noir et un velo rose’ and was met with negative responses from all. I’d spot the glint of a lone helmet in the distance and think it was Husband but many lone cyclists passed by and still no sign. I cycled back-and back.

After what seemed an interminable peddle back towards Le Roc St Andre, and after seeing no-one as the sun began to dip I caught sight of a cyclist approaching-dark T, black helmet and sweat-soaked-and yes-it was Husband.

We downed what was left of the water, by way of celebration [we are still able to celebrate finding each other after all these years] and peddled slowly back, stopping at a hostelry not far from our site, on a bend in the canal, to throw back a medicinal cold beer or two.

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The following morning, following a sticky, uncomfortable night, rather than easing, the temperature at Le Roc soared higher, climbing through the 30s and tipping over into the 40s. Many resorted to the site’s tiny pool, many others [including ourselves] squidged into any bit of shade available, lounging, sprawling, sleeping. It was a disquieting insight into how things may become as summers heat up. Cycling seemed less appealing, but we gamely prepared in the late afternoon and set off in the opposite direction to Josselin, achieving, perhaps, 100 metres or so before Husband’s bike, the improbably named Charge Cooker came to a standstill, the back wheel having seized up.

Reception directed us to a repair shop up the road, which turned out to be splendid at repairing lawn mowers, ‘le patron’, a humourless, moustachioed gent, redirecting us to a cycle shop at St Congard-a small village that was easily included into our itinerary. We returned to the site, me gliding down and over the bridge, Husband half-carrying the recalcitrant Charge Cooker on its one functioning wheel. At this point an ice cream seemed a fair alternative to a cycle in 40 degrees. We spent another uncomfortable hot night and moved on next day to St Congard-first stop the bike shop.

Here, the proprietor, a jovial woman who clearly loved her job dealing with everything bike-related told us that the extreme temperatures had caused the brakes to swell and jam the wheel; that we should pour cold water on it. Simples!

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We stayed at St Congard’s small municipal site for 11E and I undertook a short, solitary cycle to Malestroit, all of which was unremarkable except for the pair of beautiful otters I spotted on the return. Tiny St Congard’s one and only bar was firmly closed.

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En route to St Martin sur Oust we paused to look at Rochefort en Terre, alleged ‘most beautiful village’, which was indeed beautiful, but also wanted 5E to stay in a car park without water, emptying or anything else. We’d have liked to have purchased items in the shops but came to the conclusion that the stores must be part of the decor, since nobody seemed inclined to serve us. The poor citizens of Rochefort en Terre must be starving, since baguette availability was nil [we were offered a half of a baguette in a restaurant and decided to scarper before we were told the price]. After a quick look we moved on to a less pretentious place, and back to the canal!

 

Tales from the Towpath [part 1]

From Cherbourg, the French ferry port, it is a moderately easy drive to our first camp site on the Nantes-Brest Canal, at Grouerac.

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The site is sandwiched between the canal and the river and consists of 3 flat fields dotted with pyramid tents, tiny caravans and shepherds’ huts for hire. It is beautiful and has nearly everything; fully equipped kitchens, a large gazebo with picnic tables for diners to use, a bar, a small nook with armchairs and well-stocked bookshelves as well as the usual showers and so on. What it does lack is internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

After starting dinner off I wander across the field to stand by the river bank and am startled to see a kingfisher on an overhanging branch, near enough for me to reach out and touch. It is a bright, iridescent turquoise, like a bejewelled toy bird. It spots me and plops down into the water and I wait in vain for it to reappear.

Next morning we set off on our first cycle up the canal almost to Glomel. The canal is astonishingly gorgeous, a riot of green reflections, herons, water fowl, butterflies and wild flowers. The towpath ride is not entirely flat as locks and bridges must be ridden over, but is not too arduous.

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The following day’s section takes us away from the towpath and up an old railway track that rises-and rises as it goes towards Mur de Bretagne, a much harder ride. When at last we arrive to the town, which is itself situated on a steep hill, very little appears to be open except for one hotel bar, for which we are thankful.

Then we move on to Rohan, an unpretentious but pleasant enough town and the municipal camp site is again right by the towpath. We are invited for ‘aperitifs’ outside Reception and drink a convivial glass of cider with the other campers. There are two fairly straightforward, though long stretches to cycle over the next two days. The first day we cycle over 114 locks and cover 31 miles.

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The next stop is to be a rest day, at Josselin, a small medieval city with a fairy-tale chateau on the canal-side. We stay in the aire, at the top of town, with all services provided and saunter down to lunch in the centre before returning for a snooze in the van and to prepare for dinner-also in the centre of town [and if this seems self-indulgent the day is my birthday]. Tourists jostle in Josselin, a poster-town for the region.

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By the time we’ve enjoyed a delicious meal, slept soundly and risen next day the weather has begun to heat up, so that when we get to Le Roc St Andre ready for our next cycle it is clear that some effort will be involved and clearer still that waiting until late afternoon will be a sensible option. When we set off, to ride back to Josselin at 5.00pm the temperature is still fierce.

Along the way we come across a bridge with a fairly steep ascent, which Husband decides to ride up. I, however have spotted a tiny cycle short-cut underneath the bridge, which, being up for the easier option, I take. When I emerge on the other side I expect to see Husband pulling away in the distance but he is nowhere to be seen. I wait. Perhaps he is still on the other side? I return to the top. He isn’t there. I wait, have a drink of water.

A couple come past. I ask if they’ve seen Husband. They have not. I deliberate then decide to plough on to Josselin and perhaps he will be waiting further along the path…

Making it Back

With only three days left before the ferry crossing from Bilbao we arrive back to Spain’s north coast and settle in Islares to spend the time. The tiny village, on the edge of a bay is only just off the motorway [Bilbao/Santander] but hosts a secluded, daisy-strewn camp site laid out in neat rows of pitches. It  also houses overnighters making their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who can stay in the year-round, static tents [green, seen in the background below].

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At last the sky is an unbroken blue and the sun makes a welcome appearance. While the site is never full there is a steady flow of vans in and out, as well as overnighting pilgrims. Some come to stay a night before or after the ferry, some for surfing and a few have chosen to holiday here.

You would have to go around the bay to find an extensive beach, but at Islares there are small pockets of sand that appear when the tide goes out across the rocky shore and the remnants of a miniscule harbour decorated with the ruins of old fishing huts. It is all outrageously picturesque.

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Santander, a half hour’s drive away, is another city we’ve tended to bypass, however we were tipped it was worth a look and decide to visit, only to discover there is nowhere at all to park the van. We drive along the sweeping seafront and back through the town. It does seem very grand, but will have to wait for another time.

Another excursion, to Laredo and further along the lengthy sandspit, takes us to another point on the Camino, where a tiny passenger ferry carries people across the water to Santona.

We make lunch by the almost deserted stretch of beach then continue around the lagoons, nature reserves and beaches. Nowhere is there more than a handful of tourists or day-trippers.

Our last day brings sunshine warm enough to sit outside and read- a rare treat this trip.

Although we rise early next morning for our drive to the ferry the site office is firmly closed, which makes it impossible to settle up, reclaim our ACSI discount card [an essential camper accessory] detach ourselves from the electricity point and exit the barrier. We learn that all this should have been addressed the previous evening. Horrors! But we are fortunate. The security guys help out, taking our cash and lifting the barrier, and I write a note begging for our ACSI card to be sent on.

Then it’s along the motorway to Bilbao’s ferry port, conveniently sited well away from the city’s sprawl. Once loaded we locate our small cabin before finding a comfortable place to sit and munch Brittany Ferries’ pastries and coffee-and I have to conclude that nobody can do breakfast pastries and coffee like the French.

A wander round, a read, lunch on the top deck [to the accompaniment of the noisy dogs in the on-board kennels], a snooze, a read, a wander. The day passes. After a shower in our cabin we find dinner before spending an hour with the ‘entertainment’ in the bar; the music quiz being the only item we can manage, then it’s off to find a quiet spot for another read before retiring to the twin bedded cabin.

Next morning Portsmouth has arrived.-and the sun is shining…

 

Turning Portuguese

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The first time we visited Portugal was with a tent, a giant, swish ‘pyramid’ tent that we’d borrowed from Husband’s colleague. I had to crawl in and hold the central pole, getting hot and sweaty while Husband hammered the pegs in outside. On a site at Ancora [north Portugal] where an interested neighbour ‘advised’ us on where to have our doorway, we pitched under some sap-dropping trees that stained said tent for ever, resulting in our having to buy the colleague a brand new pyramid tent when we returned. [We’d also torn the fabric attempting to dry it out in a French motorway services car park].

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This was also the trip when we visited Porto by train from Viano do Costelo, buying return tickets and discovered on our return to the station to get back, that the train ‘does not return from here’. We had a wonderful, dockside meal and returned on a ‘milk’ train, from a different station at about 2am.

During this and subsequent visits, with various vans we’ve done the major must-sees of Portugal: Porto, Lisbon, Guimares, Coimbra, Sagres, Faro-

Mostly we’ve found the west coast to be more pleasant and less developed than the Algarve, but there are exceptions.

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Portugal, like Greece is one of those countries that never fails, with luscious countryside, beautiful historic cities, reliable, warm weather, delicious food [including the famous ‘pastel de nata’ custard pies], a gorgeous coast line and friendly people.

We find Lisbon much changed, with the addition of hideous cruise ships blocking views and throngs of tourists everywhere. Our previous visit was quiet and we were able to stroll the narrow lanes without stepping around selfie-takers. To anyone intending to visit Lisbon and considering an open top bus tour I’d say, ‘Don’t!’ You pay 11 euros to inch along for hours in stifling traffic, a woman wailing Fado songs in your ears. You get to see very little and anything of interest is zipped past or around before you’ve got your finger on your camera shutter.

I can get no purchase on the Portuguese language whatsoever. Spoken, it sounds eastern European with lots of sch, z and cz. Written, it looks remarkably like Spanish and meaning can often be deduced. We know we must take care not to speak Spanish to the Portuguese in spite of so many words being similar, nevertheless Husband is inclined to say ‘gracias’ instead of ‘obrigado/a’ for the first few days. My own knowledge of Portuguese is restricted to ‘obrigado/a’, ‘Bom dia’ and ‘ola’ so it is fortunate that almost everyone here speaks English very well indeed.

The Portuguese are fond of tiling the outside of their homes, which can look beautiful or tawdry; railway stations, hotels, churches-no building is safe from this treatment.

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And neither are the bone-shaking, tooth-grating streets, which are tiled in cobbles.

The Portuguese countryside is strewn with cork oak trees, the cork continues to be harvested and goods such as cork handbags can be seen in the shops. Perhaps the backlash against plastic will see a resurgence of the cork industry? It does seem to be a versatile material with useful properties: lightweight, water repellent, attractive.

In recent years, wildfires have decimated much of Portugal’s forests and evidence of this is everywhere.

Orange and lemon trees abound, in gardens, parks and along the streets. They are all hung with tons of fruit which nobody seems bothered to pick, the ground around the trees littered with fruit just as the plums lie fallow in Gloucestershire.

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Before using the [very quiet] motorways you must register your bank card and attempt to forecast how much toll you will be using, which is tricky. Otherwise you can register at the first ‘portagem’ [toll booths] but then you’ll have no clue as to what is being deducted.

We’ll soon be leaving Portugal and crossing back to Spain-but I’ve no doubt at all that we’ll be back!

 

A Take on Transport

I used to love driving. I was late to learn, at 25, pootling around Putney in south London all of one cold, dark, snowy winter in the evenings after work, with my British School of Motoring instructor. My steering was unorthodox, he told me and said that I should have some lessons in daylight since I’d only ever driven at night.

I passed my second test, at Teddington-a place I knew no more of than Guildford, where I’d failed 2 weeks before. Then I acquired my little old, faded green Austin A40 with a steering wheel like a bicycle wheel and doors that stuck and had me crawling through the hatchback to enter and exit. But I was ecstatic to be independent at last.

Throughout the early years of motherhood, when there was only one family car, the independence was gone with the vehicle and I was reduced to shank’s pony, pounding the streets with a mewling sprog in a pram and wondering how it had come to this?

In the single-parent-working-full-time years I regained some autonomy with a battered Volvo and could load kids inside and camping gear on the roof rack in the holidays or collect bits and pieces for the ramshackle home I’d purchased and was attempting [on evenings and weekends] to do up. I loved to drive. I enjoyed long journeys-even when it took 9 hours of traffic jams to get to the Kendal home of friends I been invited to for a weekend.

Somewhere along the years to old age however a gradual falling out of love with driving took place; not that I won’t or don’t drive, but I’ve come to appreciate other modes of transport, becoming a fan of buses, especially with the gaining [finally] of my pensioner bus pass. I’m not the only bus-pass-holder to take a child-like pleasure in gaining the front seat on the top deck, either…

Then there’s the train, where a ‘seniors’ railcard gives a worthwhile discount. Of course it isn’t as glamorous as it was when I was a child, when you walked along the corridor and slid open a door to a compartment, but if you are lucky enough to get a seat it’s possible to drift into a reverie and gaze out; or listen to others’ conversations [real or phone]. These days train travel can be a frustrating and tiring business, as we found when, having travelled, 2 weeks ago, 4,000 miles by air through the night on a trans-Atlantic flight to Gatwick, arriving at 5am, all the trains south towards Southampton and beyond had been cancelled ‘due to signal failure’. Lovely. Just what you’d wish for after an 8 hour night flight.

On flights, ferries, trains and buses, where someone else has the responsibility, I think the trick is to sit back and relinquish control. Watch the movie, look at the view, listen to the conversations, read your book. Better to travel hopefully [and also to arrive!].